…from a Zen perspective, at least, the most important rebirth is the one that happens every moment.
Sweeping Zen: I think what we’re seeing today is a struggle between fundamentalism and the ability to see the metaphor, you know?
David Loy: That reminds me of something Joseph Campbell wrote: “Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result, we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”
What’s fact, what’s metaphor? I think that right now it’s important for modern Buddhists to be agnostic about doctrines like physical rebirth. What happens when we physically die? We may believe that something will happen but if we’re honest we don’t really know. It’s important to leave that issue open, to interrogate it, and not to say that because we’re Buddhists we must believe in karma and rebirth the way that they have been understood historically in Asia. We have to look at what modern science has discovered and what modern psychology has discovered and consider what that implies.
The question of karma brings us back to the issue of social justice. As I read the Pali Canon, the Buddha never meant for karma to justify the authority of kings and so forth. If you accept karma in a deterministic way, then the king in some sense deserves his power, and the impoverished and oppressed must deserve their conditions as well. I once heard a Buddhist teacher talk about the Nazi Holocaust during the second world war: “What horrible karma those Jewish people must have had.” We need to question that way of thinking.
SZ: Your view of rebirth is perhaps more analogous to the Phoenix Bird mythology, where the individual is transformed and reborn in this life itself (perhaps many times). To me, this is a more practical understanding of rebirth. That our actions, thoughts and feelings form how we interact with the world and, as a consequence, affect how the world views those interactions. We transform ourselves, through transcendence of the world of opposites, and are thus reborn.
DL: Whether or not we believe in the more traditional view, from a Zen perspective, at least, the most important rebirth is the one that happens every moment. The six realms are not necessarily places where we are reborn after we physically die but where we find ourselves moment by moment according to what is motivating us right now.
“Transmigration” is happening all the time. There is a Zen story about a samurai who asks a master, “What is the difference between heaven and hell?” and the master replies, “What a stupid question. I will not waste my time answering something like that.” The samurai gets angry and begins to pull out his sword, whereupon the Zen master says, “That is the birth of hell.” He got the point and put his sword back in its sheath. The Zen master said, “That is the birth of heaven.”
Click to read Part 6, the conclusion, of Sweeping Zen’s interview with David Loy.
David R. Loy (born July 27, 1947; Dharma name David Tetsu’un Loy) is a Buddhist philosopher who writes on the interaction between Buddhism and modernity. He has been practicing Zen since 1971 and is an authorized teacher in the Sanbo-Kyodan tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism.
Interview transcript originally published on the Sweeping Zen Website on April 5, 2011.
Image by Rosa Bellino, used with her permission.