The Buddha’s first utterance after his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree was: “I have gone through countless births in the cycle of existence, seeking the builder of this house. To be born again and again is dukkha (suffering). Now I have seen you, O housebuilder! You shall not build a house again for me.”
In Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna: “That which is born must die, and that which is dead must be born again. You and I have passed through many-many births. I can remember them all, you cannot.”
Attenuating one’s karma and stopping the endless cycle of rebirths is the central theme of Jainism. For Sikhs, human life is a unique opportunity to break the cycle of death and rebirth.
All major Indian philosophies talk of rebirth. For someone brought up in Western cultures, rebirth may be a topic difficult—or even absurd—to believe or understand. One may squarely say: “Why should I even care if I continue after death or not? I am not a religious person—not the least a follower of Indian religions.”
But rebirth does not have to be about religion. It can just be about ethics. It can be about following a few moral principles. Instead of going so far as having a new physical body, we can look at rebirth as the arising of a new state of mind. We all know our mind changes—or takes a new birth—all the time. We can view rebirth from that angle.
When the Indian traditions talk of rebirth, they do it in relation to karma. The bottom line: If you create healthy karma, it will lead to wholesome rebirth. Healthy karma is about taking actions that generate healthy states of mind. All traditions talk of refraining from actions that lead to misery. They talk of either extinguishing all forces of karma, or at least developing and keeping the helpful ones.
Healthy karma would lead to eradication of mental impurities. Mental impurities are mental residues of physical, verbal, or mental actions. So clearing the impurities will have to do with how we act, speak, and think. To do it in healthy ways, you don’t need a creator or a God or a religion—you can just have an intention to lead a happy life.
If you do morally wholesome acts, it will have wholesome effects on your mind. If you save a life, you will instantly feel love and peace in mind. If you speak the truth, you will never have to worry about guarding your lies. But if you steal money from the bank, you will definitely have sleepless nights. Whether you create nice karma for better physical rebirth or not, ethical action will reward you with peace of mind.
Rebirth in terms of physical body may be distant. But in terms of mind, it is instant. Our wholesome acts lead to happy rebirths of the mind in real time, all the time.