While some schools of Buddhism take this literally, others treat it more as a parable, thus this does not mean that you dwell literally in the realm of ghosts or the body of an animal, rather that your psychological state is being in hell or behaving as a beast, rather than a human being … your karma follows your soul. You are reborn over and over again in an endless cycle of samsara until you finally get it right and find enlightenment, This is an oversimplification, but the general point is made. (Note: There has always been much debate in Buddhist teaching about what exactly floats free of the body, but for purposes of this post I’m referring to it as the soul.)
I have never believed in reincarnation. It just seemed too fantastical and too much like a Buddhist version of the Christian admonition of hell and limbo.
Yet I always have believed it when Tibetan Buddhists would find the new reincarnated lama by, among other things, placing before the child items that belonged to the previous lama together with other items, and the child would pick out the right items. I also have always believed when someone is told that they are an “old soul” that that is true; that their soul has been around for a long time. And when my partner Marty died, I remember thinking that at the moment he died, a new baby was born somewhere with Marty’s spirit inside him.
I focused on this issue recently during a meditation because of a reading we did the previous evening about our spirit/consciousness lasting an eternity. When I did, I arrived at a modified theory of reincarnation.
It is Buddhist teaching that we are all born essentially perfect with the true Buddha nature inside us. Until we are impacted by our experiences of the world around us and our ego forms around age 3, we are full of light and love.
That teaching is inconsistent with the idea that our karma travels with the soul/spirit/consciousness from one life to another. A self* burdened with karma at birth would not be your true Buddha nature. Instead, that teaching would be consistent with karma remaining with your body when you die. And that makes sense, because karma is a function of the ego-mind, not your true self or soul. It is a manifestation of your earthly existence and so it should be shed together with the body when you die and your soul passes into another person who is born.
Karma in this view of reincarnation does not determine how you are reincarnated, how the soul will suffer in the next manifestation. Rather karma just determines whether you are reincarnated or not. If you have bad karma and are totally unliberated, your soul will continue to be reincarnated until you progress on the path. If you have freed yourself from the lower fetters then your rebirths will be limited to those necessary to achieve enlightenment. If you are an arahant, an enlightened one, there is no rebirth because you have freed yourself from all the fetters and rebirth is not necessary.
In this view of reincarnation, rebirth provides an opportunity for the soul to free itself if we haven’t in our current life. It is a fresh start. The state of your karma just determines whether and how often it is reincarnated. Even if one has very bad karma, it is possible to become enlightened in the next life. Indeed, there are many stories of people who had terrible karma but who saw the light after being exposed to an enlightened one and were almost instantly transported to the stage of arahant. So even in one life you can go from having the worst karma to becoming enlightened.
This modified view of reincarnation also removes the “do this or else you will suffer for eternity” teaching that is so common to the world’s religions. That teaching shows no faith whatsoever in human beings; Buddhism on the other hand shows great faith in human beings and in their potential to free themselves from the control of their ego-mind, their life-experiences.
So in my modified theory of reincarnation, when a person dies, their soul migrates to a newly born person, free of karma. But what about population increase, all the people who are born who can’t be inhabited by an old soul? Each day there are 19 births per 1,000 population, but only 8 deaths. Ah, they are also born essentially perfect with the true Buddha nature inside them, just a newly minted one, not an old soul. That’s why most people are not old souls.
Because this vision of reincarnation will be considered heretical by many, I did what I have often done which is to go back to The Life of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Nanamoli, the authoritative text of the Buddha’s life as related in the Pali canon, or tipitaka.
In this text, there is no mention of the cycle of reincarnation. There is indeed only this one reference to “rebirth:” “There are some monks and brahmans who assert and believe that purification comes through some particular round of rebirths.” The implication is that the Buddha did not believe that version of reincarnation.
Instead the Buddhist teaching of reincarnation or rebirth developed over the course of several hundred years after the Buddha lived. And there are variations in this teaching among the different lineages of Buddhism.
So while my theory of reincarnation is not in keeping with Buddhist tradition, it is in keeping with the teaching of the Buddha. And for the reasons I have stated here, is more consistent with that teaching.
* Please note a difference between my teaching and most Buddhist teaching. The teaching of “no self” is taken as meaning there is no self. Period. But as I explain in my post, “The Misleading Teaching of No Self,” this is a misstatement of the Buddha’s teaching of “not self.“ What the Buddha said was that various things … mental formations, clinging aggregates, feelings and perceptions … are not self; they are instead just a product of the ego-mind, they are of dependent origin. What we think of as our “self” in fact is not and has no permanence. He never said there is no such thing as a true self, such as your true Buddha nature. Indeed, he absolutely avoided saying that. See also my book, The Self in No Self. I have since found that various schools of thought in both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism make the same point.