Finding Meaning in Life’s Impermanence

Pondering on the idea of reincarnation and the importance of a life well-lived.

Something that has always fascinated me is the idea of reincarnation. When I was at University gaining my Bachelor’s Degree in History, minor in English, I ended up taking a lot of classes from a teacher whose PhD was in Buddhism. Due to this, I often learned about the fundamental ideas and stories that existed in that religion and, in connection to that, how the history of Asia has been affected and influenced by that religion. I was fascinated by the beliefs of Buddhists, enjoying everything I learned and am grateful for the expert teacher I had, but I also realize that this is not my religion or an essential part of my life and so if I am wrong in anything, I apologize for it. But from what I learned at University, to many people in this world, reincarnation(‘Samsara’) is the natural state and order of the world- that you have lived many lives before this one and will continue to do so after this one concludes. It is a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that continues on into the eternities unless you become Enlightened as the Buddha did and thereby break the cycle. A massive part of reincarnation is karma where the actions you took in your last life actually matter, for they influence your next life. If you were a terrible human being in one life, in the next you could be born as a flee. On the opposite side of things, if you were righteous and just, you could become a god in your next life.

One of my favorite stories I learned at University has an example of one of these switches. In the heavens, there was a god who lived his life enjoying the status he held. Yet, every now and then, the throne he sat upon would grown warm, meaning that a human somewhere was close to achieving enough good karma to take the god’s throne for themselves. Every time this happened, the god would interfere by sending some ordeal or temptation that humans way- the human would succumb to the scheme and would no longer be a threat. The god was content in his position then, but in doing this time and time again, he had racked up an incredible amount of bad karma to the point that, if a human one day did not succumb to his ploys, the god would lose his position and status and in the next life, be born as one of the lowliest creatures imaginable. It’s an interesting story about justice and fairness. A great thing about this philosophy is how equalizing it is in the grand scheme of things- that every person, if they are good enough, kind enough, righteous enough can create a better life for themselves one day in eternity. But, in the short term, it has created some problems. Historically in India, the adoption of welfare systems and modern ideas of equality and service have not been successful due to the idea that the status you are born with is the status you deserved due to the actions you took in your past life. So, if you were on the lowest totem pole of society, you deserved this. Of course, the caste system is not all bad as, even with the inequality and strict lines, every section of the system is important and fundamental, the rest not able to truly exist without even one missing due to the distribution of roles and duties, but it is still as sad thing to see in the short term. But, I digress.

A story I am reading right now deals with reincarnation, as do many stories in the world, but what I find interesting in this story is that the main character is reincarnated multiple times like everyone else- and yet, unlike everyone else, he retains his memories. He is born like everyone else, but at some point in his childhood, his past memories all return to him. And he is the only one that has this reality. It brings with it an incredible battle regarding psychology and morality as the man debates about sin and accountability. Should a person be held responsible for the actions they took against him in a past life? What about terrible crimes like murder or war? What constitutes a world well-lived, worth living? A happy one? How should he use his knowledge in this new world? Should he allow past grudges to affect his new life? What is truly essential at the end of the day? How important are other people in the lives we live? If everyone else is redeemed and seen as morally innocent at their new births, does that count for him? If he still retains his memories of his past life, should he also hold himself accountable for the actions he took, should he be judged?

Its all a fascinating character study to read and enjoy, but it also brings with it an emotional heartache that tears at my heart. This man has been reborn again and again and again, met the same people over and over again, held both happiness and sadness in his heart, created irreplaceable memories, been surrounded by the same people time and time again- and yet, truly, he is alone. He holds knowledge, wisdom, secrets, and burdens that no one else can know or understand and he has been this way for about a thousand years. Though he often spends his life rectifying and fixing issues in the lives of those around him and though there many be some carry over, in the end everything resets except for him. One of my favorite movies as a child was Disney’s Tuck Everlasting and in that movie Mr. Tuck has a conversation with the main character Winnie. About how life is always changing and growing until it naturally ends, and yet for the Tuck’s, they don’t have that. Due to accidentally drinking from the Fountain of Youth, they all attained immortality, but in doing so, their lives were left without meaning. Day in and day out, they toiled away without a true end, a true destination in mind. Mr. Tuck uses the analogy of them being rocks stuck at the side of a stream. He mentions the idea of the duality of life- of how you can’t truly enjoy life without knowing that at some point it will end with the quote ‘Don’t be afraid of death Winnie, be afraid of the unlived life.”

For the main character in the story I’m reading, this is his dilemma. Though he has died many times, each of those deaths were short-lived as, in the blink of an eye, he was reborn and then regaining his memories all over again. While everyone got to live simple life, innocent and often blissful towards the wheel of fate, he was practically tormented by the knowledge he held. So, even during joyous moments, in the back of his mind, pain and misery resided. Everything was bittersweet for him in the end, for he couldn’t help but look at the familiar faces around him and see the actions they took in their past lives. While they all struggled and suffered as one does in life, they had a youth and enthusiasm to it all due to how their were truly reborn each time. The main character didn’t have that privilege and so he was left behind in the chaos of it all. It’s a truly sad way to live and I mourn for the character’s difficulties and pains, that he can never truly be happy or peaceful, worries and traumas always biting away at him.

Religiously, I do not believe in reincarnation. While I do believe that we had a life before we came to earth and that we will have one after we die, I see it more as a continuous strand where our knowledge was temporarily taken away so that we could live this life innocent and personally as a kind of test towards truly enlightenment and understanding. I’m glad, honestly and personally, that I don’t believe in reincarnation because, while it is fascinating to ponder about in a kind of brain tease, I couldn’t deal with a reality that truly was like that. I believe that this is the only life we will truly live and that, when we die, we will be in heaven. I couldn’t imagine having to be pulled back down to earth time and time again to suffer eternally. I think what makes life so worthwhile is how short it is, for it is its singularity that gives it value in my mind.