In one of history's more absurd acts of totalitarianism, China has banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission. According to a statement issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the law, which goes into effect next month and strictly stipulates the procedures by which one is to reincarnate, is "an important move to institutionalize management of reincarnation." But beyond the irony lies China's true motive: to cut off the influence of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual and political leader, and to quell the region's Buddhist religious establishment more than 50 years after China invaded the small Himalayan country.
Tangential but highly interesting, the article notes that a Gallup poll found that 20 percent of U.S. adults believe in reincarnation, and surveys by a Christian research group have found one in four Christians - including 10 percent of "born-agains" - hold with it.
I'm not sure how one resolves reincarnation with Christianity. But then, I'm not quite sure how one resolves reincarnation with the teachings of the Buddha.
Core to the Buddha's teachings is the idea of anatman, "no self". (It's anatta in Pali, anatman is the Sanskrit term.) My physical form, always changing, atoms passing in and out of my body with every breath, growing aging and dying over the years, is not some fixed and stable "me". Similarly, my sensations are not me, my perceptions are not me, my thoughts and ideas are not me, my consciousness is not me.
Looking for the thing that makes me "me" is like tearing apart my house looking for the thing that makes it a "house". There's not some mystical jewel in the foundation that conveys the property of being a house; similarly, there's no mystic "soul" in my body that conveys the property of being a person.
How then, is there anything to be reincarnated? Is reincarnation in Buddhism simply a holdover from the folk religions of Asia, not part of the core Buddhist teaching? (Despite all the stress laid on it by many Western practitioners, especially in Tibetan forms?)
Or, do we need a different notion of reincarnation? Some Buddhist sources argue that the "rebirth" spoken of by the Buddha is different than the reincarnation spoken of in Hinduism, et cetera.
An oft-used analogy is lighting one candle from another; nothing is transferred between them. Is it the "same" flame? While we make a big deal out of this in the Olympic torch ritual, really the question of whether the flame is the "same" is one of how we choose to draw our definitions and boundaries, not one of the actual behavior of the Universe.
Or consider the eddying currents of a stream. As the current passes a rock, sometimes a small whirlpool will form, then fade. Then another whirlpool forms. Is it the "same" as the first one? To the stream, the water molecules, and the stone, the question is meaningless.
When certain conditions arise, along comes a flame or a whirlpool; when those conditions go away, away goes the fire, away goes the vortex. This is known as "dependent arising".
But it's an interesting thing about flames, that one can light many - indeed, even while the first flame continues to burn. Timothy Leary used to say that he "reincarnated" anyone who had made a deep imprint on his mind.
A few months back, a fellow I know told me that he was Jesus Christ in a past life. If I'd been a little quicker on the draw, I should have told him, "So was I. So were we all."