Nowhere is this Buddhist concept of interconnectedness better illustrated than in the concept of reincarnation. Reincarnation does not refer to the transmigration of souls or to the magical reappearance, following death, of the self in a different body or physical form. It refers to the fact that each of us has been influenced causally by those who have come before, even as we will influence causally those who follow us. We are, say the Buddhists, like candles standing in a row. When only the first candle is lit, it can light the second and then extinguish. The second can light the third and then extinguish, and so on down the line. The last candle lit is, then, a reincarnation of the first, even though the first and last appear to be totally separate. Just as the candles are connected (interconnected), so too are we all connected, whether we speak of those living or those who are dead. Right living, that is, living according to the cosmic truth called Dharma, brings happiness. But what is meant here by happiness? To some extent it means the same here as it does to those following other faith traditions. Buddhists are no different from Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and Christians in claiming that there is peace and deep satisfaction in transcending the self and in leading a truly compassionate life that connects us positively to our fellow humans and to life in general. However, in the Buddhist case, there is a unique endpoint and emphasis. If petty, selfish desires are the problem, and if freeing oneself from the illusion of being a separate self is the solution, then the goal or endpoint is complete selflessness, complete dissolution of the self's boundaries. This is what Buddhists refer to as Nirvana. Nirvana is as close as Buddhists get to speaking of a godhead. The Buddha achieved Nirvana and returned to help others do the same. Those who later did the same are called Bodhisattvas. They are the Buddhist saints whose role it is to save others. Nirvana may be the most dramatic and strange of all Buddhist concepts, at least to Western non- Buddhists. As such, it has attracted a great deal of curiosity among Westerners, often to the point of making Buddhists uncomfortable. Buddhists are uncomfortable with this Western curiosity because it often misses the main focus of Buddhism, which is on "right living" and Dharma. Buddhists know that Nirvana is not for us all, whereas working hard to live life "rightly" is for us all.
And so, in the final analysis, Buddhism, as one of the great faith traditions, is a call to do what it takes to live life "rightly" and according to what is true. To do so requires tremendous self-discipline. Buddhism is not about signing on to this or that belief. It is about rising early to meditate and get ready to live out the day in the right frame of mind. It is about reflecting constantly on one's thoughts and feelings and speech- so as to learn how to live more compassionately. It is, then, one of the great self-improvement programs known to humankind.
But to call Buddhism a self-improvement program is not quite right. Buddhism is not simply a program. It is, rather, a spiritual pathway. Buddhists are realists intent upon self-improvement, on becoming more compassionate and open to others. However, their realism and efforts at self-improvement are rooted in faith, faith that the nature of the universe is indeed essentially moral, and faith that in being compassionate, we tap into what is transcendent.