Sunday, November 27, 2011

Karma and Rebirth (part 1 of 2)

I’ve been taking a class on Karma (action) and the 12 Nidanas (links of causation) and what surprises me most is my difficulty in letting go of the concept of the soul. Throughout my studies as a Buddhist I’ve always been agnostic about the concept of reincarnation. My attitude for a long time has been that there is no way for me to know whether reincarnation is real; so why bother thinking much about it? What I didn’t realize, despite my ability to feign indifference to the questions of what happens when we die, is that I have been secretly holding onto the view that we all have a soul.  

After studying the cycle of samsara in more detail, I realize that I’m confused. If you are raised as a Muslim, Jew or Christian, you might be taught that there is a soul that goes to heaven; this soul is believed to be the essential element of your self, which is not dependent on a body to exist.

If you are raised as a Buddhist or Hindu, you might be given a slightly different description of the soul, revolving around the concept of reincarnation. Note how the term “reincarnation” implies the existence of a soul, hence my confusion.

Now I’ve been told that there is no concept of soul in Buddhism. So forget about the pearly gates of heaven. Forget about being reborn into another body. All that stuff about the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation into his 14th body on earth, might just be for Boddhisatvas who have chosen to come back to help everyone reach enlightenment. The truth is that this is all very confusing stuff and very few people are qualified to talk to us about it in much depth, but what has been made quite clear to me is that the Buddhist view contains no concept of a soul.

The trouble with the view of a soul carrying on through the cycle of re-death and re-birth, is that it gives us a free pass to take this life as a dress rehearsal. That narrative would go something like this: “It’s no problem if I completely screw everything up in this lifetime and bask in the waves of samsara. I’ll just get it right in the next life or the one after that.”

This is part of a 2 part post. The next post builds off of the concepts of karma and rebirth and looks at what is actually solid if in fact there is no such thing as a soul. Check it out by clicking this link.

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