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Reincarnation vs. Rebirth: The Final Explanation You’ll Ever Need

When people hear about Buddhist teachings for the first time, they come up against the teaching there on “reincarnation” fairly quickly. This is especially true, even magnified, by the worldwide familiarity with the story of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso), whose presence is nearly ubiquitous across most modern cultures. Arguably one of the two or three most recognised members of the human species for the last several decades is a gentle, smiling figure who is said to be the reincarnation of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, who is said to be the reincarnation of the Twelfth Dalai Lama, who is said to be the reincarnation of the Eleventh Dalai Lama, and so on and so on back into the foggy mists of time. Though this Tibetan tradition of intentionally reincarnated Lamas and Rinpoches might be localised, by specialist scholars, to certain unique features of Tibetan history and culture, nevertheless it leaves the impression in the vast majority of people that Buddhism teaches — even emphasises — that a person who dies can (and does) “will” themselves, either through clear-minded choice or by following blindly the force of accumulated mental habit (so-called “karma”), back into a human body in a certain time or place or condition, either positive or negative. And throughout Buddhism, going back to the Jataka Tales of the Buddha’s previous incarnations leading to his appearance as Shakyamuni Buddha in our human era, there is this thread running through the teachings. In Zen, too, while we do not speak very much about these things, it is part of the fabric that is weaved into the dressage of our practice, however unemphatically.

I am not a scholar. I am especially unqualified to attempt to make claims about the textual or philosophical course of this teaching on “reincarnation”. I couldn’t attempt to speak from the slight load of reading I have ever done in Buddhist literature. And anyway, I would not seriously trust some expert reading of this authoritative text or another, and would not have the time or the mental bandwidth to parse the concepts and arguments girding the whole project. I regret every trace of conceptual thinking that I tap-tap out on this page, the streaming liquid that trails on the ground when we carry a leaky bag of garbage out to the trash bin.

But I am often asked the question about “reincarnation” in Buddhism. And I have been called on to clarify, even disabuse, with dismay, so many misconceptions about a point which the Buddha’s own revolutionary project seemed to have settled, once and for all. But people get lost in the words, over time, and then they add on the layers and layers of misconception and bad interpretation, nearly always from scholars or even monastics who have not approached the question completely from the standpoint of their own developed meditation practice, and only relied on words and texts and traditions and intellectual streams alone, leaving out completely the lived experience of the question.

Even in the monasteries of Korea, I encountered so many monks who passed on some egregiously bad ideas about various aspects of the teachings, which they had not interrogated independently through their own direct experience, simply because of the force of mere tradition and convention. They might not have interrogated and made these teachings their own also due to a fundamental lack of trust in their practice.

My Teacher was a maverick who trusted his own experience, even when tradition and convention stood firmly against it: The universally revered former Patriarch of Korean Buddhism, the scholar/practitioner Song Cheol Sunim, often declared that the end-point of enlightenment is the view that “Mountains are mountains, and water is water.” I have had this teaching quoted back to me from countless monks, professors, and even taxi drivers, held out as some final view that makes the concept of “enlightenment” relatable and clear. Yet my own Teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, famously — and repeatedly! — criticised that view as “not enough”, and incomplete expression. “Mountain is blue, and water is flowing,” he would say, at the beginning of nearly every talk he gave in his native Korea. Not Song Cheol Sunim’s “mountain” or “water” as dead concepts, hanging in conceptual empty-space, equalized to a mental zero of meaning based on the concepts themselves; rather, Seung Sahn Sunim reiterated, time and time again, what happens when consciousness experiences “mountain”? What happens when consciousness experiences “water”? When eyes experience “mountain” — real mountain, over there — they do not stay in the realm of the word, the concept “mountain”. A child would not conceptualise things that way! “Look, Mommy — the big mountain is ‘mountain!'” No! The eyes of the child, landing on the mountain passing outside the car window, register — without words or concepts — the experience of the distant “blue”. “Mommy, Mommy! Mountain blue!” (Or “green”, if up close!) When the ears (or eyes) experience a river, or the ocean, they do not register “water” only as a dry concept, an idea, a “thing”. The eyes or ears experience the phenomena of “flowing” — either through sound-experience or sight-experience. THIS is the final expression of the preternaturally awakened state of mind, or “enlightenment”.

So, when we refer to the teachings expressed from living Buddhist insight, the preferred description is rebirth, not “reincarnation”. The latter is the classical Vedic-derived teaching that, when someone dies, the same person, an entity, a something comes back again; whereas the former conveys the truth of some re-embodiment, without erring into the delusion of the same person/”thingness” merely “coming back”, as is. In rebirth, what is re-embodied in corporeal form is not the same “thing” reconstituted in a new body, but rather a changing/changed “version” of it. If I take a candle to light another candle, the flame that appears on the new wick is not exactly the same exact flame, yet it is a version of it. When I hit one billiard ball into another billiard ball on a pool table, the energy of the first ball does not just reappear in the second ball, as it is, behaving as the first ball. There is something transferred, but that energy can send the second ball into an entirely different trajectory.

I usually explain it in this way:

Reincarnation means that, when I drink an entire can of Coca Cola, the brownish, bubbly Coke disappears from observable view into mouth, throat, and stomach. Turn the can upside down, and there is nothing “there”. When a friend asks you for a sip of your Coke, you say, “Oh, I’m sorry — all gone.” For all intents and purposes, the Coke appears to have “left” the world. Yet it is “somewhere”, though you both see it not. But then it later reappears again in your toilet as that Coke: brownish, bubbly, sweet and everything else. Same thing reappears as disappeared.

Rebirth means that, when I drink a can of Coca Cola, the brownish, bubbly Coke also disappears from observable view. Everything else is the same: the Coke seems to be “gone”. But later, when I go to the toilet, it is not this substantially same brownish carbonated liquid that reappears again before my eyes. It is something yellow, or yellowish, maybe even white, depending on my body type, condition, and health. This “later” Coke is no longer carbonated. It does not have the same taste, and won’t jack me with the same caffeine confidence as in its “past life” as Coke. Something somewhat “different” appears.

And yet, were we to take samples of this new substance for testing, there would be traces of caramel coloring, there would be metabolites of sugar and caffeine, there would be whatever else is contained in the original Coke that I drank. If I put a ph paper in the urine, the reading would be roughly similar to whatever Coca Cola might be — acidic or base. Something different has re-emerged back into the world of observable reality, and it is changed in some respects from the original material — ask your friend if she still wants some of your Coke! And yet, at its basis, though it is manifestly changed, there is also a great deal of substantial resemblance. (The urine will not test for metabolites of fat-digestion, for example, the way a glass of milk would have produced, in a parallel experiment.) The Coke that emerges in my urine is the same Coke I drank, and yet it is in a state of transformation: If someone in my home at the time asked for a Coke, I wouldn’t expect them to accept a nice cold glass of my pee produced by the Cokes I had drank earlier that day.

The point is, our karmic minds are in a constant state of transit, for eternity. Nothing ever disappears — ever. The Law of Conservation of Energy states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It can only be converted from one form of energy to another. Consciousness is also energy — probably the strongest form of energy in the universe. Thinking is also energy. Karma (mind-habits) are also energy — ask anyone who is trying to quit smoking or deal with addiction or trauma. Mind is an energy which is strong enough to shape our actions and destiny.

When the corporeal container (my body) of some expression of consciousnesness deteriorates, is broken, or “disappears” (dies), the consciousness does not “disappear” along with it. If you drop a pitcher of water from a height, the pitcher will shatter: the water will be spread out scattered into puddles and droplets all over the floor. Leave the area for a few hours or a day, and then return. The water is gone. No water.

But there is water. The water from the smashed pitcher has evaporated from the ground, transporting every single molecule into the air, into nearby surfaces, wall, ceiling, whatever. Those molecules have NOT left the universe. Most of them are part of the vapor of air. And they reappear again most quickly as trace elements somewhere on your skin, in your lungs, in your clothes. They reappear again later as rain over Brazil, as fog in London, as ocean in Greece. They appear, much later, in the sweat on LeBron James, in the oranges of Valencia, in the blood of a suicide bomber in Kabul. Around and around and around and around. They are the “same” molecules of water as were in that pitcher of water you dropped, and yet they are also changed in their form and appearance.

In my undergraduate years, I took a course in Aerodynamics. It was fascinating! In the first lecture, the professor told us that the diffusion of molecules throughout the earth can best be understood this way. He said, “Every molecule of C02 that was exhaled in the last dying breath of Jesus on the cross has spread through the atmosphere so completely, by now, that you have — all of you — inhaled at least one of those molecules today.” (Caveat: I don’t remember if he said “today” or “in your lifetime”.)

That really gripped me.

That is the physics of “rebirth” — the only resurrection or reincarnation that is ever going to be true.

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