WHAT PASSES OVER?
PSYCHOTHERAPIST: Then how can you say that a certain individual is reborn? What is there to distinguish the consciousness of, say, my grandmother from all the consciousnesses that are not her?
Ah, your grandmother again! Clearly she still lives in you. In Original-nature no such distinctions as my grandmother or your grandmother, self or other, this or than can be postulated.
PSYCHOTHERAPIST: If that’s true, why do you say she continues to exist? Doesn’t there have to be a thread of continuity identifiable as my grandmother’s consciousness?
While there is no thread of continuity tangible to the senses, there is nonetheless a stream of continuity which can be called neither different nor identical. As the scholar T. R. V. Murti explains, “Rebirth does not mean the bodily transportation of an individual essence from one place to another. It only means that a new series of state arises, conditioned by the previous states.”
Many analogies have been used to describe the transmission process. Take a flame. If you light a candle with a match, is the flame in the candle the same as or different from the flame of the match? We have to say not the same and yet not different/ Another analogy, one used by Ananda Coomaraswamy, is that of a billiard ball’s rolling against another such ball. “If another ball is rolled against the last stationalry ball, the moving ball will stop dead and the foremost stationary ball will move on… The first moving ball does not pass over, it remains behind, it dies; but it is undeniably the movement of the ball, its momentum, its karma, and not any newly created movement, which is reborn in the foremost ball.”
If life is a sequence of moments linked in a chain of causation, the moment beyond death is the next link in the chain. As there has been a sense of continuity and yet no continuous self, there is nothing surprising in that sense of continuity’s extending beyond the moment of death. Life is a series of events or happenings, and death takes its place in the series of events, giving rise to the next event. Thus there is no self that is reborn; there is an ongoing continuity of “again-becoming.” In each moment of life the individual is reborn and dies, yet he continues. The same is true of the moment of death.
So rebirth, or better, “again-becoming,” does not involve the transfer of a substance but is better described as the continuation of the process which occurs at every moment of consciousness, continuing to operate to both affect and effect our rebirth.
We can’t, then, say that the being that has just been reborn is your grandmother, nor can we say that it is not. The karma energy of the last thought of this life is the precipitating cause of our next life. This present life provides the basis for the quality of our death, which in turn conditions the nature of our next life.
NURSE: Just what is it, then, that is reborn?
To give it a name is to twist the truth to suit ourselves. An enlightened master said simply, “Not he, yet not another.” Buddhaghosa, another sage, said, “It is a mere material and immaterial state, arising when it has obtained its conditions…it is not a lasting being, not a soul.”
NURSE: If I understand you correctly, you are saying that it is a no-thing which passes over. Then what happens to all the forces and energies that gave rise to the body?
The energy embodied within us does not simply vanish with the death of the physical body. Within each of us there resides tremendous untapped energy, a force which can influence not only this life but succeeding ones as well. If we wish to give it a name, we can call it, from a psychological perspective, the seventh, eighth, and ninth levels f consciousness. From a spiritual perspective it can be called the force of karma. This energy survives our physical death, is germane to the process of rebirth, and is the main determinant of the nature of our next embodiment. But while karma is tied up with rebirth, karma per se is not what impels us to rebirth. What does bring us to re-becoming is the craving for perpetuation of the self or, more precisely, the illusion of self.
ALL IS CHANGE
Consider the law of the conservation of energy, which, as you know, states that energy is never consumed but only changes form, and that the total energy in a physical system cannot be increased or diminished. The forces within us, including our thoughts, are another form of energy and do not dissipate with our passing. As the physicist Gary Zukav writes in The Dancing Wu Li Masters, “Every subatomic interaction consists of the annihilation of the original particles and the creation of new subatomic particles… Transient forms sparkle in and out of existence, creating a never-ending, forever-newly-created reality.” This is a vivid description of life on every level of existence: all existence is birth and death — instantaneous, unending phenomena. At every moment we are undergoing change, or momentary death, but although things change, nothing is ever lost or destroyed. Since all compounded things are impermanent, everything is in a state of flux. Perhaps this is easier to understand if we take the example of the electronic billboard in the middle of Times Square in New York City. The daily headlines are announced by what appears to be writing in motion, actually made up of hundreds of light bulbs rapidly flashing on and off to give the appearance of words moving in a line. Similarly, all change, when broken down to its most minute elements, takes place within iunconceivable speed — so much so that there is never an obvious demarcation point between states of beings: all beginnings are endings, all endings are beginnings. Nothing is, everything is becoming.