Arguments for rebirth

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Arguments for rebirth

(A) Since the idea of rebirth has become well-known in the West and to some degree acceptable, there has been a plethora of books by people claiming that they can remember their former lives. For a while in the 1970s and 80s something called Past Life Therapy became popular in the more fad-prone corners of the counselling and psychiatric professions. The little acceptance it had even then has now disappeared. There are even guidebooks explaining how to recover supposed past life memories. Few of these claims stand up to careful or sometimes even casual scrutiny. A friend of mine tells me that he knows at least four people who can vividly remember being Cleopatra. Most so-called past life memories are probably a result of suggestion, confabulation, an overly-vivid imagination, the desire to be appear more interesting than one really is, or crypto-amnesia. But certainly not all. The late parapsychologist Prof. Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia School of Medicine has published a series of studies of children who appear to have been able to remember a past life. Stevenson’s findings have earned him at least some attention from the scientific community. Others who have followed in his footsteps are Dr. B. Jim Tucker and Prof. Erlendur Haraldsson.

So if we really are reborn, some people ask, why cannot most people remember their former lives? But perhaps they can, at least while they are infants. Children not uncommonly say things that could well be examples of past life memories but because rebirth is not widely accepted beyond the Buddhist world, their parents disregard such things and dismiss then as just childish prattle. As the child grows, the impact of all the new sensory impressions in his or her present life simply smother the past life memories, or past life memories get confused with memories from the present life. For the majority however, it seems likely the nine months in the womb, which could be considered a natural sensory-deprivation tank, erases all but just a few fragmentary and disconnected past life memories. Apparently such memories usually only become accessible again in the period just prior to awakening, when the mind is, as the Buddha described it, “focused and purified, cleansed and unblemished, pliant and free of defilements, malleable, stable, firm and imperturbable” (D.I,76).

(B) Throughout the Buddhist world rebirth is taken for granted. In the west however, many people find it curious and improbable. The idea of eternal heaven or hell still has some acceptance, at least in a vague sense. But objectively speaking, rebirth is no more or less improbable. The main problem with rebirth for many Westerns is its unfamiliarity. And no doubt many intelligent people dismiss it as unworthy of consideration when they are presented with half baked “esoteric” and New Age versions of it in circulation. But rebirth has won at least some acceptance from certain intellectuals and serious thinkers. Philosopher Paul Edwards has highlighted what he believes to be serious evidential and logical problems with rebirth/reincarnation. But others like philosophers C. J. Ducasse and J. M. E. McTaggart and academics such as Susan Blackmore consider rebirth to be a plausible post-mortem explanation.

(C) According to the Buddha, the three characteristics of existence are suffering (dukkha), impermanence (anicca) and not-self (anatta). Not-self asserts that the idea of an eternal, unchanging self, soul or essence in things is an illusion. When some people hear this they ask, perhaps understandably: “If there is no self, soul or spirit, what passes from one life to the next?” The problem is more apparent than real. The Buddha did not teach that there is no self as such; he taught that there is no permanent, unchanging, metaphysical self. In Buddhism as in contemporary psychology, the self is understood to be the constantly evolving cluster of impressions and memories, traits and dispositions that together form consciousness. When one identifies with this it gives the feeling of being autonomous and separate from others and of persisting through time. This empirical self clearly exists in that it is a real experience, although it is in a constant state of flux. It is this “self” that passes from one life to the next.

Imagine three billiard balls in a line, each touching the other and a fourth billiard ball some distance from the three and aligned to them. Now imagine that a man hits the fourth ball with his cue and it speeds across the table and hits the first ball in the line. The moving ball will come to an immediate halt, it and second balls will remain stationary while the third ball, the last in the row, will speed across the table and into the pocket. What has happened? The energy in the fourth ball has passed through the first and second balls in the row, then into the third ball, activating it so that it moves across the table. In a similar way, the mental energy that makes up what we can conveniently call the self, moves from one body to another. Indeed, the very thing that allows it to pass through a medium and animate another object is its changeability (anicca). It is not this, but the idea that a soul or spirit can go from one location or dimension to another without changing that is difficult to explain.

(D) Following from this is the question of identity. If the consciousness that makes up the self is indeed constantly changing, is it legitimate to consider the individual who is reborn the same as the one who died? And if the individual who is reborn is different from the one who died, is it legitimate to say that one can experience the results of kamma done in the former life in the present life? Interestingly, the Buddha addressed these very questions. He said that to say that the one who acts is the same as the one who experiences its result would be extreme, but to say that they were entirely different would be extreme too. He then proceeded to reiterate his position that the individual is a conditioned, constantly evolving flow of interconnected psycho-physical factors giving the “impression” of a self.

Using an analogy might help clarify what the Buddha meant. Think of a football team which has been going for 60 years. During that time scores of players have joined the team, played with it for five or ten years, left and been replaced by other players. Even though not one of the original players is still in the team and the earliest ones are not even alive, it is still valid to say that “the team” exists. Its identity is recognizable despite the continual change. The players are hard, solid entities but what is the team identity made up of? In part of the players, but also its name, memories of its past achievements, the feelings that the players and the supporters have towards it, its esprit de corps, etc.

Similarly, a mother might take out the family photo album and show her children photos of herself when she was a child. Science tells us that not one molecule in her body is the same as when she was young. Her thoughts, ideas and beliefs are all different from when she was a child. Even her facial features when young, although vaguely similar, are hardly recognisable to her children. Even so, when the curious children ask their mother: “Is that you mummy?”, and she answers “Yes”, no one would accuse her of lying. Despite the fact that both body and mind are continually changing, it is still valid to say that the person who is reborn is a continuation of the person who died – not because any unchanging self has passed from one to another, but because identity persists in memories, dispositions, traits, mental habits and psychological tendencies. Thus it is valid to say that an individual passes from one life to another and that one can experience in this life the vipāka of kamma done in the previous life.

(E) One of the arguments posited in favour of belief in a supreme deity is that ethics only become meaningful when there is a god, an eternal arbiter of values. People supposedly have a clear idea of right and wrong because it is dictated by the deity’s commandments. They adhere to these moral commandments, so the argument goes, either out of love of the deity or because they fear his punishment here or hereafter if they do not. Thus without a god there would be no motivation to do good and avoid evil. Indeed, we would not know what was good and evil were without God. Dostoyevsky famously summed up this argument when he wrote: “Without God everything is permitted.” There are major problems with this argument, not the least being that almost every conceivable wickedness has been committed with a god, even sometimes by people who had a deep faith in a god.

But is it really the case that the only two choices available are monotheism and moral nihilism? Although kamma is never included in the debate between those who believe in a supreme being and those who do not, kamma offers a third alternative worthy of consideration. The Buddhist doctrine of kamma provides a basis for a moral universe, it justifies and encourages sound ethical precepts and it provides the motivation to do good and avoid evil, without having to posit the notion of a divine being. Although Buddhist philosophy does not include the concept of a supreme being, it has arrived at moral principles for the most part the same as those taught by the major theistic faiths, and often earlier than they did. The reality is that there can be morality without a god. The Buddha said we should adhere to the good because it leads to “love, respect, kind regard, harmony and peace” (A.III,289), and we should shun evil out of compassion for others and because its kammic consequences can be very unpleasant.

(F) Those who believe that life ceases at death sometimes maintain that all theories of post-mortem existence, rebirth included, are just examples of wish-fulfilment. Because humans have a natural fear of death and desire to live forever, they create in their imagination some form of happy afterlife. The belief in post-mortem existence is, so the argument goes, just a consolation. It would be difficult to argue with this claim. However, such a claim could hardly apply to the Buddhist idea of rebirth. Whereas almost all religions consider eternal life in one form or another to be a desirable thing, a reward for having done good or having faith in the true god, something to be hoped for, Buddhism by contrast, regards it as a problem to be solved. According to the Buddha, continual rebirth into the world exposes one to all the problems ordinary embodied existence entails: sickness; accidents; loss of loved ones; social upheavals; decrepitude; and eventually death. The Buddha said that one should be “turned off, repelled and disgusted” by the idea of eternal life in heaven (A.I,115), a goal he considered decidedly inferior to Nirvana. Even eternal life in heaven, if such a thing were possible, must, sooner or later, entail boredom and a sense of meaninglessness. The raison d’etre of Buddhism is to end saṃsāra, the process of birth, death and being reborn. So however much the wish-fulfilment theory may apply to other post-mortem theories it could not apply to Buddhism.

(G) One of the strong points of the Buddha’s doctrine of kamma is that is fits well into most peoples’ idea of fairness and justice. Eternal hell seems to be a disproportionate punishment for acts of evil, even a lifetime of evil or of worshipping a false deity. And even 50, 80 or 100 years of virtuous living is, some would say, a very modest outlay for eternity in paradise. The vipāka we experience for the kamma we do is, by contrast, approximately proportionate. The strength and duration of vipāka reflects the kamma that caused it, all things being equal. A man like Hitler deserves to go to hell, but does he deserve to go to hell forever? That would seem to be an act more terrible than the atrocities he had committed. And what of those who were basically good and decent people but who believed in the wrong god? Is it fair and just that their fate should be eternal punishment? Kamma is equitable in that the good experience good and the bad bad, whatever religion they belong to or whatever deity they worship. Kamma can also be seen as embodying a form of restorative justice. The vipāka of even the most evil people - Jeffrey Dahmer; Idi Amin; Pol Pot; Himmler; Beria and others - will eventually peter out and they will have another chance to redeem themselves. In every sense the doctrine of kamma is equitable, fair and just.

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