Thursday, January 17, 2008

Rebirth, Reassessed

[Reposted from Progressive Buddhism]

The rise of Buddhism in the west is undoubtedly linked with it's relative compatability with the dominant rational, empirical and pragmatic worldview. The single biggest obstacle to practice for westerners is probably the belief in rebirth and karma, since this this is not part of our worldview, nor does there seem to be any rational or empirical justification for accepting this. The majority of Buddhist orders would insist on acceptance of this doctrine in order to be a serious practitioner, certainly for one to become a monk. It was a barrier for me when I first encountered Buddhism as an undergraduate. And it remains an issue for many. It was probably reading Stephen Batchelor's book Buddhism Without Beliefs, in which the author argues for the validity of agnosticism on such matters, that allowed me to see a route forward and I'm grateful to him for that. I've not read any more recent writings, however, I got the impression that he was still wrestling with these issues.

Why do most traditional Buddhists believe in traditional rebirth and karma?
For most Buddhists, these concepts are part of the worldview in which they are raised. Believing these things are as natural as the understanding that the earth rotates around the sun is for a modern westerner. There are several arguments sometimes made in Buddhism for accepting these notions, but none I have personally come across hold much water.

  1. Buddha taught them to be true.
    Even assuming (not unreasonably) that the sutras have reliably passed down what the Buddha taught, this argument doesn't stand up. First, this would only be justification if the Buddha was literally omniscient and there is no good reason to suppose this. Interestingly, the believer himself would have to be omniscient as well in order to know for certain that the Buddha was omniscient. Secondly, the Buddha made several statements indicating that his teachings were merely a vehicle for passing across to nirvana, thus there is room for the possibility that they were metaphors using common concepts of the time to indicate something more difficult to articulate (such as the realisation that we don't exist as separate continuous entities in the first place).

  2. Buddha was right about suffering so we should have faith in the rest
    This is the argument I've seen given by Bhikkhu Bodhi on this subject. Initially we may have no belief in traditional rebirth and karma, but as we begin to see the fruits of our practice, we increasingly trust the Buddha not just on the matter of the elimination of suffering, but on matters which we cannot experience ourselves such as rebirth and karma. This is an example of the logical fallacy known as the Appeal to Authority. Someone's expertise on one subject does not make him or her an authority on other matters. What is important is whether a particular claim can be validated or not.

  3. We can experience this ourselves in meditation or upon enlightenment
    Well until this can actually be verified with experience, this comes back to blind faith again. Even if we did have experiences during meditation or special states, they might be the product of imagination - it isn't difficult to produce vivid experiences or false memories during states of deep mental relaxation.
Did Buddha believe in rebirth and Karma?
It might be tempting for those who practice the dharma and yet who do not believe in these ideas - especially under pressure from traditionalistic Buddhists who accuse them of being 'not real Buddhists' - to attempt to bolster their position, by arguing either that the Buddha did not really teach rebirth and karma or that his teachings were just metaphors. From my (far from complete) readings of the Pali Canon it seems very clear that he did teach literal rebirth and karma and went into details of their mechanics at times. It would be incredible for these central ideas to have been levered into position at a later time. Nor have I found any direct evidence that those specific teachings were intended merely as metaphorical devices. But certainly there are several examples of him indicating that much or all of his teachings were just teaching devices, vehicles.

Why did Buddha believe or at least teach karma and rebirth?
The Buddha was born into a culture in which the concepts of karma and rebirth were commonplace in religious thought. The Buddha did not spontaneously produce these ideas from nowhere. Karma originated with Jainism and rebirth is a modified form of reincarnation which comes from Vedic thought. Denial of these concepts was associated with nihilism or materialism.

Why don't I believe in rebirth and karma?
First of all, it's not accurate to say that I don't believe in rebirth and karma. More precisely, those beliefs I provisionally have about rebirth and karma are not exactly the same as those which Siddhartha Gautama seems to have taught.

Karma is volitional activity and the consequences, good or bad, of that activity. Everyday human experience reveals the reality of this and increasing awareness and compassion allows us to create better consequences. Every moment we send out chaotic ripples of change across the universe, the vast majority of which have consequences we have no control over. This doesn't mean, however, that I have any reason or evidence to believe that all actions which are conventionally regarded as 'bad' always lead to increased suffering for the perpetrator. Nor is there any good justification for supposing that consequences inevitably revisit 'the same person' reborn.

All the evidence available from both science and introspection suggest that there is no continuous self which survives intact or unchanged even from one moment to the next. Instead we have continuously changing psychological processes, including the processes which produce that very sense of continuity. Yet this sense of self reappears again and again. This is sometimes called 'moment to moment rebirth'. On the other hand, I can find no justification for believing that at death, the causal chain of my being is somehow (and for some unexplained reason) focussed through 12 links of dependent arising onto the formation of a single future being.

For me, the traditional teachings of rebirth and karma are like fingers pointing to the interconnectedness of everything, to emptiness, presented from within the context of the Vedic worldview. Emptiness itself is is universal, particular theories about life after death are culturally dependent and impermanent.

The translation I have (Bhikku Bodhi) of the Pali Canon implies that Buddha did not spontaneously recall his previous lives, but that, during a profound state of meditation on the night of his awakening, he deliberately turned his attention to recall them. This implies that he already had a belief in them gained from his cultural environment. From my understanding of psychology and my personal experiences of self-hypnosis and visualisation I know that such apparent memories under such circumstances do not constitute at all reliable evidence for past lives.

In the Kalama Sutta, Buddha himself says that one need not believe in rebirth and karma in order to be a successful practitioner.

Karma Police
One of the appealing things about Zen is that belief in doctrines isn't given much importance, but when I took the Boddhisattva vows I had an interview with Master Taiun to ensure I wasn't taking the vows on a false understanding. The answers he gave me were reassuring.

Nevertheless some Buddhists are less open and less tolerant. The administration on the eSangha Buddhist discussion board hold the opinion that since Zen is a school of Buddhism they have to accept the fundamentals and that those fundamentals include traditional karma and rebirth. I wrote about my own experiences of this on my personal blog. Jundo James Cohen, a Zen priest, was recently banned from the same board apparently for saying that...

...traditional ideas of rebirth and reincarnation are not to be taken literally in
this modern age; and (2) Shakyamuni Buddha was a man, not a god or super-human
being, and though enlightened … was a human being like the rest of us.

But, in fact, the non-literalist views I am expressing on Reincarnation
represent, I believe, the generally dominant view among Zen teachers in the West
right now. The reason is not that we have lost the direct line to Buddha’s brain
that you’all so evidently possess. The reason is, quite simply, that we no
longer live in an age of superstition and hocus-pocus. I do not believe in a
magical view of Reincarnation for much the same reason that I do not believe in
flying dragons, the tooth fairy, genies, Qilin (a kind a giraffe with fish
scales and wings) and such. We do not believe that earthquakes are caused by
giant catfish under the earth, or that stomach aches are due to ghost
possession, and other things that the same primitive folks (who wrote the
Sutras) believed in. Now, we know a little better (although, granted, we have
our own modern myths and superstitions).
Such people want to claim that Buddha is omniscient and infallible and that anyone who disagrees is a heretic. Rather than admit that Zen does not require adherence to such dogma, they intimidate or ban the individual who states such a perspective.

No-Self and Tony Soprano
I don't generally talk to my work colleagues about Buddhism, but a few of them know that I practice and one of the guys in the team is a Mormon, and he brings up the subject of religion sometimes. So one day he was explaining his beliefs about the after life and he asked me if I believed in reincarnation and I went into an explanation that most Buddhists believe in rebirth which is a chain of cause and effect rather than the continuation of a self or soul. And blah, blah, blah. But later I found a better way of expressing this.

My partner and I are working our way through the Sopranos on DVD - I can't recommend it enough by the way - and we were watching an episode in which Tony Soprano was convalescing in hospital after being shot. One of the other guys chatting in the room was a scientist who came out with a great description of the non-existence of separate entities, which I felt described the Buddhist perspective in a contemporary and rational way, far better than most of the stale descriptions of rebirth and karmic dogma given by Buddhists. Next time I get asked the 'reincarnation' question, I'll answer along the same lines (and yes, I do think that non-practitioners can realise emptiness, to at least some extent - this is because reality is inherently empty, it's emptiness is not something which has to be passed down in the form as dogma.)

Pauli (one of Tony's most senior men): Look at you T. You do your uncle a kindness, you get shot for your efforts. You think you got family, but in the end they fuck you too.
Tony Soprano : [to the others in the room] He's grieving. His aunt just died.
Pauli: Each and every one of us, we're alone in the ring, fighting for our lives. Just like that poor prick. [referring to a boxer on the TV]
John Schwinn, a scientist: That's one way to look at it
Tony: You got a better one? ...
John Schwinn: Well, it's actually an illusion that those boxers are separate entities....Their separate entities is simply the way we choose to perceive them.
Tony: I didn't choose nothin.
John Schwinn: It's physics. Schrodinger's equation. The boxers, you, me - we're all part of the same quantum field...Think of the two boxers as ocean waves or currents of air - two tornadoes. They appear to be two separate things, but they're not. Tornadoes are just the wind stirred up in different directions. The fact is, nothing is separate - everything is connected ...
Tony: Get the fuck outta here
John Schwinn: The universe is just one big soup of molecules bumping up against one another. The shapes we see exist only in our own consciousness...
Pauli: You're so fucking smart, fix that TV.
John Schwinn: [Laughs] OK

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