It’s no problem to say goodbye to someone because rebirth teaches us that we will be together again anyway, right? Wrong, as in that’s the wrong view! I carried that view around for a few years. This view was a crutch, a coping mechanism to help me process the painful emotions that came from being apart from people who were important to me.
Unlike some of my other Buddhist friends from a Judeo-Christian background, I did not have a problem accepting the idea of rebirth. My belief in rebirth made it easier for me to become a Buddhist. I recall that since I was a child, the concept of rebirth made sense to me. I have no idea why. Once, when I spoke about it with my mother, she was just as baffled. There had not been any encounters in our family or our community with Hindus or Buddhists. My belief was just a part of who I was.
When I began to learn about Buddhism, I spent time contemplating rebirth. Sitting with different Buddhist groups and learning from multiple teachers exposed me to ideas such as:
• At one point, everyone has been your mother
• Or you were their mother
• Or both
Other teachings focused on the idea that we have all been in each other’s lives in different ways, across many lifetimes. Or people with whom you’ve had difficulties keep popping up in your various lifetimes until these issues resolve. A classmate and I started out with a combative relationship and began to joke that he had killed me in another lifetime. I do not know how we got to this point, but we did. After a while, he no longer enjoyed the joke because the idea of it being true upset him. When I understood that this was no longer funny to him, I stopped kidding with him about poisonings and stabbings and shootings. We just became friends.
At some point, I began to use the idea of rebirth as a way to console myself when I knew I might not see someone again. This made it easier for me when friends moved far away, or a colleague I enjoyed left the company, or a classmate I liked moved on. As a form of defense, or in response to the attachment I had for that person, I would remind myself that they were leaving now, but I would probably see them again in another life. For the most part, that helped me feel less sad.
This approach was helpful to me. As I moved forward with my Buddhist practice, and I wrote about my experiences in losing my key family members, and I interviewed Buddhist teachers about their experiences with death and grief, I began to see the error of my ways.
In a discussion with my teacher, I asked: “Is it better to celebrate death and be sad about birth?” I expected him to validate me and tell me that I was correct. Instead, he gently told me that when someone dies you do not know what his/her/their rebirth will be. What if this person is reborn in a lesser realm? He taught that my wish for others is that they do not return at all.
This brief but significant exchange paved the way for me to reconsider my dependence on rebirth to avoid the pain of separation. I should not use the idea of rebirth to feel better about someone leaving my life. This idea of hoping to see someone again in another lifetime is selfish. I began to understand my thoughts on rebirth as a form of arrested development. Instead of sitting with my feelings of loss and abandonment, I was trying to block those feelings. There was no need to process any sadness, I could just put it all on hold—I was going to see my friend again. Probably not for many years, and without memories of this lifetime together, but it would happen. And how did that work out for me? It didn’t stop me from feeling sad or from missing the people who had moved on. It simply blocked me from doing the necessary work in my practice.
I should not want any of us to be together in a future life, the goal is to experience liberation from suffering and to stop returning. I do not want to lean on rebirth as a crutch. I do not want the idea of future lives to prevent me from working with my attachment to others. It’s time to put down the crutch and keep walking on the path.