A Teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal
Rebirth is the process of coming back into a new body and a new life. Both rebirth and reincarnation are the process of coming back, but the words cannot be used interchangeably. In rebirth, an ordinary human being is forced to return to samsara. In reincarnation, a choice is made to come back for a specific reason and purpose.
In Tibet you can meet reincarnated lamas. They have come back mainly to serve others; they have made an unbreakable promise to do so. Even among Tibetans it’s difficult to understand or believe in life after death. The process does not have to do with the physical body, but the mind or consciousness. If we believe the mind is energy, we can’t possibly believe in rebirth or life after death. That’s because the body is the source of energy, and at death, when bodily functions end, the energy ceases.
While Christians believe in a life after death – heaven or hell – Buddhists believe in a series of lives.
The three levels of consciousness
It is difficult to understand rebirth or reincarnation if you don’t understand the nature of mind or consciousness. The mind, according to Buddhism, has three levels: gross, subtle and very subtle.
The gross mind relies on the body’s functions. When something goes wrong with the body, that dysfunction may affect the mind (e.g. strokes or brain injuries). When the body stops, the gross mind stops.
The subtle mind’s existence is only partly tied to the functions of the body. The subtle mind continues from life to life, but does not carry all the information necessary. The subtle mind is not considered an entirely safe container or "Swiss bank" for all the information that travels from life to life. The subtle mind can be influenced by external factors.
The very subtle mind is the "clear light of mind." It has nothing to do with body functions. However, it remains inactive during our lives, its latent potential activated at death. When the functions of the gross mind stop because the body’s functions have stopped, at the last stage of physical death (near black attainment), the clear light of mind activates. The very subtle mind cannot be affected by external factors. It safely carries information from the past to the present and from the present to the future.
We can use reasoning to understand the possibility of rebirth or reincarnation by understanding the essence of mind or consciousness, which may momentarily change but does not lose its essence. First, we know a cause must arise before existence. What is that cause: material or immaterial? If we believe consciousness is a material substance, we must ask if a material substance produces or causes mind or consciousness. Then we must divide the material cause in two, the substantial cause and the contributing cause or cooperating force.
Consider a mango, which is a material substance. The substantial material cause would be the mango seed in soil; contributing material causes would be heat, fertilizer, and moisture. The material cause itself turns into its effect. The mango seed becomes the mango.
Or consider a gold ring. When a gold ring is made from gold, the gold metal is the substantial material cause of the forthcoming gold ring. A jeweler can turn gold into a gold ring without changing the essence of the gold. The cause itself turns into its effect.
Now, consider consciousness again. If the cause of very subtle consciousness is material, then we would have a substantial material cause of consciousness and a contributing material cause. The substantial material cause would have to turn into consciousness without changing its essence. Why? Because the cause turns into its effect; the essence is unchanging.
According to Buddhists’ understanding then, consciousness is not material. Why? Because it’s impossible for a material thing to turn into mind or consciousness without changing its essence. The uniting of sperm and egg don’t qualify. The sperm and egg serve as substantial cause of the gross body and mind, not of very subtle consciousness. The bardo being, when it finds its new body, has a strong influence on the united sperm and egg, but is not the cause of very subtle consciousness, either.
Further distinguishing subtle and very subtle consciousness
Our five senses arise when we come into contact with objects and stimuli. Beneath each of the five senses is a consciousness through which information goes to the subtle consciousness and is stored. The subtle consciousness serves as a conduit of information from the five senses to the very subtle consciousness. The subtle consciousness has some sense of "I" and "you." The very subtle consciousness has no "I," no duality.
The subtle consciousness is not entirely reliable as a container of information as consciousness moves from life to life, while the very subtle consciousness is reliable. It is necessary to understand the very subtle mind to understand karma. The essential nature of the very subtle consciousness is not different from one person to another. However, each person’s karmic information, carried by the very subtle consciousness, is different.
Modern science, when it talks about mind or memory, talks about the grosser levels of mind, neurons, cells, chemistry, not very subtle consciousness. Very subtle consciousness goes life to life, life to life without changing its essence, going from past to present to future without changing its essence. We are not talking here about a physical location, but movement through time.
Activating clear light of mind, or very subtle consciousness, through meditation Through meditation the clear light of mind can be activated and experienced, through gaining control of the body functions, stopping gross mind and its thoughts. When conceptual thoughts cease during meditation, the mind returns to its natural state, unbiased, neither attracted nor repulsed by anything. Once we have that meditation experience, once we have that control of our mind, we can use special techniques to activate very subtle consciousness. If we understand clear light of mind, we can understand rebirth or reincarnation. In meditative equipose, we learn to remain in clear light of mind. We can become one with clear light of mind and share very subtle consciousness temporarily. But at the end of meditation, we return to duality.
Notes from a teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal in Columbia, South Carolina, March 2, 2001.