No more reincarnation… intermediate scope motivation in Mahayana Buddhism

The Path to Enlightenment, the Lam Rim in Tibetan Buddhism, is divided in three ‘stages’ or three motivations. I started out my explaining the Beginners Motivation. It is, as Lodro Rinzler says in his upcoming ‘The Buddha Walks into a Bar: A Guide to Life for a New Generation‘:

a process of getting your act together. (p. 19 in the advanced readers edition)

There is of course nothing wrong with getting your act together. If meditation makes you less likely to lash out at a colleague, get out of debt or better able to sit with your aging grandmother in her Alzheimer caused fog, the Buddhist path is helping you and still that might be ‘beginners motivation’ or ‘small scope’.

The intermediate scope goes a step further. It not only takes reincarnation for granted, but concludes from there that it’s rather tiring to keep on going back to being born, being ill, dealing with annoyances, falling in and out of love, losing people and ultimately dying.

Logical isn’t it? The idea of reincarnation may appeal to us: it gives us plenty of time to get our act together. It makes it easy to postpone doing anything serious about ‘becoming enlightened’. For many people it may simply mean getting to enjoy life again and again – all under the assumption that our next life will be as good as our present life is (that’s where the small scope comes in: making sure that next life IS at least as good as our present life).

But according to Buddhism our next life is actually not likely to be as good as our present life. We got to be a human being, quite a luxury according to Buddhist teachers, and now we’re wasting our time trying to get rich, get laid and getting angry at our colleagues. That’s all my own words, obviously.

And that anger, that greed, that desire will bite us in the ass, because karma takes our motive into account big time.

If you let that idea sink in and really take it seriously, you start to see that it’s all rather uncertain: why would I WANT to go through all that again? Sure, life may have some good things about it, but dealing with the negative stuff is also a big part of life. Do we really want those things happening again and again?

For people who really realize this truth, they make the intermediate scope their primary motivation for Buddhist practice: they really don’t want to have another rebirth ever again. This is the traditional path of the Arhat, the Buddhist saint of Theravada and Hinayana fame.
Next up in the Lam Rim is the Highest Scope (and specifically Mahayana) motivation: the Bodhisattva motivation or Bodhicitta, the mind of Englightenment.

Does that mean anything to any of you? Working on personal development to avoid being reborn?

11 thoughts on “No more reincarnation… intermediate scope motivation in Mahayana Buddhism”

  1. It makes you think does it not?

    Belief in reincarnation can in fact make us lazy. We have as many future lives as we want, so what is the rush I might say. I am enjoying living here on planet earth, even though it is mostly hard work and pain (karma!!!!), I have perhaps gotten a bit lazy. Desire is maybe strong, love the chips. ice cream and my technology (iphone, ipad etc etc etc).

    All a distraction I agree but we are drawn so much towards it.

    Buddhism (and others ‘isms) tell is that life as a human is very hard to gain, and life as a human with the ability to be able to explore the spiritual journey and make progress in this direction is even harder. So why do we waste so much time. In reality I don’t want to be here at all!

    So the question is a good one really. Maybe the concept of reincarnation is not so helpful in some cases.

    But hang on, what is it that incarnates anyway…..


  2. “But according to Buddhism our next life is actually not likely to be as good as our present life.”

    The teacher spoke. No one had a tape recorder handy or seemed to know shorthand. He used our words instead of his, adapting a little of what he saw we could grasp. Of the part we heard, we recalled a portion. In time, we came to understand, vaguely, a part of what our memory seemed to say. Of that portion, we wrote and spoke a little, and part of that was moved to other languages by strangers with their own political agendas. We heard, or thought we did–-had we been women, we would have heard differently but at the time it didn’t occur to us. No one in the chain thought much about linguistic obscurations.

  3. Why do so many of us seek proof in an existence (or a lack of one) beyond this life of ours? We say that if we do good now, we will be more lucky, that we will have better karma and will therefore have more favorable circumstances in our next life. If we really do believe this, then it doesn’t matter what we become next life, for what we are doing now is all important, whether or not there is or isn’t reincarnation. Perhaps the questions of how we live our life is of more importance than the unanswerable questions about death. I wish I could approach the topic with more humor, but these are very serious questions you put forth, but i do think that a sense of humor in the right circumstances can go a long ways towards improving one’s quality of life. 🙂

  4. To a sentient being who is not using self development at all (living unconsciously), who is guided by fear of death, reincarnation can act as a crux. A hopeful, easy way out.
    To someone who is evolved perhaps there is a point achieved in the spiritual growth whereby the universal unity is felt and the concept of reincarnation falls apart. Where the time continuum in and of itself dismantles the possibility of a before or after life and the act of developing spiritually is a means to an end.
    I like the idea of the last reincarnation. Nirvana’s Dead-end.

  5. I simply can answer only from my personal journey and how i feel about the subject “REINCARNATION”. If one chooses to endeavor to completely know oneself in relation to its world as I do daily, various aspects of oneself unfolds, like the flower, until you decide I think I know enough about this Oneself. In the process I began to pull wisdom from these various asects of the ONESELF, as if using experience gained through work or life experience to fine tune the self that I am today, just like we grow and mature and gain wisdom in this one life we currently live. I go back and trace the though processes of why I choose to say, do, or interact with anyone, or anything. This often leads to the wisdom to gain in those experiences and fine tune the obsticles I am still creating and avoiding. I think WHY am I avoiding getting of the karmic wheele, maybe to avoid another level of responsibility, maybe attached to those things that are here to distract me from reaching my goal. For Me, what is my goal, get it done, do the “JOB”(LIFE) right in the most efficient way with the highest respect for my self , MIND HEART BODY of myself and those and what I am chosing to interact with for the ultimate goal of being free of the wheele of incarnation on this plane of existence. I feel that you then no longer play THE GAME.
    Thank you for creating a space where i can relate with you about these subjects. Please, allow yourself to feel the joy of transendace in everything thing you choose to relate to in this incarnation. For me it is about the RELATIONSHIP one choses to have with anyone or anything here on this plane that keeps people coming back, please foster that relationship first and foremost with yourself , then everything else is a celebration.

  6. The Course basically echoes the same sentiment…

    “In the ultimate sense, reincarnation is impossible. There is no past or future, and the idea of birth in a body has no meaning either once or many times. Reincarnation cannot, then, be true in any real sense. Our only question should be, “Is the concept helpful”? And that depends, of course, on what it is used for. If it is used to strengthen the recognition of the eternal nature of life, it is helpful indeed. Is any other question about it really useful in lighting up the way? Like many other beliefs, it can be bitterly misused. At least, such misuse offers preoccupation and perhaps pride in the past. At worst, it induces inertia in the present. In between, many kinds of folly are possible.” – A Course in Miracles

  7. Katinka,
    What you say about reincarnation is sobering and doesn’t fit in well with the New Age romatice ideas on rebirth, but you are quite right.
    My Hindu meditation teacher Swami also says that most people just add to their karmic load. He rejoices when one of his students passes over knowing that the person in question could neutralise more karmic luggage than adding to it.

  8. This is exactly where I am, trying to work on the path because I do not want another human birth on this planet. It is just too painful… yes, there are moments of beauty and wonder, but overall 3d earth human life is agonizing, which is of course the First Noble Truth, that life is suffering. True, from a higher perspective there is no time at all, but when we are here now, it certainly seems all too real, and the pain is very real.

    I know the highest motive is to return and help others attain enlightenment, but cannot help but wonder if, once we have reached that level… and I am not even close… we could serve on other worlds, less painful worlds… there is a whole universe out there.

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