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Karma and Reincarnation: optimism vs pessimism

About half a year ago a respected theosophist asked me to turn my blog into a book. He’s one of the most respectable theosophists in my book, so of course I listened. The book idea has morphed somewhat and now it looks like I’ll be bundling my posts on karma and reincarnation in that book.

However, it’s a tricky topic: Blavatsky and the whole spiritual Western World after her softened the blow of this doctrine somewhat. I think everybody who reads this is aware of the option of people reincarnating as animals. I don’t think many people realize just how common that sort of rebirth is said to be.

I have a very classical teacher in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism and he doesn’t do much softening of the blow – and when he does, he tells us he’s doing so. One thing he won’t budge on is karma.

From a metaphysical perspective the main issue here is: what causes rebirth? What force is it that helps us find a new body after we died and determines whether that body is human or something else?

Blavatsky wrote at a time when evolution was thought to be an upward trend. It only go better. In her day this optimism was common also in all other fields. The first World War put an end to that cultural optimism in Europe and the Second gave it another blow. The fact that both those wars were fought outside the US mainland may explain why optimism is still such a big part of US culture.

That may sound like an aside, but the issue is very real. We take our good fortune for granted. Do we really take into account the likely option that we’ll be reborn as one of those persons somewhere on this planet living in a hut with too many people, no fresh water about, food at a premium and life in general uncertain from one day to the next?

During a lecture tour the other day I asked my audience who there believed in reincarnation. Over half put up their hand. However, I asked them: does that mean you take rebirth as an animal seriously? I was invited as a Buddhist and given only 10 minutes so I didn’t mince words.

Most people in the West, I think, have inherited the Theosophical position on reincarnation, which is that the chances of rebirth as a human being are good. Blavatsky thought only hardened criminals and black magicians de-evolved into animals. The arc of evolution is upward, so Blavatsky thought, and as long as you’re a decent human being, you will be reborn as one in your next life.

That’s a comforting thought. Leaving aside the large chance of being reborn as a human being with far less comforts than I have now.

The option of being reborn as an animal is usually seen as a scare tactic: it reminds us too much of preachers warning about going to hell if you don’t attend church every Sunday. Not that I experienced that, but it’s part of my cultural heritage.

All this is the upbeat version. Lama Yeshe too was confident most people would be reborn as humans. Chögyam Trungpa in his book ‘Glimpses of Abhidharma
‘ likened karma to ‘auspicious coincidence’. That too is an image that takes all the sting out of the idea of karma. It reminds me of Jungian Synchronicity. However, karma goes both ways: for every auspicious coincidence there is an inauspicious coincidence waiting to happen. Call it the Law of Murphy if you will.

Karma can be quite funny sometimes, even if it’s also sad.

Although much more can be said on this topic, for now I would just like to know whether you all believe in Karma and how you feel about being reborn as an animal? Is it likely? Do you believe in that at all?

A version of this post appears in my book Essays on Karma.