Whether or not you chose to accept a doctrine of reincarnation depends primarily on personal experience. But the impact of accepting such a doctrine has a profound impact on how you live your life. This essay focuses on that impact.
Originally published 2000
The Personal Experience Necessary for Such a Belief
To believe in reincarnation is one thing. To, in essence, “know” it as a fundamental truth requires deeply personal experience. It struck me once that the only way to “know” such a thing was to recall some past-life event that you could not possibly have known, and then find confirming evidence for it. Of course, many other explanations are possible, or possibly even plausible, but such an experience tends to produce a personal conviction, despite the possibility of alternative explanations.
For me, that experience was one of being overrun by a tank during a war in China. For the life of me, I could not figure out what a tank would have been doing in China. In World War II there were tanks of the kind I had seen, but we never invaded China, so how could such a thing have happened?
Only later, as I was watching a television documentary, did I discover that Japan had invaded China during World War II — an invasion which included a large contingent of tanks! I had never seen that particular documentary before, and to my knoweldge had never seen that particular fact. Of course, other explanations do exist. They could even be correct! But the immediacy of experience was such that it, along with other experiences, led to a fairly deep conviction on the subject.
The Impact of a Belief in Recarnation
Whether or not you have had a personal experience that makes it real, however, you could still choose to accept a belief in reincarnation. Most of the world’s major religions hold just such a belief, in fact. This essay assesses the impact of that belief on individual behavior — or at least alludes to the impact that such a belief should have on anyone who considers the question carefully.
One possible impact is so totally personal (i.e. selfish) as to be worth mentioning, if only to rapidly discard it. That is the “I better act good so as not to become a snake/pig/cow/bug” motivation. That motivation is so fundamentally selfish as to be almost devoid of spiritual content. Of course, it is a good thing to be a good person. But would we have known or cared how good a man Jesus of Nazareth was, if he had not done good for others? No. It is the impact he had on humanity that raises him to such high esteem in our lives. Similarly, it is how a belief in reincarnation leads us to act towards others (for other than purely selfish reasons) that makes it such a beneficial doctrine.
The interesting thing about a belief in reincarnation is that you know you are coming back, but you don’t know where you are coming back. You might come back in some other country. You might come back in the lower rungs of society. You might come back virtually anywhere.
Given that is the case, the question is: What kind of legacy do you want to leave yourself?
The fact is, given that belief, you need to make the best possible world you can, anywhere you find yourself!! You don’t want any segment of society to be too disadvantaged — you may find yourself there next! You don’t want people to be unhappy, or miserable, or beating up on their families, because you may become part of that family. You don’t want social injustice anywhere in the world, because you may be part of the downtrodden minority the next time around. And you particularly don’t want to screw up the environment, because you yourself may have to deal with the aftermath.
Basically, a belief in reincarnation makes you a “universal citizen”. It’s a lot like living prudently today, so you’ll have a good retirement tomorrow. You make the best investments you can in hopes of reaping the rewards later on. And oh, by the way, you tend to make life better for a lot of people along the way — whether it is by making grand policy decisions that help to keep the wealth from concentrating in a few hands, or by making the world a little better here and there, by picking up a little litter now and again, or brightening someone’s day whenever you can, so they go into the world a little less frustrated than they might have been.
Of course, this too is a “selfish” motivation, in a sense. But it is a more “enlightened” selfishness that seeks to give up some local, personal good for a larger benefit to humanity. That kind of action is what we all admire in a “spritual” personage. It is the kind of action which, along with a little reflection, is motivated by a belief in reincarnation.
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