- By Chuan Zhi
- May 04
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When we recognize that the ego doesn't exist in any real sense but only as an artifice of the mind, there's nothing that needs explaining anymore and the notion of reincarnation is seen as nothing more than an intellectual game. The person, like the raindrop, merges into the sea of the Dharmakaya, a sea where individuality, in any mode of conception, is totally obliterated. Does one molecule of ocean water get taken up into another drop when one of us dies and another is born? Perhaps it does, perhaps it doesn't; but it's a question outside of Zen because it's an intellectual one.
It was a large gathering of people, young and old, who had come to learn more about Buddhism.
The park was bright that morning. A cool spring breeze brought the birds alive with song while loudspeakers, competing for the same airspace, blared. A famous Tibetan Lama had been advertised as the central attraction, but he had been present only for the first half-hour of the program and was gone by the time I arrived. Many people sat on blankets and mats forming an audience for a group of monks that sat on a raised platform at the top of the hill. The monks took turns speaking. One told a story about his first trip to the United States ten years earlier; another monk spoke about the nature of Karma; and, finally, the last monk to speak chose the complicated subject of reincarnation.
As soon as he finished speaking, all of the monks rose, thanked the crowd, and walked briskly down the hill to a waiting sedan.
A Buddhist priest, even one dressed in Zen robes, is not out of place in a gathering like this, but my presence did draw enough attention so that, as the crowd began to disperse, several people approached me. They wanted to continue probing the topic, to learn more about reincarnation, to share their views, or to match them with mine.
The first man said, "I wanted to hear more about the Bardo. Would you mind answering a few questions?"
"I'm a Zen Buddhist," I said, a little surprised by the question, "Reincarnation is not part of the Mahayana mystical path. It's very much a part of the Vajrayana or Theravadin paths, but in Zen, questions about reincarnation just don't arise. I'm afraid I can't speak for the speakers - the monks who just left."
He looked at me quizzically. "But I thought all Buddhists believe in reincarnation," he said.
"Some do, and some don't," I repeated.
"Buddhism teaches the way of Reality, doesn't it?" someone else asked. "Yes," I answered, taking the bait. "Then," he countered, "how can you, of the Mahayana school, and they, of the Vajrayana school, hold opposing views? One of you must be correct and one of you must be wrong!"
"Our view is not opposite," I said, "even though it may seem to be. In Buddhism there are as many spiritual paths as there are in Christianity or in any other religion. They all lead to the same destination, but their methods are often very different. The methods involve a complex set of beliefs and disciplines, and they are all tied together with faith, faith that the methods will work and will deliver the devotee to the other shore -- Nirvana. The Vajrayana school can be as effective as the Mahayana school, but it doesn't serve any purpose to compare them, one against the other. They are like apples and oranges: they look different, they taste different, and they each provide nourishment in their own way. There is nothing incorrect about reincarnation as long as it is not separated from the rest of the extensive and elaborate Vajrayana system. The Mahayana Zen tradition is simply different and doesn't require a belief in reincarnation. The 'Way of Reality' as you put it, isn't about the path, it's about where the path leads - to the enlightened state we associate with Nirvana. How we get there isn't important, staying on our chosen path so that we can get there is. A Christian does not attend services at a Synagogue."
"Why can't Zen Buddhists also believe that if they don't attain Nirvana in this lifetime they will have another opportunity, in another lifetime?" The voice, steady and clear, came from the back of the little crowd that had formed around me. I could tell by the way every word was enunciated that the man was truly curious.
I strained to find his face in the crowd. "If that were the case, then perhaps this lifetime is the necessary repeat of a previous failed one, but the seeker doesn't know it. The question then is, will he get yet another opportunity?"
He grinned. "I guess we can keep trying until we get it right."
"But if we don't know how many times we've already failed, what difference does it make? Why not just assume that we've got this one precious chance - so we ought to make it count?"
Someone else asked, "What happens when we do attain Nirvana?"
"Nirvana is Enlightenment, the extinction and complete transcendence of ego-identity and the realization of our Buddha Nature," I said, "and Enlightenment reveals that we are not individuals after all, but contain the Whole, in the same way that the Whole contains us. We understand that there is no place to go and nothing to attain... that things were no different before our Enlightenment than they were after it. Enlightenment changes our intuitive understanding. Existence, we discover, is independent of time, and so we step outside of birth and death. It's also independent of what we think and believe. And with a bit of reflection we discover that time itself is a creation of the discriminating mind, and not an aspect of reality at all. Reality exists now and only now and the idea of looking for it in the future doesn't make sense in Zen.
"Now, in Zen we believe that while anyone can experience Enlightenment, for most of us it will take extreme willpower and effort. To say to ourselves, 'Well, if I don't make it this time around, maybe I'll do it the next time,' is a common ruse manufactured by the ego to protect itself: it simply doesn't want to surrender its self-important stature. It will go to any extreme to maintain its supremacy.
Someone asked, "I've heard some people say that once you've attained Nirvana you no longer need to be reincarnated anymore. Is the doctrine of Reincarnation just an ethical mechanism?"
"When we live in Samsara, that is, in the realm of discriminative thought, everything takes on a form of right or wrong, good or bad, up or down, birth or death … every idea we create contains its opposite, the one bringing the other into existence. This is just the way the mind functions: it's coded into our DNA. Now, there is really no way to conceptualize Nirvana because it's outside this modality of discursive thought. But religious systems have evolved to provide us with amazingly effective vehicles, or methods, that, if we follow faithfully, will allow us to attain freedom from this nebulous force we call the ego. In Samsara, life and death exist because people bring them into existence. In Samsara, we can talk about death and rebirth because we can conceptualize them and give reality to that conceptualization. In Nirvana that's all wiped out - no birth, no death, which means no reincarnation. And if reincarnation doesn't exist in the Nirvanic or Real world of the Dharmakaya, how could it exist in the Samsaric or Illusionary world of Maya?"
"But why do some people, people who are respectable, decent people, claim to be able to recall a past life?" a woman asked. "Some of them are even renowned holy men! Are you saying that they are all hallucinating?"
"No," I said, smiling. "I'm giving you the Zen approach to the subject. Remember, it's not part of our doctrine. We have taken another road. So when we're asked why reincarnation isn't part of our belief system, we have to account for its absence. We can't just say, 'Well, believe in it if you want to and also believe in our Zen way, too.' We can't straddle both paths. So we decide and in that decision process we have to determine just why we don't incorporate reincarnation into our system.'" I laughed and realized I would need to go a little deeper. "Through willfull imagination some people might have created the desired events which then, instead of becoming the memory of an imagination, becomes the memory of the imagined event. Lawyers are well acquainted with this phenomenon of implanted memory in which a witness has been manipulated, through a variety of means, into believing that certain events actually occurred. Given the right circumstances, we can "remember" or we can "forget" almost anything.
"But there's another answer to your question." I continued. "Since, in reality, there is no birth and no death … no time and no space, what about all the people who have ever lived and all the people who are yet to live? How might their history relate to us in our lives in the here and now? What we call history might be more accurately referred to as an infinite set of 'nows' in which all moments co-exist. Do some exceptional people have the ability to tap into those other nows of the 'past' or of the 'future'? Could people's testimonies of past lives, in fact, be a tapping into this infinite matrix of 'now'? If we were to have a sudden awareness of some other life it would be natural to associate the experience with something we know about to help make sense of the experience - like, for instance, reincarnation. What we may call these mysterious, unexplained events is only a description, but the experience that leads a person to considering himself to be reincarnated may indeed have been a real experience - a brief glimpse into the mystical realm."
After a long silence someone asked, "So, you're saying that reincarnation exists to serve some systems of spiritual discipline, but it doesn't exist in and of itself, is that right?" It was the first man who had questioned me.
"It exists in the same way that any concept we bring into existence with our minds exists." I said. "But Zen does not consider it an aspect of reality, per se, nor does Zen consider it valuable for instruction purposes."
"So how is Zen so different from those other systems if they all lead to the same goal but some believe in reincarnation while Zen doesn't?" he continued.
"All religions use an ethical system to help modify people's behavior and keep peace in the community. Some religions, for example, instill a belief in heaven and hell to get people to conform to ethical standards. If we do good deeds we will be rewarded by going to heaven, but if we do bad deeds we'll go to hell. This, then, encourages responsible behavior through a simple punishment/reward system. There are other systems that impose the same discipline by the punishment or reward of lower or higher rebirth.
"Zen doesn't refute these approaches because they serve to help discipline people and prepare them for future forays into mysticism. But Zen is a mystical path; it presupposes that the person who practices it has essentially prevailed in these early ethical struggles. At that point, he or she can dispense with rewards and punishments altogether. According to Zen, there's nothing to be gained or lost, and there's nothing to be attained. Heaven is here right now - it's what we call Nirvana because it is free of ego. And Hell is here right now too - we call it Samsara because it's full of ego - and because it's full of ego, it needs the fear or hope of punishment and reward. Which one we chose to live in depends only on us and the effort we're willing to make to exit Samsara. Zen training involves practices that help us to discover for ourselves that we already possess everything, that there is nothing to attain. It's the attainment of non-attainment."
"So there's no heaven, no hell, no rebirth?" he asked.
"Heaven is here right now if we awaken to it." I repeated, "and Hell is here right now if we fail to awaken to it. This is the teaching of Zen. Heaven and Hell are not places we go to when our bodies expire, so they don't serve to modify our behavior through a reward/punishment system. And we have no use for a system that teaches us that we will be reborn as another creature. That system won't help us attain our freedom now. Zen encourages us to awaken to ourselves through our own efforts, to understand our true nature as human beings, and to live our lives in that nature. Our methods begin with the faith that our Buddha Nature exists in us all along. All we need to do is drop the attachments we have formed to the external world of Samsara, and to turn inward, to the interior refuge of our Buddha Nature, and realize Nirvana."
"What happens to us when we die?" asked the woman. "If we don't go to heaven or hell or are reborn in another life, what happens to us?"
"That's the ego talking," I said. "The ego keeps thinking of itself as an eternal creature. The ego lives in time but eternal means outside of time. So we might as well ask what happens to a rain drop that falls in time? A lot can happen to it; but for our purposes, we say that in its material state, it's neither created nor destroyed and accept that eventually it will return to the ocean. Our 'individuality' as a raindrop disappears when we merge with the ocean but our nature as water stays the same … we return to the source, but it's a source we never left.
"When we recognize that the ego doesn't exist in any real sense but only as an artifice of the mind, there's nothing that needs explaining anymore and the notion of reincarnation is seen as nothing more than an intellectual game. The person, like the raindrop, merges into the sea of the Dharmakaya, a sea where individuality, in any mode of conception, is totally obliterated. Does one molecule of ocean water get taken up into another drop when one of us dies and another is born? Perhaps it does, perhaps it doesn't; but it's a question outside of Zen because it's an intellectual one. When we attempt to use our intellect to grasp reality we always come back to the same limitations of the mind. If we answer the question intuitively, we would say that there never was any separation between the raindrop and its source."
The group fell quiet and seemed satisfied. I offered to teach them a breathing practice that prepares us for meditation. I explained that they, themselves, were the best persons to answer their own questions and that the best way to do that was through meditation. I quoted Hsu Yun, "One man cannot tell how warm or cold another man's tea is. Only the one who is tasting it can tell that."
Getting someone else's answers doesn't count because understanding doesn't necessarily come with the answers.
Several people took me up on my offer and because the sun was still high, we went to sit beneath a shady tree. We spent some time learning how to sit properly and then started the breathing exercise. It was nice to sit in the silence without the loudspeakers and the milling crowd. After awhile we all left, heading off in our own directions.