A Pragmatic View Of Rebirth

By: David Shen-Xi Astor Sensei

The notion of rebirth is a tricky topic these days in the West. It depends on many factors and points of view. And from a Buddhist perspective too. What was perhaps once thought as a core principle is seriously being re-evaluated from a more contemporary pragmatic position. Even in some legacy traditions the reality of rebirth was never considered essential for understanding the Buddha’s core teaching of the Four Noble Truths. As a contemporary Western Ch’an(Zen) teacher, my understanding of rebirth has evolved over the years that I have encountered this topic in my study and research. When I teach about rebirth now, I ask people to consider what happens to the physical elements of the body after they die. I ask them, if we buried you in the ground with no preservatives and dug you up in a week, would we recognize you? Yes. If we dug you up in a year, would we recognize you? Maybe. If we dug you up in ten years, would we recognize you? No. So what happened to the elements that made up the body? They all dispersed and became other things.

If you die angry, what happens to that energy of anger?

Appreciating this, people begin to understand that on the physical level there is an endless chain of energy that passes through a series of changes. Then if you apply the same principle to our mental and emotional energy, you can also ask where does it goes. That energy is also not destroyed, though the energy that was “you” will transform.

Karma is a wonderfully exact force in our lives. If you die angry, what happens to that energy of anger? Where does it go? When you walk into a room where people have been angry, you can sense it—the energy is palpable. So is that the kind of energy you would like to pass on, to be picked up by other  lives? One can also look back at what energies have been passed down to you—perhaps by your family or the people who influenced you—and that helps you understand that energy doesn’t die but rather continues on in some form.

I don’t worry too much about questions like, “Am I going to remember that I was Queen Victoria or her servant?” People get caught up in that sort of approach to karma and rebirth, but it’s almost irrelevant. The continuity of the energy is what’s important. What do you want to pass on—suffering or happiness?


©️ OEB 2019

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