So reincarnation has always been a bit of a sticking point between me and Buddhism.
Not that I know that much about it, but whenever it comes up I’ve always felt a bit…skeptical?
So mostly I’ve just kind of ignored it.
I mean one of the most resonant things about Buddhism for me is that it is unconcerned with doubt, it encourages critical thought and it expects to be rigorously challenged. So my uncertainty about reincarnation was unimportant and provided my with no hindrance to my explorations into other areas of the Buddhist philosophy.
Then the other night at meditation the concepts of karma and reincarnation were broached. And I had my usual gut reaction.
As the speaker talked about people suffering in this life because of transgressions in lives past I railed. As usual my mind raced with the terrible suffering that occurs around the world. Innocent people living in terror, with violence, without food – the suffering of the multitudes is incomprehensible and a humbling reminder of just how good I’ve got it.
And it just seems wrong to view these innocent people as being punished for something, because that implies that they somehow deserve it. And that is just…well I just cannot accept that. Especially because that leads to a tacit conclusion that those who suffer less are somehow being rewarded and therefore are somehow better than.
And when you understand the world to be random and unfair, when you understand that nice guys can finish last and jerks often get ahead well that is hard enough to come to terms with, without adding to that the notion that a past life retribution is taking place.
But then the speaker said something that resonated. She said “This does not mean that we do not need to have compassion.”
Now compassion – there’s a Buddhist concept that I am happy to explore. I love the way compassion is essentially the basis of all Buddhist teachings. And as much as reincarnation confounded me, compassion drew me in. I’ve long wanted to understand more about the Buddhist theories of compassion and it’s cultivation.
And in one simple moment, as these complex realisations often do, it struck me. Indeed if terrible suffering is experienced because of some ill-deed in a life prior to ones own, a life (much like this one) that is out of our control then that is cause for even deeper compassion, is it not?
The way I see innocence and the way Buddhism sees it is in fact the same. Those that suffer are innocent – not responsible for whatever karmic burden they are carrying with them. And if that thought does not inspire compassion, then what does?
And the interesting thing about Buddhism and it’s theory of reincarnation is that it not only cultivates compassion for those who are suffering, but it cultivates compassion for those who cause suffering.
People who do terrible things in this lifetime deserve our compassion too – because they will suffer greatly in future lives. They will carry a heavy karmic load into their future lives that will see them endure great suffering.
And this I can get my head around. Not because of some latent, cultural, need for reprisal (or maybe?). But because it compounds what I know to be true about Buddhism. That it all comes back to compassion. We just need love and compassion for all our fellow beings, no matter where they are on the path. And of course (and maybe the hardest to grasp) compassion for ourselves as we navigate all this the best we can.
So reincarnation sits a bit better with me now. Not that I claim to understand it, but now I feel like I have an entry into understanding it. I no longer have to reject the idea of it.
That’s exciting because now I can swim around in it a bit more. And use it to further my exploration of compassion.
Could you cultivate compassion for someone who caused great suffering?