Thursday, June 10, 2004

where do we go when we die?

One major area of disagreement I have with traditional/folkloric Buddhist notions of rebirth is with regard to there being a coherent continuity of self passed from one body to another. Buddhists differ from Hindus in how they conceive of this process. For most Hindus (who will use the term "reincarnation"), there is a solid, unchanging, unchangeable atman that merely receives new vestments in a different body. For Buddhists (who prefer to speak of "rebirth"), there is no fundamental atman, but the mental/psychological aggregates that form a person can be said to have continuity beyond one's death. Just as a stream has a certain distinctness but no fundamental permanence, so it is with the personal aggregates that pass onward from life to life.

For me, this is problematic. To the extent that the no-self doctrine is an analogy rooted in the physical nature of things, then it should be obvious that living things scatter once they die. The process of deterioration may take some time; softer tissues, for example, deteriorate more quickly than bones. But the end is the same: scattering, remixing, recycling. My feeling is that, if we take the physical world seriously and want to construct a solid afterlife analogy, then we can't justify the idea that something of ourselves continues coherently onward into another life.

Many Western Buddhists, especially those who've converted from Christianity and who are already predisposed to dislike the folkloric "hocus-pocus" found in some Christian circles (faith healing, miracles, passing around statues of the Blessed Virgin, "travel mercies," etc.), take this attitude with them into their Buddhism and, as part of their practice, reject a literal interpretation of the notion of rebirth, perhaps putting this question aside as unfathomable or irrelevant. Hyon Gak sunim has, in previous dharma talks, neatly avoided this question by emphasizing that such speculation isn't necessary: in worrying about one's karma, it's enough to focus on what's going on here and now. My suspicion is that Hyon Gak is a nonliteralist when it comes to the metaphysics of rebirth, but it's only a suspicion. If he is a nonliteralist, I think he's right to be so.

Where do we go when we die?

Do you really want to know what I think?

I think we scatter. I think consciousness is an epiphenomenon, arising out of a certain arrangement of matter. I don't think there's any hard evidence for disembodied consciousness, for anything that continues to exist after my physical body dies and decays, and what's more, I think this is right and good. I think this is the answer to the question "who attains nirvana?", as well as the answer to the Christian conundrum of whether we're headed to heaven or hell or purgatory. We're headed back into the great, recycling Tao, folks. And since we were always part of this Tao, just as an ocean wave never stops being composed of ocean water, then I can agree with Thich Nhat Hanh's observation that we were always here to begin with, and will always be here. There is nothing not-Tao.

I plan to comment on Nhat Hanh's The Heart of Understanding in a bit; it's a tiny book and I'm almost done reading it.

[NB: The above is a statement of personal belief, so please be careful to distinguish between what I claim about Buddhist metaphysics (I haven't claimed all that much in this piece) and what my own opinion is. Many Buddhists actually have well-reasoned arguments for post-mortem personal continuity, often relating to their vision of the dynamics of karma. Specifically, many Buddhists believe it takes more than a single lifetime to work karmic issues out. From this framework, the notion of personal continuity makes sense. My own feeling, however, is that this ever-changing "Kevin" gets only this one unique life, like it or not, and I side with those Buddhists who say that karma isn't to be viewed mathematically-- i.e., as if karmic motion were being accounted for by some huge cosmic calculator.]


1 comment:

John Mac said...

Interesting. I figured you must have blogged on this subject, but nineteen years ago was before I discovered the wisdom of Big Hominid.

I was raised in a conservative Protestant church culture (Foursquare and Assembly of God) but rejected pretty much all the tenets of that faith as a rebellious teen. These days, as an old man, I find myself occasionally fantasizing about an afterlife that I might actually enjoy. I'm not well-versed enough to really relate my ideas to Eastern religions, although some of what you say fits. Reincarnation in the metaverse is sort of what I'm thinking. I'll write about it once I have a clearer idea of my own ideas.