Zen & Buddhism Q&As

Does Zen believe in reincarnation?

As in so many things, it depends upon what is meant by ‘reincarnation’. If what is meant is, is there something solid, some essence that’s ours, 

like a soul, which persists through various lifetimes and incarnates in various bodies? Then the answer is clearly no. 

The reason is that it is a fundamental tenet of buddhism that nothing has a fixed and abiding self essence. A soul, in the sense that is usually meant, is a paradigm example of a fixed and abiding ‘self’ which buddhism would deny.

Beyond this, there is substantial disagreement among the various buddhist schools. Tibetan buddhism, which has a quite strong metaphysical component, is probably most engaged with this. Some people in the Tibetan tradition would say there is a karmic continuity over lifetimes but it’s not a personal continuity: it’s not the person who is carried over from one lifetime to the other. But in any event, no one can remember their previous lives, apart from the Buddha, who, paradoxically, can do so only because he has clearly understood that there is no Self. It is like a weather system; the air molecules which make up a storm don’t really move across the Atlantic, although it seems obvious to us that the storm does. We mistake a system for an entity, and we do this constantly.
The Zen position is to take an agnostic position to all questions of this kind. Not because they are not interesting, but because they are not directly connected – and may indeed be inimical- with alleviating suffering which, from our perspective, is caused by an unthinking adherence to a self. Having it persist though one lifetime is mistake enough.