When I was an elementary school, one of my teachers taught us about Buddhism, as part of a world religions unit. I remember learning that Buddhists believe in re-incarnation, or re-birth.
This fascinated me. I thought it would fun to be reborn as a dog or bird or other animal (it’s clear I didn’t understand that re-birth was a negative).
Of course, as I grew older I viewed re-incarnation as just another silly religious belief.
Since I started my Buddhist month, I want to re-examine how silly re-incarnation really is.
Samsara is usually translated as the “cycle of existence.” In an infinite period of time, our consciousness is transferred after death to a being in one of the six realms of existences.
The realms are
- Gods – celestial beings who are living extremely pleasurable lives (which will also be their downfall)
- Demigods – The B-team of gods who have some pleasures, but are jealous of the full Gods
- Humans – No explanation needed, but it is considered to be the “best realm” to be in by Buddhists
- Animals – The takeaway for animals is that they live rough and primitive lives just to survive
- Hungry ghosts – These are ghosts with thin necks and huge bellies, whose main suffering is unrelieved hunger and thirst. They are in this position due to miserliness
- Hell-beings – Lowest of all realms within existence. These beings all suffer greatly, usually because they committed a great crime, like murder while under powerful delusions like hatred
Your placement into one of these realms is determined by Karma, a sort of balance sheet of your moral capital. If you do good things for others with positive intent, you’ll move up in the realms in your next life. If you do bad things, you will move down and maybe even become a hell-being, which, of course, would be terrible.
Out of these six realms, only two are visible to us: humans and animals, which makes it easy for us to dismiss this whole concept outright. It’s especially easy if we are rationally minded. Hell-beings? Hungry ghosts? Must be bullshit.
But let’s look a little deeper and see if we can find value in it even if we think it is BS.
Re-incarnation as a metaphor
Though some Buddhists may believe in the concept of Samara in a literal way, the concept is often used as a metaphor for human existence.
For example, you may know “gods” in your own life, people who may be wealthy, good-looking, healthy, etc. The Buddhists point out while this is a good life, it has a downside: their joy can be taken away from them. They may lose their wealth, will certainly become old, and have a good chance of getting sick. These “gods” lose perspective on reality.
You may know “hungry ghosts,” scrooge-like characters who are constantly hoarding their possessions and hate sharing with others.
If you live in an urban area, you probably encounter “animals” every day, the poor and homeless who live in desperate circumstances and who must do what they can to survive.
Most of us are in the human realm, where we live somewhere in between complete despair and incredible joy. There will be good times and bad. We will see our parents get old and die, but be fortunate enough to see our own children grow and mature.
Once we look past the surface, we see that these realms of existence are a fairly accurate description of the range of conditions people find themselves in. Samsara then, is a reasonable observation of the human condition.
Re-incarnation as a great equalizer
One of the core ideas of re-incarnation is that it applies to everyone. Until you reach enlightenment, you are stuck in the cycle of birth and rebirth forever.
Because you don’t have “memory” of your previous existences, you must assume that you have been both in the upper realm of existences (gods) and the lower realms of existence (hell-beings).
You must also understand that if this is true for you, it must be true for everyone else.
The correct outlook then, is not to see a homeless person and go “oh you must have done something in your past life to deserve this suffering,” it is “In a past life I may suffered like this homeless person and in a future life I may do so, so I must treat him with compassion and without judgment.”
We balance our idea that there is a sense of karmic justice and “just desserts” with the humble understanding that we too can end up like those we disdain.
Re-incarnation as an incentive structure
This point is fairly obvious, but by believing in Samsara, you have an incentive to do good in the world, to build positive Karma so you can move up in the realm of existence.
Instead of adopting the mindset of, “Well I don’t see any immediate benefit to doing good, so I’m not going to do it,” you think, “Well, I should do good even if I don’t see the immediate benefit because it will increase of my odds of moving up to the realm of the gods.”
There are a lot of things worth doing that don’t provide immediate benefits, so having some sort of cosmic sense of reward and punishment is helpful to actually to get us to do those things now.
However, the goal of Buddhism is not to move up into the god realm and stay there forever. The goal is to attain enlightenment and escape the cycle of birth and re-birth.
If you are stuck in a mundane day job, think of doing the same thing you are doing now for the rest of your life.
It’s a very unpleasant thought, but at least death will cure you of your boring job.
Now think of going through an endless cycle birth and re-birth, of which some lives will be good, and other lives will be terrible. You will do this forever. It’s like a metaphysical rat race.
The threat of being “stuck” in this cycle forever provides incentive to understand the Four Noble Truths and follow the Eight-Fold path to cure our ignorance, develop penetrating insight into the reality of things, and attain nirvana.
If you’re able to turn off your (overly sensitive) BS-detector and really think about the concept of Samsara, you’ll find that it’s jam-packed with insights and advice on how to live.
I don’t think you have to “believe” in re-incarnation, but I do think we’d all benefit from acting as if we believed in it.