I have unfortunately had the dubious honor of recently reading a web post and watching a lecture by the ever entertaining Brad Warner entitled literal reincarnation or some such thing. I have always been a little bit fascinated by the Western Zen attitude toward reincarnation I suppose it seems a little too magical for modern Western minds that were raised on Newtonian physics and trained in high school laboratories around the American and English world so first I’m going to do what I have a tendency to do which is set a little background work on the basic Buddhist concept of reincarnation. Then I’m going to address Soto Zen and master Dogen and this modern viewpoint that is personified in the lectures by Mr. Brad Warner. Normally it’s against my policy to be condescending toward any particular Buddhist practitioner teacher, but since Brad seems to be so set on attacking anyone who holds the view opposite of his, I’m not going to feel bad if some of my statements are a little bit contemptuous of his.
Reincarnation commonly called rebirth by modern Zen practitioners or the transmigration of the soul by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Has been a part of Buddhism since its very beginnings. However if you’re familiar all with the history of Buddhism you must realize that Buddha was a Hindu. Many of the basic concepts of the world that he lived in were part of the very fabric of his society and his belief system. Buddha did not invent the idea that the world was subject to constant unending change he simply accepted it as the truth. Nor did he invent the idea of reincarnation. In Hinduism’s Rigveda the oldest extant Indo-Aryan text, numerous references are made to transmigration, rebirth (punarjanma), and redeath (punarmrtyu) in the Brahmanas. One verse reads, "Each death repeats the death of the primordial man (purusa), which was also the first sacrifice" (RV 10:90). Another excerpt from the Rig Veda states (10: 16. 1-4):
In order to accept reincarnation, we need to accept the existence of past and future lives. Sentient beings come to this present life from their previous lives and take rebirth again after death. This kind of continuous rebirth is accepted by all the ancient Indian spiritual traditions and schools of philosophy, except the Charvakas, who were a materialist movement. Some modern thinkers deny past and future lives on the premise that we cannot see them. Others do not draw such clear cut conclusions on this basis.
Although many religious traditions accept rebirth, they differ in their views of what it is that is reborn, how it is reborn, and how it passes through the transitional period between two lives. Some religious traditions accept the prospect of future life, but reject the idea of past lives.
Generally, Buddhists believe that there is no beginning to birth and that once we achieve liberation from the cycle of existence by overcoming our karma and destructive emotions, we will not be reborn under the sway of these conditions. Therefore, Buddhists believe that there is an end to being reborn as a result of karma and destructive emotions, but most Buddhist philosophical schools do not accept that the mind-stream comes to an end. To reject past and future rebirth would contradict the Buddhist concept of the ground, path and result, which must be explained on the basis of the disciplined or undisciplined mind. If we accept this argument, logically, we would also have to accept that the world and its inhabitants come about without causes and conditions. Therefore, as long as you are a Buddhist, it is necessary to accept past and future rebirth.
For those who remember their past lives, rebirth is a clear experience. However, most ordinary beings forget their past lives as they go through the process of death, intermediate state and rebirth. As past and future rebirths are slightly obscure to them, we need to use evidence-based logic to prove past and future rebirths to them.
There are many different logical arguments given in the words of the Buddha and subsequent commentaries to prove the existence of past and future lives. In brief, they come down to four points: the logic that things are preceded by things of a similar type, the logic that things are preceded by a substantial cause, the logic that the mind has gained familiarity with things in the past, and the logic of having gained experience of things in the past.
Ultimately all these arguments are based on the idea that the nature of the mind, its clarity and awareness, must have clarity and awareness as its substantial cause. It cannot have any other entity such as an inanimate object as its substantial cause. This is self-evident. Through logical analysis we infer that a new stream of clarity and awareness cannot come about without causes or from unrelated causes. While we observe that mind cannot be produced in a laboratory, we also infer that nothing can eliminate the continuity of subtle clarity and awareness.
As far as I know, no modern psychologist, physicist, or neuroscientist has been able to observe or predict the production of mind either from matter or without cause.
There are people who can remember their immediate past life or even many past lives, as well as being able to recognize places and relatives from those lives. This is not just something that happened in the past. Even today there are many people in the East and West, who can recall incidents and experiences from their past lives. Denying this is not an honest and impartial way of doing research, because it runs counter to this evidence. The Tibetan system of recognizing reincarnations is an authentic mode of investigation based on people’s recollection of their past lives.
How rebirth takes place
There are two ways in which someone can take rebirth after death: rebirth under the sway of karma and destructive emotions and rebirth through the power of compassion and prayer. Regarding the first, due to ignorance negative and positive karma are created and their imprints remain on the consciousness. These are reactivated through craving and grasping, propelling us into the next life. We then take rebirth involuntarily in higher or lower realms. This is the way ordinary beings circle incessantly through existence like the turning of a wheel. Even under such circumstances ordinary beings can engage diligently with a positive aspiration in virtuous practices in their day-to-day lives. They familiarize themselves with virtue that at the time of death can be reactivated providing the means for them to take rebirth in a higher realm of existence. On the other hand, superior Bodhisattvas, who have attained the path of seeing, are not reborn through the force of their karma and destructive emotions, but due to the power of their compassion for sentient beings and based on their prayers to benefit others. They are able to choose their place and time of birth as well as their future parents. Such a rebirth, which is solely for the benefit of others, is rebirth through the force of compassion and prayer. "
Written by: H.H. The 14th Dali Lama of