27 - Buddha's Teachings Part 2: The Four Noble Truths
29 - Six Realms of Existence Part 1: Introduction and the Heaven Realm


This week’s episode is a Q&A session, based on listener’s questions I’ve received by email. I’ll start out with a series of questions about the Buddhist teaching of rebirth, and end with a question about how to deal with a busy mind during zazen, or seated Zen meditation.



Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
First, Some Background about Rebirth
Q: I was very interested to hear you say that you can practice Zen and not believe in the supernatural element. Did I understand that correctly? It is possible to be Buddhist and not believe in the concept of rebirth?
Q: You say belief in rebirth isn’t really necessary to practice Buddhism, but it sure seems like some people take it very literally and make a big deal about it.
Q: If it’s not necessary to believe in rebirth to be a Buddhist, why are these teachings still used in modern Buddhism, including Zen?
Q: When I try to meditate, I can’t stop the endless chatter in my head, no matter how heard I concentrate on my breathing. I don’t think I’m ever really able to relax or feel spacious. Any tips on how to help this?


First, Some Background about Rebirth

First, I get lots of questions about rebirth. This is a Buddhist teaching I describe in detail in Episode 5 – Arising of Buddhism Part 1: Historical and Religious Context in India. Rebirth is part of the worldview of the Cycle of Transmigration, which arose in India somewhere between 700 and 500 BCE, predating Buddhism. In this worldview, beings are reborn in this world after they die – sometimes as human beings, sometimes as animals. Although this may sound like a view of everlasting life, the ancient Indians didn’t perceive it that way. Instead, they saw this a rather grim scenario because, no matter what we do or how fortunate we are at any given time, we’re doomed to experience the sufferings of illness, old age, death, loss, separation, etc. over and over and over again – countless times. Each life, we forget previous ones and fumble through everything as if for the first time.

As I explained in Episode 6 – Arising of Buddhism Part 2, the Buddha framed his realization and teachings at least partly in the context of the worldview of the Cycle of Transmigration. Like other spiritual thinkers of his time, he contemplated how karma – the law of moral causation – worked in determining what kind of fortunes human beings experienced over the course of multiple lifetimes. Leaders of other religious sects speculated that karma was entirely deterministic (it didn’t matter what you did, it was all fated), or that it was a physical process, and only extreme austerity and restraint would release you from the sticky bonds pulling you into the cycle of rebirth. (See Episode 6 for more about these other ways of thinking.) Note that another spiritual concern of the Buddha’s day was how to get free from the process of rebirth entirely.

The Buddha was radical in suggesting that karma was a largely mental process – that the quality of your experience depending largely on your state of mind, views, and intentions when you performed an action, as well as your state of mind, views, and intentions when you experienced the results of that action. In addition, he taught that we could free ourselves from the process of rebirth (that is, achieve nirvana, or complete liberation and peace) by freeing ourselves from the erroneous views that led to craving and aversion. Craving and aversion, in turn, led to grasping, and grasping led to beings getting pulled into rebirth.

Q: I was very interested to hear you say that you can practice Zen and not believe in the supernatural element. Did I understand that correctly? It is possible to be Buddhist and not believe in the concept of rebirth?

Indeed, it’s possible to be Buddhist and not believe in the concept of rebirth – at least not literally. Thank goodness, or many of us just couldn’t participate in the religion or practice! (By the way, there are Buddhists out there in the world who disagree with this stance, but Buddhists generally don’t get too worked up about dogma so in most cases they’d probably just respectfully disagree.) However, if the Buddha framed his original teachings in terms of rebirth, how can it not be an essential aspect of Buddhism?

It’s helpful to remember that the whole worldview of rebirth predates Buddhism; as I just mentioned, Buddhism inherited it from other religious and spiritual traditions in ancient India. It was just the way people thought the universe worked at the time, so if a new religious thinker offered teachings, he’d be likely to present them in context of the Cycle of Transmigration.

There are (at least) three reasons I can see why it’s not necessary to believe in the literal rebirth of the individual if you practice Buddhism.

First, Buddhism teaches we have no inherent self-essence, or soul, that could exist after the body dies – so how did people reconcile this teaching with the view of rebirth? It was very tricky, and Buddhist philosophers have pondered the apparent paradox of no-self and rebirth over the millennia. In an effort to explain how rebirth might work without a self-essence, they used the image of the flame of one candle lighting another as a metaphor for how one life might pass karma on to another; nothing is actually transferred, except energy. The flame on the second candle isn’t exactly the same as the flame on the first candle, but at the same time the two flames are intimately related, and one is a cause of the other. Note that these early Buddhists sought to make sense of no-self without letting go of the status-quo view of rebirth. It’s clear that a literal interpretation of rebirth – the belief that something that can be identified as you will be reborn after your physical death – is problematic in Buddhism, and suggests the continued inclusion of a cultural worldview in a spiritual system it wasn’t entirely compatible with.

Second, the Buddha taught that we shouldn’t believe anything we can’t verify through our own direct experience. In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha explains to the Kalama clan how to tell whether a particular spiritual teaching is true or authentic. He says, “Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’”[1] Instead, the Buddha says when you know for yourself that a particular quality is unskillful, blameworthy, and criticized by the wise, and when you know from experience that “these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and to suffering — then you should abandon them.” Similarly, if a quality is skillful, praised by the wise, and leads to welfare and happiness, you should enter and remain in them. In other words, the Buddha said to test a teaching for yourself and make your decision based on the results.

Unless you have supernatural powers, it’s impossible for you to know for yourself that rebirth is true, so this can’t be an essential piece of the Buddha’s teaching. The traditional teaching about this matter is that the Buddha had a vision, during his enlightenment experience, of multiple lifetimes, and how karma worked in the context of rebirth (see Episode 9 – Shakyamuni Buddha’s Enlightenment: What Did He Realize?). He subsequently taught about how karma worked – but it wasn’t necessary for his students to also have a vision of multiple lifetimes. Instead, they could verify his teachings on karma in their own experience during this lifetime. This is why, unless they have adopted a view of rebirth based on their culture, most modern Buddhists disbelieve in literal rebirth, or remain agnostic about it because we can’t verify the process for ourselves.

The third reason a belief in rebirth isn’t necessary for practicing Buddhism is this: The whole point of the teaching of rebirth is to emphasize that your actions have a profound impact on your long-term happiness and spiritual liberation. Just as, in Christianity, morality was closely linked to the possibility of life after death in heaven or hell, Buddhism tried to inspire people to moral behavior by speculating about what might happen to you after death as a consequence of your actions in this lifetime. I personally think these religious messages about experiencing repercussions in the next life arose because of the troubling fact that we often see people act selfishly and harm others, but apparently get away with it – they seem live out a comfortable, relatively happy life. How is that fair? Religions have always dreamed up afterlives where people finally get their comeuppance.

Fortunately, Buddhism includes alternative ways of inspiring us to moral behavior besides speculating about how a person’s karma might carry from on in some form after they die. Selfish and harmful behavior is terribly counterproductive to spiritual practice, so if we hope to attain any liberation or insight in this lifetime, we’d do well to act in a thoughtful way. In addition, the karmic results of negative actions of body, speech, and mind do manifest in this lifetime; even if we escape punishment, and even if our external circumstances remain fortunate, we have compromised our relationship with other beings and reinforced our own negative energies and views. Have you ever heard the saying, “The thief looks behind the door?” That’s an example of karma manifesting in this lifetime. So, the teaching of karma is essential to Buddhism, but it’s entirely effective to consider it only within the context of this lifetime, rather than adopting beliefs about something we can’t verify through our own direct experience.

Q: You say belief in rebirth isn’t really necessary to practice Buddhism, but it sure seems like some people take it very literally and make a big deal about it.

It’s true. There are many different forms of Buddhism, and in some – particularly Vajrayana Buddhism (from Tibet) – your past actions are often presented as the primary, or even the only, explanation for your current circumstances. According to this view, the choices you made in past lives, or in this one, explain everything from your depression, to your pimples, to your financial situation, to fact that you encountered this podcast. The positive aspect of this view is that it encourages you to carefully consider all of your actions, because even minor choices may have profound impacts on your future. It also encourages you to take responsibility for your circumstances instead of wallowing in self-pity.

Notably, the Buddha counseled against the simplistic, deterministic thinking about rebirth that was found in some of the other spiritual traditions of his time, where it was believed that if you performed a particular action, a particular, identifiable result would follow (eventually – in this life, the next, or a later one). According to this kind of thinking, for example, greedy actions would lead to a future rebirth as a pig (or some animal culturally associated with greed). In contrast, Shakyamuni Buddha said there are four topics about which it is pointless to conjecture, because they will only lead to “madness and vexation.” Two of the four are about spiritual powers, one is the origin of the world, and the fourth is the precise working out of karma.[2] Understanding the precise workings of karma would involve identifying all the causes and conditions that led to a particular result, or exactly how one cause connects to all of its effects. This is impossible because the web of causation is infinitely complex.

Unfortunately, despite this warning of the Buddha, some people and cultures have used the concept of rebirth to blame the victim. If everything that happens to you is the result of your past actions, then in a certain sense you’re responsible if you’re poor, oppressed, or the victim of abuse. You’re “working out your karma,” and as long as you try to behave correctly now, you’ll end up in more favorable circumstances in the future. Maybe you’ll have to suffer miserable conditions for the rest of this life, but you can look forward to the next one. The oppressor, abuser, or exploiter is similarly just working out karma; they ended up with the advantage because of their past good actions, and if they act negatively now, they’ll suffer the consequences in a future life.

The view that everything that happens to you is due to your past actions doesn’t necessarily have to encourage passivity with respect to social change – but it certainly can. Personally, I think such a belief is an attempt to gain a sense of control over what happens to you – and Buddhists are not above this temptation. This belief suggests you have complete and total control over your future; it may be difficult to act correctly at all times, but if you simply accept your current circumstances and work hard, you have a good chance of preventing future pain and misfortune. I think some people prefer to accept or assign blame based on the idea of rebirth, even if the view is kind of grim, rather than accept that our fortunes are often very random, unfair, and influenced by many forces entirely out of our control.

Q: If it’s not necessary to believe in rebirth to be a Buddhist, why are these teachings still used in modern Buddhism, including Zen?

Basically, it’s not necessary to use the teachings on rebirth in order to teach Buddhism, but they present a very useful metaphor for the way we experience karma over the course of our lives – or even over the course of day! It might be more appropriate to call rebirth part of the “mythology” of Buddhism, in the sense that a myth isn’t presented as being literally true, but nevertheless conveys a deep truth about human experience in a rich and vital way. Sometimes straightforward prose doesn’t cut it, while the complex, multi-layered imagery of a myth gets the point across beautifully.

For example, in Zen we often use the mythology of the Six Realms of existence.[3] This is an aspect of the ancient teachings about rebirth and the Cycle of Transmigration. In brief, after death you can be reborn in any one of six realms of existence – heaven or hell realms similar to those found in Christianity, plus a fighting demigod realm, beast realm, hungry ghost realm, or human realm. Each realm is associated with particular kinds of suffering and obsessions, as well as ways of spiritual practice that will liberate you from the realm. For example, the fighting demigods are filled with envy for those in the heaven realm and spend their time competing and fighting with one another to gain more than they have. If a demigod is able to be satisfied with what she has, and practice restraint, she may be reborn in a different realm after death.

In Zen, we talk about experiencing “rebirth” in these different realms throughout our lives, or over the course of days or weeks. The imagery of the six realms vividly describes the real human experience of getting caught in a particular mind-set and way of operating. When we’re overcome with hatred or anger, we get stuck in the hell realm. When we slip into laziness and think only of gratifying our immediate desires, we “take rebirth” in the beast realm. Familiarity with the mythology of the realms can help us recognize the state of our body-mind and take steps to get unstuck and live with more awareness and wisdom.

Finally, I like to think of the Buddhist teaching of no-self as pointing to the fact there is ultimately no self-essence to blame, while the teaching of karma & rebirth points to the reality of cause and effect. The two teachings form an apparent paradox, but also balance each other out. If you take no-self to the extreme, you could say nothing matters. If you take karma & rebirth to the extreme, you figure everything is fated, and opt out of taking responsibility for the welfare of others. When we dance somewhere in between, we have to face that life is complicated and teachings don’t provide lasting answers for us as we navigate reality.


On to our second topic:

Q: When I try to meditate, I can’t stop the endless chatter in my head, no matter how heard I concentrate on my breathing. I don’t think I’m ever really able to relax or feel spacious. Any tips on how to help this?

I totally relate to this experience during zazen. I just relentlessly plan projects in my head. I design shelving, gardens, websites, new organizations, write blog posts… Sigh.

The amazing thing is that, somehow, no matter how quiet or concentrated our meditation, zazen can still make a big difference in our lives! I believe you are experiencing some positive effects from meditation, regardless of whether you’re conscious of it during meditation or not. According to the research of Herbert Benson, when we meditate our bodies and minds undergo the opposite of the stress response. We experience the stress response when we feel we may need to fight or flee – our respiration and metabolism increase, stress hormones are released into our bloodstream, etc. When we consciously choose to meditate – to settle on our minds on a very simple object or activity, and just return to being aware of it no matter what, with no agenda or judgment – our respiration and metabolism decrease, stress hormones decrease, and our brainwave patterns change![4]

It’s paradoxical; we need to make some kind of conscious effort during zazen, but in a way, it doesn’t matter how “successful” we are at it.

Still, I know from personal experience that zazen can be kind of stressful and unpleasant when it feels like a constant struggle. Even if we really want to meditate, and we fully intend to be present without agenda for the whole period of meditation, we’re still liable to get caught up in thinking – usually many, many times over the course of a meditation period. What do we do about it?

Essentially, the instant we wake up to the present moment and remember that we’re trying to meditate, we try to stay very still and not react. I tell my students to treasure this moment of remembering, and to “be grateful and throw away past and future.” We really don’t want to turn our moment of waking up into a negative experience of frustration, judgment, or discouragement, because then such moments will be less likely to happen!

Instead of worrying about our meditation, we just abandon ourselves to wholeheartedly sitting. A classic analogy for this is trying to hold a bowl of water very still. If you shake, or the wind blows, the water will be disturbed, but there’s nothing you can actively do to make the water calm again. Any motion you make, like patting the surface of the water, will only make things worse; the only thing you can do is hold still. Stimulus-independent thinking is like the turbulence in the water, and absorbing yourself in just sitting is like holding the bowl still. Patting the surface of the water is analogous to evaluating your meditation and mulling over how to improve it, feeling frustrated with your mind or with yourself, judging thinking as being bad, or even trying to hold your mind on something in rigid way in order to brace yourself against stimulus-independent thinking.

The second you realize you’ve been caught up in thinking, that’s great – you’re no longer caught up! You’ve woken up to what’s happening in the present! Even if you had totally forgotten you were even meditating, even if you spent 15 minutes planning an elaborate meal you want to cook next week, simply be grateful that you remembered your intention to meditate and let go of the past as quickly as possible. Forget about your previous mind-wandering as if it doesn’t matter at all, and throw your energy into just sitting. It may seem like it will help to strain harder, feel regret, or try to figure out what’s wrong with your zazen, but those things just make it worse.

This “forget about it and keep sitting” approach may seem foolhardy – as if you’re working on a practice but forbidden how to learn how to get better at it. But zazen isn’t ordinary effort; it’s more about not doing than doing. When you realize you’ve been doing (thinking, striving) all you can do is not do. More doing (such as thinking about how to meditate better) isn’t going to help at all.

It’s often observed in Zen that our brain keeps generating thoughts like a gland produces hormones. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be a problem for our zazen. It can be frustrating, but in practice the moment of letting go – of realizing you were off in la-la land, letting go of worrying about that, and just returning to the simple act of wholeheartedly sitting – is quite relaxing and profound. If you can do this just a few times over the course of a meditation period, it is very beneficial.

Do you have questions you’d like me to answer in a Q & A episode? Submit a question through the website, or email me: domyo[at]zenstudiespodcast.com.


Photo Credit

This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Refer to Wellcome blog post
Library reference: ICV No 18053
Photo number: V0017705
Full Bibliographic Record: http://catalogue.wellcomelibrary.org/record=b1202969
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
Description: Yama, the Lord of Death, holding the Wheel of Life which represents Samsara, or the world on a Tibetan Thangka. In the central circle is a snake, a pig and rooster which represents craving, hatred and ignorance. The six sections, surrounding the central circle, show representations of the six realms – the realm of the gods, the realm of the titans, the realm of the humans, the realm of the animals, the realm of the hungry ghosts and the realm of the demons.


[1] “Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas” (AN 3.65), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.than.html.
[2] “Acintita Sutta: Unconjecturable” (AN 4.77), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an04/an04.077.than.html.
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sa%E1%B9%83s%C4%81ra_(Buddhism)
[4] Benson, Herbert. The Relaxation Response. New York, NY: HarperTorch, 1976.


27 - Buddha's Teachings Part 2: The Four Noble Truths
29 - Six Realms of Existence Part 1: Introduction and the Heaven Realm