Thursday, September 08, 2016

from body to body

Elisson writes a thoughtful and touching piece that evokes the mystery of the transmigration of the soul. Go over and read the story of little Isla and her grandmother. Since Elisson's piece evokes Buddhism via Martin Scorsese's "Kundun," I thought I'd add a bit of commentary to explore two interesting issues that appear in Elisson's piece: the question of transmigration and "Higher Purpose," and the concept of reincarnation.

In the Indian conception, existence is a wheel called samsara, a term and concept common to most Indian religious traditions. Being trapped on the samsaric wheel is not desirable; one seeks release from the wheel, which most strains of Hinduism would call moksha, or liberation. Buddhism's concept of release from the wheel is nirvana, a sort of blissful extinction. Either way, the wheel represents the unsatisfactory, painful, dynamic-and-thus-impermanent nature of reality. So I'm not sure that an adherent of Indian religion would say we're born over and over for some higher purpose, as if we were here to try to do something right in this life, in this world; it's more that, as with Heidegger's Geworfenheit ("thrownness") we're thrust into this vale of tears and must find a way out—a way to get off the wheel.*

Elisson mentions reincarnation and transmigration, which are both appropriate ways of thinking in a Hindu mode. However, for Buddhists, transmigration involves rebirth, not reincarnation. The distinction here is a bit technical and pedantic, so please bear with me. Reincarnation, literally "enfleshing again," involves the transmigration of the atman (roughly, the Hindu term for a monadic soul) from body to body. This is a fairly simple and straightforward idea. The atman is clothed in one body, then it's clothed in another, like someone trying on robe after robe. The atman, being essence, never changes.

Early Buddhists, however, critiqued the idea of an atman that somehow remains the same, impervious to karma (the law of action and the cause-consequence momentum of action).** For Buddhists, it was important to find a middle way between nihilism, on one hand, and eternalism on the other. The Hindu view of the atman as a permanent, monadic, indestructible core-of-self/being was the eternalist view; the utter negation of that view, a kind of nihilism that simply says "There is no soul," represented the other, equally undesirable, extreme. It's not exactly right to say that Buddhism preaches an absolute doctrine of no-self (anatman); it's more proper to say that, in Buddhism, the self exists, but it is particulate, dynamic, impermanent, and empty of any fundamental reality. Buddhist metaphysics posits elements of self called skandhas ("aggregates"); the self is a particulate thing, not a monad.

So to understand the difference between Hindu reincarnation and Buddhist rebirth, I have an image for you. Imagine the Hindu atman as a single large rubber ball. I roll that ball across the surface of a long table; this motion represents the unchanging atman's passage through reality. The atman, being unitary, changes not at all, and as our eyes track it through space and time, we can imagine it being clothed in a body—body after body, in fact. Now let's imagine that I've got a bunch of tiny marbles in my hand. Very gently, I roll the marbles carefully across the table such that they all move together smoothly, like a flock of sheep. This aggregate of marbles is closer to the Buddhist notion of the self moving through space and time. There's nothing holding the marbles together in formation except for momentum, and that's what karma is: the momentum of action. If the self is a coherent thing, it is only coherent because of karma. To use terms from modal logic, then: there is no necessary reason for the aggregates to cohere; unlike the permanent, indestructible atman, the Buddhist self is contingent, fragile, and absolutely subject to circumstance. And that's the difference between Hindu reincarnation and Buddhist rebirth: for Hindus, a monad is re-enfleshed; for Buddhists, no necessary being passes from body to body, so it's more apropos to speak simply of something—some thing—being born again: rebirth.

Ultimately, Elisson's meditation, which emphasizes human connection, strikes me as being more about karma than about rebirth. Buddhists often say that people are subtly connected by karma, with the ripples and echoes that our lives create through space and time. If two people meet, it's because their karmas have brought them to that meeting. Perhaps that's the connection that brought little Isla to her grandmother's memorial brick.

*The movie "Groundhog Day" reflects something of this dynamic: Bill Murray's character can't escape the cycle until he (1) realizes the nature of existence and (2) does the spiritual work necessary to escape the loop—but without thought for the fruits of his actions (cf. the Bhagavad Gita, in which God, Krsna, tells the warrior Arjuna to act without concern for the fruits of his actions). The dynamic here is a bit difficult to articulate, but let me try. It's not that Bill Murray's purpose is to become a better person, as if God had deemed it so; it's more that the nature of the cosmos—the cosmos that this movie describes, anyway—is such that Bill Murray can't escape his looped predicament without becoming a better person. Further: if you've seen the movie, you know that by the time Bill Murray escapes the loop, he has become loving and unselfish, and he's no longer concerned about the fact that he's stuck in a vicious cosmic circle. This is the paradox of praxis in Eastern thought, not just in Indian thinking but also in East Asian thinking: to achieve a goal, you have to let go of that goal and just be in the moment—a notion that realizes its pinnacle in Zen Buddhism. Bill Murray finally reaches a state of only-this, of no-attainment, and at that point, he's an enlightened being who is no longer trapped by the strictures of samsara and karma.

**It made no logical sense to Buddhists to say that the atman is unaffected by karma. In Asian thinking, it's relationships that come first, not objects. This is utterly weird from the Western point of view: for Westerners, Object A and Object B have to exist before we can talk about A and B's relationship to each other. In the Western mind, objects are logically prior to relationships. In the East, it's relationships that make objects what they are.

One of my Asian-religion profs illustrated it this way: he placed several pennies into two neat rows on a table and asked us to observe how the pennies related to each other, all in their ranks. He then moved one penny to a different, random part of the table. "In Asian reckoning," he said, "what that penny is has now changed, and because its relationship with those other pennies has changed, what those pennies are has also changed."

I don't blame you if your brain is screaming in disagreement. You might be thinking, "No—the pennies are still just pennies! What they are hasn't changed at all!" But maybe a more practical example might be helpful. Imagine a wooden table just sitting in a forest. What is that table? To a wandering rabbit, that table might be shelter from the rain. To a wandering bear, that table might be an obstacle getting in the way of prey. To a wandering craftsman, that table might be the project he'd misplaced in a fit of drunken revelry the night before. What the table is is determined by its relationship with something else. In Korean, the syllable bok means "happiness" or "good fortune." In Turkish, the syllable bok means "shit."

So to early Buddhists, the atman couldn't possibly be impervious to karma. That was nonsense: as long as the atman was within a swirling matrix of circumstance, it was part of an ever-changing theater of interrelationships, woven into the karmic-samsaric dynamic.


  1. Oh Jeebus, you have given me a headache at 8 am.


  2. Academic lectures are great for headaches, aren't they.

    You're welcome.

  3. Great post, man. I don't think I ever managed to fully grasp the difference between the Hindu and Buddhist conceptions of the self, despite having read numerous texts about it. I would play around the edges, but I always ended up with my head spinning. This is a very concise and clear explanation, and it helped a lot. In fact, after reading this, I'm not sure why I was never able to grasp this before. Anyway, thanks!

  4. Charles,

    Thanks for the comment. It helps to learn the two concepts in tandem/contrast with each other.



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