Sunday, 17 August 2014

Belief as agency rather than absolute - do you believe in reincarnation? + Tiffany Aching.

We'll get to Tiffany Aching in a minute.
I reckon anyone making use of the insights and practices of Buddhism has, sooner or later, to decide what they think about reincarnation. 

I don't "believe" in it, by which I mean that I think it is so unlikely that it is not a useful or helpful concept for me to live with - though it may well work well for others.

I am treating reincarnation as a belief, an "either/or" sort of concept, or at best, a "may be/probably not" framework. Either you do or you don't believe in it.But belief doesn't have to be an absolute; it can be an agency you use to do something important for yourself.

I was in conversation recently with a very special and longstanding friend of mine. He has a medical (i.e. a scientific, rational) background alongside an open and enquiring mind. I think he is one of the wisest people I know - which statement would make him snort, I am sure.

He told me that a long time ago he realised he was blaming his parents for everything that he felt was wrong with himself and his early life. 

As you do, or as many of us do from time to time.

So he took up a working belief in reincarnation. The work involved was thinking himself through to a different sense of self; if he was a soul (spirit, whatever) born into his current body and his current life, then neither he nor his parents had any control over who and where he was as a child. 

For about ten years he used a belief in reincarnation to work through his resentments and deal with his blaming. When he had done so, he found the belief simply fading away. It had been an agency which, consciously and deliberately or not, he had used to heal himself.

Until I guess he reached a more existential position in which, as Tiffany Aching might say: "This I choose to do. This I accept responsibility for." 


  1. This post teases at me. I think I've finally worked out why. I can see that we all gain and lose beliefs as we go through life - explanations, perhaps, that make sense at one stage of our lives but, as the landscape and topography change through the years, become meaningless or simply disappear from view.
    The essence of belief though is sincerity, and this is where I struggle. I can see a belief might, as you look back, be revealed as a necessary but short term prop, but to be a belief, it would have to, surely, for that period, be believed.
    What your friend was doing though, sounds to me much more like a 'thought experiment' - is that fair, or am I missing something?
    Thought experiments fascinate me. They include the great conundrums - like Schrodingers Cat - and touch Coleridge’s suspense of disbelief.
    Is mindfulness practice a sort of thought experiment? Or, perhaps, a no-thought experiment?

  2. Thanks Vale, how interesting. My online OED defines sincerity as "the absence of pretence, deceit, or hypocrisy." I don't think my friend was pretending; his need was too great for that. I wonder if a useful word might be "authenticity." His need for a belief in reincarnation perhaps guaranteed its authenticity.

    No, I don't think mindfulness is a thought experiment, at least it doesn't feel like that to me. I think it involves a level of commitment, if it is to be sustained, and it gives access to life changes, which I think would go beyond what I understand by "thought experiment." But it's a good question.