Q & A Karma and Rebirth
Q: What are your views on rebirth?
A: Well, it is undeniable that the Buddha, under the Bodhi-tree during the first night-watch, came to recollect his previous births.
Q: Yes, I know. But wasn’t he just accepting the outlook of his day? Didn’t many of his contemporaries just assume that each person had a former existence and that, owing to karma will continue to have more rebirths?
A: I seriously doubt that. Jayatilleke pointed out in his book, Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, that it is false to conjecture that rebirth was generally accepted in India during the Buddha’s time.
Q: How so?
A: The theory can’t be found in either the Rigveda or the Atharvaveda. Nor do even the early Upanishads endorse it, being only one of many such theories. So, I can’t agree with you that ‘rebirth’ was the accepted outlook of that day. The Buddha’s insight seems to me to be quite original and only finds parallels in ancient Greece. In fact, explicit mention of rebirth is only found in Hellenic culture and in Buddhism.
Q: But I was under the impression that he just adopted it as a ploy to get people to act in a moral way. Isn’t it true that rebirth served as the basis for moral responsibility?
A: It was hardly a ploy in the Buddha’s mind! In fact, the Buddha’s own recognition of rebirth proved that morality is necessary. If there is nothing upon which to base morality, why, therefore, bother to practice morality?
Q: But why do we need rebirth to compel us to act in moral ways? We practice morality because it benefits us here and now.
A: No, we practice morality because at a deep level, in our being, we sense that we will be reborn. In other words, moral action arises owing to the fact of rebirth.
Q: What, in your estimation, is reborn if Buddhism denies a self?
A: The Buddha says that ‘consciousness’ rather than self is reborn. There is a huge difference. Presently, you may or may not understand the Buddha’s notion of ‘self’, but you are certainly aware that as you speak, you are conscious of what you say. This is what transmigrates. Not a self.
Q: Is there some kind of consciousness field that exists between the consciousness which leaves the body and the embryo into which it enters in the next life?
A: Certainly, it is not impossible. For example, when a sodium atom occiliates at 510 billion times to the second, there is an interval between the atom’s death and its subsequent rebirth. In that interval, or zero phase, there must be a pattern of the sodium atom if it is to reappear after one of its periodic deaths. If the pattern is kept inside the atom, then when it cessates, so should the pattern for the atom also cease. If not, then you must be open to the idea of a “consciousness field” between sodium atom events which conserve the pattern of the atom. Let me say that I think the Buddha was well within science to universalize birth, death, and rebirth. It is the mode of everything. Indeed, this happens at the micro level of our universe as I have shown. So, why shouldn’t we assume the rebirth of consciousness after death? Maybe this is the true meaning behind the Buddhist idea of a conservatory of consciousness which perhaps mediates between discontinuous phenomenal events. But whatever the opinion on this matter, it is better to have an open mind.
Q: Is it really necessary to believe this stuff? I am an agnostic.
A: What do you mean by agnostic? If you mean by agnostic, “I don’t want to know,” then we shouldn’t be agnostics. An agnostic, in that case, would be promoting positive ignorance!
Q: But in his recent book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, Stephen Batchelor said that the Buddha was agnostic. Isn’t this essentially true?
A: The Buddha was not an unbeliever who presupposed that rebirth is impossible. He had an open mind. He also verified rebirth at an intuitive level.
Q: Didn’t the Buddha only wish us to suspend our judgements if, for example, rebirth was not demonstrable.
A: That is rather simple minded. Demonstration is limited. Ironically, all demonstration ultimately rests on some undemonstrable basis. Even the basis of the empirical sciences rests on theoretic consciousness which is ideal and axiomatic. And what about the so-called scientific observer? Can this ‘observer’ be demonstrated? Treating the subject of rebirth as if it were a scientific object will always give us cause to reject it. The validity of rebirth lies elsewhere than by means of physical demonstration. Next, you will be suggesting that we disbelieve compassion because it cannot be demonstrated [laughing]!
Q: But rebirth is just a belief. There are no empirical data to support such a theory. Are there any studies of which you are aware?
A: Yes. Are you familiar with Ian Stevenson’s work from the University of Virginia? You should read his book entitled Children Who Remember Past Lives. Although it is not proof positive, nevertheless, it is reasonable to believe that rebirth is possible just as it is reasonable to believe in global warming. Stevenson conducted a rigorous study of the subject with children who had no motive to deceive him. I find his conclusions reasonable.
Q: But what practical value does rebirth serve?
A: That is not a very scientific question [laughing]. First, let’s see whether or not it is reasonable to believe in rebirth. In this direction, Stevenson operates by establishing a rigid set of criteria by which to determine the truth or falsity of a rebirth claim. If there are enough cases which fit his criteria, then the argument for rebirth cannot be brushed aside, as there is no other way to account for the goodness of fit. As for rebirth’s practical value, it prevents the intrusion of relativistic morality. It also prevents us from temporarily side stepping morality for short term profit. Who knows, maybe in the future we will evolve a new morality based on a science of rebirth.
Q: But I am indifferent to the matter of rebirth. Can’t Buddhists just do good and be Buddhists without believing in rebirth or karma?
A: When is the suspension of belief just veiled disbelief? Perhaps it is an attempt to escape from Buddhism’s tenets—and morality. Being open to the possibility of rebirth demands a reasonable open mind – not a suspended one. At least, for me, it is reasonable to accept rebirth if only because the Buddha is a worthy person and personally verified it. But your view, as I see it, is almost that of an unbeliever! Remember that in the Buddha’s time, he describes the views of six heretics with whom he disagreed. Five of the heretics rejected karma and rebirth. It must be borne in mind thatrebirth and karma are integral to Buddhism.
Q: I don’t see myself as being the Buddhist equivalent of an infidel. The Buddha didn’t ask us to accept everything he said as being true. Isn’t that right?
A: I agree, but he also told us to test the meaning of his words by intuitive wisdom. Nor, did he suggest that we suspend belief. That is absurd! Just imagine, if you will, twelve agnostic jurors!
Q: Just recently I finished reading Stephen Batchelor’s book, Buddhism Without Beliefs. He makes a fine case for suspending blind belief. Don’t you agree that we should weigh the Buddha’s statements according to logic and evidence?
A: Well, according to the Kalama Sutta which Batchelor cites at the beginning of his book, we shouldn’t! Why he used this particular citation to shore up his arguments is beyond me. The passage clearly states that we should not be satisfied with “logical inference” or with weighing evidence”. On the other hand, in the “Parable of the Water-snake” [Majjhima 22] it clearly states that we should test the meaning in the canon by “intuitive wisdom”. Such wisdom is mystical, I must say.
Q: What is Dark Zen’s understanding of rebirth?
A: Show me your original face before you were born!
Q: I can’t!
A: And since you can’t, you are constantly being incarnated as the human form to which you are presently attached. If, on the other hand, you can see your ‘original face’, you will not be reborn as your original face is unborn. Said another way, you will be reborn in the unborn!
Q: But the idea of the unborn is just a fiction. This is the real world, isn’t it?
A: Yes, if you are tied to perceptual cognition out of which this world is made. But when we go beyond perceptual cognition, there we find the unborn. Here the opposition between perceiver and perceivable has ceased. The original unity of Mind is restored. Duality is ended.
Q: Then what is the purpose of this life?
A: To learn many lessons. But most of all to see your original face before you were born.
Q: What does your original face look like?
A: Like yours.
Q: Is that the one you’re looking at right now, with a nose on it?
A: What is more original than that? In fact, besides a nose, it even supports the perceptual cosmos!
Q: Thank you.
A: You’re welcome.
Text by Zenmar, the Dark Zen mystic
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