From Thought to Destiny: Rebirth

Uposatha Teaching: First Quarter, October 16, 2010.

Index to Current Series
Thought – Act – HabitCharacterDestiny

Destiny, as I will understand it here, deals with the long-term consequences of Karma. We have tracked Karma from Thought, to Act (Karma is, most properly your intentional actions, and this arises with varying degrees of skill), then to Habit and Character (Karma shapes who you are, it determines those things that differentiate you from others). On this developmental path one of two things can be expected happen to you in this life. First and most likely, you might die in the midst of your Karmic evolution. In this case, according to classical Buddhism, your Karma will produce a new Rebirth. That permits character along with habit patterns simply to continue to evolve regardless of the failure of the physical body. Second, Karma can come to an end inthe state of Nirvana, which is the ending of your Karmic life. Without a Karmic life there will not be another Rebirth.

This all probably sounds abstract to most readers, not only because it is rather doctrinal, but also because it will seem far removed from your daily practice. Buddhism tends to be about the here and now, present action, present experience. That is why we ground our study in Karma as intentional action in the first place. We moved beyond that, to frame practice in a larger context, when we considered Habit and Character, but there we could track observable cumulative consequences of practice, which are helpful as a guide and inspiration for practice. Destiny frames all this in an even larger context. In this series I plan to post the next five times on Rebirth; it needs clarifying because this concept gets away from what most of us can readily verify ourselves. Then I will take up Nirvana, the ultimate aim of practice.

There is little doubt that the Buddha taught Rebirth. He did not, however, highlight it as tenet of Buddhism, but rather as a presupposition. For instance, he does not seem to have made a statement such as, “There is Rebirth,” but rather simply referred to the process of Rebirth as something already understood. On the other hand, he made Rebirth a presupposition integral in his teachings, making Karma a condition for Rebirth, and making the ending of Karma, that is Nirvana, a condition for its end. He even defined the goal of his teachings in terms of the escape from the round of birth and death. In addition, he claimed to be able to see his previous rebirths and often referred to actions that lead to rebirth in realms of deprivation or bliss, such as hell or heaven realms. The language he used to describe rebirth, often in terms of “after breakup of the body,” suggest that his reference to rebirth was not metaphorical. Some modern writers have discounted the Buddha’s belief in rebirth, but the textual evidence suggests differently. It is indeed true that any individual statement from the early texts may in fact be a later embellishment, but the large quantity of references makes the case that the Buddha never taught Rebirth flimsy. It is true, however, that relatively few of the references are significant in understanding the point of the respective discourses, and also that in certain later (post-Buddha) texts, such as the Abhidhamma and the Commentaries, rebirth plays a much more prominent role.

Some Western writers have suggested that the Buddha simply accepted Rebirth passively, that is, simply as a universally held view, the best that Science had to offer in his day. Rebirth, was indeed widely accepted during Buddha’s time, though not universally. It was apparently not represented in the Vedic tradition until very late. The Buddha also lived at a time, perhaps much like our own, where almost every viewpoint about anything had some currency. In fact the Buddha’s early teachings contain some lists of what he considered erroneous views, all of which presumably had adherents, and among these erroneous views is Annihilationism, the idea that we cease to exist completely at death. The references to Rebirth that occur in the Suttas also do not seem to be geared specifically to a naive audience; they occur regardless when the Buddha spoke to close enlightened disciples or non-Buddhist laypeople. The Buddha, with a clear record of challenging many popular notions, must have considered the merits of the doctrine of Rebirth, yet decided to accept it as a presupposition in his teaching. Since Rebirth is right there in his most authoritative teachings, we must assume he had compelling reasons for including it. I will address how compelling these reasons are in the course of this series of postings on Rebirth.

Lets jump ahead 2500 years and around to the other side of the world. Cyclical rebirth has little currency in the West; generally the closest we come to it is the eternal life in Heaven or Hell, and most people who come to Buddhism do not believe in that. Furthermore it has far from eager support in the scientific community, the great arbiter of Truth in the West. This lack of scientific support could also once be said, fifty or a hundred years ago, about altered consciousness or enhanced states of awareness. However the latter are at least verifiable in subjective experience, and now indirectly even in brain waves, whereas few of us have any means of verifying the validity of Rebirth. For this reason I would like to take up the topic of rebirth carefully in a way that respects all of the different current viewpoints on this topic, including the view that the Buddha was right about Rebirth in a very literal way, the view that Rebirth is a useful artifact introduced for purely pragmatic reasons, the view that Rebirth is properly taken as a metaphor for something else, and the view that Rebirth is simply a mistake and is best discarded.

What is Reborn? The two most common questions about rebirth are What is reborn if there is no self? and, What are the mechanisms by which whatever is reborn targets a new physical body? The first is not actually as paradoxical in Buddhism as many assume. Most people reason that since there can be no Self that carries over from one life to the next, there can be no Rebirth. One can just as well reason that since there can be no Self that carries over from year to year in this life, there can be nothing to connect you now with you as a baby, or as a 5-year-old, etc. If there is in fact a continuity, a history, that connects the present with the past and that thereby gives the impression of an enduring Self, there can be a continuity that connects one life with a next life and that thereby gives the impression of a Rebirth of the Self. Just as connecting yourself to that baby that lived X years ago requires no unchanging self, connecting yourself to that deva, or frog, or whatever, that will live Y years from now requires no unchanging Self. Let me describe an analogy, based on the metaphor of one candle lighting another found in Questions of King Milinda.

Think of the Self as a grass fire. Let’s say that one bright and sunny day at 11 am some kids, Bif and Skipper, playing with a magnifying glass in a field on Hill A, start a small fire, add a few dry leaves but get bored, jump on their bikes and ride home. At 12 noon Hill A is ablaze, and up goes Bill’s house. At 2 pm Hill A is smoke and ash, and Hill B is aflame, and up goes Mabel’s house. At 4 pm the fire fighters have finally left the scene, and Bill and Mabel, furious, together having discovered the origin of the blaze, confront Bif and Skipper. The kids say, “But the fire that we lit was a different fire, it was over there and did not look at all like the fire that burned up your houses; it wasn’t even big enough to burn up a whole house.” In a sense they are exactly right, this view is that of No-Self, but it would not hold up in court. Conventionally we think of all of this as the same fire on the basis of a causal continuity that holds the whole burning process together. The causal continuity is found not in fire as a fixed entity, but in fire giving birth to fire each moment over and over. Our selves are like this, this life is held together only as a causal continuity, not as the persistence of any fixed object.

Now, the next day another grass fire of mysterious origin is blazing away on Hill D, two hills away from Hill B, and takes out Chester’s house. I’ll tell you something that is unknown to Chester: This new fire was caused by a burning ember from the previous day’s fire, carried aloft by the wind and by its own heat clear over Hill C to land in some dry grass on Hill D, smolder all night and burst into flame at daybreak. Not knowing its origin, where no causal continuity is suspected Chester will call it a separate fire. Rebirth is like this, it is actually a causal continuity, most likely a mysterious one, without a fixed entity to be reborn.

In the case of Rebirth the continuity is not found in heat, flame and ash, but in consequences of Karma, the evolving habit patterns and other aspects of character, insofar as these have evolved by the time of the failure of the body. You can think of it as the mass of issues left unresolved at the time of death, which will continue, or as Trungpa Rinpoche said, “Your neuroses are reborn,” except that much of your cumulative Karma is actually skillful, for instance a propensity toward compassion.

How Does Rebirth Happen? Delusion of a separate self perpetuates itself, the karmic impulses that wrap themselves around that delusion creates the will to existence. The will to existence conditions Rebirth. It is through the delusional nature of the self that it perpetuates itself. Now, heat and wind are the mechanisms behind the rebirth of a fire. What are the mechanisms behind rebirth of a self?

Conception of a new life requires three things: an ovum, sperm and kammic energy, that is, the continuation of Karmically determined mental processes. In recent times science has learned a lot about ova and sperm and the way in which they combine to produce a differentiated individual. The third factor, however, is outside the realm of any research I am aware of, and raises questions about how transmission of this Karmic energy occurs, or, during transmission how kammic energy exists with no corporeal support, that is, how mental states exist without a brain. The absence of a plausible mechanism, along with lack of personal verification, leads many in the West to question the veracity of this aspect of Buddhist doctrine. Furthermore, the value the Buddha placed on personal verification and his dislike of philosophical or metaphysical speculation lead many to question whether the Buddha really taught rebirth at all.

Where Does Rebirth Happen? We saw in the discussion of Habit that the character of one’s cumulative karma can thrust one within this life into a state of woe and despair or of ease and bliss, figuratively in hell or heaven. Last week we saw that this falls under what is described as the Law of Karma or the ripening of Karma. Being thrust into a State of woe or bliss in this life has a counterpart in being thrust into a Realm of woe or bliss in the next life. Death and rebirth provide new opportunities for the ripening of karma, broadening the scope of the Law of Karma. Karma that has not reached fruition before death, will generally, in classical Buddhism, reach fruition in the next life or in a life thereafter,  in one of various ways. The most commonly mentioned is to thrust you into one of these realms, described in classical Buddhism as real places or states of being:

  • Human realm.
  • Animal realm.
  • Hungry ghost realm.
  • Hell realm.
  • Angry titan realm.
  • Heavenly. realm

There are a variety of hells and of heavens. There are also a variety of animal species one might be reborn into. It is mentioned that human birth is actually a very rare thing, but the realm most conducive to progress on the Path. Additionally within one of these realms your specific circumstances may additionally reflect a ripening of Karma. So, within the Human Realm one might be born into varying circumstances as follows (AN 8.40 Vipaka Sutta).

  • Longevity. For instance, killing in the previous life leads to a short life in the current life.
  • Infirmity. For instance, drinking in the previous life leads to mental derangement in the current life.
  • Physical appearance. For instance, kindness in the previous life leads to beauty in the current life.
  • Influence. For instance, telling falsehoods in the previous life leads to being falsely accused in the current life. Divisive tale bearing in the previous life leads to loss of friendships in the current life.
  • Wealth. For instance, stealing in the previous life leads to loss of wealth in the current life.
  • Family status. For instance, arrogance in the previous life leads to lowly birth in the current life.

Within each life you will commit a wide variety of kammic actions. Which one or ones will propel you into the particular realm in which you will live out your next life? It is variously assumed that either the particular thoughts before death, or specific heavy actions, like having murdered one’s parents, or particularly entrenched habit patterns will place the next rebirth. Thoughts before death are likely to reflect previous karma, as one who has lived a virtuous life will tend to be calm and satisfied at death, whereas one who has done much harm or entertained much greed will be agitated and full of regret. It is probably rare for one to lie on his deathbed bemoaning having tended to too many sick people or regretting not having purchased enough shiny gadgets. That moment tends to put one’s life into its proper perspective, perhaps for the first time. If a heavy action is not the determining factor in rebirth, it is generally assumed that it will be for some subsequent life. Often texts attribute to a small action, such as offering alms to a monk or killing a chicken, not only a felicitous or woeful rebirth, but a long series of such rebirths. I think it is safe to assume that this is simply a rhetorical device for expressing approval or disapproval of some action; if it was literally true then every day we would be scheduling tens or hundreds of future rebirths, quickly leading to an unmanageable backlog. It is far more plausible that little actions blend into one another, which as Nagapriya suggests would be like adding ingredients in small amounts to a cake in which the various flavors are experienced together. On the other hand, the Salt Crystal Sutta states that even a trifling act can take one to hell if the one’s overall karmic state is poor. Maybe it becomes like adding hot chile to the cake.

The Future of Rebirth. I have presented a classical account of Rebirth here. Because elements of this account are subjects of skepticism in the West my plan for next weeks will be to look at Rebirth from a variety of angles. Next week we will make a side trip to the general issue of Truth In Buddhism or Buddhism with Beliefs, the Buddha’s criteria for evaluating doctrine, to gain some clarity of where he was coming from. The following week we consider the Pragmatics of Rebirth, remembering the Buddha always had a practical purpose in his teachings. Around about November New Moon day we consider the mixed evidence, some of it from science, for the Actual Truth of Rebirth. Then the week after that I make an attempt to pull together An Alternative Account of Rebirth that might hopefully be a bit more satisfying to the scientifically minded at the same time preserving much of the pragmatics of Rebirth. My intention is not to give a definitive answer to any of the questions like Do I need to believe in Rebirth to be a Buddhist?, or Does Buddhism need Rebirth?. Rather my intention is to provide a number of perspectives along with what is at stake in each perspective, then to let you decide how to integrate Rebirth into your understanding of Buddhism.

One Response to “From Thought to Destiny: Rebirth”

  1. Kevin Says:

    One of the most complicated issues with the Dharma that I have encountered. Sometimes I think I understand some and then it slips away. Love the Casper image ( I collect Comics and Harvey were some of my faves ) Hope all is well and thank you for the teaching.

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