Perceiving what can be expressed through concepts,
Beings take their stand on what is expressed.
Not fully understanding the expressed,
They come under the bondage of death. – Itivuttaka 3.14
Discussions of rebirth generally focus on theory, that is, rebirth is conceptualized into a belief or proposition, a topic of speculation or conjecture, that is then open to objective scientific or philosophical verification or debate. In the Western context opinions about this topic abound:
“It just feels right in my bones that I have lived before this life.”
“I dunno about this rebirth thing. It sounds like unicorns and flying spaghetti monsters to me.”
“I’d believe it if I could remember a previous life, but until then I’m not convinced.”
“Buddhism is not about belief. It is about practice. You can practice the same way whether or not you believe in rebirth.”
“Practice is about being in the moment, rebirth is about the past and future. Who cares?”
“The Buddha never taught rebirth.”
“The Buddha taught rebirth … and that’s good enough for me.”
“Scientists at the University of Virginia have proven rebirth!”
Speculation about rebirth seems to have been much alive in the Buddha’s India, to have largely abated for many centuries in the Buddhist world, only to have emerged anew in the modern world. Noteworthy is how spectacularly unproductive speculative debate about it has been. Rarely does a participant in the debate seem to change his view, but rather generally ends up instead holding it all the more firmly once he had taken a firm stance in debate. Occasionally it is even a deal breaker for someone who is not yet resolute in Buddhist practice.
This may explain why the Buddha avoided this debate at a speculative level altogether, instead to treat it as a purely experiential, subjective, empirical matter, or, as a last resort, to justify it for its practical contribution to the results of spiritual practice. The reason the speculative debate has been unproductive is perhaps most closely addressed by the “not about belief” guy quoted above. There is a disconnect between the terms of the debate and the needs of the actual practitioner, whose needs, one would suspect, would also reveal the motives of the Buddha – generally quite parsimonious of conjecture and grounded in experience – in making critical reference rebirth at some of the most critical points in his teachings.
In this series of short essays I would like to approach what is at issue not by way of speculation, but rather from experience and efficacy. I will generally avoid the word rebirth, because it readily brings to mind the speculative perspective we wish to avoid, in favor of karmic continuity, as something we may progressively and fruitfully explore and refine in our own subjective experience. Karmic continuity is the sense that our karmic conditioning derives from before birth, then plays out in our few decades of life and practice, to produce results that extend past death. I hope this shift in perspective will be useful to the reader who may either have already dismissed the notion of rebirth as hogwash, or hold too tightly onto any of the other speculative views of rebirth, to reach a full personal understanding of what has been expressed as rebirth. My conclusion will be that embedding our moment-to-moment practice in such a context of karmic continuity makes a huge difference in the quality of our practice that cannot be dismissed.
In the next weeks I intend to submit four more posts on this subject. In Discovering My Ancient Twisted Karma, I will consider these questions from an experiential perspective, “Is my karma older than me?” and “Will its results outlive me?” In The Long and the Short of It, I will look at the Buddha’s teachings relevant to karmic continuity, particularly what he had in mind when he taught samsara, the continuous round of rebirths. In Putting Practice into Context, I will take up the question, “Why, if practice is in the present moment, is it so crucial to frame our practice in a wider temporal context?” Finally, in Our Present Task, I will summarize the conclusions of the foregoing about the nature of Buddhist practice in the context of karmic continuity.