When my younger son, Carl, was 5 or 6, he was playing in our backyard with a neighbor girl a couple of years older who was being home-schooled by her Christian parents. As I sat on the deck, Carl came running up to me and asked: “Isn’t it true, Dad, you’re a Buddhist?”
I replied, and he turned around and shouted the answer back to the girl: “It’s true, he’s a Buddhist.” Then he ran off and rejoined her.
But he returned almost immediately with another question: “How many gods do you believe in?”
“One, at most,” I told him, and again he shouted the answer before returning to his friend: “One, at most.”
So I suppose she had been prepared with critiques for any religion that didn’t fit her parents’ concept of Christianity. Buddhists, she had been told, believed in too many gods. It’s an odd argument, because the Buddha lived in a time of Vedic religions that employed the imagery of multiple gods, and he had no objection to them. But he had zero interest in the sort of creator and overseer god that my Christian neighbors presumably believe in. He was interested in ending suffering and had no patience for theological distinctions.
Her questions surprised me, though, for another reason. I’d have guessed that most Christians would raise reincarnation as the Buddhist concept to poke at. Interestingly, when respected Buddhist scholar Walpola Rahula was asked in 1981 to list the basic points unifying Buddhism, he did not mention reincarnation or rebirth, the term many Buddhists prefer.
Nevertheless, Buddhism does talk of samsara, or the endless cycle (wheel) of life, death and rebirth. However, there seem to be as many ways of interpreting the idea as there are branches of Buddhism.Since everything is an illusion and empty, what is it that gets reborn?
I have two ways of looking at rebirth.
Here’s my long-range view: In Buddhism, the world has no beginning and no end. And we are all made from cosmic dust and will return to cosmic dust, stuff that has always been here and always will. So everything we are has existed before and will exist again. Our various bits of dust will rejoin each other again some day.
But my short-range view may be more important.In Buddhism, we are reborn in every moment. Our cosmic dust is dancing with other cosmic dust within the open spaces of our body as well as with other beings. We are never the same sentient being we were a moment ago. And our mood changes. Our ideas change. The clattering in our head changes.
The beings around us change. The weather changes. Flowers change into garbage. Garbage changes into flowers. The earth spins, and it speeds around the sun.
Everything within us and around us is in a constant state of change.
So rebirth exists in every moment. It’s not just that we have an opportunity to begin anew. We begin anew whether we want to or not. The choice we have is how to live each of those moments, how we will be reborn. If we learn to do it with compassion and without attachment, recognizing the cosmic dance within us and around us, then we have awakened.
Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine