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What Reincarnation Can Teach Us About Compassion

Learn how a 14th century Buddhist text lays the groundwork for a very powerful perspective on how we can become more empathetic beings, when we grasp the nature of reincarnation.

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Meditation Advisor

Growing up in the Buddhist tradition was sometimes a bit confusing. As a child, I would be angry at someone and instead of justifying it an adult would say, “Just remember: that person was your mother in a past lifetime.” What? How is that useful? Well, whether we believe in reincarnation or not, thinking about the mere possibility that the person we’re pissed off at has shown us the same kindness our mother has, is often enough to snap us out of our storyline and to consider them with compassion.

There is a beautiful Buddhist text dating back to the fourteenth century known as the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. Bodhi can be translated from Sanskrit as “open” or “awake” while sattva can be translated as “being,” so it is an open-hearted being. A meditation master known as Ngulchu Thogme composed these verses so that we could live a full life with open hearts, in order to be helpful to those around us, including the people we have a hard time with. He has a verse that specifically encourages us to consider the complex concept of reincarnation, but as a way that we could actually generate compassion for the people that cause us anguish:

From beginningless time your mothers have cherished you.

If they now suffer, what good is your own happiness?

Therefore, in order to liberate limitless sentient beings,

Giving rise to bodhichitta is the practice of a Bodhisattva.


Let’s start with what reincarnation is and isn’t. It isn’t you coming back as your cat. Your cat has a nice life, but it’s your cat’s life, not yours. Reincarnation contains the idea that when you pass away your core wisdom consciousness moves through a transitional experience and then is reborn in another body. In addition to the bodies we can see, like human and animal, the Buddhist view is that one could also come back in other painful states in other realms, such as a hungry ghost or jealous god, for example. The view here is that none of these realms are without their faults; even the fabled god realm—where you live a long life with lots of sensual enjoyment—is said to possess tremendous suffering as you near death (yes, in this philosophy even gods are worldly and will die).

Related: How Finding Meditation as a Child Shaped My Life

In addition to propagating teachings on reincarnation, the Buddha also said that we have to test the truth of his teachings. He encouraged us to look at his teachings to make sure that whatever he said meshes with our own experience. He emphasized this idea to the extent that he said that if we don’t have an actual experience of something he taught, we should not take it at face value.

I don’t know about you, but the idea of reincarnation has always been a hard pill for me to swallow. There are numerous accounts of individuals that are known in Tibetan as delogs, people who claim to have died and then come back to life with tales about the various experiences they had while in that state. Yet I have no recollection of my own past lives or deaths and thus have a hard time signing off on this particular teaching. Maybe you do, too. This is not to denigrate this traditional philosophy, but instead to encourage us to consider our own experience of death and rebirth, and come to our own conclusions on this set of teachings. Even if you don’t subscribe to this notion, there is still a lot the very idea of reincarnation can teach us in terms of how we treat other people.

Compassion for Your Mother

In the verse above, Ngulchu Thogme is pointing at a very traditional Buddhist example of reincarnation: that over the countless lifetimes you have lived you have had a relationship with everyone you now know. It’s not even an “I keep ending up with the same people every lifetime” sort of thing. It’s the idea that you have been born into countless lifetimes—as a human, sure, but also as a panda bear in the animal realm, and as a jealous god in that particular realm, and so on. You have lived so many lives, in fact, that it is said you have had the chance to have every single being as your mother. When they were your mother in that lifetime, these beings likely showed you tremendous kindness; now it’s time to show them kindness in exchange.

Related: How to Transform Our Comfort Around Death and Dying

The great Tibetan Buddhist teacher Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche once said, “Without exception, not a being exists who has not been related to each of us throughout all our lifetimes. The mother is most often used as an example because of her untold acts of kindness. What is the good in attaining liberation for our own sake alone if our mothers continue to weep due to their suffering?”

If every being has, at some point, served as your mother and shown you incredible kindness, you should open your heart to them here and now. It’s only fair, right? Even if someone is being an asshole to you, you can see that it is because they are suffering and acting out in not-so-good ways. Ngulchu is saying that the best thing to do is to recognize the suffering of others and try to touch your own bodhichitta, or awake heart, so that you can accommodate them with kindness.

Why This Mother Thing Matters 

Okay. Every being has been my mother. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. But even if I can’t remember previous lifetimes, I do believe that what we put into this life lays the ground for the future. Personally, I am open to the idea that you could be laying the ground for a future rebirth but I believe you could also be laying the ground for situations you will deal with in this life. The way you relate to a difficult person now, whether stubbornly holding onto how they have wronged you or reflecting on past kindness they have shown you, will have an impact on your future.

After all, the various forms of suffering that we encounter on a daily basis are based in our own mind. It is reified every time you solidify a positive or negative habitual pattern. If you continuously give in to jealousy of your friends’ relationship success, for example, then you are planting seeds for more jealousy in this very lifetime. You are making it easier to become attached to that root emotion. However, if you take delight in their good fortune, then you are planting seeds that cut through envy.

In his book Turning the Mind into an Ally, my Buddhist teacher Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has said, “If we plant peaches, we’re always going to get peaches. If we plant pears, we’re always going to get pears.” This is perhaps the simplest and clearest description of the complex Buddhist notion of karma I have ever read.

Related: A New Understanding of The Power of Compassion

Whatever seeds you plant in your own mind will bear fruit appropriately. That is why we should abandon whatever angry storylines we’re perpetuating about this jerk in our life, reflect on the kindness they have shown us—either in this life or considering whether we believe they may have in previous ones—and devote our time to opening our hearts to them so that we’re planting the seeds for a good life that is helpful to others, even the most difficult of people.



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