- GOOD QUESTION GOOD ANSWER
- Ven. Shravasti Dhammika
Where do beings come from and where are they going?
There are three possible answers to this question. Those who believe in
a god or gods usually claim that before an individual is created, he/she does not exist,
then he/she comes into being through the will of a god. He/she lives their life and then,
according to what they believe or do in their life, they either go to eternal heaven or
hell. There are others, humanists and scientists, who claim that the individual comes into
being at conception due to natural causes, lives and then at death, ceases to exist.
Buddhism does not accept either of these explanations. The first gives rise to many
ethical problems If a good god really creates each of us, it is difficult to explain why
so many people are born with the most dreadful deformities, or why so many children are
miscarried just before birth or are still-born. Another problem with the theistic
explanation is that it seems very unjust that a person should suffer eternal pain in hell
for 60 or 70 years of non-belief or immoral living. Likewise, 60 or 70 years of good
living seems a very small outlay for eternal bliss in heaven. for what he/she did in those
years on Earth The second explanation is better than the first and has more scientific
evidence to support it but still leaves several important questions unanswered. How can a
phenomenon so amazingly complex as consciousness develop from the simple meeting of two
cells, the sperm and the egg? And now that parapsychology is a recognised branch of
science, phenomena like telepathy are increasingly difficult to fit into the materialistic
model of the mind.
How does the mind go from one body to another?
Think of it being like radio waves. The radio waves, which are not made
up of words and music but energy at different frequencies, are transmitted, travel through
space, and attracted to and picked up by the receiver from where they are broadcast as
words and music. It is the same with the mind. At death, mental energy travels through
space, is attracted to and picked up by the fertilised egg. As the embryo grows, it
centres itself in the brain from where it later broadcasts itself as the new personality.
Is one always reborn as a human being?
No, there are several realms in which one can be reborn. Some people
are reborn in heaven, some are reborn in hell, some are reborn as hungry ghosts and so on.
Heaven is not a place but a state of existence where one has a subtle body and where the
mind experiences mainly pleasure. Some religions strive very hard to be reborn in a
heavenly existence mistakenly believing it to be a permanent state. But it is not. Like
all conditioned states, heaven is impermanent and when ones life span there is
finished, one could well be reborn again as a human. Hell, likewise, is not a place but a
state of existence where one has a subtle body and where the mind experiences mainly
anxiety and distress. Being a hungry ghost, again, is a state of existence where the body
is subtle and where the mind is continually plagued by longing and dissatisfaction.
So heavenly beings experience mainly pleasure, hell beings and ghosts
experience mainly pain and human beings experience usually a mixture of both. So the main
difference between the human realm and other realms is the body type and the quality of
Buddhism offers the most satisfactory explanation of where beings come
from and where they are going. When we die, the mind, with all the tendencies,
preferences, abilities and characteristics that have been developed and conditioned in
this life, re-establishes itself in a fertilised egg. Thus the individual grows, is
re-born and develops a personality conditioned both by the mental characteristics that
have been carried over. And by the new environment, the personality will change and be
modified by conscious effort ;and conditioning factors like education, parental influence
and society and once again at death, re-establishing itself in a new fertilised egg. This
process of dying and being reborn will continue until the conditions that cause it,
craving and ignorance, cease. When they do, instead of being reborn, the mind attains a
state called Nirvana and this is the ultimate goal of Buddhism and the purpose of life.
What decides where we will be reborn?
The most important factor, but not the only one, influencing where we
will be reborn and what sort of life we shall have, is karma. The word karma means action
and refers to our intentional mental actions. In other words, what we are is determined
very much by how we have thought and acted in the past. Likewise, how we think and act now
will influence how we will be in the future.
The gentle, loving type of person tends to be reborn in a heaven realm
or as a human being who has a predominance of pleasant experiences. The anxious, worried
or extremely cruel type of person tends to be reborn in a hell realm or as a human being
who has a predominance of painful experiences. The person who develops obsessive craving,
fierce longings, and burning ambitions that can never be satisfied tends to be reborn as a
hungry ghost or as a human being frustrated by longing and wanting. Whatever mental habits
are strongly developed in this life will continue in the next life. Most people, however,
are reborn as human beings.
So if our lives are determined by our karma, can we change it?
Of course we can. That is why one of the steps on the Eightfold Path is
Right Effort. It depends on our sincerity, how much energy we exert and how strong the
habit is. But it is true that some people singly go through life under the influence of
their past habits, without making an effort to change them and falling victim to these
unpleasant results. Such people will continue to suffer unless they change their negative
habits. The longer the negative habits remain, the more difficult they are to change. The
Buddhist understands this and takes advantage of each and every opportunity to break
mental habits that have unpleasant results and to develop mental habits that have pleasant
and happy results. Meditation is one of the techniques used to modify the habit patterns
of the mind as does speaking or refraining to speak in certain ways, and acting or
refraining to act in certain ways. The whole of the Buddhist life is a training to purify
and free the mind. For example, if being patient and kind was a pronounced part of your
character in your last life, such tendencies will re-emerge in the present life. If they
are strengthened and developed in the present life, they will re-emerge even stronger and
more pronounced in the future life. This is based upon the simple and observable fact that
long established habits tend to be difficult to break.
Now, when you are patient and kind, it tends to happen that you are not
so easily ruffled by others, you dont hold grudges, people like you and thus your
experiences tends to be happier.
Now, let us take another example. Let us say that you come into life
with a tendency to be patient and kind due to your mental habits in the past life. But in
the present life, you neglect to strengthen and develop such tendencies. They would
gradually weaken and die out and perhaps be completely absent in the future life. Patience
and kindness being weak in this case, there is a possibility that in either this life or
in the next life, a short temper, anger and cruelty could grow and develop, bringing with
them all the unpleasant experiences that such attitudes create. We will take one last
example. Let us say that due to your mental habits in the last life, you came into the
present life with the tendency to be short-tempered and angry, and you realise that such
habits only cause you unpleasantness and so you make an effort to change them. You replace
them with positive emotions. If you are able to eliminate them completely, which is
possible if you make an effort, you become free from the unpleasantness caused by being
short tempered and angry. If you are only able to weaken such tendencies, they would
re-emerge in the next life where with a bit more effort, they could be eliminated
completely and you could be free from their unpleasant effects.
You have talked a lot about rebirth but is there any proof that we will
be reborn when we die?
Not only is there scientific evidence to support Buddhist belief in
rebirth, it is the only after-life theory that has any evidence to support it. There is
not a scrap of evidence to prove the existence of heaven and of course evidence of
annihilation at death must be lacking. But during the last 30 years parapsychologists have
been studying reports that some people have vivid memories of their former lives. For
example, in England, a 5 year old girl said she could remember her other mother and father
and she talked vividly about what sounded like the events in the life of another person.
Parapsychologists were called in and asked her hundreds of questions to which she gave
answers. She spoke of living in a particular village, in what appeared to be Spain. She
gave the name of the village, the name of the street she lived in, her neighbours
names and details about her everyday life there. she also tearfully spoke of how she had
been struck by a car and died of her injuries two days later. When these details were
checked, they were found to be accurate. There was a village in Spain with the name the
child had given. There was a house of the type she had described in the street she had
named. What is more, it was found that a 23 year old woman living in the house had been
killed in a car accident five years before.
Now how is it possible for a five year old living in England who had
never been to Spain to know all these details? And of course, this is not the only case of
this type. Professor Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginias Department of
Psychology has described dozens of cases of this type in his books. He is an accredited
scientist whose 25 year study of people who remember former lives is very strong evidence
for the Buddhist teaching of rebirth.
You say that talk about devils is superstitious. Isn't talk
about rebirth a bit superstitious too?
The dictionary defines superstition as a belief which is not based on
reason or fact but on an association of ideas, as in magic. If you can show me a careful
study of the existence of devils written by a scientist I will concede that belief in
devils is not superstition. But I have never heard of any research into devils; scientists
simply wouldnt bother to study such things, so I say there is no evidence for the
existence of devils. But as we have just seen, there is evidence which seems to suggest
that rebirth does take place. So if belief in rebirth is based on at least some facts, it
cannot be a superstition.
Well, have there ever been any scientists who believe in rebirth?
Yes. Thomas Huxley, who was responsible for having science introduced
into the 19th century British school system and who was the first scientist to defend
Darwins theories, believed that reincarnation was a very plausible idea. In his
famous book "Evolution and Ethics and other Essays", he says:
"In the doctrine of transmigration, whatever its origin,
Brahmanical and Buddhist speculation found, ready to hand, the means of constructing a
plausible vindication of the ways of the Cosmos to man....yet this plea of justification
is not less plausible than others; and none but very hasty thinkers will reject it on the
ground of inherent absurdity. Like the doctrine of evolution itself, that of
transmigration has its roots in the world of reality; and it may claim such support as the
great argument from analogy is capable of supplying".
Then, Professor Gust Stromberg, the famous Swedish astronomer,
physicist and friend of Einstein also found the idea of rebirth appealing:
"Opinions differ whether human souls can be reincarnated on the
earth or not. In 1936 a very interesting case was thoroughly investigated and reported by
the government authorities in India. A girl (Shanti Devi from Deli) could accurately
describe her previous life (at Muttra, five hundred miles from Deli) which ended about a
year before her 'second birth'. She gave the name of her husband and child and described
her home and life history. The investigating commission brought her to her former
relatives, who verified all her statements. Among the people of India reincarnations are
regarded as commonplace; the astonishing thing for them in this case was the great number
of facts the girl remembered. This and similar cases can be regarded as additional
evidence for the theory of the indestructibility of memory".
Professor Julian Huxley, the distinguished British scientist who was
Director General of UNESCO believed that rebirth was quite in harmony with scientific
"There is nothing against a permanently surviving
spirit-individuality being in some way given off at death, as a definite wireless message
is given off by a sending apparatus working in a particular ways. But it must be
remembered that the wireless message only becomes a message again when it comes in contact
with a new, material structure - the receiver. So with our possible spirit-emanation. It
would never think or feel unless again "embodied" in some way. our personalities
are so based on body that it is really impossible to think of survival which would be in
any true sense personal without a body of sorts. I can think of something being given off
which could bear the same relation to men and women as a wireless message to the
transmitting apparatus for mind".
Even very practical and down-to-earth people like the American
industrialist Henry Ford found the idea of rebirth acceptable. Ford was attracted to the
idea of rebirth because, unlike the theistic idea or the materialistic idea, rebirth gives
you a second chance to develop yourself. Henry Ford says:
"I adopted the theory of Reincarnation when I was twenty six.
Religion offered nothing to the point. Even work could not give me complete satisfaction.
Work is futile if we cannot utilise the experience we collect in one life in the next.
When I discovered Reincarnation it was as if I had found a universal plan I realised that
there was a chance to work out my ideas. Time was no longer limited. I was no longer a
slave to the hands of the clock. Genius is experience. Some seem to think that it is a
gift or talent, but it is the fruit of long experience in many lives. Some are older souls
than others, and so they know more. The discovery of Reincarnation put my mind at ease. If
you preserve a record of this conversation, write it so that it puts mens minds at
ease. I would like to communicate to others the calmness that the long view of life gives
So the Buddhist teachings of rebirth does have some scientific evidence
to support it. It is logically consistent and it goes a long way in answering questions
what the theistic and the materialistic theories fail to . It is also very comforting.
What can be worse than a theory of life that gives you no second chance, no opportunity to
amend the mistakes you have made in this life and no time to further develop the skills
and abilities you have nurtured in this life. But according to the Buddha, if you fail to
attain Nirvana in this life, you will have the opportunity to try again next time. If you
have made mistakes in this life, you will be able to correct yourself in the next life.
You will truly be able to learn from your mistakes. Things you were unable to do or
achieve in this life may well become possible in the next life. What a wonderful teaching!
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