By Gerald “Strib” Stribling
There are a number of reasons I should believe in karma and Buddhist rebirth.
Perhaps it was “karma” that sucked me into the Vipassana vortex of Sri Lanka in the summer of 2002 when my initial destination was Pakistan. And the following summer I was destined to go to China with the UN, but SARS made me change my plans, and I returned to Sri Lanka to live with the monks at Sri Bodhiraja Monastery.
I was born Buddhist, at least by temperament, but didn’t realize it after I had turned 50 and found out more about Buddhism. Buddhism provides refuge for those who want to distance themselves from gods and metaphysics; paradoxically, it also offers up plenty of traditional metaphysics: heavens and hells and gods and supernatural shenanigans of all kinds. The Buddha’s declaration about beliefs and belief systems, the Kalama Sutta, has loopholes you could drive a train through. Buddhism doesn’t care what you believe or don’t believe, as long as your beliefs cause no harm or engender hate.
Buddhism isn’t a religion, unless people make it a religion through the irrational belief of things that outlie the tenets of Dharma. The big examples are karma and rebirth, which some Buddhists, the secular Buddhists, dismiss as superstitions left over from Hinduism.
Why “be a Buddhist” at all if you don’t believe in the promise of a better life next time around if you live a moral and contemplative life this time around? Because the reward of following the Middle Path is now. Mindfulness is its own reward. Meditation makes your mind strong so that you can deal with anything with equanimity—even your own death. Compassion makes you happy. Why be afraid and unhappy if you don’t have to be?
I can’t say what is or isn’t true about anything, so I’m not going to say that God doesn’t exist and astrology is nonsense (not publicly, anyway). I have my thoughts and prejudices like everyone else, and I am happy to admit to them if people want me to. I am as suspect of raging atheists as I am raging Evangelicals. The Buddha gave us permission not to believe, and I believe that that’s what Buddhism wants us to believe.
I believe that trying to conceive the inconceivable is a preposterous waste of time, myself. But that certainly doesn’t mean that the inconceivable doesn’t exist. What do I know?
The Buddhist battle is with delusion. Delusion is the devil. Delusion is the root of all evil.
Observing and then dismissing your delusions is a pretty painful process. I do not care to spend a long weekend (much less an eternity) hanging out with the kind of people who believe in a literal heaven—including a majority of Buddhists who vaguely think that when they die they will ascend to the “Pure Land.” The notion of rebirth or reincarnation I find equally repugnant, from a logical perspective, as it means another life full of suffering.
What that leaves, is the Big Nothing.
Springsteen lyric: “Into the void my soul be hurled…” Why should anyone fear that? You don’t get to choose your post-mortal consequences, or even know if post-mortal consequences are real. Death is everyone’s fate, and like everyone else, you’re gong to have to settle.
South Park says that the Mormons are right. Buddhism says there is no soul, although of course, most Buddhists can’t wrap their heads around that. But, oh, geez, if there is an afterlife, which afterlife would you choose?
I like reintarnation. That’s when you’re reborn as a hillbilly.
Editor: Dana Gornall
He wrote Buddhism for Dudes as a not-so-subtle, basic examination of the essence of Buddhist philosophy. It’s short and funny and to the point. “Way too much Buddhist information is too complicated to wade through, and some of it is fairyland voodoo, full of metaphysical improbabilities. Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a way to live a happy life. This is not hard stuff to understand.”
Stribling writes a blog called Buddhism for Tough Guys. “There are lots of tough guy Buddhists out there willing to take a bullet for anybody. One of their mottoes is ‘Just because I am a person who loves peace doesn’t mean that I have forgotten how to be violent’.” He once broke up an assault with a little kitchen broom. “It’s my best story,” he says.