Rebirth Based on Desire

From The Mind And The Way by Ajahn Sumedho

Thus, we experience three kinds of desire: kama tanha, the desire for sense pleasures or sensory experience; bhava tanha, the desire for becoming; and vibhava tanha, the desire for annihilation. These three kinds of desire are the causes of rebirth. In fact, it's desire that's being reborn. In heedless beings -- those who are not awake, who do not understand truth, and who are not mindful -- the rebirth process carries on and on and on and on. It continues in the sense worlds, the realms of sensory or intellectual pleasures.

We can watch this rebirth process in our own minds. What is it that goes from the refrigerator to the television set? Is that a person? Is that what your soul is, your true essence that is going to be carried on through eternity? Or is it desire? Isn't it just an aimless wandering, a habitual search for something to do, something to absorb into?

You can watch desire in your own mind. When you are frightened, you can see yourself looking for something certain. When you don't know what to do, you can feel the momentum of desire looking for any old thing of interest. You start picking up things, twiddling your thumbs -- just to be doing something. This constant activity is just the force of habit, isn't it? You don't really know what you're doing most of the time; you just do these things out of habit.

We like to absorb into things that have glamour and excitement. So we go to war films to be excited. When we see a newspaper headline about atrocity, rape, or murder, we think we've got to read that. Violence and sex, all these things are exciting. Excitement is very compelling; it has a frantic vibration. It's easy to absorb into something exciting because excitement has its own kind of energy. You can be energized through the exciting conditions around you. Yet, when you look at excitement, you see that it keeps you in a state of constant movement. Too much adventure, romance, and excitement just wears you out because you get so caught in it. You're pulled along by it, and you have no way to resist or let go of it. If you have no wisdom, you just get pulled along into one rebirth after another. These rebirths -- based on desire -- are the ones you can witness through meditation. When you see them, you understand what rebirth is.

If you understand rebirth on the everyday level, you'll appreciate how it must operate at the time of death. The last wish of a person, if they're heedless and full of desire, is probably to be reborn again, to find another human birth, to find some womb to jump into. This is desire; it operates as an energy in the universe.

The desire for rebirth at the time of death is a desire to be reborn again in the human form. We can only know this through watching how our own minds work. If you were dying and you didn't want to die, what would be the most likely thing to arise in your mind? It would be a desire to cling to some form of life. Some passion of your life would arise in your dying moment, and that desire would be for some form of materialization. The momentum of your habits are always materializing in forms, aren't they? You're always seeking what you desire, either a sense desire, or an intellectual desire, or a desire to repress something you don't like.

But if are mindful when you die, if there's no longing to have another birth or to take some action, what is there to be reborn again? If you're at peace with the dying process of your body, what can be reborn? Because there is no desire, there is only mindfulness and wisdom. Then there is release, surrender, and liberation from the heaviness of the human body.

Question: If there's no self or soul in the Buddhist way of seeing things, who or what is getting reborn? Who or what gets the results of good or bad deeds?

Answer: Well you see, in the ultimate sense, there's nobody to get reborn and nobody to get the results. What gets reborn are desires repeating themselves. Out of ignorance, these desires are created, and they give the impression of somebody who has problems, somebody who is unhappy or depressed. Because of these desires, it seems as if life should be something other than what it is. The rebirth process is not anybody's; it's just a process of casual conditions.

With mindfulness, you realize that the results of birth and past actions happen this way. And if you keep mindful of that fact, you don't create anybody to get born again. You don't create the illusion of anyone who's receiving anything, becoming anything, or being punished for anything. It's merely that the present moment is the result of past action. If we are not ignorant, we don't suffer from the present conditions that we're experiencing. This is very hard to understand from the personal view, so popular Buddhism teaches simply: if you do good, you receive good; if you do bad, you receive bad; therefore, you should do good and not do bad. This is a conventional way of talking.

But as one continues to practice, the understanding of Dhamma increases, and one is more aware of the true nature of things. Then, the idea of receiving good or receiving bad no longer makes sense. At that stage, there's no longer a question of doing good or doing bad. One acts on opportunities to do good, but the motivation is not based on the idea that anyone's going to receive anything for it. And one has no inclination to do bad things, because evil only has an attractive quality when there is the basic delusion of self. When that self-delusion is relinquished, then there are no problems left. There's the doing of good, but it's done because that's what's right, what's appropriate. It's not done for personal gain or benefit.

Question: So are you saying that, in the wise person, the goodness is just natural? There's no feeling that you have to do good -- it's just a natural response to situations?

Answer: Yes, this natural response is in contrast to the impulsiveness that comes from ignorance. Without wisdom, we have impulses that we either follow or suppress. With wisdom, there's the spontaneity of responding to life from a universal pure mind, rather than from a personal idea of somebody who has to be good because they'll be punished if they're bad.


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