The Solution to the Problem of Reincarnation

In the last post we talked about the ordinary norm that religious people in India follow in order to overcome the problem of Samsara, that is, to perform good actions and get a good rebirth, according to the Law of Karma.

The Extraordinary Norm: No Action

It is possible in rare instances to follow another norm. To approach the law of karma in a very different way. We need to challenge a lot of our presuppositions about the way religious life works. I call this the extraordinary norm. This is open only to a few people, or should we say, it is chosen only by a few people. It may very well be open to everybody but only a few people choose it .

According to this norm, someone will attempt to perform “no action”. Not good action, not bad action. But not action at all. Neither good or bad. And the goal of this action is not to get a better rebirth, not to kind of win on the scale of transmigration or reincarnation, but to get no rebirth at all.

Bring the cycle of transmigration completely to an end. Very distinct idea, as you can see. Just to bring the cycle of transmigration to an end.

Nirvana: The Real Solution

This state of no rebirth, the end of the cycle of Samsara is called commonly in Hindu literature moksha, this means liberation. Buddhists refer to it as Nirvana. So this is of course the goal that the Buddha was seeking in his meditative and contemplative life. To seek Nirvana, the end to the cycle of transmigration.

Once a person has achieved this state, once you get there, there is no return to the cycle of death and rebirth. That means it is permanent. It doesn’t slip away from you. So if you want a solution to the problem of Samsara, this is what you got to do, you have to find some way to bring this cycle completely to an end.

Two Ways

If you think about this, with this two norms, then, come two very distinct styles of life in Indian society. Two different ways you can live as a religious person in Indian civilization.

People who follow the ordinary norm situate themselves in a network of duties and responsibilities. They live the life of ordinary people. The mothers, fathers, teachers, students and kings are bound by all the rules that govern these social roles.

People who follow the extraordinary norm renounce all of this. And I use the word renounce here in really a technical sense. They engage in an act of renunciation. So these duties no longer apply to them and they no longer occupy any distinctive place in the established structure of Indian society. In other words they really turn their back on all the social duties that are assigned to someone in that world.

This renunciants are called by various names. Sannyasi is one that it is commonly used in the Indian tradition and could be used for Buddhists as well. Buddhist refer to Bhiksus, the word we translate as monk, originally it simply meant “to beg”. Or Bhikkhuni, a nun, a woman who is engaged in the same act of renunciation. They have very few possessions, they beg their food and they live lives that are deliberately simple in order to escape the network of karma that ties them to the cycle of Samsara.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha’s Religious Background.

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