(Read Reincarnation, Part 1 First)
Reincarnation – Is it an Escape?
Most Westerners totally misunderstand reincarnation, thinking it affords them a second chance at life. Where it has been the dominant belief for millennia, those who know better try to escape. For when reincarnation dances with karma, humans suffer. They receive no second chance, only a sentence to repeated death. It’s no wonder that Eastern salvation does not promise a new and perfect world, for it believes that love of the world ensnares us, binding us to the wheel of misfortune. So in the East “salvation” is a chance to disappear, whether by dissolution into an ill-defined notion of deity, or simply to extinction.
The ignorant West, living fat off the fruits of Christianity, imagines that Eastern religion allows them to stay at the party. The East is not so duped. It wants release from the dread (along with jobs, cell phones, and computers in the meantime).
Reincarnation – The Buddha Entrapped
How do such ideas such as reincarnation come about? If not from Hinduism, with its caste system, what about Buddhism, with its vaunted freedom and truth? Didn’t the Buddha get his name because he became the “enlightened one”?
It’s hard to place great trust in details of the Buddhist scriptures. The standard collection was probably written some four centuries after the founder’s death and survived into more recent times only through much newer manuscripts. Taken at face value, they portray a sincere, moral, and caring philosopher led astray from the start.
Away from his happy home, Gautama rightly observed and was moved by suffering, misery, and death. Later, as the enlightened one, he claimed that suffering is the main human concern. Salvation comes by eliminating desire.
Sadly, Buddha’s conclusion is a walk off a cliff. Yes, there is suffering. But Buddha also knew other truths. He saw good in the world: the love of family, the beauty of nature, the majesty of mountains, the breadth of the heavens, the wonder of a sunset, the delicacy of flowers, the flight of birds, the power of an elephant, the care of people and animals for their young. If Buddha had been objective, he would not only have sought the source of suffering, but also the source of good.
To him good was an illusion. The world was a trap to be rejected and from which to be saved. In fact, what of the opposite, namely, that fixation on misery is an ambush, and that love is the foundational truth? Maybe suffering is the means, a harsh friend encouraging us to seek and cherish the ultimate source of happiness. Born in a Hindu society, Buddha accepted belief in reincarnation and karma, and by so doing was trapped not by life, but by his own thinking.
Buddha’s teaching that desire is the source of suffering both assumes and supports the belief that life is meaningless. If the world is a trap then desire is the tripwire. Ironically, in order for Buddhism to function as a faith, it requires the desire that it forbids -- a desire to escape from slavery to the world and death. In so doing, it requires that people love themselves (and sometimes also others) enough to seek and teach the need for escape.
Contrary to Buddhist doctrine, desire is neutral. It can be morally right, wrong, or neither, depending upon its purposes. If consistent, the primal nihilism of Buddhism makes love either baseless or wrong. Baseless, for love implies that people are valuable and in need of salvation, or wrong, for love requires the forbidden desire of good for self and others. Because pure Buddhism doesn’t work, in practice it limps back toward truths common to other religions: duty to others, hope for the future, compassion, help from holy teachers and holy writings, and ultimately a savior -- the Buddha himself or others like him. Meanwhile, reincarnation and karma still perform their death dance, undisturbed by spinning wheels, flapping flags, horn blasts, bright robes, sacred script, vivid artwork, ancient mantras, and statues of a peaceful man.
Clearly, Buddha did not account for all the evidence. The question “Whence joy, love, and beauty?” is of equal value to the question “Whence suffering?” Are they not related, so that ignoring one obscures the other? The honest person seeks all the facts. In response to misery Buddha dismissed good, and with it the possibility of divine help.
Reincarnation – The Same Misery
Consider the bitter testimony of a seventy-year-old Sri Lankan Buddhist:
As we walked […] Sarah talked -- about the misery of her husband’s life and suicide, of the unhappiness of her children, of her own long unhappiness. She wore the white sari of a widow and looked old and stricken. “When I was a child I would anger my mother by shouting at her, ‘I do not want your peace. I do not want your calm.’ And now that I long for that calm of heart I have neither the strength nor the will to attain it. I believe in reincarnation -- but what kind of a consolation is that? To feel that I will return in life after life to endure the same restlessness, the same misery . . . Sometimes I feel there is only one Nirvana and that is death -- to be nothing any more, to feel nothing for ever. But I do not believe in death” (Andrew Harvey, A Journey in Ladakh).
Is this what we want? Is this the best we can hope for, whether as individuals or nations? Is this the way to undergird and advance society? Does the evidence provide no other answer? Keep Learning!
Compliments of Scott Munger, Ph.D., who is studying comparative religion in South Asia. He is the author of Rethinking God: Undoing the Damage (AMG/Living Ink, 2007).
What is your response?
Yes, today I am deciding to follow Jesus
Yes, I am already a follower of Jesus
I still have questions