Buddhists and the difficulty of choosing your life
January 16, 2009 2:25 PM   Subscribe

Buddhism question about what happens before we are born and the lives we choose for ourselves.

I read about a week ago, in an article online, that Buddhists believe we get to see our lives before we are born and we get to say "yes" or "no" as to whether we would like to choose that life. If we say "no" we get to see a different one. And so on. Until we finally pick one, say "yes", and then we are born.

I think I read it on a blog by a guy who was writing about jobs and failure and how even though he experienced failure it was the life he had chosen for himself for a reason.

Can anyone point me in the direction of that article? I thought I bookmarked it but I guess I haven't.

Can anyone point me to any other source that discusses this specific Buddhist belief? Google has failed me since I don't know what the specific term for it would be.

posted by ttyn to Religion & Philosophy (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
A) I have never heard this before
B) This strikes me as odd because "From an interior perspective, a person who remembers or imagines a past life is likely to think of it as representing a continuity of existence between lifespans, i.e., that the same person (however defined) was formerly one person (with a certain name and body) and is now a different person (with another name and body). This perspective is objectionable from the point of view of Buddhist philosophy on two counts. First, because it seems to postulate an enduring, self-existing entity that exists separate from the elements of mind and body, contrary to the Buddhist philosophical position of anātman. Second, because it overlooks the characterization of this process as one of constant change, both within and between lives, in which the newly-arising life is conditioned by but in no respect identical to the predecedent life." (See also anātman)
C) There is no one "Buddhism" just as there is no one Christianity. There are certain beliefs or practices believed and/or practiced by self-described Buddhists in some parts of the world that they believe are very much a Buddhist thing, but other self-described Buddhists in other parts would think very un-Buddhist. And that's before you get into tutti-fruiti Buddhism you read about in the New Age section of Borders. So while I doubt it's mainstream, there's quite possibly some group of self-described Buddhists somewhere that believe this.
posted by K.P. at 2:45 PM on January 16, 2009

Buddhism is a big thing. There are different traditions so its impossible to really address this without choosing one. The answer in Theravada tradition would be different than the answer in the Mahayana schools. Imagine a question about Christians morality answered strictly from the Catholic point of view. Thats not representative of the faith.

My understanding of Thervada doesnt mention this kind of "choose a life process." Its more like a natural process without thought, choice, etc. The rebirth process is a bit out of your control. I think you may be referring to the Tibetan Book of the Dead which has a pretty elaborate and graphic description of the Tibetan Buddhist's explanation of this.
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:46 PM on January 16, 2009

posted by MonkeyToes at 2:50 PM on January 16, 2009

its way more complex than that in the Tibetan traditon. If the dying person has no training, they usually freak out and don't do any choosing at all, as far as I remember. You need training for choosing.

More importantly, figuring out why you picked this life has to be one of those things that doesn't lead to enlightenment. The focus is on the practice and the decisions you are making right now.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:50 PM on January 16, 2009

Samsara: The word samsara is Sanskrit and means being bound to the cycle of repeated birth and death through numerous lifetimes. How this works is that those who are materially conditioned transmigrate through different bodies according to one’s desires and past activities (or karma) and familiarities. Their desires, if materially motivated, requires a physical body to enable them to continue to work out their material longings in various conditions of life.

I sometimes wonder if the Western perspective is too analytical and results-oriented (myself included) to easily comprehend Buddhism. Reincarnation is probably best thought of in metaphorical terms. Whether or not we can gain a glimpse of a past life or choose our path in the next life is really beside the point.

To put it another way, if you are engaged in an (almost) endless cycle of transmigration, is one life, in the face of suffering, really all that distinct and different from another? Will choosing make a difference?

If you really want to get metaphorical, consider the fact that we are reincarnated each morning after a deathlike sleep. We all wake up, enlightened by the experiences of the previous day, and can make choices that set us on the "right" path.

Agrarian societies might see reincarnation in more concrete terms. If you're bad in this life, you might really come back as a dog or a locust.

But, then again, that really reinforces the idea that all life is one and the same.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:58 PM on January 16, 2009

Are you thinking of the doctrine of the Bodhisattva?
posted by Grangousier at 3:01 PM on January 16, 2009

From the possible/probable link, above: "The Buddhists have a belief that I find intriguing: Before you are born, you get to see what your life will be. You are then asked if the life will be acceptable. If you give your OK, your memory is wiped clean and you get to live that life. Otherwise, you get to look at another life. So, the life you lead, with all its suffering and challenges, is the life you chose on that day."
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:14 PM on January 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would guess the possible/probable link is exactly the article the OP was going for. That said, WARNING! that is some really oversimplified Buddhist philosophy if it even has anything to do with Buddhism at all. It sounds like something you would read in a fortune cookie. I would personally not put any stock in any statements that begin "The Buddhists have a belief that..." for reasons that have been mentioned above (Buddhism is a label that has been applied to a huge swath of religious traditions across many cultures).
posted by dahliachewswell at 3:39 PM on January 16, 2009

Thank you! The possible/probable article was the one I was thinking of.

And I tremendously appreciate everyone's comments as well.
posted by ttyn at 3:48 PM on January 16, 2009

good that you found it. seconding dahlia: seeing as it occurs in the context of a vapid business blog i would be mad wary of linking it with any actual buddhism that may occur in the course of one's day.
posted by beefetish at 3:58 PM on January 16, 2009

blog i would be mad wary of linking it with any actual buddhism that may occur in the course of one's day

Heh. I actually have a copy of "The Teaching of Buddha" by Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai on my desk at work. It is a really helpful tool for my professional, working life.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:07 PM on January 16, 2009

3rding dahliachewswell. The article is crap (at least the Buddhist part).
posted by desjardins at 4:34 PM on January 16, 2009

internet argument on a Buddhist forum about rebirth (one of many on this site)

requires free registration, but the site is awesome if you want to learn more about how buddhism is actually practiced, and less about theoretical stuff (though there's a lot of that too). Plus, it's funny to watch "pacifist" buddhists get in arguments. :)
posted by desjardins at 7:33 PM on January 16, 2009

It reminds me a little bit of the underlying theological framework behind What Dreams May Come (book, not movie).
posted by WCityMike at 6:02 PM on January 17, 2009

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