When I Die, Can I Come Back ?
Roi J. Tamkin
Belief is such a bothersome thing. As a child, I was told what to believe, and when I asked why no one else believed that way, I was told to pay no attention. I grew up as a minority in the context of religion. I grew up being told by my Christian friends that my beliefs were invalid in the eyes of God. I was told I was going to Hell.
But I didn’t believe in Hell. So where did that leave me?
As a teenager, I decided to become a Buddhist. When I first started exploring Buddhism, I learned that there is no god and there is no soul. Fantastic, I thought. There is nothing to believe in. I do a little meditation, chant around the house and act enlightened. I learned that when I die, my body gets reincarnated. Cool. It’s like being immortal. I really got into Buddhism because I told people that I could believe in nothing (and nothingness) and still be immortal. But Buddhism does hinge on one major belief — that life is miserable. Physical and material attachments were bad. Desires led to erroneous thinking. Erroneous thinking messes with your Karma. Your Karma determines what your future holds. Bad Karma means an individual is stuck in this never-ending pattern of birth, death, and rebirth. The goal of Buddhism is to reach a state of enlightenment. Enlightened people escape the misery of birth, death and rebirth. To avoid this cycle, you must reach nirvana. But nirvana is really death. The final death. There’s no more rebirth after nirvana. If I reach nirvana, I would not be immortal. I would cease to exist forever. In other words, the goal of Buddhism is to die and stay dead.
I do believe there is something to this reincarnation thing. Birth and rebirth. It all sounds so Oriental. Mystical and spiritual. Reincarnation sounds like a wonderful thing, yet Christianity has nothing like it. In Christianity, you have Heaven and Hell. Not much of a choice for an afterlife. In the Eastern religions, you have multiple lives. If you screw this one up, don’t worry, you get another chance.
So, I kept exploring.
The literary symbolism of Hinduism frightened me. We are all chained to the Wheel of Brahman. The Wheel is the Universe as it travels through birth, death and rebirth. Your Karma determines how you will live in the next life. Your goal is to act morally in this life, so your next life will reap the rewards. So, if I act like a prince in this lifetime, I’ll be a king in my next lifetime. But if I’m a bad king, then the next lifetime, I’ll be back to zero and a pauper. Karma’s a pretty heavy thing. But I want a good life now. Why should I live like a monk and withhold getting any reward while I’m still alive? Karma only deals out your rewards and punishment after you’re dead (that is, dead the first time).
Well that wasn’t good enough for me. I also found out that the Wiccan religion incorporates a belief in reincarnation. In Wicca, they believe your soul enters at birth and exits at death, but it’s always in existence. The soul is a part of the Goddess and God. They also believe the soul can enter non-living things. Like a rock. This had me confused. If my soul enters a rock, how does it get out? Rocks don’t die in the organic sense. How can the soul of a rock get reincarnated?
So now where do I go? I believe in reincarnation, but I don’t want my soul to reach a state of enlightenment and die. I don’t want to be chained to a wheel. And I don’t want the soul of a rock.
Well, I ended up back at my beginning. Judaism. Yes, I know, I’m going to Hell, but I found out some very interesting stuff I was never taught in Sunday school. Judaism accepts reincarnation in its belief structure. According to Chasidic Rabbi Yonassen Gershon, author of several books on reincarnation, Judaism is very flexible when it comes to the belief of multiple past lives. The attitude is: if you tell me you were once Napoleon in a past life, who am I to call you crazy? According to the Rabbi, the myriad of Jewish texts written over the centuries do not mention reincarnation. So if you can’t prove it didn’t happen, then maybe it did. My own rabbi agrees. In Judaism, you don’t have a soul; the soul has you. The soul is an eternal part of God. You are the vessel carrying a soul. When the body dies, the soul enters a new one to continue its journey back to God. The body can achieve a state of godliness and help the soul return to its Creator. By performing acts of kindness and mercy, I can help the soul achieve its goal. I have free will, and I can choose to behave however I please. But there is no afterlife in Judaism. My rewards and punishments are doled out to me in this lifetime. To act in accordance with God means a reward of a long, healthy life filled with happiness and you get all the good stuff.
So, I’m pretty happy. I fit in a religion where I can basically believe what I want without dire consequences. But what about my Christian friends who think I’m going to Hell? Well…
Reincarnation was a part of early Christianity. Most all Eastern religions believe in reincarnation, and Judaism is an Eastern religion. Christianity, coming from Judaism, also accepted reincarnation as a basic tenet. Until May 5th, 533 AD. The Emperor Justinian I, guided by his wife, called a council of bishops from the Eastern Empire. They gathered in Constantinople along with representatives from Pope Vigilius back in the Western Empire. At the Fifth Ecumenical Council, the Emperor announced he no longer wished to advocate the belief in reincarnation. This may have something to do with the idea that man can be “immortal” through multiple lives. Although this Council was well documented, the reason behind the Emperor’s decision was never noted. After a show of hands, the bishops agreed with the Emperor. They found three chapters in the Bible mentioning reincarnation and decided to remove those chapters. The Pope agreed with the Council but did so only because he did not want the Eastern Empire to appear “advanced” to the Western Empire. Bibles were collected throughout the two Christian Empires, they were burned and completely rewritten removing the offending three chapters. As an outsider, I find it interesting that whims of one man can cause the word of God to be completely rewritten.
I’m sure this revelation has more people wishing to condemn me to Hell. But it’s OK. I think I’ll be all right, as long as my soul does not return as a rock.