So, What Do Buddhists Mean By Rebirth?
We had a class in Eastern Religions from the local college our sangha yesterday. It was a treat to have these newbies to the practice get a sense of what it is to sit and to participate in a sangha. Thanks to their teacher, Misty, for bringing them.
It was an interesting time to have guests, since we got into talking about rebirth—the subject that leaves many people confused about Buddhism. What does rebirth mean?
But first, backing up a bit . . . we were finishing a section on attachment to the self. Goldstein says, “There’s a great sense of freedom when we don’t identify so completely with each passing mind state and mood.” Diane pointed out a Rumi quote there that she liked: “What I want is to leap out of this personality, and then sit apart from that leaping. I’ve lived too long where I can be reached.” As Goldstein goes on to say, we give birth to the sense of “I” when we identify with the consciousness or awareness itself. We create a sense of the witness or observer separate from experience.
Trungpa Rinpoche was asked “What is it that is reborn?” He replied, “Your neurosis.”
So, what is being reborn? The answer is our sense of separation, of being witness/observer. If we aren’t that, how could anything be “reborn”? Karen said it perfectly: It is not about belief, which is just another concept. As in “I believe in rebirth.” It’s about what happens every moment. If there is clinging (ignorance, grasping) in the moment, there is of course something left behind, something held back. So there is a return to this. Can’t help but be. If all were released into the moment, there would be nothing to return!
Goldstein calls what we do, moment by moment, “Psychological rebirth.” The habits of mind are very strong. Yet, as he says, often psychological suffering is the doorway to liberation. “What is going on?” we start asking ourselves. We have a chance, then, to look at what’s happening, to experience it with non-attachment.
Goldstein reminds us of the difference between “detachment” (a pulling away) and “non-attachment” (no pushing, no pulling, just watching). I really like his description: “We relax the heart from the contraction of self-reference, seeing the insubstantial nature of the hindrances themselves.”
Frank brought up what appears to be the heart of the matter: what does seeing impermanence, what does this liberation “tell us about what we ultimately value in life, what we devote our energy to” (as Goldstein puts it)? In other words, what’s the point?
Karen emphasized how difficult all this is to talk about —all of these things we’re trying to understand. We’re in the realm of ultimate things, with only our conditioned and conditional language to talk about it. But maybe I can say this, hoping that this is an accurate summary of the conversation: we can at least say that when there is no sense of separation (or, rather, if the separation is honored as conditioned and conditional, yet seen beyond) we are able to act without the hindrance of ego—with clarity, precision, and with an awareness that whatever happens to “you” is happening to “me.”