Friday, December 19, 2003

Glenn on Buddhism

I agree with this.

I first got some in depth knowledge about Buddhism in an Introductory Religious Studies class back at the University. I did my own research and I like some of Buddhism['s] basic tenets (which I won't list or go into detail about here). But one thing about Buddhism just rubs me absolutely the wrong way and that's the belief in rebirth and reincarnation.

Now I understand that Buddhist reincarnation isn't a straight up, 100% transmigration of consciousness to another being. But reincarnation/rebirth of any kind just sounds like hocus pocus to me and sets my BS detector off like a mofo.

Yes; for those who don't know the difference between Hindu notions of reincarnation and Buddhist notions of rebirth, the difference becomes obvious when you ask the question, "What's reincarnating/rebirthing?"

The traditional Hindu view posits a solid, unchanging self called atman (many Western thinkers say "soul," but I have my doubts about how good this translation is). This atman is the kernel of your being, your essential self.

Buddhism contends there are no essences, no foundations; instead, there is only pratitya-samutpada, or dependent co-arising. In this view, all phenomena are dynamic, interconnected, and intercausal. Nothing "boils down to" anything fundamental, and all phenomena are relational.

So nothing is static for a Buddhist. Things may appear static, but they're always in process. If we're able to discern "this" from "that," it's in part because many phenomena have the character of continuity, like a candle flame. To quote myself on this point from an earlier essay:

...take a candle flame. I can point to it as a distinct phenomenon and say, "That's a candle flame." But every instant, the flame is in process. It is not a solid object. As the flame continues to consume a different part of the wick, its internal constitution is constantly changing, always moving through time and space. In what sense, then, is it "the same" flame? Only in the sense that there's continuity in the process. When we point to the candle flame, then point to the candle flame again two minutes later, we're pointing to a process, which our minds incorrectly render as a solid "thing-in-itself."

If there's a distinct personality being reborn, that personality's coherence is not fundamental; it's coherent because the momentum of karma is keeping it coherent for the moment. This is a clever subversion of the Hindu paradigm, because on a practical level, there appears to be no difference between Hindu reincarnation and Buddhist rebirth. But on the metaphysical level, there's a huge difference: whereas Hindu thought posits something changeless, Buddhist thought denies the possibility of permanence/immutability.

[NB: Advaitic Hindu thought also subverts the traditional notion of atman, but maybe that's material for a different post.]

One rationale for why Buddhists preserved so much of the Hindu dynamic is their belief that "working out one's situation" would obviously require more than one lifetime. This isn't a logical stance, but it's a rationale that, on some level, may have fueled Buddhist thinking over the centuries. Not all Buddhists believe this anymore, however; quite a few schools contend that one lifetime is all it takes to leave the samsaric wheel.

I disagree with the notion of rebirth, probably because I'm a Christian and it goes against the grain of my own instinctive presuppositions. Buddhism arose in an environment that already took reincarnation for granted, which makes its "rebirth" paradigm a natural outgrowth from preexistent Hindu thought, just as Christianity's initial Jesus movement was merely another Jewish sect that quite naturally adopted Jewish modes of thought and expression.

But what disappoints me most about the Buddhist vision of rebirth (aside from the hocus-pocus flavor) is that Buddhism, which is usually very empirical and pragmatic, here makes an unjustified leap completely unsupported by empirical evidence. Rebirth, in my opinion, is a speculative extension of Buddhist observations, nothing more. In fact, one thing we observe about our bodies is that they decompose and scatter-- i.e., they lose coherence and disperse. If your skandas (the particulate components of your personality; Buddhism usually says there are five of these) act in an analogous manner, why not assume that your "self" also scatters at death?

The vision I'm describing is closer to what you'd find in philosophical Taoism. Phenomena arise from the Tao, then fall back into the Tao, and at no point are they anything more or less than Tao itself, just as an ocean wave is always 100% ocean water during the time it arises and sloughs back into the ocean.

Many Buddhists these days (including some in the East) don't take rebirth too literally, but many do. Tibetan Buddhism has thoroughly mapped out the realm between your death and your next rebirth, the Bardo [NB: not a Tolkien character]. Many lay Buddhists are also unaware of what distinguishes Hindu reincarnation from Buddhist rebirth, and in fact speak of "past life" and "next life" as if they were Hindus.

My own view, as a Christian in the John Spong/John Hick mold (i.e., someone who's largely a scientific skeptic and who doesn't subscribe to a literal God or believe in literal resurrection, etc.), is that Buddhism's metaphysics is mostly right, but philosophical Taoism's probably got a better picture of what's really going on in the post-mortem "realm." Magico-religious Taoism, on the other hand, plays to folklore, filling the world with spirits, so once again it's all a demon-haunted world.


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