Thursday, 13 December 2007

Rebirth, Reassessed

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


  1. I think it's reasonable to say that the Buddha didn't teach rebirth so much as he accepted it as axiomatic, simply because that was the understanding of the day. It shouldn't be much of a problem to the Western practitioner, but I wonder what your thoughts are on Buddha nature? That seems like it could be problematic too.

  2. Welcome Mike. Axiomatic, yes. Buddha nature? Buddha nature is just all of our inherent unity with the Buddha's state of awakening; our inherent emptiness and interdependence with the whole universe. Buddha nature is only a problem for the Hindu-influenced interpretations - the Tathagatgarbha doctrine - taken literally - in other words, an Atman.

    "However, it is important not o mispresent the Mahāyāna Buddhism with the false view of Buddha-nature. The Buddha-nature is not to be viewed like a permanent substance, such as ātman, Brahman or Soul. Fundamentally, the Buddha rejects the existence of a permanent substance in the human personality or in any phenomenon of the empirical world. The Law of Dependent Co-arising and the Doctrine of Non-self state that everything is dependently co-arisen from conditions and devoid of any permanent substance or intrinsic nature. Buddha-nature is merely a representative concept to convey the notion of non-self or emptiness of the five aggregates. It is merely a pedagogical device or means to interpret the Three Universal Characteristics and Dependent Co-arising. It appeals to those worldlings who are more comfortable with the concept of noumenon behind all phenomena. In this sense, the notion of Buddha-nature is utilized merely as a skillful means to convey the suchness of Emptiness. Buddha-nature is not to be regarded as a permanent substantive entity. Nothing can exist as an independent separate entity. All things are related or inter-connected with one another. "

  3. Justin,

    Fascinating topic.

    I don't have any set beliefs on any of this, but look at it this way: I think that small-s self is not so much a delusion as a misunderstanding. There is a capital-S Self, that each of us are; from this the idea of there being in every pool the reflection of the whole of the moon.

    We are each a reincarnation from the whole of consciousness and karma is instant. What hurt we give to others is karmic. We directly hurt our Self.

    If I disagree with John Schwinn, it is in that I wince at any idea that seems to presume matter is primary (and always at any premise where matter is all). I cannot conceive of matter explaining consciousness. [In terms of matter, the experience of the color green cannot be explained.] If consciousness cannot be fully captured in terms of matter, then consciousness is "other," and we should take care not to suppose we can describe it and its functions in terms of "stuff." It can have continuity in a manner that is not matter-like.

    With the way I look at things, the traditional teachings on rebirth and karma aren't "wrong," They are just preliminary; they don't go far enough. The traditional linear chains of reincarnation, is too 'simple'; We is One Mind.

  4. We're very much on the same page Tom.

    I'm not sure if the fictional Schwinn was a materialist or not, he was describing things in primarily physical terms, but I don't that that means all that much. Zen masters do the same sometimes. Mind cannot be fully described in terms of matter, but then mind is not separate from matter either. For me, mind and matter are interdependent aspects of one whole reality, subject and object. So-called Big Mind(c) is the disidentification with the subject to realise the unity of the whole.

  5. I worry that the idea of interconnectedness can be made too much of. Tony and Pauli are fully as much right as John Schwinn in the dialogue you post. There isn't a secret universe that is more real, that is totally chaotic, that we should strive for.

    There ARE two separate boxers. They DO punch and hurt each other. The molecular level of things isn't more descriptive -- i.e., truthier -- than the 'ordinary' level where we have all sorts of meaningful, useful categories.

    While as individuals we could never exist apart from matter and others' minds, a profound intellectual sense of interconnectedness, how ever much compassion that engenders, would not relieve us, or others, of suffering. Enlightenment is something else, still, and remains the aim of Buddhism, as Buddha reminded us, constantly.

  6. Yes you're right. Entities are separate in their oneness and one their separateness. The world of Tony and Pauli is the world of linguistic and conceptual convention. It is a very pragmatic world, but we can become philosphically confused and existentially anguished if we apply conventions outside of their natural realm or if we become fixated with them as if they were reality itself.

    On the other hand, Schwinn's description and Buddha's doctrines, and Nagarjuna's and Dogen's philosophy are based on convention too. We mustn't become fixated with these ideas or impute them as being the essence of reality. And we mustn't ignore the ordinary level as if it was false or inferior.

    There comes a point where we cannot speak, but someone who is wise enough can still point the way.

  7. Interesting thoughts, Justin, and thanks for the post. I tend to agree with you (or perhaps more Tom) that these beliefs are somewhat preliminary. I take them to be very important to cultivating the moral (sila) foundations of practice (samadhi) and wisdom (pañña). At some point, these views, like others, will simply fail to be of importance in our lives.

    Until then, they can serve as helpful constraints on our behaviour. Using a Pragmatic definition of Truth, then: since they are useful, they are true. As Tom points out, jumping to the (truthier?) truth of interdependence can be confusing, and hense not so helpful.

    Most of the time when the Buddha taught to average folks he gave a very basic 'step-by-step' discourse focusing on generosity and nonviolence; he left the more metaphysical stuff to discussions with learned ascetics; and the most metaphysical (i.e. speculative) stuff he simply ignored. I think he would have gotten a kick more out of Pauli's last statement than anything from Mr. Schwinn.

  8. As you two Justins know, I am sniffing around for awards-worthy blog stuff and tonight, serendipitously, I have stumbled on a nifty multi-part post by Hokai in Hokai's Blogue, last summer, that deals with karma: Drop Karma, Drop Karma (2) and Karma of excellence.

    In the first of his posts, Hokai makes the claim that Buddha reframed the conception of karma in his time, all of which dovetails with the post here and our comments discussion.

    Hokai cites sanskrit terms and ideas, but not sources.

    In his second post, he raises the idea of the moral implications of understanding karma, and then instructs that, in our modern day, we should 'drop karma'.

    In his third post, Hokai has left the conception of karma as it is generally understood to speak of performing excellently at the tasks in front of us and pursuing doing those things we are best at.

    I would be curious to know, from you J. scholars, if Hokai's ideas seem valid.

    I do like the idea, here, in "Rebirth, Reassessed," that Hokai's thoughts seem to buttress, of a karma conception for the 21st Century. But it would be good to know that Buddha was more hip in his thinking than that old-fashioned Hinduism-inspired idea of karma.

  9. I think he would have gotten a kick more out of Pauli's last statement than anything from Mr. Schwinn.

    LOL. Yeah, maybe so.

    Unfortunately I'm now left with an image of the Buddha speaking in a New Jersey accent.

  10. Hi Tom, I like Hokai's emphasis on moving away from karma and into action and responsibility. I take this to be a necessary step in our moral/'Buddhic' development.

    And I do think the Buddha was pretty 'hip' with his new spin on karma. By equating it with cetana (volition) he out-foxed 2000+ years of Western thinking by saying that we really need a rich understanding of pyschology if we are to get morality.

    Yet until we modern-day progressive bodhisattvas come up with something better to teach the foundations of responsibility, I'm happy to think in terms of 'karma.' As I see it, karma and responsibility are mutually supportive: I am where I am due to my actions (karma), in the future I'll reap the benefits or sorrows of my actions (karma). In fact I may go so far as to call karma the teaching of responsibility par excellence.

    Regarding rebirth I'm a happy agnostic. Sometimes its nice to think 'I' knew my fiancee in a past life, or that 'I' may be able to help more people in a future one. Sometimes such fanciful thoughts spur me to meditate more, to cultivate more of the virtues. Sweet. At the same time I cringe when people get overly wrapped up in past-life mumbo-jumbo, spending untold time and money 'unlocking the secrets of their past lives...'

    There is unending metaphysical speculation that can be done around this subject. For now though, I have other things to do.

  11. Another wrinkle.

    In the book I'm reading, the Dalai Lama's 2000 book, "Buddha Heart, Buddha Mind", HH comes down fully on John Schwinn's side in The Sopranos discussion.

    Y'all might want to read the chapter "The Path to Ultimate Omniscience."

    This, from a few pages into the chapter, starting mid-sentence at the very top of 118 in the hardcopy edition:

    Bhavaviveka and his successors have shown that, in a certain middle way, what we presently perceive as forms and other phenomena, these appearances of independent realities, do indeed exist on the conventional level, as if they had an objective existence.

    It is the nature of these appearances that the three masters call independent reality, existing reality. The mind that perceives these independent realities is not in error with respect to essentially real appearances. What do they mean by that? That these "independent" realities exist perfectly well on the conventional level.

    By contrast, for Buddhapalita and Chandrakirti this kind of independent reality does not exist at all, so to perceive it is an error. On the one side we hear of true knowledge, and on the other of a mistake. This shows how they define the object of refutation, and we perceive that there is a difference of subtlety in the oject that each side refutes.

    Within the Middle Way, then, some assert an independent reality on the conventional level, and others do not. It would be better, however that there be no logical criticism of the view we are presently explaining, which denies the independent reality of everything, even at the conventional level.

    He goes on to quote several sources, including this from Ratvatnoli's The Jewelled Necklace:
    "As long as belief in the aggregates endures, belief will endure in the reality of the 'I'."

    If you by chance have the book handy, by all means, read the chapter. I have now read it a couple of times and fear I will spontaneously combust at any moment -- but in actual-factual reality, nothing at all will have happened.

  12. The key thing to keep in mind here, I think is that in Buddhism, philosophy is just a provisional means. And that all philosophy at all times - no matter what position the philosopher is taking - is conventional. So, in terms of what can be expressed or even conceived of, we have reached the brink. And yet that philosophy, like all things, is a reflection of ultimate reality and can be used to indicate that ultimate reality.

    The key errors I think are to mistake a conventional truth (any conventional truth) for ultimate reality or to imagine that there is an ultimate reality that exists independently of conventional/dependent reality

    This is what Nagarjuna said about this:
    "The Buddha’s teaching of the Dharma
    Is based on two truths:
    A truth of worldly convention
    And an ultimate truth.

    Those who do not understand
    The distinction drawn between these two truths
    Do not understand
    The Buddha’s profound truth.

    Without a foundation in the conventional truth,
    The significance of the ultimate cannot be taught.
    Without understanding the significance of the ultimate,
    Liberation is not achieved.

    By a misperception of emptiness
    A person of little intelligence is destroyed.
    Like a snake incorrectly seized
    Or like a spell incorrectly cast.

    For that reason—that the Dharma is
    Deep and difficult to understand and to learn—
    The Buddha’s mind despaired of
    Being able to teach it.

    Whatever is dependently co-arisen
    That is explained to be emptiness.
    That, being a dependent designation,
    Is itself the middle way."

    I asked Master Taiun about the relationship between conventional and ultimate and this is what he said:
    "Buddha lives only ultimate truth. We, Bodhisattvas, see the world through our eye of flesh, chase our desires without knowing it, take our dreams for reality. It is thus necessary to hear the teaching that takes our state into account, that adapts to it, and changes according to our state, thus this teaching is provisory. Even if we go towards a state that is freed of the "me", freed from the distortions of the "me", as long as we are still prisoners of it, the provisory teaching is still necessary to guide us towards the absolute state, the state of Buddha."

    This is about all I have time for. I'm off on holiday for the next 2 1/2 weeks.