A guy named James wrote to me and asked:
“Could you explain rebirth to me like I’m five. I’ve never been able to grasp a knowledge of this.”
I answered him thusly; Rebirth is a myth that some Buddhists believe in. It might be loosely based on fact. But it might just be a fantasy.
I used the word myth to define the Buddhist idea of rebirth. These days a lot of people use the word myth as a synonym for falsehood. But that’s not the proper meaning of the word. A myth is a way of explaining something for which there is no good literal explanation. A myth is not necessarily false. But it doesn’t have to accord with fact.
A myth is not untrue because it fails to accord with fact. It can be true but not in the way scientific explanations or histories are true. A myth can be true without being factual.
But it’s important that we don’t believe in our myths in the same way we believe in science and history. The problem that contemporary Christianity and Islam have is that many of the people who follow those faiths insist that their myths are true in the same way that scientific facts and histories are true.
A lot of Buddhists, particularly but not exclusively in the West, make the same mistake with Buddhist myths. This is especially true when it comes to Buddhist myths about rebirth. We read mythical books, like the Tibetan Book of the Dead for example, and we want to interpret them as being empirically true. But they aren’t.
My personal experience with zazen practice leads me to the conclusion that my previous understanding about what I was and what the world was, was incorrect. Based on some of what I’ve touched firsthand in my real experience, I might be tempted to spin out my own myths about rebirth. But none of those myths would really explain what I’ve seen any better than the myth of Noah’s Ark explains its writer’s understanding of God and the way God rewards virtue. And if you believed my myth about rebirth as a literal truth, you’d be no better off than those people who insist that a long time ago an old man really did put two of every real animal in a real boat and floated on real water for forty real days and forty real nights.
Now I gotta go. We’re trying to make it to the Grand Canyon by this evening.
I will be speaking at Empty Sky Zen Center near Phoenix, Arizona on Friday June 29th at 7pm. The address is 5246 E McDonald Dr., Paradise Valley, AZ 85253. If you’re not a regular there and wish to attend please send an email to Ann Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org. They just need to get a head count. Newcomers are very welcome. This is not an “advanced” sitting.