A Secular Interpretation of Past Lives in Buddhism

The web of past lives

During a recent group meditation session at the Buddhist temple I attend, a question arose regarding the nature of the seemingly random thoughts that often emerge during meditation. The questioner referred to these thoughts as “illusory,” prompting the venerable nun leading the meditation to ask, “How do you know these are illusory thoughts?” This exchange led to a thought-provoking discussion on the concept of past lives and the underlying causes of our thoughts.

In Buddhist philosophy, it is widely accepted that the thoughts and fantasies that arise during meditation, as well as in daily life, are products of causes and conditions. These causes can be traced to direct experiences in our current lives or, as some believe, to experiences from past lives. The notion of “past lives” can be met with skepticism, but it need not be a prerequisite for embracing the principles of well-being espoused in Buddhism.

As I contemplated this exchange, I found myself drawing connections between two fundamental ideas: the Buddhist concept of causation and the perspective presented by Sam Harris (and many others throughout the ages), who posits that the mind or consciousness serves as the stage where all experiences unfold. The venerable nun seemed to concur when she described our mind as the “creator of everything,” which aligns with the notion that consciousness is akin to a movie screen upon which life’s narratives play out.

However, for me, a fresh perspective emerged during this meditation session. What if the idea of “past lives” was not a recounting of previous existences at the time scale of human life, but rather an acknowledgment that we are constantly evolving and experiencing different versions of ourselves? In this interpretation, a “past life” could signify who we were a moment ago, while the present moment ushers in a new set of potentials. Every moment represents a transition to a new phase in our life’s journey, as the paths we were on a moment ago become part of our “past lives.”

The web of causation within our lives makes them inherently unpredictable. I believe it is non-controversial to say that we continuously take on “new” lives, shifting from one potential path to another with each change in our surroundings. Our world, like our lives, is in a state of constant flux, and our potential paths shift in response. Some paths persist longer than others, often due to chance, and some paths are closed faster than a heartbeat.

Consider a scenario where, since the age of 10, one harbored the dream of becoming a pilot. Over the course of the next thirty years, this dream remained a viable potential path, neither fully realized nor abandoned. However, a sudden and unforeseen event, such as a plane hijacking that crashed planes into buildings, can drastically alter one’s view, perhaps making the dream of flying far less palatable until it fades to but a distant dream.

While this example may be dramatic, life is a continuous flow of more subtle moments where the unexpected shapes our trajectory. A chance encounter or a seemingly inconsequential decision can lead to significant changes in our lives. Life’s unpredictability underscores the notion that we are part of an intricate web of causes, one that is in constant flux and beyond our control.

These moments of unpredictability and change are not unique but universal experiences. People often find themselves guided by life in unforeseen directions. The pursuit of well-being and alignment with the basic principles of Buddhism, such as the eight-fold path, offers a practical framework for navigating life’s uncertainties. By engaging in “wholesome” activities, we enhance our well-being. And recognizing that the path we tread is ever-shifting and primarily influenced by factors outside our control can lead to more open-armed acceptance of circumstances.

This perspective on the continuous transformation of life serves as a reminder that the journey is the same as the destination. Life’s unpredictability should not deter us from action but encourage us to pursue well-being for all living beings while remaining open to the ever-changing path that unfolds before us.

In this brief exploration, we have touched upon essential principles of Buddhism, including causation, impermanence, and the interpretation of past lives as rebirth. I didn’t touch on karma, but I think it can fit nicely in with this view of past lives. I also think that this concept is applicable to finding purpose in life…to be explored at another time – at least that is my current life path! These concepts provide fertile ground for introspection, aligning with the principles of well-being and self-awareness.

As we reflect on the concept of past lives, we are reminded that life’s journey is built upon ever-shifting potential paths, where each moment represents a new network of potential lives, and each choice influences not only our course but that of others. While the future remains uncertain, we can find solace in the wisdom of Buddhist principles, which offer guidance on embracing the impermanence of life with equanimity.

The views of past lives across the sects within Buddhism

Since the discussion above is about past lives, I thought it’d be a good idea to quickly refresh on the basics of how Buddhism views past lives. Buddhism, like many major religions, is not monolithic; it is a diverse tradition with numerous sects and schools*. Each of these sects interprets and emphasizes different aspects of Buddhist doctrine. When it comes to the concept of past lives, there is a range of views and emphasis depending on the specific Buddhist sect. Let’s explore the perspectives of a few prominent Buddhist sects:

For more on these different schools of Buddhism see this article: How To Get Started Reading Buddhist Texts – Stardust Pilgrim | Mindfulness, Meditation, Wisdom

1. Theravada Buddhism:

  • Theravada, often referred to as the “Way of the Elders,” is one of the oldest and most conservative Buddhist schools. In Theravada, the concept of past lives is a central component of their teachings. They emphasize the belief in an individual’s ability to attain enlightenment (nirvana) over multiple lifetimes through the process of rebirth (samsara). Practitioners aim to break free from this cycle of rebirth by following the Eightfold Path and achieving enlightenment.

2. Mahayana Buddhism:

  • Mahayana Buddhism is a more inclusive and diverse branch that includes various sub-sects. In Mahayana, the idea of past lives is also prevalent, but the emphasis is often on the Bodhisattva path. Bodhisattvas are individuals who postpone their own enlightenment to help all sentient beings reach liberation. This path entails multiple lifetimes dedicated to compassionate service and spiritual growth, with the ultimate goal of becoming a Buddha.

3. Zen Buddhism:

  • Zen Buddhism, rooted in the Mahayana tradition, has a distinctive approach to the concept of past lives. Zen practice emphasizes direct experience and meditation to attain enlightenment. While the notion of past lives is not disregarded, Zen places more emphasis on the here and now, with practitioners often encouraged to focus on their immediate experience and the present moment rather than dwelling on past lives or future rebirths.

4. Tibetan Buddhism:

  • Tibetan Buddhism, also known as Vajrayana, incorporates a rich tradition of beliefs and practices related to past lives. The sect places significant importance on the recognition of reincarnated lamas, known as tulkus, who are believed to be the rebirth of enlightened teachers. The Dalai Lama is a well-known example of a recognized tulku, and the process of identifying reincarnated beings is a complex and revered aspect of Tibetan Buddhism.

5. Pure Land Buddhism:

  • Pure Land Buddhism, a branch of Mahayana, centers around the worship of Amitabha Buddha and the aspiration to be reborn in the Pure Land, a realm of enlightenment. Devotees of Pure Land Buddhism believe that by reciting Amitabha’s name with sincere devotion, they can secure a favorable rebirth in the Pure Land in their next life, where they can more easily attain enlightenment.

It is essential to note that these sects represent only a fraction of the diverse Buddhist landscape, and there are many more sects and schools, each with its unique interpretations and emphasis on the concept of past lives. While the belief in past lives is a common thread, the specific practices, rituals, and teachings associated with it can vary widely.