The Urban Dharma Newsletter - June, 2009
In This Issue: Buddhism and The Question of Rebirth
1. Unmistaken Child / A Film Review
2. UNMISTAKEN CHILD – Movie Trailer
3. Unmistaken Child (2008) / June 3, 2009
4 . Karma and Rebirth – By Barbara O'Brien
5. Rebirth (Buddhism) / From Wikipedia
6. REBIRTH – Buddhanet.net
Sorry for the delay… Life and commitments keep getting in the way.
I had a chance to see ‘Unmistaken Child’ and the UD Newsletter this month is about rebirth in Buddhism. Hope you find it interesting.
I have a new class starting at Loyola Marymount University in July on the 12 link chain of causation, please see class information below…
12 Steps to Peace: Dependent Co-Origination, How Suffering and Delusion Arise in Humans
Instructor: Ven. Kusala Bhikshu
Thursdays, July 2 – July 30, 2009; 7:30 – 9:30 pm
Course Number: YGPX 879.03
Dependent Co-Origination (Paticca Samuppada) is a natural system of the way suffering and delusion rise in the human being which the Buddha uncovered in his contemplations and observations of the ways things work. The system marks out 12 important movements in the rising of the suffering prone ego or "self". During the final night of contemplation at the end of which the Buddha attained awakening, his contemplation and subsequent penetration of dependent co-origination (paticca samuppada) was the cornerstone of this awakening. Yet at the same time, it is a teaching that the Buddha hesitated to teach due to its profundity and fear that few would understand it. Rev. Kusala will explore the 12 link chain of causation (paticca samuppada) as found in the early Buddhist school of Theravada in a simple nontechnical way, using dependent co-origination to expand on the second Noble Truth, why we suffer.
LMU Page / http://www.lmu.edu/Page49675.aspx#Buddhist%20Studies
1. Unmistaken Child / A Film Review – by Jennifer Merin, About.com – Movie Review - 2008 – Tibetan Buddhists Search for the Reincarnation of A Lama / About.com Rating five out of Five
Filmmaker Nati Baratz's Unmistaken Child provides a rare and intimate look at the processes and rituals observed by Tibetan Buddhists as they seek to find the reincarnation of a recently deceased Lama.
Observing Centuries-Old Traditions
When Geshe Lama Konghog, a revered rinpoche, died in 2001, the Buddhist hierarchy initiated a search to find his embodiment in a newborn child, according to a centuries-old tradition and precise practices that involve reading signs revealed in the cremation of the deceased and the interpretations of astrologers. Following the signs and interpretations, Tenzin Zopa, a 28 year old Nepalese monk who’d been Geshe Lama Konghog's disciple for 21 years, was dispatched to Nepal’s the isolated Tsum Valley region to find a boy between the ages of one and one-and-a-half years who recognized the rosary that belonged to the Lama and claimed it as his own.
After a four year search, Tenzin Zopa finds the Unmistaken Child and takes him to Keplu Monastery where other Lamas verify his identity. Once confirmed, the child is taken from his family, who willingly let him go, renamed Phuntsok Rinpoche by the Dalai Lama and ensconced in the Buddhist monastic domain for training and to assume his role in guiding humankind to enlightenment.
A Fantastic Reality
This documentary recounts an amazing real life story that has all the elements of an exotic and enthralling fantasy feature. It has compelling and absolutely charming characters engaged in a quest that, for them, has profound meaning. We see Tenzin Zopa become a gentle and loving teacher to the young Lama, who is a most unusual and brilliant little boy who miraculously embraces the responsibilities of his new station in life.
Skillful Filmmaking Supports The Story
With exquisite cinematography, Unmistaken Child takes you to remote and unfamiliar locales where village people live as they have for centuries, in rustic homes without ’conveniences,’ in clan-like communities. The villagers wear traditional tribal costumes, the monks wear saffron-colored robes and hats, and everyone wears tennis shoes. We see arriving helicopters setting brilliantly colored prayer flags to fluttering and we hear the strange and alluring sounds of chanting, horns and symbols as they echo through the mountains.
In short, the film takes us to a place where time has, seemingly, stood still. In fact, in presenting this chapter of Buddhist history, Unmistaken Child’s director, Nati Baratz, doesn't reference or examine the political context in which the tradition and rituals are carried out. And one can’t help but be curious about how the film’s makers and subjects feel about this idyllic region’s ongoing struggle for independence from Chinese influence.
2. UNMISTAKEN CHILD – Apple.com – Movie Trailer
The Buddhist concept of reincarnation, while both mysterious and enchanting, is hard for most westerners to grasp. UNMISTAKEN CHILD follows the 4-year search for the reincarnation of Lama Konchog, a world-renowned Tibetan master who passed away in 2001 at age 84. The Dalai Lama charges the deceased monk’s devoted disciple, Tenzin Zopa (who had been in his service since the age of seven), to search for his master’s reincarnation. Tenzin sets off on this unforgettable quest on foot, mule and even helicopter, through breathtaking landscapes and remote traditional Tibetan villages. Along the way Tenzin listens to stories about young children with special characteristics, and performs rarely seen ritualistic tests designed to determine the likelihood of reincarnation. He eventually presents the child he believes to be his reincarnated master to the Dalai Lama so that he can make the final decision. Stunningly shot, UNMISTAKEN CHILD is a beguiling, surprising, touching, even humorous experience.
3. Unmistaken Child (2008) / June 3, 2009
Following a Young Monk’s Journey in Search of His Master’s Reincarnation – By STEPHEN HOLDEN – Published: June 3, 2009
“Unmistaken Child” documents the four-year search of Tenzin Zopa, a gentle, baby-faced 28-year-old Nepalese monk, for the reincarnation of his Tibetan master, Geshe Lama Konchog, who died in 2001.
The young monk’s journey, on foot, by mule and by helicopter, begun at the request of the Dalai Lama, takes him through some of the world’s most spectacular high country, as he travels from village to village, seeking a very young child, 1 to 1 ½, who shows signs of being his reincarnated teacher.
The film, written and directed by Nati Baratz, is a real-life examination of the same rituals and traditions observed in Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun.” Like Mr. Scorsese’s movie, it stands in awe of its subject. The beauty of the landscape and the monk’s sweetness, humility and good humor evoke a plane of existence, at once elevated and austere, that is humbling to contemplate.
That said, “Unmistaken Child” offers no scholarly perspective on Tibetan Buddhism and leaves fundamental questions unanswered. Why, for instance, is the search for the child so limited in scope and not worldwide?
The direction of the smoke from the pyre at Lama Konchog’s cremation and the sand patterns below it offer the first indications of where to search. A Taiwanese astrologer predicts that the child’s father’s name probably begins with an A, and that the most likely birthplace has a name beginning with the letters TS. Everywhere the monk goes, he inquires about the existence of special children who might be the appropriate age. But the film finally doesn’t convey the time and labor spent by the monk. And when the child who may be the reincarnation is located in the Tsum Valley of Nepal, he is obviously older than 1 ½ and can speak well enough to be understood.
Once found, he is tested by monks, who ask him to pick out Lama Konchog’s prayer beads, and his hand drum from a selection. To their relief, he chooses correctly. The Dalai Lama gives his approval, and in the film’s most emotional scene the boy’s head is shaved as he weeps and protests.
His parents must formally agree to give up their child, who is taken to Lama Konchog’s mountain retreat, which has fallen into a state of disrepair. Later he is dressed in red and golden robes and a headdress, and transported in royal style to the monastery, where he will be trained and where he bids farewell to his parents.
As much as it is about the quest for a miraculous being, “Unmistaken Child” is about Mr. Zopa’s painful adjustment to the loss of a master he had served since the age of 7. His search is a crucial initiation ritual that restores meaning and purpose to a life that is suddenly desolate. His tender, playful interactions with the boy reveal him as someone of enormous sensitivity, gentleness and spiritual grace.
“Unmistaken Child” inevitably leads you to consider the material world and to contemplate the balance in your own life between physical gratification and spirituality. The rugged landscape, in which mist filters through craggy cliffs and wild flowers seem to dance in the mountain meadows, suggests that religion and geography are profoundly intertwined. How we perceive the universe, time, death and rebirth has everything to do with altitude and latitude.
4 . Karma and Rebirth – By Barbara O'Brien, About.com
What Is Karma? The Sanskrit word karma means "volitional act" or "deed." The law of karma is a law of cause and effect, or an understanding that every deed produces fruit.
Karma is created by the intentional acts of body, speech, and mind. Only acts pure of desire, hate and delusion do not produce karmic effects. Once set in motion, karma tends to continue in many directions, like ripples on a pond.
Karma is not mysterious or hidden. Once you understand what it is, you can observe it all around you. For example, let's say a man gets into an argument at work. He drives home in an angry mood, cutting off someone at an intersection. The driver cut off is now angry, and when she gets home she yells at her daughter. This is karma in action -- one angry act has touched off many more.
However, if the man who argued had the mental discipline to let go of his anger, the karma would have stopped with him.
What Is Rebirth? Very basically, when the effects of karma continue across lifetimes it causes rebirth. But in light of the doctrine of no-self, what exactly is reborn?
The classical Hindu understanding of reincarnation is that a soul, or atman, is reborn many times. But the Buddha taught the doctrine of anatman -- no soul, or no-self. The various schools of Buddhism approach this question in somewhat different ways.
One way to explain rebirth is to think of all existence as one big ocean. An individual is a phenomenon of existence in the same way a wave is a phenomenon of ocean. A wave begins, moves across the surface of the water, then dissipates. While it exists, a wave is distinct from ocean yet is never separate from ocean. In the same way, that which is reborn is not the same person, yet is not separate from the same person.
5. Rebirth (Buddhism) / From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Rebirth in Buddhism is the doctrine that the consciousness of a person, upon the death or dissolution of the aggregates (skandhas), becomes one of the contributing causes for the arising of a new group of skandhas. The consciousness arising in the new person is neither identical to, nor entirely different from, the old consciousness, but forms part of a causal continuum or stream with it. The basic cause for this persistent re-arising of personality is the abiding of consciousness in avijja (ignorance); when ignorance is uprooted, rebirth ceases.
Within one life and across multiple lives, the empirical, changing self not only objectively affects its surrounding external world, but also generates (consciously and unconsciously) its own subjective image of this world, which it then lives in as 'reality'. It lives in a world of its own making in various ways. It "tunes in" to a particular level of consciousness (by meditation or the rebirth it attains through its karma) which has a particular range of objects - a world - available to it. It furthermore selectively notices from among such objects, and then processes what has been sensed to form a distorted interpretive model of reality: a model in which the 'I am' conceit is a crucial reference point. When nibbana is experienced, though, all such models are transcended: the world stops 'in this fathom-long carcase'.
In traditional Buddhist cosmology, these lives can be in any of a large number of states of being, including those of humans, any kind of animal, and several types of supernatural being (see Six realms). The type of rebirth that arises at the end of one life is conditioned by the karmas (actions of body, speech and mind) of previous lives; good karmas will yield a happier rebirth, bad karmas will produce one which is more unhappy.
In the traditional Buddhist languages of Pāli and Sanskrit, there is no word corresponding exactly to the English "rebirth". A rebirth, that is, the state one is born into, is referred to as jāti, i.e. simply "birth", also referring to the process of being born or coming into the world in any way. The entire process of change from one life to the next is called punarbhava (Sanskrit) or punabbhava (Pāli), literally "becoming again"; it is also known simply as bhava, i.e. "becoming". The process seen from a universal perspective, encompassing all living beings, is called saṃsāra.
The story of the Buddha's life presented in the early texts does not allude to the idea of rebirth prior to his enlightenment, leading some to suggest that he discovered it for himself.
* 1 Rebirth as cycle of consciousness
* 2 Rebirth as Buddhist reincarnation
* 3 Rebirth in historical context
* 4 Notes
* 5 Commentaries
* 6 External links
o 6.1 Sources that identify rebirth with reincarnation
Rebirth as cycle of consciousness
Another view of rebirth describes the cycle of death and rebirth in the context of consciousness rather than the birth and death of the body. In this view, remaining impure aggregates, skandhas, reform consciousness into a new form.
Buddhist meditation teachers suggest that through careful observation of the mind, it is possible to see consciousness as being a sequence of conscious moments rather than a continuum of awareness. Each moment is an experience of an individual mind-state: a thought, a memory, a feeling, a perception. A mind-state arises, exists and, being impermanent, ceases following which the next mind-state arises. Thus the consciousness of a sentient being can be seen as a continuous series of birth and death of these mind-states. In this context rebirth is simply the persistence of this process. Clearly this explanation of rebirth is wholly divorced from rebirth which may follow bodily death.
The explanation of rebirth as a cycle of consciousness is consistent with other core Buddhist beliefs, such as anicca (impermanence), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) and anatta (non-self). Furthermore, it is possible to observe a karmic link between these mind-states.
In the practice of Vipassana meditation, the meditator uses "bare attention" to observe the endless round of mind-states. This observation derives insight and understanding from seeing this cycle of birth, death and rebirth without interfering, owning or judging the individual states of mind that arise and pass away. This understanding enables them to limit the power of desire, which according to the second noble truth of Buddhism is the cause of Dukkha (suffering, unsatisfactoriness) thus making possible the realisation of Nibbana. So it can be concluded that the understanding of rebirth in the context of the cycle of consciousness is an invaluable and practical component of the fundamental aim of Buddhism.
Rebirth as Buddhist reincarnation
Within Buddhism, the term rebirth or re-becoming (Sanskrit: punarbhava; Pali: punabbhava) is preferred to "reincarnation", as the latter is taken to imply there is a fixed entity that is reborn. However, this still leaves the question as to what exactly the process of rebirth entails.
The lack of a fixed self does not mean lack of continuity. One of the metaphors used to illustrate this is that of fire. For example, a flame is transferred from one candle to another, or a fire spreads from one field to another. In the same way that it depends on the original fire, there is a conditioned relationship between one life and the next; they are not identical but neither are they completely distinct. The early Buddhist texts make it clear that there is no permanent consciousness that moves from life to life.
According to the early texts, rebirth should be understood in terms of a 'stream of consciousness' (D.3.105), or an 'evolving consciousness' (M.1.256), whose quality is conditioned by karma.
The medieval Pali scholar Buddhaghosa labeled the consciousness described in the early texts as constituting a condition for a new birth as 'rebirth-linking consciousness' (patisandhi), which connected the arising of a new life with the moment of death.
Some schools were led to the conclusion that karma continued to exist in some sense and adhere to a particular person until it had worked out its consequences. Another school, the Sautrantika, made use of a more poetic model to account for the process of karmic continuity. For them, each act 'perfumed' the individual and led to the planting of a 'seed' that would later germinate as a good or bad karmic result.
While all Buddhist traditions seem to accept some notion of rebirth, there is no unified view about precisely how events unfold after the moment of death. Theravada Buddhism generally asserts that rebirth is immediate. The Tibetan schools, on the other hand, hold to the notion of a bardo (intermediate state) which can last up to forty-nine days, and this has led to the development of a unique 'science' of death and rebirth, a good deal of which is set down in what is popularly known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
While Theravada Buddhism generally denies there is an intermediate state, some early Buddhist texts seem to support it. One school that adopted this view was the Sarvāstivāda, who believed that between death and rebirth there is a sort of limbo in which beings do not yet reap the consequences of their previous actions but in which they may still influence their rebirth. The death process and this intermediate state were believed to offer a uniquely favourable opportunity for spiritual awakening.
There are many references to rebirth in the early Buddhist scriptures. These are some of the more important: Mahakammavibhanga Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 136); Upali Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 56); Kukkuravatika Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 57); Moliyasivaka Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 36.21); Sankha Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 42.8).
Rebirth in historical context
The Buddha lived at a time of great philosophical creativity in India, and many different concepts of the nature of life and death were proposed at that time. Some thinkers were materialists, believing that there was no existent consequent upon the end of a life, and that there was an ātman (self) which was annihilated upon death. Others believed in a form of cyclic existence, where a being is born, lives, dies and then is re-born, but in the context of a type of determinism or fatalism, in which karma played no role. Others were "eternalists", postulating an eternally existent ātman, comparable to the Western concept of the soul: when a being (or his body) dies, the ātman survives death and is re-embodied (reincarnates) as another living being, based on its karmic inheritance. This last belief is the one that has become dominant (with certain modifications) in modern Hinduism.
The Buddha is said to have taught a concept of rebirth that was distinct from that of any Indian teacher contemporary with him. This concept was consistent with the common notion of a sequence of related lives stretching over a very long time, but was constrained by two core Buddhist concepts: anattā, that there is no irreducible ātman or "self" tying these lives together; and anicca, that all compounded things are subject to dissolution, including all the components of the human person and personality. The Buddha's detailed conception of the connections between action (karma), rebirth, and their ultimate causes is set out in the twelve links of dependent origination.
6. REBIRTH – Buddhanet.net
Today we are going to continue a theme that we began two weeks ago when we talked about the teaching of karma. We are going to consider the results of karma in the next life, in other words rebirth. But before I begin to consider specifically the Buddhist teaching regarding rebirth, I think we need to spend a little bit of time on the concept of rebirth in general. This is because it is a concept which many people have difficulty with, particularly over the last few decades when we have become increasingly conditioned to think in what passes for scientific terms, in what most people would naively believe to be scientific terms. Thinking in this way has caused many people to discard the idea of rebirth as something that smacks of superstition, that is a part of an old-fashioned way of looking at the world. So I think we need to redress the balance and create a certain amount of openness to the concept of rebirth before we treat specifically the Buddhist teaching on rebirth.
There are a number of approaches that we can take to what we might call outlining the case for the reality of rebirth. One line which we might take would be to recall that in almost all the major cultures of the world, at one time or another, there had been a strong belief in the reality of rebirth. This is particularly true in India where the idea of rebirth can be traced back to the very earliest period of Indian civilization where all the major Indian religions, be they theism or atheism, be they schools of Hinduism or non-Hindu doctrines like Jainism, believe in the reality of rebirth. Similarly, in other cultures there has been a belief in rebirth, as for instance even in the Mediterranean world, there is a lot of evidence that belief in rebirth was quite common before and during the first few centuries of the Common Era. So the belief in rebirth has been an important part of the human way of thinking about one’s situation.
Specifically, within the Buddhist tradition, we have the testimony of the Buddha on the matter of rebirth. On the night of His enlightenment, the Buddha acquired three varieties of knowledge and the first of these was the detailed knowledge of His past lives. He was able to recollect the conditions in which He had been born in His past lives. He was able to remember what His names had been, what His occupations had been and so on. Besides the Buddha’s testimony, His prominent disciples were also able to recollect their past lives. Ananda, for instance, acquired the ability to recollect his past life soon after his ordination. Similarly, throughout the history of Buddhism, saints, scholars and meditators have been able to recollect their past lives.
Nonetheless, neither of these two arguments for rebirth can be expected to be completely convincing in a scientific and rational environment. So perhaps we need to look a bit closer to home so to speak, and here we get help from a very unexpected direction. Most of us may be aware that in the past twenty or thirty years there have been a huge amount of scientific investigations of the question of rebirth and these investigations have been pursued by psychologists and parapsychologists. Gradually through these investigations, we have built up a very convincing case for the reality of rebirth, a case which is developed along scientific lines. There have been many books published in which the details of these investigations have been described and discussed. One scholar who has been particularly active in this area in recent years is Professor Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia, USA. He has published findings on more than twenty cases of rebirth. Some of us may be familiar with the case of the woman who was able to recall her past life more than a hundred years before as Bridey Murphy in a foreign land which she had never visited in her present life. I am not going to go through these specific cases in detail because if one is interested in this scientific evidence for rebirth one can read about it for oneself. Nonetheless, I think we are now at a point where even the most skeptical of us will have to admit that there is a lot of circumstantial evidence in favour of the reality of rebirth.
But in making the case for rebirth, we can look even closer to our own experience, and here we need to recall and examine it in the true Buddhist way to see what meaning we can distil from our own experience. All of us in this room have our own particular capabilities, our own particular likes and dislikes, and I think it is fair to ask whether these are all merely the result of chance. For instance, some of us are more capable at sport than others, some of us have a talent for mathematics, others have a talent for music, some of us like swimming, others are afraid of water. Are all these differences in our abilities and attitudes merely the result of chance? There are incredible peculiarities in the nature of our experiences. Let me take my own case. I was born in a Roman Catholic family in the United States. There was absolutely nothing in my early background to indicate that by the age of twenty I would have travelled to India and that I would spend the next fourteen years of my life predominantly in Asia, and that I would become deeply involved in Buddhist studies.
Then, too, there are those situations in which we sometimes feel a strong presentiment that we have been in a particular place before although we have not visited this place in our present life. Or, sometimes we feel that we have known someone before. Sometimes we meet a person and within a very short space of time we feel that we have known that person thoroughly. Alternatively, sometimes we have known a person for years and yet we are not close to that person. These experiences of feeling that we have been to a place before or have known a person before are so common and universal even in a culture which knows almost nothing of rebirth. There is a particular phrase for this experience, the French words "deja vu" which mean "already seen or experienced". If we are not dogmatic, when we add up all the evidence of rebirth - the persistent belief in rebirth in many cultures in many different times throughout history, the Buddha’s own testimony, the testimony of His prominent disciples, the evidence presented by scientific investigations, and our own personal intimations that we have been here before - we have to admit that there is at least a good possibility that rebirth is a reality.
In Buddhism, rebirth is part of the continuous process of change. In fact, we are not only reborn at the time of death, we are born and reborn at every moment. This too, like many other Buddhist teachings, is easily verifiable by reference to our own experience and by reference to the teachings of science. For instance, the majority of the cells in the human body die and are replaced many times during the course of one’s life. Even those few cells which last one’s entire life undergo constant internal changes. This is part of the process of birth, death and rebirth. If we look at the mind too, we find that mental states of worry, happiness and so forth are changing every moment. They die and are replaced by new states. So whether we look at the body or the mind, our experience is characterized by continuous birth, death and rebirth.
In Buddhism, it is taught that there are various realms, spheres or dimensions of existence. There are thirty-one planes of existence listed, but for our purposes, we are going to utilize a simpler scheme which enumerates six realms of existence. In general, the six realms may be divided into two groups, one of which is relatively fortunate and the other relatively miserable. The first group includes three of the six realms and they are the realm of the gods, the realm of the demigods and the realm of human beings. Rebirth in these fortunate realms is the result of wholesome karma. The second group includes the three realms that are considered relatively miserable. They are sometimes called the realms of woe, and they are the realm of animals, the realm of hungry ghosts and the realm of hell beings. Rebirth in these states of woe is the result of unwholesome karma.
Let us look at each of these realms individually and starting from the realm at the bottom, let us look at the realm of the hell beings (Niraya). There are various hells in Buddhism, and they are principally eight hot hells and eight cold hells. In the hells, beings suffer incalculable and inexpressible pain. It is said that the suffering experienced as a result of being pierced by three hundred spears in a single day in this life is only a minute fraction of the suffering experienced in hell. The cause of rebirth in hell is continuous, habitual violent actions - habitual killing, cruelty and so forth, actions that are borne of ill-will. Beings born in the hells suffer the pain of hell until their unwholesome karma is exhausted. This is important because we must note that in Buddhism no one suffers eternal damnation. When their unwholesome karma is exhausted, beings in hell are reborn in a more fortunate realm of existence.
The next realm is the realm of the hungry ghosts (Pretas). Beings in this realm suffer chiefly from hunger and thirst, and from heat and cold. They are completely bereft of the objects of their desire. It is said that when the hungry ghosts perceive a mountain of rice or a river of fresh water, and rush towards that vision, they find the mountain of rice is only a heap of pebbles, and the river of fresh water only a ribbon of blue slate. Similarly, it is said that in the summer even the moon is hot, while in the winter even the sun is cold for them. The foremost cause of rebirth as a hungry ghost is avarice and miserliness borne of greed. As with the hells, the beings in this realm are not condemned to eternal existence in the form of hungry ghosts, for when their unwholesome karma is exhausted, they will be reborn in a higher realm.
In the next realm which is the realm of animals (Tiryak), the living beings suffer from a variety of unhappy circumstances. They suffer from the fear and pain that is the result of constantly killing and eating one another. They suffer from the depredations of man who kills them for food or for their hides, horns or teeth. Even if they are not killed, domestic animals are forced to work for man and are driven on by hooks and whips. All these are a source of suffering. The principal cause of rebirth as an animal is ignorance. In other words, the blind, heedless pursuit of one’s animal-like desires, the preoccupation with eating, sleeping and sexual desire, and the disregard of developing one’s mind to the practice of virtue and so forth lead one to be reborn as an animal.
Now when I say for instance that habitual killing is the cause of rebirth in the hells, or that greed is the cause of rebirth in the realm of the hungry ghosts, or that ignorance is the cause of rebirth in the realm of animals, it does not mean that a specific hateful, greedy or ignorant action will result in rebirth amongst the appropriate class of beings - the hells, the realms of hungry ghosts or the realm of animals. What it does mean is that there is a relationship between hatred and rebirth in the hells, and between greed and rebirth in the realm of hungry ghosts, and between ignorance and rebirth in the realm of the animals. If unimpeded, if unbalanced by other virtuous actions, such actions if habitual are likely to result in rebirth in these three states of woe.
I am going to skip the realm of human beings for the moment and go on to the realm of demigods (Asuras). The Asuras are more powerful physically and are more intelligent mentally than human beings. Yet they suffer because of jealousy and conflict. Mythologically, it is said that the Asuras and the gods share a celestial tree. While the gods enjoy the fruits of this celestial tree, the Asuras are custodians of the roots of the tree. The Asuras are envious of the gods and constantly attempt to take the fruits of the tree from the gods. As a result of this, they fight with the gods, and are defeated by the gods and suffer greatly as a consequence. Because of this constant jealousy, envy and conflict, existence amongst the Asuras is unhappy and unfortunate. As with the other realms, there is a cause of rebirth amongst the demigods. On the positive side, the cause is generosity. On the negative side, the causes are anger, envy and jealousy.
The sixth realm, the realm of the gods (Devas) is the happiest amongst the six realms. As a result of having done wholesome actions, of having observed the moral precepts and having practised meditation, living beings are reborn amongst the gods where they enjoy sensual pleasure or spiritual pleasure, or tranquillity depending upon the level within the realm of the gods in which they are born. Nonetheless, the realm of the gods is not to be desired because the happiness of the gods is impermanent. No matter how much they may enjoy their existence as a god, when the force of their karma is exhausted, when the merits of their good conduct and the power of their experience in meditation are exhausted, the gods fall from heaven and are reborn in another realm. At this moment, at the moment of their death, it is said that the gods suffer even more mental anguish than the physical pain suffered by beings in the other realms. The negative factor associated with birth in the realm of the gods is pride.
So here, as you can see, we have an affliction or defilement associated with the five realms - hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, demigods and the gods, and they are ill-will, desire, ignorance, jealousy and pride. Birth in any of these five realms is undesirable. Birth in the three lower realms is undesirable for obvious reasons, because of the intense suffering and because of the total ignorance of the beings who inhabit these realms. Even rebirth in the realms of the demigods and the gods too is undesirable. This is because, although one experiences a certain degree of happiness and power, existence amongst the demigods and gods is impermanent. Besides, because of the distractions and pleasures in these realms, beings there never think of looking for a way out of the cycle of birth and death. This is why it is said that of the six realms, the most fortunate, opportune and favored is the human realm. This is why I have left the human realm to the last.
The human realm (Manushya) is the most favoured of the six realms because as a human being one has the motivation and the opportunity to practise the Dharma and to achieve enlightenment. One has this motivation and opportunity because the conditions conducive to practising the path are present. In the human realm, one experiences both happiness and suffering. The suffering in this realm, though terrible, is not so great as the suffering in the three realms of woe. The pleasure and happiness experienced in the human realm is not so great as the pleasure and happiness experienced in the heavens. As a result, human beings are neither blinded by the intense happiness experienced by the beings in the heavens, nor distracted by the unbearable suffering that beings in the hells experience. Again, unlike the animals, human beings possess sufficient intelligence to recognize the necessity to look for a means to achieve the total end of suffering.
Human birth is difficult to gain from a number of points of view. First of all, it is difficult to gain from the point of view of its cause. Good conduct is the foremost cause of rebirth as a human being, but how rare is truly good conduct. Again, human birth is difficult to gain from the point of view of number, for human beings are only a small fraction of the living beings who inhabit the six realms. Moreover it is not enough simply to be born as a human being because there are countless human beings who do not have the opportunity to practise the Dharma. It is therefore not only necessary to be born as a human being, it is also necessary to have the opportunity to practise the Dharma, to develop one’s qualities of morality, mental development and wisdom.
The Buddha spoke about the rarity and the precious nature of opportune birth amongst human beings. He used a simile to illustrate this point. Suppose the whole world were a vast ocean, and on the surface of this ocean there were a yoke floating about, blown about by the wind, and suppose at the bottom of the ocean there lived a blind tortoise which came to the surface of the ocean once every hundred years. Just as difficult as it would be for that tortoise to place its neck through the opening in that yoke floating about in the ocean, just so difficult is it to attain opportune birth as a human being. Elsewhere, it is said that just as if one were to throw a handful of dried peas against a stone wall, and just as if one of these peas were to stick in a crack in the wall, so to be born as a human being with the opportunity to practise the Dharma is similarly difficult.
It is foolish to waste human existence along with the conducive conditions that we enjoy in free societies, the opportunity that we have to practise the Dharma. It is extremely important that having this opportunity we make use of it. If we fail to practise the Dharma in this life, there is no way of knowing where in the six realms we will be reborn, and when we shall have such a chance again. We must strive to free ourselves from the cycle of rebirth because failing to do so means that we will continue to circle endlessly amongst these six realms of existence. When the karma, wholesome or unwholesome, that causes us to be born in any of the six realms is exhausted, rebirth will occur, and we will find ourselves again in another realm. In fact, it is said that all of us have circled in the these six realms since beginningless time, that if all the skeletons that we have had in our various lives were heaped up, the pile would exceed the height of Mount Sumeru. If all the mothers’ milk that we have drunk throughout our countless existences were collected, the amount would exceed the amount of water in all the oceans. So now that we have the opportunity to practise the Dharma, we must do so without delay.
In recent years, there has been a tendency to interpret the six realms in psychological terms. Some teachers have suggested that the experience of the six realms is available to us in this very life. Undoubtedly, this is true so far as it goes. Those men and women who find themselves in prisons, tortured, killed, and so forth are undoubtedly experiencing a situation similar to that of the hell beings. Similarly, those who are miserly and avaricious experience a state of mind similar to that of the hungry ghosts. And those who are animal-like experience a state of mind similar to that of the animals. Those who are quarrelsome, powerful and jealous experience a state of mind similar to that of the Asuras. Those who are proud, tranquil, serene and exalted experience a state of mind similar to that of the gods. Yet, while it is undoubtedly true that the experience of the six realms is to some extent available to us in this human existence, I think it would be a mistake to assume or to believe that the six realms of existence do not have a reality which is as real as our human experience. The hells, the realm of the hungry ghosts, animals, demigods and gods are as real as our human realm. We will recall that mind is the creator of all mental states. Actions done with a pure mind motivated by generosity, love and so forth result in happy mental states or states of existence like the human realm and the realm of the gods. But actions done with an impure mind affected by greed, ill-will and so forth result in unhappy lives like those of the hungry ghosts and hell beings.
Finally, I would like to distinguish rebirth from transmigration. You may have noticed that in Buddhism, we consistently speak of rebirth and not transmigration. This is because in Buddhism we do not believe in an abiding entity, in a substance that trans-migrates. We do not believe in a self that is reborn. This is why when we explain rebirth, we make use of examples which do not require the transmigration of an essence or a substance. For example, when a sprout is born from a seed, there is no substance that transmigrates. The seed and the sprout are not identical. Similarly, when we light one candle from another candle, no substance travels from one to the other, and yet the first is the cause of the second. When one billiard ball strikes another, there is a continuity, the energy and direction of the first ball is imparted to the second. It is the cause of the second billiard ball moving in a particular direction and at a particular speed. When we step twice into a river, it is not the same river and yet there is continuity, the continuity of cause and effect. So there is rebirth, but not transmigration. There is moral responsibility, but not an independent, permanent self. There is the continuity of cause and effect, but not permanence. I want to end with this point because we will be considering the example of the seed and the sprout, and the example of the flame in an oil lamp next week when we discuss dependent origination. And with the help of the teaching of dependent origination, we will understand better how dependent origination makes moral responsibility and notself compatible.
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