Monday, February 7, 2011

Past Lives?

I am told by many of my Buddhist friends that our current situation is results of the accumulation of our Karma from past lives.

What “past lives” are they referring too?

If Zen Buddhists say there is “No Self” who is there to have past lives?

Can anyone explain this?

29 comments:

  1. Hello Miles.

    I don't know, but it might be better to leave out terms like 'karma' as I think people often have ideas about what that means which are not consistent with what Buddhist teaching sees the term indicating. The first sentence of your post looks like something to do with Hinduism maybe.

    Well, here's a few stones in the pond to get it going:

    Where does the past exist? Where do our past actions exist? Where has the past ever existed, and does it contain 'lives' that effect our current actions in the real time/world?

    Does the past really pile up like this? If so, where does it pile up?

    Regards,

    Harry.

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  2. The misunderstanding of karma is perhaps one of the biggest obstacles in this path. That, and the obsession with the "no self" concept.

    As I understand it, karma means your actions have consequences. I'm pretty sure this is so in a "mind" level, where anger leads to your mind being more prone to anger and suffering, while happiness leads your mind to be more calm, or things like that. I have experienced that. Besides, your mood will also affect the way you experience reality.

    On a bigger level, I can see that being nice to other people makes them be nicer to you, and being harsh and rude makes people uncomfortable. That in turn changes a lot of what you are going to experience. That would be a "short-term" karma, if you like.

    Lastly, I can understand that there are actions that mark your whole life, like killing a person.

    What I don't get is this whole "past lives" issue. The Buddha said that he remembered "being born many many times", but he also said that "we" are nothing permanent, always changing. So I am as puzzled as Miles is.

    There are authors (like Ajahn Buddhadasa, if I understand him right) that state that every quote in the Pali Canon in which the Buddha says something about rebirth can (and should) be interpreted in terms of the birth of the "I" concept, and that "past lives" refer to all those times in our life where we have considered ourselves an "I". Other monks say they have experienced past lives. Other monks don't say if they have experienced this, but tell us to be cautious and not attach to one point of view or another.

    So, while I tend to agree with Buddhadasa's explanation, I also understand that I don't know everything, and that rejecting a concept just because it doesn't fit in my thinking is not following the Way. The question, I think, is, "Do we really need to posit "rebirth" to keep on practising?" For me, the answer is no. So I don't worry too much about this. If rebirth is there, I will notice when I'm dead (or not, who knows). And if it isn't, that will be it. The fact remains that I, Pablo, am suffering right now, and that I can't wait to put an end to it.

    PS: as for everything being "results of the accumulation of our Karma from past lives", a monk leading a retreat told us that if the building upon us collapsed and killed us, probably it wouldn't be because our being members of a Nazi squadron in our past life, but because the architect had been careless when he designed the building.

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  3. So, in short, I can't explain that, Miles, I'm sorry. :P

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  4. Past lifes or not, we have to work on this one. I'm most worried about this life actions and how they create karma which will affect my future than in past life actions.

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  5. The wind fell a tree last night and I could barely drive the car out of the garage.
    Mountains of ice.
    Now the sun enters through the window and into my heart.
    Melting.

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  6. That was Daishin, but now he is gone.

    Already another verse has that name on it.

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  7. How interesting, I thought Koro Kaisan was just making a joke.

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  8. Harry,

    The New Harry Sutra
    No eyes, no ears, no nose, no past, no lives that existed in the non-existent past…. :-)

    Consistent with Buddhist teaching? Is that a Koan? The whole meaning of the post was to point out the inconsistencies of what are promoted as Buddhist Teachings.

    No past? No past lives?- So, is His Holiness the Dali Llama a fraud?


    Pablo,
    “ So, in short, I can't explain that, Miles, I'm sorry.” :P

    Good summation!

    Hernan,
    Gassho!

    Daishin,
    Think- fire wood! :-)

    Michael,
    Uji…Uji…Uji!!!

    Erik,
    Yes… so, what’s the punch line?

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  9. "No past? No past lives?- So, is His Holiness the Dali Llama a fraud?"

    Hi Miles,

    Of course there's a past, but where is it? Where/ when is it effectively made?

    Call me old fashioned, but a teaching is only a valid buddhist teaching when it accords with the realisation of direct buddhist practice/experience: That used to be a Buddhist teaching too... or so they say he said ;-)

    That things don't exist as 'past' doesn't mean that they don't exist as they do now; as any wall will confirm if we try to walk through it... ouch, damned shunyata! That's how real walls are made to exist, and that's buddhist teaching/preaching at its most direct.

    As for HH Dalai Llama; where an awful lot of fanboys/girls are concerned, he may as well be a fraud as far as I can see.

    To his credit; I wouldn't be that smiley and happy if countless insufferable religious assholes tried to build their nests in me. On the other hand he should really help them out more using all manner of skillful means IMO.

    I can't help feeling he's caught up in a brand of 'compassion' that may not be the full of what the buddha ancestors are indicating.

    Regards,

    Harry.

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  10. Koro Kaisan,

    Since no one saw that it was a joke, no one would understand the punchline either. :-D

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  11. Harry raises an interesting point about the Dalai Lama: "I can't help feeling he's caught up in a brand of 'compassion' that may not be the full of what the buddha ancestors are indicating."

    Is helping people understand the truth always the most compassionate thing to do?

    What if it makes them happier to believe that, just like when mummy and daddy shielded them from scary things, there's once more a grown-up come to look after them?

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  12. You must be broad-minded, whole without relying on others... Here you can rest and become clean, pure and lucid. Bright and penetrating, you can immediately return, accord, and respond to deal with events.

    Patch-robed monks make their thinking dry and cool and rest from the rest of conditioning... Directly cut all the overgrown grass.

    That was Hongzhi.

    This is Brad Warner:

    Sit down and shut up

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  13. Right, but there's about seven billion people who are not patch-robed monks...

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  14. Kaishin keeps on polishing the tile to make a mirror.

    (Now I understand why there are screams and kickings in Zen)

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  15. No, no, I'm just polishing it to keep my fingers warm!

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  16. Harry,

    "Call me old fashioned, but a teaching is only a valid buddhist teaching when it accords with the realization of direct buddhist practice/experience: That used to be a Buddhist teaching too... or so they say he said ;-)"

    Deep bow!

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  17. Don't bow so low, I'm still sucking on the dummy tit like everyone else here.

    Regards,

    Harry.

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  18. Sean here - I'm in the habit of thinking of my life as a series of episodes, and as each episode as a "life". That is, "High School Sean" ended, and my next life was "College Sean (I)." That life ended when I became "College Sean (II)," and that ended when I became "Father Sean."

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  19. Hi Sean,

    Me too. And it kind of fits the reincarnation notion of working one's way up to enlightenment. For example, this "me" would have handled college life much better than "college me" did!

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  20. So am I to assume from this string of comments that everyone agrees that their current situation and thinking has absolutely nothing to do with past lives?

    Does my father’s intentions in joining the military have anything to do with my ability to participate in this blog? Or anything to do with my intentions as I throw my mental clutter out into cyberspace?

    Don’t get me wrong, I totally agree with Harry:

    “That things don't exist as 'past' doesn't mean that they don't exist as they do now; as any wall will confirm if we try to walk through it... ouch, damned shunyata! That's how real walls are made to exist, and that's buddhist teaching/preaching at its most direct.”

    But I’m not just referring to physical past, I’m referring to the past and how it affects our thoughts and intentions now. What about the past affecting what we think, say and do at this very moment? Does the past or “past lives” have any bearing on my current thoughts and/or intentions?

    Michaels “past life” as Michael the College Student, must have some effect on who he is now as Michael the Wiser . What affect does Michael’s grandparents have on what Michael is thinking right now? Would his thoughts and intentions be different “now” if his grandparents had been different then?

    Do I have to overcome my father’s bigotry? Or is that just his problem?

    I am fully aware of the Buddhist interpretation of Karma and how it is different from general cause and effect, but what does our direct experience teach us about how the past affects our current thoughts, intentions and actions?

    What about Michael’s statement : “Right, but there's about seven billion people who are not patch-robed monks... “ What do “seven billion people” or the “past lives” of seven billion people have to do with my intentions right now?

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  21. Hum...I'm not sure if I understand this right, but the past affects us in many ways: Miles's father's intentions to join the military affected the person he became and so affected the way he related to Miles. So does everyone's past: that's what becomes our surroundings, our "culture", and that's part of our growing up too.

    Is that what you meant?

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  22. But I’m not just referring to physical past, I’m referring to the past and how it affects our thoughts and intentions now. What about the past affecting what we think, say and do at this very moment? Does the past or “past lives” have any bearing on my current thoughts and/or intentions?

    Hi Miles,

    I think that, if you care to take a look, the past currently exists (if indeed it can be said to 'exist') nowhere else other than in what you are currently thinking about it.

    At the same time, we shouldn't neglect it on this basis: Baizhang said, "Don't ignore cause and effect".

    The implication of the effects of 'the past' and/or 'past lives' on our current actions is very clear when we clearly discern this.

    Should we revisit the Wild Fox Koan to clarify it?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_fox_koan

    Regards,

    Harry.

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  23. The problem with the Wild Fox koan is that it gives the idea of individual rebirth, i.e. atman.

    This is a specific type of cause and effect and one which is at odds with anicca, sunyata and, of course, anatman.

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  24. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear...

    H.

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  25. Every time Baizhang, Zen Master Dahui, gave a dharma talk, a certain old man would come to listen. He usually left after the talk, but one day he remained. Baizhang asked, "Who is there?"

    Yes indeed, who is there?

    The man said, "I am not actually a human being. I lived and taught on this mountain at the time of Kashyapa Buddha. One day a student asked me, 'Does a person who practices with great devotion still fall into cause and effect?' I said to him, 'No, such a person doesn't.'

    If this was the case our getting free would have no basis and couldn't be real. Or, in other words, there would be no 'past' to be free of, or to free us. 'Past lives' are already freedom as they really exist now.

    Because I said this I was reborn as a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes. Reverend master, please say a turning word for me and free me from this wild fox body."

    If the old man can be freed from five hundred lifetimes with a turning word in the present then the five hundred lifetimes must already be here; they can't exist at any other time just as Baizhang can't speak at any other time or 'turn' any moment other than the real moment.

    Then he asked Baizhang, "Does a person who practices with great devotion still fall into cause and effect?"

    Baizhang said, "Don't ignore cause and effect."


    I think we'd want to be very clear as to what constitutes 'cause and effect' here. We might tend to associate that term with the science of Physics (and this translation, taken from the wikipedia article above, doesn't really help in that regard) but actually it refers to the Buddhist scheme of causality, 'karma', or, most directly, to our own intentional actions (including our intentional thoughts). So, in a practical sense, this means that we should not ignore or negelct our own intentional activities, or 'transcend' them or seek to avoid them, we should realise them as what they are.

    Immediately the man had great realization. Bowing, he said, "I am now liberated from the body of a wild fox. I will stay in the mountain behind the monastery. Master, could you perform the usual services for a deceased monk for me?"

    He didn't disappear in a puff of smoke. He was still there in his body, and yet he was liberated from the body of a wild fox. What need to talk of 500 lifetimes now?

    Baizhang asked the head of the monks' hall to inform the assembly that funeral services for a monk would be held after the midday meal. The monks asked one another, "What's going on? Everyone is well; there is no one sick in the Nirvana Hall." After their meal, Baizhang led the assembly to a large rock behind the monastery and showed them a dead fox at the rock's base. Following the customary procedure, they cremated the body.

    That evening during his lecture in the dharma hall Baizhang talked about what had happened that day. Huangbo asked him, "A teacher of old gave a wrong answer and became a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes. What if he hadn't given a wrong answer?"


    What if he'd just said nothing? What would have happened to him then?

    Baizhang said, "Come closer and I will tell you." Huangbo went closer and slapped Baizhang's face. Laughing, Baizhang clapped his hands and said, "I thought it was only barbarians who had unusual beards. But you too have an unusual beard!"

    The 'barbarian's unusual beard' thing is a reference to Master Bodhidharma. Huangbo understood the ancestral Master's intention and, not resting on his laurels or assumptions, delivered a little 'wakey-wakey' teaching of his own!

    Regards,

    Harry.

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  26. Concept of past lives refers to the mind stream which incarnates though there is no self the mistaken belief of your mind stream incarnates and keeps believing again in the illusion of self until it stops with liberation.

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  27. Hi there.
    I stumbled upon this website while writing a paper on Indian Buddhism.

    I'm gonna have to answer your question as an academic.

    Firstly, karma.
    Karma WAS appropriated from the Brahmin (Hindu) tradition, which is what Buddhism arose out of. Karma originally refers to actions, but came to be understood as the merit or reward gained from those actions. This merit, good or bad, is what drives the cycle of rebirth, or samsara (another concept from the Brahmin tradition).

    Now we arrive at past lives.
    The Buddha, in texts I have read, says that there is no identifiable, individual portion of a person that one could call the self. A person is only a collection of parts, aggregates. Upon death, these parts will move off and change and what-not, until reborn somewhere else, as someone else.

    The concept of no-self means that there is nothing continuous between you and your past selves, because nothing between them and you is truly carried over. Your past lives have different appearances, different personalities, but share the thread of karma. That force is what causes the parts to reform into a new person.

    As Buddhists, as far as I know, your goal is to escape this cycle. One of the traits of a Buddha is remembering his past lives. There is a text, called the Jataka Commentaries, where he tells stories of these past lives, as parables, to teach a lesson. The point of this is that the Sakyamuni Buddha acknowledges that past lives exist and have value. He is also affected by bad karma he acquired in past lives. If I remember correctly from my readings, he gets sick from eating some sort of truffle near the end of his life, because of something he did in a past life which was actually kinda mean.

    Anyways, past lives and the idea of no-self are not at odds with each other.

    When I read about no-self in these texts, I see it referring to the lack of permanence of the self, the body, the mind, etc. I also see it meaning to let go of pride and greed, the two greatest roots of worldly attachment.

    I hope this answers your query!

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  28. Hi Bradrian,

    The Jataka tales are traditional Hinduist tales that were inserted in the Buddhist Canon much later after the Buddha's death, I don't remember exactly why. The thing is we're pretty sure the Buddha didn't teach those tales.

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  29. Hi Bradrian,

    welcome to the blog!

    I'm with you as far as, "The concept of no-self means that there is nothing continuous between you and your past selves, because nothing between them and you is truly carried over."

    However, your next point appears to be a contradiction of this view: "Your past lives have different appearances, different personalities, but share the thread of karma. That force is what causes the parts to reform into a new person. As Buddhists, as far as I know, your goal is to escape this cycle..."

    The problem is that this paragraph implies we, as individuals, are attached (by karma) to individual past lives. However, the Buddhist view (perhaps more strongly emphasised in Zen) is that we do not exist as individuals and never have done.

    Various things make up the me that started this response and a slightly different combination is already in operation. By the time "I" die it will be a different combination of matter and energies which will then go on to make a myriad other things.

    I'm not trying to escape rebirth because there is no "me" to be reborn. I'm going to exist when I die - but only as small parts of the sunset, the ocean, a squirrel, a dog, a tree, a keyboard.

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