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The Truth of Rebirth

The Truth of Rebirth

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The Truth of Rebirth
The Truth of Rebirth

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Published by: Divine Wisdom, Nanaksar Gursagar on Aug 13, 2013
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06/15/2014

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 The Truth of Rebirth
AND WHY IT MATTERSFOR BUDDHIST PRACTICE
Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Each time you choose one course of action over another, you’re making awager as to the consequences of your choice. This is especially true if the choiceis between something easy that promises pleasant short-term rewards, andsomething hard that promises great rewards but only after a long time. Will theharder choice be worth the effort? Will the easier one be irresponsible in the longrun? As a person embedded in time, there’s no way you can know for sure.To begin with, there are the particulars of your own personal future: Will youor those you love live long enough to experience the results of your choices? Willdisaster interfere to wipe out everything you’ve done?Then there are the larger uncertainties of life in general: Do we even havechoices in our actions, or are all our choices predetermined by some past oroutside power beyond our control? If we do have choices, is it worthwhile tostruggle over difficult ones? Do they really matter? And even if our choices domatter, how far into the future should we calculate the consequences? Do theyshape only this life, or can they shape lives after death?Arguments based on logic or reason have never been able to settle theseissues conclusively, the world’s great religions don’t agree on their answers, andthe empirical sciences have no way of answering these questions at all. Yet we allkeep having to grapple with these questions. We don’t leave it at, “I don’tknow,” and refuse to entertain them, for even the refusal to think about thesethings is a wager: that ultimately they won’t matter.The Buddha taught, however, that they
do
matter a great deal, and thatawakening—in going beyond the dimensions of space and time—givesperspective on how choices operate within those dimensions. You see thatchoices are real, that they do make a difference, and that the consequences of your choices can shape not only this life but also many lifetimes in the future—aslong as the mind still has the craving that leads to rebirth after death. Prior toawakening, you can’t know these things for sure, but as the Buddha states, if youwant to gain awakening and to minimize suffering in the meantime, it’s wisest toassume these principles as working hypotheses.Of course, that’s taking the Buddha at his word—which as long as youhaven’t gained awakening, is a wager, too. The purpose of this small book on theBuddha’s teachings about rebirth is to show why, as you engage repeatedly inthe wagers of action, the wisest course is to place your bets with him.
 
 
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1 : QUESTIONING ASSUMPTIONSRebirth has always been a central teaching in the Buddhist tradition. Theearliest records in the Pali Canon (MN 26; MN 36) indicate that the Buddha, priorto his awakening, searched for a happiness not subject to the vagaries of repeated birth, aging, illness, and death. One of the reasons he left his early teachers was because he recognized that their teachings led, not to the goal he sought, but torebirth on a refined level. On the night of his awakening, two of the threeknowledges leading to his release from suffering focused on the topic of rebirth.The first showed his own many previous lives; the second, depicting the generalpattern of beings dying and being reborn throughout the cosmos, showed theconnection between rebirth and karma, or action.When he did finally attain release from suffering, he recognized that he hadachieved his goal because he had touched a dimension that not only was freefrom birth, but also had freed him from ever being reborn again. After he hadattained release, his new-found freedom from rebirth was the first realizationthat occurred spontaneously to his mind.When teaching the path to awakening to others, he defined the four stages of awakening achieved by the path in terms of how many rebirths remained forthose who reached them: up to seven for those reaching the first stage; one returnto the human world for those reaching the second; rebirth followed by totalliberation in the Pure Abodes for those reaching the third; and no rebirth forthose reaching the fourth (AN 3:86). On occasion, when one of his disciples whohad not reached full awakening passed away, he would comment on thedisciple’s rebirth—as when An›thapi˚˜ika the householder, after his passing,appeared to the Buddha as a heavenly being (MN 143). When any of theBuddha’s fully awakened disciples passed away, he would state that one of theamazing features of their passing was that their consciousness could no longer befound in the cosmos. Rebirth, he said, happened to those who still had clinging, but not to those who didn’t (SN 44:9). And one of his own amazing attainmentsas Buddha, he said, was that after the end of this life, the world would see himno more (DN 1).When discussing more mundane topics, such as the rewards of generosityand virtue, he would cite the rewards they brought not only in this life but alsoin future ones. Even in cases where he was asked specifically to confine hisdiscussion to the present life, he would end the discussion by referring to therewards of these skillful actions after death (AN 5:34; AN 7:54).So the theme of rebirth is woven inextricably throughout the Buddha’steachings. And freedom from rebirth has been a central feature of the Buddhistgoal from the very beginning of the tradition. All of the various Buddhistreligions that later developed in Asia, despite their other differences, wereunanimous in teaching rebirth. Even those that didn’t aim at putting an end torebirth still taught rebirth as a fact.

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