Ask any average American what they know about Buddhism, and you'll probably hear three keywords over and over: Karma, Reincarnation, and Enlightenment (nirvana). I'll admit, back before I decided to investigate Buddhism myself, my impressions were generally the same: here's an Asian religion where they believe if you meditate a lot and do good works, you'll get reincarnated higher and higher up the ladder of life until, eventually, you reach enlightenment and dissolve into a state of eternal bliss.
Turns out... not exactly.
Now, it is certainly true that there are Buddhists who believe those things--I certainly won't argue that. There are Buddhist sects that number in the tens, and even hundreds, of millions that believe those things, sure.
But I will argue that, not only are those supernatural beliefs not a requisite to call oneself a Buddhist, supernaturalism is not even a requisite for understanding the aspects of karma, rebirth and enlightenment and for gaining something from that understanding.
Most people imagine karma to be a metaphysical tally of our good works and evil deeds, recorded by someone or something, that affects what happens to us in this life or maybe even a future one. Certainly there are many religions, including some sects of Buddhism, that preach that, and the concept has even worked its way into pop culture.
But the Buddhist understanding of karma goes back to the word's roots. In the ancient Sanskrit, "karma" meant, simply, an action or deed, with the implicit understanding that every action would have some type of reaction. Karma, as understood generally by Buddhism but certainly by Natural Buddhism, is simply the reality that actions have consequences. Every word we speak, every action we take, ripples out from us to the rest of the world, and will have many unforeseen consequences.
But karma is not purely about external ripples; actions are understood to affect the person who performed them, as well. I like the phrase, "neurons that fire together, wire together" to explain the principle of how karma does affect one's "fate." The actions we take change our own perception of ourselves. They form habits. A lie, for example, isn't always an unwise action because of how it may hurt other people; it may also be an unwise action because it makes it easier for us to lie the next time. And so, in this way, it may be said that lying generates bad karma, not because some metaphysical force is keeping track and waiting to smite us with punishment, but because we are setting ourselves up for future suffering.
I find the topic of rebirth in Buddhism to be an interesting one, and I freely confess that I am still a bit of an amateur when it comes to understanding the very widespread Buddhist idea of rebirth. If a central Buddhist truth is anatman--the truth that there is no Self--what is it that reincarnates into different bodies? From a metaphysical standpoint, this makes no sense to me. From a naturalistic standpoint, though, I find the idea of rebirth both uplifting and refreshing.
There are two sides of rebirth to a Natural Buddhist: the physical, and the relational.
I first became aware--not just intellectually, but on a deep, emotional level--of the physical nature of rebirth when I watched The Fountain. In fact, I cannot think of a greater teaching on the nature of life, death, and rebirth than The Fountain, so I would highly encourage you to go watch it, if you haven't already.
But, to sum up a beautiful and enlightening movie in a few banal lines, the moment it all clicked for me was when Rachel Weisz's character, Izzy, was explaining to her husband, (Hugh Jackman's) Tommy, how she had come to accept her impending death. She told the story of a man she had met while exploring Mayan ruins in Central America; he related to her how his father had died, yet he was not sad for he knew his father lived on. A tree, he said, had been planted above his father's grave, and his father's spirit lived on in the tree. When a bird ate the fruit from the tree and flew away, he said, his father's spirit flew with that bird.
"Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you," the biologist Richard Dawkins said. When the sun shines, plants convert basic elements from the earth into the catalysts for life. When we eat the plants, we transform those elements into our body, which we then use to gaze at the stars--the descendants of the same supernovas that forged our atoms.
And, when we die, our elements are returned to the earth, to forge new lives and new thoughts.
This is the physical reality of rebirth.
The relational truth of rebirth is one we've all seen, we all acknowledge. But it is one of those truths that it is useful to point out again, from time to time.
How many of us were lucky enough to know our great-grandparents? Probably some, but by no means all. How many of us know even the names of our great-great-grandparents? Probably even fewer.
Yet, I guarantee you, the lives they lived had a very real impact on our lives, today. And I'm not talking about the big, obvious things like their financial choices or relationships, but about their personality quirks, their likes and dislikes, their tics and tendencies. Character attributes like courage, perseverance, honesty--these things get passed down from parent to child just as surely as any material inheritance, and can continue from generation to generation.
In this way, our good actions, our good karma, gets "reborn" in future generations. And, it should go without saying, our bad karma gets reborn, too... by weighing future generations down with things like guilt, insecurity, hatred.
Everything changes; our personalities are affected by causes that have come before. Even as the molecules in our body will one day be the seeds for future life, who we are now in our character plants seeds that will be future personalities.
Enlightenment - Bringing it all together
In English, the word "nirvana" is often translated as "enlightenment," but an equally valid (and far more useful) translation is "awakening." At its most basic, to be Awakened in the Buddhist sense means to become aware of everything I've laid out above and in the previous post. It means to recognize that all things are interconnected, and that all things are constantly changing. It means to become aware that unhappiness is a natural state, but that it, too, is connected to causes and, as an impermanent thing, it may be curtailed. One who has awakened recognizes all these things... and acts.
I hope in my own humble way I've helped you to understand Buddhism a bit better, and why I think it is a valuable practice no matter what your underlying beliefs. I realize I moved pretty quickly on some very broad topics, so if there are any questions or things you'd like to see more on--or if you disagree or feel I've done a topic a disservice--please post a comment!
In my next post, I'm going back to where it all began... The Buddha.
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