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The Ideology of Reincarnation in Buddhism

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Buddhism is the most practiced religious philosophy following in Asia and is based on the teachings of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama dating back to 536–476 B.C.E. His disdain at the level of poverty outside the walls of his castle’s opulence predicated his wandering lifestyle to teach the people a better way of living. Buddhists view their lives not as a beginning and an end, but as samsara, wandering from one life to the next with each new life cycle being dependent upon moral behaviors, and their karma, that determines their next life’s phase which is the basis of the ideology of reincarnation or rebirth.

Reincarnation or rebirth is the process of an individual’s existence passing through diverse forms that are all linked to their karma which can be used as either a reward for goodness, or as a punishment for being bad. The predominance of good karma, referred to as kushala will place the individual in a higher sphere of existence such as a human, a divine being referred to as asura , or to be relegated to heaven as a temporary resting place. The essence of bad karma referred to as akushala, that is achieved by unwholesome-like behaviors can relegate the individual to a lower sphere which includes animals, hungry ghosts, or even hell (Hui and Coleman, 2012, p.950). This afterlife is not permanent, and the individual can pass through many forms – all dependent upon their karma accrued from the previous form, but it is the hope that one learns from their mistakes and that the rebirths based on akushala can eventually be eliminated. The cycle of rebirth ends when the individual disavows all desires, thereby reaching a state of enlightenment.

The ideology of rebirth can almost seem like a second ( third, fourth . . .etc) chance to prove one’s self worthy of reaching the state of enlightenment. If an individual behaves in a morally acceptable way, they will be reborn in one of the higher realm that are designated through kushala. This seems to mean that through the belief of being reincarnated, that an opportunity exists for the individual to become a better being as designated through their level of consciousness as they evolve. According to the Buddhist’s Sutta Pitka, specifically Majihima Nikaya which states in part:

When my concentrated mind was thus purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to knowledge of the recollection of past lives. I recollected my manifold past lives, that is, one birth, two births, three births, four births, give births, ten births, twenty births, thirty births, forty births, fifty births, a hundred births, a thousand births, a hundred thousand births, many aeons of world-contraction and expansion: ‘There I was so named, of such a clan, with such an appearance, such was my nutriment, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such my life-term; and passing away from there, I reappeared elsewhere; and there too I was so named, of such a clan, with such an appearance, such was my nutriment, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such my life-term; and passing away from there, I reappeared here.’ Thus with their aspects and particulars I recollected my manifold past lives. This was the first true knowledge attained by me in the first watch of the night. Ignorance was banished, and true knowledge arose, darkness was banished, and light arose, as happens in one who abides diligent, ardent, and resolute.

The entire passage is about the belief in the rebirth and how, through the experiences of pleasure and pain, that the numerous rebirths purified the mind which seemingly means that it was rid of all desires which the Buddhist view as the cause of all life’s sufferings. The term imperturbability is indicative of a self-assurance and a calmness when reviewing past lives as if this means that there was nothing that the speaker need fear, that his behaviors were aligned with kushala, which eventually brought him to the place of enlightenment as can be evidenced by the phrase that begins “Ignorance was banished . . one who abides diligent, ardent, and resolute” (Nannamoli and Bodhi,1995, p.105).

Buddhists will traditionally post a symbolic rendering of their Bhavachakra as an illustration of their belief in samsara on the outside walls of their temples as a means for outsiders to get a basic understanding of the Budda’s teachings. While the religion can seem a bit complex, it is really quite simple in many ways. The belief in rebirth and reincarnation has existed for thousands of years, and there are many people that hold to that belief that are not followers of Buddhism or of any religion for that matter. What is interesting to note is that the belief of rebirth in Buddhism shares some similar aspects with Hinduism such as how karma is the determinant that is sort of like a contingency of how future rebirths will be affected. Traditional Buddhists do not believe in the transfer of identity, but merely the transfer of personality or perhaps aspects of the persona on how they are presented. However, there are forms of Buddhism, such as Theravada, that believe that there is no soul or self which would means that there would be no consummate personalities that would carry over. It has been said that the Budda likened the process of rebirth to how one flame can ignite another – a passage or exchange that shares nothing but the ability to continue, so in that sense it would be deemed a rebirth, not referred to as reincarnation.

Buddhists follow the eight-fold path as a journey to achieve enlightenment which means that they must enter a state of being where they have no desires. It can take multiple rebirths to achieve this state, and some Buddhists believe that it can never really happen, even though that is what they have been led to believe through the practice of Buddhism. According to Hui and Coleman (2012) “Buddhists do not favor reincarnation because reincarnation renews sufferings incurred from past incarnations. Moreover, Buddhists believe that no beings can remain permanently in any upper realms of existence and when their wholesome karma is exhausted, they must face rebirth in a lower realm of existence. Furthermore, Buddhists believe that all phenomena (including the six realms of existence) are transient so that it is impossible to preserve an eternal self”. Which seems to beg the question: if this cannot occur, what exactly are they striving to achieve? It would seem that for an individual to have continuously done the right thing through a series of rebirths, that the level of merit or good karma would be enhanced, not diminished and basically banishing a reborn being to a lower sphere. How can goodness be exhausted?

The Buddhist concept of rebirth is based on the metaphysical which means that it is based on forces outside the natural realms which makes perfect sense. Death is a cessation of life of the bodily form, but perhaps the mind and the consciousness are passed through to the next cycle of life. That is the belief. That individuals are the resultant of their thoughts, kind of like a mind over matter scenario where it can be established that thoughts control the person and by default their behavior and actions. A positive attitude can have the effect of a positive life. Buddhists try to steer clear of negativity in thought, act, and deed as this can bring harm to others which is what they want to avoid. That is not to say that harm never happens, as Buddhists are human and all humans are flawed, but even an ugly thought about another person is something that is frowned upon.

Fowler (2017) states that “the essential teachings of the Buddha are ‘To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one’s mind’”. This is not to insinuate that Buddhists are free of discord or that there has never been any misgivings for behavior or actions or there would of course be no akushala. Buddhism can be classified as more a philosophy than a formal religion, although it is often compared to Christianity in such aspects as compassion and understanding. There is no God per say as there are in religions such as Judaism and Christianity. What there is a way of life that strives to hold the followers to the highest ethical and moral standards. According to Starkey (2018) there is “no one universal scripture – there are a number of texts that were committed to writing after the Buddha died. Until that point, the Buddha’s teachings were shared orally” just like many of the Native and indigenous religions, their traditions and beliefs are the foundation that millions of Buddhists adhere to. The path of self-discovery is a life-long journey.

If the spotlight was focused on the Budda as a God-like entity, followers of Buddhism adhere to the belief that one’s own self and their work are their salvation as opposed to Jesus being the Savior of Christianity. Another major attribute of Buddhism is the trinity of Buddha (teacher); dharma (truth); and the sangaya (light) and that ignorance is the major fault wherein Christianity the Holy Trinity is The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost and sin is the problem.

Buddhism allows for akushala as a determinant of the realm of rebirth; Christianity relegates sinners to the diverse level of the circles of hell – dependent upon their sin – the worse the sin, the deeper the level which does not necessarily speak to a God that is being just or forgiving.

The basic tenets of Buddhism follow the Four Noble Truths in that followers can and will lead a moral life. The four truths are: (1) dukkha which is the acknowledgment of suffering; (2) samudaya, the truth of cause of suffering; (3) nirhodha, truth of end of suffering; and (4) magga, the truth of the path that sets free from suffering These truths lead the followers on to the eight-fold path of rights that dictate self-awareness and self-discipline and how it all will affect the followers likelihood of obtaining true enlightenment, which as previously stated can only be achieved by lack of desires which can necessitate multiple rebirths. It could be viewed that reincarnation is actually an ideology that provides an individual (or being) an allotment of time, to advance at their own pace, to inhibit the necessary attributes to work closer to eradicating the desires which is a requirement for becoming enlightened. The amount of time will correlate to their karma which is really a true measure of their devotion to Buddhism.

There are diverse religious factions that fall under the umbrella of Buddhism, but the main concepts and beliefs remain the same. The main messages of Buddhism seem to focus on tolerance, knowledge, generosity, and compassion. Followers of Buddhism live a moral life that follow five precepts that prohibit the following: taking the life of living things; stealing; sexual misbehavior; using drugs and alcohol,; and lying. If more people were to follow the teachings of the Budda, the world be a much more peaceful place to live that could be simply attributed to three things: tolerance for those persons that are perceived as different; respect for all living things; and forgoing desires which can be contributors to greed and all the associated sinful acts that accompany it.

The world has become such a materialistic global society that many people never seem to be satisfied with what they have. They look to their neighbors and covet what they have, be it a bigger house, a nicer car, the financial means to buy more, and even their personal relationships. Buddhism is founded on the ideology that desire leads to suffering and that is the root of all the world’s problems. If people were to let go, even bit by bit of the hold that material goods have on them and lean toward the concepts and principles that too much desire, in any aspect, will deter individuals from ever reaching a state of enlightenment wherein they will realize that life could have been much more enjoyable without being weighed down by wants and perceived needs that contribute to human suffering on a large scale.

Many people do not specifically associate human suffering with desires, greed, or intolerance, but with violence. What they fail to recognize is that violence can result from all of those things. Desires incite greed which can be a precursor to crime which breeds theft, lying, and attacks on minorities which speaks to intolerance. The concepts of Buddhism align with peace, empathy, and knowledge. Following the teachings of the Budda is knowing what is the right thing to do and following through even though there are any number of temptations that can and do speak to the unsavory aspects of society. Making a concentrated vow to the Four Nobel Truths that lead to the Eight-fold path of rights can accelerate a Buddhist’s rebirth process of being reincarnated which is one step closer to total enlightenment that the Budda was said to have discovered while meditating under the Bodhi Tree.

References

  • Fowler, J. (2017). From staff nurse to nurse consultant: Spiritual care part 3: Buddhism. British Journal of Nursing, 26(12), 710. https://doi.org/10.12968/bjon.2017.26.12.710
  • Hui, V. K.-Y., & Coleman, P. G. (2012). Do Reincarnation Beliefs Protect Older Adult Chinese Buddhists Against Personal Death Anxiety? Death Studies, 36(10), 949–958. https://doi.org/10.1080/07481187.2011.617490
  • Nannamoli, N., & Bodhi, B. (1995). The middle length discourses of the Buddha: a new translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications
  • Starkey, C. (2018). A Focus On: Buddhism. Community Practitioner, 91(6), 25–27.
  • VanVorst, R. E. (2017). Anthology of world scriptures (9th ed.). Australia: Cengage Learning.

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