Growing the Dharma: Alternatives to Rebirth

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. I have suggested that rebirth provides a the epic perspective that gives urgency and full meaning to Buddhist life and practice. I now consider from a functional viewpoint what range of understandings support this epic perspective.

Chapter 4. Transcendence (2/2)

Approximations to Rebirth

George Bailey in the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life, becomes deeply bitter from not realizing his personal dreams of travel and adventure in this short life, and then pushed to the brink of suicide by business problems. However, Clarence the Angel is sent to rescue George by showing him a transcendent dimension to his life that he failed to see for what it was. Clarence takes George into the world as it would be if George had never been born to reveal that all along George’s good intentions had been playing out to the benefit to countless other people, benefit far beyond his wildest mundane dreams. In a sense he had been living a second, greater life and realizing this made all the difference in how he felt even about this one short life.

There is no doubt that our present lives are likewise woven as short threads into a rich and immense tapestry of human history, of family history, of evolutionary history, of cultural history, of political history, of religious history, of Buddhist history, of trends in art, technology and popular entertainments, of vast relentless configurations and recombinations of neediness, aversion, confusion, contentment, kindness and clarity. Our small life and therefore our practice is woven inextricably into something far grander in scale that in fact must lend it a transcendent meaning; it is simply up to us to recognize it. Rebirth is about developing gratitude for the past and taking responsibility for the future.

Our twisted karma is ancient because our present lives are woven as short threads in a rich and immense tapestry. Our present actions have been anticipated in the lives of our ancestors before us, in our culture, in our evolutionary history and in the rest, then flows to us through various fittings, only one of which, if someone insists, is a coupling directly from our “previous life.” In this way water flows into our pipe from various sources.

Since there is water flowing into our pipe there must be water flowing out. Notice that in this model karma can in principle flow out through multiple T- and Y-fittings precisely because in Buddhism karma does not have to be hung onto a personal identity. The karma that flows out is the legacy of the present life and it can make quite a splash. That is why our practice matters beyond this fathom long body and few decades of life. That is what gives our practice its transcendent meaning. We are each engaged in an epic struggle with hydraulic forces from the ancient past and outcomes that will reach endlessly into the future. Our practice has vastly more at stake than happiness and comfort in this present life. It has never been exclusively about this one present life. We are all like George Bailey, though what many of us have sloshed into the world around us has been of scuzzier blend.

Each element of this refined model can, I believe, be independently examined and verified; the fact is nowadays we know of many channels for interpersonal communication of karmic factors – genetic, behavioral, social, environmental, etc. – that would have been dimly understood at the time of the Buddha. The difference between the traditional model of rebirth and this refined model is that the former is much more linear. I will accordingly call these the coupled pipeline model and the pipeline network model respectively. For the coupled pipeline model pipes would be strung out serially end to end such that all of the water that flows out of one pipe flows directly into the next, our next life is exclusive heir to our present karma. The pipeline network model is more general than the traditional coupled pipeline model, that is, the traditional model is a special case of the pipeline network. Hopefully each is equipped with some kind of clean-out in case of excessive karmic sludge buildup.

But the coupled pipeline model is inadequate in itself, for we can observe the lateral transmission of at least some karma, for instance, from culture to individual, or, heck, from admirable friend to individual. Furthermore, the coupled pipeline model is difficult to examine and verify, though some evidence suggests that this kind of transmission does at least sometimes occur. In fact, just moving from dedication to personal practice (perhaps with benefits to be enjoyed only in this one life in mind) to dedication to the Buddha-Sasana (with benefits to be enjoyed by many deep into an indeterminate future) is to see how our practice bears fruits far beyond this fathom-long body and few decades of life. I think this is a common attitude among Buddhist teachers and certainly monastics. But it can be the mindset of any Buddhist. A Burmese layman who often comes by our monastery in Texas to donate meals and assistance to the monks once explained to me that as a layperson he does not have the time and energy to help sustain the Sasana directly the way the monks do, but that as long as he is helping to sustain the monks he is meeting his obligation to sustain the Sasana. Generosity is his primary practice. This is a beautifully selfless attitude that in a real way shifts the emphasis of practice, in whatever form it takes, from the fathom- and few-decades-long self to the ancient and ongoing Sasana, much as a scientist dedicates herself to science or an artist to art. This is also a view of transcendence that fits conveniently with the overarching theme of this book.

Now … the big question: In moving from the coupled pipeline to the pipeline network have we preserved functionality, that is, are we still within the scope of authentic Buddhism? In either case we realize a higher transcendental meaning of our practice, in either case this meaning involves a responsibility to the future, in an epic karmic struggle. There is a difference, however, in the perspective each provides of the gradual progression of our practice through stages of attainment culminating in Awakening. The coupled pipeline model provides a straight path, passing through many lives but serially, toward Nirvana. The pipeline network model provides in this life a greater potential for Awakening in the future, but with less certainty about who will exploit that potential in the future – often many will – and less sense of following a direct path. Ultimately “who?” is a moot question for the advanced Buddhist practitioner in any case. Interestingly the pipeline network model fits well with the bodhisattva ideal articulated in much later Mahayana Buddhism, whereby we practice “not for ourselves but for all beings.” I will come back to the bodhisattva ideal in a couple of chapters.

Still not satisfied? Well, consider adopting …

Rebirth as a Working Assumption

Very typically a higher meaning requires a correspondingly higher level of trust often in things unseen and possibly unknowable. The argument often raised against accepting things unseen and unknowable is that they are quite possibly not true. Do we really want to entrust our lives to something pretend? We will see that Buddhist transcendence might involve less pretense than, say, God, but just in case let’s look first at this pretense thing.

One of the outstanding characteristics of Buddhism is its relatively high degree of empiricism. This has two sources: First, Buddhism is concerned with developing a set of skills in order to perfect the human character behaviorally, affectively and cognitively. This is the topic of the stem of the flower, the Path toward Nirvana and is necessarily a nuts and bolts enterprise, requiring dealing intimately with real observable phenomena, just as the potter cannot learn his craft without learning the feel of clay between his fingers. Second, the Buddha was remarkably rigorous in avoiding philosophical speculation and unnecessary metaphysics. The two primary metaphysical assumptions of the Buddha seem to have been:

  1. “When this is, that is. From the arising of this comes the arising of that. When this isn’t, that isn’t. From the stopping of this comes the stopping of that.”1
  2. “I recollected my manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two… five, ten… fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction & expansion: ‘There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.”2

The first is the metatheoretical assumption that things arise and fall dependent on conditions. It gives rigor to almost everything the Buddha taught, and is generally pleasing to the scientifically minded (though modern quantum physicists might raise objections even to this). The second cannot be verified or observed in the present life except by those of exceptional memory. This makes the second almost unique in the Buddha’s thinking. Why then did he say this?

The answer is in fact the point of the famous Kalama Sutta,3 in which the Buddha promoted rebirth for its efficacy. The Buddha argues in this sutta that the proper grounds for accepting a teaching are not epistemological but ethical. He itemizes every possible way short of direct experience that we might think we “know” something and tells the Kalamas not to go by those things. Rather we should ask, with the help of the wise, where the benefit is, where the harm is. For instance, some religions teach that everything that happens to you, for good or bad, is a karmic payback from your past actions, good or bad. Sometimes Buddhism is even taught that way … mistakenly.4 However, if you consider the logical implications of this teaching, regardless of whether it is true or not, you will have to conclude that this cannot be a Buddhist teaching: Kindness and compassion, following precepts, would bring no benefit to others!

The Buddha at the conclusion of the Kalama Sutta applies the same criterion to the teaching of rebirth, considering the case in which deeds of good or evil alternatively do or do not bear fruit in a future life and discovers that under no circumstances is there a downside to accepting the rebirth position. The lesson: accept rebirth, as a matter of pretense if necessary.

Pretense is well within the realm of human capability, and humans certainly have this capability for practical purposes. Consider that all of fiction, including theater, movies, novels, operas, and so on, is pretense. Entertainment without pretense would be pretty slim indeed. Most children’s play is pretense, and most mammals seem capable of play. Dogs pretend to fight with one another, to chase sticks as if they were chasing prey. This enables them to practice and develop skills prior to real fighting or real hunting. Play also underlies many ritual or ceremonial enactments in religion, whose benefit and rationale is not necessarily in the acts themselves but in their function in developing skills. Food offerings to Buddha statues are common and are recognized as pretense in the knowledge that the Buddha is not really going to eat what is offered. It’s play.

A baseball game, also a kind of play, is a pretense, even for spectators. While there are real physical actions going on, these actions have interpretations that are just made up, a running pretense that accompanies the physical actions, a counting-for-something. Someone hits a ball with a stick and because it goes somewhere it counts as a home run. Someone touches someone else with a ball and it counts as being “out.” Three “outs” and the other team comes up to bat. A sport, for many among the most tangible experiences in life, is pretense! Wars are fought under similar pretenses: One is willing to die for the flag (or even to prevent it physically from falling to the ground). The king dies and the war is over.

Myth, religious or otherwise, is pretense by definition, but can likewise shape one’s attitudes in many helpful ways. The Buddha seems to have been comfortable with the potentially mythical deity realms, as we have seen, yet seems to take care to keep them on a short leash by not drawing the conclusions that others around him drew of the necessity to appease or elicit help from deities. The West has its myths, for the most part unwholesome: Consider how the Western movie hero has shaped the American psyche; the typical John Wayne character could not ever have possibly existed.

There is a rich world of myth and symbolic enactments in any culture or any religion beyond the scope of what rational scientific and secular people are willing to acknowledge. We treat the deceased with great care, arrange their rotting remains to produce a pretense of peace and comfort. The meaning of such things may lie very deep in the human psyche; to ignore them for secular ideological reasons may have adverse consequences. Yet myths must be held loosely if they are not themselves to cause harm.

Money, such a huge factor in modern life and human consciousness, is another example of pretense, a socially agreed counting as, much on the same order as a game. Historically money has had a physical counterpart, for instance, clams, cattle, silver, gold, then paper, for which a running pretense of counting-for-something was critical, in this case having a certain recognized value in commercial exchange. The physical part has largely gone by the wayside and the bulk of the money supply is something banks pretend to create at will simply by clicking some figures on a keyboard to entering it into someone’s account, then pretend mime-like to track its movements from bank to bank. There is nothing more substantial there than 1’s and 0’s in computer memory; the rest is merely convention. A satirical news article imagines a scenario in which the economy grinds to a halt as “Nation Realizes Money Just a Symbolic, Mutually Shared Illusion.”5

Pretense is something we use privately all the time to loosen the constraints of our reality. A bashful young man about to ask someone on a first date will imagine himself much more suave than he actually is before dialing.6 Visualization techniques create realities that we then try to fit ourselves into. Athletes find such techniques improve their performance. They don’t have to be objectively “true.” To relax during a tense day we might imagine ourselves lying on a sunny beach in the Bahamas. Even Buddhism makes use of visualizations in certain forms of meditation.

Pretense is something we use to manipulate others as well as ourselves. As a precaution against nocturnal mischief some American children are told that the “Boogie Man” will “get” them if they get out of bed at night. A grownup is even more gullible: even knowing that the beautiful blonde in the car ad does not actually come with the car, he buys it anyway, … just in case. The divine rights of kings, the idea of a better life hereafter, the battle of good and evil, the promotion of “free markets” as an unquestioned force for good, and even an unnaturally strict interpretation of the Law of Karma whereby everyone deserves exactly what they have right now, are pretenses that have all been introduced as forms of social control.

If God is a pretense, He is a whopper. When one grows up with God, and develops a personal relationship with God, recognizing in God the central role in the universe, and in oneself a subservient role, interpreting all things of the world in relationship to God, then God becomes every bit as palpable as money or football. Pretense or not, God serves a number of beneficial functions, the most immediate of which, as I understand it, is to dethrone the self from the center of the universe. He may also sometimes, in some hands, with some understandings be abused in the service of harmful functions, in some cases, for instance, legitimizing Osama-like what no person could justify on his own. (This is perhaps a reason why benefit and harm above all are the criteria by which Buddhists should accept or deny teachings.) Many faithful hold many of their pretenses lightly, often regarding them as useful tools in negotiating life, much like money, but, when questioned, not literally true, for instance when scientific push comes to religious shove. Karen Armstrong maintains that most people in most lands throughout history have simply never thought about the difference between pretense or myth and truth, and would not particularly care.

Science itself is not immune from pretense, it just keeps it on a shorter leash. The quaint Nineteenth Century idea of purely objective truth has since given way to conceptual models that only approximate reality. Niels Bohr, who developed our model of the atom, stated about his own field of research, “There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature…” Scientists are captives in the realm where they can only make things up, progressively more skillful pretenses which however inevitably in the end fail to live up to what is observable. Bohr also said, “A physicist is just an atom’s way of looking at itself.” Models of progressively greater clarity but less correspondence with finer empirical data, trail off into folk science, the science of the common layperson. Models of motion within a curved universe give way to models of mutual gravitational attraction of masses, which give way to sets of simple principles like, “things fall downward,” and “what goes up must come down.” What’s revealing is that the scientist himself certainly picks his model opportunistically, reverting past the level of relating acceleration to mass and force down to the level during his leisure time of, “Pressing the gas pedal sure makes the car go a lot more.”

As we move from realm to realm, for instance, from commerce to science, from science to sports, from sports to religion, and from one religion to another and back to sports, some pretenses come out of place, so we shift to new pretenses. We negotiate a world of often contradictory pretenses and social skill demands a particular capacity for tracking and accounting for the pretenses of others as well as of our own. Interfaith dialog requires perhaps the greatest skill in this regard and teaches us to hold our own doctrine convictions a little less tightly. But short of Awakening we all have them. Even the most “rational” of us lives largely in a world of pretense, in our play, in our entertainment, in our social relations, in our fundamental conceptualizations of reality. So, in which world do we practice?

Now, at least the assumption of rebirth – whether as a verifiable reality or as a pretense, a working assumption, a functioning myth – will put some pep in our step as we proceed down the Path of practice, it will help us develop a purified mind free of hate and malice. The “Kalama Sutta” reminds us of possible downsides, potential harm that results from this assumption. It concludes that there is none:

The disciple of the Noble Ones, Kalamas, who has such a hate-free mind, such a malice-free mind, such an undefiled mind, and such a purified mind, is one by whom four solaces are found here and now. ‘Suppose there is a hereafter and there is a fruit, result, of deeds done well or ill. Then it is possible that at the dissolution of the body after death, I shall arise in the heavenly world, which is possessed of the state of bliss.’ This is the first solace found by him. ‘Suppose there is no hereafter and there is no fruit, no result, of deeds done well or ill. Yet in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from malice, safe and sound, and happy, I keep myself.’ This is the second solace found by him. ‘Suppose evil (results) befall an evil-doer. I, however, think of doing evil to no one. Then, how can ill (results) affect me who do no evil deed?’ This is the third solace found by him. ‘Suppose evil (results) do not befall an evil-doer. Then I see myself purified in any case.’ This is the fourth solace found by him. The disciple of the Noble Ones, Kalamas, who has such a hate-free mind, such a malice-free mind, such an undefiled mind, and such a purified mind, is one by whom, here and now, these four solaces are found.”

Transcendence in Buddhism

Heuman writes of Western Buddhism:7

“… for the first time in history, to suggest today in some Buddhist circles that the purpose of Buddhism is exactly what the traditional texts tell us it is—which is to say, that it is concerned with the transcendent—can be to come across sounding like a rube or to meet with condescension.”

Transcendent meaning for the Christian is attained through God. Higher meaning for the scientist is found in the forward march of human knowledge. Higher meaning for the artist is found in creation of the sublime. Transcendent meaning for the Buddhist is attained through “that panoramic perspective from which we can survey our lives in their broader context and total network of relationships”that comes from realizing that our lives and therefore our practices are woven inextricably into something far grander in scale,a rich and immense tapestry of human affairs. We realize that we are each engaged in an epic struggle with karmic forces from the ancient past and producing outcomes that will reach endlessly into the future. Our practice therefore has vastly more at stake than happiness and comfort in this present life. It has never been exclusively about this one present life. From this the urgency that impels us to deep practice develops that also opens up the prospect of Awakening.

The urgency that arises in the artist or scientist when a higher meaning transcends this fathom-long body and few decades of life gives rise to genius. The urgency that arises in the Buddhist when his epic struggle transcends this one life gives rise to Awakening. To recognize the epic nature of this struggle it suffices to acknowledge the certain prospect of endless future human greed and exploitation, hatred and violence, delusion and manipulation, and untold anguish but for our personal progress along the Path.

1AN 10.92.

2MN 36.

3AN 3.65.

4The Buddha dismisses this notion in SN 36.21.

5The Onion (2010).

6If he is unable to do this he will have trouble instilling that impression later on.

7Heuman (2012).

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