Karma and Rebirth
Q: What are your views on rebirth?
A: Well, it is undeniable that
the Buddha, under the Bodhi-tree during the first night-watch, came
to recollect his previous births.
Q: Yes, I know. But wasn’t he just
accepting the outlook of his day? Didn’t many of his contemporaries
just assume that each person had a former existence and that, owing
to karma will continue to have more rebirths?
A: I seriously doubt that. Jayatilleke
pointed out in his book, _Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge_, that
it is false to conjecture that rebirth was generally accepted in
India during the Buddha’s time.
Q: How so?
A: The theory can’t be found in
either the Rigveda or the Atharvaveda. Nor do even the early Upanishads
endorse it, being only one of many such theories. So, I can’t agree
with you that ‘rebirth’ was the accepted outlook of that day. The
Buddha’s insight seems to me to be quite original and only finds
parallels in ancient Greece. In fact, explicit mention of rebirth
is only found in Hellenic culture and in Buddhism.
Q: But I was under the impression
that he just adopted it as a ploy to get people to act in a moral
way. Isn’t it true that rebirth served as the basis for moral responsibility?
A: It was hardly a ploy in the
Buddha’s mind! In fact, the Buddha’s own recognition of rebirth
proved that morality is necessary. If there is nothing upon which
to base morality, why, therefore, bother to practice morality?
Q: But why do we need rebirth to
compel us to act in moral ways? We practice morality because it
benefits us here and now.
A: No, we practice morality because
at a deep level, in our being, we sense that we will be reborn.
In other words, moral action arises owing to the fact of rebirth.
Q: What, in your estimation, is
reborn if Buddhism denies a self?
A: The Buddha says that ‘consciousness/vijnana’
rather than self is reborn. There is a huge difference. Presently,
you may or may not understand the Buddha’s notion of ‘self’, but
you are certainly aware that as you speak, you are conscious of
what you say. This is what transmigrates. Not a self.
Q: Is there some kind of consciousness
field that exists between the consciousness which leaves the body
and the embryo into which it enters in the next life?
A: Certainly, it is not impossible.
For example, when a sodium atom occiliates at 510 billion times
to the second, there is an interval between the atom’s death and
its subsequent rebirth. In that interval, or zero phase, there must
be a pattern of the sodium atom if it is to reappear after one of
its periodic deaths. If the pattern is kept inside the atom, then
when it cessates, so should the pattern for the atom also cease.
If not, then you must be open to the idea of a "consciousness field"
between sodium atom events which conserve the pattern of the atom.
Let me say that I think the Buddha was well within science to universalize
birth, death, and rebirth. It is the mode of everything. Indeed,
this happens at the micro level of our universe as I have shown.
So, why shouldn’t we assume the rebirth of consciousness after death?
Maybe this is the true meaning behind the Buddhist idea of a conservatory
of consciousness which perhaps mediates between discontinuous phenomenal
events. But whatever the opinion on this matter, it is better to
have an open mind.
Q: Is it really necessary to believe
this stuff? I am an agnostic.
A: What do you mean by agnostic?
If you mean by agnostic, "I don’t want to know," then we shouldn’t
be agnostics. An agnostic, in that case, would be promoting positive
Q: But in his recent book, _Buddhism
Without Beliefs_, Stephen Batchelor said that the Buddha was agnostic.
Isn’t this essentially true?
A: The Buddha was not an unbeliever
who presupposed that rebirth is impossible. He had an open mind.
He also verified rebirth at an intuitive level.
Q: Didn’t the Buddha only wish
us to suspend our judgements if, for example, rebirth was not demonstrable.
A: That is rather simple minded.
Demonstration is limited. Ironically, all demonstration ultimately
rests on some undemonstrable basis. Even the basis of the empirical
sciences rests on theoretic consciousness which is ideal and axiomatic.
And what about the so-called scientific observer? Can this ‘observer’
be demonstrated? Treating the subject of rebirth as if it were a
scientific object will always give us cause to reject it. The validity
of rebirth lies elsewhere than by means of physical demonstration.
Next, you will be suggesting that we disbelieve compassion because
it cannot be demonstrated [laughing]!
Q: But rebirth is just a belief.
There are no empirical data to support such a theory. Are there
any studies of which you are aware?
A: Yes. Are you familiar with Ian
Stevenson’s work from the University of Virginia? You should read
his book entitled _Children Who Remember Past Lives_. Although it
is not proof positive, nevertheless, it is reasonable to believe
that rebirth is possible just as it is reasonable to believe in
global warming. Stevenson conducted a rigorous study of the subject
with children who had no motive to deceive him. I find his conclusions
Q: But what practical value does
A: That is not a very scientific
question [laughing]. First, let’s see whether or not it is reasonable
to believe in rebirth. In this direction, Stevenson operates by
establishing a rigid set of criteria by which to determine the truth
or falsity of a rebirth claim. If there are enough cases which fit
his criteria, then the argument for rebirth cannot be brushed aside,
as there is no other way to account for the goodness of fit. As
for rebirth’s practical value, it prevents the intrusion of relativistic
morality. It also prevents us from temporarily side stepping morality
for short term profit. Who knows, maybe in the future we will evolve
a new morality based on a science of rebirth.
Q: But I am indifferent to the
matter of rebirth. Can’t Buddhists just do good and be Buddhists
without believing in rebirth or karma?
A: When is the suspension of belief
just veiled disbelief? Perhaps it is an attempt to escape from Buddhism’s
tenets—and morality. Being open to the possibility of rebirth demands
a reasonable open mind - not a suspended one. At least, for me,
it is reasonable to accept rebirth if only because the Buddha is
a worthy person and personally verified it. But your view, as I
see it, is almost that of an unbeliever! Remember that in the Buddha’s
time, he describes the views of six heretics with whom he disagreed.
Five of the heretics rejected karma and rebirth. It must be borne
in mind that rebirth and karma are integral to Buddhism.
Q: I don’t see myself as being
the Buddhist equivalent of an infidel. The Buddha didn’t ask us
to accept everything he said as being true. Isn’t that right?
A: I agree, but he also told us
to test the meaning of his words by intuitive wisdom. Nor, did he
suggest that we suspend belief. That is absurd! Just imagine, if
you will, twelve agnostic jurors!
Q: Just recently I finished reading
Stephen Batchelor’s book, _Buddhism Without Beliefs_. He makes a
fine case for suspending blind belief. Don’t you agree that we should
weigh the Buddha’s statements according to logic and evidence?
A: Well, according to the Kalama
Sutta which Batchelor cites at the beginning of his book, we shouldn’t!
Why he used this particular citation to shore up his arguments is
beyond me. The passage clearly states that we should not be satisfied
with "logical inference" or with weighing evidence". On the other
hand, in the "Parable of the Water-snake" [Majjhima 22] it clearly
states that we should test the meaning in the canon by "intuitive
wisdom". Such wisdom is mystical, I must say.
Q: What is Dark Zen’s understanding
A: Show me your original face before
you were born!
Q: I can’t!
A: And since you can’t, you are
constantly being incarnated as the human form to which you are presently
attached. If, on the other hand, you can see your ‘original face’,
you will not be reborn as your original face is unborn. Said another
way, you will be reborn in the unborn!
Q: But the idea of the unborn is
just a fiction. This is the real world, isn’t it?
A: Yes, if you are tied to perceptual
cognition out of which this world is made. But when we go beyond
perceptual cognition, there we find the unborn. Here the opposition
between perceiver and perceivable has ceased. The original unity
of Mind is restored. Duality is ended.
Q: Then what is the purpose of
A: To learn many lessons. But most
of all to see your original face before you were born.
Q: What does your original face
A: Like yours.
Q: Is that the one you’re looking
at right now, with a nose on it?
A: What is more original than that?
In fact, besides a nose, it even supports the perceptual cosmos!
Q: Thank you.
A: You’re welcome.