Next Time Around

There was an elderly man in England named Arthur Flowerdew. He’d lived his whole life in the seaside town of Norfolk, and had left England only once, to journey to the French coast. All his life, however, Arthur Flowerdew had been plagued by vivid mental pictures of a great city surrounded by desert, and a temple carved out of a cliff. They were inexplicable to him, until one day he saw a television documentary on the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. To his amazement, Petra was the city he had imprinted in his mind!

He spoke to people about his visions, and, as a result, the BBC came to hear about Arthur Flowerdew and put his story on television. The Jordanian government heard about him, and offered to bring him to Petra to see what his reactions to the city would be. Archaeologists interviewed him before he left on his journey, and recorded his descriptions of his mental impressions of this ancient city.

When Flowerdew was brought to Petra, he was able to identify the locations of both excavated and unexcavated structures that had been part of the ancient city. He had memories of being a temple guard, and identified the structure that had been his guard station and where he had been killed. Petra’s expert archaeologist was amazed, and told the reporters documenting Flowerdew’s journey, “It would require a mind very different from his to be able to sustain a fabric of deception on the scale of his memories...I don’t think he’s a fraud. I don’t think he has the capacity to be a fraud on this scale.

Stories like these, of vivid, inexplicable memories of previous lives are rare but well-documented in our world. Compared to the billions of people who live on the earth, the number of people who have vivid past-life memories represent a tiny fraction of humanity, and yet these hundreds of researched and recorded cases of past life memory cannot simply be dismissed as all fraud. Dr. Tan Stevenson of UVA in Virginia has published volume after volume of documentation on these experiences. Do you believe in reincarnation? It’s not supposed to be a dominant religious belief in America, yet a nationwide Gallop Poll taken a few years ago showed that nearly one in four Americans believes in reincarnation.

So, before I launch into this sermon, let’s do our own public opinion poll. How many of you are comfortable raising your hands to acknowledge a personal belief in reincarnation? How many of you believe in reincarnation but don’t want to raise your hands? How many of you are quite sure that there’s no such thing as reincarnation? How many aren’t sure? I guess I would have put myself in that last category until recently. Even though I am committed to a Buddhist meditation practice, I haven’t been drawn to embrace all of Buddhist theology. However, reading the surprisingly popular Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, written in English by the Tibetan master Sogyal Rinpoche, has pushed me off the fence towards accepting reincarnation. One of my reasons for undertaking this sermon was as a personal exercise in figuring out if I really do believe that reincarnation is possible. I talk a lot to new members when they join the church about Unitarian Universalism being a religion where you can be open to new ideas, and to changing your mind, but it’s always a bit of a shock when it actually happens to me.

It may well be that a good many more people in traditionally Western theological mindsets have reexamined their beliefs about reincarnation in recent years because of popular movies released in the West involving Eastern philosophies. One of the earliest of these, Little Buddha, a movie directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, is the story of a middle class white family in Seattle whose lives are turned upside down when a Tibetan lama identifies their nine-year-old son as the reincarnation of his own late master. Imagine your consternation if three earnest Tibetans from Bhutan knocked at your front door and asked if they could worship your son.

Bertolucci’s movie was the first mass market film with a Buddhist story line released in the West. Consulting on the film were some of the most respected Tibetan masters of this era, including Sogyal Rinpoche, the man who wrote the book that started me re-thinking reincarnation. Regardless of the effect of Little Buddha on Westerners’ belief in reincarnation, the human struggle with the question of what happens after we die is routinely depicted in the films, television shows and novels that we absorb, and it is, of course, a primary question to which religious faiths all over the world have sought answers for generations.

Reincarnation was a belief that circulated through the early Christian church. In fact, Origen, the church father that we like to identify as a prototype Universalist because he believed in the salvation of all souls, was an early advocate of reincarnation. This belief was abandoned by the Christian Church in favor of the doctrines of heaven and hell, and the resurrection of the righteous dead to reign with Christ in heaven. The problem with the Biblical account of heaven is that there are few details about what heaven is like and what there is to do there—besides reign. There’s a lot about what won’t he in heaven, namely sorrow and death—but the popular images of angels with harps floating on clouds have arisen because it’s very difficult for us to imagine what a perfect eternal life might be.

At least the belief in reincarnation puts life after death in a universe we can understand—this one! The one that we already know—because each time around, the wheel of incarnation means a new life lived inside time, and on this earth. In spite of this, popular conceptions about belief in reincarnation suffer from the same problems as descriptions of heaven. We can only talk about these possibilities using the language and images and concepts that we have acquired from our experience in this world and in this life.

So when we think about reincarnation, and what it means, we naturally think about our individual egos being re-born in a new body. All the stories about people who can remember past lives reinforce this idea. The Hindu religion’s depiction of reincarnation fits very naturally with the belief that there is a distinct, individual, and personal soul that is separate from our bodies, one that can find it’s way into a new body and live another life. Hindu gods like Rama and Krishna are depicted with distinct personalities that inhabit different bodies. Some Hindus believe that souls can be reincarnated in other life forms. When I imagine what it might mean for me to be reincarnated, I cannot help but think in this Hindu way that I, Wayne, and my unique ego, will experience another life in another body. If the law of karma, based on the consequences of my past actions, dictates where and how I will be reincarnated, I inevitably speculate and worry about what my next incarnation might be like, based on my current experience and behavior. Have I been a good enough person to avoid being reincarnated as an animal? But some animal incarnations are better than others. Do good people get reincarnated as cows in India and bad people get reincarnated as cows on cattle ranches in Montana? The Buddhist understanding of reincarnation is quite a bit different from the Hindu idea.

The fact that we can only think about reincarnation in terms of the world with which we are familiar makes it difficult for us to imagine anything but a caricature of the reincarnation the Buddhists understand. Now I should say that Buddhists are by no means a theologically monolithic community. There are several significant schools of Buddhism and the belief in reincarnation has a different slant in each one. The Tibetan traditions represent a version of Buddhism that is deeply infused with their own cultural traditions. Tibetans believe that there is a direct lineage of reincarnations of their master teachers, who have achieved enlightenment, and who could have stepped off the wheel of life, but choose not to in order to help others achieve enlightenment themselves. This choice that can be made by teachers who have reached enlightenment is called the boddhisatva ideal. However, there is one large school of Buddhism, Theraveda Buddhism, which does not totally embrace this idea; they see enlightenment as a state from which the option of return does not exist. Some Americans studying Buddhism find reincarnation to be window dressing for the most central Buddhist teachings about the causes of suffering, how suffering may be dealt with, and the role of meditation in detaching oneself from suffering.

Regardless of the variations in Buddhist emphases on reincarnation as a central belief, all Buddhists share a common understanding of reincarnation as a continuation of mind, and not of ego consciousness. That’s an important distinction to make in understanding reincarnation, and evaluating whether or not you think it’s a possibility. It helps me to understand the difference between mind and ego consciousness to think about it in this way:

When we are born into this world, it’s as if the universe issues us with a suitcase called ego. We can use this suitcase to store up all the images, ideas, memories, and relationships that tell us who we are. Every baby that’s born gets an empty suitcase, plus a certain amount of baggage to put in it that they have inherited from their parents. Then, every baby gets a whole lifetime in which to collect stuff to put in the suitcase. Experiences, insights, prejudices, loved-ones, fears, knowledge, personality traits, and habits can all find a place in the suitcase. All of this stuff in the suitcase is very useful to us for life in this world, but Buddhism suggests that it is better to try to keep this stuff in storage than to constantly carry it around with you. If we carried around all of the material stuff we’ve accumulated over the years, we would quickly find that its weight would prevent us from moving anywhere. Similarly, carrying around all of the possible baggage that can be fit into the ego suitcase can create a life that hasn’t got much possibility for flexibility for movement, for growth.

Some people understand how to keep this ego baggage in storage so that it’s there when needed but not always being lugged around. However, most of us reach the end of our lives with our ego suitcases pretty full up, and since it’s taken us all our lives to accumulate what’s in those suitcases, and so many of the things that are in them are very precious to us, it is very difficult indeed to arrive at death’s door and be told, “Oh by the way, you can’t take that suitcase with you!”

“I can’t take my suitcase with me?!”

“No—you can’t! They’ll give you a new one next time around, but you’ve got to leave that one behind.”

“I can’t take my suitcase with me!” It’s a hard thing to come to terms with—that you are not your suitcase—that what might be reborn has little to do with the ego suitcase of stuff that you’ve spent years accumulating.

So if it’s not the suitcase that’s going into a next life—what is? That’s the 64-thousand-dollar question. Buddhism says it is consciousness, understood not as the objects of consciousness, that is, all the things that are in the suitcase, but consciousness itself, consciousness without objects, consciousness as that little glimpse of peaceful empty space that you sometimes get while meditating, consciousness without attachment which is the goal of Buddhist practice. Consciousness, or mind, is the basic stuff of life, not the body, or the objects of mind. Consciousness is what gets reborn.

One Buddhist scholar writes: “The successive existences in a series of re-births are not like the pearls of a pearl necklace, held together by a string, the “soul,” which passes through all the pearls; rather they are like dice piled one on top of the other. Each die is separate, but it supports the one above it, with which it is functionally connected. Between the dice there is no identity but conditionality.”

I find this picture of reincarnation more palatable than the notion that I have an eternal and personal soul which moves from body to body. In spite of the many stories that exist about Tibetan lamas identifying the new incarnations of their teachers by their ability to recognize the belongings of the person who was their previous incarnations, I find it hard to accept the notion that there are these distinct packets of memory from past lives that get transferred from body to body. Bertolucci’s movie about an American boy being identified as a tulku, or great teacher, is based on a true story of one of the few Tibetan incarnations who was found outside Asia, in a village in Spain, rather than in Tibet. However, doesn’t it seem a little suspicious that these lamas are almost always re-incarnated in the same geographic area, and that they always re-incarnate as men?

I don’t think that you have to buy the whole package of Tibetan cultural practices around choosing spiritual leaders to be intrigued by the possibilities of reincarnation as a manifestation of continuous mind. Sogyal Rinpoche himself says that the point of talking about reincarnation is not to decide whether you believe in it, but to ask yourself what difference it makes. So what difference would it make to include reincarnation as part of your world-view? Keep in mind that the Buddhist view is that reincarnation is not a goal to be sought after. It is simply a necessary step to achieve enlightenment about the way the world works, since that wisdom is so unlikely to be obtained in one short lifetime. The goal is to get enlightened enough so that you don’t have to be re-born if you don’t want to.

Henry Ford had an observation about what a difference belief in reincarnation made to him. Few people know that Ford—the same man who claimed that “History is bunk”—adopted a belief in reincarnation at the age of twenty-six. He wrote: “When I discovered reincarnation, time was no longer limited. I was no longer a slave to the hands of the clock…I would like to communicate to others that calmness that the long view of life gives to us.” The long view of life. Certainly this would be one of the consequences of taking reincarnation seriously.

If you don’t buy into a belief in a life after death that is part of a system of rewards and punishments for actions here on earth, then what is left to you are the insights, the loves and the work of one lifetime. For many Unitarian Universalists, that is enough. There is no desire to understand what lies beyond death, or a need to feel that the experience of a lifetime has any redemption beyond the lives that it has touched. But for others, there is a possibility that has a convincing and a consoling power—that our life experience has cumulative consequences towards a final goal of wisdom and an understanding of life’s meaning.

The cumulative consequences of life experiences and decisions are what Buddhists call karma. Karma simply means that each action is pregnant with consequences, that nothing we do is unimportant, and that the kind of birth we have in the next life is determined by the nature of our actions in this one—not so much the scale of these actions—but the intention or motivation behind them. Westerners sometimes look at the idea of karma the same way that they view Calvinist predestination—that there is a ball and chain of consequences that we drag behind us that makes our future in this life or any subsequent lives inevitable. I think that karma is just the opposite of predestination. As Sogyal Rinpoche says: “Karma means our ability to create and to change.” It is creative because we can determine how and why we act. We can change. The future is in our hands and in the hands of our heart.

There is a radical freedom in this approach to reincarnation. Through making compassionate action the guiding light of our lives, we have the ability to make a difference in our future, however many lives it may involve. One of the most attractive things about the doctrine of reincarnation is that you don’t have to believe in it to act on it. That is because all that reincarnation and karma demand is development of a good heart. As the Dalai Lama has observed: “There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple. My philosophy is kindness.”

Whether we live one life or many, whether we can remember them or not, whether what survives our death is a personal soul, or the personal memories that we have left behind for those we love, I don’t think we can lose either way by following that philosophy. A compassionate heart practices kindness as its discipline. Whether you believe that you are accumulating karma for a future life or not, whatever happens after we die will ultimately take care of itself.

“What (does) continue from life to life is a blessing, what a Christian would call ‘grace.’ Our resolve must be to send the blessing onward today with all the compassion we can muster.”

About the Author

  • The Rev. Dr. Wayne Arnason is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist with a forty-year career of service in UU congregations and institutions. He served in a solo capacity and with his wife, the Rev. Kathleen Rolenz. He retired from full-time ministry in 2016, and lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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