Archive for the ‘rebirth’ Category

The Buddha as Biologist

June 26, 2018

Dhammānupassanā Series

babySwimmingThe Buddha taught suffering and the ending of suffering. His teachings were stringently parsimonious and practical. It made sense that he would teach us about craving the origin of suffering, because understanding those factors and internalizing their under­standing through practice makes a difference in how we deal with these factors in everyday experience: we see the dangers in crav­ing, we become dispassionate about craving, experience revulsion with regard to craving, abandon craving, and suffering ends. These are factors of phenomenal experience that we can learn to respond to directly as they arise, in more skillful ways. Such phe­nomena are the stuff of dhammānupassanā, examining phenom­ena as they arise in our experiential world through the lens of the Dhamma.

So, why would the Buddha teach biology? It appears that he had important things to say about the nature of conception in the womb, and about the composition of the psychophysical organ­ism, and that he gave these things prominent roles at key junc­tures in his teachings. Or did he? Biology lies within the pro­cesses of the natural world that are largely beyond immediate ex­perience but that generally continue to play out, at least within this life, regardless of our practice or how we might respond to them. Such things, if they are valuable at all, belong to theory and not praxis.

I don’t think the Buddha was a biologist, and hope to show this in this brief essay.

MORE … (BuddhaBiologist.pdf)

 

What is Believable? (4/6)

March 25, 2015

Series Index

Some Buddhist teachings are unbelievable to some Buddhists. This section discusses the first of three strategies for reconciling this eventuality, short of simply rejecting the teaching.

How to contextualize a teaching

The method here is “lighten up” with the realization that truth is relative, that there is no irrevocable commitment in “belief.”

Every statement has its context, which is why we add qualifiers like “scientifically speaking,” “from an ethical perspective,” “in the Lord o’ the Rings,” “according to Newtonian physics,” or “in baseball,” when its context is not otherwise clear. We humans are also quite adept at jumping from context to context, seeing “Sherlock Holmes was a smoker,” as an irrefutable truth one instant, and acknowledging that Sherlock Holmes never existed in the next, without contradiction. “According to the Buddha” is also another context.

Buddhism is not a creed; it is only indirectly about belief at all; rather it is about how we live our lives. At the same time, it includes teachings, with seemingly propositional content, that inform and shape our practice lives. Typically these are held loosely or somewhat tentatively, at least until higher stages of development where they may become known or awakened to (anubodha) on the basis of personal experience. Cognitively a belief is a complex thing and rarely absolute. Recognition of this tends to make our believability criteria much more permissive. (I focus here so much on belief because that is the level at which traditional teachings are sometimes regarded as unbelievable, the level at which the “Balderdash!” response arises.)

Perspectives. The eminent behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner held firmly that mental states are imaginary, a kind of superstition. For him psychology was strictly the study of behavior insofar as it can be described in purely physical terms. Think about this: when he returned home from the university, with its pigeons and students, did he never delight in joyful moments spent with his wife and two daughters, worry when they felt sad? Did he never notice the arising of anger or notice that his own lust was a strong predictor of imminent mating behavior? A string theorist similarly lives by day in a world unfamiliar to the rest of us, yet by night and weekend doesn’t she live in the same world of potato salad and a car that stops when she presses on the brake that most of us do? Almost half of American scientists believe in God, who nonetheless virtually never appears as a factor in their published work. How do people do this, that is, live in two such conceptually distinct worlds at almost the same time?

Science and religion provide the most prominent example of divergent worlds in the public mind. In spite of its many successes, science fails to provide an account of the values, meanings and norms, of the ethics and aesthetics intrinsic to everyday human reality. (As far as I can see, it even fails to provide an account for how there can be something as hugely normative for science as mathematics.) In spite of its ubiquitous role in human culture, religion does not enjoy the reassurance that the scientific method gives science. When scientific push comes to religious shove, science generally wins in public discourse, religious scientists quickly admitting that much of their own religious belief is not literally true.

If this were not enough, critics of religion often expect religion to uphold the same empirical standards as science, a requirement not imposed on other realms of human culture. For instance, an artist is not expected to provide independent verification of his aesthetic choices, nor to reduce his art to a set of beliefs. Buddhists generally find answering the frequently posed question, “What do Buddhists believe?” quite awkward because it misses the point.

Interestingly, analogous tensions can be observed within science as we move from one competing paradigm or conceptual structure to another. For instance, Newtonian and quantum physics have conceptually distinct belief structures, yet the practicing physicist can be quite adept in jumping from one to another, as one is often more practical for a particular realm of analysis. When quantum push comes to Newtonian shove, quantum physics generally wins in scientific discourse and scientists admit that the Newtonian system is a simply a quick and dirty expedient in certain cases. This works as long as each is contextualized into a different realm in which their conceptual structures don’t need to contradict one another. Quantum physicists have furthermore lived with the dilemma of two irreconcilable conceptualizations of light and matter for over a century, treating these as waves or as particles according to context. Every context is an expedient of some kind.

Two conceptual structures that do not mix well are the Buddhist and that of mechanistic materialist view of the universe that developed in the nineteenth century and that, outside of physics, dominates scientific thinking and popular science to this day. Early in that century Laplace proposed, on the basis of the success of Newtonian physics, that the universe is entirely governed by physical forces and that it is thereby entirely deterministic. Helmholtz’ conservation of energy proposed in the middle of the century seemed to exclude all nonphysical causation. Determinism means that there is no free-will, no volition and therefore no karma, no practice and no results of practice. Materialism means there is no mind-made world; the mind cannot even be taken as real, much less as primary. Therefore Buddhism makes little sense in such a world.

If it is any consolation, almost nothing else humans do makes sense in such a world either –engineering, for instance – since we don’t really do anything there. This does not prove that such a world does not factually exist, but that humans spend little time in the context of such a world, even those who believe that it is the realest world. We simply do not know how to live in a mechanistic materialist world! This world and the world of mind and volition therefore belong in different contexts, just as science and religion generally do. (I’ll point out later, in the context of the reconsideration strategy, that case for mechanistic materialism in fact fell on its face in the twentieth century.) Even die-hard mechanistic materialists must make concessions to free will. As Isaac Bashevis Singer put it, “You have to believe in free will. You have no choice.”i Recall, once again, that the Buddha’s primary criterion for embracing a teaching is benefit, not objective truth. Benefit cannot be practiced without free will.

Fiction. The surprising thing about fiction is how powerfully real it can be for us. We sit in a movie theater (to see Rambo II, say) and become entirely immersed in the lives of the characters, their ups and downs, their frustrations and successes. We cry, we cringe, we share their pain, we leave the theater with our hair roots trying to stand on end. Often we learn moral lessons or develop attitudes that, for better or worse, we take with us into our own lives. And yet we know all the while it is fiction and should touch us only indirectly. Entertainment without our capacity to take it as real (within its proper context) would be very slim indeed.

I imagine that the primal source of fiction is play. Even puppies pretend to do mighty battle with one another, chewing one each others’ ears, swatting each others faces and leaping one upon the other. At the same time, they are mindful of their context, a context in which they are to do no real harm. They later grow into beasts that could easily dismember a human child, yet continue to engage in the same play with them as well, growling, gnashing their teeth, but drawing no blood, or chasing sticks as if in pursuit of prey. This is all expedient, for they take the results of play into their realer lives as they develop skills they can apply more violently in real fighting or real hunting. Human play is much the same: if children did not spend endless hours playing video games, where would the drone operators of the future come from?

Myths in the Buddhist or religious context make use of the ability of fiction to reach out from another reality and touch our realer lives. They can provide powerful teachings by analogy, inspire and their entertainment value makes them easier to assimilate for both young and old. In place of the remnants of doubt in the mind of the Bodhisattva, the demon Māra appears with his fearful hordes and temptress daughters attempting to dissuade the future Buddha from his rightful path as he sits under the bodhi tree, who then for his part touches the earth that it shake and rumble to bear witness to his determination. Each of us is a sucker for a good story. Although this myth was a later embellishment of the Buddha’s own account, the Buddha himself was a skillful myth maker. In the Aggañña Sutta (DN 27) the Buddha spins an origin story of the world, and it’s a whopper, yet serves a real function in providing an alternative to the Vedic origin story, particularly with regard to the origin of the caste system, for the benefit of two monks who were born brahmins and are now criticized by more traditional brahmins for abandoning the purity of their caste. Gombrich (2006, p. 85) considers this a satire on brahmanical ideas, even playing on the word ajjhānaka, which generally means “reciter (of the Vedas)” but can also mean “non-meditator.”

Counting as. A fiction can tell us something about, or train us for, a more solid reality. “Counting as” is like a fiction, but it is a running interpretation or narration overlain over a more solid reality. A primary example is a sports game, such as baseball. While there are physical actions going on, these actions have interpretations that are just made up and agreed on by convention to accompany the physical actions. Someone hits a ball with a stick and because of where it goes it counts as a home run. Someone touches someone else with a ball and it counts as being “out.” Three “outs” ends the half-inning, and the other team, who knows that, will come in from their dispersed position on the playing field to coalesce at one corner. One of them will then count as being “at bat.”

Money is another example of socially agreed counting-as. Historically money has had a physical counterpart, for instance, clams, cattle, silver, gold, then paper, for which a running interpretation as counting-for-something defined this as a medium of exchange. The physical part has largely gone by the wayside and the bulk of the money supply is something banks merely pretend to create at will simply by clicking some figures on a keyboard to entering it into someone’s account to count as money, then pretend mime-like to track its movements from bank to bank. 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.”

Although sports and money are a kind of fiction overlain on a more solid reality, they are for many people the most tangibly real things there are, matters of perpetual fascination. As real as sports and money are the many mysterious forces that mankind have habitually seen to underly observable events, the work of gods and demons, spells, forces of good or evil. The belief in such forces has been generally supplanted for moderns by scientific explanation, but persists in modern political and economic in which mysterious forces thrive: national interest, freedom fighters, terrorists, manifest destiny, chosen people (or exceptionalism), wealth creation, free markets, natural economic forces, our values as a nation, national security. Scientific theories actually seem to have much in common with the imputation of mysterious supernatural forces, except that they are much more principled and constrained and seek triangulation through independent verification. 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.

Faith and Working Assumptions. Here the Buddha provides clear and abundant guidelines. In the Caṅki Sutta the Buddha remarks that anything accepted through faith, approval, oral tradition, reasoning or pondering may or may not turn out to be true. At this Caṅki asks how, then, truth is to be preserved:

Kittāvatā pana bho gotama, saccānurakkhanā hoti, kittāvatā saccamanurakkhati? Saccānurakkhanaṃ mayaṃ bhavantaṃ gotamaṃ pucchāmā’ti.

Saddhā cepi bhāradvāja, purisassa hoti, ‘evaṃ me saddhā’ti iti vadaṃ saccamanurakkhati, na tveva tāva ekaṃsena niṭṭhaṃ gacchati: ‘idameva saccaṃ moghamañña’nti. Ettāvatā kho bhāradvāja saccānurakkhanā hoti. Ettāvatā saccamanurakkhati. Ettāvatā ca mayaṃ saccānurakkhanaṃ paññāpema. Na tve tāva saccānubodho hoti.

“But to what extent, Master Gotama, is there the preservation of the truth? To what extent does one preserve the truth? We ask Master Gotama about the preservation of the truth.”

“If a person has faith, his statement, ‘This is my faith,’ preserves the truth. But he doesn’t yet come to the definite conclusion that ‘Only this is true; anything else is worthless.’ To this extent, Bharadvaja, there is the preservation of the truth. To this extent one preserves the truth. I describe this as the preservation of the truth. But it is not yet a discovery of the truth.”

The Buddha then repeats this formula with regard to a person who approves something, who holds an oral tradition, who has reasoned something through analogy or who has views he has pondered out, just as with regard to a person who has faith. In our terms, when a thesis is accepted, it is not true absolutely by itself but is true relative to its context. The thesis along with the context preserves truth. The Buddha then shows how truth is discovered and then finally realized, the implication being that if a correct teaching is accepted as a working assumption, it will eventually be seen directly as one’s practice progresses.

This passage is a remarkable illustration of the care the Buddha accorded faith and other ways of accepting beliefs that fall short of realization in direct experience, that we not take these as conclusive, but rather keep their context, and thereby their provisional nature, in mind. Under these conditions we accept them.

The Appaṇṇaka (Incontrovertable) Sutta (MN 60) describes a purely pragmatic condition for accepting one of two alternative theses on the basis of a kind of cost-benefit analysis, or a means of covering one’s bets that by itself justifies its acceptance as a kind of working assumption.

santi gahapatayo eke samaṇabrāhmaṇā evaṃvādino evaṃdiṭṭhino: natthi dinnaṃ natthi yiṭṭhaṃ, natthi hutaṃ, natthi sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko, natthi ayaṃ loko, natthi paro loko, natthi mātā, natthi pitā, natthi sattā opapātikā, natthi loke samaṇabrāmhaṇā sammaggatā sammāpaṭipannā ye imañca lokaṃ parañca lokaṃ sayaṃ abhiññā sacchikatvā pavedentīti.

“There are some contemplatives and brahmans who hold this doctrine, hold this view: ‘There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed. There is no fruit or result of good or bad actions. There is no this world, no next world, no mother, no father, no spontaneously reborn beings; no brahmans or contemplatives who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next after having directly known and realized it for themselves.’

He then points out that this view will condition the behavior of such contemplatives and brahmins:

Tesametaṃ pāṭikaṅkhaṃ: … yamidaṃ kāyaduccaritaṃ vacīduccaritaṃ manoduccaritaṃ, ime tayo akusale dhamme samādāya vattissanti. Taṃ kissa hetu: na hi te bhonto samaṇabrāhmaṇā passanti akusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ ādīnavaṃ okāraṃ saṅkilesaṃ. Kusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ nekkhamme ānisaṃsaṃ vodānapakkhaṃ

It can be expected that … they will adopt and practice these three unskillful activities: bad bodily conduct, bad verbal conduct, bad mental conduct. Why is that? Because those venerable contemplatives & brahmans do not see, in unskillful activities, the drawbacks, the degradation, and the defilement; nor in skillful activities the benefit of renunciation, as cleansing.

Here is the kicker: people of this view cannot win, whether or not their view turns out to be true:

Paro loko hotu nesaṃ bhavataṃ samaṇabrāhmaṇānaṃ saccaṃ vacanaṃ. Atha ca panā’yaṃ bhavaṃ purisapuggalo diṭṭheva dhamme viññūnaṃ gārayho: dussīlo purisapuggalo micchādiṭṭhi natthikavādoti. Sace kho attheva paro loko, evaṃ imassa bhoto purisapuggalassa ubhayattha kaliggaho: yañca diṭṭheva dhamme viññūnaṃ gārayho, yañca kāyassa bhedā parammaraṇā apāyaṃ duggatiṃ vinīpātaṃ nirayaṃ upapajjissati. Evamassā’yaṃ apaṇṇako dhammo dussamatto samādinno ekaṃsaṃ pharitvā tiṭṭhati. Riñcati kusalaṃ ṭhānaṃ.

Let there be no other world, regardless of the true statement of those venerable contemplatives and brahmans. This good person is still criticized in the here and now by the observant as a person of bad habits and wrong view: one who holds to a doctrine of non-existence.’ If there really is a next world, then this venerable person has made a bad throw twice: in that he is criticized by the observant here and now, and in that with the breakup of the body, after death he will reappear in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell. Thus this incontrovertable teaching, when poorly grasped and poorly adopted by him, covers one side. He gives up the skillful option.

The Buddha then contrasts these contemplatives and with those of exactly the opposite views, who thereby engage in good bodily, verbal and mental conduct as a result. He demonstrates that these cannot lose, whether or not their view turns out to be true. He repeats the equivalent argument for each of a variety of views: that good or bad actions do not produce merit or demerit, that beings become defiled or purified without cause, immaterial realms do not exist and there is no cessation of being. Although the Buddha at the same time maintains that the more skillful view is also true, in spite of what other contemplative and brahmins might think, his final recourse is to what view is most likely to bring benefit. In either case truth is preserved, according to the Caṅki Sutta, by keeping in mind the context in which the view arises.
The Kalama Sutta employs the same logic to justify the benefit of karma and rebirth even as a working assumption:

‘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.

In this way, belief in karma and rebirth can be accepted, at least in a sense, that is relative to a context.

Let’s back up for a moment to the Caṅki Sutta and ask what the role of scientific evidence might be in the acceptance of karma and rebirth, as a particular example. The Buddha recommends that karma and rebirth are accepted as a working assumption by the skeptical, but is confident that their truth, which he endorses, will eventually be discovered and finally realized in the diligent practitioner’s own experience. The evidence here is quite different from scientific evidence, which is dependent on reasoning and pondering, on careful argumentation that itself can turn out either way; nothing is proved conclusively in science. A consequence is that even if the scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports karma and rebirth, one has still not yet discovered (anubodha) and realized karma and rebirth, not until one has confirmed it in one’s own experience. It is still contextualized, as something like faith but with perhaps a lot of reassurance. The Buddha’s criteria are quite stringent.

Conclusions. By recognizing the relative nature of belief, more things become believable. We can believe in things that are fictional or mythological, conventionally or habitually imputed, accepted on faith or otherwise guessed at or accepted as working assumptions as the best bet for beneficial outcomes. We recognize that these things are not absolute truths and do not commit to them as such until we awaken to them. In the meantime, they make sense in their specific contexts. Nonetheless, these contextualized beliefs have a powerful influence in shaping our attitudes and behaviors, including the quality of our Buddhist practice.

Contextualization is likely to be useful for the agnostic temperament, for which the working assumption is likely to have appeal, since it is so noncommittal. It is less likely useful for the atheistic temperament that has already made up its mind. For this we will turn to the strategy of reconsideration as we navigate the space between acceptance and rejection of Buddhist teachings.

In this section we’ve explored a middle way between absolute belief and total rejection. Contextualization is one way to realize that middle way. Next we will look at the alternative of reconsideration, and following that, of update.

What is Believable? (2/6)

March 7, 2015

Series Index

Last week I promised to consider five strategies for  coming to terms with Buddhist teachings (rebirth, for instance) that are found problematic for many moderns. Today we take up the default case, in which a Buddhist teaching is relatively easily assimilated. This will reveal the main cognitive mechanisms involved in coming to believe something.

How to accept a teaching

The method here is suitable evaluation prior to acceptance.

Most of the Buddha’s teachings can be accepted into one’s understanding of Buddhism quite readily, because they do not violate believability and can be verified in one’s own experience. For the reasonably skeptical person (whose perspective I will generally assume unless stated otherwise; we will see later who the unreasonable skeptic is), processing such a teaching involves two steps, evaluation and then acceptance. Evaluation involves assessing the evidence for the teaching, for instance, that suffering arises from craving. If the evidence is sufficient, then it might be accepted. Acceptance is the integration of the teaching into the body of one’s understanding, such that it becomes, in the Buddhist case, a conditioning factor in practice. We will see later that acceptance is more than just choosing to believe something, but rather includes various ways in which a proposition may be contextualized, for instance, treated as a rule of thumb, or as a myth, or as a foundational guiding principle. The present section will deal primarily with evaluation. The two steps, evaluation and acceptance, provide a simple model that can be applied to virtually any area of education or training, from child rearing through playing tennis to religious practice.  Let’s picture this graphically.

Figure01
The skeptic’s approach to belief

We can see that the reasonable skeptic has at least two decision points in this process, at either of which the process might halt with no acceptance.  The first, what I will call the gross decision point, is immediate; here one might dismiss or ignore the proposition out of hand prior to any case-specific evaluation. Gross criteria apply here, most significantly criteria for believability or unbelievability, the focus of this essay. Simple indifference also manifests here; for instance, one might not care that the Buddha sometimes has conversations with deities and consequently ignore, rather than accepting or rejecting, these references. The second, the fine decision point, follows case-specific evaluation, and either approves or disapproves the evaluation. Fine criteria apply here, which evaluation tries to satisfy. For instance, from the cumulative evidence of one’s own meditation experience, one might decide that a teaching that jhāna always entails a complete cessation of conceptual thought is not acceptable. The gross and fine criteria will differ, sometimes widely, from individual to individual. We will see later how some of them arise. The decision points and their criteria define the wiggle room of the reasonable skeptic.

Figure02The skeptic’s wiggle room

The Buddha gives us a clear fine criterion to apply at the second decision point, in the famous Kālāma Sutta:

Etha tumhe kālāmā mā anussavena, mā paramparāya, mā itikirāya, mā piṭakasampadānena, mā takkahetu, mā nayahetu, mā ākāraparivitakkena, mā diṭṭhinijjhānakkhantiyā, mā bhabbarūpatāya, mā samaṇo no garū’ti. Yadā tumhe kālāmā attanā’va jāneyyātha: ime dhammā kusalā, ime dhammā anavajjā, ime dhammā viññūppasatthā, ime dhammā samattā samādinnā hitāya sukhāya saṃvattantī’ti. Atha tumhe kālāmā upasampajja vihareyyāthā’ti.

“Come, Kālāmas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon repetition; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor as a result of thought; nor upon an axiom; nor upon careful reasoning; nor out of delight in speculation; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the thought, ‘The monk is our venerable teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken as a whole, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.” AN 3.65

It is important to reflect on the potential criteria that the Buddha dismissed. The Buddha’s criteria are at root ethical, and not scientific in the sense of objective truth, nor even particularly religious in the way we are accustomed to expect this in the West. The advice of the Kālāma Sutta can be summarized thus:

Figure03The Kālāma Sutta in a nutshell

That is, after due investigation, if you find that these things are good, these things are not blamable, these things are praised by the wise, undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness – let’s group these things as benefit, for short –, then enter on and abide in them, that is, accept them into your understanding as conditions for practice.

A given skeptical person might feel, nonetheless, irresistibly compelled to impose one of these disallowed criteria, or some other criterion. For instance, he might understand clearly enough how a certain  teaching is of benefit in the way the Buddha asked us to apply, yet nonetheless doubt its objective factual scientific truth, and therefore balk. For instance, if he has been taught karmic retribution as, “Every time you do something bad, something bad will happen to you in return,” he might well recognize that benefit would accrue indeed from entering on and abiding in this, for it would frequently prevent both harm to others and personal regret in many circumstances. But on the other hand, when he tries to imagine this playing out in practice – “If I steal someone’s sandwich one day, my hubcaps will get stolen, or some equivalent thereof, the next day.” – he cannot help but disbelieve this, a response that will hardly serve as a firm conditioning factor in practice.

We will consider later the options available to this given skeptic. These are to reject the notion of karmic retribution, to contextualize it, to reconsider the tacit assumptions that make it so unbelievable, or to upgrade the interpretation of karmic retribution to something that makes more sense. For now it suffices to point out that criteria actually applied at decision points are generally individual and often idiosyncratic.

Many, perhaps most, personal fine criteria are in reality off the wall or quite irrational. This was discovered at the beginnings of public relations and mass marketing some hundred years ago and has been exploited ever since. Emotions play a big role in shaping perceptions such that through their skillful manipulation one can get people to believe and do the darnedest things. With the right kind of music, a travesty becomes a noble effort or a mild inconvenience becomes a case of demonic possession. We are a gullible species.

Reason and Faith. So far I assumed the part assumed the position of a reasonable skeptic, and will for the most part continue to do so.  Not all of us are skeptics. In fact, many moderns who come to Buddhism have training in acceptance without question in faith traditions they may have been brought up with that demand this.  In any case, there are always some who readily accept teachings with little question, with something like the innocence of young children who believe what their parents say. A non-skeptical person might more easily suspend any inkling of disbelief to skip over the evaluative part altogether.

Figure04The non-skeptic’s approach to belief

The difference between the skeptic’s and the non-skeptic’s methods can be viewed in terms of the familiar categories of faith and reason. However, it is important to recognize that faith and reason are not opposites but complements that rarely occur by themselves, except maybe in mathematical proofs. Rather, skeptics are those who tend to be heavy on reason and light on faith, and non-skeptics are those who tend to be heavy on faith and light on reason. But both faith and reason are required in practical terms by any sensible person to make a sensible decision about virtually anything at all. We humans are engaged as active agents in an exceedingly complex, contingent and intractable world. We would like, if we could, to make decisions that are entirely based on reason and complete information, but in fact we virtually never know enough to realize this level of certitude in the decisions we need to make. And not making any decision is generally not a way out – It is quite often simply the dumbest decision! –, while gathering sufficient evidence is normally prohibitively costly in time and energy. In brief, reason takes us as far as what we know, and faith takes us the rest of the way, for:

Faith (Pali, saddhā) is that which bridges the gap between what we do know and what we need to know in order to make a decision.

Faith is a necessary part of human cognition. The following more accurately represents the typical case of evaluation. The difference between the skeptic and the non-skeptic and anyone in between is the relative length of the evaluation process, and the corresponding shortness of the remaining gap.

Figure09Faith Bridging the Reason Deficit

A proposal of marriage, for instance, carries not only weight but urgency. Suppose Mabel is evaluating Cornelius’ proposal. Her criteria are undoubtedly complex (Pascal wrote, “The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing about.”), but among them are hopefully that this marriage will be harmonious, of mutual benefit and happy ever after. Yet how much evidence is required to accurately predict how these expectations would play out in married life boggles the mind; this perplexed young woman really cannot possibly know what she would be getting herself into. The gap from evaluation to acceptance will seem enormous. Ultimately after some period of evaluation a leap of faith, a bold and decisive act of foolhardiness, may be the only option. Otherwise, for Mabel’s having hesitated, Cornelius may have lost interest.

Authority. As often as not, rather than evaluating a proposition from scratch, we rely the the wisdom or knowledge of others to help us. These are … the authorities. As Buddhists we rely on the wisdom of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. We may also independently rely on the knowledge of scientists or other scholars, as when we look up something up in an encyclopedia that they have compiled. Some of us rely on commercial news networks and TV pundits to help us interpret world, national and local events. Those who like to cook rely on the Joy of Cooking or on Julia Childs to fill the gap in what we personally know and what we would like to put on the table.  A culture can carry wisdom that its adherents rely on (although sometimes I fear ours comes up a bit short). To rely on an authority requires belief in that authority. An authority is someone, or a body of teachings, that can endorse or dismiss propositions for us, or to simplify or shortcut their evaluation.

Where does belief in an authority come from? Potentially it arises in the same way that belief a simple proposition. In order to gain belief in science, for instance, one might consider evidence and match these against deciding criteria – particularly track record, upholdance of truth, rationality of methods of developing and evaluating theories, and the coolness of lab coats (I provide the last example, lest we forget the presence of emotional factors) – before one might accept science into one’s world view. As for accepting a marriage proposal, a large element of faith will be involved, since one is hardly likely encompass all of science, its results and the evidence for its  results in one’s evaluation.

Figure05Acquiring belief in the authority of science

It is much the same with Buddhism, in which we gain belief in the authority of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, the three sources of Buddhist wisdom. If our primary criterion might be benefit, as the Buddha taught in the Kālāma Sutta, we should be interested in knowing such things as how Buddhists we might know act and behave, and the track record of Buddhism with respect to peace.  We might also be influenced by the emotional response to  the cool statuary and the fashionable attire of the nuns and monks. Accepting the authority of the Triple Gem looks like this:

Figure07Taking Refuge

Notice that what this science or this Buddhism is that we have accepted into our thinking is, in either case, ill-defined. Buddhism has many sects, many forms of Dharma. Science has many fragmented and competing endeavors, adherence to different paradigms, and array of scientific disciplines that tend to have different takes on phenomena. So, each of these may be an abstraction and its referent may evolve with time. Buddhist belief tends to be defined for the individual by a particular sect or teacher, or by a particular folk understanding. Scientific belief tends in the folk culture not to stray much from a mechanistic, materialist, realist, nineteenth century understanding of science, supplemented with some knowledge of twentieth century genetics. I think this is what is sometimes called scientism. It might be recalled that the wisdom of the Kālāma Sutta is applied most specifically to belief in authority, for the Sutta begins with the Kālāmas requesting of the Buddha criteria for evaluating the often conflicting viewpoints of the various sages who visit their town, each a potential authority with vast knowledge and wisdom.

If one has developed a sound confidence in a particular authority, it becomes an arbiter as propositions of certain kinds are encountered, that is, it provides a blanket pre-approval of propositions that one might otherwise painstakingly  evaluate for acceptance. A scientific proposition, such as bats are birds, might be evaluated in this way, and readily accepted, without the effort of finding out what qualities, exactly, a bird has and then determining if a bat has each of those qualities.

Figure06Science pre-approves certain teachings

A religious proposition, such as the hindrances inhibit jhāna, might be evaluated in this way, even prior to discovering  its validity ones own experience:

Figure08Refuge pre-approves certain teachings

Many abstract values, things like democracy, human rights, fair trade, equality, liberty and peace, are like Buddhism or Science, in that once they are integrated they provide criteria for evaluating other propositions. Notice that these values are themselves accepted not as objective truths – science cannot verify them – but commonly according to the criterion of benefit endorsed in the Kalama Sutta. In considering whether to support some proposed public policy, for instance, one considers the evidence that it will encourage or at least not undermine democracy, human rights, etc.

Re-evaluation. Notice that accepting a proposition on the merits of available evidence almost inevitably requires supplementing what is known with faith. When that evaluation additionally relies on the endorsement of an authority, and where belief in that authority additionally rests on faith, we have a double reliance on faith. That our reliance on faith proliferates in this way is not surprising in a complex, contingent world, but the resulting scaffold of evaluations and endorsements, with its many somewhat loose (i.e., faith-based) connections, might as a whole appear quite wobbly and inspire little faith that it might uphold reasonable choices in life’s negotiations. However, by progressively re-evaluating each proposition  and particularly each previously accepted supporting authority of the scaffold, we can progressively tighten up the loose connections to make the scaffold firm.

For instance, consider the proposition mindfulness of breathing is efficacious. Buddhism is primarily an introspective practice tradition, and, as such, the evidence initially available for evaluating such a claim is likely either anecdotal or based on endorsement by the Buddhist authorities (confidence in which may be still shaky at this point). Accepting the proposition on this basis will require a good deal of faith, but acceptance, at at least a provisional level, is necessary if one is actually to begin to practice of mindfulness of breathing. Nonetheless, with the beginning of practice abundant introspective evidence becomes available to re-evaluate the efficacy of mindfulness of breathing. It is this re-evaluation that generally evokes comments like, “Hey, this mindfulness of breathing seems to really work.” The re-evaluation carries much further than the initial evaluation, and therefore relies much less on faith. As confidence in the practice grows, increased engagement in the practice follows, along with even more evidence of the efficacy of mindfulness of breathing. In this way direct experience progressively replaces faith.

By the same token, the initial acceptance of the practice of mindfulness of breathing probably depended on the acceptance of the authority of the Triple Gem, at least an a provisional level. As confidence grows in the various things that Buddha, Dharma and Sangha endorse, confidence also grows by the same token in the Triple Gem itself, eventually evoking comments like, “Hey, this Buddhism stuff seems to really work.” Direct experience begins to replace the initial big leap of faith required in taking Refuge. Many of the Buddha’s teachings are psychological, that is, they concern mental factors and the way mental factors condition one another. These teachings are initially accepted on the authority of the Triple Gem, serve as pointers to what one can discover in one’s own experience. They feed the practice of examination that leads to wisdom. Wisdom, in turn, support the re-evaluation of the teachings whose initial acceptance led to its own arising. Faith is replaced by wisdom as teachings are in this way verified in experience.

More elegantly, the Buddha taught the following five faculties (indriya) required for Awakening:

  • faith (saddhā),
  • energy (viriya),
  • mindfulness (sati),
  • concentration (samādhi),
  • wisdom (paññā).

Faith is the input and wisdom the output. Energy, mindfulness and concentration are the faculties that sustain examination, also mental cultivation in the Noble Eightfold Path.

As practicing Buddhists we are more like practicing scientists than like laypeople who believe in science. As we encounter new teachings, we are concerned with their thorough integration into our understanding and practice. However, simple noting and accepting is of no use unless we can come to terms with the teaching, generally by experiencing it directly and introspectively through practice. We are also driven by faith, faith in a system of understanding and practice that we at first only dimly comprehend, but that we gradually verify in our own experience over a period of years. Within Buddhism those “Hey, this really works” moments that practicing scientists experience are common.

In this post we have seen cases in which evaluation and acceptance progress smoothly. What happens, however, when the Buddhist authorities seem to endorse a proposition that is just not believable? The following posts consider four options available to us.

All My Ancient Karma (2/5)

August 14, 2014

Discovering My Ancient Twisted Karma

All my ancient twisted karma,
From beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
Born through body speech and mind,
I now fully avow. – Zen verse of repentance

Is my karma older than me? Will its results outlive me? Or is karmic history limited to a fathom-long body and a few decades of life? Since in this essay I take an experiential stance I will begin with a personal account.

In the early stages of my Buddhist practice, I came to understand that I was on a path of purification, purification of character for the benefit both of me and of those around me, purification from the unskillful habit patterns, conceits and views, the habituated ruts and grooves etched into the landscape of my life that defined who I, often to my dismay, had become. Practice was karma. It was a matter of making skillful choices of body, speech and mind, moment by moment, with the awareness that such choices in the past had shaped what I had become, and that present choices would shape what I would become. With skill, I could shape a character that I and the rest of humanity could live with more comfortably.

Skillful choices were those that avoided the behavioral and mental ruts and well-worn routes that led into the ooze of greed, through the brambles of hatred and down the crevices of delusion that constellated my karmic landscape. As I developed a greater awareness of my own accustomed habit patterns, aided by the practice of mindfulness, I almost never liked what I found there, and so I understood increasingly with time the urgency of purification. Nonetheless, I seemed to be gaining some skill in stepping aside when coming upon certain well worn routes that I had identified as leading to ooze, bramble or crevice. For instance, I seemed to have become slower to anger and less needy of the approval of others. Once scrupulously avoided, a particular route in my karmic landscape seemed gradually to erode, fade and then eventually disappear. I was reshaping my karmic landscape. Cool.

There were many non-Buddhist ways in which I might have improved my prospects in life, such as ballroom dancing, or working out to improve my manly physique even more, or earning big money in derivatives investment, but I had already experienced enough of the broken promises of life to see that these would probably be among them. Moreover, the Buddhist practice I had committed to carried the promise of Awakening, in which all of my problems would end irreversibly for the rest of my days. This would be a seismic event that would obliterate in one big shake all the routes and ruts that defined my karmic landscape. How long could it take, five or ten years?

As a particular example of the satisfaction that I had already realized in Buddhist practice, I had discovered early on how remorselessly judgmental I had been all my life. I had had only to look at someone, a complete stranger, and a judgment was set off, “n’er-do-well nerd,” “misguided moron,” “confused cad,” almost always derogatory, unless that someone happened to be a “bonny babe.” As I stepped repeatedly into this same accustomed rut, often a hundred times in a single day, it occasionally occurred to me to ask, “How can I possibly know so much about this person?” And the answer would come back, “It’s the shoes,” or, “He talks too much.” My judgmental mind embarrassed me, and that embarrassment brought with it a little sidestep at the critical moment of judgment. As promised, this particular mental rut began to change, then to fade.

In short, I looked forward to an increasingly favorable life, a few decades of greater happiness, kindness and wisdom, the life promised to the assiduous Buddhist practitioner by the law of karma. I looked forward to a more benign reshaping of my once unskillfully trodden karmic landscape. Although it was difficult for me to assess the full scope of my tainted and deeply rutted habit patterns, conceits and views, I was quite settled in my life of Buddhist practice, with a quiet determination that entailed daily meditation, reading Dharma, acts of generosity and virtue, and an occasional Zen meditation retreat (sesshin), blended into an otherwise busy workaday life. I was convinced my life would one day be a shining example of ease in a mixed-up world.

Buddhist practice often entails, as many readers can attest, an occasional distinct moment of insight, a small epiphany, often sparked by happenstance, in which some truth, previous unnoticed, is suddenly laid bare. I experienced one of these moments during a sesshin at Green Gulch Farm in California in the spring of 1998. Each early morning during this sesshin, we sat a couple of periods of meditation, then we stood up for a bowing and chanting service which began with the quote at the beginning of this section, which I had not heard before:

All my ancient twisted karma,
From beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
Born through body speech and mind,
I now fully avow.

My first suspicious thought on hearing this was,

“Oh, someone is trying to push the rebirth thing,”

which I had decided by this point that I’d believe if I could ever remember a previous life, but until then I’d be unconvinced about, not that it mattered much, because practice is in the present and rebirth in the past and future. However, the next morning while once again intoning this verse, I discovered that my eyes had unaccountably teared up and that I had such a lump in my throat that it was difficult for me to croak along with the words, and every morning thereafter I had the same response. It had nothing to do with accepting a speculative theory about rebirth, and everything to do with standing nose-to-nose with a previously unnoticed aspect of my experiential world.

In fact, it felt as if my whole bungled karmic past, the mistakes I had made, the people I had hurt, the opportunities and energy I had squandered, were suddenly revealed extending back in time, past the bounds of this one life into periods beyond memory, to produce the cumulative karmic results that now loomed menacingly and inescapably behind me, around me, and in me. The task I had undertaken with Buddhist practice suddenly become huge and daunting. I saw my karmic landscape, shaped by accustomed habit patterns, conceits and views as an enormous and intricate etching of deep and twisted ruts and channels, many leading straight to marshes of muck, thickets of thorns and complexes of chasms. I realized that feet of unskillful volition had been treading and shaping this landscape for millennia, actions of body speech and mind from beginningless greed, hatred and delusion. Most astonishingly I discovered that well-worn tracks of ancient feet criss-crossed even distant fields and obscure corners of my mental landscape that I could in this life scarce remember having ever visited, yet even there, as soon as mindfulness slipped, I fell effortlessly into seemingly well accustomed though completely unfamiliar habit patterns.

Just to take one example, from earliest childhood anger had for me followed this accustomed pattern: I would initially tolerate a great amount of vexation passively without outward expression, until a certain threshhold was reached, after which rage would erupt quite unexpectedly. The source of the vexation, generally an otherwise dear family member, would morph into something demonic. Since he or she looked deserving of any mishap that might befall him or her, retribution was in order. Violent thoughts would often lead to acts of property damage if not personal attack. This would always turn immediately around into a sense of remorse and shame for my lack of control. In the end the short-lived anger would dissipate and to my relief the former source of my wrath would shrink back to his or her former less threatening self.

I must have staged this little soap opera hundreds of times on different stages. But who had written this script and how had I learned it so thoroughly? Certainly this script had been acted out since long before I was born, many many times over and over; I was, as far as I could see, just following the well-worn ruts.

In contrast, my older brother Arthur followed, I recall, a totally different script from me. When vexed he would express his anger from the beginning grumpily in direct proportion to his vexation. But once his vexation had attained a certain threshhold he would simply sit in a corner to mope. For Arthur vexation collapsed, for me it exploded. Although he was widely recognized as a relatively grumpy child, and I as rather placid and agreeable, he rarely had to deal with the shame of rage turning to external expression that I experienced. Other children I knew also reached the rage stage, but many were much more adept at fabricating justifications and convincing themselves that they were in the right all along, which seemed to enable them to avoid shame, but which rang hollow for me.

Response to vexation is one part of any karmic landscape. It would serve as well to explore the fields and valleys of intellectual or artistic talents or skills, forms of social interaction (reticence, loyalty), personal neediness or acquisitiveness, particular patterns of sexual arousal (which I recall as absurdly evident before I knew what they could possibly mean), and on and on. Any of the more problematic features of the karmic landscape could, through practice, be unlearned, but how were they learned in the first place? I would not have been clever enough to have invented these behaviors and then habituated them.

Indeed, the quality of my Buddhist practice changed quickly and markedly after avowing my ancient twisted karma. Before, it was like a new office job in which my task is to take documents, let’s say, insurance claims, mindfully one by one from the “in” box, process them and place the results in the “out” box. Not so difficult and able to pay the bills. The sense that emerged with a developing sense of karmic continuity was like learning from a colleague that the person who had had my job before me had gotten so woefully behind in his work that he had been known to take documents from the “in” box and to store them in the adjacent room for eventual processing. Looking in the adjacent room I discover boxes of unprocessed documents, along with bundles of still more documents tied together with twine, stacked up high, bundle on bundle, box on box and bundle on box.

I recognize that there is suffering, an unpaid debt, in each of those pending documents. Dismay toward a bungled past brings with it an urgent sense of responsibility toward a still untainted future. I could, in the interests of my own convenience, ignore my responsibility thereby to free up time for tango or working out at the gym, but that would not resolve the underlying urgency, only leave it for whoever would have my job after me.

I relate this account of my exploration because I would like to offer this contemplation as an exercise to the reader of this essay as an experiential alternative to theoretical speculation about rebirth as a means to encourage a proper sense of karmic continuity.

In this exercise I consider it fair to draw on early childhood memories, as I have done, as well as to include observation of others you may be intimate with, as I have also done. Any parent knows that children manifest well-articulated little characters from the earliest age. One is terrified of thunder storms, another of dark places. Paradoxically infants seem in other respects to perfectly exemplify the fabled tabula rasa, having to discover, for instance, basic laws of physics and the nature of their own bodies on their own. But this is misleading, because right behind that comes a remarkably firmly established karmic landscape, a recognizable little character. One child seems particularly stingy, another freely generous at a very young age.

A close family member of mine could not, by about the age of two or three, sit through any kind of even marginally smoochy romantic scene during family video nights; she would become visibly agitated and have to leave the room to return a few minutes later. Where did that come from? She also refused to wear a dress almost from the time of owning her first. When she went on to announce, as a young teen, that she was a lesbian, nobody was at all surprised.

It is also not misplaced to extend this investigation to anecdotes about others’ experiences, as long as they are reliably documented. Worth considering is the occasional prodigy, like Mozart, who possesses some remarkable talent, almost as soon as he or she can speak, that an adult would generally have to spend decades trying to master. Particularly intriguing are reported cases of early childhood memories of past lives, some of which are astonishingly well documented, most notably by the late Prof. Ian Stevenson and his colleagues particularly at the University of Virginia. Although among these are virtually irrefutable isolated cases of remarkably detailed past-life memories that defy conventional explanation, such cases are rare and they fall short of establishing the conclusion that one might wish for, that your or my karmic landscape has been trampled by a long string of previous inhabitants living out non-overlapping previous lives.

At some point you are likely to ask, whose footprints are these that have been trampling your personal karmic landscape from ancient times? You alone are the heir of your deeds, but if you came into existence mere decades ago, then you seem also to be heir to somebody else’s deeds. By the same token, somebody some day will be the heir of your deeds after you have breathed your last. Who are all these people?

With these questions we begin to slip into theory, the kind of speculation I suggested we avoid from the outset. Perhaps all the ruts and channels of one’s early karmic landscape were intricately encoded in a pattern of ancestral genes that descend into the mother’s womb. Perhaps an intact karmic landscape took flight with the last breath of some unknown life to descend into the mother’s womb. Perhaps a newly vacant karmic landscape was somehow assigned to a newly born infant at birth to occupy and to reshape until it is ready to vacate it in turn. Perhaps the infant or toddler taps into and absorbs the karmically sustained memes rampant in its cultural context to select and construct the intricacies of the karmic landscape it will occupy. More than likely it is a combination of such factors. None of these mechanisms seems to be excluded by Buddhist metaphysics as long as it is expressed in terms of cause and effect, certainly not for not being soul-like enough.

Nonetheless, I don’t think the answer to these questions is critical to suffering and the ending of suffering; the bare experiential sense of karmic continuity suffices. For the more skeptical, understanding its mechanisms might dispel doubts about the reality of karmic continuity, but I am not sure this is the case: I am still trying to comprehend how there can be a moon. The scientific explanations, seem to underdetermine the experience; golly, look at it! For the more credulous, one runs the risk of attaching to a particular theoretical view only to find it later to be demonstrably false. For instance, a prominent Western monk once asserted that if rebirth were ever disproven, then he would disrobe. To make one’s commitment to Buddhist practice contingent in this way on theory seems a bit ill considered: Buddhism emerged from personal experience and it is verified there.

The main point is to avow our ancient twisted karma, to recognize that our present lives are woven at the most intimate level into a rich and immense tapestry of ancient history and future potential, inextricably into something far grander in scope than this fathom-long body and few decades of life. A karmic landscape is something far more enduring, a panoramic context for practice that reveals the profound significance of the goal toward which practice points and that instills the proper sense of dismay toward the past and responsibility toward the future to propel our pursuit of the path.

In the third post in this series, we will turn from our personal experience, yours and mine, to learn what the Buddha himself had to say about all this.

All My Ancient Twisted Karma (1/5)

August 7, 2014

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.”
“Hogwash!”
“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.

Growing the Dharma: Alternatives to Rebirth

September 20, 2013

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).

Growing the Dharma: Transcendence

September 13, 2013

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. This chapter deals with the question, Why did the Buddha teach rebirth? This is a bit different aspect of what falls under Buddhist religiosity than the social concerns of the rest of the book, but is included for completeness. In short, this chapter, serialized in two parts, is really an independent essay.

Chapter 4. Transcendence (1/2)

The Great Cathedral in Cologne, Germany began construction in 1248 A.D. and was to be magnificent. It was completed in 1880, over six centuries later! This makes me think of the original founders of the Cathedral, marvel at what their motives might have been and try to imagine what it was like to start a project of this size such that they would not live to see past its earliest stages. This undertaking certainly required a great trust that others would be there to continue the work through the generations and centuries to come. It certainly required patience when progress must have seemed so snail-like in their lifetime. Along with patience it must have fostered a sense of urgency as the significance of this project dwarfed all other considerations in the lives of these founders. After all every decision they made was for an eager posterity, for untold generations to come, after the ephemeral gains, losses and fatigue of their small lives would have been long forgotten. The small lives of the founders would have acquired huge significance as instruments of this project. I imagine that sicknesses, deaths, births, droughts would have barely deterred the founders in their determination to see the work continue without interruption. This is a meaning that transcends this fathom-long body and these few decades of life.

This particular sample of selfless urgency and determination, of meaningfulness and zeal, comes out of a religious context, but similar examples are easily found in secular realms as well, for instance, in science or in art or among explorers, in which agents characteristically give themselves over completely to a project perceived as somehow dwarfing their own selves in magnificence. That greater context is often ill-defined: the glory of God, the march of human knowledge, lasting beauty, going down in history. Others die for their country, and still others dedicate themselves tirelessly so that others will not have to die for theirs. Even in secular contexts this kind of zeal is often recognized as “religious.” The alternative to this religious zeal is to think of science, art, or whatever, as a job, one that pays the bills until one retires after which one can devote oneself full-time to fly fishing. I speculate that only at the higher transcendent level of meaning will genius arise.

Without careful deliberation, our human life is tossed by the sea, blown by the wind, a plaything of circumstance. This is presumably how most animals live, simply responding to changing conditions one by one with predictable needs and fears. When this life presents the human with mere sensual pleasures it is still formless, arbitrary, directionless and existentially empty, until boredom, depression or despair catches up to its indulgences.1 With deliberation giving rise to determination and vow, the human life is quite different. The highest meaning however is not something the human adds to his life, but that into which he embeds his life, as if his life were a single scene, or maybe a cameo appearance, in a larger play. A life devoted to service of God, a life devoted to beauty, a life devoted to developing the conditions for Awakening, these exemplify one’s relationship to a higher meaning that transcends this present life, and at the same time adds satisfaction to this present life.

The aim of our practice is no less than the perfection of the human character, it is about making something no less magnificent than the Cologne Cathedral: a Buddha. If we fail to find that higher meaning in our practice we can instead easily see no further than making our present lives temporarily more comfortable until we die, at which point any progress along the path will disappear anyway, along with the entire human predicament that evoked it. Our practice will be like beginning construction on a village church, rather than a Cathedral, which we expect to occupy and preach in in this very life. The result might indeed be competent, but hardly magnificent, something more like common psychotherapy than the Path to Awakening. We will have failed to transcend a petty fathom-long body and few decades of life and thereby squandered the opportunity for an Awakening that might otherwise have been possible, even in this very life and body. I speculate that only at this higher level of meaning will Awakening arise.

Rebirth

I’m Saved!”

Buddhism is about salvation, it’s even about, uh, being born again. The soteriological aim of Buddhism is Nirvana, the Buddhist form of salvation. Rebirth is an integral component of the Buddha’s thought about this. Nirvana is achieved as the escape from Samsara, from the beginningless and heading-toward-endless round of birth and death.

The Buddha described the second of two knowledges realized prior to his Awakening:

“When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the passing away and reappearance of beings. … I discerned how they are inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate in accordance with their kamma: ‘These beings — who were endowed with bad conduct of body, speech, and mind, who reviled the noble ones, held wrong views and undertook actions under the influence of wrong views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell. But these beings — who were endowed with good conduct of body, speech and mind, … have re-appeared in the good destinations, in the heavenly world.”2

As before, I suggest that the most important question with respect to Buddhist authenticity here is not “Is rebirth really true?” but rather the more functional “Why did the Buddha think it was important to teach rebirth?” In general he scrupulously avoided any kind of metaphysical speculation. For instance, in a famous passage he picks up a handful of leaves:

“‘What do you think, monks? Which are the more numerous, the few leaves I have here in my hand, or those up in the trees of the grove?’

“‘Lord, the Blessed One is holding only a few leaves: those up in the trees are far more numerous.’

“‘In the same way, monks, there are many more things that I have found out, but not revealed to you. What I have revealed to you is only a little. And why, monks, have I not revealed it? Because, monks, it is not related to the goal, it is not fundamental to the holy life, does not conduce to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, tranquility, higher knowledge, enlightenment or Nibbana. That is why I have not revealed it.’”3

The teaching of rebirth therefore must function to help attain the goal of the holy life. How can it do this?

Rebirth turns a narrowly circumscribed attempt at happiness and comfort within this single life into an epic struggle for salvation from a beginningless history of suffering with endless consequences for the future. Unless that struggle succeeds history will repeat itself ceaselessly into the future. This realization enhances the urgency of savega, horror at the predicament in which we all find ourselves. As the Buddha spoke,

“Which is greater, the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — or the water in the four great oceans?… This is the greater: the tears you have shed…”4

He also talked about the blood spilled, the mountains of bones we have left behind, the cemeteries swelled. We need not succeed fully within this life in this struggle, but we can make great strides then continue in the next life and the next. This is the source of hope, pasāda, the calm trust that through diligent practice we are well on our way to winning the struggle to replace step by step the lot of the common being with something magnificent, with a Buddha. What’s at stake in this project dwarfs all other considerations in this life; after all every decision you make will be for a world eager to end suffering, long after the ephemeral gains, losses and fatigue of your small present life are long forgotten. This means you will continue to practice virtue, even under the pressure of bad times or of immediate gain, because it is your virtuous karma that will carry over into future. The fruits of the practice of this small life will acquire huge meaning in the context of this project. Sicknesses, deaths, births, falling stock prices will barely deter you in your determination to see the work continue without interruption. Even if rebirth should fail and bring our project to a halt at our deaths, we will have lived a life of great meaning.

The main alternative to rebirth is annihilationism (Pali, ucchedavāda), the view that all our efforts and progress, everything, comes to naught with the breakup of the body. At our death it will matter not one twittle whether we’ve practiced assiduously or just goofed off. The hapless annihilationist lacks the urgency that might otherwise propel him toward Awakening, even in this life, and the Buddha repeatedly reproved his viewpoint.

This former, deeper perspective is the function of rebirth in early Buddhism, and explains why the Buddha, otherwise so wary of philosophical speculation, took a clear and firm stand in this one case. What is really at stake, as with Refuge, is the attitude behind our practice. Bhikkhu Bodhi states more succinctly than I have:

“To take full cognizance of the principle of rebirth will give us that panoramic perspective from which we can survey our lives in their broader context and total network of relationships. This will spurus on in our own pursuit of the path and will reveal the profound significanceof the goal toward which our practice points …”

So, the primary function of rebirth is the perspective it lends to the pursuit of Nirvana, the final end of tears, blood, bones and cemeteries. A secondary is simply to provide intermediate resting places on the way that mark our progress or regression on the Path. Generally six kinds of realms are envisioned into which one might be reborn, Hell, Ghost, Asura, Animal, Human and Deva, depending on one’s practice. And within the human realm one might be born sickly, long-lived, ugly, beautiful, rich or poor. There are frequent references to this system in the early suttas, for instance,

Just as rust, iron’s impurity, eats the very iron from which it is born, so the deeds of one who lives slovenly lead him on to a bad destination.”5

By the same token, through one’s meritorious practice one accrues benefit, life becomes less of a problem. This happens within this very life, but all the more when one’s practice trajectory extends over many lives. In this way rebirth frames even the more immediate goal of practice in a way that inspires urgency.


This seems to be the function of rebirth, to frame our practice in greater-than-life terms and thereby to inspire urgency and meaningfulness. I am aware that rebirth raises skeptical eyebrows in much of the expectedly astute readership of this book because many of us tend to demand independent verification for religious (or religious-sounding) truths.6 However, if we assume the annihilationist position and reject rebirth outright we lose this function and we have therefore stepped beyond the scope of authentic or core Buddhism. Therefore it behooves us to ask, for the benefit of those who balk, and for the enrichment of understanding of those who do not, “How much wiggle room do we have for upholding these functions?” I certainly do not want this issue to become a deal breaker for anyone intent on the Path.

The secondary issue of realms of rebirth is easily put to rest. Assuming for the moment rebirth as a linear process that lines lives up front to back, realms of rebirth function to express that our practice or malpractice can save us from, or get us into, a heap of future trouble. Hell and deva realms in particular add vivid imagery to our success or failure. On the other hand, we hardly need to leave the human realm to experience heaven or hell; we already manage to do it right here! We might well be reborn over and over in the human realm into various circumstances of bliss or woe and we sacrifice no functionality and therefore no authenticity in our understanding. We can then just as well regard these realms as colorful and perhaps effective mythology, and leave it at that … or take them as real.

We have three optional views that define the wiggle room to retains the functionality of rebirth:

  1. Rebirth is literally true as described in early Buddhism. Probably this is the dominant view historically.

  2. Rebirth is an approximation for something more subtle, potentially verifiable, yet largely equivalent with regards to the functionality that authenticity demands. This is a view seldom considered.

  3. Rebirth as literally understood is a beneficial working assumption even if it is a pretense. This is the Buddha’s own recommendation, as we will see, for the skeptical.

The view that the Buddha never taught rebirth at all requires great imagination, that a ring of monks tainted with brahmanic views slipped heretical changes systematically into sutta after sutta shortly after the time of the Buddha and then managed to popularize these changes to such a degree that no contradictory suttas survived. It requires dismissing the drive for transcendent meaning in Buddhist practice that I have argued here is essential for the Path of Awakening. Let’s look at each of these three optional takes on rebirth.

Literal Truth of Rebirth

Consider this: If you know that water is flowing into one end of a pipe with only one inlet and only one outlet, you know that it must be flowing out the other end. The pipe in this metaphor is our present life and the water is (old) karma (Pali, kamma).7 Our old karma at any point in time is the content of our character, our impure habit patterns of body, speech and mind, our tainted views, our identities, our pleasures and our anguish, our skills, our strengths and faults. Karma is conditioned continually throughout our lives through our intentional actions (new karma), and also corresponds to the well-being we experience directly as the quality of our life. Let’s let the degree of purity of the water represent the quality of life or character (good or bad karma). A strong Buddhist practice should serve to turn scuzzy water flowing into the pipe into pure flowing out.

The crucial point is that there is water flowing into our pipe and that therefore it should not surprise us that there is water flowing out.8 Think, for example, about your habit patterns, your tendency to anger, for instance, or to indulgences, the way jealousy manifests, or envy, the way judgments arise. Where did all that come from? Why does it always seem that we are playing out an ancient script that we did not write, at least in this life? I know I am not smart enough to have come up with more than a few of the things that have arisen in my mind in my years (most of which are premonastic). And I was coming up with twisted actions almost from infancy. How about you? A chant of repentance used in a Zen tradition runs like this,

All my ancient twisted karma,
From beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
Born of body, speech and mind,
I now fully avow.”

There is something that rings true about the obscure antediluvian origins of our habits. We are each engaged in an epic struggle with karmic forces from the ancient past. And therefore, it follows, with outcomes that will reach endlessly into the future. For if water is flowing into the pipe of our life, water must be flowing out! It is hard to conceive that this ancient flow of water through many lives is capped with you. Why not with the life before?9 We are therefore largely conduits for karma with some opportunity for purifying it, scuzzifying it or eliminating it altogether in our lifetimes. For karmic water to have someplace to flow, there must be rebirth!

Before poking holes in this argument, let’s consider some verification. Rebirth and reincarnation are recognized in divergent cultures and religions throughout the world. Maybe many find consolation in this belief, though that is not its function in Buddhism, where ending rebirth is rather preferable to extending it. Second, the modern objection to the conventional model of rebirth is hardly decisive. It is that there is no material coupling known to science by which the water flowing at the outlet of one pipe would find its way to the inlet of the next pipe where physical death intervenes. That is, the answer to the question, how one’s karmic dispositions at one’s death could possibly find a home in a new life, requires a greater independence of mind and matter than many modernists and most scientists would be willing to concede. However the results of extensive recent research involving the memory by very young children of events and circumstances of previous lives10 that make a compelling case that such an elusive mechanism must exist, even if it has yet to be identified. Even so, this is far from verification of the entire model of rebirth nor of its ubiquity.

Even if one finds this literal model of rebirth compelling, it concerns me that people might stake their entire Buddhist practice on a model that they might potentially be dissuaded from, should additional scientific evidence turn against it. A well-known Western monk recently stated that if he were to learn there is no rebirth he would disrobe. Can this be unshakable trust in the Dharma? This alone makes it worthwhile how far an understanding that retains the functionality of rebirth might bend to the evidence.

1Victor Frankl (2006) attributes much of what is diagnosed as neurosis in fact to no more than the experience of meaninglessness. He describes how inmates of Nazi concentration camps pretty predictably gave up hope when they felt they had nothing to live for. For him personally, thoughts of reuniting with his family and reconstructing and publishing his research kept him going, even though he estimated at the time that his chances of survival were no better than 1 in 20. Yet as he attributes to Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

2MN36.

3Simsapa Sutta, SN 56.31.

4Assu Sutta, SN 15.3.

5Dhammapada 240.

6For some reason our criteria seem often much less demanding when we feel we are safely beyond the scope of the religious.

7Actually if Awakening occurs in this present life then miraculously water flows in but not out, but this is the rare exception.

8Note that what enters into the pipe is not “you.” You are too chubby. But paradoxically it is the delusion of you that enables “your” pipe to empty into the next.

9This would actually be a kind of conceit. A similar mindset was satirically expressed in a series of ads for a local men’s clothing store, “You are the product of billions of years of evolution. Your suit is ready!”

10This compelling research is particularly due to Dr. Ian Stevenson (2000, etc.) and his colleagues at the University of Virginia. Frankly, I find it quite solid and astonishing.

Buddhist Religiosity, hot off the press

June 16, 2013

Cover334x477 I have completed a substantially good draft of the book I have been working on:

Foundations of Buddhist Religiosity:
Devotion, Community and Salvation and their Historical and Social Manifestations into the Twenty-First Century.

Please click on the cover to the left to download your own pdf (106 pages). I invite feedback.

I apologize for not posting to the blog in a while; I have been in another kind of writing mode.

Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Transcendence

February 18, 2013

Uposatha Day, February 18, 2013

Index to this series

Chapter 4. Transcendence

TranscendenceFlower“I’m Saved!”

Buddhism is about salvation, it’s even about, uh, being born again. The soteriological aim of Buddhism is Nibbana, the Buddhist form of salvation. Nibbana is achieved by Awakening, but it given a particularly lofty scope in Original Buddhism, the escape from samsara, from the beginningless and heading-toward endless round of birth and death.

I am aware that rebirth, not to mention escape from rebirth, raises skeptical eyebrows in much of the expectedly astute readership of this treatise because of the metaphysical issues it also raises. In order to determine what is Core in this mechanism, it will be far more useful to begin with its function, which is, briefly, to inspire the urgency without which Awakening is not possible, rather than with its specific formulation in Original Buddhism, then to parameterize a range of authentic options for fulfilling that function.

Higher Meaning

The Great Cathedral in Cologne, Germany began construction in 1248 A.D. and was to be magnificent. It was completed in 1880, over six centuries later! This makes me think of the original founders of the Cathedral, and marvel at what their motives might have been and what would have inspired them to start a project of this size that would not live to see past its earliest stages. This undertaking certainly required a great trust that others will be there to continue the work through the generations and centuries to come. It certainly required patience when progress must have seemed so gradual in their lifetime. Along with patience it must have fostered a sense of urgency as the significance of this project dwarfed all other considerations in the lives of these founders; after all every decision they made was for an eager posterity, for untold generations to come, after the ephemeral gains, losses and fatigue of their small lives would have been long been forgotten. The small lives of the founders would have acquired huge meaning as instruments of this project. I imagine that sicknesses, deaths, births, droughts would have barely deterred the founders in their determination to see the work continue without interruption.

This particular sample of selfless urgency and determination, of meaningfulness and zeal, comes out of a religious context, but similar examples are actually found in secular realms as well, for instance, in science or in art or among explorers, in which agents characteristically give themselves over completely to a project perceived as somehow dwarfing themselves in magnificence. That greater context is often ill-defined: the glory of God, the march of human knowledge, lasting beauty, going down in history. Even secular contexts this kind of zeal is often considered “religious.” I speculate that it is only this level of higher meaning that can produce genius. The aim of our practice is no less than the perfection of the human character, it is about making something no less magnificent than the Cologne Cathedral: a Buddha. It is only this level of higher meaning that can produce Awakening.

If we fail to find that higher meaning of our practice we can instead easily see no further than making our present lives temporarily more comfortable until we die, at which point any progress along the path will disappear anyway along with the entire human predicament that evoked it. Our practice will be like beginning construction on a village church, rather than a Cathedral, which we expect to occupy and preach in this very life. The result might indeed be competent, but hardly magnificent, something more like common psychotherapy. We will have failed to transcend a petty fathom-long body and few decades of life and thereby squandered the opportunity for an Awakening that might otherwise have been possible even in this very life and body.

Without deliberation our human life is tossed by the sea, blown by the the wind, an plaything of circumstance. This is presumably how most animals live, simply responding to changing conditions one by one with predictable needs and fears. Even when this life presents the human with for sensual pleasures it is still is formless, arbitrary, directionless and existentially empty, until boredom, depression or despair catches up to its indulgences. Victor Frankl (2006), for instance, attributes much of what is diagnosed as neurosis in fact no more than the experience of meaninglessness.

With deliberation and vow the human life can take on new form in the form of purpose, as found, for instance, in career and family. Frankl relates how inmates of Nazi concentration camps pretty predictably gave up hope when they felt they had nothing to live for. For him personally, thoughts of reuniting with his family and reconstructing and publishing his research kept him going, even though he estimated at the time that his chances of survival were no better than 1 in 20. Yet as he attributes to Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

The highest meaning however is not something the human adds to his life, but that into which he embeds his life, as if his life were a single scene in a larger play. Frankl calls this “super-meaning.” If meaning seems better than meaninglessness, super-meaning should be better than normal meaning. A life devoted to service of God, a life devoted to beauty, a life devoted to developing the conditions for Awakening, these exemplify one’s relationship to a higher meaning that transcends this present life, and at the same time brings satisfaction to this present life.

Pretense in Human Affairs.

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 lets 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 Nibbana 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 in his fingers. Second, the Buddha was remarkably parsimonious in avoiding philosophical speculation and unnecessary metaphysics. The two primary metaphysical assumptions of the Buddha seems 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. — AN 10.92
  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.’ – MN 36

The first is the metatheoretical assumption that things arise and fall dependent 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 did he say this?

The answer is in fact the point of the famous “Kalama Sutta”: 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, suppose the Flubovian scriptures tell them that God has given the land of Fredonia to them regardless of who happens to occupy Fredonia at the time (the Fredonians, as it turns out). Should this teaching be accepted? No, because it would cause harm. Even if the scriptures are as true as the Flubovians firmly believe, it would not be countenanced by the good dhammic Flubovian. It is important to recognize what this is an exceedingly strict criterion, often overlooked in the world’s religions.

The Buddha at the conclusion of this same 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, are 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 rationale is not necessarily in the acts themselves but in their function in developing skills. Food offerings to Buddha statues are common and is recognized as pretense in the knowledge that the Buddha is 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! Myth, religious or otherwise, is pretense by definition, but can likewise shape one’s attitudes in many helpful ways.

Nothing I know of illustrates the usefulness, and at the same time the palpability, of pretense as well as money. Money, such a huge factor in modern life and human consciousness, does not even exist! 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 since gone almost completely by the wayside, the physical money we carry in our pockets (actually not in mine) is now a very small portion of the money supply. The rest is entirely pretense: Banks pretend to create it at will simply by clicking some figures on a keyboard to enter 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.  An satirical news article in The Onion imagines a scenario in which the economy grinds to a halt as “Nation Realizes Money Just a Symbolic, Mutually Shared Illusion.”

Pretense is something we use privately all the time to broaden the limits of our reality. A bashful young man about to ask someone on a first date will imagine himself much sauver than he actually is before dialing. 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 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 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 harm and benefit above all are the criteria by which Buddhist 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 challenge what is the 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 simple principles like, “things fall downward,” and “what goes up must come down.” What’s interesting is that the scientist probably 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 makes the car go 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, some pretenses become 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 to hold our own doctrine convictions a little less tightly. But short of Awakening we all have them. We live in a world of pretense, so why not one more if it brings higher meaning into our life.

Rebirth

When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the passing away and reappearance of beings. … I discerned how they are inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate in accordance with their kamma: ‘These beings — who were endowed with bad conduct of body, speech, and mind, who reviled the noble ones, held wrong views and undertook actions under the influence of wrong views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell. But these beings — who were endowed with good conduct of body, speech and mind, … have re-appeared in the good destinations, in the heavenly world.’  – MN36, the Buddha reporting the second knowledge gained just prior to his Awakening.

Rebirth turns a narrowly circumscribed attempt at happiness and comfort within this single life into an epic struggle for salvation from a beginningless history of suffering. Unless that struggle succeeds that history will repeat itself ceaselessly into the future. This evokes the urgency of samvega, horror at the predicament in which we all find ourselves. As the Buddha spoke,

Which is greater, the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — or the water in the four great oceans?… This is the greater: the tears you have shed…

He also talked about the mountains of bones we have left behind. We need not succeed fully within this life in this struggle, but we can make great strides then continue in the next life and the next. This is the source of hope, passada, the calm trust that through diligent practice we are well on our way to winning the struggle to replace step by step the lot of the common being with something magnificent, with a Buddha. What’s at stake in this project dwarfs all other considerations in this life; after all every decision you make will be for a world eager to end suffering, long after the ephemeral gains, losses and fatigue of your small present life are long forgotten. This means you will continue to practice virtue, even under the pressure of bad times or of good short-term gains, because it is your virtuous kamma that will carry over into future. The fruits of the practice of this small life will acquire huge meaning in the context of this project. Sicknesses, deaths, births, falling stock prices will barely deter you in your determination to see the work continue without interruption. Even if rebirth should fail and bring our project to a halt at our deaths, we will have lived a life of great meaning.

The alternative to rebirth is annihilationism, the view that all our efforts and progress, everything, comes to naught with the breakup of the body. At our death it will matter not one twittle whether we’ve practiced assiduously or just goofed off. The hapless annihilationist lacks the urgency that might otherwise propel him toward Awakening, even in this life, and the Buddha repeatedly reproved his viewpoint.

This former, deeper perspective is the function of rebirth in Original Buddhism, and explains why the Buddha, otherwise scrupulously wary of metaphysics or philosophical speculation, took a clear and firm stand in this one case. What is really at stake, as with Refuge, is the attitude behind our practice. Bhikkhu Bodhi states more succinctly than I have had space for the point I present here:

“To take full cognizance of the principle of rebirth will give us that panoramic perspective from which we can survey our lives in their broader context and total network of relationships. This will spur us on in our own pursuit of the path and will reveal the profound significance of the goal toward which our practice points,…”

For those well disposed to religious skepticism and well practiced in the raising of eyebrows rebirth is regrettably sometimes a deal breaker. Given the well considered importance the Buddha attributed to rebirth it is important not to dismiss it lightly. Actually we have five well placed options in how to think about rebirth:

  1. Rebirth is literally true as described in Original Buddhism. Probably this is the dominant view historically.
  2. Rebirth is a beneficial working assumption even as a pretense. As we have seen, the Buddha recommends this remedy for the the skeptical.
  3. Rebirth is an approximation for something more refined. Aha, I hadn’t mentioned this option yet, but will take it up presently.
  4. Rebirth is a humbug. Why, the “Buddha’s” teachings on rebirth might well have been slipped into sutta after sutta later by monks tainted with brahmanic views.

Having hopefully mitigated the resistance to the pretentiousness of option 2, I will weigh in in favor of option 3, since 3 subsumes 1, is much more satisfying than 2, avoids recourse to the unfortunate option 4 and might have, as I will show, a sound scientific basis bound to appeal to the most skeptical of eyebrows.

There is no doubt that our present lives are 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 relentless patterns and recombinations of neediness, aversion, confusion, contentment, kindness and clarity. Our life and therefore our practice is woven inextricably into something far grander in scale that in fact lends it its higher meaning.

Consider this: If you know that water is flowing into one end of a pipe you know that it must be flowing out the other end. The pipe in this metaphor is our present life and the water is (old) karma (Pali, kamma). (Actually if Awakening occurs in this present life then miraculously water flows in but not out, but that neither here nor there.) Our old karma at any point in time is the content of our character, our deeply rutted and shallow habit patterns of body, speech and mind, our views, our identities, our pleasures and our anguish, our skills, our strengths and faults. It is conditioned continually throughout our lives through out intentional actions (new karma), and also corresponds to the quality of our life.

Let’s let the degree of purity of the water represent the quality of life or character (good or bad karma). A strong Buddhist practice should serve to turn scuzzy water flowing into the pipe into pure flowing out.
(Incidentally in a quote above “inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate,” “plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell,”  and “good destinations, in the heavenly world” functionally express quality of life at the beginning of a new life; they need not really require the existence of supernatural realms, since we are perfectly capable of creating and experiencing heaven and hell right here.)

The main point is that there is water flowing into our pipe. Think, for example, about your habit patterns, your tendency to anger, for instance, or to indulgences, the way jealousy manifests, or envy, the way judgments arise. Where did all that come from? I know I am not smart enough to have come up with half of the things that have arisen in my mind in my (uh, pre-monastic) years. This is called our “ancient twisted karma,” referring its obscure antediluvian origins. 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 transmitted to us through various channels, even, if you insist, directly from our “previous life.” This is the water that  flows into our pipe.

Since there is water flowing into our pipe there must be water flowing out. Notice that in this model karma can flow out through multiple channels because in Buddhism it does not have to hang on to a personal identity. The karma that flows out is the legacy of the present life. 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 karmic 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.

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 this refined model and the traditional model of rebirth is that the latter is much more linear. I will accordingly call these the reticulated model and the serial model respectively.

For the serial model pipes would be laid 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 heir to our present karma. The reticulated model is more general than the traditional serial model; the traditional model is a special case of the reticulated. But the serial model is (1) inadequate in itself — We can observe the lateral transmission of at least some karma, for instance, from culture to individual, or heck from kalyanamitta (admirable friend) to individual — and (2) difficult to examine and verify — though very compelling research, particularly of Dr. Ian Stevenson and his colleagues at the University of Virginia, suggests that this kind of transmission does at least sometimes occur.

Now … the big question: In moving from the serial to the reticulated have we preserved functionality, that is, are we still within the scope of Core Buddhism? In either case we realize a higher transcendental meaning of our practice as desired, in either case it is found in a responsibility to the future, in producing purity, not scuzz, in this life. 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 linear model provides a straight path, passing through many lives but serially, toward Nibbana. The reticulated 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 — and less sense of following a direct path. Interestingly the reticulated 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.

In Sum

Dedicating one’s life to a higher meaning is a condition that in the arts and sciences can produce genius. Dedicating one’s life to a higher meaning is a condition that in Buddhism can produce Awakening. In either case it will produce a fulfilling present life, one of purpose.

Higher meaning for the Christian is attained through God. Higher 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 with 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.

Serial rebirth is the model the Buddha provides to help us find our way into this panoramic perspective. Features of this model are difficult to verify and many modern people have difficulty with their assumption and have demonstrated an unwillingness to accept it even as a working assumption in the absence of better evidence. I have explored a way in this model can be generalized in a way that makes these features unnecessary yet nearly preserves the essential functionality of the Original model.

Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Refuge

February 2, 2013

Uposatha Day, February 3, 2012

Index to this series

Chapter 3. Refuge.

RefugesFlowerIn summary of the last chapter, reverential trust (or faith) in the Triple Gem, that is, of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, is what nourishes our Buddhist aspirations and practice just as sun, water and soil nourish a flower. This is what first turns our heads toward virtue, wisdom, peace and the rest of our highest values. Furthermore, this is in Core Buddhism, it is present in the original teachings of the Buddha and it is upheld in any Authentic Buddhism ever since. I would like to explore this Refuge thing more fully here.

Trust in the Triple Gem is essential. Until we understand what what it is the Buddha realized, what it is the Buddha taught and what it is the Sangha has upheld for one hundred generations, we cannot be certain where this way of life and Path of practice will lead us. Until we have experienced deeply this way of life and traveled far on this Path of Practice we will not understand what the Buddha understood, taught and entrusted to the Sangha. Therefore, until we have experienced this way of life and traveled far on this path we require trust, ardent trust in the Triple Gem. Those born into Buddhist cultures and families learn that trust from infancy, others acquire it through sometimes accidental means. Sariputta, who would one-day become the Buddha’s leading disciple in wisdom, gained it first simply by observing the deportment of one of the early Noble One on alms rounds.

There is nothing unusual or uniquely religious about any of this: Any decision, whether secular or religious, requires Trust because we live in a hopelessly uncertain world. Trust is the only thing that can bridge the gap between the little we actually know and the heap we would need to know to make a decision with certitude. It is either the nuts or the bolts of human cognition. We may try to bring as much discernment as possible into the decision but in the end we necessarily make a jump, big or little, into the unknown, “[Gulp] Well, here goes!” In this way we have entrusted ourselves for good or bad to our baby sitters, to our teachers, to our accountant, to TV pundits and to our dentist. Those born into a modern nation state at one time learned to trust its leaders and its military from childhood often through ritual pledge and incantation and to trust science as the most reliable information source. Discernment may or may not back up our trust, but some degree of trust in one thing or the other is an unavoidable part of any decision.

Life-altering decisions require big acts of trust and therefore great courage; they are way beyond the reach of the timid who cling fearfully to certitude and baby steps. This is the courage of the hippies of yore on quest in India with nothing but a backpack, and more commonly of the betrothed or of the  career bound, stirred by deep longing or desperation. The Buddhist Path fully embraced by the one who will ascend the stem toward Nibbana will shake one’s life to the core and this will demand a particularly courageous trust in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, stirred by samvega, a kind of horror at the full realization of the nature and depth of the human condition. It is said that the Buddha-to-be experienced samvega when as a somewhat frivolous Nepalese playboy he learned to his dismay of sickness, of old age and of death, and thus began his quest to India.

Trust driven by desperation is appropriate even where little certainty can be discerned. Suppose the flood waters are rising and huts at the river’s edge are already being swept away. The villagers panic as they recognize the foolishness of building their village against a sheer cliff. Most of them begin running frantically back and then forth along the river bank. The chief, on the other hand, grabbing up his youngest daughter in one hand and his exquisitely embellished staff of authority in the other, shouts, “Follow me, villagers!” and plunges into the water. Many others follow immediately. Still others, the more timid, wait until they ascertain the chief’s ascent up the opposite river bank, but many of the timid are tragically swept away in the still rising waters for having hesitated. There is no discernment in timidity, to trust is to take control of our fate.

The safety we seek, should samvega arise, is already at hand in the bridge of Refuge in the Triple Gem. Underlying both metaphors of Refuge・and Gem・is the property of Protection.・A refuge at the Buddha’s time was the protection provided by a mentor, patron or benefactor in return for a vow of allegiance. Gems were generally believed to have special protective properties. Generally there is a sense of calm relief and confident safety associated with taking Refuge in the Triple Gem known as pasada, the antidote to the distress of samvega. It is said that the Buddha-to-be experienced pasada at the sight of a wandering ascetic before he left the frivolity of the palace life. The Triple Gem along with the life of the Buddhist community is a precondition, a kind of launch pad, for the Magga, the Path of practice toward Awakening.

Refuge in the Buddha

Such indeed is the fortunate one, the worthy one, the supremely awakened one,
Endowed with knowledge and virtue, well-gone, knower of Worlds,
Peerless tamer and driver of the hearts of men, master of gods and men,
The awakened one, the exalted one. – AN 10.92

Most religions worship some personality. Buddhism is striking in that that role of deep veneration is occupied by a (now deceased) human being rather than a deity or supernatural being, albeit a person who attained some remarkable attributes. We already tend to venerate people with remarkable qualities, for instance, our favorite geniuses like Einstein or Mozart. The Buddha was a three-fold genius!

First, the Buddha became a supremely awakened one, a Buddha, worthy, exalted, with no one to light the Path for him. He thereby attained perfect mastery of the mind, achieving perfect wisdom, virtue and equanimity. This was his first genius.

Second, he was able to teach what he had attained, to lay out the Dhamma, the proper knowledge of the world and the means to tame, drive and master humans and whoever else wanted to travel the Path. This was his second genius.

Third, he organized the Buddhist community, in particular the institution of the Sangha, to support, propagate and perpetuate the understanding and practice of his teachings. His third genius is rarely mentioned as such, but the reader should appreciate the immensity of this accomplishment by the end of the next chapter. In short, the Buddha’s three-fold genius is directly tied to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha.

When we take Refuge in the Buddha we see in the enormity of this personality the highest qualities we might choose to emulate. Refuge in the Buddha is nonetheless an act of trust, trust that such a personality is even possible. It is only with deep practice and study, with our own progress on the Path that we begin to see how his qualities of mind actually start to begin to commence emerging gradually. Trust is necessary in the beginning until we see for ourselves, veneration encourages trust, it opens up the heart and mind to the influence of the Buddha.

Veneration is a Core Buddhist practice that is rather simple in Original Buddhism but assumes sometimes wildly embellished forms in some of the later traditions. Veneration gives Buddhism much of its religiosity. Veneration, or its stronger version, worship, may be the primary practice of many religions. So let’s look at its forms and functions in Original Buddhism. Two chapters from now we will see how it evolved in some of the later traditions of Buddhism.

The living Buddha was venerated and expected to be venerated in a number of ways according to the customs of the culture in which he lived. These included a number of physical expressions, most significantly  anjali, produced by bringing the palms together before the chest or face. Anjali is a quite ubiquitous expression of respect or greeting in its land of origin. What is significant is that Buddhism has carried it from India to every land in which Buddhism has taken root regardless of how dissimilar the culture. This is evidence of the importance of the function of veneration in Buddhism. It is at the same time evidence of how a particular cultural artifact is quite readily carried along to a new land when that artifact is the established expression of some Core Buddhist function in the old land. Sometimes this process even leaving traces of one-time Buddhist influence where Buddhism is no longer evident, as is almost certainly the case in the Christian use of anjali for prayer.  We will see further examples of this in chapters to come when we consider the evolution of religiosity in the later traditions.

Veneration to the Buddha was also originally expressed through full prostrations sometimes touching the Buddha’s feet, by circumambulation keeping the Buddha on one’s right, by covering one’s otherwise bare shoulder with one’s robe and by sitting on a lower seat than the Buddha, by standing when the Buddha entered the room, by walking behind the Buddha or not turning one’s back to the Buddha and by proper forms of address. In the early scriptures the Buddha occasionally actively chastised a visitor for not showing proper respect, beginning with the Buddha’s re-encounter after his Awakening with the five ascetics to whom he delivered his first Dhamma talk. His Vinaya also required of monks that they not offer Dhamma talks to those who do not offer proper respect to them.

The original practice of veneration to the Buddha applied of course to a living being. Nearing his parinibbana he anticipated that his relics, the remains after his cremation, would become objects of veneration and accordingly specified, as described in the Parinibbana Sutta (DN 16) that they be divvied up and distributed to specified clans of lay devotees, so that they might build stupas over them. This became the primary physical symbol of the Buddha for purposes of veneration; Buddha statues were a much later development. I also mentioned in the last chapter that the Buddha specified four sites associated with his life as places of pilgimage. The Buddha also recommended contemplations about himself for recitation such as the one that began this subchapter, alongside contemplations of the Dhamma and Sangha.

The way the Buddha set himself up, albeit in a modest way for the times, as an object of veneration had nothing to do with an “ego trip”; that would contradict all we know about the personality of the Buddha, about the doctrine and practices he espoused which were directed unambiguously toward selflessness, and with the trajectory of development dedicated disciples of the Buddha have experienced throughout history. It was as if Gandhi, realizing the veneration that would continue after him and realizing that this veneration would serve to keep his project alive, had left us with an ample supply of portraits of himself to hang on our walls. The Buddha undoubtedly was well aware of the importance of his Awakening for mankind and understood the value of refuge in a human personality and would have defined practices around this accordingly.

There is also subsidiary value in veneration itself in developing wholesome states in its practitioners. Bowing and other expressions of veneration powerfully generate personal humility, they deflate the ego, knock it out of its privileged position in the universe by deferring to another. This seems to be a function of veneration or worship in all religions I am aware of, and I presume an essential function of the God idea in most. Prostration in particular seems to be a natural embodiment or enactment with deep genetic roots; consider how lesser dogs instinctively make a similar gesture to express submission to greater dogs. This practice is an easy and profound antecedent to the gradual weakening along the Path of self-view. Expressions of veneration result in calm and the stilling of inflictive emotions as self-centeredness relaxes. The Buddha states,

When a noble disciple contemplates upon the Enlightened One, at that time his mind is not enwrapped in lust, nor in hatred, nor in delusion. … By cultivating this contemplation, many beings become purified. (AN 6.25)

Refuge in the Dhamma

Well expounding is the teaching of the Buddha,
To be seen together, with immediate fruit, inviting investigation, leading onwards,
To be realized by the wise each for himself.  – AN 10.92

Most religions have some form of doctrine or belief system, generally providing a metaphysics, an account of the origin of the world, of mankind or of a particular tribe. The Dhamma stands out in its sophistication and its emphasis on the mind rather than on external forces. It deals with the human dilemma, existential crisis, anguish, suffering and dissatisfaction, delusion, harmfulness, meaninglessness and the rest, as human problems with human causes that arise in human minds, and require human solutions. It provides a program whereby the mind is tuned, honed, sharpened, tempered, straightened, turned and distilled into an instrument of Virtue, Serenity and Wisdom. The Dhamma itself is among the greatest products of the human mind, skillfully articulated by the Buddha. On the basis of trust in the Triple Gem we begin to study, practice, develop and gain insight through the teachings of the Buddha. As the Buddha states,

He who has gone for refuge to the Buddha, the Teaching and his Order, penetrates with transcendental wisdom the Four Noble Truths — suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the Noble Eightfold Path leading to the cessation of suffering. – Dhammapada 190-191

The Dhamma also stands out in its empirical quality, “inviting investigation.” This phrase translates Pali ehipassiko, which is an adjective formed from “come and see.” The Dhamma points almost entirely to what can be verified in our direct experience, or instructs us in ways to move the mind into certain experiences. Many in the West are first inspired to trust in the Dhamma in the first place upon learning of this refreshing quality of the Dhamma.

Some caution is however in order lest one think this means that we should trust our own experience. In fact for the Buddha the typical “uninstructed worldling” is actually astonishingly deluded and the Dhamma quite “against the stream” from his perspective. We get hopelessly confused in trying to see or interpret our own experience. For this reason the Buddha in the famous but often misquoted Kalama Sutta warns us not to base one’s understanding on one’s own thinking:

… don’t go … by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability … (AN 3.65)

In fact, when the Buddha says “come” he is shouting down to us flatlanders from the mountaintop. To arrive at his vantage point we need to scramble up hills, struggle through brambles and ford rivers. When the Buddha says “see” we need to focus our eyes intently in the right direction to barely make out what the Buddha sees with great clarity of vision. In order to be willing to do any of this we have to establish from the beginning great faith and trust that the Buddha knows what he is talking about. This is Refuge. What else would induce us to make the difficult climb up the mountain? Investigation and personal verification are necessary parts of following the Dhammic Path but they take time and effort before we can say, “I’ve come and now I see.” Until then trust or faith is essential.

For instance, the Buddha taught that craving is the origin of suffering (the Second Noble Truth). At first this will seem an abstract proposition which we ponder and try our darnedest to match up with observation. The most likely early outcome is to dismiss this proposition as faulty.  It seems pretty clear to us, for instance, that buying that snazzy shirt would  make us exceedingly dashing and that that would lead to improved prospects for romance and other forms of social success. Therefore craving clearly leads not to suffering but to happiness.  Refuge entail instead the we decide to trust the Buddha before what we think we are experiencing.

Eventually through years of examination on and off the cushion we might discover that the Second Noble Truth is not an abstraction at all; it is something that bites us on the nose over and over all day every day. As soon as the craving comes up the suffering is right there with it. As soon as we “have” to have that shirt there is stress and anxiety, unmistakenly. We would discover we had been living in a world of incessant suffering, a world aflame, all along and not noticing it! Without Refuge we would never have scrambled to the mountaintop. As the contemplation at the beginning of this subchapter states, it is the wise who realize for ourselves.

The Japanese-American Zen master Shohaku Okumura in a similar vein once said of Zen meditation, “It takes a lot of faith to do zazen. Otherwise nobody would do something so stupid.”

Although the Buddha’s quite empirical methods seem generally to turn away from what we tend to think of as religiosity — the Buddha quite clearly had no sympathy for blind faith — I should in all fairness point out that his teachings are not entirely empirical. The ultimate criterion for Dhammic truth is not verification, but benefit. This again is made clear in the Kalama Sutta:

“Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them. ” (AN 3.65 )

He then goes on to argue how belief in rebirth, apparently as controversial in Buddha’s day as it is today, fits this criterion, as a working assumption if need be for the unconvinced. He does not argue for rebirth on the basis of criteria of objective verification but of ethics. This brings myth, or what many will interpret as myth, within the Buddha’s purview, even while it is rare that it is found a Core role.

Certainly the primary original way to venerate the Dhamma would have been to listen to discourses attentively and to recite and memorize them.

Refuge in the Sangha

Of good conduct is the Sangha of disciples,
Of upright conduct is the Sangha of  disciples,
Of wise conduct is the Sangha of disciples,
Of dutiful conduct is the Sangha of disciples,
Namely the four pairs of persons and the eight kinds of individuals,
Worthy of offerings, worthy of hospitality,
Worthy of gifts, worthy of reverential salutation,
An incomparable field of merits in the world. – AN 10.92

Living, breathing role models are found in every religious tradition, but in Buddhism these become primary objects of veneration and faith. This makes perfect sense since living breathing persons have the most immediate influence on our lives and are most likely to have brought us to Refuge in the Triple Gem in the first place. Unfortunately sometimes we accord this privilege unknowingly to ruffians and scoundrels rather than to admirable friends. For the Buddha the Ariyasangha is most worthy.

The line in the verse above, “Namely the four pairs of persons and the eight kinds of individuals,” refers to the four stages of Awakening, beginning with Stream Entry, and subdividing each of these by “path” and “fruit,” that define the Ariyasangha in terms of spiritual attainment. The subsequent lines refer to the practice of giving alms to monks and nuns, the Bhikkhusangha, along with veneration. The idea is that the Sangha brings great benefit to the world but that their attainment and presence are enabled by those who sustain them and thereby share in bringing benefit to the world, as it were watering a fertile field. The generosity of alms is thereby the primary means of expressing veneration to the Third Gem. Both practices, veneration itself and generosity as a specific expression, are important elements of Buddhist religiosity in cultivating wholesome mental factors for the actor, which is what merit really is.

I’ve written a bit about the relationship of the Ariya- and Bhikkhu-sanghas, the soil and the roots, in the last chapter, and will examine this in detail in the next chapter. Suffice it to say here that there is an ambiguity between the two. Recall that the former are individuals of great attainment, the Noble Ones, and the latter the members of the monastic order, who individually may or may not be so Noble. Generally when we extol the virtues of the “Sangha,” as in the contemplation above we speak of the Noble Ones, yet the most common formula for first taking Refuge in the early discourses usually in the Buddha’s presence, explicitly uses the word Bhikkhusangha.  It gets confusing but the confusion seems to be deliberate. If we think of the Bhikkhusangha as a school that trains people to become Ariyans but actually includes some monks and nuns of little attainment, for instance, the newly ordained, we realize that offering alms to the Bhikkhusangha is a necessary function for ensuring that there are Noble Ones in the world. Moreover it is the monks and nuns who are readily recognized as a Sangha thought their distinctive attire. As such the Bhikkhusangha not only sustantially includes the Ariyasangha, but nuns and monks collectively or individually symbolize it, even if sometimes much as a piece of plaster sitting on a modern altar might symbolize the Buddha. It helps if the practice of giving alms is thought of not as the practice of giving to a particular Noble One or a particular nun or monk, but to the Sangha as a whole, undifferentiated, on behalf of which a particular nun or monk receives the alms. Accordingly the Buddha said,

“An offering made to the monastic Sangha is incalculable, immeasurable. And, I say, that in no way does a gift to a person individually ever have a greater fruit than an offering made to the Sangha.” – MN 141

Although the Buddha included himself in the Sangha it is remarkable that the “person individually” referred to was specifically himself in the context of the discourse, the Noble One of the Noble Ones. For the Buddha the Refuge in the Sangha was huge.

Continuity.

The Buddhist Path fully embraced by the one who will ascend the stem toward Nibbana will shake his life to the core and this will demand a particularly courageous trust in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. I want to return briefly to the theme of urgency that impels this level of faith.

The Great Cathedral in Cologne, Germany began construction in 1248 A.D. and was to be magnificent. It was completed in 1880, over six centuries later! This makes me think of the original founders of the Cathedral, and marvel at what their motives were and what inspired them to start a project of this size that would not live to see past the very earliest stages. This undertaking certainly required a great trust that others will be there to continue the work through the generations and centuries to come. It certainly required patience when progress must have seemed so gradual in their lifetime. Along with patience it must have fostered a sense of urgency as the significance of this project dwarfed all other considerations in the lives of these founders; after all every decision they made was for an eager posterity, for untold generations to come, long after the ephemeral gains, losses and fatigue of their small lives had long been forgotten. Their small lives must have acquired huge meaning in the context of this project. I imagine that sicknesses, deaths, births, droughts barely deterred the founders in their determination to see the work continue without interruption.

This particular sample of selfless urgency and determination, of meaningfulness and zeal, comes out of a religious context, but similar examples are found in secular realms as well, for instance, in science or in art or among explorers, in which practitioners characteristically give themselves over completely to a project perceived as somehow greater than themselves, sometimes even to their personal neglect and peril. That greater context or perspective is often ill-defined, the glory of God, the march of human knowledge, Lasting Beauty. It is this kind of “religious” zeal that produces genius. It is also akin to the zeal evoked by samvega, horror at the human predicament, and pasada, trust, that turns to Refuge and goes on to produce Awakening. The aim of our practice is about the perfection of the human character, it is about making something no less magnificent than the Cologne Cathedral: a Buddha.

If we fail to find that greater perspective our practice can easily slip entirely into making our present lives temporarily more comfortable until we die, at which point any horror we may have at the human predicament will disappear anyway. Our practice will be like beginning construction on a village church, rather than a Cathedral, which we expect to occupy and preach in this very life. The result might indeed be competent, but hardly magnificent. We will have failed to transcend a petty fathom-long body and few decades of life and thereby failed to secure the condition for an Awakening that might otherwise have been possible even in this very life and body.

What would be missing in this picture is a sense of continuity with what goes on before this life, after this life and all around this life. Our practice is about our “ancient twisted karma,” about developing from what we understand as the content of our character, our deeply rutted habit patterns of body, speech and mind, our views, our identities, our pleasures and our anguish, our strengths and weaknesses. When I use the phrase “ancient twisted” I acknowledge that this karma has for the most part obscure antediluvian origins. We repeat in our lives what our ancestors have repeated before us, what our culture is accustomed to repeating, what our evolutionary history has passed on to us.     Just as ancient twisted karma has all been transmitted to us as the stuff of our practice, so do we transmit it further as a hopefully less twisted result. We are like pipes; if karma goes in one end karma has to come out the other. In short, we are embedded in a matrix of beginningless and endless cause and effect, that passes through countless lives.

This is what makes the horror of the human predicament as well as our practice toward its resolution huge. The realization that the fruits of our practice are forever, fosters a sense of urgency as what’s at stake in this project dwarfs all other considerations in this life; after all every decision you make will be for a world eager to end suffering, long after the ephemeral gains, losses and fatigue of your small present life are long forgotten. This means you will continue to practice virtue, even under the pressure of bad times or of good short-term gains, because it is your virtuous kamma that will carry over into future. The fruits of the practice of this small life will acquire huge meaning in the context of this project. Sicknesses, deaths, births, falling stock prices will barely deter you in your determination to see the work continue without interruption.

This deeper perspective is the function of Rebirth in Original Buddhism, and explains why the Buddha, otherwise scrupulously wary of metaphysics or philosophical speculation, took a clear stand in this case. What is really at stake, as with Refuge, is the attitude behind our practice. In  terms of rebirth Bhikkhu Bodhi states more succinctly the point I present here:

To take full cognizance of the principle of rebirth will give us that panoramic perspective from which we can survey our lives in their broader context and total network of relationships. This will spur us on in our own pursuit of the path and will reveal the profound significance of the goal toward which our practice points,…

I bring up rebirth in the context of religiosity because it like Refuge expresses a Core part of the mindset, the infrastructure, the launch pad, the preconditions necessary to fully embrace the Path toward Nibbana. It also incidentally gives us an opportunity to explore the boundary of Original and Core Buddhism, that is to start with an understanding of the Core functionality that needs to be preserved then to test the range of expressions of that functionality. For instance, admirable friendship itself can be viewed as channel for conveying karmic results. Modern science has revealed many new channels, genetic, behavioral, social, environmental, that would have been dimly understood at the time of the Buddha. Or we might find the more traditional linear model of pipe linearly aligned to pipe entirely satisfactory. In any case we are each engaged in an epic struggle with karmic forces from the ancient past and outcomes that will reach endlessly into the future.

Buddhism without Refuge?

The tyke born of a devout Buddhist family is likely to live out his life centered in religiosity; he will live in the roots and leaves, not in the stem. His is a world something like the grass of the next illustration. The little seedling will have been brought into the presence of Buddha altars, and of monks, nuns and Noble Ones, and will have been taught the forms of veneration. He will learn to recite the Refuges. He will begin to absorb a few Dhammic aphorisms and learn to recite five Precepts. With growing conviction he becomes increasingly involved in the community life, developing merit in taking care of the temple and the needs of the monastics, in chanting vigorously, and such things. He will someday become aware of the stem and may consider broadening his world to include the Path upward, perhaps ordaining. A full encounter with samvega will likely bring him to that decision. In any case he will be inclined support generously the aspirations of those who do make that choice, for he will understand the civilizing force of the Noble Ones.

DevoteeFlowerLiving in this world seems in itself capable of achieving remarkable results. I see this in most Asian Buddhists I’ve known. I also see it in other religious traditions with similar forms of religiosity, which one way or another seem to produce some people of great attainment, even without a Noble Eightfold Path or anything resembling it! It has a remarkable capacity for generating confidence, zip and many wholesome mental factors in its adherents, and can produce centered, selfless, composed, kind and insightful people. One can thrive in the grass.

A totally different profile would be someone who does not grow up with a foundation in Buddhist religiosity. He might be reluctant to commit to the Refuges or Precepts, has not lived in a Buddhist community, knows nothing about Noble Ones, does not know what function nuns and monks could possibly serve or why they don’t go out to get jobs. He might have begun by reading about Buddhism, inspired perhaps by a vague sense that Buddhism is a good thing, maybe having seen the Dalai Lama on TV or inspired by Buddhism’s reputation as “peaceful,” or by reading Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. In any case he has been moved to take up Buddhist practice, particularly meditation, much as he had when taking up working out in a Gym the year before. Just as the gym membership had made his body stronger, he hopes that joining a 都angha・will make his mind stronger. He likes the idea of Awakening and might even expect to if he meditates ardently for a couple of years, but has no perspective beyond improving this one life.

This chap lives in the world of the stem, as shown in the next illustration. Without deep veneration nor involvement in a Buddhist community he is nourished only by the experience of practice itself. He lives more accurately in something like mistletoe hanging off the stem which has grown from a seed (his initial intention) that had been deposited in a bird dropping. Mistletoe is a parasite that develops enough of a root to absorb water and minerals from the host plant. It has no sense of where this nourishment comes from nor responsibility for preserving it for future generations. It gazes down upon the grass with disdain, little comprehending the roots and soil and the spiritual growth that is happening down there. I know this profile well; it used to be mine. His practice is likely to be precarious for a time, but he might eventually gain some strength if he manages grow deep religious roots. Notice that each of these illustrations omits the blossom of Nibbana.

MeditatorFlowerPeople who grow up steeped in (perhaps Jewish or Catholic) religiosity have an easier time. They are like a graft rather than mistletoe. Much of the growth of the roots and leaves has already been experienced and is, probably with mixed degrees of success, translated into Buddhist religiosity.