Thursday, August 17, 2006

Buddhism and the Afterlife

The Buddhist concept of rebirth and karma are oft-misunderstood here in the West. What are some common misconceptions?

  1. People hear "rebirth" and think, "A soul that is me is reincarnated."
  2. People think they can be reborn as a slug based on violating moral principles in this life.
  3. People consider rebirth like a ladder—you learn a lesson in one life and move up a rung, or you don’t learn a lesson and you stay put or regress.
  4. Within this framework, there may be an overarching godforce with which you are trying to become one, or that is of greater absolute status than you.
Each of these is an incorrect assumption about the Buddhist understanding of karma and rebirth.

During the Buddha’s lifetime, in the 4th century BCE, Indians predominantly practiced Hinduism. In Hindu thought, an atman, a soul, animates each person. The atman is an unchanging, permanent kernel of Brahman, the "concept of the unchanging, infinite, immanent and transcendent reality that is the Divine Ground of all being in this universe." (wikipedia) Hence, Hindu practice centers around uniting one’s essence with all that is.

The Buddha refuted this principle by asserting the emptiness of all things. While that is a topic for another essay (or thousands of essays!), in short it does not mean that things don’t exist or that all things are illusions. Emptiness describes the condition that nothing exists as a permanent, unchanging, independent entity. The Buddha observed that all things are inter-dependent, i.e. we are not animated by unchanging, permanent "essence of Brahman," but rather are comprised of aggregates, all of which are also inter-dependent. Basically, nothing can exist in the world independent of other things. Everything in the world arises dependent on one or more other already-existing things.

Based on the principle of emptiness, there is no soul to reincarnate. But then what is reborn? I discuss it in detail in section 2.2.8 of my essay here. In essence, Buddhism views consciousness as a digital continuum. Each instant of consciousness is based on the previous instant of consciousness and one’s current mental state. For example, let’s say your sister tells you she’s getting married. Pretend you like the guy. :) That input, and her enthusiasm, will make your next instant of consciousness a joyful one. As you continue to talk to her about it, joy continues as a constant input from your interaction. This, combined with your previous instant of "joy consciousness," results in continued joy consciousness. Eventually, you two change the topic. The joy will then slowly dissipate as the previous instant of joy consciousness combines with a new input. Then that “reduced-joy consciousness” combines with whatever input your current mental state provides to form the next instant of consciousness.

In that same way, the final instant of consciousness of your life will act as one of the causes for another instant to be generated—in a new life! There is no soul to be transferred between bodies. There is simply cause-effect: one instant of consciousness acts as one cause of the subsequent instant, potentially modified by one’s current state.

This seemingly simple system of cause-effect is at the heart of Buddhist karma. Thoughts, actions, and speech have no inherent "goodness" or "badness." Rather, every action, every thought, everything you say, is the result (effect) of previous causes, including free will, and will act as a cause for a subsequent effect. For example, killing incurs "negative karma" not because of some inherent "evil" in killing, but because the effect of killing is to cause suffering to another—and to yourself due to the unskillful mental states that precede killing (e.g. anger, jealousy, hatred).

Applying this to rebirth, we are not reborn as a "higher" or "lower" being due to an inherent moral or immoral sum of acts in life. Instead, Buddhism teaches that our rebirth is an effect of causes—and that may not correspond to the apparent sum of one’s actions in this life! Hence, Mother Theresa may have been reborn in a hell realm, despite her wonderfully generous life, based upon the complex of causes in her past and "current" life. However, she would also be certain to experience the effects of her saintly life as well. When and how, exactly, is too complex to predict.

The same concept shows why Buddhist karma does not result in a ladder-like rebirth system. Taking the Mother Theresa example, in a ladder system, she would have been expected to probably have progressed to the next rung, although even there it is possible that she did not learn her particular lesson for this life, despite her compassionate action. Buddhism acknowledges and accepts that the interweaving matrix of causes has many effects still operating, even if repressed in the psyche. Hence, there is a chance that Mother Theresa may have been reborn in a less-than-pleasant realm, just as it is possible that she was reborn in a god realm.

This last point refutes misconception #4. Karmic effects can cause rebirth as a god in Buddhist cosmology. There is no overarching, greater God or Goddess in Buddhism. Rather, beings may experience rebirth in a wondrous heavenly realm as an effect of the causes of their thoughts, actions, and speech. It is said that, in a godly form, these beings do have some powers that we, as humans, normally do not. But Buddhism still views these gods, who were once people just like you and me, as afflicted. Eventually, the god-being will die and then causes and conditions will determine his/her next rebirth. In actuality, Buddhism views a human life as most desirable because the heavenly realms are too pleasant to give one a reason to work toward perfecting their development of skillful qualities like generosity, love, and compassion, while hell realms and animal rebirths often make it difficult to get the chance to practice—life is too difficult and distracting. How well could you practice generosity as a deer when predators are always about? Plus, your mental capacity is reduced, making it that much more difficult. Human rebirth is considered most advantageous because there is enough suffering to prompt the need for a spiritual path, enough happiness to continue motivating your practice, and the best opportunity to be exposed to teachings to guide you on the path.

All that being said, Buddhism is predominantly a pragmatic path. It is not about philosophizing about metaphysics or thinking intellectually over propositions and concepts. It is not even about being compassionate or loving or generous. It is about BEING compassion, BEING love, BEING generosity, in the here and now.

*This article was posted by Mike of Unknowing Mind while he was a guest blogger here. When I switched over to the new Blogger system on 9/12/06, the byline was changed by Blogger. I want to give credit where credit is due.


Bernulf said...

Interesting post, Mike. Something in it caught my attention, and that was the reference to the Hindu atman. We touched on Indo-European connections before, and I think it's possible that we have another connection - or at least a very interesting coincidence.

In the Heathen view of the components of the body-soul complex, we have something called the athem, which is what links the soul to the body...similar in function to the animus or 'silver cord'.

Nixie B said...

A friend of mine is very into the Vedic writings. He is fascinated with the idea that all religions stem from this single source. I don't know much about them, but it explains so much about how so many different cultures and spiritual traditions share so many concepts.

Mike, I'm really enjoying your posts because you are making very difficult concepts very easy to understand. As you've seen from my own posts, I have a rudimentary knowledge of some Buddhist philosophy, garnered largely from studying Asian art. It's nice to be able to have a better and deeper understanding.

One of the things that drew me to Wicca was its embrace of many different ideas from many different cultures. As you see, this modern religion does have a certain freedom to choose for ourselves how we want to express our faith. There are certain Buddhist and Hindu ideas that I believe are wondrous and I like being able to incorporate them into my own practice. I know that by interpretation they may lose a bit of their purity, but I hope that just as I relish my own religion for its inclusive nature, Buddhists would honor the Wiccan eagerness to incorporate their wisdom into our own traditions.

Mike said...

B: I find that very interesting, the Indo-Euro connection. I think we definitely have found another one in atman-athem. This exchange has been highly educational along those lines! And it ties in well with what Nixie said about her friend who sees the Vedas as the true source of all religions - it wouldn't surprise me if European religions borrowed ideas from Hinduism, and adapted them according to their own tribal traditions.

Nixie: I see no problem at all in drawing on Buddhist & Hindu traditions in your own practice. Sure, they won't be "pure" anymore, but there is much that, for example, Buddhist meditation can do for someone who doesn't follow the Buddhist path. Buddhists throughout the ages have put more time & energy into psychological research than most, if not all, religions. Why not let other religions borrow those ideas? :) BTW, I like Wicca for the same reason you mentioned - its embrace of many different ideas from different cultures. I think that freedom is one of its greatest strengths (not to mention its ecological focus, which I admire greatly).

Bernulf said...

Actually, if I understand IE theory correctly the early Europeans, as they migrated from the original cultural center, would have carried the same base beliefs with them as held by those who remained behind...what I think is amazing about this is just how much of the similarities have survived the millennia.