The following is an extract from the Reincarnation chapter of "Karmapa":

These days one finds some highly-readable comments on ordinary people's rebirth and on lamas' reincarnations. In a laudable effort to make the concepts of Buddhism more readily understandable, modern similes based on physics, psychology, neurology and the like are expertly conjured in zippy language to explain ... it happens like this. But beware! —a most essential point is missing in nearly all of them; an understanding of the fundamental nature of reality. That lacuna makes them ring not quite right. These descriptions sound like the conversations of two people deluded by a mirage, trying to work out where the water has come from and what sort of fish might be found in it; or like the mumblings of someone talking in his sleep, describing the world of his dreams as a vivid reality. In brief, the details are relatively correct within their context but the context itself makes them quite wrong. A dreamer may dream of taking a ruler to prove that it really is a seven-foot-long ant he is riding and, in the dream, he might feel triumphantly proven right; only to awaken to realise that it was not all quite like he thought!

Beyond the light-heartedness of these examples, it is extremely important to know that ordinary reason cannot explain everything and that some things are true mysteries. "Mystery" usually means one of two things in religions: a cover-up for a flaw in their logic or something that is truly too subtle for the mind to understand from its present perspective.

Buddhist teachings make it clear that it is not until one has reached the eighth level of voidness—the eighth bodhisattva level where every intellectual preconception and all subject-object perception is transcended—that the real truth of these matters emerges. This means that every matter-of-fact, intellectual explanation of rebirth or causality is only good, at best, as a stopgap measure; a crutch to help one along the path.

Something refreshing in the Kagyu teachings brings back a sense of wonder in life, a freshness in perception. It shakes off the stale yet stubborn attempts of the intellect to reduce everything to that which can be explained in terms of familiar reference points. It is said that a man in Belfast was asked whether he was Catholic or Protestant and replied, "I'm a Buddhist", to which the reply came, "Yes, but a Catholic Buddhist or a Protestant Buddhist?"

The ineffable, unimaginable nature of all existence, including reincarnation, need not be viewed in disappointment but in welcome relief. As Bengar Jampal Zangpo, the sixth Karmapa's great disciple said of true open-mindedness:
... bless the true meditator who can realise the freshness of the instant, 
without speculation or contrivance, just being in it, as it is ... 

Relative and ultimate truths

One very useful key opens many doors to Buddhism and its tenets. It is the distinction between what is relatively-true and what is ultimately true. Some Buddhist ideas (such as reincarnation) are attempts at explaining the mechanisms of what happens on the seemingly true level of reality—the relatively true world of our mental imagery; the personal movie we are living out; a subjective, interpretative, landscape based on thoughts, memories and the various stories we constantly tell ourselves to explain life. The mind experiencing this world is like a camera constantly set on zoom, totally absorbed in its focus.

Other areas of Buddhism (such as non-ego) point us towards the really true, an ultimately true, non-subjective, reality far greater in its scope and depth than those limited conceptual pictures. This could be compared to the wide angle; a clear sharp image but set within a panorama and with lots of space...

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Last Updated: 24 August 1996