By Takashi Tsuji
Do you Buddhists
believe in rebirth as an animal in the next life? Are you going to be a dog or
a cow in the future? Does the soul transmigrate into the body of another person
or some animal? What is the difference between transmigration and
reincarnation? Is it the same as rebirth? Is karma the same as fate? These and
a hundred similar questions are often put to me.
misunderstanding of about Buddhism exists today, especially in the notion of
reincarnation. The common misunderstanding is that a person has led countless
previous lives, usually as an animal, but somehow in this life he is born as a
human being and in the next life he will be reborn as an animal, depending on
the kind of life he has lived.
arises because people usually do not know-how to read the sutras or sacred
writings. It is said that the Buddha left 84,000 teachings; the symbolic figure
represents the diverse backgrounds characteristics, tastes, etc. of the people.
The Buddha taught according to the mental and spiritual capacity of each
individual. For the simple village folks living during the time of the Buddha,
the doctrine of reincarnation was a powerful moral lesson. Fear of birth into
the animal world must have frightened many people from acting like animals in
this life. If we take this teaching literally today we are confused because we
cannot understand it rationally.
Herein lies our
problem. A parable, when taken literally, does not make sense to the modern
mind. Therefore we must learn to differentiate the parables and myths from
actuality. However, if we learn to go beyond or transcend the parables and
myths, we will be able to understand the truth.
People will say
"If such is the case why not speak directly so that we will be able to
come to an immediate grasp of the truth?" This statement is
understandable, but truth is often inexpressible. [Ed comment: we as human
beings are limited in understanding "Buddha Knowledge". We cannot
speak TRUTH, only words ABOUT Truth] Thus, writers and teachers have often
resorted to the language of the imagination to lead the reader from a lower to
a higher truth. The doctrine of reincarnation is often understood in this
What Reincarnation is
Reincarnation is not
a simple physical birth of a person; for instance, John being reborn as a cat
in the next life. In this case John possesses an immortal soul which transforms
to the form of a cat after his death. This cycle is repeated over and over
again. Or if he is lucky, he will be reborn as a human being. This notion of
the transmigration of the soul definitely does not exist in Buddhism.
Karma is a Sanskrit
word from the root "Kri" to do or to make and simply means
"action." It operates in the universe as the continuous chain
reaction of cause and effect. It is not only confined to causation in the
physical sense but also it has moral implications. "A good cause, a good
effect; a bad cause a bad effect" is a common saying. In this sense karma
is a moral law.
Now human beings are
constantly giving off physical and spiritual forces in all directions. In
physics we learn that no energy is ever lost; only that it changes form. This
is the common law of conservation of energy. Similarly, spiritual and mental
action is never lost. It is transformed. Thus Karma is the law of the
conservation of moral energy.
By actions, thoughts,
and words, man is releasing spiritual energy to the universe and he is in turn
affected by influences coming in his direction. Man is therefore the sender and
receiver of all these influences. The entire circumstances surrounding him is
action-influence he sends out and at the same time, receives, he is changing.
This changing personality and the world he lives in, constitute the totality of
Karma should not be
confused with fate. Fate is the notion that man's life is preplanned for him by
some external power, and he has no control over his destiny. Karma on the other
hand, can be changed. Because man is a conscious being he can be aware of his
karma and thus strive to change the course of events. In the Dhammapada we find
the following words, "All that we are is a result of what we have thought,
it is founded on our thoughts and made up of our thoughts."
What we are, then, is
entirely dependent on what we think. Therefore, the nobility of man's character
is dependent on his"good" thoughts, actions, and words. At the same
time, if he embraces degrading thoughts, those thoughts invariably influence
him into negative words and actions.
Buddhism teaches the existence of the ten realms of being. At the top is Buddha
and the scale descends as follows: Bodhisattva (an enlightened being destined
to be a Buddha, but purposely remaining on earth to teach others), Pratyeka
Buddha (a Buddha for himself), Sravka (direct disciple of Buddha), heavenly
beings (superhuman [angels?]), human beings, Asura (fighting spirits), beasts,
Preta (hungry ghosts), and depraved men (hellish beings).
Now, these ten realms
may be viewed as unfixed, nonobjective worlds, as mental and spiritual states
of mind. These states of mind are created by men's thoughts, actions, and
words. In other words, psychological states. These ten realms are
"mutually immanent and mutually inclusive, each one having in it the
remaining nine realms." For example, the realm of human beings has all the
other nine states (from hell to Buddhahood). Man is at the same time capable of
real selfishness, creating his own hell, or is truly compassionate, reflecting
the compassion of Amida Buddha. Buddhas too have the other nine realms in their
minds, for how can a Buddha possibly save those in hell if he himself does not
identify with their suffering and guide them to enlightenment.
We can learn a
valuable lesson from the teaching of reincarnation.
In what realm do you
now live? If you are hungry for power, love, and self-recognition, you live in
the Preta world, or hungry ghosts. If you are motivated only by thirsts of the
human organism, you are existing in the world of the beast.
Consider well then
your motives and intentions. Remember that man is characteristically placed at
the midpoint of the ten stages; he can either lower himself abruptly or
gradually into hell or through discipline, cultivation and the awakening of
faith rise to the Enlightened state of the Buddha.