So I am really not down for writing a bunch of theological or academic type essays at this point, but this one might be a worthwhile exception. I’m focusing my writing interests on other areas, and nobody reads this blog of mine, so I am putting effort into actual publishing and other media. However, I do still talk with friends about spiritual issues, and, for better or for worse, I am still lurking around the internet talking to people about spirituality, and the same things keep turning up pertaining to the subject of reincarnation as they have for years. I find myself on occasion writing people basically the same text over and over in order to clear up what appears obviously to me to be some pretty deep misconception out there. So rather than write the same thing every time I talk to someone about the subject, I thought it would actually be a good idea to have a standard publication on the subject that I could link to people.
One of my primary issues with reincarnation is that it’s typically billed as some kind of form of immortality. I’d say heaven, hell, reincarnation, and cessation of existence are the four primary ideas humans have about what what happens to us after we die. Three of those are considered forms of immortality, or continuation of life after death. Obviously we can’t include the cessation of existence in that group. Of the remaining three, heaven and hell involve some kind of afterlife as well, while the final one, our subject of choice, seems to be understood as a form of immortality that doesn’t involve an afterlife, but rather a repetition of life.
Yes, Hindus and Buddhists, the largest groups that advocate reincarnation dogmatically, speak of reincarnation into a variety of heavens above and hells below, but these are always temporary. From what I understand, all popular accounts of reincarnation into these worlds above and below or ours again involve the phenomenon of memory loss, which when combined with the temporality of any heaven or hell one might encounter upon death, makes the default state of reincarnation anything but a description of immortality.
Therein lies the rub. It would seem that there is a large class of people who are not atheistic and who believe in a form of spiritual reality that continues after death, but they think heaven is unobtainable or too good to be true, and hell is something too awful to be contemplated as something possible, so they turn to reincarnation as a kind of alternate form of afterlife. There seem to be two drivers for the belief.
The first one has something to do with karma and touches on issues of moral justification or deservance. For instance, if someone experiences a life that seems too awful to be a deserved result of any personal failure, they can say, “I must have done something bad in a previous life.” Or likewise they can claim that their blessings and riches are the result of some good behavior in a previous life. So to speak, they gain a sense of justice and moral equitability in a world where people seem to suffer afflictions worse than they could possibly deserve, and also receive blessings they can’t possibly deserve.
The second driver seems to be a satisfaction for the yearning for an afterlife in a kind of intermediate or bittersweet form against other possibilities that seem too good or too awful to be possible. People seem to come ready made with a sense that they come from something greater than the womb of their mother and that they are destined for more than the grave, but at the same time we want to envision states of life beyond this present one as more of the same. That is, forms of life after death that seem quite otherworldly can be strange and undesirable to many people. On the other hand, it’s quite comfortable and easy to comprehend just being reborn as another human in the same world we are curretnly rather than trying to imagine states quite different from our own.
My big objection to the whole thing, though, is that reincarnation seems to be contemplated on the foundation of a false definition of what an individual self actually is, and this confuses seeing reincarnation as some sort of idyllic fate of a particular individual, when by all accounts it can only be seen as a “hell scenario.”
I use the above words in quotes because the majority of conceptions of hell involve some lack of literal interpretation of the fiery fates of the lost described in the various scriptures of the world. When that is done, we arrive at a conceptual and thematic essence of the idea of hell as some miserable state that continues at least for a very long time, if not forever, as in the Dante-inspired stanzas of the Roman Catholic Church. As I see it, reincarnation is in fact a miserable state that continues for a very long time, if not forever. Therefore, it’s a kind of hell as far as I’m concerned.
I suppose I’ll start with an illustration and then explain the illustration at the end. So, dear reader, let’s assume your name is Sarah. You’re female. You have a husband, Bob, and two kids, Billy and Heather. Bob dies before you. You lay on your deathbed looking forward to finally seeing Bob in whatever world there is beyond the grave. There is just one problem. In a previous life you were Napoleon, and Napoleon had a lover, Josephine. So you leave your mortal coil and head up to the clouds where you see two people. Bob and Josephine. Now, which one of them do you run up to and hug? Do you even remember Josephine? You apparently forgot all about her when you were reborn as Sarah and married Bob. But if you run into Bob’s arms reunited with him as wife, well, I guess Napoleon and Josephine are kind of screwed, aren’t they? They’re just gone? Now then, after you hang out with Bob for a while it’s time to get reincarnated again, so you come back as Chris Johnson. Chris doesn’t remember Bob, and certainly doesn’t find him attractive.
Now then some forms of reincarnation say that you’re really not Napoleon, Sarah, or Chris, but you’re actually Mamrah the immortal soul, and when you, Sarah, die and leave your body you will realize that Sarah is just some portion of Mamrah. That is, Mamrah will remember that he was Napoleon, Sarah, and Chris. But in this instance, what do we know about how Manrah feels about you, Sarah? Why did he become you? And when he became you, Sarah, why doesn’t he remember that he was Napoleon and everyone in between? When you leave your body and stop being Sarah, will Mamrah give a whit about Bob, Billy, and Heather? What about Josephine? Will Mamrah care about her?
See, this Mamrah dude doesn’t sound much like some superpowered immortal soul to me. He sounds like some dude doomed to forget who he is every few decades forever. Actually, the foundation of Buddhism is the Four Noble Truths. The first of these four noble truths is samsara, which basically means: all of life is pain and suffering. That’s how they describe the endless cycle of death and rebirth and constantly forgetting who you are and living lives much better and much worse than anything you deserve because you somehow racked up blessings and curses on yourself when you were somebody else who you now have no memory of.
There is no justice in that. There is no actual afterlife involved in being some insane amnesiac dude wandering the universe lost forever. In a universe created by God, it doesn’t say much for God if his plan for your spiritual growth and redemption involves forgetting everything you learned in life. It’s kind of like hobbling a runner and telling him to win a race.
As alluded above, the center of the misunderstanding of the nature of reincarnation is a poor definition of “self.” I conclude that any meaningful definition of Jonathan Bailey is going to include Jonathan Bailey’s memories and perspectives. So when Jonathan Bailey’s memories and attitudes go away, Jonathan Bailey goes away. Mamrah may go away to become Jonathan Bailey, but when Jonathan Bailey dies and Mamrah reappears, Jonathan Bailey is gone. These have to be considered two individuals. Sure, they may share some kind of energy, or even share the same seat of consciousness, but they aren’t the same person. If Mamrah does keep Jonathan Bailey’s memories, I think it this should be seen as Jonathan’s memories being absorbed by Mamrah, but not that Jonathan Bailey continues on in any meaningful sense. Who knows what Mamrah will do with my memories and attitudes? He might hate them. He might not like me at all. No idea. And apparently he will only be able to make use of my memories until he dies and someone else is born whose memories Mamrah will suck up when they die.
It’s just a silly scenario. The religions that tend to espouse reincarnation tend to be evolutionary in nature. That is, they describe spirituality in terms of some kind of journey to get rid of flaws and obtain enlightenment, and if you don’t get there, well, you try again to get further in your next life…after you’ve forgotten everything…again, the runner with no legs. Not really the best system for those trying to evolve.
So that’s my take on reincarnation. People don’t think consistently about a working definition of self. If I tell people that I will die, but my hand will continue on, they’ll respond with a “that doesn’t sound like immortality – it sounds like a guy with one hell of a hand.” But if I say I will die, but “my soul” will continue on, they breathe a sigh of relief and congratulate me on my immortality. But if “my soul” doesn’t include my memories or attitudes, then it really shouldn’t be equated to “me.”
I’m not saying reincarnation is or isn’t true here. I have my beliefs about things, but I am not trying to preach anything to anyone. I am just asking people to think about what reincarnation really is. It’s not a source of comfort. It’s a description of a particularly cruel form of doom. It describes life as a being who can never die and has a spiritual evoltutionary path to complete that he never will because he constantly forgets who he is, and sounds to me like a description of hell. I think that contemplating these facts about reincarnation will lead people down a path of placing the idea of reincarnation in its proper place in theology. In Buddhism and Hinduism, reincarnation is a horrible thing, and enlightenment is finally breaking the cycle of endless amnesia.
Interestingly, Judaism has a fairly strong tradition of belief in reincarnation, largely thanks to the writings of the kabbalists. In my experience with these ideas, reincarnation seems to be an explanation for connections between people. For instance, there is the idea that every true Jew, including those who may not recognize that they are Jewish, has a “Jewish soul,” and this Jewish soul is actually a fragment of one of the half million Jews who were present at the Sinai event where Moses received the Torah.
Also, Judaism frequently references the idea of the “soul mate,” which is somewhat similar to the “shard of the original Jews” idea. The idea of the soul mate is that one soul somehow gets split in half to become two people, who then get reincarnated over and over looking for each other trying to reconnect. It’s quite a romantic idea. Note, though, that its earliest references are amonth the Greek playwrites and philosophers from the 6th century BCE and onward. So it isn’t uniquely Jewish, or originally Jewish as far as anyone can tell.
I’ve never really been big on evaluating the merit of an idea buy its provenance, though. Something isn’t good or bad simply because it’s Jewish or Greek. However, it does go to say that there is nothing specifically biblical about it. It’s just a common human belief. And like the descriptions of Mamrah the lost schizophrenic amnesiac immortal who likely doesn’t give much of a hoot about the people he becomes via hisw interminal dissociative identity disorder, it’s not really a description of a blissful state to only be half of a person dying over and over and forgetting who you are while looking for the other half of yourself.
Concerning this idea of connection, though, you don’t really need to see yourself as continuing on in order to benefit from the idea. That is, you may feel like a true Jew out of a sense of connection to the original Jews of Sinai, but this can be described as you inheriting something of their energy or vibe or nature or however yo want to describe it, rather than trying to claim that those original Jews got split up into you and a bunch of other people. I mean, if that’s how you want to desscribe it, well, it’s a pretty horrific fate, it sounds like to me.
Likewise, with the idea of a soulmate, just saying that you share a kind of energy with someone is a much more comforting description than saying you’re a half of a person who is like Mamrah, roaming the universe forever lost with amensia, but now Mamrah has additionally bee split in half! What an awful fate for Mamrah to have to endure. What ever did he do to deserve that?
Over all, I’ll just say that if I tell someone that I will die, but the doctors will take my pinkie and sew it on to someone else, the person I say this too will comiserate with my impending death and congratulate me on my choice to be an organ donor and give someone else my pinkie. But if I say that I will die but my soul will go on and my memories will become part of that soul, the person who hears it will congratulate me on my immortality. I see a rank inconsistency here. If my soul doesn’t include my memories, then it lacks my identity, and it’s not really my soul (soul is a synonym for self). I really shouldn’t feel any different about “my soul” becoming a part of the Mamrah dude, who I don’t know any may not like, than I would feel about my pinkie becoming a part of Mamrah. It just seems flatly obvious to me that Manrah is not me. He is someone else, and we may share some kind of energy or something, but we certainly don’t share identity.
That’s really what I want to leave the reader with here. Reincarnation isn’t a description of the immortality of one being. It’s more of a description of the transfer of something between one being, Sarah, and another being, Mamrah. And in this scenario, neither one of these beings is in a very good state. Sarah is ultimately going to become nothing, her memories becoming a part of the identity of an undying amnesiac who will forget everything with his next incarnation. I don’t envy either of these two folks.
So in the end, reincarnation seems to be a method of finding comfort in an afterlife that isn’t too different from our present one, an effort to justify injustices, and an explanation of inexplicable connections between people. However, none of the actual forms of reincarnation that people describe really do anything but present human beings as clueless shells for insane immortal amnesiacs.