Rebirth? No-rebirth?

In two of my classes this week, questions have arisen over the necessity of believing in rebirth to benefit from the Buddhism.

In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha was asked several questions by people who had been visited by various religious teachers. Each of them said that their doctrines were correct, and those of the others were wrong. From the response of the Buddha, we see that the underlying issues concerning the Kalamas were the reality of rebirth and the karmic retributions for good and evil deeds.

A section of the sutta, or sutra in Sanskrit, gives four assurances, two of which address rebirth. Essentially, the Buddha said that if there is rebirth, the noble student who has a pure mind that is free from greed and hostility, and who pervades the universe with loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity, will encounter two possibilities. If rebirth exists, this person who no longer experiences craving or hatred will enjoy the results from his goodness in a future life. If there is no rebirth, this person will still get to enjoy the immediate results from no longer being pulled first one way and than another by insatiable cravings or from feeling the bitter residue of hatred. Either way, the person receives good retributions. 

Rebirth can help us to understand why there are times when bad things happen to good people. And conversely, why bad people sometimes seem to be immune from suffering the consequences of their actions. But even if we are not yet convinced of the existence of rebirth, we can still practice the teachingswe can still feel the joy from doing what we know in our hearts to be right.    


Transformation Takes Time

956849-644374-thumbnail.jpgChanging our habitual ways of doing thing takes time. But in a a society that wants instant gratification, this is a tough concept to accept. We don't like to wait. We don't have the time to be patient. We have a lot to do, and we expect quick results.

But effecting lasting change takes time. Do not have expectations of achieving a lot quickly in your practice. In fact, do not have any expectations at all. Start from where you are, and learn gradually how to put the teachings into practice by starting with the things that are easier to change.

As you begin to improve in little ways, you will gain the confidence and experience to know how to change in more meaningful ways. This changing and improving of yourself will take time. Understanding this, give yourself the time you need.


Better Than Uncontrolled

Better it is to live one day
wise and meditative
than to live a hundred years
foolish and uncontrolled. 

Better it is to live one day
strenuous and resolute
than to live a hundred years
sluggish and dissipated. 

The Dhammapada
translated by Venerable Buddharakkhita 


Is Buddhism a Religion?



This question comes up periodically. I also discuss it periodically, but then something is said somewhere by someone and the question comes up again. For some, it's not an issue. But for those who have a religion, viewing Buddhism as one can become problematic. How can you learn to practice another religion when you already have one that is working for you? Others who do not have a religion may have made the conscious decision not to have one. Why should they accept one now ?

So how does Buddhism fit into such a picture? Is it or isn't it a religion?

Once, the Buddha was asked if he was a god. The Buddha replied that, no, he was not a god. Then was he an angel? No. A spirit? No. Then what was he? The Buddha replied that he was awake. So by his own assertion, the Buddha was not a god. He was a man who had awakened to universal truths—to the Dharma.

What about our meditating on a Buddha's name? Isn't that a religious practice? No, it is meditative concentration. In Pure Land practice, we chant "Amituofo," the name of a Buddha, to focus our thoughts on him, to become one with him. Whatever we are focusing on, we are.

For example, I could chant "peace," or "compassion," or "unconditional love." I wouldn't be worshiping peace or compassion, I'd be meditating on them—focusing my thoughts on them to quiet my mind and to develop these qualities. Whatever I think, I will become.

By focusing on the name of a Buddha, in this case on the name of the Buddha of Infinite Light and Infinite Life, I am focusing on perfect peace, compassion, unconditional love, and all the other perfect virtues of a Buddha. I am not worshiping these virtues, rather, I am trying to perfect them in myself by having them in my mind. 

So our practice is not the worship of the Buddha or his name. We practice to awaken to the truth.  


Guilt and Regret

"I wish I had not said that to him." "If only I had made her go to the doctor sooner." "I could have been nicer and more patient with him." "Why didn't I tell her I loved her more often."

Perhaps you have had these or similar thoughts. After our loved one dies, we may find ourselves rethinking things we said or did not say. We may become frustrated and possibly feel guilty for what we did or did not do while they were alive. We can get entangled in "I should haves," "I could haves," and "if onlys."

Are we judging ourselves too harshly and unrealistically? Human beings are not perfect. No matter how hard we've tried, things may occur to us after the death that we wish we could go back and change.

It is important to understand the differences between guilt and regret. We feel guilty if we intended to hurt or harm someone. We feel regret if we did something we wish we could change, but we did not mean to harm or hurt our loved one.

Our guilt or regret can teach us to do better now and in the future. It can make us more positive and caring people. There are some things we can do to make amends and to make us feel better about what has happened:

  • Write a letter-to the-person who died to say-the-things­ that you need to say to them or to apologize.
  • Tell those who are still alive that you love them and care about them. Say "I'm sorry" when you need to.
  • Forgive yourself. Tell yourself over and over that you did the best you could at that time and under those circumstances. It is likely the person who died would forgive you for your unintentional mistakes and shortcomings. Say it as often as you need to.
  • Forgive the person who died. Our loved ones were not perfect either. Forgiving them allows you to find peace.
  • Do kind things for others in your loved one's name.

With time our guilt and regrets fade. Our burden lightens and we are able to put our feelings in perspective.

~ Reflections, Issue 2 2007, Publication of The Center for Hospice and Palliative Care