Becoming Convinced of Reincarnation
by Dr. Alexander Berzin
Reincarnation is taken very seriously in Buddhism, but is also found in thought systems all over the world, with different understandings of what it is and how it works. Could rebirth be true? And if so, what would that actually mean in terms of my life and how I lead it? Here we look at the logical reasoning behind rebirth, as well as personal anecdotes that help us gain conviction in this often-misunderstood teaching.
Rebirth is not something that you’ll come to understand after just reading a short article, but we have to start somewhere. When we talk of rebirth, like with anything, there are several ways of understanding it. Of course, there’s the incorrect understanding. Then there’s also the presumption that it’s true even if we don’t understand it. We can also become convinced through logic that there must be rebirth.
I was born in the United States into a family that had absolutely zero interest in anything Asian, but I myself was very interested in Asian philosophy in my youth. I started doing yoga when I was 13, and studied Asian languages and philosophies at university. At the age of 24, I moved to India to study with the Tibetans, and I always had the feeling that I was totally at home there. In fact, I felt as if my entire life up until then had been like a conveyor belt, leading me to the Tibetans in India. While many of the other Westerners I knew who came to India had all sorts of problems with visas and bureaucracy, during my 29 years there I never had the slightest difficulty. From the start, I knew what I wanted to do: translation, not only of languages but really bringing Buddhism from one civilization to another.
This kind of life doesn’t really make sense, when you consider my background and the culture I’m from. I found the idea of rebirth very appealing, not because I properly understood it, but because it helped to make some sense out of my life; that undoubtedly, in a previous life I was Tibetan or someone strongly involved with Buddhism. This was helpful in giving me the self-confidence to continue in this direction, instead of just thinking I was absolutely crazy!
As I continued to study Buddhism, I saw how central a role rebirth plays in Buddhist theory, practice and approach to life, and so really tried to understand the logic behind the what, why and how of it. When I gained some intellectual understanding of it, I realized that it only went so far. I saw that the real question was, what’s it going to be like at the moment of my death? How convinced am I going to be about rebirth? It’s all well and fine to think about it in my normal life, but am I going to approach death with fear, or am I going to be very relaxed about it?
Two Lifetimes with My Teacher
I’ve been incredibly fortunate because I’ve had the amazing opportunity to know someone very well in two lifetimes. This is my main teacher, Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, who in his last life was one of the tutors of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I spent about nine years with him as his apprentice, under his wing, as I trained to be a translator and teacher. I was both his interpreter and his secretary; I wrote letters for him and arranged his travels around the world. I consider myself extremely privileged to have had this very close relationship with him.
When I moved to Dharamsala, I went to see him, and the initiative for me to become like an apprentice to him came basically from his side. He somehow recognized the karmic connection that I had with him, and he said to me, “Stay. Don’t go away. Sit over here and watch how I deal with other people.” He started to teach me about what he was actually talking about, and explained to me words that I didn’t understand. Mind you, he was one of the most highly realized great masters of the previous generation, so it was extraordinary that he gave me so much of his time and care.
He died in 1983, in very special circumstances where he took on some karmic obstacle to the life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and then after exactly nine months to the day, he was reborn. He certainly wasn’t interested in hanging out in the bardo! Before he died, he already let certain people know exactly what he would do so everything was clear. Then – bam! – he took rebirth in the same place where he passed away. When they look for reincarnations, sometimes a great lama has a vision in a dream or something like that, and then they go around looking for and testing children. The real test is if it comes from the side of the child.
Finding the New Serkong Rinpoche
The area where Serkong Rinpoche died and was reborn is the Himalayan valley of Spiti, on the Indian side of the border with Tibet. Buddhism was in a very difficult and degenerate state there, and the old Serkong Rinpoche had gone there and basically reformed Buddhism by restarting the monasteries, building a school and so forth. People regarded him almost as the Saint of Spiti Valley, and everyone had a picture of him in their house, including the parents of the rebirth. When the little Serkong Rinpoche was old enough to speak, he would go up to the picture and say, “That’s me.” That’s when he was two – he was absolutely clear about who he was. When he was about four, the people from the former Serkong Rinpoche’s household went to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and asked where they should look for the rebirth. His Holiness said it would be in the same valley where the old one had passed away. When they arrived at the house of the rebirth in Spiti, the little Serkong Rinpoche, four years old, ran into the arms of his old attendant, and knew him by name.
The young Serkong Rinpoche, who is now 18, told me that at that time he was only interested in going with them. He had no interest in staying with his parents anymore, saying that he had to go and meet someone very important to him – His Holiness the Dalai Lama. When a child is recognized as a high incarnate lama among the Tibetans or in Tibetan cultural areas, it’s considered a great honor, and the parents were happy for the child to go. Serkong Rinpoche has said that he has never missed his parents. When he left them, he never cried and never wanted to go back home. That’s really unusual for a 4-year-old. And it wasn’t that his parents had mistreated him or anything like that. They’re very wonderful people.
I was on a teaching tour when the young rebirth arrived in Dharamsala, but a few months later I went to see him. He must have been almost five by then. The attendant said to him, “Do you know who this is?” when I entered the room, and the young Serkong Rinpoche replied, “Don’t be stupid, of course I know who this is.” I was a little suspicious because actually there was a photo of me and the old Serkong Rinpoche together on one of the sitting room walls, so I thought maybe he knew me from the picture. But what started to convince me was that this 4-year-old totally accepted me as a family member, from the very start. He wasn’t like this toward other people, and this isn’t something you can easily fake as a 4-year-old.
Over the years as he’s grown up, I have given general advice and guidance as to how he should be raised, but I have kept a bit of a distance, very much on purpose. I didn’t want him to become too influenced by my own Western ways or culture, and I wanted him to grow up in a totally Tibetan atmosphere where he’d feel completely at home in a Tibetan monastic context. And so he did.
So, when it came to education in modern subjects, I arranged for a Tibetan to teach him English, science and so forth, just like all other Tibetans do in India. I think this approach was very successful, as he has now grown up comfortable in his society and position.
As Serkong Rinpoche was growing up, I’d see him every few years. Now that he’s older I’ve seen him more, and speak with him on the phone often, and I also accompanied him on his first visit to the West. The relationship has managed to stay very, very close. A year and a half ago, I visited Serkong Rinpoche in India, and he was basically graduating from one step in his education, ready to go on to the next step. I went with an English friend, Alan Turner, who was also a close disciple of the old Serkong Rinpoche, and the young Serkong Rinpoche also saw him as very special. I used to translate a tremendous amount of private teachings between these two, and I got to do it again. As we were sitting there with the new Serkong Rinpoche, I said, “You know, it’s really a wonderful feeling to be translating for you again.” He replied, “Of course you’re doing this. It’s your karma. Last lifetime, this lifetime, it’s absolutely natural.”
Our relationship has continued to grow and it’s things like this from my personal experience that make me convinced, much more than logic can, of the validity of rebirth. Aside from certain habits and things he studies, his interests are very much similar to what they were in his previous life. But it was the personal connection – that, to me, was the most convincing. He’s very supportive of my website and I keep him up to date with everything I’m doing. Of course, I’m preserving his teachings from his last lifetime, not only so that it will be a source for him, but so that in my next lifetime I will continue to come into contact with them.
I have also known Yongdzin Ling Rinpoche in two lifetimes. I translated occasionally for the old one, who was the senior tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and certainly studied with him. His reincarnation is a year younger than Serkong Rinpoche. When I was in India with Alan, we also went to see the new Ling Rinpoche. I hadn’t seen him for years, ever since he was much younger. He recognized me, was very interested in what I was doing, and so on. Now, when you go to see Tibetans, they always serve you tea and cookies. My favorite is McVitie’s digestive biscuits, and somehow, even if we’re in a monastery in the middle of the jungle in South India, his attendant served these to me along with my tea. And the young Ling Rinpoche just looked at me with this, “Haha! You don’t believe in karma and rebirth huh?!” type of thing.
What Is Rebirth?
Of course, when we’re looking at rebirth, we have to understand what is actually going on, because we could become convinced of an incorrect understanding also. To be convinced that it actually exists then, it’s much more helpful to be convinced on a correct basis. The general approach to the Buddhist understanding is to first of all put the incorrect views aside so that we can get to what the correct view is.
What Rebirth Isn’t
Firstly, the Buddhist explanation does not include any idea of a soul with a definite identity, or some solid thing that goes from one body to another. We could think this, because there’s Serkong Rinpoche in one lifetime, and here’s the next Serkong Rinpoche one lifetime later. This might make us come to the conclusion that there is an entity called “Serkong Rinpoche” that goes from one body to another. This is not so. Of course in the case of these high lamas, they continue to be identifiable over several lifetimes, but this isn’t the case with ordinary people.
What we talk about in Buddhism is basically a continuation of a mental continuum or mind-stream. Depending on our actions, connected to this mental continuum, we are going to manifest with a certain type of body in each subsequent life. This continuum is not always “Alex” – or whatever your name is. It’s not like I’m Alex the human in this life and, in the next life, Alex the human is reincarnated as Fifi the poodle. It’s just due to various actions previously done, the mental continuum manifests as a human or dog or whatever, and will happen to get the name Alex or Fifi.
In the Buddhist formulation, there isn’t the idea that the rebirths are getting better and better, and once you get a human form you’ll always have a human form. The Buddhist view is that depending on the actions and their habits associated with that mental continuum, rebirths go up and down – human, animal, ghost, god, and so on. The manifestation depends precisely on one’s own behavior, as there is nothing external whatsoever dealing out punishments or lessons to learn.
So what we’re dealing with is a continuity over time of an unbroken succession of moments, sort of like a movie, where there’s one frame at a time and it goes on and on. Unlike a movie though, we can’t posit a beginning or end to this continuity of moments, which is very difficult to comprehend. We can’t see that it has no beginning and end and so we need to use logic to understand this point.
When we talk about something that continues to be reborn, it’s the mind. So we have to understand exactly what we mean by mind in Buddhism. It’s not a solid thing like the brain, nor is it something immaterial in the manner in which mind is understood in the West, but it is merely the activity of individually and subjectively experiencing things, which is always happening. And we’re not talking about the thing that does the activity; we’re talking about the mental activity itself.
This individual, subjective experiencing of things comes in many different flavors. What is actually happening each moment is that there’s an arising of some sort of mental appearance, like a mental hologram, and a mental engagement with that appearance. So we have the arising of sights, sounds, thoughts, feelings, emotions and so on. The arising of these appearances and the experiencing of them is the same thing.
There is no separate “me” from this whole process, that’s either making it happen, or controlling it, or out of control, or observing it. It’s just happening and going on. Each moment has a separate flavor, one moment there’ll be sight, the next – sound, the next – the feeling of anger or happiness. This goes on unceasingly: even when we sleep, we’re experiencing being asleep, and even when we die, we’re experiencing death.
The Continuation of Matter/Energy and of Experiencing Things When Buddhism talks of continuity, it could be of either matter and energy or of the individual, subjective experiencing of things. Both of these continuities transform from moment to moment. So a tree transforms into wood, which then becomes a table, which then becomes firewood, that then transforms into fire and ashes, then heat energy, and so on. Nothing is lost – this is continuity in the same category of matter and energy. Similarly, we have the experience of interest becoming attention, becoming annoyance, becoming boredom, becoming tiredness. The experiencing just transforms into another type of the same category of phenomenon.
Now, anger cannot transform into a table, and wood cannot transform into anger. So we can follow the lines of reasoning for the continuation of the body. Firstly, the sperm and egg of the parents transform into the body of a baby, which becomes the body of a teenager, which becomes the body of an adult, which itself creates more sperm and eggs for future generations. There is this continuity on the level of the body. Does the same thing happen with our experiencing of things? Does the parent’s experiencing of things transform into the child’s experiencing of things? It’s something we need to think about. Of course, the parent’s experience of things might influence what we experience, but does their experience of seeing a movie transform into my experience of seeing that movie also? When you think about it, this doesn’t make sense.
So there has to be some different type of mechanism going on here. The experiencing of things does not appear to be a transformation from the parents to the child, like the sperm and the egg creating the body. We could ask whether the experiencing of things has a physical source, and that the body from the parents creates the experiencing of things. We have to examine this. Yes, the experiencing of things always depends upon a physical basis, but does this support create the experiencing? It’s like a glass of water. The glass contains the water but doesn’t create the water. The glass is necessary to contain the water, but it certainly doesn’t create it. Likewise a body is necessary to contain experiencing, but we can’t say that the body creates experiencing.
Then we can go deeper, looking at the continuity of our body, and not just the parents to the child. Every atom in our body has its own continuity. It’s quite extraordinary to think that all of the atoms and molecules of the body are constantly changing throughout our life, so even if there’s a continuity of an individual body, the body of a one-week-old infant shares almost no cells that are the same with the eighty-year-old they will become.
It’s incredible to think of the food that comes into the body and transforms into atoms of your body for a little while, then becoming waste or kinetic energy. There is this whole process going on, where each part of our physical body is a continuity of something, which, at one point, was not part of our body. It then becomes a little bit of our body for a short while, and then continues as something different. While each of the atoms has its own continuity, the body itself also has a continuity that retains its individuality. This is really quite remarkable when you think about it. So what is it really that makes it “me?”
When we understand this physical continuation, we can ask, “Is it the same with the experiencing of things?” Just as my body is made up of many different parts and systems and atoms, so too is our experiencing of things made up of many different components, all networking together. We have the senses of hearing, seeing and so on, and we have feelings of happiness and unhappiness, plus emotions and interest and attention and concentration. There are all of these things that have a continuity, so are they similar to the body? When we eat meat, the atoms were part of someone else’s body, and then when we die, the worms will eat us and the atoms become part of their body. Is the happiness we have like this, where it was part of someone else’s mind, then it becomes part of ours, and then it goes on to someone else? This doesn’t make any sense. All we can say is that our experiencing of happiness now is a continuity of my experiencing happiness previously.
Mind Comes from Mind, Experience from Experience
Examining it like that, we come to the conclusion that the experiencing of things can only be a continuity of itself – prior and later moments of itself. Then we ask, if the body is only supporting but not creating this experiencing, does an individual continuum of experiencing have an absolute beginning or end? Does this make sense that before it was a nothing and then this nothing transformed into something, into experiencing? If it did, then how did that work, where did it come from, and what happens at the end? There are all sorts of components making up each moment of experiencing, moment to moment forming a continuum, and then, all of a sudden, it just ends? This also doesn’t make much sense.
The matter and energy of the body continue from before we’re born and after we die, so what about experiencing? We have to really think about this, and look at cause and effect, which operates from moment to moment and makes continuity happen. We actually have grasping at existence, which makes us want to go on and on. We’ll have this when we die as well, because if there’s grasping to continued existence from moment one to moment two, why shouldn’t it continue to create further moments when you die? It doesn’t make sense that the cause doesn’t have any effect. This is why we take our head out of the water automatically when we try to drown ourselves. It’s almost impossible to kill ourselves by putting our face in a sink of water, because there’s this very strong grasping to continue to exist.
As we go deeper, we come to a more sophisticated understanding of how rebirth works and what it actually is that goes from lifetime to lifetime. There is nothing solid that continues, like a suitcase moving down a conveyor belt in the airport, but there is continuity. There are also certain patterns, inclinations and interests that continue, which is why certain things come to certain people very easily compared to others.
Application in Daily Life
All of this translates very much in terms of our own experience of this life, because it means that the type of personality we have and develop – we can develop our personalities to become however we want – will have some continuity. This puts a great deal of responsibility on us, because we can decide what type of continuity of experiencing we want to have in the future and act according to this. It’s not in terms of reward and punishment, but if we want to experience suffering, we can create the causes for that, and if we want to experience happiness, we can create causes for that too. It’s all very logical when you look at cause and effect. You built up certain habits as a child, and they continue as an adult, so they may well continue into future lives as well.
It’s actually not so difficult to gain a good intellectual understanding of rebirth in Buddhism. The real question is, what about when I die? How will we feel then? How strong will our conviction be? That’s why we really need to examine the teachings for ourselves, and not just accept what other people tell us. When we come to an understanding of cause and effect, and thus the continuation of both physical matter and mental moments, we’ll become more aware of our actions, which will affect not only this life, but our future lives as well.