The basic foundation of Buddhism is the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. However, like most religions, there are various lineages, or denominations. Although the core belief is the same, the interpretation of some of the teachings will differ. Such is the case with reincarnation.

Buddhism originated in India about 2,500 years ago. From here it spread east over the next centuries. Often the local religion and customs influenced the understanding of the teachings. In some Southeast Asian areas there was a literal interpretation of the reference to “cycle of birth and death.” Depending on how you had lived your life you would come back as a higher or lower life form. Only after a series “good” lives would you attain enlightenment.

Tibetan Buddhism also has a form of reincarnation. Many people are familiar with the Dalai Lama. According to Tibetan tradition, a child destined to be the Dalai Lama will show a familiarity with objects that belonged to a previous Dalai Lama. This familiarity indicates that aspects of the deceased have been reborn in this child. I once read a good explanation of this idea. The author, a Tibetan monk, used the example of a candle. From a candle a second candle is lit. From the second candle another is lit. This is repeated one million times. The last candle is not the first candle. However, it contains a part of the first candle that was the source of the original flame.

Most Buddhist traditions have the concept of “no soul.” This is the belief that an eternal, unchanging, individual soul does not exist. Instead, all things are constantly changing. This is the idea of impermanence. Often, when someone asked our founding minister, “Sensei, what happens when you die?”, his answer would simply be, “You die.” He wanted the questioner to deal with this life and the actions they take, rather than on what might happen after they die. Our temple’s focus on the teaching of “cycle of life and death” is one of an ongoing process. The infant “dies” to become the child. The child “dies” to become the adult. The adult “dies” to become the elderly. Along the way we experience suffering. Our hope is always that some event in the future will end this suffering. As we approach the end of this human existence, with our suffering still intact, we long for another life. Perhaps in this next life our suffering will disappear.

Buddhist teachings tell us that we must overcome our suffering in this life. Only when we are complete in the present moment can we attain enlightenment. An awareness of the “Oneness” of all things, how all actions have infinite effects, is a key to this awakening. Rather than a physical, individual rebirth we are constantly reborn as the result of our actions. To spend this life worrying about what happens after death is to waste the one life of which we can be certain.

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