Question: "I have trouble accepting the idea of reincarnation. Does it matter?"

Welcome to the club! There are only two logical choices here: we have one life or many. Jews and Christians opt for one; Buddhists and Hindus opt for many. All westerners, regardless of faith, grow up thinking that we only live once. We seldom, if ever, meet anyone who has a different opinion on this matter so it is not talked about a lot and doesn’t really seem "open to discussion." Reincarnation is the Buddhist doctrine that is most likely to be rejected by Americans. Even many American Buddhists reject it.

Since "rebirth," to use a slightly better term, is such an important part of Buddhist thinking (Nirvana is defined as ending the perpetual cycle of "birth and death"), it’s worth the time to try to make sense of this idea. Buddhism, like science, deals only with events in the "natural world." There are no supernatural events in Buddhism. Buddhists also believe that body and mind are a unit and arise together. Buddhists don’t believe that an imperishable, self-sustaining soul exists temporarily in a perishable body and leaves it at death. So what do we mean by "rebirth," then?

Because we are dynamic, living beings who are constantly changing (consuming food and burning it for fuel, replacing cells, growing, aging, and decaying), rebirth is a process that goes on continuously from moment to moment throughout our lives. The metaphor for this model is a fire, which consists of a radiating source of energy (mind) and a physical source of fuel (body). Rebirth from one body to another is compared to using one candle to light another. A physical/mental process is transferred rather than a "thing" such as a "soul." This process occurs entirely within the natural world and is consistent with scientific beliefs about the conservation of energy.

The concept of rebirth is confusing because it bypasses the ideas we learned as children about how we exist in the world. Educated people realize that a "person" is a complex process involving constant transfers of energy and the burning of chemical fuels, but we don’t think of ourselves as being walking chemical fires. We think of ourselves as John and Mary.

Equally difficult to grasp is that "John" and "Mary" are not reborn. Our names refer less to our bodies than to our own sense of who we are, and to other people’s ideas of who we are. Our sense of ourselves is linked to our memories of our experiences, which we call the "ego" in psychology. According to Buddhist doctrine, what is transferred from life to life is, not our ego, but our unconscious drives and energies, the deep forces in our personalities which underlie our choices and actions, but which we are unaware of most of the time. Our sense of being John or Mary ends with our death. The life energies which drove us to be the person called John or Mary are reborn and begin the process of acquiring a new set of memories and a new ego identity.

A satisfactory scientific explanation of the way the energy transfer occurs from life to life isn’t possible now, and may never be possible. Biologists are beginning to introduce the notion of "mind" into science because it seems necessary to do so in order to understand living organisms. Recent studies linking activity in certain parts of the brain with the experience of particular mental and emotional processes simply demand that mind be part of the discussion. Mind is usually thought of as a sort of byproduct that is produced when biological systems reach a certain degree of complexity. At times, it has been thought that only human beings have minds and that other living creatures are some sort of automata performing actions programmed into their genes. Buddhists believe that mind is intrinsic to all living beings. We might think of mind as the faculty which allows an organism to mobilize itself in the direction of satisfying a need.

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