A lot of people seem to think about re-incarnation from what strikes me as an egoist point of view. Consider. When considering future lives, they seem to think that when this body dies, my ego will go forward into the future and be reborn into another body. But I will still be I, only within a different body, a body answering to the name of, let us say, Griffith Powell living in Corwen, North Wales, in the 22nd century.
When considering past lives, people seem to think in essentially the same way. This ego that is inhabiting my current body used to inhabit a different body, a body answering to the name of, let us say, Pavel Grigorevich Ivanov, living in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the 17th century. But this Pavel Grigorevitch is still me.
Griffith and Pavel Grigorevich are just a little confused about whom they really are. They think they are somebody else, but they are really me, me in disguise if you like. It is not that I am Pavel Grigorevich in a future life but that Pavel Grigorevich is me in a past life. By the same token, it is not that I am Griffith in a past life but that Griffith is me in a future life. Somehow this way of thinking doesn’t strike me as very likely. I’m reasonably sure neither Griffith nor Pavel Grigorevich would see it that way.
Now consider the Buddhists insight that there is no enduring ego. What we call “I” is just another thing that comes together and so will also come apart. Whatever “I” am, “I” will no more survive than will this living body that I call mine. This makes sense to me, and it is on this that I build my view of death.
But Buddhists also seem to put great store by re-incarnation. If “I” has no enduring reality, how can there be any re-incarnation? They must think about it differently. Consider this metaphor. Your ego, your self, is a burning candle. As you live your life, it leans now this way and now that way, slowly approaching another, unburning, candle. You get closer and closer to that other candle, and at the moment of your death, your flame ignites the other candle and then goes out.
“What about Karma?” I can imagine someone asking. “How does karma fit into this candle metaphor?” First, contrary to popular opinion, karma, I think, is not about what goes around coming around. It is about the direction of one’s life. At the risk of pushing the metaphor to the breaking point, karma, I think, is what determines the direction one’s candle happens to be leaning. This way; that way; another way; it’s all about the karma one builds up until eventually, at one’s death, one’s karma pushes one’s candle all the way to another candle and ignites that new candle.
Clearly, like all metaphors, this has its limitations, but consider. Is the flame in that new candle the same flame as the flame in the old one, or is it a new flame entirely? And even more important, why does it matter? Why does any of this matter? What difference does it make what metaphor of death moves you?
So far, so Buddhist, eh? But wait. There’s more. One hears Buddhists saying that Life and Death is The Great Issue. Yet I have found all this concern about re-birth, re-incarnation, karma, and the like is simply so much idle speculation and not a skillful means at all. After all, none of this is something that any of us will ever know anything about, at least not until we actually do die. So why worry about any of it?
It seems to me far more important to direct my attention to this very life I am leading right now, this very moment. Is it not more important to direct my attention to leading an authentic life as I am living it and rather than to worry about whatever may or may not happen next or what may have happened previously? I’m afraid Griffith and Pavel Grigorevich will just have to take care of themselves, as, of course, they will whether or not I waste any time thinking about them.
Instead, I am impressed with what Christians call prayer without ceasing and Zen Buddhists call sitting while not sitting. This, it seems to me, is what it means to live an authentic life: to break the wall between spiritual practice and day-to-day living, making of every act an act of spiritual practice, every word spoken or even thought a prayer, every breath a meditation. To the extent that I do that, what possible worries might I have about death? And to the extent that I do not, shouldn’t this be where I exert my effort?