Teaching Loving-Kindness with the Myth of Reincarnation

My story of trying to understand reincarnation in Buddhism and its relationship to Loving-Kindness.

What first drew me to Buddhism as a religion is that it is a faith that does not require the abandonment of reason. There is no deity, no absolute commandments, no ultimate prophet, and no statement of credo. You practice on your cushion to discover for yourself the nature of reality. Except for one glaring exception: reincarnation.

Reincarnation is especially hard to ignore because it was literally the first thing Buddha realized when he became the Buddha in the first place. In two places in the Tripitaka (the original writings of stories of the Buddha) it is claimed quite directly that on the night of his realization, Buddha gained the power to see his past lives.

“When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of recollecting my past lives. I recollected my manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two…five, ten…fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction & expansion: ‘There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.’ Thus I remembered my manifold past lives in their modes & details.” — Maha-Saccaka Sutta: The Longer Discourse to Saccaka

“If he wants, he recollects his manifold past lives (lit: previous homes), i.e., one birth, two births, three births, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, one hundred, one thousand, one hundred thousand, many aeons of cosmic contraction, many aeons of cosmic expansion, many aeons of cosmic contraction and expansion, [recollecting], ‘There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.’ Thus he remembers his manifold past lives in their modes and details. He can witness this for himself whenever there is an opening.” — Pansadhovaka Sutta: The Dirt-washer

So there is some strong textual claims here about the existence of reincarnation and many monks believe in it as a leap of faith — something that flies in the face of my own understanding of Buddhism as a faith without irrational leaps.

For the longest time I just tried to ignore reincarnation. As I read the tracks of Sanskrit sutras and Pali suttas and English modern Buddhist writings, I just glossed over any mention of reincarnation, or I tried to write it off.

I never ever, even for one second, have been able to take reincarnation literally. The idea that I would be reborn into another being makes absolutely zero sense. The idea even contradicted a fundamental principle of Buddhism which is no-self — or the absence of a fixed and immutable soul or self. If there is no immutable soul, what would even go into a new being when you reincarnated?

The cycle of birth and death I reasoned must have a psychological or a historical meaning.

From a psychological perspective, births were good times and happy times in your life, deaths were periods of loss and anxiety. The cycle of birth and death just meant the ups and downs of life. Desire, satisfaction, desire again.

From a historical perspective, Buddha was launching his new religion inside the society of Hindus who believed in reincarnation, so I decided that he (or some of his more creative followers) invented the idea of Buddha having the super power of being able to see past lives. This made the Buddha seem more admirable and powerful than the Hindu priests, the Brahmin. Had the early Buddhists not addressed reincarnation, had they let death be the end of all personal existence, their whole project might have failed. So Siddhartha, or some of his followers, injected reincarnation into the Tripitaka.

With these interpretations I was fully insulated from the idea of reincarnation. I was free to practice and read for years in the Soto Zen tradition. Until these answers started to smell and itch — they were failing to satisfy me any more.

So I went in search for a new understanding, and found one.

I didn’t throw my self into some wild, irrational faith in reincarnation. I still believe that the principle of no-self is true and that there is no self or soul that could reincarnate. However, I found a much more satisfying and profound interpretation of reincarnation that I would like to share with you.

Reincarnation and Loving-Kindness

The early Buddhists, like the early Christians, borrowed from the culture around them to communicate their new philosophy. I believe that early Buddhists wrote reincarnation into the Tripitaka to leverage this Hindu concept to explain universal compassion with an easy to understand metaphor.

But why would you use a metaphor for universal compassion? Why not just say “practice universal compassion”? And why did the early Buddhists have to resort to the reincarnation metaphor, when the early Christians just said it directly: “love thy neighbor as thyself”?

In James Flynn’s TED talk about the history of intelligence Flynn presents evidence to suggest that throughout history people have been becoming more and more intelligent and, in fact, more moral. This at first seems impossible. Why would economic improvements over time lead to people being more moral and there being more moral people?

The answer is with more economic wealth people became more practiced in hypothetical thinking. Even a hundred years ago, Flynn says, people were more concrete and practical in all their thinking. What mattered was right before them, in their hands, and near by them. People then were also, by default, more racist. Why? Because to not be racist you have to imagine yourself has hypothetically being born as another race, as another person. Flynn says that for people 100 years ago the question: “What if you were born another race?” made no sense because people had no practice in hypothetical thinking.

If people even 100 years ago were not trained in hypothetical thinking, what were the limitations of a Hindu peasant in the time of the Buddha?

The Buddha was raised and educated as a feudal prince and probably would have the moral and intellectual abilities of a modern person, but his audiences — Hindu peasants — would not. In order to communicate to them the abstract concept of universal compassion, early Buddhists highjacked reincarnation.

Buddhists have a long view of time. They actually believe that the universe is billions and billions and trillions of years old. Far longer than the 14 billion years modern science estimates the age of the universe to be. A buddhist just says “14 billion years since that big bang”. So with an almost endless time frame and the assumption of reincarnation, the conclusion is that every being has been every other being at some point in time already. This makes universal compassion an obvious choice— essentially saying you have already been every other person and living being else in every circumstance so show them kindness.

You have been a poor woman, an immigrant, a wealthy man, a king, and a killer. So you should show compassion towards them because they are you and you are them. Literally.

The Dali Lama explains universal loving-kindness using an ancient Tibetan meditative practice that suggests that through infinite rebirths you have been the mother to all beings and all beings have been your mother. Therefore, whenever you feel jealousy or anger or indifference towards another living being, practice with the notion that you were once that being’s mother and they were once yours in another life.

Now is reincarnation true? No. But was it the most expedient way to explain loving kindness to Hindu peasants. Yes.

Conclusion: Reincarnation Teaches Loving-Kindness

Reincarnation is a way to express concretely the abstract concept of universal loving-kindness. Why should we show love to everyone? Why not just show loving-kindness to our friends and people we like?

Without abstract thinking and the ability to explore hypotheticals, there is no reason to show loving-kindness to everyone. So early buddhists used the Hindu concept of reincarnation to try to explain that factually you’ve already been every other being, so show compassion to every being. The Tibetans take a similar but more poetic stance and say you’ve already been every being’s mother, and they have been your mother, so show every being loving-kindness.

Modern Buddhists have the privilege that Siddhartha had of an education and the leisure to explore hypotheticals. We can explore our own lives like a moral laboratory and try compassion out and see the consequences. We can see that if we practice loving-kindness anxiety dissolves and happiness blooms. We have the privilege of having a faith that does not abandon reason.


Thanks for reading! If you think that reincarnation is worth another look and loving-kindness is pretty rad, please recommend and share this article.