Question: I was raised a Christian and taught that there is an eternal soul that leaves the body upon death and goes to heaven or hell. While I am now a Buddhist practitioner, my early religious upbringing has remained a problem. My logical brain tells me there must be something that animates a being and leaves the body when it dies; after all, one can tell the difference between a corpse and a living being.
In the Theravada tradition, we have the Jataka tales that describe Gautama’s previous lives. In the Zen tradition, Jiyu-Kennett Roshi describes her former lives in her autobiography, The Wild, White Goose. In the Vajrayana tradition of Tibet, there is the tulku tradition with the intentional reincarnation of realized beings such as the Dalai Lama.
Please help me understand the Buddhist concept of what is reborn or reincarnated. What is it that is never born yet never dies? Is it consciousness? Awareness? Is it empty? It seems like an eternal soul to me.
Narayan Helen Liebenson: Anatta (not-self) is a central teaching of the Buddha, as is rebirth. How do we put these seemingly contradictory teachings together? The Buddha taught that freedom from samsara, the repetitive round of birth and death, is possible through the understanding of not-self—that nothing whatsoever can be clung to as me or mine. So it could be said that rebirth affects those who cling to a sense of self but ends for those who release such clinging.
As for what is reborn, the Buddha didn’t answer this question. All of the teachings guide us toward the ending of suffering; the Buddha seems to have been more interested in helping living beings find their way out of bondage than in theories. I believe realized beings choose to come into this world for our benefit. For you and me, it’s a bit different; rebirth is the consequence of clinging.
Words such as “consciousness” and “awareness” are just words. Your question can’t really be resolved by using more words. Is there an intellectual answer that will satisfy? Who among us really knows? And yet there is a resolution, which is liberation from fear and confusion.
An unshakable faith emerges naturally out of meditative inquiry and inner silence. In the vow to face all of our experiences, including the most difficult ones, with openheartedness and curiosity, questions such as these cease. You may not be able to articulate what change has occurred, or when or how, but the question dissolves instead of being resolved.
Theory takes us only so far. We have to meditate if we want to find an end to confusion. What animates the body now? This is more to the point than what animates a being in a moment that has not yet come. If we can look very deeply at things as they are right now, whether we like what’s happening or not, we may find ourselves able to meet death with clarity and courage.
Try not to struggle against your early religious upbringing, but rather take up this idea of an eternal soul and look into it. The Buddha’s teachings encourage investigation, not blind belief. When we come across an authentic question and are willing to look into it with a silent mind, it provides access to a life of wonder. I invite you to inquire into this question with your whole heart.
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: In the Dzogchen teachings of my tradition, we make a distinction between mind and nature of mind. The mind is impure and can be obscured, but the nature of mind is primordially pure and cannot be obscured. The mind can be affected by causes and conditions, but the nature of mind cannot be affected. The mind is changeable. The nature of mind is not subject to birth or death.
So the essence or nature of mind is unchangeable and primordially pure. The teacher points out this essence to the student, because awareness of this essence can be developed through meditation. Recognizing the nature of mind is wisdom; when one fully realizes the nature of mind, suffering is extinguished. Failing to realize the nature of mind is ignorance, the root of all suffering, and the mind that fails to recognize this nature is driven to take rebirth after rebirth.
What takes rebirth is shé zhin, or individual consciousness, the mindstream driven by the reactivity that has not recognized the nature of mind. Separation of body and mind is the definition of death. When death happens, the mind continues, driven by the lack of recognition of the nature of mind. This mind endlessly takes rebirth in a variety of realms, and this is the definition of the suffering of cyclic existence.
Liberation from rebirth is the exhaustion of what obscures the nature of mind. Liberation is the dissolution of the veils of ignorance. When a buddha or higher bodhisattva reincarnates, they are not obscured by ignorance nor driven by the causes and conditions of karma but are born through the power of their compassionate prayer to benefit others who are suffering.
For the meditation practitioner, it is important to know that mind can evolve and purify its reactivity and karmic traces, transcend pain and conflict, and overcome duality. In any given moment, we can recognize the unbounded, primordially pure nature of mind. This recognition is like the sun shining in the clear, cloudless sky. The warmth of this realization gives birth spontaneously to qualities of immeasurable love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
From the point of view of Dzogchen, there is no moment when we cannot recognize the nature of mind and liberate suffering, including the great moment of the separation of the body and mind we refer to as death.
Zenkei Blanche Hartman: This question of “What happens when we die?” or “Does anything continue, and if so, what?” has been very compelling for many thoughtful people over the centuries. In Zen literature we encounter it, among other places, in the Blue Cliff Record, Case 55, “Tao Wu’s Condolence Call”:
Tao Wu and Chien Yuan went to a house to make a condolence call. Yuan hit the coffin and said, “Alive or dead?” Wu said, “I won’t say alive and I won’t say dead.” Yuan said, “Why won’t you say?” Wu said, “I won’t say.” Halfway back, as they were returning, Yuan said, “Tell me right away, Teacher; if you don’t tell me, I’ll hit you.” Wu said, “You may hit me, but I won’t say.” Yuan then hit him.
Later, Tao Wu passed on. Yuan went to Shih Shuang and brought up the foregoing story. Shuang said, “I won’t say alive and I won’t say dead.” Yuan said, “Why won’t you say?” Shuang said, “I won’t say, I won’t say.” At these words Yuan had an insight.
In my opinion, the principal teaching of this story is that each of us must personally struggle with these fundamental questions of birth and death; no one else can answer them for us.
My late husband had a favorite story about Pavlov, who apparently had devoted disciples present as he lay on his deathbed. As it was snowing, one of his disciples went outside and brought Pavlov some snow on a plate. Pavlov looked at it thoughtfully for a time as it was melting on the plate and then said, “Oh, so that’s how it is!” and died.
As far as I know, every religious tradition has some story of what happens when this body dies and a suggestion of something that continues. The importance of how we live our lives, and the teaching that our volitional actions of body, speech, and mind have consequences and will affect what happens next, are also part of all the religious traditions with which I am familiar.
Speculating about the great matter of birth and death may not offer as much ease as making your best effort to cultivate the six perfections or seeing the Buddha in everyone. Frankly, at this stage of my life (I am now 87 years old, with diminishing energy and some mobility issues), my focus is on cultivating loving-kindness for everyone and making my best effort to follow the golden rule to always treat everyone as I would wish to be treated.
For me, the effort in practice is better spent on developing the capacity to fully experience the present moment so I may be more able to experience what is happening as I breathe my last breath. When my time comes, I truly hope I may be able to meet this great mystery with ease and curiosity. Or as Mary Oliver puts it so eloquently in one of her poems:
When death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
—From “When Death Comes,” New and Selected Poems
Email your questions to [email protected]
Zenkei Blanche Hartman is former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center.
Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is a lineage holder of the Bön Dzogchen tradition of Tibet
Narayan Helen Liebenson is a guiding teacher at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center