Q & A : Belief in past and future lives

Question:

The belief in past and future life is intrinsic to being a Buddhist. I’m not looking for definitive proof, but the seed of doubt in my mind noticeably affects my practice. Please could you help me to destroy this doubt and deepen my motivation.

Answer:

Generally this is a difficult but also very essential question.

Where does our issue or problem lie? It lies with our mind. If we were to find the mind then this issue would no longer be a problem. But, as long as we have not found the mind, this remains an area of difficulty. This at least is how I see it.

As I am always saying, the very foundation of the Buddha Dharma is belief in causality, i.e. karma cause and effect, and past and future lives. But there are certain ways that we can believe in and accept them to be a reality. We can have an acceptance of them being true  but without seeing why, or our acceptance can be based on knowing them to be true, and seeing why they are true. This goes back to the explanation of faith I have just given, because nobody knows the truth of something right from the start. Faith can either hinder our intelligence, or increase and further it, but it’s only through first having some confidence in something that we will take the time to examine and think about it. So belief and faith become the cause for increasing our intelligence. However, some people just stick to their faith and blind belief which then blocks their thinking and analysing. I made this point earlier.

We first need to understand that Buddhism has many levels of teaching, and gives many different explanations on a single topic. From the perspective of beginners it’s generally taught that the mind and body are distinct. The mind is independent of the body and has a particular cause, and the cause of the present moment mind is the existence of the prior moment of mind. Everything has to have a cause, and the cause of the present moment mind is the existence of the prior moment of mind. This cause and effect nature of the mind or persistence of mind proves past and future lives, because a prior instance is what acts as the cause for the next instance. So it’s based in the view of causality. And as I said, belief in past and future lives and causality is the foundation of the Buddhist view. In truth, these are not separate things. So the prior moment of mind is the cause for the future moment, and it’s on this basis that we accept past and future lives.

If we do find the idea of past and future lives difficult to believe in, we should think about what exactly it is that we struggle with, or what our lack of belief is based on. Because if it is based on the fact that we don’t see how our mind moves on from a prior to a future life, well it’s never taught in Buddhism that the mind can be seen. Mind is taught to be clarity and awareness, something beyond material existence. And if you say, ‘But there are many who don’t believe in past and future lives;’ just saying that isn’t valid ground for saying they don’t exist.

The way I think about it, and how I’ve taught this topic in the past, is that we shouldn’t first think about past and future lives, instead we need to think about this life, because we believe in this life, don’t we? For instance can you remember what you were thinking yesterday, or last year? So first we start close to home, not too far away, because we accept the present, we accept the here and now, the existence of this life. So can you remember what you thought when you were ten years old, or how you were? If you can’t remember that, are you likely to remember how it was when you were one? And if you can’t remember, does that mean you didn’t exist when you were ten? So we can see that just not being able to remember doesn’t mean we didn’t exist. Nobody remembers how it was when they were born, and if we can’t remember that then we definitely aren’t going to remember our previous life. And on that basis, I don’t personally see just not remembering our previous life to be a problem. When it comes to our future lives, well that’s in the future. And again we should start from the present. What’s it going to be like tomorrow? What’s it going to be like next year? What’s it going to be when we’re old? If we can’t know that, then how could we see or know what our future life is going to be like. This is how I think about this.

I personally do have some belief in past and future lives, and in causality. But it’d be difficult to say I have full belief and confidence. Someone with full conviction and belief would be somebody like Milarepa. Milarepa had committed many terrible misdeeds, and on that basis was convinced that he would be reborn in hell. It was ultimately due to his conviction in causality that he abandoned all worldly activities. He was terrified of the results of his actions, and that drove him to practise as he did. He dared not to do another negative act. But I’m not somebody like that. 

And although I am somebody with some belief in past and future lives, and causality, I don’t know what my previous life was. So my belief in that is based on a degree of faith. But whether I was a pig, a human, a different sort of animal, or a hell being, I’m not sure. And similarly, I have no idea what’s going to happen in my future lives, I don’t even know what’s going to happen later in this life. I have no idea when or how I’m going to die, nor whether I will be happy in the end or if things will be terrible…, I really have no idea. But I do honestly feel that the mind and the body are different, and the mind will persist beyond the body. That I do truly believe.

Another area to think about here is that I don’t think I’ve ever seen any harm come from believing in past and future lives. I feel that my belief benefits me greatly. Even if they don’t exist, I’d still only be benefitted by thinking that they do, and if they do exist, again I’m only benefitted. So it’s a win-win situation. What’s taught is to act responsibly and not do that which is harmful because you will suffer in your future lives. And if I believe in that, I won’t act harmfully, and and that is helpful to me here and now. We all know that by doing harmful, negative things in this life, we suffer and end up in difficulties. And by having conviction that if my way of thinking is good  and positive it will help me in the future, whereas negative ways of thinking will only lead to having a hard time, my belief in past and future lives, regardless of whether they in fact exist or not, only helps me towards a good and positive future path.

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