From Thought to Destiny: Perspectives on Rebirth

Uposatha Teaching: Full Moon, November 21, 2010.

Index to Current Series
Thought – Act – HabitCharacterDestiny

Rebirth raises Western eyebrows. For those disposed to religious skepticism it may be a deal breaker. For others it may be an opportunity either to overhaul Buddhism or after all these years finally to reveal the Master’s true intent. Lest readers become too sure of themselves let me point out four viable views of Rebirth.

  1. Rebirth is Literally True. Probably this is the dominant view historically.
  2. Rebirth is a useful Working Assumption to frame our practice. Recall, for instance, that the Buddha recommends this to the skeptical.
  3. Rebirth is an Approximation for something more subtle. Recall Niels Bohr’s dictum, “Truth and clarity are complementary.” Rebirth is clear; if we look a bit deeper we may get closer to a less tractable truth. I will briefly consider below that Rebirth is an approximation of Karmic Spillage of last week’s discussion.
  4. Rebirth is a humbug; it has no productive role in Buddhism. This is the position of many Western Buddhists, perhaps most articulately represented by Stephen Batchelor.

To summarize the discussion of the last few weeks, in “Is Rebirth Verifiable?” I considered the case for 1., though not conclusively. In “The Pragmatics of Rebirth” I suggested that either 1. or 2. has a productive role in framing the Buddhist Path, and that could well be extended to 3.. In “Buddhism with Beliefs” I argued that Working Assumptions, as in 2., even if literally false, are not only common but also productive parts, not only of religion but of almost any realm of human affairs. I also pointed out that Approximations as in 3. are the rule in Scientific discourse. The most distinguished advocate of 4. is probably Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, possibly the most influential Thai monk of the Twentieth Century. While 1. and 4. are the opposing literalist viewpoints, 2. and 3. each involve a more subtle understanding of religious truth and of the meaning of Rebirth. I hope no readers go off in a broken-deal huff over the issue of Rebirth; whatever your persuasion you will find yourself in good company.

This model of Karmic Spillage does not exclude the conventional karmic model of Rebirth; it may well supplement it, that is, while some karmic dispositions are transmitted genetically, culturally and through emulation, others may be transmitted by Rebirth. This gives another way in which to evaluate the veracity of Rebirth: Rather than seeking verification for the process of rebirth, we can turn the question upside down and ask instead what is not due to rebirth. If the transmission of all karmic dispositions is accounted for in terms of well-understood mechanisms, then Rebirth becomes vacuous. If, on the other hand, elements of transmission have no reasonable explanation in terms of conventional mechanisms, the case for Rebirth, or some unknown mechanism, is strengthened. This as a means of evaluation highlights the importance of cases in which, for instance, genetically identical twins, exposed to the same cultural, familial and social circumstances manifest differences in character.

Even if Rebirth as literally understood cannot stand on its own two feet, it might stand as an approximation of Karmic Spillage, The framework of Rebirth has some pragmatic value not immediately evident in Karmic Spillage: The linearity of Rebirth makes Karma and the path to Nirvana more of a personal project. Even while Buddha discourages the personal until the project is well underway there is solidity in the thinking of the project as involving step-by-step personal development over a long period of time. Expression in these personal terms also reminds us that our practice is primarily focused on the internal world of our own thoughts, our skillful and unskillful intentions. Nonetheless, Karmic Spillage also points to a way in which moment by moment skillful karmic decisions have consequences that transcend this single current life, in fact even more profoundly, than in the serial Rebirth model since karmic consequences are transmitted laterally and expansively as well as into the future.

The Buddha could conceivably been aware that Rebirth is an approximation of a process something like Karmic Spillage, but chose to express his understanding in terms of a traditional model that would have been widely understood in his day. Nagapriya suggests that adopting previous religious framework to new system like remodeling old building, the structure is not completely recommended by the function. This may be why Rebirth is so peculiar on first sight in the West.

The main point of this speculation, however, is not to do science, not to look for an empirically verifiable truth, but to find a proper context for Buddhist practice. I discussed in previous weeks the usefulness of Working Assumptions or myths in religious practice. Our doctrines should be held lightly, first, so that we do not get caught up in meaningless speculation, perhaps when challenged hardening into religious fundamentalism, and, second, so that our religious aspirations are not put on hold awaiting the results of scientific evidence. It would be a source of great discomfort to think that the entire foundation of one’s religious practice and understanding could be undermined by new developments in science. Consider that one might be instructed in practice to “sit like the Buddha.” This does not mean by that one is the Buddha, but it is an efficiently communicated effective instruction: It works. Likewise in Vajrayana traditions one might be instructed to identify with her guru; it is not a matter of literally becoming her guru in an independently verifiable way. Similarly, we can practice as if we were able to continue life after life until we reach Nirvana, the highest perfection of human character, and thereby abide in an efficiently communicated and effective frame of mind for the purpose of practice.

At the same time, science can help us to stand back and see our practice from another perspective. It is helpful to understand how we impact the world when we hold on to greed or hatred, or when we act from a point of renunciation and kindness, or how our views shape our actions and ultimately the world in which we live. This wider perspective has always been integral to Buddhism, particularly the ecological view of dependent origination that science only significantly came to appreciate in recent years. I can say that the Butterfly Effect has had a profound effect on how I view my engagement in the world and the importance of grounding that engagement in Buddhist practice. Karmic Spillage is perhaps a more immediate invitation to Science to study Karma in more detail than is Rebirth. It is important at the same time, however, that we not allow the coldly analytical nature of most Western science to dissect an essentially holistic living body of mutually reinforcing practices and understandings into a meat market of independent parts, ready for human consumption.

Rebirth is important in the Buddhist project because it frames practice in a way that makes its implications much greater than this single short life, in terms that make compromising one’s highest aspirations for temporary comfort less compelling, implications that involve transcending much more than the fleeting pain of the current existence. In fact our practice does have that global importance, which is for many most only evident through tracing the consequences of Karmic Spillage, but which is most readily visualized in the process of Rebirth. Beliefs are not as a rule that important in Buddhism; of primary importance is our mindset, in particular, one that encourages us to live our lives karmic act after karmic act with utmost virtue. What conceptual apparatus will keep us steadfast is likely to vary over the range of Western students of Buddhism, from the wary to the wily. How we think of Rebirth is something we best come to terms with, but we have lighter options than rigid dogma.

In any religious enterprise it is important that one embed your (current) life into something greater than yourself, rather than embedding something smaller than yourself into your life. This is why traditional psychotherapy or an interpretation of Buddhism in traditional psychotherapeutic terms is a poor substitute for Buddhism or for any other functioning religion: it simply adds something to your life to make it more comfortable and fails to embed your life into something greater to make it more meaningful. This is not just about religion: scientists, scholars, artists, writers, activists, philanthropists, matriarchs and patriarchs. I think all discover this. For instance, consider the difference between, on the one hand, the scientist who sees himself embedded in an evolutionary cooperative ongoing centuries-old effort to make sense of the universe, as opposed to, on the other hand, the scientist who does a job in order to get paid and maybe gain some fame. You find scholars of both kinds. The former, I maintain, sees a deep meaning in science, and in the life of a scientist, the latter only temporary convenience and comfort. The latter scientist lives a small life, a bit to be pitied for missing the point. This is analogous to the priest who initiates the centuries-long building of a magnificent cathedral as opposed to the village cleric who builds himself a church, or the Buddhist who regards Buddhism as psychotherapy as opposed to the one who sees its transcendent value. (This is not meant to deny the therapeutic value of Buddhism in this life, which is important, only to state that it is a limited perspective.)  For it is only this embedding of your life in something greater than this life that allows you to fully transcend the self, which the Buddha explicitly put at the heart of Buddhist practice and teaching. This, as I understand it, is the real meaning of Rebirth in Buddhism, embedding your current life into something transcendent.

As an additional note, in spite of Western skepticism (which will prove ultimately valuable), we have an advantage in the West in that our Buddhist practice is naturally embedded in something greater than ourselves, namely the long but slow historical process, already almost two centuries old, of bringing Buddhism to the West. Like it or not, each of us carries enormous influence and responsibility in a process that is much greater than ourselves, and influence and responsibility that is not so evident in lands where Buddhism has long been established. For many of us being a pioneer in this sense can lend great meaning to our lives of practice.

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