I am often asked the question:

“What do Chan Buddhists teach about reincarnation?”

This is a trickier question to answer than it might at first appear. This is because reincarnation does not play well with the Dharma Seal of anatman (anatta).

Anatman is the truth of no-self, but it is easy to misunderstand. Anatman means that there is no self-existent nature or no thing-in-itself. Soto teacher Brad Warner very adeptly addresses the doctrine of anatman in his book, Sit Down and Shut Up. In that book he writes (I paraphrase) that there is a common misconception that whenever someone is enlightened, he or she becomes a soulless robot. The ‘self’ is (mis)understood as the ‘soul,’ conflated with the ‘personality,’ and it is thought that when someone becomes enlightened, they let go of that ‘soul.’

This is utter nonsense.

The doctrine of anatman more properly teaches that what one might think of as his ‘self’ is not actually a thing. It isn’t that you don’t get happy or sad, or that you don’t have memories, preferences, habits, and all the other things that make up your personality. It is that those things don’t constitute a self-existent nature.

Furthermore, anatman has nothing to do with any notions of an afterlife, a beforelife, or a life. (The Diamond Sutra further explains anatman as negating ‘an ego, a being, a person-nature, and a life(span).’ It isn’t that there is no self after one dies. It isn’t that there was no self before you were born. It is that what is there isn’t a self now, wasn’t then, and won’t be later. Nothing is gained and nothing is lost. Nothing is created or destroyed. It just isn’t.

That is anatman in a nutshell. Self? No. Anatman.

Now, another of the three Dharma Seals is Anicca, or impermanence. This complements anatman. Nothing is a fixed nature because everything (or every not-thing) is constantly changing and shifting. There is no snapshot available. Everything is a moving target. Karma is the law of cause-and-effect. (It is a little more than that, but only because it includes what Aristotle might have called the ‘material causes’ as well as the process itself. In short, karma speaks to the how and why of impermanence. Why doesn’t an apple seed grow into a pear tree, or even a horse? Why does an apple seed grow into an apple tree? Karma.

Karma is a way of describing what we can observe of impermanence, but to be useful, we have to adopt language that seems to affirm self-natures. After all, anatman reminds us that an apple seed isn’t an apple seed and an apple tree isn’t an apple tree - at no point are these self-existent natures.

The big three players are on the table: no-self, impermanence, and the functional process-language of karma.

Now, with these three players on the table, the problems with reincarnation appear rather quickly.

“If there is no kernel of ‘you’-ness that either comes into being or persists, then WHOSE karma is relevant? If there is no self-nature, then WHO is reincarnating?”

This is why different Buddhist traditions, sects, and even individuals hold a wide variety of interpretations of reincarnation.

Over against what I call the ‘vulgar’ (as in ‘common’ or ‘popular’) view of reincarnation, which seems to violate the Dharma Seal of anatman, two teachings appear more plausible to Chan and Zen Buddhists, who probably focus on prajna wisdom and anatman more than any other sects.

First, there is the teaching that reincarnation speaks only to the material causes. In other words, the karmic effects of a person’s life can be observed, but there is no self that is reincarnating and persisting from life to life. This view emphasizes karma.

Second, there is the teaching that everything is always in motion and changing, having no fixed self-nature, so we are all reincarnating constantly. Who you were yesterday is reborn as who you are today. Who you were when you read this sentence is reborn as who you are now. And now. And now. This view emphasizes impermanence and a soft view of anatman.

Finally, there is a third common Mahayana teaching that stops just short of the vulgar teaching. This is less common among Chan Buddhists in the West, but is common among more traditionally religious (Mahayanist) Buddhists. This teaching reverses the entire question and speaks to experience. Even though we aren’t self-natures, we live in the delusion that we are, and so it is possible for the delusion to continue, even though it has no substance.

Reincarnation is a complex matter, however, precisely because it is nothing more than a way of talking about things. It is provisional, somewhat arbitrary, and certainly culturally informed.

My simple advice is not to spend too much time on any part of it that you aren’t able to directly experience and observe right now. Any doctrine, about reincarnation or anything at all, should be explored directly. If someone talks about being reborn as an hungry ghost or a demon, take it as a way of speaking about something difficult to speak about and nothing more until such time as you can observe such phenomenon for yourself. Until then, you’d only be guessing.