Photo by Martine Franck/Magnum

Philosophy of religion

Photo by Martine Franck/Magnum

Reincarnation now

Modern mindfulness strips Buddhism of its spiritual core. We need an ethics of reincarnation for an interconnected world

Avram Alpert

Photo by Martine Franck/Magnum

When people outside of Asia think of Buddhism, they tend to think about just philosophy and meditation. Buddhists are often said not to have gods, wars or empires. Their religion isn’t about ritual or belief, but a dedicated exploration into what causes suffering and how to end it through meditation and compassion. Although there’s some basis for this image, Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism have been at pains for decades to show that it’s largely untrue, or at least very partial. The Buddhism that non-Buddhists know today is less an accurate vision of its history than a creation of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In that time period, Buddhists and their sympathisers created this modernised Buddhism. They discarded from it the elements of Buddhist history that didn’t fit the rational, scientific worldview that accompanied colonisation and modernisation. In a remarkable feat of historical reinvention, Buddhism went from degraded other to uplifted saviour in a matter of decades.

While there’s much wrong with colonisation forcing such changes, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Indigenous thinkers recreating their religions. Religions reinvent themselves all the time in response to changes both internal and external. What Buddhists such as D T Suzuki did wasn’t particularly different from what Martin Buber did for Judaism, Paul Tillich for Christianity, Muhammad Iqbal for Islam, or Swami Vivekananda for Hinduism. All of these thinkers returned to elements of their traditions to create a version of their religion that spoke better to the modern world. They also effectively rebutted claims from outsiders about their inferiority. Buddhists, here, were extremely successful, especially in the eyes of non-Buddhists, for whom Buddhism became the modern, rational religion par excellence. Indeed, they were so successful that Buddhism is often said to be just a philosophy that one can embody, regardless of one’s religious affiliation.

This success, however, has come with costs. At the very least, it has turned outsiders’ understandings of Buddhism into a set of rather unfortunate stereotypes, such as when the Tibetan studies scholar Robert Thurman spoke of Tibetans as ‘the baby seals of the human rights movement’. At worst, it has provided cover for atrocities committed by Buddhists in countries such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka. It has also had potentially negative effects on those who engage with modern Buddhism. Critics today write of ‘McMindfulness’, a pop version of mindfulness that, rather than overcoming suffering and delusion, in fact makes them worse by letting people believe that they can do whatever harm they want, so long as they meditate once a day. According to the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, this means that Buddhism’s advice to ‘let things go’ and focus on your breathing equates to letting go of fighting against all the cruelty and injustice in the world. By focusing on the presentness of your own breath or body posture, you might very well come to feel at ease in a world that’s full of disease and devastation.

People who want to really understand Buddhism in all of its complexity should spend time in Buddhist countries (not just at monasteries), learn ancient and modern languages, and study the works of scholars around the world who offer a more detailed history of Buddhism and Buddhists. But for those who are interested only in the modern, cleaned-up version of Buddhism, yet want to avoid the problems of modern Buddhism – both in terms of its ignorance of history and its politics of the present – I would offer this advice: take reincarnation seriously.

That probably doesn’t sound right. Reincarnation (also called transmigration or rebirth) is the idea that some part of consciousness lives on after death, and keeps returning to this or other realms of existence until liberated by Buddhist practice. And it seems like exactly the kind of thing that modern, secular Buddhists would reject, often with good reason. After all, reincarnation has often been used to justify why some people deserve good or bad things, based on the actions that they supposedly made in their past lives. But when I say that people should take reincarnation seriously, I don’t mean that they should embrace every detail of the classical doctrine. Whether or not one does is a question for practising Buddhists and others – a question about which I have neither the right nor the capacity to speak. What I mean, rather, is that we should seriously consider what a contemporary version of the idea of reincarnation would look like.

Thinking about reincarnation today is, first of all, a reminder of the complexity of Buddhism, and the fact that individual practices can’t be neatly separated from broader institutional histories. Any change in our personal lives is inseparable from change in the world around us. Second, reincarnation offers a way of thinking about the present as connected to the deep past and to any potential futures as well. We needn’t think of the specifics of the reincarnation doctrine to realise that we’re all the inheritors of a past that we didn’t create and the bequeathers of a future we won’t live to see. Third, this temporal relation is also an ethical one, because it suggests that we’re the products of other lives and the creators of other futures, and thus share a global and temporal interdependence. And fourth, it follows that part of our task as humans is to be aware of what we might accidentally replicate from our past and thus unknowingly recreate in the future.

The Buddhist ideal of ending the cycle of reincarnation has a secular corollary in the ideal of removing all traces of our past mistakes – truly living in a society without patriarchy or poverty or violence. If we take reincarnation seriously, then we can move past injunctions to just ‘be more in the present moment’ and understand how real presence means being connected to much more than our breathing. It forces us to come to terms with the possibility that we’re connected to many more lives and beings – across both time and space – than we can ever realise.

In Tibet, the doctrine of rebirth was used to identify the consciousness of a deceased monk in a newborn child

Rethinking reincarnation isn’t unprecedented. As with other elements of Buddhism, the concept has changed over time. And it’s worth recalling that part of the origin of Buddhism was to challenge prevailing theories of reincarnation in the place where Siddhartha Gautama was born – in what is now the India-Nepal border, around the 5th century BCE. In these belief systems, some part of the person (which part is interpreted differently both across and within religious movements) would live on in a cycle of rebirth called samsara. There’s also diversity of thought about the meaning of this cycle, but Gautama and his followers criticised a variety of their contemporaries’ ideas. One was the notion that only a few were able to leave this cycle and become part of the divine. Another was that the aim was, indeed, to become part of something. According to Gautama, everyone, regardless of their place of birth, is capable of exiting the cycle of reincarnation. And to do so doesn’t mean joining with something; it means disjoining entirely, or ‘extinguishing’ the fire of life. In one image, consciousness is like a flame being passed from candle to candle. After enlightenment, no more candles will be lit.

Buddhism, then, began in part as a new set of views about reincarnation. And throughout its history, Buddhists have debated and expanded the potential for what reincarnation entails. For example, in Tibet, probably beginning in the 13th century, the doctrine of rebirth took a significant twist: it was used to identify the consciousness of a deceased monk in a newborn child, and thus grant to that child the religious and political title of the previous monk. This is the background for what became the tradition of the Dalai Lamas. Although this was based on the existing doctrine that someone who had achieved nirvana could ‘emanate’ their consciousness on Earth in order to guide humans to liberation, it took on a whole new meaning and history in Tibet.

More recently, Buddhists, as well as outsiders seeking to modernise Buddhism, have continued to reinterpret the doctrine of reincarnation for their own times. From the mid-19th century, as the theory of evolution developed, thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson began to suggest that the doctrine of transmigration was an intimation of the understanding of the transmutation of species. As he put it: ‘The transmigration of souls is no fable. I would it were; but men and women are only half human.’ This kind of assimilation was also advocated by Buddhists such as the Chinese reformer Taixu, who spoke of evolution as describing ‘an infinite number of souls who have evolved through endless reincarnations’. And contemporary, ecologically minded Buddhists such as Thich Nhat Hanh have extended this to the whole of the planet: ‘I know that in the past I have been a cloud, a river, and the air. And I was a rock. I was the minerals in the water … gas, sunshine, water, fungi, and plants.’ This fits within the contemporary understanding that the components of a human body pre-existed that body in the natural world. It also expresses a genuine sense of interdependence between humans and their environment.

Reincarnation has also been used to think about politics. In his essay ‘The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ (1852), Karl Marx wrote:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

I’m not sure what Marx might have known of Indian doctrines of reincarnation. He more likely had in mind the ideas of transmigration that one can find in Pythagoras and Plato. But he was closer to the Buddhist critique of Brahmanism than anything else, because the Platonic system – like the Brahmanic one – had no particular end: people could reincarnate forever. Marx’s point wasn’t that reincarnation went on forever, but that we needed to take concrete steps to end it: we should awaken to something new, beyond the nightmare of histories of oppression.

But taking reincarnation seriously doesn’t just mean thinking about the ecological or political potential of its doctrines. It also means thinking seriously about the failure of any doctrine to realise its mission. This is another reason why we shouldn’t excise reincarnation from the modern understanding of Buddhism. Consider, as an example, the work of the writer and scholar Robert Wright and his popular book Why Buddhism Is True (2017). According to Wright, Buddhism is true because it understands something very specific about the effect of natural selection on the human condition. Namely, that evolution is driven by fleeting pleasure. Humans seek satisfaction through eating and copulating, only to find that the pleasure from these activities is remarkably evanescent. And yet, nevertheless, we get up and try to find satisfaction through them every day. Wright says that this is a neat trick of natural selection, which is driven simply by the blind will of the species to continue. If we were completely sated by our meals or sexual encounters, we wouldn’t have the same urge to keep doing them. So evolution tricks us into thinking that we’ll achieve satisfaction, when we never will. The trouble is that this cycle of pleasure, satisfaction and dissatisfaction is, well, rather unsatisfying. And this is what Buddhism understands and what mindfulness meditation can help cure. To perpetually pursue satisfaction is suffering. To become aware of this process and gain distance from it through mindfulness provides relief.

Early in his book, Wright makes a qualification about what he thinks is true in Buddhism. He writes: ‘I’m not talking about the “supernatural” or more exotically metaphysical parts of Buddhism – reincarnation, for example.’ But if we look at the story that he’s told us about the truth of Buddhism, we will actually see reincarnation at work. First, in the sense that every human bears traces of historical processes that happened long before any of us were alive. Second, in that humans are driven by a fundamental process of the endless reincarnation of pleasure. Third, that when we think we’re moving past a problem, we’re often just creating a new version of it. Thus evolution, for example, solved the problem of how to keep the species going by creating other problems of survival for that very species – whether through epidemics of obesity or the greed for pleasure that leads people to pillage and destroy others. This tendency to recreate failures was Marx’s point in his essay about the failure of revolutionaries in France. And it would later become the devastating problem of many who followed Marx himself.

To take reincarnation seriously isn’t only to develop a more sophisticated understanding of where we come from and what we owe to what comes after us, but also to face up to our tendency to bring screaming into the future the mistakes that we’ve made in the past. The hope of this reckoning is that we might better understand these conditions and awake from these nightmares. This is the point at which Gautama and Marx and many others agree: for there to be progress in ending suffering, some elements of the world – poverty, racism, hatred – simply must cease to be reincarnated.

The politics of reincarnation refuses to see the world as broken up into friends and enemies, victors and losers

The political demands to end negative reincarnations are, in part, made possible by the ethical view of human interdependence that reincarnation affords us. One of the ideas that we learn in the classical doctrine is that reincarnation links many of us across the histories of our being. In the words of Steven Collins, one of the most important Anglophone interpreters of the doctrine, stories of reincarnation are ‘narrative ways of connecting identities one to another’. Someone whom we don’t know, and might never know, could very well be part of our chain of existence. Indeed, one of the most intriguing elements of the classical view is that not everything or everyone is actually connected. Some other humans and elements are connected to us as individuals, in that we’re linked across time through our past or future selves. But some people and things always remain separate. Collins points out that, except for the enlightened few, most of us never know whether or how we’re related to others. The ethics here is thus not one in which I act kindly to others because I know that I am related to them, but rather precisely because I don’t know.

Reincarnation, then, isn’t about providing certainty, but a means of developing ethics within conditions of uncertainty. We might think of it as a kind of Pascalian wager. That is, just as the 17th-century philosopher Blaise Pascal wagered that it would be better, after this life has ended, to have believed in God, just in case God is real, the ethics of reincarnation suggests that we’re better off believing in our interconnectedness to any given person or animal or plant – whether we ever meet them or not – just in case we are. The immediate payoff of the wager is this: because I don’t know how I’m connected to the Universe, and the people, plants, animals and bacteria that I share it with, it’s best that I act kindly and calmly toward everything and everyone.

There are analogies in other traditions. In the Gospel of Matthew, for example, Jesus said that all who fed or clothed or cared for him, when he was downtrodden, would go to heaven. When someone asked how they could do this for him, he replied: ‘[J]ust as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.’ There’s also a Jewish tradition that speaks of 36 hidden, just people who maintain the stability of the world. The scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem argued in 1971 that this myth led to ‘a somewhat anarchic morality: your neighbour may be one of the hidden just men.’ The version of reincarnation that I’m advocating for here adds to these traditions by urging us to extend this ethics beyond how we treat our neighbours or those we meet. Our lack of knowledge about our specific connections to the world should make us behave ethically toward the whole world. The politics of reincarnation that one can develop from this ethics refuses to see the world as broken up into friends and enemies, victors and losers. It suggests that we’re all patchworks of each other, bound together on a wheel of time. Our task in such a world can’t be to defeat each other, for there’s no one who is an other.

Of course, there are ways to arrive at all of these thoughts without engaging reincarnation. The basic ideas can be formulated through any number of traditions. And, as I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the doctrine of reincarnation has its own potential downsides, especially when it’s used to justify people’s positions within a social order. But the value of taking reincarnation seriously is that it might lead us to grasp more readily where and how we’re recreating such troubled social formations. Perhaps we see this in today’s supposed meritocracies, which create new, caste-like justifications for hierarchy and inequality, as several recent critics have suggested. Or perhaps we see it in some modern Buddhist monasteries in the West, where histories of sexual harassment keep recurring. To take reincarnation seriously is to think about how we can end these histories of suffering. This means working not just on a personal or even national scale, but through a global ethics based on our interdependence to all creatures and the natural world. It’s hard to think of anything less ‘McMindful’ than that.

Avram Alpert

is a lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program and the author of Global Origins of the Modern Self, from Montaigne to Suzuki (2019) and A Partial Enlightenment: What Modern Literature and Buddhism Can Teach Us About Living Well Without Perfection (2021).
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