A Buddhist Overview of Reincarnation, Conception, Renunciation, and Buddhahood
This article deals with the following basic fundamental concepts in Buddhism.
All Buddhists believe in reincarnation.
During the first 49 days after a human being breathes out his or her last breath and up to the time of reincarnation, his or her spirit or “soul” survives for up to 49 days. This survival is known as the “bardo,” the “outcast,” or the “body in the Yun,” a period during the good and bad karma of the former life is being weighed and judged. Since his or her karma is not yet formed to determine where he or she will reincarnate, the bardo is extremely free. And since the bardo is extremely light, agile, and keen, its strength of awareness is seven times stronger than before death during this period, and possesses his bardo throughout. Mediums can read their minds or even varying the length of this survival period for seven days, 14 day, 21 days, 28 days, 35 days, 42 days and up to 49 days, at which time his or her karma for the next lifetime will have been determined and the bardo will undergo reincarnation accordingly.
How does a bardo choose his next parents? All Buddhists believe in cause and effect. This is the foundation for karma. Without a cause, there can be no effect. A certain cause will definitely produce a certain effect. Like a seed is the cause and in a seed or fertilized ovum is hidden all the genes that will determine what plant or animal or human is to be born next. Besides, causes and effects, relations are also a determining factor of the next life. Bardos will only seek out parents who are somehow related to them in their past. These relations can be either good or bad. A bad relation with someone in the past will lead a bardo to seek you out so that you will have to suffer for your past karma or debt to that particular bardo when you become its parent or parents. This explains why some children are very good to their parents and some extremely bad. The bad ones come to collect their debts. For example, the parents of such a child have to love him or her very much only to lose him or her in the end, such a death by fatal accidents after the parents have given him or her good education. When the child has collected his or her debts, they will leave the parents behind. On the other hand, other children may be very filial pious to the parents because they had good relations with them in their former lives.
How is a person’s sex determined in relation to conception? When a bardo has seek out its parents, the next item on the list is determination of the sex of the child to be born. If the bardo sees the parents in copulation and is attached to the physical body of the man, then its sex will be female and the child is so conceived; if the bardo sees the parents in copulation and is attached to the physical body of the woman, then its sex will be male and the child is so conceived. The sperm will only do what it is supposed to do. Because of such attachments of the bardo in choosing its parents, both the male and female born will suffer later in their life because of the opposite sex either through infatuation, sexual desires, love, separation, and strong attachments.
In almost all cultures, both eastern and western, men are usually considered more rational and women more emotional, and so goes the saying “men are from Mars and women from Venus.” At least because of this, the Buddha originally did not allow women to become members of the monastic community lest they came into contact with them and emotionally influenced them. Because Buddha’s the first cousin Ananda begged the Buddha to save his mother and the Buddha was compassionate, by choice the Buddha shortened 20 years of his own lifespan to allow Ananda’s mother to enter the monastic community. Buddha died at the age of 80 by choice instead of 100. Such was the beginning of Bhikkhuni in the Buddhist monastic community. Strictly speaking, even to this date in most monasteries, Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni are not allowed to practice under the same roof. The Buddha set down 384 commandments for a Bhikkhuni to obey unconditionally, but only 250 commandments for a Bhikkhu. The additional commandments deal with, prevent, and protect the integrity of the entire monastic community and guide the Bhikkhuni in their daily practices with clear advice for Bhikkhuni as to how they should treat their own emotions.
Why did the Buddha manifest himself as a man and not a woman? In Buddhism, it is generally believed that because of her emotional makeup and her strong attachment to love and desire, a woman has to undergo rebirth 500 times before she can assume the body of a man. And since a man is more rational, once born, he has the potential to become a Buddha if he so chooses! Even today, who in this world would be willing to allow her own husband to leave the family behind to become a monk? With the attachments of a family, it is almost hopeless for any man to undergo the ascetic practices to become a Buddha! He will not only have to learn to love and save his own children but also the children of all humankind! This was why Gautama Siddhartha manifested himself as a prince, married and had a son before he renounced his family and set out to learn from the greatest Yogis of his time the way to liberation and to save his people from suffering.
Of the six realms of sentient beings, heavenly beings, humans, asuras, animals, ghosts, and demons, only humans has the potential to become Buddhas. Heavenly beings indulge themselves in leisure and enjoyment and therefore never intend to become Buddhas. They enjoy extraordinary long life spans and when they die, they fall down from heaven into Samsara again to become any of the lower level forms of existence. All humans go through some kind of suffering in their life time. The more they suffer, the more they reflect upon the true meaning life and it is because of this that some of them may choose to undergo ascetic practices to become Buddhas. Asuras are also heavenly beings: male asuras are extremely handsome looking but vengeful; female asuras are extremely ugly and belligerent. All they think of is how to wage wars with the gods and therefore they also are too preoccupied to even think of practicing to become Buddhas. Animals are born into their own forms to repay their past karma. They have fur, hair and horns, but no free will. Most animals end up on dinner tables. They cannot even stand upright like humans can and therefore they suffer and become game or are butchered. Some humane pet owners may be kind to their pets but can only love them to a limited extent. There is a really need for animal rights activities worldwide nowadays. But even so, they cannot teach them the meaning of life, but can only feed and walk them, so all animals will die in vain without the slightest idea of why they are here in the first place. Hungry ghosts coexist with humans in the same dimension. Since they do not have physical bodies, they cannot perform good karma to change their existing karma at will, and so they only suffer for their past karma unless saved by a good human being or Bodhisattva such as Ksitigarbha who is too willing and powerful. Demonic beings in the hells suffer most for eons without the slightest hope of rebirth! Like the hungry ghosts, they do not have physical bodies either and so they cannot perform good karma to change their existing karma at will, and so none of them have the chance of becoming Buddhas on their own.
In summary, if a sentient being wishes to follow the teachings of the Buddhas, practices Buddhism and eventually to become a Buddha, he or she must first become a human being, and then listen to and believe in the Dharma. He or she must also try their utmost to complete their practices in this lifetime, lest they would lose their human body upon death. For human life is fragile as flower petals and no one can guarantee that he or she will have the choice or chance to take human form the next time around!
Venerable M. Sakya Longyen
Dharma Net of Indra
4 March 2011