RM: The physical body decays upon death, so is it the mind or the consciousness that is reincarnated?
HH: First, you must ask yourself the basic question, “What is ‘self’ or ‘I’?” Certainly, this body is not the central being, and the mind alone is also not a central being. For me, Tenzin Gyatso is the human being. However, from the Buddhist point of view, in the Mahayana system, they say the central being, Tenzin Gyatso, is designated here as the human being and is the combination of this body and mind. This body comes from parents and is subject to various causes and conditions.
The being is chosen because of a combination of the body and the mind, and also the subtle level of the body and grosser level of the mind. The process for rebirth is the continuation of the mind or the continuation of the being. Reincarnation is a deliberate birth at a certain time, in a certain area. It could be the same person and the same being, or a different person who has come to fulfill his previous unfinished work.
Ultimately, some Buddhist scriptures say that the space particle is the original cause of this body, and that particle was also the cause for the whole previous universe. But consciousness or mind is changing every moment. Therefore, it can be shown that causes and conditions will affect anything that undergoes change. As such, the mind is also a product of causes and conditions. That is the basis of the rebirth theory.
RM: Currently, do you have any memories of your past life?
HH: Sometimes it is difficult to remember what happened this morning! However, when I was small — say, two or three years old — my mother and some close friends noticed that I expressed some memories of my past life. That is possible! But if you are asking me for a definite memory, I must say it remains somewhat unclear.
RM: If Buddhism is open to scientific question, why does the belief in reincarnation still survive? There is no supporting science or reason for this.
HH: Science, as we know it, involves investigation of something that can be measured or calculated. The concept of mind or the concept of self itself cannot be measured. Up to now, the scientific field from the Buddhist viewpoint has been limited, I think. Mind and consciousness are outside the present scientific field. Because there have been many sophisticated experiments about the experiences of dying people, these perhaps may lead to a wider field.
RM: Would that not be the case with incarnate lamas who to some degree have recollections of past lives?
HH: This is not necessarily only a Buddhist concept. In fact, there are two girls in two families near Palampur and in Ambala (in north India). About two years ago, I sent some people to investigate because at that time the girls, who were four or five, talked very clearly about their past lives, and each claimed that the other girl’s parents were her own. As a result, these two girls now have four parents each — parents in this life and parents from a past life. Their recollections were so convincing that each set of parents accepted the other girl as their own child.
I studied a similar case where a little boy claimed that he had a wife and children, and his parents beat him, saying he was a liar. Eventually, by chance, a visitor from the village where he claimed to have a family mentioned that there were people by the same names that he was talking about. So, they took the child to the other village, where he identified a lady as his wife from among three or four women and talked about his children!
RM: Do you think about your reincarnation in your next life?
HH: Of course! The words of Shantideva were, “As long as space remains, as long as suffering of sentient beings remains, I will remain in order to serve, in order to work for them.” That verse gives me the inner strength, hope, and a defined purpose of my being.
I am definitely ready as long, as my reincarnation is of some benefit, some usefulness. I’m quite sure I will take rebirth. In what place, in what form, or with what name, I don’t know. But the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama is a different matter. The time may come when the institution of the Dalai Lama may no longer be beneficial and there would be no reason for it to continue. On this I remain open.
As far as my rebirth is concerned, until Buddhahood is reached, I firmly believe my rebirth is always there. Even after Buddhahood, I will continue somewhere in different manifestations.
That is the Buddhist belief, the Buddhist thinking. I really feel that a teaching of this kind sustains one’s optimism, will, and determination.
Extract from All You Ever Wanted To Know From his Holiness The Dalai Lama on Happiness, Life, Living, and Much More: Conversation with Rajiv Mehrotra, Hay House Publishers (India), 2009.