Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on October 24, 2013

Ideas of reincarnation or rebirth were totally foreign to my upbringing, strange (and probably fanciful) promises of life after death. I grew up thinking that when I died I would go either to Heaven or Hell, and if I was to believe the admonitions of the priests and nuns who taught me, the odds were that I was going straight to hell. After all, the boys in my tiny class at Catholic school were endlessly told by our local priest that masturbation was a mortal sin. We could put two and two together and well knew that even one mortal sin would get us a one-way trip to hell. We were resigned that it was already too late for us.

And being raised Catholic, there was also Purgatory to consider, which is about as close to the doctrine of karma as my Christian faith got, the idea that I might sit in Purgatory (which is a temporary hell) for a while and literally burn off my karma, before going to heaven. I should not even mention Limbo, which translates to something like the "edge of hell." All that I know is that Limbo is where babies who die early go. You Protestants have fewer choices. You only go to heaven or hell.

Since a rascal like me apparently was not going to heaven, I grew up knowing I was going to hell. And when I say "I grew up knowing I was going to hell," I mean I spent all my formative years with this impression, which did not exactly endear the Catholic faith in my eyes. On the contrary, I lived in fear of God, priests, and especially the nuns who would smack my hands and knuckles with a ruler for almost no reason. Talk about mean! What's not to like? Well, there was a lot not to like.

The idea that we don't just go around once, like the beer commercial suggests, was a thought too good to be true. I did not dare seize on it, lest I just shine myself on. It took years and years for me to vet the thought that I might have more than one shot at life, and that failing heaven I would not rot in hell forever or be snuffed like blowing out a candle.

And then it took many more years for me to understand that "me, myself, and I" would not be passing on at death, but rather someone or something else. Go figure. Well, I certainly did that. Which brings me to what probably (considering what was just discussed) is just a subtle point or sidebar, the difference between reincarnation and rebirth. And they are different.

Reincarnation is (as I understand it) a Hindu concept, the idea that our soul (very much me, myself, and I) would simply reincarnate after I die, dropping one body and picking up (or building) another, but still with me (as I know myself) at the steering wheel driving the vehicle. After all, the Bhagavad Gita, that great Hindu epic poem, tells me this.

But the Buddhists don't support this idea of the same soul (quite personified) living on through a succession of bodies. Instead, they introduce the concept of rebirth. Rebirth (at least in Tibetan Buddhism) involves leaving behind not only your physical body at death, but also your personal self. They reason that this bundle of attachments (all our personal likes and dislikes) is also unbundled and scattered at the time of death, but something goes on without all of that, but what? I am sure we all want to know.

Before I hazard a guess, let me be clear that I am not an expert in this, not even a scholar, so take what I say in that context. I am just someone like yourself who has wondered about these things and had the opportunity to sit at the feet of some great lamas and listen. That is no guarantee that I got it right, so you are warned.

As mentioned, the Buddhists don't see how a soul (as we know that term here in the west) can get out of this world alive, any more than our body can. So it is not "me, myself, and I" that is the driving force here, according to the Buddhists, but rather my karma.

It is karma, and karma alone, that propels us to a succession of rebirths. And karma is nothing more than our attachments (positive and negative), the sum total of our desires that have not been exhausted thus far in our life (and lives). Karma is what keeps us going in Samsara. And note that the Sanskrit word "Samsara" translates to something like "wandering through." And what we are all wandering through is this endless cycle of death and rebirth, so it is a bit of a Catch-22.

We wander through this cycle of birth and death driven (not by our self), but by the blind karma we have created through our own desires. In other words, the driver of our fate is blind.

As I (probably dimly) understand this very profound concept, the vortex (perhaps like one of those Dust Devils we see in the desert) of our likes and dislikes, our karma (when this body is exhausted) goes on without us (so to speak), and reestablishes itself in another context, creates another body. It continues on from there, growing up, forming a new self, adding yet more attachments and karma, ad infinitum.

So what goes on after death is this matrix or knot of karma (whirlwind vortex) that has not yet exhausted itself, and seeks the means to do so. It does this by recreating another environment (and body) to carry on toward the karmic exhaustion it seeks. When it has finally exhausted itself, our mind and awareness is free to be itself, whatever we could agree that is. Perhaps that is enlightenment. I assure you I don't know much about enlightenment.

If we consider this closely, there is about a zero chance of breaking out of this vicious cycle without help. It goes on (and has gone on) forever until now. Certainly some of the karma from our previous lives will create a new self that in some way resembles who we were before. That makes sense. It is, after all, "our" karma, whoever in the last analysis "we" are.

And certainly any spiritual realization we can manage through meditation will thin out the karma and perhaps even assist us in not recording as much karma as we otherwise would. It is a lot like the national debt, always increasing. It would take some kind of awareness (and discipline) on our part for it to decrease.

And I will add something here that is not from any Buddhist teaching I have had, but just something I realized on my own, which is:

Of course we create karma if we break any of the Buddhist equivalents of the Ten Commandments, like "don't kill," "don't steal," etc. But IMO there is a more subtle and nefarious method of accumulating karma, which only adds insult to the injury of the karma we already accumulate. Here is how I see it working in myself.

When I am having a good day, perhaps a glimpse of light or happiness propels me out of my body a bit so that I am really high or just out there and feeling no pain. At those high times I love life. Everything is good, and sure as shooting I find myself asking for more of the same, more life, more time, more lives, etc. You get the idea. I am actually asking for it!

At these high times I am just creating my own karma, openly inviting more and more experience. However, on the other end of the pendulum, when I am down in the dumps, I am doing just the opposite, ruing the day I invited all of this, cursing my fate, and the like. Most of us do something like this.

I guess my point is that aside from all the habitual karma I create by my thoughts, words, and deeds, I kind of openly ask for more lives when I am feeling good and out of my body. And I imagine this too adds on to the sum total of desire (my karma), which acts as further fuel to have yet more and more lives. In other words, aside from our regular burn rate of karma, on top of that we find ourselves asking for more.

If all of this sounds like a vicious cycle or circle, you got it. The Buddhists have a remedy to weed out and lessen our karmic burn rate, but it requires attention and some effort on our part.

How do you like them apples?