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Upon hearing that I am a Buddhist, people often ask me about reincarnation, as if merely having taken refuge somehow makes me an authority (it doesn't). The most common question is whether or not I "believe in it", which is a question I am not particularly fond of. My response is usually something intentionally vague and non-committal, beginning with phrases like "Buddhism teaches that there is no solid individual self, only ever-changing aggregates that create an illusion of a self, and in later teachings it said that even those aggregates are empty of inherent nature, so therefore (and so on)," or "Before examining whether a mind can be reincarnated, you first need to fully examine what mind actually is, which isn't what you think (etc)." Basically, they don't get the simple "yes" or "no" they are hoping for out of me and, ideally, are left somewhat frustrated. The only benefit that I see coming from this line of questioning is if I can leave them "contemplatin' stuff."
After the "Do you or don't you" question, the second-most common question is "How does it all work?" and often the more specific "Do humans always come back as humans?" (people seem particularly invested in this one). I find these questions much more interesting. I explain, as best I can, that according to Tibetan Buddhist cosmology, all unenlightened beings continually cycle through the six realms of existence (the hell, hungry ghost, animal, human, jealous god, and god realms) and therefore, that the answer is "No, humans can come back as anything in between shrieking writhing hell beasts and gloriously magnificent sky gods, and you've already been both, countless times." Because these questioners often have no idea that Buddhism isn't always purely atheistic and that there is in fact room for gods and demons in some Buddhist traditions, saying things like, "Oh yeah, gods exist, they're just imperfect, confused, and eventually die just like the rest of us" is a statement that can definitely throw a monotheist for a loop from time to time.
Nevertheless, awkward and entertaining twists of inter-religious dialogue aside, it is important to note that while many people believe the six realms to be literal and absolutely real, there are others that view them as strictly symbolic. When viewed as symbolism, the six realms are psychological states that we continually cycle through throughout our lives. The times when we are in the most pain and are completely trapped in our confusion are our "lifetimes in hell" and the times when we are on top of the world and utterly content with our existence are our "lifetimes as gods," and so on. In this way, reincarnation is something that takes place many times within a single lifetime. As stated earlier, the dharma teaches us that we don't have any solid individual self, only constantly changing aggregates that create an illusion of a self, and it is this illusion that is perpetually reincarnated into different realms.
Acharya Reggie Ray on the Human realm:
The human realm (nara-loka) is the first of the three "higher realms" and stands between the higher realms of the gods and jealous gods and the lower realms of the animals, hungry ghosts, and hell beings. The human birth is considered the most auspicious one for spiritual development because of its intermediate location. As mentioned, there is enough pain to motivate one to practice on the path, but not so much that one is wholly preoccupied with suffering and paralyzed by it.
-Reginald A. Ray, Indestructible Truth, p268
*6 realms side-note: to read about the "Hungry Ghost Festival" in Hong Kong that will take place in less than two weeks, click here. (About.com)
Image 1: Wheel of Life, Collection of the Rubin Museum of Art (HAR 591)
Image 2: via timothysketchpad