Buddhist Belief in Past & Future Life: Bob Thurman Podcast

When some people hear the word “reincarnation,” they automatically think that the person speaking is a nut, a weirdo, or some kind of New Age hippie. It’s so ingrained in our heads by our scientific, materialistic culture that the idea is absurd. Carl Sagan thought the belief in future lives was wishful thinking by religious fanatics, an immature clinging to continuing existence by those not brave enough to face extinction. And Carl was a brave man, leaving his tenured position at Cornell to be what many considered a crackpot, running his SETI project to look for intelligent life on other planets. Why is it so difficult for us to accept the continuation of our personal existence throughout many lives? After all, due to our educated familiarity with the theory of biological evolution, we freely embrace the concept of the evolution of life forms.

The Science & Myth of Reincarnation

We accept that we all came out of a primordial stew and that now we’re these incredibly complex beings with brains, eyes, and fingers who have created communities, cultures, languages, and highly supportive habitats. We’ve slowly and miraculously evolved from tiny amoebas into lizards into birds into apes into Shakespeares, Mozarts, Emily Dickinsons, Einsteins, Gandhis, and all kinds of amazing human beings. If we believe that this sort of ongoing physical and mental evolution is possible, then why should it be impersonal and random, a haphazard progression of material forms?

Carl Sagan & Tibet's Dalai Lama by Jon Reis Why do we have so much trouble acknowledging a spiritual evolutionary continuum interwoven with the material genetic development? If there are material genes, why can’t there be “spiritual genes”?

I’m very sorry to shake up the materialist scientist’s sense of history and “progress,” but long before Darwin and company, the Buddha and his contemporaries had already “discovered” evolution. He clearly saw that the life-form of the human being was not sui generis and was not the creation of a “God,” but was evolutionarily connected with all other life-forms, had developed out of them and could also regress back into them. Only he went even further than the materialist scientists. He made evolution a personal matter; he acknowledged that it involves the subjective agencies of beings, intentions, and minds.

Buddha’s Discovery of Spiritual Evolution

It is not merely an impersonal biological process of atoms and molecules and cells. He saw that living beings do evolve— progress and regress— in a more than strictly physical sense . He taught that we are not merely passive inheritors of genetic codes. We also personally and intentionally evolve ourselves toward higher states of awareness and happiness, or deteriorate ourselves toward lesser awareness and more wretched embodiments. We do so not just in this life, or in a few lives, but over the course of billions of lives, just as it takes billions of lives for a paramecium to become a butterfly.

Why is this so hard to believe? After all, you and I and Darwin and Shakyamuni Buddha were all in the primordial soup together, little slimy creatures with no brains or eyes. And now we are here. Isn’t it realistic that our continuity of mental awareness is also here with us, in the same radically transformed and transforming sense that our physical genetic codes are here with us? Why should mind be the one element of reality that is arbitrarily selected to be more nonexistent than matter? Of course, mind cannot be found by means of scientific analysis. But no one has ever found even one atom that can withstand analysis either! There is no thing that anyone has ever found that stands indivisible as a thing in itself. All things, material as well as mental, have only relational, ascribed reality.

Shakyamuni Buddha, Tibet, 1800 - 1899 From Collection of Tibet House USSo it is sheer dogmatism, prejudice, unscientific arbitrariness to insist that matter does exist but mind does not. So an evolutionary biology that excludes the agency and continuity of beings’ minds is highly unscientific, philosophically naïve, and pragmatically inaccurate.

Robert AF Thurman from Infinite Life: Awakening to Bliss Within, Penguin Publishing Group.

Photo of Carl Sagan & HH Dalai Lama by Jon Reis www.jonreis.com.
Shakyamuni Buddha, Tibet, Ground Mineral Pigment on Cotton, Collection of Tibet House US.