All religious scripture speaks on many levels, in a multitude of ways. Some who read scripture believe them to be literally true, while others see them as poetic, symbolic, allegorical. They see metaphors where others see history. And all writers of scripture no doubt realized this vast sea of difference. They all realized that their work would be interpretated differently, given the context, the culture, the times, the levels of literacy and education. The best of them wrote in such a way that multiple interpretations could live harmoniously and effectively, side by side, for centuries.
Buddhist scripture was, of course, no different.
The concept of “rebirth”, for instance, lends itself to a great many interpretations. For me, as a Western novice, as one who views Jewish, Christian and Moslem scripture as literature, not history or fact, the Buddhist concept of “rebirth” carries the weight of metaphor, not physics. I see it as an aid toward a profoundly kinder, more generous and compassionate ethics, not an actual, physical happening. And I also see this as perfectly in tune with evolution and what we now know about DNA.
“Past lives.” We all contain millions of lives in our DNA. We carry the consciousness of literally millions of beings in our bodies, all the way back to single cell life forms. A past life is a part of that stream that led from them to us, and a “rebirth” is the continuation of that stream of life in our children, their children and all the mergers between the endless succession of families into the future.
The metaphor of “rebirth” and the stream of life carries us back to our own brief time on this planet. While we are the sum total of previous lives numbering in the millions, the call toward Karmic rebirth is a call for this one and only life. All great religions demand it. All great art demands it. You must change your life! And within the short span of time given us on this, our one and only planet, the Buddhist idea of rebirth extends to every single day, hour, minute. Living a holy life, living according to the Dharma, or Way, necessarily involves the repetition of new beginnings. Zen adds the idea of a beginner’s mind, or original mind, which opens the door for endless renewal. Starting over, again and again, forever mindful, forever aware and attentive to the moment, to now, here.
The journey, of course, is all. Yes, even clichés hold wisdom at times! With Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, right practice turns those rebirth-waves (along that journey) into one ocean, and we discover that those waves were never separate from anything else in the first place. They were always a part of the same energy field, the same water of life, and the Wheel of Samsara is always right here, right now, not in the past or the future for us. Nirvana is already here, too, like the statue waiting inside Michelangelo’s rock. The rock and the statue are one, just as Samsara and Nirvana are one.
The art of carving out one’s life. The art of releasing the forces already there . . . .
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Past lives . . . . We all have them. We all undergo rebirths. The key is to choose them whenever possible, lead them from a position of strength and wisdom, will them into being with joy and utmost compassion, according to the light of one’s own lamp of marvels.