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HH The Sangkharaacha

Reflections on Rebirth

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Reflections on Rebirth by HH The Sangkharaacha


When we ask most people about Buddhism their first thoughts turn to re-incarnation and so it is the subject of re-incarnation I wish to address today. You say re-incarnation, a buddhist says "Rebirth". The idea of rebirth is not confined to Buddhism. We see it in Hinduism and the idea of rebirth has been adopted by Christians who see that they become new people after accepting the Holy Spirit. Rebirth in buddhism varies on tradition. You see, Buddhism is not black and white and that makes it harder for us to understand but it makes it easier for us to see how complex the cosmos is.


Life for Buddhists is always a time of learning and change but everything hinges on one thing - karma. Buddhists believe that the actions of beings will affect their own future, and because of this there are no private actions: all actions have a consequence and those consequences form karma. If we have good karma, our rebirth will lead to something better. If we have bad karma, our rebirth will lead to something the same or something worse. Imagine that you are given the choice between two cars in a showroom. One car is shiny and new. The paintwork gleams and it has a top of the range sound system, it's seats are leather and everything about it is exciting. The other car is battered and the paintwork is flaking. The engine doesn't always start. If I set off on a journey in the first car, I will have more chance of reaching my destination. If I set off on a journey in the second, I will encounter all kinds of problems and I might never reach my destination. That is karma. When we have good karma, we reach a good place.


It's much like Christianity and the belief that if you are a good person who lives by the ways of Christ, you will get to heaven - a good place. But simply by being good, we don't understand. The cosmos is extremely complex. Buddhists believe in the number 6. Six states of existence, six roads of reincarnation, six paths of transmigration, six realms of Samsara, six directions of rebirth, six destinies - and one thing that steers it. Enlightenment. So, what are these six realms of life?


Imagine a giant office in a long building with an elevator and as we go up in the elevator, we see six departments and in each department, they are a little higher in status than the one below. Well, that is like the six realms of life. At the very bottom, we have Hell. In Sanskrit, it is known as Naraka-gati or Dmyalba in Mongolian. There many levels to hell known as Narakas. There are hot narakas; Raurava – the "screaming" Naraka, where people run around screaming because the ground is so hot. There are cold narakas; Hahava – the Naraka of lamentation where the beings lament in the cold, wailing "ha, ho" in pain. But as ever, this is not a permanent state. Beings who find themselves here wait until their negative karma has gone away and they understand that bad things happen to bad people as a result of being bad. When they are free from negative karma, they are reborn.


The next realm we have is the realm of Hungry Ghosts, Preta-gati in Sanskrit; Gaki in Japanese. Preta-gati means, "one who has gone forth". Pretas are invisible to the human eye, but some believe they can be discerned by humans in certain mental states. They are described as human-like, but with sunken, mummified skin, narrow limbs, enormously distended bellies and long, thin necks. They reside in waste lands of the earth and their suffering is based on their karma. Some may eat, some may not. Some may experience searing heat, some may not. With others, they see what they desire but they cannot reach it. Again, by their suffering they change and their karma is rebalanced. They are reborn.


Animals. The next state of existance we know and understand in terms of rebirth. Rebirth as an animal is considered to be one of the unhappy rebirths, usually involving more than human suffering but for many, when asked what they want from life, many say that they would like to be reborn as an animal. But animals suffer. They may be slaughtered for their skins and their meat. They may be used as work horses. They suffer from ignorance without knowing that they are ignorant. They have instinct but not common sense and this is not desirable. Every animal we see and know is a spirit of life that has been reborn.


Our next realm is Asura. Because of their passions, rebirth as an Asura is considered to be one of the four unhappy births (together with rebirth as an animal, a preta, or a being in Naraka. The state of an Asura reflects the mental state of a human being obsessed with force and violence, always looking for an excuse to get into a fight, angry with everyone and unable to maintain calm or solve problems peacefully and this is contrary to the teachings of the Buddha. From this, we learn that bad feelings cause irrational actions. Asuras rank above humans but below most of the other deities. They live in the area at the foot of Mount Sumeru and in the sea that surrounds it. And when the time comes, they are reborn.


The next realm is the realm we know. The human realm. In Buddhism, human beings have a very special status, if for no other reason than that only a human being can attain enlightenment as a fully enlightened Buddha. It is our chance to achieve the higher realms of the cosmos. If we do not, we will be reborn and we will suffer and through suffering, we will know enlightenment. We must avoid crimes against people and against the Dharma. We must have sincere compassion for other people. We must learn. If we do not, we must suffer to learn. When we die, we will be reborn and if we have achieved enlightment, if we have good karma - we become a Deva.


The term deva does not refer to a natural class of beings, but is defined anthropocentrically to include all those beings more powerful or more blissful than humans. Some have no physical form but dwell in meditation. Others have a physical form and they live in a large number of "heavens" or deva-worlds that rise, layer on layer, above the earth. Devas are not Gods. They are not immortal, they do not create or shape worlds, they are not omniscient or morally perfect. But they are enlightened to a greater understanding of the cosmos. Buddhist devas are not to be worshipped. While some individuals among the devas may be beings of great moral authority and prestige and thus deserving of a high degree of respect, no deva can be a refuge.


If we can reach enlightment - we become complete. We do not have to be reborn to suffer or learn - because we have learned all we can learn. Time and space are finally understood - the mysteries of life are known to us because we are enlightened. By rebirth, we have learned and in the same way as those who call themselves "born again" Christians, we are new and better beings for being born again. Let me close on a passage from an ancient text written in Pali Text. It is known as Milinda's Questions and it is an important document to all who follow the Theravada school of Buddhism. It reads;


To be born here and to die here, to die here and to be born elsewhere,

To be born there and to die there, to die there and to be born elsewhere -

That is the round of existence.


Contemplate. And learn.


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