Thursday, 4 December 2008


The questions in the previous entry are too big for me to attempt an adequate response. This one is for "Progressive Buddhists" who may, like myself, have trouble with the concept of re-birth. This, indeed, is why I have never managed to cross that bridge to actually calling myself a Buddhist. I love the teachings, I have a daily meditation practice, I embrace the wisdom, but I'm not ready for religion, and I think that this is the point at which philosophy or life's journey must necessarily become faith. I have often tried to discuss this matter on my own daily blog, but never so clearly and succinctly as in this beautiful essay that I found at the ThinkBuddha blog.

If anyone knows of an answer to this argument without resorting to faith, I'd love to hear it.


  1. Re-birth is as simple as finding one in a situation that brings back past sensations, dispositions, aims, etc.---in short, a situation that seems to transport one to another "me" from our past. This is not really a mystical experience, but one of the most stupidly everyday. Whether you develop that into a cosmology of six realms is beside the point. That's not to say there isn't value to practicing within that framework, but that its not an end in itself. What one should take from the teaching of rebirth is really down-to-earth account of psychological continuity.

    As far as rebirth in relation to our conventional sense of birth and death, if one can understand how that "me" from the past arises and falls away, then it's not hard to see that conventional, biological birth and death are not the fundamental measures of this life we thought them to be.

  2. I remember choosing this life path. Some of what I remember is cloudy and at times certain elements become more clear. Maybe, I am delusional and I am ok with that possibility. I choose to believe that my consciousness exists on the Spiritual Plane. The Prime Material, that we believe so strongly in is merely a mental construct of the Spiritual Plane.

    Everything is energy, and that includes ourself. Ourself is our soul. Einstein said that the past and future is an illusion. Thus all that exists is now. So in the now there is a photon we call our soul that is us. Everything that makes us who we are is our soul. Science says that a wave exists for eternity. Any particular wave may increase, or decrease, in magnitude, but the wave itself exists forever. Therefore it is reasonable to believe that some form of ourself exists forever.

    Faith and belief are a choice. Even believing in the lack of a soul or spiritual plane is still faith in a belief. An athiest believes that there is no Divine and yet simply choosing that, is a belief. I would suggest asking yourself why you wish to deny the spiritual plane. What part of you has the faith to believe that there is no divine? The only person who can really answer this is you.

  3. Realizing a new perspective pertaining to suffering and acting in a different way in accord with the new perspective is said to be a rebirth of consciousness in the Buddhist sense.
    The Buddha didn’t care if people believed in reincarnation (which was around long before him) as long as it helped them to do only good and avoid all evil.
    In the Buddhist sense we go through countless rebirths. This doesn’t mean we change from one self to another, but the one self is continually changing in relation to the practice of no-suffering. Whenever I leave a certain idea of not-suffering behind, (the idea dies) I see with a new perspective and can naturally talk and act differently (embody) in relation with no-suffering until the “no” and the “I” are one in the same.
    The Buddha went through a few rebirths between his leave the kingdom walls and sitting under the bodhi tree.

  4. The appearance of the present dream ends, there is a period of confused sleep and then the next dream arises complete with its own inhabitants and history. And so it goes on until something happens in one of the dreams to 'awaken' you.

  5. Although I consider myself a skeptic and scientific naturalist, the idea of rebirth doesn't bother me that much, depending on how it is defined. Reading through the Wikipedia article "Rebirth" I agree with most of what is written, like how rebirth can be viewed as a cycle of consciousness.

    DT Strain wrote an article titled, "A Naturalistic Approach To Buddhist Karma and Rebirth" which sums it up for the most part for me.

  6. Interesting post.

    I am a believer in the Teachings of the Buddha, but I am not a practising Buddhist. Buddhism is a religion whereas The Teachings of The Buddha is a Philosophy - a Way of Life. And I don't believe in religion.

    The Buddha did not intend his ideas to become a religion. He even discouraged his followers from following His Teachings blindly, telling them that they should test out His Teachings first, and only when they find them true, should they believe in and practise them.

    As for 'Re-Birth', the way I see it, why waste your life wondering about such things. If you are suppose to know about such things, they will be made known to you one way or another, sometime during your life. Meanwhile, just go about your life doing what you do best and believe in.

  7. For me, the idea of re-birth is separate from re-incarnation. Rebeirth being simply that this moment is continuously created anew, again and again and again.
    Everything is created in this moment and torn down in the next.
    The next moment is created from the the moment before and conditioned by it.

    So if the universe is created again and again and again, we are created again and again and again. It's our attachments that we drag through time from moment to moment as a deliberate act when we could just drop the past and just concentrate on what's going on right now, if we wanted.

    Of course, what's going on right now may be mourning what happened in the past ...

    So a human being isn't a single thing, it's a string of separate events strung out across time - the thousands of lives we've lived and the thousands of lives we're still to live.

    So, there you go, yet another poorly explained understanding of re-birth to throw into the mix.

  8. OK, my turn...'s true that there's no need to spend a lot of time thinking about such things - Buddhism is about freedom from suffering (whether we have one chance or many). Some Buddhists might present it as if it was an 'essential belief', but it certainly isn't in Zen. And according to the earliest suttas - the Nikayas - Buddha didn't teach it as essential either. Buddhism is for everyone.

    Having said that, it is natural to wonder sometimes. Really the idea comes from reincarnation which was the generally accepted worldview at the time. Buddha took this and removed the atman - the separate self, or soul - from the picture. The obvious question is: if there is no atman, what is reborn? 'Karma' is the standard response. But then karma (the consequences of actions) - from observation - is always spreading in every direction. Is this karma special? If we look at our apparently continuing existence from moment-to-moment what continues is memory and other psychological factors, which cause us to identify a self, which is continuous from the past. So we are talking about karma of a sense of personal identity or 'conventional self'. But, on death, the brain is destroyed, presumably along with memories, so how can this sense of personal identity survive through that?

    To get around this 'what is reborn issue' some complex hypotheses have been put forward to suggest that it is a subtle mind or similar that is reborn (but how does that differ from an atman?). And there is a mechanism proposed that somehow insulates the karma or subtle self as it 'transmigrates' from one life to another. But how and why would such a mechanism exist? And in reality, what substance could possibly shield the rest of the universe from the consequences of my actions from rippling outwards at light-speed? What can stop me being reborn as every being at every time - and vice versa?

    My personal identity will die with my memories as far as I can tell. But this construct has no ultimate reality. My true identity has no boundaries.

  9. Do you mean "My Real identity has no boundaries."?

  10. My real identity has no boundaries.
    Really there are no identities, except conventionally.

  11. Exactly , and conventionality is how we communicate with each other.There are boundaries in conventionality, they're just transparent. So it helps to realize the transparency of conventionality. Right?
    I think this relevant because it seems re-birth is transparent and so conventional?

  12. Rebirth can only be 'the same person' in a conventional sense - established by conceptuality and memory. But what conceptuality and memory can survive brain-death? In what sense can it be the 'same person', even conventionally?

    It's essentially the same problem as in the philosophy of personal identity. Our confusion is deep. Common sense is functional, but not real. I follow the Derek Parfit school of rebirth.

    Consider a photo of someone you think is you eight years ago. What makes that person you? You might say he she was composed of the same cells as you now. But most of your cells are replaced every seven years. You might instead say you're an organism, a particular human being, and that organisms can survive cell replacement - this oak being the same tree as the sapling I planted last year.

    But are you really an entire human being? If surgeons swapped George Bush's brain for yours, surely the Bush look-alike, recovering from the operation in the White House, would be you. Hence it is tempting to say that you are a human brain, not a human being.

    But why the brain and not the spleen? Presumably because the brain supports your mental states, eg your hopes, fears, beliefs, values, and memories. But then it looks like it's actually those mental states that count, not the brain supporting them. So the view is that even if the surgeons didn't implant your brain in Bush's skull, but merely scanned it, wiped it, and then imprinted its states on to Bush's pre-wiped brain, the Bush look-alike recovering in the White House would again be you.

    But the view faces a problem: what if surgeons imprinted your mental states on two pre-wiped brains: George Bush's and Gordon Brown's? Would you be in the White House or in Downing Street? There's nothing on which to base a sensible choice. Yet one person cannot be in two places at once.

    In the end, then, no attempt to make sense of your continued existence over time works. You are not the person who started reading this article.

  13. I guess my Lacanian bias is finding all kinds of things unclear in that article. I can be a pain in the buttocks that way. What I see as the nature of language, Derek seems to imply it's something else.
    Signification can be wiped away as could be seen with what happened with the trauma of Povlov's dogs. The brain supports. It doesn't control.
    The second to the last paragraph of your post describes suffering in a kool way. After all isn't suffering (what the Four Noble Truths are describing) about wanting to be in two places at once?

  14. It's the afterbirth that matters!

  15. Definitely, that's what myths are for. Unfortunately, we don't really use myths anymore as a culture because the nature of truth has changed. Officially we think everything has to be certain.

  16. Justin, why Derrik Parfit when you could have Nagasena:

    "I am known as Nâgasena, O king, and it is by that name that [I am addressed]. But although parents ... give such a name ... is only a generally understood term, a designation in common use. For there is no permanent individuality (no soul) involved in the matter."


    As I understand it, Parfit is about as close to the Buddhist position as any modern or contemporary philosopher, but some Buddhists still choose to take issue with him. Matthiew Kapstein accuses him of creating a false dichotomy of reductionism and anti-reductionism (if memory serves me) and suggests that there is a tertium quid, a Buddhist sort of eliminativism that Parfit fails to acknowledge or seriously discuss. Mark Siderits has done some work on this issue from a very good Analytical grounding and Buddhist training, though I haven't read it all.

  17. I know very well such and such is this way yet I act as if it were not.
    Great 35 min video of Mark Siderits talk

  18. Hi Joe

    I guess my Lacanian bias is finding all kinds of things unclear in that article. I can be a pain in the buttocks that way. What I see as the nature of language, Derek seems to imply it's something else.
    Signification can be wiped away as could be seen with what happened with the trauma of Povlov's dogs. The brain supports. It doesn't control.

    I'm not sure what your objections are here. I've never read any Lacan. I don't see any relevance of Pavlov's dogs here. And the brain 'supports'? What's the issue? If it supports not controls are you implying mind-brain dualism?

  19. Oh and I enjoyed the MArk Siderits video - thanks for that. But I don't see what direct bearing it has.

  20. Thanks Justin.

    Any idea where I can read Matthiew Kapstein's arguments?

  21. Hi Justin - I should have known someone would ask for a citation :)

    Kapstein, Matthew, 1986a “Collins, Parfit and the Problem of Personal Identity in Two Traditions”. In Philosophy East and West, tome XXXVI, 3, pp. 289-298.)

    I'm pretty sure you can google this and find it online, as most of Phil E&W has been digitized. Now I need to watch the Siderits video...

  22. Justin,
    A personal identity being a collection of habit form by conditioning over time. The conditioning of Povlovs dogs was erased wby the trauma of the laboratory flood. By saying the if the body is said to be in control, I am implying the dualism, yes, as Povlov's unintended result might show.
    The video I think describes doing philosophy as a practice of continual rebirth. Mark says the meditation and philosophy should not be separate.

  23. Sorry for my blue-collar writing guys. I'm totally not academic. I'm getting a lot out of this bog-site, thank you very much!