In the East, a completely different belief system developed around the concept of life after death. Instead of a new life in another world, life would be continued in this world, through the transmigration of souls, or as it has become popularly know, reincarnation.
This ingenious idea has several advantages. It soothes the fear of annihilation, while avoiding the absurdities implied in the Western notion of personal immortality. It also teaches a continuity of life on earth—living beings are recycled into new forms, and life goes on. The view of time and the cosmos as endlessly recurring is more in line with ancient beliefs, born of humanity’s alignment with the seasonal cycle of eternal rebirth, than with the more recent, and more difficult, concept of an end of time in which everything is resolved once and for all.
In all belief systems concerning the soul, death, or the supernatural, it is necessary to apply what I choose to call the rule of “human, all too human.” Human conceptions of the absolute or the transcendent are founded in intuitions that can not be codified into language without reflecting human limitations. It is the very nature of abstraction, of thought and language themselves, to embody principles of duality. It is for this very reason that transcendent truth can only be indicated through metaphor, or if discussed in strictly rational terms, through the negative. Thus we say, “the unlimited,” or “the unconditioned,” since the intuition of such can only be conceived in terms of the absence of any abstraction, of any duality whatsoever.
One of the greatest ironies of the clash between science and religion is that science has actually confirmed, in empirical terms, the intuitive sense of the incommensurable that has been a perennial source of spiritual belief. The resistance to it is based on human clinging to the so-called literal interpretations of religious dogma and scripture, with a great contributor to this being simply human pride—the immensity of the universe as revealed by science threatening the perceived centrality of the human drama. But in terms of human belief systems, science has only accentuated, made more obvious, a truth that was always evident to those brave enough to see. Human concepts cannot adequately convey the infinity of Nature.
So religious belief systems appear clumsy when compared to natural processes because they attempt to fit the infinite into a schema, whereas Nature needs no schema, or rather is the source of all that we may perceive as a schema. If we keep this in mind when examining the idea of reincarnation, it is perfectly evident that the notion of souls jumping around from body to body (like fleas jumping from one dog to another) seems unnecessarily mechanistic (i.e. clumsy) when compared to the incredible profligacy of Nature, in which living things can be born by the billions per second, and die at the same rate. To have to operate through individual souls, as if such souls were solid, indivisible units of being—how awkward and superfluous for Nature, whose fecundity is beyond conception. This indeed is “human, all too human,” and the stumbling block is of course the need to cling to the individual self, not daring to face the fact that this self is exactly what dies.
The problem becomes more acute when the notion of karma is added to the mix. I speak of popular conceptions, not of the many rarefied and sophisticated doctrines of Eastern philosophy. The widely known (and crude) meaning of karma is in some respects similar to the problem of justice that led to the creation of heaven and hell in the Western tradition. The actions one performs in this life, good or bad, lead to good or bad results in the next life.
I have actually heard it explained that suffering, injustice, and grave misfortune happens to people because of actions they took in previous lives. This superficial solution to the problem of justice is ultimately more unjust than the doctrine of hell. For one thing, since we have no memory of previous lives, there is no moral result from karmic consequences. I would have to make a conscious connection to previous actions in order to experience any moral awareness or change regarding my experience of suffering in this life. If the universe contains an ethical cause-and-effect between lives, it totally defeats the purpose to have people reborn without memory of previous lives. If a child is maimed in an accident, there is no ethical validity to imagining that the child was a Mafia hit man in a previous life. He’s a child now, and nothing within the continuity of the child’s present experience justifies his suffering.
There are, besides this, graver consequences of such a belief. For if everything that happens to us is a lawful result of karma, than nothing can really be unjust. Everyone who was killed in the Holocaust must have done something to deserve it in previous lives. (As a corollary to this, we have a popular New Age belief that we choose everything that happens to us. The little girl that got molested actually chose that.) The end of this doctrine is moral vacuity. Karmic results for actions can have no ethical dimension at all—what standard could there be for a moral consequence when the action in question is in itself a just consequence of a previous action?
So much for the popular misconception of karma. A karmic system of reincarnation would seem to be another myth of life after death that causes more problems than it solves. But even without the moral dimension, rebirth assumes the continuity of the ego. In Buddhism, where the existence of an ego is denied, the mythology of reincarnation has always presented a contradiction. Yet it remains part of the popular Buddhist mythos. Such is the endurance of human clinging to the idea of a permanent self.
This is, in fact, the ultimate dilemma of all afterlife beliefs. The human fear of death determines the structure of belief according to the desire for personal survival, and at the same time in denial of human intuition. For the spiritual seeker to face and experience the truth, he or she must be willing to explore and entertain the intuition of that which has hitherto seemed insupportable.
(This is the last in a series of articles about beliefs concerning survival after death)