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Second Mitra Retreat - Questions and Answers 1976

by Sangharakshita




(Tape One Side one)

Sangharakshita: Any points arising out of what we've done in the course of thirteen days of study.
Or is everything clear and just awaiting further reflection. Or are there any little knotty points that
could perhaps be cleared up before we start. Are there any sort of general comments or any

__________: Reincarnation?

S: Oh, reincarnation, oh dear! (Laughter)

__________: Because I hear remarks about it.

S: Well, there are references to reincarnation to use your term. I think in practically all the texts that
we've studied. So obviously this does form part at least of the framework of Buddhist thought. It
must be said that Buddhism traditionally does take the teaching of reincarnation quite literally. It
does quite literally, or Buddhists do quite literally believe and accept that one passes through a whole
series of lives. That one has lived before. One is living now on this earth as a result of actions
committed in the past and that unless one exhausts one's karmas in this life, or very nearly exhausts
them, then one will be reborn again, reincarnated again. This is traditionally part of Buddhist
teaching. All schools of Buddhism accept this or take it for granted.

It's rather interesting in a way that to the best of my knowledge nowhere in Buddhist literature is
there any attempt to prove the teaching of rebirth or to demonstrate it. It seems it was so universally
accepted that nobody questioned it and therefore no-one felt any need for proving it. But we're not in
that sort of position. The only sort of discussion, the only sort of debate that seems to have taken
place, at least so far as India was concerned, was with regard to the exact nature of the process. In
this sense there were basically two views or one might even say three views, just to enlarge the scope
a little - two of which were non-Buddhist and one of which was Buddhist.

To just refer to the two views to begin with. The first view which was a non-Buddhist view, a
Brahminical view, was that something called a Jiva, a living being or something called a self, an
atma, that passed through a series of lives on earth or even a series of lives in other worlds or both
itself remained unchanged. This was one current teaching. You find this sort of teaching reflected in
the Bhagavad Gita. In the Bhagavad Gita which is of course a Hindu work, a little bit later than
Buddhism, a little bit later than the time of the Buddha, Sri Krishna is represented as saying that just
as a man may take a new set of clothes and putting aside the old set put on the new set, in the same
way casting aside the old body, the self takes a new body. So the assumption clearly here is that the

self remains unchanged. The atma is this unchanging reincarnating entity. So this was one view.
This view was not accepted by the Buddhist. One can say paradoxically that the Buddhist believes
that reincarnation takes place but that nothing and nobody is reincarnated. As Buddhagosha says
there is rebirth but there is no-one who is reborn.

So what does this mean? It means that what we call rebirth is not a process which any unchanging
entity undergoes. Rebirth is the term given to the process itself. That Buddhism points out that you
can speak for instance in terms of "my thoughts", "my emotions", "my actions". So grammatically it
is as though you are the subject of all those predications. You are distinct from those predications,
those predications are distinct from you. It's rather like when we say "it rained". But is there an it
which is raining? No. There is only the process of the rain falling going on. You just have that
grammatical subject "it" as a linguistic convenience. In the same way Buddhism says you have this
predicate "I" or "self" as a sort of linguistic convenience but actually the "self" is no more than the
sum total of all those thoughts and words and deeds and feelings and actions which are in a state of
continuous flux which are a process. There is no subject of the process apart from the process itself.

So therefore the process of consciousness, constantly changing, goes on from what we call life to
life, linking now with one psycho-physical organism, now with another, now with one body, now
with another but there is no unchanging subject of that process. This is where the Buddhist view of
so-called reincarnation differs from the Hindu one or indeed from the Western one. In other words
Buddhism maintains the continuity of this ever-changing stream of consciousness, for want of a
better term, from life to life, but does not believe in any unchanging entity which is reincarnated.
But certainly Buddhism does believe in that continuity of existence from life to life.

But this raises all sorts of questions. For instance it raises the question of time. Is time real?
Buddhist thought tends to say that time is not real. That time is part of the way in which we perceive
things, not anything that we perceive in itself. Time is part of the structure of our perception. So if
you speak in terms of reincarnation it means that you're thinking in terms of time. You did live in the
past, you live here now, you will live in the future. This is thinking within the limits of time. If you
transcend time you transcend reincarnation. If you no longer think in terms of time, you no longer
think in terms of reincarnation. So also we find the Buddha, and following him Buddhism generally
then, that when you gain Enlightenment, when you become Enlightened it is akaliko, it is a timeless
thing. It is outside time. So if it is outside time, it is outside birth, it is outside rebirth.

So in reality there's no rebirth, in a sense. In reality there's no rebirth. That there is such a thing as
rebirth is one of the illusions that you awaken from when you're enlightened. But when you are
unenlightened, so far as you're concerned, there is rebirth. So this is probably as much as we can say
without getting into very deep waters indeed. Nowadays quite a few people are interested in proving
or demonstrating rebirth scientifically by collecting instances of alleged recollection of previous
lives. This is very interesting. But scientifically even it isn't all that significant because even if you
collected absolute proof and say a thousand people just remembered their previous lives, it would
only prove that those thousand people had remembered their previous life. It wouldn't necessarily
prove that everybody had a previous life even though he didn't remember it.

So as I say that line of investigation is interesting but perhaps not very conclusive. Another thing
that we have to remember is that the more emphasis is placed on becoming enlightened here and now
in this life the less emphasis is placed on reincarnation. And we find that in those forms of
Buddhism which stress very much enlightenment here and now in this life, like for instance Zen,

there's very little mention of rebirth. There's not much importance given to it. But where for
instance, as in Ceylon, many people believe that you can't gain enlightenment in this life any more,
it's too late, well, it's too late and it's too early. You're too late for Sakyamuni Buddha, too early for
Maitreya Buddha. [Laughter] You just have to wait and what is the best that you can do. Lead a
good life, observe the precepts, give alms to the monks and pray for a happy rebirth in the future. So
where there is no emphasis at all on gaining enlightenment in this life there is a corresponding
increase of emphasis on rebirth, in this case the happy rebirth, preferably in a heaven world.

So in the case of a person who is thinking very seriously about gaining enlightenment here and now
the question of rebirth hardly arises or the question of reincarnation hardly arises. I remember in this
connection Christmas Humphreys telling me many years ago that since the days when he started up
the Buddhist Society there had been quite a considerable change in people's attitudes towards karma
and rebirth and he mentioned particularly that when he started up the Buddhist Society which was in
1924, I think, '25, but the people who came along were mostly interested in karma and rebirth and
one of the things that most attracted them about Buddhism and perhaps the thing that did in fact most
interest them was that it taught karma and rebirth. But he said now, and this is ten, twelve years ago,
he said the teaching of karma and rebirth attracts hardly anybody. Now they're interested in other
things or attracted ...

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