Thursday, June 10, 2004

post-mortem redux

First, a quick note about Smallholder's comment re: my recent lack of verbosity. Yes, it has a lot to do with having recently moved into what is effectively a cubbyhole, as well as being relegated, once again, to life in PC-bahngs, which means Kevin isn't nearly as happy a camper as he could be.

This relates a bit to the very interesting and occasionally frustrating email Sperwer sent me (NB to all readers: please send all future emails to, with "hairy chasms" in the subject line), because while I'd like to give Sperwer a lengthier reply, I just don't have much gumption or ganas these days. The easiest and laziest thing for me to do is the point-by-point, which is what I'll do now. Sperwer's text is in boldface.

[Note to the Maximum Leader: Yes, you scoffed the last time I said I wouldn't be prolix but was. Here's your chance to scoff again!]

Sperwer writes:


I read your piece on rebirth with great interest. The buddhist theory of rebirth is the bit of buddhism with which I have the greatest difficulty.

Well, that's not quite accurate. I have a lot of difficulty with an awful lot of Mahayana to the extent that it imported into buddhism an awful lot of "hocus-pocus". Some of my buddha buddies like to call me a buddhist fundamentalist, and they don't mean it kindly.

But insofar as I hew pretty closely to the those teachings that can with some plausibility be attributed to Shaky himself, that's my problem, because rebirth is pretty front and center - although it's interesting that in what is probably one of the two best short intros to buddhism, "What the Buddha Taught" Rahula almost completely dodges the issue except for one short paragraph which is the most oblique and obscure in the book.

Anyway, as problematic as I find the idea of rebirth, your commentary is equally unsatisfying.

OK, here we go.

To start with, I don't think that "the no-self doctrine is an analogy rooted in the physical nature of things". I understand you to be saying that the "self" according to Shaky is to be understand to be analogous to, or by way of analogy to, the world of physical phenomena in the sense that the latter are nothing more than mutually conditioned aggregates that coalesce and dissipate, having no essential substance, but that nevertheless can leave traces of their passage, in the manner of x-rays. I'm not sure it makes all that much difference, but I believe that the actual position of Shaky is not that the "self" should be understood by analogy to physical phenomena, but that it is IN FACT just the same.

My take on this point is rooted in my being an academic and not a Buddhist practitioner, which may account at least partially for why I phrased this the way I did (and let's cut me some slack for having written in haste, while also acknowledging that I've written more extensively on Buddhist notions of selfhood elsewhere on this blog in dealing with the question of emptiness).

From the religion student's point of view, the fact that there's still a debate going on about the ultimate nature of reality indicates that insights into reality's nature are neither as obvious as breathing nor as ordinary as pooping. Dr. Vallicella's own stance is strong evidence that I'm right about this non-obviousness, at least from the academic perspective (I may be totally wrong from a given religion's perspective).

From within the Buddhist tradition (and, speculatively, from the Buddha's own point of view), reality's nature may very well be immediately obvious and therefore not merely available through analogy. From the academic's (perhaps blinkered) point of view, that's not what we're seeing. We're seeing analogy (among other strategies) at work when founders and followers craft their metaphysical formulations-- the extension of principles about the observable into the unobservable realm.

My point about analogy is that, when we're dealing with phenomena that aren't readily observable-- and especially if we're discoursing in a religious context-- we tend to construct analogies based on what we can observe, if for no other reason than to aid our speculation. We create parallels between the physical and the metaphysical (or supernatural, etc.) all the time: the visible and invisible Church, for example, or parallels between temporal and spiritual hierarchy (not unique to Christianity by any means-- one interesting example of this being how the Adi Granth, the sacred text of Sikhs, is treated as a guru, i.e., as part of a spiritual hierarchy, in its own right). Or consider the cosmic geography that places Mt. Sumeru (or Meru) at its center; this is mappable in much the same way that the physical earth is mappable-- I've seen the maps. Consider also the different ways in which various beings view a river in Buddhism: as water and land (humans and animals), as pus and excrement (hungry ghosts), as flowing ambrosia (gods/titans), as molten metal (fighting spirits), etc. All of this is analogical.

[NB: Possible text source on Buddhist cosmology here; not vouching for accuracy. Physical and cosmic geography shown side-by-side here. I'm not trying to demonstrate that cosmic geography always maps onto physical geography; I'm arguing that cosmic geography is mappable like physical geography, which indicates analogical thinking at work.]

I think there's plenty of scriptural and commentarial evidence in favor of that position re: analogy and its role in religion, even in Buddhist metaphysics. To repeat, I see this tendency in many religions: the drawing of parallels between the physical and metaphysical/supernatural, the assumption that the unobservable functions according to principles analogous to those that guide the observable (more examples: ancestor veneration in East Asia, or the East Asian treatment of gods as functionaries in a celestial bureaucracy, mirroring terrestrial bureaucracy*). This is, more often than not, evidence of the limits of human imagination. It's also why we relentlessly portray aliens and UFOs in ways that are easily recognizable to us-- anthropomorphic and craving sex.

[*My Taoism/Confucianism prof had stories about Chinese gods who were "fired" when they didn't perform their jobs, e.g., failing to bring enough good fortune to a new business.

Also NB: Some readers may argue that there are crucial differences between metaphor and analogy. I'd agree. While I don't want to use those terms absolutely interchangeably, I'll refer you to Stephen Kaplan's Different Paths, Different Summits, which notes that metaphors and analogies have widely overlapping functions and very often amount to the same thing.]

But going further: I think you're right that it makes little to no difference whether we proceed from saying "this is analogical" to "this is the same thing." For me, it certainly doesn't, since my post was ultimately a reflection of my opinion on the matter.

The only difference between "selves" and other sorts of phenomena is that selves have one (or more) additional layers of aggregative complexity that constitute (levels of) perception and consciousness.

This works for me.

My second beef with your analysis is that I don't think it's accurate to describe the buddhist view as entailing a claim that there is a "coherent continuity of self passed from one body to another". {To be fair. it appears that you may be describing a popular or bompu buddhist (mis)conception -- of the sort that I think results from some of the mahayana mistakes to which I alluded earlier -- but in that case - well, so what; if you're going to go after the buddhist theory of rebirth better go for the real deal, not the jv].

A quick point here-- I've contended on this blog that a religion is as it is practiced, and that includes what we can observe about the structure of belief in a religion's practitioners. My stance is very empirical. I'm not about to adopt the essentialist conclusion (reached by many Buddhists!) that there's a fundamental, "real" or "official" Buddhism. So I reject the phrase "real deal" on its face for what it implies.

Having said this, I'll grant Dr. Vallicella's point re: doctrine, to wit: it's just as important to consider religious doctrines (and maybe this dovetails with what you mean by "real deal") as it is to consider religious practices in evaluating religious traditions. I stand by my reply to Dr. Vallicella, however: I consider the formulation of doctrines to be a subset of practice. Ritual and theory-- these are the doing of religion.

Again, all of this is very academic. It might not be at all meaningful to people who speak from within a tradition, so I have to allow that we may end up talking past each other given very different orientations and approaches.

Indeed, phrased the way you have it -- "continuity of SELF" -- it's clearly wrong; it contradicts the anatman theory itself, insofar as the emphasis of the word "self" presupposes or suggests a certain SORT of continuity that, as you suggest, provokes the intellectual gag response.

But I think you know the response to this critique: this is no different from ragging a Buddhist for using the pronoun "I." In other words, it's an unfair critique to make to someone who, in previous essays, has demonstrated an awareness of the points you bring up. Just as "I" is understood by Buddhists to be a conventional designation with nothing fundamental at its heart, it should be obvious that I use the term "self" with a similarly conventional, nonessentialist understanding. I wouldn't press this point with other people, but since you wrote a blog entry saying you read my essay on emptiness, you know of the degree to which I'm aware of the status of "self" in Buddhism.

NB: I just re-read the above paragraph, and it comes off sounding angry, which it isn't. If anything, I'm surprised at this particular critique. My feeling is, "You ought to know me better than that!" But maybe it's a good critique for the benefit of those who haven't read my other essays (check out the sidebar, people), because you bring up great points.

Moreover, as you acknowledge in passing at the close the full theory has more than a little to do with the notion of khamma.

Et oui.

Anyway, as far as I've been able to make out to date, and to put it very crudely: (1) khamma empowers certain aggregates associated with a particular body conventionally identified as a self ("A") to persist in a more or less intact aggregate form notwithstanding the destruction of the other aggregates of that self; (2) those persistent little bugger aggregates may become amalgamated with others in another physical body that it also is conventionally accurate to describe as a self ("B"); (3) there are a sufficient number of "family resemblances" between A and B that A and B would recognize one another as sharing those characteristics in some relatively intimate way -- (oh boy, a whole new universe of potential sensual semi-onanistic delights?); and (4) A and B would both be the same and different - different because each self would also comprise and be embodied by various other unshared aggregates of sufficient importance to distinguish A and B

On the other hand, it's also possible that when Shaky spoke of past and future lives, and lives in other dimensions he didn't mean anything so Individualistic - which could be a misinterpretation that we worldlings tend to make because of our attachment to the idea of having substantial selves - and that like the Beatles he was just saying he was the walrus, presaging the Hwaom elaboration of the interpenetration of all phenomena.

All excellent points, and perhaps this is what allows people, especially us scientific skeptical moderns, to back away from the more hocus-pocusy elements in traditional religion. At heart, I'm not into miracles or "the unexplained." The main thrust of my post was to state my belief that a materialistic account of what happens when we die is fine enough for me. Naturalistic views of karma are in no way contradictory with this stance, so I'm fine with those.

If, however, people view rebirth as it was illustrated in the movie "Little Buddha," then I have major problems with that analogy. The monk is explaining to Chris Isaak's character how rebirth works. He pours tea into a cup, shatters the cup, then mops up the tea with a cloth. His point is that the tea merely moved from cup to cloth, whereas I'd have to ask, "What happens to your analogy if you're using three cloths to mop up the tea?" This is, in fact, what happens at the end of "Little Buddha": the monks in search of the successor-lama conclude that he (and again, "he" is used only in the conventional sense, not implying anything fundamental) has transmigrated into three people-- two little boys and a little girl, all of whom, as you note above, share recognizable characteristics known to apply to the deceased lama.

Finally, what is most intriguing to me is the notion that one can "experience" the truth of this alleged fact of the physical world.

The paradox inherent in this notion is the same one we see when I "misused" the word "self." If there's no "I," who's doing the experiencing? What, then, is experience? Who attains nirvana? What's the difference between nirvana with and without remainder? If the Jataka Tales are ostensibly about the "previous lives of the Buddha," what does that phrase mean? (cf. this tale, for instance; the Jataka Tales, which this site claims are "mainly about past incarnations of Buddha," are old enough to throw doubt on the idea that notions of personal continuity after death are a Mahayana mistake. It's more likely that people want to preserve a notion of afterlife because we simply can't deal with the thought of our own demise.)

I suppose it could be an interesting thing to try for, but like the guy shot with the arrow who was clever enough to know he better concentrate on getting it out and treating the wound before it killed him instead of worrying about how it happened, I got better things to do - like getting the toe jam out from under my big toenail before it starts sprouting some other life form. Where're the cuticle scissors?

Heh. This I can relate to.

All in all, I don't think we really disagree about the important things. I think I'm being unfairly critiqued after writing a very brief post; I also think I'm on solid ground to suggest that Buddhist metaphysics (cosmology, etc.) is little different from other religions in how it uses analogy with the physical world to explain and explore the directly-unobservable; and I think my use of the word "self," so long as it's understood in the larger context of my other writings, is no more problematic than the Buddhist's use of the pronoun "I" despite his belief that this "I" contains nothing fundamental (an insight with which I agree).

PS I guess you didn't like the "driving the porcelain bus" picture website I steered your way?

Damn-- did I miss this? When did you send it? If this was long ago, I apologize for either not having followed the link or not having seen your reference at all. Nuts.

UPDATE/AFTERTHOUGHT: The above post might have been a lot shorter if I'd simply cited the "chariot dialogue" in the Milindapanha as an example of how no-self is seen through the use of analogy. Other textual sources can be dug up if necessary, but my point remains that analogical thinking is what allows people to make conjectures about the nature of personhood, self, etc. One could argue that Bhante Nagasena himself would have seen no-self as a simple truth. I'd agree that this is probably how he'd have seen it. This doesn't change the fact that analogical thinking is involved in conveying what Nagasena knew (or thought he knew, as some might contend-- ahem) to us, the readers of the dialogue. The strategy is visible in the dialogue itself.


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