An idea that challenges, confuses and sometimes even angers people is that each of us could be reborn as an animal. When I recently blogged about karma, quite a few of the comments asked more about this subject.
So, what is the Tibetan Buddhist perspective?
It’s important not to be encumbered with ideas from Western culture and society when exploring Buddhism. In particular, there is no reference to a ‘soul’ in this tradition. No permanent, independent self, personality or essence which is ‘the real me,’ that exists separately from our body. We need to let go of that idea. The acquired personality is regarded as something which is specific to this lifetime and which ends when we die. Cherishing such a self, trying to concretise something which is, in fact, highly conditional on our circumstances and brain functioning, can only cause us to suffer.
However, Buddhism is not materialist. It does not suggest that we are merely physical beings.
One of the reasons why Buddhism is called ‘the Middle Way’ is because it suggests that between eternalism on the one hand, and nihilism on the other, is a very subtle consciousness and energy which is conditioned by our actions and experiences through life. Or, in more traditional Buddhist terms, mind propelled by karma.
What moves from one lifetime to the next is not a soul, a complex intellect or a hard drive of memory. It is much more subtle than that.
We know that animals have consciousness. That just like us they are, as Buddhists put it, ‘sem chens’ or mind-havers. The idea that the very subtle consciousness that once experienced reality as a human, may now experience it as a kitten is not such a weird idea when we understand this pared down notion of mind. Many of us have had glimpses of how such a thing may be possible from our dreams, when we may experience reality in many different guises besides the one we are so familiar with when we are awake. It is quite possible you may have had a very strong sense of self even though you were an animal, alien or some other being – in a dream.
If the notion of coming into this world as another kind of being is a little frightening, well, that’s why Buddhists call what we have ‘precious human rebirth.’ As human beings in developed countries most of us enjoy rights, protection and limitless opportunities to generate the positive causes for future positive effects. Animals generally have none of those, unless they have the immensely good fortune to end up in the homes of doting pet lovers.
Buddha himself once used the metaphor of a blind, crippled turtle that comes to the surface of the ocean once every 100 years just happening to stick its neck through a wooden hoop, to describe the unlikeliness of being born as a human being with ‘leisure and fortune’ – which pretty much describes our lives in the West today. What we take for granted, looked at dispassionately, is actually incredibly rare. It arises from a specific cause – virtue.
Any being acting in according with virtue, creates a cause to be reborn as human. The counterpoint is that non-virtue is the cause for a much less auspicious rebirth, including that of an animal. Failing to make the most of our precious human rebirth to cultivate virtue is sometimes likened to visiting an island littered with precious jewels, and not picking up any before returning home. A lost opportunity unlikely to be repeated for a very, very long time.
Exactly how we can help our pets create the positive causes for a more positive future is something you’ll find in my book, Buddhism for Pet Lovers.
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