Compassion and rebirth are two traditional Buddhist tenets that both came together for me recently as I sat reflecting on how I nearly drove my mother off the road. That incident had occurred another night long ago. Irritated by a slow driver ahead of me, I tailgated the vehicle so closely that I could not even see the license plate. I persisted until the car turned off onto a side road.
But that side road was the very road that I intended to take to visit my parents—and the driver was my mother.
The shame that overcame me in that moment was so great that, to this day, whenever I find myself following a particularly slow driver, I think, That could be my mother. This simple thought summons up images of my mother, nervous and cringing, as other drivers recklessly bully her on the road. My mother may not be the best driver, but she does not deserve to be harassed.
That could be my mother is my driving mantra. With this simple phrase, I can transfer the love, respect, and care I hold for my mother onto the driver in front of me. Impatience melts into acceptance. Aggression dissipates into compassion. Just as I would never wish stress and discomfort upon my mother, so will I drive more kindly behind you.
With this simple phrase, I can transfer the love, respect, and care I hold for my mother onto the driver in front of me.
This practice of transferring the target of our compassion from one individual to another is rooted in the concept of rebirth. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “Buddhist tradition teaches us to view all sentient beings as our dear mothers and to show our gratitude by loving them all. For, according to Buddhist theory, we are born and reborn countless numbers of times, and it is conceivable that each being has been our parent at one time or another.” This notion is not reserved for mothers, beloved or otherwise, and extends to all our past teachers, dear friends, and loved ones.
Reflecting on the parallels between this ancient Buddhist practice and my simple driving mantra led me to a fundamental shift in my perspective on rebirth. While many discussions about rebirth revolve around the question of whether or not rebirth is real, they often neglect to consider any of the theory’s practical benefits, regardless of the question of reality. The question itself sits in a framework that tends toward the conclusion that belief in rebirth seems to have no purpose. But if you wish to spread the compassion you have for your loved ones to a total stranger, you are undoubtedly helped if you believe that person too could be a loved one—just as my recitation is more effective if I truly believe that driver ahead of me could actually be my own mother.
My point here is not to weigh in on whether the concept of rebirth is right or wrong, but rather to consider this notion in terms of “skillful or unskillful.” You may still see no point in the belief that you could have been my mother in a previous life. Even so, you can rest assured that I will never tailgate you.