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« Pureland, "Buddhism Itself", Christianity & Western Buddhism | Main | "zen" cinema »

06 October 2005


Wounded Duck

Reincarnation, like Jesus' resurrection or Mohommed's ascension, isn't supposed to be taken literally. Rebirth is a metaphor to help us understand that unless we do something to stop making the same mistakes, we're doomed to a life of misery and stupidity. The problem arises when charismatic morons start telling people the metaphor is literal.


Thanks for lifting that question out. In fact I had promised an earlier reader here -- Mark? -- that I'd post something to his website on the topic, and of course never did.

Anything I have to offer on the topic -- and there are 3 general thoughts I'll offer -- is, I warn you, highly subjective. Technically, this belief is considered "heresy" throughout most of Christendom, throughout just about all of Christian history. So I certainly have no "doctrinal" warrant for my thoughts -- nothing in the creeds and confessions, which serve (at least in my own Reformed/Presbyterian tradition) as *guides* (not strait jackets); virtually nothing in mainstream theology; almost nothing in the Bible beyond a few puzzling texts which consistently get interpreted *away* from any reincarnation implications (e.g. John the Baptist *being* Elijah the prophet even though the former lived several centuries after the latter; see Matthew 17:10-13).

So OK, my own offerings on this ...

First: speaking very subjectively, I have a large "shelf" full of mental images -- "memories" -- of people, places and events which are strongly charged with an emotional "aura," a dominant and sometimes overbearing mood: and yet I have never seen those people, been to those places, experienced those events. (Most of these are places, by the way.) They are very clear places -- some in this country, some in East Asia -- and I "know" when I "see" them in art, in photographs, occasionally even in dreams, etc. Or, just occasionally, when I am in a place *like* them -- Eureka Springs, Arkansas in the U.S. is a specific example. I am overwhelmingly haunted by Eureka Springs, but I know that the "core" memory that drives the experience has absolutely nothing to do with Eureka Springs. Eureka is a doorway, nothing more, nothing less ... but a doorway to exactly what, I can't say. I don't understand it at all, but by far the most "satisfying" explanation -- the one and only that speaks directly to the experience in a way that immediately settles all restlessness around it (if not the intense "aura" of mood and feeling) -- is that this comes from a life before the one I now live. (Well, I *warned* you this is very subjective.)

Second, and maybe even more subjective: life around me, not just my own but what I see going on around me -- the news, the ongoing life of my own relationships and communities, etc. -- makes far more sense to me when I re-frame these things to myself as being karma-driven. And specifically, when I see wildly out-of-proportion and seemingly uncaused *evil* -- and I see it a lot; we all do even if all we ever do is listen to the news or read the papers -- I am *intellectually* far more satisfied with the explanation that this is an "eruption," or perhaps a "backwash" or "undertow" of intense and negative karmic energy out of a past life. I cannot begin to explain why I feel this way, nor will I try. It's just a subjective "weather report": this makes sense to me, more than anything else.

Third, and slightly less subjective: within my own Judeo-Christian tradition, it isn't *un*important that there are strands of belief in reincarnation. Little teeny tiny strands, to be sure, but they are there. I said above that I have "virtually nothing in mainstream theology" to use as a warrant; but the key word is "virtually." Here and there one finds quirky exceptions, such as the 2nd/3rd century CE theologian Origen. A church council condemned his teachings on what we today probably would call "transmigration" (rebirth that crosses species' boundaries, e.g. from flea to grasshopper). I have not read Origen, nor have I (nor *would* I!) read the council texts, although I have them on my shelves somewhere. It has been argued that the council misunderstood him -- that he did *not* teach transmigration, but rather reincarnation (human to human); and that had the council understood that, they might have decided quite differently. I doubt they would have; but again, I don't know, and honestly don't plan to find out.

Along somewhat similar lines: it always has "impressed" me, slightly, that Hasidic Judaism includes belief in reincarnation. I know little about it, and nothing whatsoever about its roots -- e.g. does it date from 1st Century CE Palestine (the approximate time of Jesus and the early Church)? and if so, then were/are there currents in the Jewish theological thought-world of the day that not only don't rule out -- but perhaps actually promote -- such a belief? so that therefore it's not alien to the theological thought world of Jesus (even if He might not have agreed), nor to that of the earliest Church? And even if it (Hasidic reincarnational thought) comes much later ... still, the *seedbed* is Judaism: so to what extent might this be latent within the Judeo-Christian tradition regardless of the era in question? I don't know ... except to say there are these peculiar "outcroppings" here and there.

Did I live before? Did you? In a sense it doesn't matter, or so it would seem to me, because *this* life's issues and challenges are clear enough without the belief. But in the sense that my "heart" -- my deepest self -- seems to be saying to me, "Yes you/we *did* live before" ... well, I'll probably always leave it at that particular impasse ... but deep down, I suspect I'm an older hand at this life business (especially its screw-ups!!) than it says on my driver's license.



P.S. to the above -- I may have implied that belief in karma implies belief in reincarnation, and I certainly did not mean that. Karma is a law of *this* life (of mine) regardless of whether there were any lives (of mine) prior to this one -- I realize that. I intended to stress the seemingly *uncaused* nature of certain kinds of evil ... or for that matter, even certain personality traits of my own. Here and there -- in the world around me, and in my own psyche -- there are things that "happen" or "exist" that seem to me to be fairly *hugely* out of proportion to any recognizable predecessor. I'll spare us all the soap opera confessional here, but there certainly are *intense* psychodynamics of my own that I cannot in *any* way track back to psychosocial dynamics of my own past in this life -- and believe me, I have tried. These things just do not connect to *this* life, unless genetic factors can produce full-blown imagery and emotional aura and *storylines* all on their own, without any prompting whatsoever from the surrounding environment. And that I doubt.

So yes, karma doesn't require reincarnation. But there seem to me to be karmic *intensities* that do.


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