Buddhists believe in a never ending cycle of births and rebirths called saṃsāra. You can escape the cycle of rebirth by attaining Nirvana. But that’s something which requires a lot of effort, dedication and hard work and seems really rather difficult to achieve for most people, on account of their inherent laziness and fallibility.
I do not remember any previous lives. But you could remember your past lives in some detail, and talked about them often. You remembered being a boy in one life and dying young. In another life you lived in poverty and recalled the memory of hunger and starvation. Further back still you remembered living as a rich and powerful woman, a cruel aristocrat responsible for the death and suffering of others.
Perhaps I remember nothing because this is still my first life. Next time round we will meet again my love, and I will get the chance to do things better. Now that you are gone, and I feel your loss so acutely, I wish with all my heart that this was true.
But what if the life you have just lived was your final life and you have now achieved Nirvana? What if you won’t ever be back again? How many lifetimes will I have to live without you?
Or what if you have been reborn and are living a new life now. You would be just a baby. And I am already old. You could be living right round the corner, or thousands of miles away and I still wouldn’t know one way or the other. The thought that you could be alive again and having a happy childhood fills me with joy. But the idea that you could be here without me knowing it, and that we will probably never meet is simply too sad to contemplate.
And how much will you remember of your old life this time round? Will you remember our life together? Will you remember me? And will you still be you?
Reincarnation seems like a comforting idea at first, but the more you think about it the less attractive it seems. Especially when you throw some bad karma into the mix and realise that in your next life you could come back as a dung beetle, a factory-farmed pig, a ghost (Preta), or even as a resident of hell (Naraka). For all these reasons, the Buddhist concept of reincarnation seems rather unsatisfactory to me. That’s not to say it doesn’t occur in some form. Many other religions, cultures and philosophers through the ages have believed in different versions of reincarnation. Perhaps all consciousness gets continuously recycled, like energy which can never be destroyed. Repackaged for future use and consumption. Washed clean and freshly relaundered. But because everyone’s washing gets put in together, everything gets mixed up and no one knows whose clothes they are wearing any more. Maybe that’s why we all sometimes feel like the proverbial lost sock in the Laundromat of oblivion. And maybe that’s why we need to keep trying harder to get things right this time round, irrespective of whose clothes we are wearing, and whether or not we will be back again.
03 January 2019