For a brief period in the early nineties, I had a job where I did a considerable amount of travel. When I took the position, I knew there would be travel. I could expect to be away one week per month. Technically this was correct. By the time I left the position, my average travel time was one week per month. But most months I was gone three weeks per month, followed by some months with very little travel. After the novelty of expense accounts and fancy dinners wore off, I realized how much I missed my friends and family. One morning, while on the road, I awoke from a bad dream. I dreamed that I had come home, only to learn that one of my closest friends had moved away. In my dream, I did not know where she had gone and this hurt me to my core.
It was not until several years later that I encountered Buddhism. The concept of dukkha or suffering was not easy for me. But one look at my fears over my friend disappearing helped me understand that I had attachment issues. Even now, I can recall how sad and empty I felt when I awoke from that dream. This attachment, coupled with the fact that I believed in past lives as a young child, made it easy for me to accept the concept of rebirth. The idea of rebirth was reassuring to me. Goodbyes were not final. I would probably see you again in the next life or, if not the next, a future one.
I know now that I am guilty of using rebirth to become less afraid of losing the ones I love. Thinking that there was no real goodbye with rebirth, I grew less anxious about saying goodbye to friends who were moving away. The belief that I would be with others again in another life helped me to accept their deaths. This is the wrong view.
As my husband was dying, we occasionally used the concept of rebirth to help us both feel better about our impending separation. My crazy plan was that he should come back as a cat, and find me. Then, if he had a nice long cat life when he died, it would probably be about time for me to die and we would be together again. We both knew this was silly, yet it did help us smile during some rough discussions.
At best, a flawed plan. To come back as a cat is not a desirable rebirth. And if he did come back as a cat, how would he find me? And if he saw me, how would I recognize him? Would I adopt him, or turn my back on him? Maybe I would adopt him, but he would be a “bad” cat, misbehaving and biting me and trashing my house? We each have this lifetime to move forward with our practice. There are many possible forms of rebirth and no guarantees. To be born a human is rare and is not to be wasted. While some house cats may disagree, rebirth as a human is the path to the end of suffering.
Then the Blessed One, picking up a little bit of dust with the tip of his fingernail, said to the monks, “What do you think, monks? Which is greater: the little bit of dust I have picked up with the tip of my fingernail, or the great Earth?”
“The great Earth is far greater, lord. The little bit of dust the Blessed One has picked up with the tip of his fingernail is next to nothing. It doesn’t even count. It’s no comparison. It’s not even a fraction, this little bit of dust the Blessed One has picked up with the tip of his fingernail, when compared with the great Earth.”
“In the same way, monks, few are the beings reborn among human beings. Far more are those reborn elsewhere. Thus you should train yourselves: ‘We will live heedfully.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.” (SN 20.2)
The goal is not to come back as a cat or a human. The goal is not to come back. To skillfully apply the right view is not to cling to seeing your loved ones again.
For one who is born
One who is born
It’s a binding, a flogging, a torment.
That’s why one shouldn’t approve
The Awakened One taught me the Dhamma
—the overcoming of birth—
for the abandoning of all pain,
he established me in
But beings who have come to form
& those with a share in the formless,
if they don’t discern cessation,
return to becoming-again. (SN 5.6)
Once there is birth, death will follow. It does not have to be true that once there is death, rebirth will follow. To become comfortable with death and to be less attached to life is to advance along the path away from suffering. Do not look at rebirth to bring you comfort; instead, wish that those you love escape this endless samsara of birth, death, and rebirth.
PS. I do not think that either of my cats is my deceased husband, reborn—I promise.