I am not concerned about whether the doctrine of reincarnation is true. I am not even sure if it is a coherent notion. Let me put it this way: if it were true, would it make any difference to you? I think it would not, for it is not the “you” you are thinking of that gets reincarnated. It’s not “your” next life. Even if reincarnationism is true, “you” will only be going around once. Why? It’s a question of exactly what is supposed to be reincarnated. It may not be what you think—or who you think.
In ancient Vedic Hinduism, reincarnation began as a belief that some souls were not entitled to spend a blessed eternity on the moon, the destination of the saved. They had some unfinished business down on earth, perhaps some guilt (bad karma) to work off. But then somebody thought of the possibility that while you were back here you might do something else you’d have to atone for. And if there was enough of a new karmic debt, guess what would happen? But if you did more good deeds than you needed to pay off the debt, once you were out of the red you would start accruing good karma, and that would entitle you to rewards. The rewards might come to you in the same life in which you earned them. But if not, you’d have to come back again in order to receive the goodies that were coming to you. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. This is how reincarnation became a virtually endless cycle of returning.
Look, how many times do you want to endure homework, teen romantic angst, a terrible boss, getting socks for Christmas, getting dentures, losing control of your bladder? Not such an attractive prospect, is it? This is why the goal of Hindus and Buddhists is to stop being reincarnated. It’s not their version of salvation. More like damnation. The point of Yoga and meditation is to reach a state of “mere witness” in which you cut the nerve of worldly motivation and you transcend worldly concerns. Voila! No more karma, good or bad, and thus no more incarnations! Yippee! Final enlightenment ensues, liberation from the ego, from individuality! The water drop rejoins the ocean.
As the doctrine developed, finer distinctions were drawn. Vedanta Hindus distinguish between the atman and the jiva. The first is the divine spark, unconditioned, unaffected by experiences, aloof like Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. It is, as Felix Unger once said so well, “the real you that’s underneath the other real you.” The other real you, however, is not really so real. The jiva is the psychological self, the ego-self, the self that shows up in the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, the one you see in the mirror. This one is conditioned by experiences. It is always changing. It is the one that suffers and rejoices.
What is the relation between the two? The sages say it is like a monkey swinging from tree to tree, a banana clutched in his fist: the monkey is the jiva, and the banana is the atman. It is carried to and fro, blissfully oblivious of the vicissitudes of life, any life, all lives. You see what this means, right? The “you” that enjoys life, that suffers sometimes, that grows and learns, that believes in reincarnation or doesn’t—that’s not the one that survives into a new life. I liken it to a series of runners succeeding one another, each taking the Olympic Torch a bit further along the path to the altar. “You” are merely carrying that bit of fire for a while until it passes into the hands of someone else.
I’m guessing the doctrine of the atman developed as an explanation of the fact that nobody seems to remember a previous life. It’s obvious to me that so-called “past life regressions” are simply what Jung called “active imagination.” Daydreaming. Suggestible people have, under the manipulative questioning of therapists, dreamed up “repressed memories” (fabricated memories) of anal probing aboard a flying saucer, of their parents and neighbors sacrificing infants in the basement. “Past life regressions” are just more of the same.
Americans who abstract what they think is reincarnationism from the Eastern religions which formed its original context, in which it made a certain kind of sense, have made a different kind of sense of it, having embedded it in their own Western set of assumptions. Mistaking reincarnation as a process of self-realization, they have fostered the very confusion of the jiva with the atman that, ironically, causes the suffering from which Hindus and Buddhists desperately seek to escape by escaping reincarnation! As Harvey Cox observed in his 1977 book Turning East, Westerners (e.g., New Agers) have taken a doctrine dedicated to the extinction of the personal self and mistaken it for a technique of therapeutic self-realization.
If “I,” my atman, does get reincarnated, “I,” (the me I know and love) won’t even be there to know it. Because it won’t be the me I identify with. Well, I say, to hell with the atman. It’s somebody, it’s something, else. Yielding it up to “my” next incarnation is no different, in my opinion, from donating a kidney to some sick child after I’m dead.
But I think there is a truth hidden somewhere in all this. Let me back up a bit. Buddhism posits the anatta doctrine, the teaching of “no-self” or no atman. This, of course, raises the question: what the hell is it that reincarnates (or is reborn)? They teach that the psychological self, the ego self, is a composite of skhandas, or component parts: perceptions, desires, thoughts, etc. These are constantly mutating throughout one’s life. Your appearance, your opinions, maybe even your legal name, all change. You don’t even have the same physical body you used to have, since all the cells periodically get replaced! So why wouldn’t the same thing happen from one life to the next? The skhandas are what get reincarnated, changing all the time. (Otherwise it would be resurrection: the very same guy coming back.) But the “self” they constitute is not what finally gets liberated. What does? The Buddha Nature underlying all sentient beings. Me, I identify with the skhandas. But how do they survive death?
By our having children, that’s how. When I look at Victoria and Veronica, see them grow up, constantly talk with them, it becomes obvious that they have received my (and Carol’s) genes, my DNA. Not exactly in the same combinations, of course; they’re not clones. After all, the skhandas, the ingredients are constantly changing like a kaleidoscope.
That takes some of the bite out of knowing I am going to die. The girls are my reincarnation, and in a literal sense. They are my “me-incarnation.” Sounds good to me. I can live (and die) with that.
So says Zarathustra the godless.