A man falls into a manhole. Whenever he sees someone walk by, he calls for help. Finally someone stops, looks down into the hole, and jumps in. “What did you do that for?” the man asks. “Now we are both stuck down here!” “Yes,” said the other man, “But I have been down here, and I know the way out.”
– [from “The West Wing”]
The Buddha’s teachings on rebirth are fundamental to the path that he taught. They create a sense of urgency about the meaning of our lives and how we should be spending our time and energy. This is serious business.
There is a term in Buddhism that speaks to this. That term is saṃvega:
[saṃvega is] the oppressive sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as It’s normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle.
– [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, Noble Strategy, “Affirming the Truths of the Heart: The Buddhist Teachings on Samvega & Pasada”]
I heard a story some years ago about a young man from Thailand. In Thailand almost all young men go into a Buddhist monastery for some period of time. It is a rite of passage. So this young man went into a monastery and took temporary ordination as a monk for six months.
He left behind a young woman with whom he was very much in love, and she was very much in love with him. Everyone assumed that they would get married when he finished his time as a monk. But his time in the monastery changed him, and when he left the monastery he was very conflicted.
Finally he decided to ordain permanently as a monk and devote his life to practice and awakening. When he talked to his young woman she was, of course, very distraught. But he explained to her that he now understood that he had lived this life a million times before. He had fallen in love, gotten married, had children, died, and then done it over and over and over again.
Conjoined with rebirth is the Buddhist (and Hindu) notion of cyclical time. In cyclical time, the universe itself has a lifetime. There is a birth, an expansion, and a contraction. Then there is another big bang, and the process starts all over again. In Buddhism the term for a life of the universe is “kalpa.” (Note that Western scientists only started to believe in a cyclical model of the universe in the 1980’s.) And this cyclical model has enormous implications for how we think and act.
In the West, and I think throughout most of the world, people think of time as being linear. This leads to the idea of a Creator God. The Creator God is who started everything. And when you have a beginning, this also means that there is an end. (No one has ever been able to explain to me how if God created everything then who created God, but so be it.)
Thinking about time as being linear leads to apocalyptic thinking. This is when everything ends. It is judgment day. And whenever you talk about judgment day, it brings up incredible fear, fear that is often used to scare and manipulate people.
But Buddhists and Hindus don’t think like that. Everything is cyclical. Time is “beginningless.” The modern term is “infinite.” Time is not a straight line with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s a circle.
There is an entire section in the Saṃyutta Nikāya on this topic. It is saṃyutta number 15, the “Anamataggasaṃyutta,” the “Connected Discourses on Without Discoverable Beginning”:
“Bhikkhus, this saṃsāra is without discoverable beginning. A first point is not discerned of beings roaming and wandering on hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving. What do you think, bhikkhus, which is more: the mother’s milk that you have drunk as you roamed and wandered on through this long course — this or the water in the four great oceans?”
“As we understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, venerable sir, the mother’s milk that we have drunk as we roamed and wandered on through this long course — this alone is more than the water in the four great oceans.”
“Good, good, bhikkhus! It is good that you understand the Dhamma taught by me in such a way. The mother’s milk that you have drunk as you roamed and wandered through this long course — this alone is more than the water in the four great oceans. For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, this saṃsāra is without discoverable beginning…. It is enough to be liberated from them.”
– [SN 15.4]
This puts our dilemma into a much bigger context, indeed.
We have “wandered this long course” throughout infinite time and infinite kalpas. And during that time, we have been in every realm. We have been devas. We have been in the hell realms. We have been animals and hungry ghosts. We have lived in the Brahma realm. Obviously we have been human, whatever that means depending on a particular life of the universe.
We have also lived in every kind of condition. We have been men and women, rich and poor. We have been every race. We have been every species. And we have been related to each other in every way that you can imagine:
“At Sāvatthı̄. “Bhikkhus, this saṃsāra is without discoverable beginning…. It is not easy, bhikkhus, to find a being who in this long course has not previously been your mother … your father … your brother … your sister … your son … your daughter. For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, this saṃsāra is without discoverable beginning…. It is enough to be liberated from them.”
– [SN 15.14-19]
This has enormous implications for how we think about our lives.
Let’s take a couple of obvious examples. The first is someone who commits suicide. They think that they are going to end their suffering. But the fact is that they just carry it into their next life.
Now I want to be clear here. This does not necessarily mean that someone who commits suicide is headed for a bad rebirth. Many people who commit suicide are good people. Something went wrong, and they decided to take their own life. But they very well may have had lots of good karma. In fact, of the people who I have known who have either committed suicide or have struggled with it, all of them have been good people. So let’s not jump to any rash judgments. This is more about how we think about what we are doing and the implications of certain actions. The point is more that people who commit suicide think that there is an end. It’s a linear notion of time.
Also, to be clear, there was an arahant during the Buddha’s time who committed suicide. This was because he suffered physically from a medical condition. He was an arahant, so obviously he did not suffer from mental anguish. So in his case suicide was simply to end the unnecessary physical suffering. He was not going to be reborn anyway, and the Buddha said that his suicide was blameless.
This brings up a related issue, and that is the right to die. A Buddhist would not see any reason to prolong suffering. You have probably seen people who hang onto this physical life in heart-wrenching ways. They want to squeeze every last minute out of this life. But that, too, would not be the Buddhist way. We are going to die. We are probably going to be reborn. That is the way the system works. So unlike almost every other religion, Buddhism is on the side of the right to die. It is more compassionate, and it fits in with the idea of infinite, beginningless time. We’ve already lived an infinite number of times, so let’s not make this one any worse than it has to be.
And this also explains the decision of the young man from Thailand to ordain rather than marry his sweetheart. From a conventional standpoint, that decision does not make any sense. But from a Buddhist standpoint, it is the only rational decision.
This brings us back to that word saṃvega. The Buddha said that there are two reactions to the futility of mundane existence. The first one is dismay, shock, horror, a sense of hopelessness, and even depression.
The other reaction is determination to find a way out. Very fortunately for us the Buddha jumped down into the manhole with us. He has been here and he knows the way out.