Do you Buddhists believe in rebirth as an animal in the next life? Are you going to be a dog or a cow in the future? Does the soul transmigrate into the body of another person or some animal? What is the difference between transmigration and reincarnation? Is it the same as rebirth? Is karma the same as fate? These and a hundred similar questions are often put to me.
A gross misunderstanding of about Buddhism exists today, especially in the notion of reincarnation. The common misunderstanding is that a person has led countless previous lives, usually as an animal, but somehow in this life he is born as a human being and in the next life he will be reborn as an animal, depending on the kind of life he has lived.
This misunderstanding arises because people usually do not know-how to read the sutras or sacred writings. It is said that the Buddha left 84,000 teachings; the symbolic figure represents the diverse backgrounds characteristics, tastes, etc. of the people. The Buddha taught according to the mental and spiritual capacity of each individual. For the simple village folks living during the time of the Buddha, the doctrine of reincarnation was a powerful moral lesson. Fear of birth into the animal world must have frightened many people from acting like animals in this life. If we take this teaching literally today we are confused because we cannot understand it rationally.
Herein lies our problem. A parable, when taken literally, does not make sense to the modern mind. Therefore we must learn to differentiate the parables and myths from actuality. However, if we learn to go beyond or transcend the parables and myths, we will be able to understand the truth.
People will say “If such is the case why not speak directly so that we will be able to come to an immediate grasp of the truth?” This statement is understandable, but truth is often inexpressible. [Ed comment: we as human beings are limited in understanding “Buddha Knowledge”. We cannot speak TRUTH, only words ABOUT Truth] Thus, writers and teachers have often resorted to the language of the imagination to lead the reader from a lower to a higher truth. The doctrine of reincarnation is often understood in this light.
What Reincarnation is Not
Reincarnation is not a simple physical birth of a person; for instance, John being reborn as a cat in the next life. In this case John possesses an immortal soul which transforms to the form of a cat after his death. This cycle is repeated over and over again. Or if he is lucky, he will be reborn as a human being. This notion of the transmigration of the soul definitely does not exist in Buddhism.
Karma is a Sanskrit word from the root “Kri” to do or to make and simply means “action.” It operates in the universe as the continuous chain reaction of cause and effect. It is not only confined to causation in the physical sense but also it has moral implications. “A good cause, a good effect; a bad cause a bad effect” is a common saying. In this sense karma is a moral law.
Now human beings are constantly giving off physical and spiritual forces in all directions. In physics we learn that no energy is ever lost; only that it changes form. This is the common law of conservation of energy. Similarly, spiritual and mental action is never lost. It is transformed. Thus Karma is the law of the conservation of moral energy.
By actions, thoughts, and words, man is releasing spiritual energy to the universe and he is in turn affected by influences coming in his direction. Man is therefore the sender and receiver of all these influences. The entire circumstances surrounding him is his karma.
With each action-influence he sends out and at the same time, receives, he is changing. This changing personality and the world he lives in, constitute the totality of his karma.
Karma should not be confused with fate. Fate is the notion that man’s life is preplanned for him by some external power, and he has no control over his destiny. Karma on the other hand, can be changed. Because man is a conscious being he can be aware of his karma and thus strive to change the course of events. In the Dhammapada we find the following words, “All that we are is a result of what we have thought, it is founded on our thoughts and made up of our thoughts.”
What we are, then, is entirely dependent on what we think. Therefore, the nobility of man’s character is dependent on his”good” thoughts, actions, and words. At the same time, if he embraces degrading thoughts, those thoughts invariably influence him into negative words and actions.
Traditionally, Buddhism teaches the existence of the ten realms of being. At the top is Buddha and the scale descends as follows: Bodhisattva (an enlightened being destined to be a Buddha, but purposely remaining on earth to teach others), Pratyeka Buddha (a Buddha for himself), Sravka (direct disciple of Buddha), heavenly beings (superhuman [angels?]), human beings, Asura (fighting spirits), beasts, Preta (hungry ghosts), and depraved men (hellish beings).
Now, these ten realms may be viewed as unfixed, nonobjective worlds, as mental and spiritual states of mind. These states of mind are created by men’s thoughts, actions, and words. In other words, psychological states. These ten realms are “mutually immanent and mutually inclusive, each one having in it the remaining nine realms.” For example, the realm of human beings has all the other nine states (from hell to Buddhahood). Man is at the same time capable of real selfishness, creating his own hell, or is truly compassionate, reflecting the compassion of Amida Buddha. Buddhas too have the other nine realms in their minds, for how can a Buddha possibly save those in hell if he himself does not identify with their suffering and guide them to enlightenment.
We can learn a valuable lesson from the teaching of reincarnation.
In what realm do you now live? If you are hungry for power, love, and self-recognition, you live in the Preta world, or hungry ghosts. If you are motivated only by thirsts of the human organism, you are existing in the world of the beast.
Consider well then your motives and intentions. Remember that man is characteristically placed at the midpoint of the ten stages; he can either lower himself abruptly or gradually into hell or through discipline, cultivation and the awakening of faith rise to the Enlightened state of the Buddha.