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Each time you choose one course of action over another, you’re making a wager as to the consequences of your choice. This is especially true if the choice is between something easy that promises pleasant short-term rewards, and something hard that promises great rewards but only after a long time. Will the harder choice be worth the effort? Will the easier one be irresponsible in the long run? As a person embedded in time, there’s no way you can know for sure.
To begin with, there are the particulars of your own personal future: Will you or those you love live long enough to experience the results of your choices? Will disaster interfere to wipe out everything you’ve done?
Then there are the larger uncertainties of life in general: Do we even have choices in our actions, or are all our choices predetermined by some past or outside power beyond our control? If we do have choices, is it worthwhile to struggle over difficult ones? Do they really matter? And even if our choices do matter, how far into the future should we calculate the consequences? Do they shape only this life, or can they shape lives after death?
Arguments based on logic or reason have never been able to settle these issues conclusively, the world’s great religions don’t agree on their answers, and the empirical sciences have no way of answering these questions at all. Yet we all keep having to grapple with these questions. We don’t leave it at, “I don’t know,” and refuse to entertain them, for even the refusal to think about these things is a wager: that ultimately they won’t matter.
The Buddha taught, however, that they do matter a great deal, and that awakening—in going beyond the dimensions of space and time—gives perspective on how choices operate within those dimensions. You see that choices are real, that they do make a difference, and that the consequences of your choices can shape not only this life but also many lifetimes in the future—as long as the mind still has the craving that leads to rebirth after death. Prior to awakening, you can’t know these things for sure, but as the Buddha states, if you want to gain awakening and to minimize suffering in the meantime, it’s wisest to assume these principles as working hypotheses.
Of course, that’s taking the Buddha at his word—which as long as you haven’t gained awakening, is a wager, too. The purpose of this small book on the Buddha’s teachings about rebirth is to show why, as you engage repeatedly in the wagers of action, the wisest course is to place your bets with him.
Rebirth has always been a central teaching in the Buddhist tradition. The earliest records in the Pali Canon (MN 26; MN 36) indicate that the Buddha, prior to his awakening, searched for a happiness not subject to the vagaries of repeated birth, aging, illness, and death. One of the reasons he left his early teachers was because he recognized that their teachings led, not to the goal he sought, but to rebirth on a refined level. On the night of his awakening, two of the three knowledges leading to his release from suffering focused on the topic of rebirth.
The first showed his own many previous lives; the second, depicting the general pattern of beings dying and being reborn throughout the cosmos, showed the connection between rebirth and karma, or action.
When he did finally attain release from suffering, he recognized that he had achieved his goal because he had touched a dimension that not only was free from birth, but also had freed him from ever being reborn again. After he had attained release, his new-found freedom from rebirth was the first realization that occurred spontaneously to his mind.
When teaching the path to awakening to others, he defined the four stages of awakening achieved by the path in terms of how many rebirths remained for those who reached them: up to seven for those reaching the first stage; one return to the human world for those reaching the second; rebirth followed by total liberation in the Pure Abodes for those reaching the third; and no rebirth for those reaching the fourth (AN 3:86). On occasion, when one of his disciples who had not reached full awakening passed away, he would comment on the disciple’s rebirth—as when An›thapi°˜ika the householder, after his passing, appeared to the Buddha as a heavenly being (MN 143). When any of the Buddha’s fully awakened disciples passed away, he would state that one of the amazing features of their passing was that their consciousness could no longer be found in the cosmos. Rebirth, he said, happened to those who still had clinging, but not to those who didn’t (SN 44:9). And one of his own amazing attainments as Buddha, he said, was that after the end of this life, the world would see him no more (DN 1).
When discussing more mundane topics, such as the rewards of generosity and virtue, he would cite the rewards they brought not only in this life but also in future ones. Even in cases where he was asked specifically to confine his discussion to the present life, he would end the discussion by referring to the rewards of these skillful actions after death (AN 5:34; AN 7:54).
So the theme of rebirth is woven inextricably throughout the Buddha’s teachings. And freedom from rebirth has been a central feature of the Buddhist goal from the very beginning of the tradition. All of the various Buddhist religions that later developed in Asia, despite their other differences, were unanimous in teaching rebirth. Even those that didn’t aim at putting an end to rebirth still taught rebirth as a fact.
Yet as these Buddhist religions have come to the West, they have run into a barrier from modern Western culture: Of all the Buddha’s teachings, rebirth has been one of the hardest for modern Westerners to accept. Part of this resistance comes from the fact that none of the dominant world-views of Western culture, religious or materialistic, contain anything corresponding to the idea of repeated rebirth. Plato taught it, but—aside from an esoteric fringe—few in the modern West have treated this side of his teaching as anything more than a myth.
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