Reincarnation or rebirth is a very important and challenging topic – and not just in Buddhism but for everyone because, just in case it IS true, we’re better off thinking about it than not …
Do you ever ponder your existential predicament (for example at three in the morning when the clouds of distractions temporarily part) – questions like, “Who the heck am I?!”
“Who am I, and where did I come from? What am I doing here? Where am I going? What’s going on?! What does it mean to be alive?” ~ 3am questions
I have found that the only way to address these questions in a way that makes any sense is to contemplate what is our own mind or awareness. Then, at long last, we can start to figure out who we actually are.
Understanding our body, understanding our mortgage, understanding our career, understanding our bank balance, understanding our vacations, understanding our family — these are not who we are. I think we know this at 3 in the morning. We know we are not anything external, we are not anything physical, we are not any fleeting experiences of this life.
If we want to know who we are, we have to understand what our mind is. We have to understand its nature, we have to understand its function, we have to understand that it is a never-ending continuum. Only then will we realize who we are, and that who we are is a traveler.
The Buddhist definition of our mind is, simply put, clarity and cognizing. The nature of the mind is formless or empty of form — it is empty of shape, empty of color, empty of anything tactile, empty of any physical properties. It is utter clarity that has the power to perceive or appear things. The mind has a very important function, which is to cognize, to be aware of everything, to experience, to understand, and to know; and in fact even to create our thoughts, our world, our reality.
Our mind is also a continuum – it is impermanent, changing moment by moment, constantly becoming. It is not a static entity but a functioning thing. At every moment it is changing. It is always clarity, it is always cognizing, but every moment it is a becoming, it is an event.
The substantial cause of mind is mind: nothing physical can give rise to consciousness as they are different entities. Every moment of mind arises from a previous moment of mind and gives rise to the next moment of mind in an uninterrupted flow, a moment by moment transformation.
This is extremely helpful for us to understand rebirth – that our mind is not only formless and utterly unlike the perishing physical body, but also a continuum that never stops. It has actually never started and it will never stop.
Understanding this, we will begin to get a sense of what life actually is, who we actually are. As Buddha Shakyamuni said:
“This world is not our permanent home. We are travelers bound for future lives.”
In the next article on rebirth I describe a Buddhist meditation that helps us get a feel for this.