I don’t know many people in this country who really believe in rebirth—do you? I often meet Buddhists of various sorts, and yet it seems that most, like myself, have inherited from their cultural upbringing the “one life to live” model of the human condition. It makes me wonder how much of Buddhism we are really capable of absorbing.
When we see how much of who we are now is embedded in our habitual responses to specific conditions in a world we each create from our unique illusions, what could it mean to be “ourselves” in another lifetime? If we have a different body and gender, if our upbringing, language and learning, our memories, dreams and attitudes, are all different, then how much sense does it still make to call such a person “myself?”
Buddhist doctrine has an answer for this, of course: It doesn’t even make sense for you to call yourself “your self” now, let alone in another rebirth. This sense of self is just an assumption from which all our sufferings emerge. The central teaching of Buddhism is to let go of this self, lay down body and mind, cure yourself of the need to believe you are something coherent, independent or exceptionally meaningful.
I suspect our Western acculturation makes it virtually impossible for any of us to really do this. The notion we have of “ourselves” is just too deeply rooted. Selfhood in the modem West is so intrinsic to our worldview, it is the very water in which we swim or the air through which we fly. “Being” is inconceivable to us without selfhood, as swimming or flying lose meaning entirely without water and air.
The Buddhist tradition offers up some useful metaphors to help understand rebirth: Like milk changing to curds, then changing to butter and changing again to ghee. Each manifestation is so very unlike each of the others in their particulars, and yet the causal thread connecting them is so evident.
So I am the heir, perhaps, of the deeds of someone long dead. I am grateful to that person, and presumably to many before her, for the karma I have inherited has been fortunate. But I don’t relate to that person as having been “me.” “I” am somebody that is defined by my body, nationality, language and by my unique blend of neuroses, all of which are born of and conditioned by the specific context of this particular life. I appreciate my former self as an ancestor, but unless I have the sort of experience (said to be attainable through yogic meditation) wherein I remember my former life—empirically and in the first person—then the ancestor will always be somebody else to me.
We are given the great gifts of life and consciousness, perhaps from an immeasurably long line of beings more or less appropriately called “former selves.” We are also given a material world with a delicate ecosystem to support our current needs, and as a special bonus it is populated with a lot of other beings with which we share it all. And that is about the extent of what we directly experience.
Is this an impoverished picture of the human situation? I think not. Who needs to reach beyond all this wonder surrounding us—consciousness, nature, other beings, a mind and heart which fashions such nuanced constructions? Who needs to feel they will survive their death, either as a transcendent conscious soul residing in heaven or re-entering nature again and again? What we are given is precious enough—a moment of awareness. And, if we are fortunate, another, and another.
If it is a sense of gratitude I feel for my forebearer and all her predecessors, it is a great sense of responsibility and benevolence I feel for whatever I will become next: perhaps an astronaut. She will be the heir of my karma—of all my actions, my words and even the fruits of my thoughts. At the moment of my death I will have spent a lifetime crafting a “self,” which I must then hand over to somebody else. And they, too, will take what I have nurtured, will creatively renovate it, and then give it up when their time comes.
The worldview emerging from this perspective on rebirth involves a universe based on dāna, on generosity. We are the recipients of immeasurable generosity when we are given life, consciousness, a world and the company of other beings. We are participants in the cycle of giving when we (willingly or not) give up and give back all we have received. The quality with which all this is done is the only thing upon which we have any influence. The quality of each moment of awareness we experience is where our world unfolds, where we construct our character, where our “selves” have any real existence.
Our lives or our selves can only be said to be “ours” to whatever extent we are aware of them. The last lifetime I was not me but somebody else. Next lifetime I will no longer be me but will have given myself over to another. The same can be said for my past and future in this very life. The only part of all this that can be considered in any sense real to me is the present moment, and I lose even this if I am not clearly conscious as it occurs. All the rest is given away.
I think we just have to accept the fact that we will not survive this life. Rebirth in the Buddhist sense, I suspect, has never been about survival. There will be a continuity, and perhaps in many ways the next being can be causally traced back to our actions in this life—but it will be another being. When the Buddhists say the next being is neither the same nor different from the current being, we tend to hear the part about it not being different (on account of our wishful thinking), and somehow we miss the significance of the part about it not being the same, either. A traceable thread of causal continuity from one being to another is a far cry from the sort of personal survival we crave in our bones.
How can we help but be Bodhisattvas? There is little alternative for us. We are living for the benefit of all beings—whether we like it or not. The question is only: With what quality will we live this moment?