Thursday, February 22, 2007

Rebirth: A Letter

Today, with his permission, a letter from a friend on the subject of rebirth, and the belief in rebirth. He says it all much more completely than my brief resume last Monday.

Hi Peter,

It was good to meet you on Sunday. I enjoyed the blog; thanks for the kind words.

It's a pity that we didn't have more time to discuss your question but the talk seemed to wander off in another direction - "The Secret" etc. Rebirth is a difficult one and I struggled with it for a long time. I started out with complete disbelief, considering it to be wishful thinking at best and completely at odds with scientific "facts", but the more I thought about and researched it, the more I realized that my belief that rebirth doesn't exist was just as much a dogmatic philosophical position as the belief that it does. I can't say that I know that rebirth is impossible and scientists haven't proved that it is impossible. This is particularly so with the Buddhist concept of rebirth because the Buddha said that there is not a "thing" that moves from life to life, just a process.

The idea of rebirth without any "thing" being reborn seems, at first sight to be nonsense but, if you think of your present life span, it seems more plausible. You say in your profile that you are 70; well, if you think of yourself now compared to when you were 7, what is left of the 7 year old Peter? Science tells us that we are mainly composed of water and that has changed since you were 7. All the gases in your body have changed. All the cells in your body have changed. Our minds change even more rapidly than the body - as we find out as soon as we try to do breath meditation! So the seven year old Peter has completely disappeared but we don't say that Peter doesn't exist. In fact, if the seven year old Peter hadn't existed, the seventy year old Peter could not now exist.

So why couldn't this process continue after the death of your present body? We know that the body isn't reborn because, if we are so inclined, we can watch a dead body rot. The only thing that could move on to another life is the mental continuum. For this to be the case, the mind would have to be a separate thing than the body and not dependent on the body for its existence. The Buddhist position is that the mental continuum started in the distant past and will continue into the future, only coming to an end when it stops grasping after further existence. In some ways, you could see it as similar to radio waves. These are in the air all the time but we are not aware of their existence; we can't experience them until we have a radio receiver.

In the scientific community there is disagreement as to whether consciousness can exist apart from the body or whether it is just an epiphenomenon of the brain. At the moment, the latter view seems to be dominant but the important thing is that neither side of the argument seems to be able to produce conclusive proof.

My position at the moment is that I don't know if rebirth exists but I lean towards accepting it because the Buddha said that it does and, every other time that I've put the Dhamma to the test I've found the Buddha to be correct.

In one way the question of rebirth can be put aside as long as you accept the theory of kamma. If you believe that all your actions have effects which depend upon the intention behind the act, then you will do all that you can to make sure that your actions aren't the cause of suffering for yourself or others. When you really investigate suffering and have real insights into it and its causes, you'll end up enlightened and will have put an end to rebirth.

Anyway, I'll stop my rambling now. I hope that this has helped you, if not, just hit the delete button and consign me to the great recycling bin in hyperspace!

I hope that I can speak to you again in person before I leave for home. If not and you want to keep up a dhamma discussion by e-mail I would be happy to do that.

Take care. Say hi to Ellie.

Best wishes, Nigel

I wrote back: Thanks, Nigel. Very good to hear from you. Your first paragraph sounds a bit like Pascal's famous bet about the existence of God. What you say makes good sense to me, but there is still a leap to make that I'm not quite ready for on this issue. Clearly, to make the point you make about believing what the Buddha said, you have far greater experience in testing out the Dhamma than I, and I respect that experience. I know that I have a lot of work to do! Would you mind if I used your letter in The Buddha Diaires? Please let me know. And do let's stay in touch. All being well, I'll see you this coming Sunday. Best of everything, Peter

And heard again from him: Hi Peter, Please feel free to use the letter, it might start a discussion. As for Pascal's wager, the problem is that he seems to think that it is an argument for believing only in the existence of the Christian God, whereas, if you follow the logic, you'd also have to believe in every other god or goddess that people have believed in since the beginning of time - and perhaps fairies at the bottom of the garden partying with leprechauns too! Regarding the fact that you are not ready to make the leap to believe in rebirth, the Buddha said somewhere, I think in one of the suttas in the Majjhima Nikaya, that you don't have to believe in rebirth but, if you don't, it means that you should go all out for enlightenment in this life. See you on Sunday. Take care, Nigel

And I, to him, briefly: Thanks, Nigel. I'll plan to share your letter in the next couple of days. And yes, the further discussion would be welcome. Fairies and leprechauns, eh? Sounds like fun. As for going all out for enlightenment, aren't we supposed to do that anyway? Or does belief in rebirth come with some kind of dispensation? Cheers, Peter

As Nigel suggests, wouldn't this be good, if this exchange started a discussion?


Fred said...

Thanks for sharing Nigel's letter. I look forward to futher discussion on this subject, and to seeing everyone again this Sunday.

carly said...

Whatever the rationale or intellectualization, it still boils down to the primordial in man wanting to honor the ancestors, which always stemmed from the nothingness of death and man's wish to overcome it.

However, my experience is that convincingly, the better psychics are seeing something. Limited proof to me was that it is not overactive imagination. My own ability is limited to objects and events. So I know first hand, we have abilities to leap in time beyond imaginative projection and anticipation.

My best guess is Buddha was a psychic, saw things others don't, and imparted his ideas of what it meant, culturally, because other psychics render different teachings from similar phenomenon.

Mark said...

I've been reading for some time now (a previous follower of the Bush Diaries and student from Drury University), and I am curious about some things. Aside from the intricacies of rebirth, there are some issues I can't quite comprehend about Buddhism. How does creation fit in with Buddhism? The abscence of a diety in this following causes some logical problems I haven't quite been able to work through, though I am just a college student. How did this eternal process begin and why?

PeterAtLarge said...

Mark, good question--but this is something I know little about. When I have a question of this kind, I go to and explore the site for whatever information I can glean. Good luck! PaL

carly said...

Mark: an overview: A common misconception among Westerners views Buddha as the Buddhist counterpart to “God”; Buddhism, however, is non-theistic (i.e., in general it does not teach the existence of a supreme creator god (see God in Buddhism) or depend on any supreme being for enlightenment; Buddha is a guide and teacher who points the way to nirvana). The commonly accepted definition of the term "God" describes a being that not only rules but actually created the universe (see origin belief). Such ideas and concepts are disputed by Buddha and Buddhists in many Buddhist discourses. In Buddhism, the supreme origin and creator of the universe is not a god, but Avidya (ignorance). Buddhists try to dispel this darkness through constant practice, compassion and wisdom (known as prajna).

David said...

I'm sort of split on this, because on the one hand I think of reincarnation as wishful thinking (in the same category as heaven), but it's also something I wish for.

The idea of us constantly being reborn, as our cells are replaced, is one thing, but it's a leap from there to the concept of past and future lives. Doubt there's really any way to prove or disprove any of it.

Z said...

Nigel's remark: "So why couldn't this process continue after the death of your present body? We know that the body isn't reborn because, if we are so inclined, we can watch a dead body rot. The only thing that could move on to another life is the mental continuum. For this to be the case, the mind would have to be a separate thing than the body and not dependent on the body for its existence."

There is an interesting dichotomy -- and illogical leap -- here. He goes from a statement based on science* to a question based on supposition and expects the latter to support the former. It makes just as much sense to say that a goldfish will live a year in the water, so why shouldn't it be able to do so out of the water. Doesn't wash. There is no reason to assume that a process that continues in a physical body over time will continue outside the body, regardless of how the body is or is not rejuvenated.

The existence of a supposition does not imply its accuracy. We do not yet know how the "mind" propagates within the body. That being the case, we know nothing to support its continuing out of the body, either.

*The body cell refreshment story is, in fact, a myth. Different cells are replaced at different rates, ranging from a few days in the case of skin cells to several decades in the case of some others. Brain cells, on the other hand, along with most adult bones, do not replenish themselves at all.

Z said...

A further remark about the creation issue. The Buddha's teachings were meant to help us clear our minds, not lead us to salvation. There is nothing in the Four Noble Truths/Eightfold Path that implies that he was concerned about such things at all. The original teachings were about enlightenment -- an understanding of reality, not metaphysics.

It is probably a mistake even to think of "Buddhism" as a religion, as that implies worship and a belief in a transcendent being or beings that can be influenced by prayer. Nothing in the original teaching speaks to that, either. These things were added later when the Buddhist ideas were grafted onto pre-existing religions, such as the Tibetan Bo faith and the animistic religions of Japan.

We know little about Siddartha's ideas on the matter. We can surmise that, if he had any, they were based on the early Hindu teachings that were his heritage.