I’ve arrived at that age when death begins to speak more regularly to me. In my current job, I’m doing work for an oncology diagnostic company. I hear patient stories every day, happy and sad. People around me speak of friends and family passing much more frequently than I remember.
As a youth, I often felt that religion was for old people afraid of dying. I don’t think I was wrong. Death is a wakeup call, though perhaps, not just for old people.
The essence of the Buddhist Pure Land teachings come to a very simple point. If you recite the name of the Buddha, even 10 times, with the sincere aspiration to be reborn in the Pure Land, at death Amitabha Buddha will usher you to Sukhavati, or what you might call Buddhist heaven.
Well, that’s easy! Except what does it mean? For me I got caught at the word “reborn”. We’re talking about reincarnation aren’t we? What’s that all about?
To be honest, I was not the most receptive to Pure Land Buddhism and the idea of Sukhavati. Coming to Buddhism with an aversion to many Christian doctrines, joining a Sangha that aspired to go to Buddhist heaven didn’t seem like a good fit.
My initial strategy was to practice my own form of Buddhism, better and more intellectually suited for my needs. I’d join the Sangha and keep silent my opinions about this simple minded approach to enlightenment!
Even better, great Buddhist teachers like Thich Nhat Hahn offered intellectually pleasing versions of Pure Land practice that spoke to my “more advanced understanding”. The Pure Land is really here and now, when you are truly awake. After all, with a little practice on my own, I’d be fully awake and living in the Pure Land in no time. No teleportation to some distant galaxy was needed for this Buddha.
But, and you probably knew this was coming, I was wrong. My change of heart came about part from a gradual understanding of rebirth and the understanding that my ego is the biggest obstacle to peace.
Everyone has a worldview. Whether or not we realize it, we all have certain presuppositions and biases that affect the way we view all of life and reality. – christianworldview.net
Reincarnation is a concept that seems to belong to the east. But it’s not far from western thought on the afterlife. It’s just another way to look at the mystery of death.
A central tenet of Christian doctrine is the afterlife. The fruits of the faith come in the form of eternal life in heaven. The opportunity for salvation offers great hope and motivation to the faithful. It forms the basis of a world view that is fulfilling and encourages us to play well together.
Similarly, the world view of reincarnation is extremely motivating and liberating. If we can settle into the idea that our current lifetime is just one of many, then the maddening rush to accomplish things melts away. And from another perspective, understanding that this is our home for all time, we are motivated to make it a better place, not only for our children, but for our future selves.
Who is Reborn?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember any past lives. What is reincarnation and what exactly is reborn?
In Tibetan Buddhism there is a tradition of seeking out the next incarnation of beloved teachers. The discovered child is then restored to the position held in their previous life.
But what passes on from lifetime to lifetime? Is it a particular personality or physical trait? The Dalai Lama looks nothing like his predecessor. He has different preferences and habits. He probably has a slightly different take on Buddhism than his previous incarnation. If these traits aren’t what continue on, what does?
The Western answer to the question of what survives death is the soul. We usually think of the soul in the context of our ego. In the model offered by Dante’s Divine Comedy, our person, in some eternal form, is subject to judgment and consignment to heaven or hell.
But can our eternal soul exist on the level of the ego? Is the soul a physical, mental or emotional thing? Bodies change, opinions can change, and emotions fly all over the place. Are these things the stuff of eternity? Some kind of transformation is required. The impermanent aspects of self must somehow be transformed to something permanent.
This leads to a conundrum. If our soul is eternal, would we live forever in the form we took just prior to death, or as a child, or maybe at a particularly happy time in our life?
Of course we don’t have answers to any of these questions. But we are driven to consider the possibilities. But we have to be careful in our approach to the afterlife, because it’s critical to our worldview and our salvation depends on it. We should consider what we can know when making the leap.
Where Do We Go From Here?
For Buddhists, answers are found within. We are exhorted by the Buddha to examine ourselves closely to gain insight on the big questions in life.
There are traditionally two forms of Buddhist meditation, Vipassana (insight) and Samatha (tranquility). We can engage the former and ask ourselves the question, “what about us could possibly survive death?” Meditating on this, we can learn a great deal. We discover, over and over, that nearly everything about us is transient. Our thoughts, our habits, and our bodies.
But, there is one thing that is different. Rigpa, a Tibetan word for pure awareness, seems to stand alone, unique. As we observe our thoughts, emotions, and sensations constantly coming and going, this unchanging field of awareness remains steady.
Perhaps this is the me that our religious ancestors are talking about. Perhaps this is the me that survives death. The important distinction between rigpa and the egocentric idea of the soul is that it’s impossible to differentiate my Riga from yours. Pure awareness doesn’t have any of the characteristics we use to distinguish one person from the next. If this is the soul, then it removes the ego from the afterlife equation.
Endless Life, Endless Light
Buddha Amitabha represents this aspect of being, our eternal light and life. Bringing our mind to the name of Amitabha, we are reminded of eternal life and the preciousness of the light of awareness.
Sukhavati is described in the Pure Land Sutras as a place of unsurpassed beauty. Trees whisper the Dharma in the wind and we receive teachings directly from the mouths of the Bodhisattvas. Paradise.
Death is a fact of life. If the Buddha teaches us anything about this life, it is that clinging to an egocentric notion of self is the cause and perpetuator of suffering. Perhaps in death we leave a lifetime of these notions behind. Born again we carry on in the world we shaped in the last life. If we’ve left behind a better world, then we live out our next life to enjoy the benefits. If we continue this progress, all beings will benefit. Sounds like paradise.