Ecological Interpretation of Buddhist Reincarnation

Posted on October 16, 2010


How can we understand the notion of spiritual rebirth in a scientific sense? In purely material terms, we can say that reincarnation is the process by which our body degrades back into the soil to reappear again in the bodies of other life forms. Thus we descend to the Earth to become fodder for the worm, which slowly by the process of digestion, elevates once again through the various life forms within the food chain. Decay is the greatest rebirth, as it constitutes consilience with nature, the atman of sorts, which is the molecular material of the world. Thus, such menial travails as eating and excreting are essential to reincarnation, and thus constitute our highest practices of connectivity to the natural world.

However, such a notion of reincarnation is wholly unsatisfactory, for we do not want to be reborn in a million pieces, but hope to retain some sort of fundamental soul or essence, some sentient particularity beyond our material constitution  that remains in tact, and that can identify itself as being of the previous self. The problem of disintegration threatens any legitimacy in identification, in that it is difficult to determine at which point of division does the self cease to exist – What is a person? Is my hand me? To what extent do the parts of an object retain identification with the whole object? If my molecules become reincarnated in other life forms, are they still in any way or form my molecules? Is there a transcendent thing, a thing-in-itself, that is retained from incarnation to incarnation, such as a consciousness or essence of mind, that can be divided but not essentially split, that make an incarnation truly a form of transmission from material to material? Is our genetic code such a thing?

In Buddhist theology, the self is an illusion, and the need to believe in such a packaged consciousness independent of universal awareness is thus, also an illusion. The need for attachment to a sense of self is also an illusion, a vain attachment. The thing-in-itself exists but is not our own, to be passed on its formal packaging from this lifetime. Thus, when we think of reincarnation as a rebirth of the self, as we conventionally think of a human identity, we are already misunderstanding the very notion of reincarnation. We want to believe that it is some passing on of mind, but in the unitary sense of the universal essence, the individual mind does not exist but is a mere repository for the whole. But if the self that we conventionally think of as Self is not what is reincarnated – then what does reincarnation mean? How can there be reincarnation if there is no self to reincarnate? There must be some essential thing that becomes carnate again, dressed up in flesh and form. What is that essential thing?

If there is no individual Self, but only a greater spiritual force, or wholeness, in which the Self is only temporarily segregated within the material form, then what does it mean to accumulate karma? How can an individual entity that is not individual beyond a temporary material organizing (organism), accumulate permanent individual sins or virtues when the material organization is dissolved?

The Dharma instructs that there is no separation between persons, that such separations are illusory, that I am you and you are me, and we are each and together the universe, at one time. The whole that is divided into parts does not lose its essential quality in each part, just as individual molecules of water retain water-like properties together or apart. Thus, the karma that we seek to improve is not of ourselves alone, but that of all humankind, and all living beings. When my brother sins, it is my sin as well. When I do good, it is the good of the karmic whole. And thus, no individual efforts will necessarily lead to individual rewards, but each and all will impact the whole. Thus, it is not enough to strive for nirvana alone, what is called Pratyekabuddha Arhat (Solitary Realizer), rather the striving must be for others, with others, in others.

[Chandragomin] said in his Letter to a Disciple:

You would be beneath contempt
If you freed but yourself.

(Trinjiang Ripoche, Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand)

But along this logic of the individual as being one with the whole, there is no way to free only oneself, for the self is so much tied to others, that all freedom of the individual leads to simultaneous liberation of the whole. Therefore, the liberation of others does not necessarily entail going around evangelizing for the improvement of the unitary karma, like a Christian collection of souls, for in the act of preaching to others, we may not only fail to bring true liberation to others, but we may also be losing touch with liberation within ourselves, the only true liberation that instantaneously liberates the whole.

But how do we liberate ourselves if there is no self? What is virtue, and how can we be sure that anything we do can truly be defined as virtuous? What is the value of our individual human acts in a grander scheme of karmic significance? How can be we so arrogant as to think our tiny little socially constructed sins even matter in the ecology of universal cause and effect? In the end, does the universe care what choices we make? Does it not always evens itself out somehow, like a balanced chemical equation? Isn’t the vast ocean of wholistic karma imperturbable to the small storms of our individual droplets? If our individual selves do not truly exist, or are too small a fraction of the whole to matter, then why should it matter what we do?

In answering this question, we may consider two explanations for individual significance. One, a linear and intuitive interpretation of the question, can be seen in the metaphor of a human ripple. Each of our actions influences the actions of others in an endless chain of consequence that magnifies its significance when passed from one actor to another. Since we can never be aware of the distance that our actions may travel (one may argue that the impact of each action is infinite across generations of influence), then we can, in a sense, say that each individual act is in fact infinitely linked to the whole, and an such, our collective karma is infinitely impacted by each of our individual choices.

Another, more abstract, explanation consists of a less temporally segregated idea of infinite influence – in this interpretation, our every individual moment is itself constituted of simultaneous linkages to an infinity of moments by all particles, by virtue of the universality of time and space, and thus we are always acting out the universal karma, by the very definition of existence. Thus, every moment of action is an infinite moment, for it is part of the infinite universal karma – the infinite is individual at the same time as being infinite.

But then this leads to another question – how can we go up or down in the ladder of higher or lower beings by virtue of our karma, if our actions are infinite and immeasurable, and if we are not to interpret our karma as being individual but rather as unified and instantaneously whole? How can we possibly increase our chance of incarnating as a human being rather than a dog or a fly by virtue of prayer, if we do not mean reincarnation in a material sense? Materially, it seems that cannibalism would be more effective a measure for ensuring human rebirth than meditation! But if we are to see reincarnation in non-material terms, and we are to prohibit ourselves from employing the Christian notion of individual souls, separate from a universal whole, then what are we supposed to be delivering from the cycle of samsara? Is the whole not always delivered from samsara? Is not samsara a mere representation of the whole, an illusory piece of the whole? How do we deliver a thing from a lesser thing that is already embodied within it?

If there is no such thing as an individual soul, then there is no reason to believe that individual actions will impact the fate of such an individual soul. Thus, the liberation from illusion that we seek must consist of a greater, universal illusion, which applies to all being: that of worldliness, of physicality, of form, of the constitution by which all the universe currently stands. Perhaps, in the metaphor of physics and the Big Bang, what we are aiming for is to not bang – that Silence beyond the forms.

However, such a Silence must also exist as the essence that accompanies each form, both within and enveloping it. And if we are to assume that such a Silence already exists, and can exist alongside the forms, then what is the point of wishing for a world that is of pure Silence, without the forms? What is it about Form that is inherently negative? Why do we seek deliverance from form, from samsara?

I am not sure the practical teachings of the Dharma, which allude on such ideas, can really encapsulate linguistically the logical ends of these ideas. In Kyabe Pabongka Rinpoche’s classic lectures compiled in the Liberation in the Palm of Your Hands, he begins with this poem –

This opportune physical form
Is worth more than a wish-granting gem.
You can only gain its like the once.
So hard to get, so easily destroyed
It’s like a lightning bolt in the sky.

Contemplate this, and you will realize
All worldy actions are but winnowed chaff,
And night and day you must
Extract some essence from your life.

According to this Panglossian precept, the human form is the optimal form for reaching enlightenment. Thus, even though the form itself is the ultimate barrier to liberation, we must cherish this particular constitution as our best possible chance of getting beyond it. Our consciousness, though it is limited in its capacities, is most capable of comprehending the ultimate reality of oneness – a unity automatically enacted, perhaps, by bees and ants – but only a more complex intelligence can realize its significance, firstly through the limited structures of linguistic thought, and secondly through the transcendent, non-verbal, experience that is nirvana (zen), which requires an intelligent incubation.

Evolution is the progression of species that adapt to various environments to acquire various traits, more or less accessible to such a nirvanic state. Most anthropocentric thinkers believe that the progression of evolution is linear in some positive way. Thus, we have grown in our capacities from primordial soup, to reptiles, to lesser mammals, to the greater apes. This progression, these reincarnations, lead to where we are today, the best possible form for attaining nirvana.

This is questionable, of course, for as human beings, our situated knowledge must favor our own subjective interests. Perhaps the ants and bees have an easier time with reaching nirvana. Perhaps animals devoid of our cerebral capacities are actually more unified with the transcendent qualities of Life. We could never really know. Nirvana could very well be a human invention, and surely it is when put in human linguistic terms. Is there even such a thing as a cross-species nirvana? If so, nirvana can not be what nirvana is to us, semiotically communicated. The argument within Buddhism is that whatever such a nirvana is (one can not encapsulate with words), it is better that we have the ability to get as close to it as we can with our clumsy tools of language, so that the rest of the journey can be exercised non-linguistically.

Thus, it is better to be incarnated, with the clumsiness of form, so that we can best exercise the spirit within its limits, and take our best guess at that which transcends. And the Meaning of Life lies in the efforts of that carnation towards that which is beyond such form.

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