Remember Fuck You, Penguin? I loved Fuck You, Penguin. Internet ranting at photos of uncomprehending animals for being fancy or toocute or weird was possibly the best thing about the aughts.
This is not Fuck You, Penguin adorable. But it’s also not Fuck 12 raging. Somewhere in between sits my frustration with the Buddhist belief in reincarnation.
Normally, I wouldn’t waste my time complaining about religions. They help some people; they hurt some people. I’ll defend or debate a religion’s stance on a particular issue, but religion in general? Just not my thing.
Along those lines, I generally avoid information about the Buddhist religion. I know that people have killed in the name of the Buddhist religion and that’s un-Buddhish enough to tell me that I have no interest in aligning with it. I think of myself as a philosophical Buddhist, or a pseudo-Buddhist (pseu-Bu), and I restrict my studies to texts that are as secular as possible while teeming with the life-changing beliefs and practices that I have relied on for the past decade and a half.
But it can be hard to avoid the religious stuff. Even S.N. Goenka, the contemporary father of Vipassana meditation, who stresses over and over that Vipassana is religion-neutral, couldn’t stop himself from making a comment about reincarnation in one of his otherwise harm-free lectures. Look, I don’t even have a problem with the idea of reincarnation in general. There is nothing demeaning about believing that we keep coming back. But when your randomly assigned lot in life is interpreted as a sentence passed down as punishment for previous behavior, I have a fucking problem with that.
For one thing, it’s racist. Y’all, I was so disappointed to read this in Love Your Enemies, a book that’s been on my to-read for years, but which I picked up most urgently because I have so many problems with the hatred and cultivation of anger in some of the activist movements right now, and needed a bolstering of my own personal belief system. Sigh:
The Blade Wheel [an iconic text] goes to great lengths to cite misfortune after misfortune that befall us, and then shows us how to accept it as the result of our own previous negative action, seeing it like a boomerang that we threw in our previous life or lives, which circled back to hit us. Thus, when I lose my homeland, it is because I took others’ lands away from them in the past. When my house burns down, it is because I burned out others long back…. And on and on.Love Your Enemies, Robert Thurman, p.88
And on and on. Look, I can accept that we collectively, as a species, or as living beings, have fucked things up and may, collectively, have some debts to pay. I definitely can get behind letting go of victimhood for the sake of our own spiritual growth, and mindfully recognizing the universal pain of the world, and the disproportionate pain of so many not-mes, as a path to greater compassion. But if you start talking about actual, measurable wrongs done to you in this life, and attributing those to pain you have caused others in a past life, that means that the most fucked over have reaped what they’ve sown.
And who are the most fucked over people?
I don’t see a lot of White folks or Global Northerners losing their homeland or even getting their house burned down without compensation. Shall we list all the racist policies and structures in our country alone? Are we to accept that Black people were/are denied homeownership or quality education or representation because they denied those rights to others in the past? Are we to believe that Black people were all slaveowners or Sheriff Jim Clark in previous lives?
And this isn’t just a 21st-century perspective. While the caste system in India was not primarily stratified by skin color, lighter skin was and is still considered a sign of greater beauty and purity, and darker skin associated with inferiority and uncleanliness. (India feeds a multi-million dollar a year skin-whitening industry that is just recently facing widespread criticism.) The Buddha rejected all that bullshit. He spoke directly to the issue of Indian caste in his Aggañña Sutta, telling some well-born monks that Brahmins are just as guilty of bad deeds as Dalits, and Dalits just as respectable as Brahims when they earn respect. He accepted all followers, regardless of caste.
We’re not super-besties or anything, but I really like Buddha and Jesus.
Since we live in the West, we see more obvious distortion of Jesus’ teachings than Buddha’s. The Christian prosperity gospel looks to these eyes like the flipside of the reincarnation theory. It makes people feel good to believe that they are rich because God likes them, not because they or their ancestors exploited others for their own greed. How could a skinny, altruistic, homeless wanderer who gave his life for others possibly foster this interpretation?
And how the fuck can Buddhists believe that the lives we’re born into are determined by some Santa-like god with a one-for-one retribution tally sheet? SAVE ME, BRIAN GREENE!
You don’t have to agree that there is no free will, no orchestrating GOD, no heaven or hell to see the racist, sexist, neo-liberal implications of a belief system that says our lives are payback for the unknown acts of our unknown prior selves. I love Buddhist philosophy and its foundation in meditation because it’s logical, it’s compassionate, and it’s being proven scientifically sound, while making life better and, weirdly, more spiritual and inexplicable at the same time. Why fuck it up with something as nonsensical, hierarchical, and strategically oppressive as the Great Chain of Being? Aren’t we past that? FOR FUCK’S SAKE?!
The rest of the book is pretty good, so far.