15 June 2012

How Buddhist Rebirth Changes Over Time

ONE OF THE FACTS about the foundation texts of Buddhism that most people don't seem to have taken in is that rebirth is an idea with a history. The idea did not spring into being fully formed. And what's more we can discern this history in the Pāli texts themselves. It has been traced in detail by Gananath Obeyesekere in his book Imagining Karma. In this post I want to review the development of rebirth from its primitive form to the full blown received version, basing myself on Obeyesekere, along with some observations and diagrams of my own. The received tradition tends to obscure the variations in the texts, but they can be (at least partially) reconstructed. So this is a kind of archaeology in the spirit of Foucault. A caveat here is that we don't know the absolute chronology of these changes, we only know that they were all preserved, somewhat unevenly, with the fixing of the Canon.

The most basic form of rebirth eschatology is binary. It involves 'this world' (ayaṃ loko) and 'the other world' (paro loko) a way of referring to rebirth that one finds scattered throughout the Canon, and which may have been retained as an idiom long after the binary model had been augmented. In this simple model of rebirth one lives on earth; then after death one rises up to the other world (always up), where one lives for a long time; then one falls back to be reborn on earth again. For example in M 49 the movement is described by this sequence of verbs: jāyati jīyati mīyati cavati upapajjati--being born, living, dying, falling, being rebirth. Rebirth is automatic, and human.

Brahmins also began with a binary cyclic eschatology. Indeed it seems as though rebirth eschatologies were indigenous, or at least endemic, in India. The Brahmin ancestors (or fathers) live in the other world. This cycle is what is referred to as saṃsāra - which means 'going through; course; passage' (from saṃ- 'with, together, complete' √sṛ 'flow, run, move'). The cycle is believed to be endless and beginningless. At this early stage rebirth is not problematised; its just a description of the how the world is. However for the Brahmins going to the next world, like all significant life moments, required the performance of certain rituals. There is no sense of morality being a factor here, but the need for the rituals to be performed correctly had a similar effect. The arrival of morality is the next thing to discuss.

What morality does to any afterlife is divide it. If one has lived well the other world is a place of reward, and if one has not lived well the other world is a place of punishment. In Buddhist texts we find the distinction in the pair of terms 'good destination' (sugati) and and 'bad destination' (duggati. Skt durgati). Another pair of terms are 'heaven' sagga (Skt svarga) and 'hell' (niraya). The word svarga 'shining place' has a long history in the Vedic tradition. It was where the gods lived, but also where the ancestors lived, so in simple terms the other world was svarga. It was situated beyond the sky. However initially there is no clear reference to hell in Indian texts, it's not really until Buddhism that hell plays any definite role in Indian cosmology or eschatology. The word niraya means 'going down'. Because the idea of a subterranean hell appears to be absent from earlier Vedic texts, some scholars have speculated that the idea of hell comes Zoroastrianism (via the Iranian Śākya tribe - see Possible History). Like heaven, the early hell is a place where you go to live out the consequences of the actions done in life, but not a place where one does actions with consequences. We see this explicitly in the Devadūta Sutta (M 130) where one is tortured in hell, but does not die, and therefore cannot be reborn elsewhere until the wicked actions have exhausted their force. Actions carried out in hell appear to have no bearing on this fate.

Note that liberation is outside of space and time and described as "dhuva, sassata, nicca, etc." by both Brahmins and Buddhists. Because the Brahmanical diagram would look just the same I say the two are topologically identical.

At the same time a third option appears, which is liberation (mokṣa, vimokṣa) from going around the cycles. The idea is first seen in literature in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (BU). By re-jigging the dates of the ancient India texts and placing BU after the Buddhist texts, Johannes Bronkhorst manages to argue that this idea must have come from the śramaṇa milieu. However it's doubtful whether his revised chronology will stand up to scrutiny, and I know of no other scholar who has adopted it yet.  Even so, my work on the Iranian origins of the Śākya tribe makes it seem possible that the idea of liberation (i.e. a single destination eschatology) might have been introduced into both milieus around the same time (ca. 850 BCE) from Iran; leaving the current consensus on chronology intact. However it arose, the option of liberation from saṃsāra becomes the major preoccupation of Indian religion from about the middle of the first millennium BCE down to the present. And given how it spread in various guises it must be seen as one of the most influential ideas in the whole history of ideas.

It seems as though these early versions of rebirth eschatology are similar to Brahmanical views, but they might have been more widespread. Rebirth eschatologies are not common amongst the Indo-European speaking peoples (with some ancient Greeks as a debatable exception) but they are ubiquitous in India. So, like linguistic features such as retroflex consonants, rebirth might have been a regional feature. In any case what happens next is the incorporation of some explicitly Brahmanical elements into the Buddhist model. These are not taken on their own terms, in fact presented in distorted, rather mocking ways.

For the Brahmins we meet in the Canon going to Brahmā's realm (brahmaloka) is synonymous with mokṣa or liberation from saṃsāra. Richard Gombrich has argued that the Buddha used brahmasahāvyatā as a synonym for nibbāṇa; which in turn explains the brahmavihāra (literally "dwelling with/on/like God") meditations. Buddhists denied Brahmanical soteriology, and did two things: they brought Brahmā's realm back into saṃsāra, but placed it over the god realm (devaloka) creating a new refined level of saṃsāra (also called ārupaloka); and they multiplied the Creator God into a whole class of very refined beings called Brahmās (plural). On one hand the Brahmās are the highest beings in saṃsāra and people in the texts are very impressed when one of them visits the Buddha, and one of them, Brahmasahampati, is responsible for convincing the Buddha to teach; and on the other hand they are depicted as being deluded about their own nature, trapped in saṃsāra and therefore subject to death. The other thing that happens at this stage is the separation of the spirits of the dead from the gods. The word peta (Skt. preta) has two possible etymologies one which derives it from the word for father (pitṛ) and the other which derives it (as an action noun) from a verb meaning 'gone before' or 'departed' (pra-√ī). In any case this common word for the spirits of the dead who are in the other world becomes a pejorative. Perhaps because the Brahmins made sacrifices to the gods and to their fathers, in Buddhism the preta came to stand for a class of ghosts who were constantly hungry, but unable to ever satisfy that hunger.

At the same time, or perhaps a little later, the idea arose that one could be reborn as an animal. This idea is first seen in the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad where the fate of those who do not carry out the rituals is to be reborn as an invertebrate. So at first it appears to be a somewhat chauvinistic Brahmanical idea, but it catches on and is incorporated into the Buddhist eschatology.

Click to enlarge
The final stage involves the emergence of the full-blown version of the Buddhist cosmology with the brahmaloka, devaloka and hell realms being divided into many different layers, and the layers of the first two being related to states of meditation. The devas and their counterparts the asuras undergo their separation and the asuras are sometimes (but not always) given their own realm. In some older parts of the Ṛgveda the two terms deva and asura are synonyms. Varuṇa for example is referred to as both deva and asura. However the contest between them required a winner and loser, and the asuras lost. (In Iran they won and the devas are seen as demons.) Some remnants of the early stories are preserved, often with little alteration, in the sakkasaṃyutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya (the 11th chapter, beginning on p.317 in Bodhi's translation). For the purposes of diagramming the brahmaloka and devaloka are often treated as aspects of a single domain, though Brahmā is never referred to a deva. This gives us the traditional six domains of rebirth: human, deva, asura, preta, hell, animal, as seen, for example on the bhavacakra or 'Wheel of Becoming'. It is possible to go to any realm from any other realm, but liberation is only possible from the human realm.

One of the major changes from beginning to end is the likelihood of a human birth. Initially it is 100% certain. Even in a morality influenced eschatology one always returns to this world as a human being eventually. However, by the end of the process the likelihood of being born human is vanishingly small. The chance compares unfavourably with the probability that a blind turtle raising its head from the great ocean just once a century might put its head through the hole in a plough harness (yoke not yolk!) which is floating about at random on the ocean. While this is not impossible, the chances are vanishingly small. If we take this on face value we have almost 0% chance of being born human. Related to this is the possibility of multiple rebirths in hell or heaven, particularly the former. This suggests a growing concern over the waywardness of human beings and a greater desire to curb behaviour with the threat of exile from humanity in the afterlife. In other words it looks like a hint that rebirth theory changed in response to social change. This should not be surprising as a huge number of Vinaya rules, including the pāṭimokkha ceremony itself, are made in response to public pressure.

In this essay I've been looking at the development of the idea of Rebirth in the Pāli texts. Given the way that kamma changed after the Pāli Canon was closed, it is only reasonable to assume that ideas about rebirth also continued to change. I will briefly mention one other major development in rebirth theory which was the invention of the so-called Pure Land: a parallel universe with a living Buddha. The Pure Land was not simply another level in this universe, not another level of heaven, but an entirely separate and complete universe (though usually lacking the durgati). The parallel universe was not invented because the ancients had insights into the nature of the multiverse or M Theory, it was a theological necessity for those who had begun to believe that the presence a living Buddha was necessary for liberation (the same theological anxiety can be see in the Suvarṇabhāsottama Sūtra; and in Peter Masefield's Theravāda oriented book Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism.). The Pure Land is a place where liberation is guaranteed by the constant living presence of a Buddha (I would argue that at this point the Buddha has become a god, theos; and that the term theology is entirely appropriate). The resident Buddha in fact creates this parallel universe through their practice of the perfections, emphasising the importance of hard work. Fantastically rococo in many other respects, each Pure Land is entirely flat for some reason. I mentioned Pure lands last week, and it is a fascinating area, but for another essay. Those interesting in how Pure Land theory developed should read this article by one of my favourite authors:
Nattier, Jan. (2000) 'The Realm of Aksobhya: A Missing Piece in the History of Pure Land Buddhism.' Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 23 (1): 71–102. Online: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/ojs/index.php/jiabs/article/view/9167
Those who oppose the idea that rebirth is implausible often fall back on simplistic arguments like: rebirth has always been accepted by Buddhists, it's been analysed and accepted as true many times. However this argument seldom takes in the subtleties of the history of the idea. Rebirth clearly changes during the period between of the inception of Buddhism and the closing of the canon. Several different versions of rebirth are, as it were, trapped in the amber of the Pāli texts. But rebirth continued to change. The received tradition, as is usual, never acknowledges the variety of the models, nor the subtle contradictions in the collection of texts. Received traditions are all about presenting an internally coherent narrative, and ironing out difficulties. So inconsistent aspects of the textual tradition are reinterpreted or simply bracketed out. This is not a new process. And confirmation bias is not a new problem.

Contrarily those who seek to deny that rebirth was part of the original teaching don't have a leg to stand on. Rebirth is prominent in the older hagiographical accounts like the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta, and in the older parts of the Sutta Nipāta. Rebirth is quite obviously an important part of Buddhism in the earliest records we have. The idea that rebirth is somehow in the background, or was added later, is insupportable based on current evidence. That rebirth no longer seems plausible is an entirely different proposition. And one that creates a dilemma that I have no wish to underplay. We have yet to really work out the implications of this news, though it is the news. Understanding that our doctrines have always been quite changeable and responsive to social change, seems to me to be an important factor in loosening our grip on traditional doctrines with a view to letting them go. Everything changes. Resisting changes causes suffering. The only way forward for Buddhism is, well, forward.

~~oOo~~

22 comments:

Al said...

Excellent post.

What happened to the last post that disappeared (but which was still visible on Google Reader)? :-)

Jayarava said...

Hi Al

Thanks. From time to time a blog I'm working on in draft gets inadvertently published when I click the wrong button. Don't worry though, it is on it's way.

Cheers
Jayarava

Swanditch said...

fyi those drafts remain visible and searchable in Google Reader forever

Michael Dorfman said...

This was a great posting. I've been a great admirer of your blog for a while, but the series of articles on rebirth always seemed to me to be the weakest of the lot; now I see that I had misunderstood your project in this regard, and that the problem was likely on my side.

My question to you here, though, is simple: although you do an excellent job of laying out the various conceptions of rebirth found within the Canon, what evidence do we have that these form a progression from the simple to the more complex? Is it not equally possible to read these as beginning with a complex scenario, and being progressively simplified in different contexts, or some other scenario altogether? (The same question applies to the notion of paticca samuppāda, where we also see a variety of conceptions, of varying degrees of complexity).

Jayarava said...

Hi Michael,

Glad you delurked. I could do with some fresh input. Yes. I think this is a kind of culmination for me. I don't have much more to say on rebirth specifically. Nothing left in the pipeline. Some more on belief more generally though.

The fact is that I don't know for sure about the progression being from simple to complex. But there is a general principal seems to hold across many disciplines that things move in this direction. In physics the observation is the 2nd law of thermodynamics, aka entropy. In biology we see it in evolution, which almost always produces progressively more complex forms of life. But it may be that we simply have a cognitive bias to see the arrow pointing in this direction. Just as we always know when a film is played backwards.

There are few, if any, of social or intellectual phenomena, becoming gradually more simple. One example from biology is the virus, which is most likely a stripped down bacteria. Just a membrane and minimal genetic material, though large viruses look more and more like simple bacteria. Often a simplification is a more wholesale clean out by a progressive reformer having a spring clean, where complexity accumulates more slowly.

One of my friends has done a lot of work on the varieties of formulation for paṭicca-samuppāda (it is one word by the way) and I hope one day he'll let me plunder his notes to create a visual map of how the doctrine evolved. But the consensus is the that arrow points in the same way.

There is always room for doubt, always other possible explanations. But this is the one that seems most likely to me at present. It's a good question though because I was making an assumption that I did not justify!

Best Wishes
Jayarava

Michael Dorfman said...

Thanks for the reply.

The reason for my question is a long-standing concern with the variety of hermeneutical approaches people use in reading Buddhist texts. As you no doubt know, the Critical Buddhists consider anattā and paṭicca-samuppāda the core teachings (sorry for the typo last time!), and therefore reject anything they believe conflicts with this (such as the Tathāgatagarbha doctrine.) Of course, to claim this, one must reject most of the recent academic work on anattā (such as Wynne's important article in the most receent JIABS).

Batchelor, on the other hand, claims to use a heuristic of rejecting any stance which could be held by a Brahman or a Jain of the Buddha's time, and only keep the teachings which are therefore "original" with the Buddha-- ignoring, of course, that the Ucchedavada he seems to prefer was also taught by others at the time of the Buddha.

Now, as I said, I misunderstood your project in your previous postings, as I now see that you are maintaining a clear distinction between your own views on rebirth (i.e., not plausible) and those of the canon.

Now, as for the implausibility of rebirth-- I'm not altogether certain I agree with you. I should point out, for the record, that I don't believe in rebirth myself-- but, from a philosophical perspective, I don't see any particularly good reason for rejecting it.

It seems to me that rebirth is eminently plausible if one believes that mind (or consciousness) is not supervenient on matter-- in other words, if one rejects physicalism. And further, it seems to me, that physicalism is not falsifiable; there's no way we can prove or disprove the existence of the non-physical in this regard. And, without a doubt, certain problems (such as that of free will, or qualia) arise when ones adopts a physicalist position.

So, in the end, it seems to me that it all comes down to which axioms one wishes to accept.

Jayarava said...

Michael

I find the whole discussion about anattā/ātman tedious and irrelevant. Most people who write about it are insufferable. Bachelor is particularly tedious. I think Glenn Wallis's critique of him is more than enough said on that subject.

The rhetorical strategy of boiling everything down to physicalism or not physicalism is one I particularly despise. It allows the rhetorician to dodge actually having to deal with the arguments made (which you do) by trying to say that you operate in some indeterminate frame of reference where physics may or may not apply. Since I've dealt with it in more than one post I won't say any more except that this too bores the tits off me.

Relativism is for wimps. But I sort of admire the person who reads my blog and still adopts a relativist stance about rebirth. That is denial on a really grand scale. Applause!

Michael Dorfman said...

Well, I apologize for boring you, and will detain you no longer.

I don't think that "boiling everything down to physicalism or not physicalism" is merely a rhetorical strategy; rather, it is an attempt to interrogate the limits of the epistemic closure of science, as generally practiced. As I may have mentioned, by own graduate work was in Early Indian Madhyamaka, so I tend to go about this in terms of Pramāṇa theory, but here I fear I may be boring you again.

In any event-- my intention is not relativist, but rather pragmatic: as Dignāga points out, debate is only possible where there is a common groundwork agreeable to both parties; I feel that this is the reason that much of the discussion around rebirth fails to obtain. In other words: I believe that the traditional teachings about rebirth make logical, rational sense within their given framework, and seem quite plausible within those assumptions, even though those assumptions are not ones I am personally willing to make or defend.

So, although I don't believe in rebirth, my rejection of it is based on the fact that I am working from a different set of axioms than an orthodox Buddhist, and although I believe my axioms to be more reasonable, I cannot prove this within the common system shared by me and said Buddhist.

In any event, I fear I have bored you again. Despite this, I remain a sincere admirer of the work you do on this blog.

Jayarava said...

Michael

You can't say "I won't detain you" and then keep going. It's a contradiction that seems insincere at best. You clearly do want to detain me longer. But you seem afraid to commit to your own argument. Why?

About 80% of the time someone commenting on the blog is trying to force me to converse with them about my ideas on their terms. They want to use a jargon, a framework or an ideology that I am clearly not familiar with. How I read this is that they aren't really interested in what I think or say, they're only interested in what they think or say. In which case I say: get your own blog.

In order for there to be a dialogue about my ideas you have to at least make an effort to communicate on in the terms that I use to set out my ideas. By writing the blog I attempt to initiate a conversation about particular ideas in a particular way. If either the ideas or the framework don't interest you then you're free to choose one of the millions of other sources of entertainmet the world provides. But for some reason, some people do persist with no regard for me. At the very least you must identify up front that you are using an entirely different paradigm and talking about different ideas, and try to explain why and how I might benefit from taking a break from my own work to learn a whole new paradigm in order to talk with you. I'm already spending many hours researching and writing these essays, on top of all the other stuff I do in my life. But you want me to drop something that I think is important in order to take on some other subject, just in order to discuss your ideas instead of mine. I can guess what's in it for you. What's in it for me?

The fact that about 80% of people who comment are just not interested in my ideas is sapping my will to continue blogging to be honest. If I see the phrase "skim read" again I may do something rash.

I think making an absolute dichotomy is a mere rhetorical strategy. Certainly it is a rhetorical strategy, because you're detaining me to try convince me of your point of view (I'll bet £1 that you won't admit to trying to convince me of anything - payable to the charity of your choice). It's 'mere' because life and people are never so simple as a black&white distinction. I see this kind of absolute distinction as facile. These kind of extreme views belong to the abstract world of the philosopher.

Your intention may not be relativist, but your statements clearly are. So contra Buddhism intention is not everything. It's not pragmatism to sit on the fence and say "it all depends on what you believe", especially when you've read the evidence I've presented. Phillip K. Dick once said that "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, it doesn't go away". Of course quoting a lunatic on the subject of reality is a gamble, but there are things that are not belief-system dependent. Gravity. You can try not believing in it if you like, but I'd still advise you not to jump off a cliff. Yes? More debateable perhaps but closer to our subject is evolution. I happen not to agree with Neo-Darwinists, but prefer Lynn Margulis's explanation of evolution. But however you explain it, you can't ignore the facts. Well you can, but that makes you an idiot not worth talking to. Evolution does not appear to depend on what you believe, though there are different explanations for it, some of which, like Neo-Darwinism constitute self-contained belief systems. The consequences of not believing are less dire, and people clearly thrive despite not believing in evolution. Rebirth hovers around this same level of demonstrability. I've set out why it is not plausible in some detail, and you have not commented on that directly, but want to have a hypothetical argument instead. Which is not my kind of pragmatism.

cont...

Jayarava said...

...cont


In fact some axioms, or better propositions since what we're talking about is not axiomatic, are in fact more reasonable whatever you happen to believe. Not absolute truth maybe, but denying gravity is not easy to defend at any level. It's ofte more reasonable to believe one thing or another. Galileo was an unreasonable prick on a personaly level, but it was in fact more reasonable to believe that the earth was not the centre of the Universe. It's demonstrable that the earth orbits the sun, and the moons of other planets orbit their planets. And the sun is in orbit around the centre of the galaxy and so on. It's just more reasonable to accept these things as true. There is really no need to equivocate.

Having established the principle then it only remains to bicker about how far it extends. I extend it slightly beyond the belief in rebirth, and I claim my view is more reasonable. So far no one has offered any solid defence of the opposite position or offered me any evidence whatsoever that my view is less reasonable that I say it is. So for me it stands that rebirth is extremely implausible and I shall conduct my life as if it doesn't happen. I set it up as a challenge, but no one has taken up that challenge. Mind you only about 14,000 people have read that post, so who knows somewhere out their is someone who knows different and can prove it.

So to some extent yes, framework is important. It's vitally important if you want to communicate with anyone. The unwillingness of people to enter my framework in which to discuss my ideas is extremely frustrating and dispiriting. One only has to watch Richard Dawkins talking to a Christian to see how communication quickly breaks down if one is completely unwlling to entertain another's framework. Though Dawkins is extreme and other atheists are much more reasonable. In order to communicate with me you must understand my framework and participate in it to some extent. I think this requires empathy, which is difficult (almost impossible) to generate when conversing with strangers using text on a computer.

So yes, of course your "axioms" are more reasonble that an orthodox Buddhist's. Buddhists have blind faith in these things. And even orthodox Buddhists argue that blind faith is unreasonable. They don't usually see the contradiction, but there it is. I'll be saying more on this subject on Friday. There's no good reason to vacillate in this context because no one reading this, least of all me, is working with an ancient Indian frame work.

Do you actually practice Buddhism, or is it mere intellectual curiosity that draws you to my flame?

Michael Dorfman said...

Jayarava: You can't say "I won't detain you" and then keep going. It's a contradiction that seems insincere at best. You clearly do want to detain me longer.

I admit it, this was a rhetorical device. I recognize that I am trespassing on your hospitality, and although I do desire to discuss with you further, I also understand that you are bored with the engagement, hence my vacillation. I apologize in advance for the length of this reply, and will understand if you do not wish to continue the discussion.

Jayarava: Do you actually practice Buddhism, or is it mere intellectual curiosity that draws you to my flame?

I have a daily sitting practice, but I have not gone for refuge. I have a M.A. in Buddhist Studies, so my interest is, in some large part, intellectual, but not merely intellectual.

Jayarava: About 80% of the time someone commenting on the blog is trying to force me to converse with them about my ideas on their terms. They want to use a jargon, a framework or an ideology that I am clearly not familiar with.

Well, I hope I'm in the other 20%. I am hoping to discuss with you on your own terms, to the extent that I can, although reading is always a merging of horizons.

Jayarava: (I'll bet £1 that you won't admit to trying to convince me of anything - payable to the charity of your choice).

Oh, I'm definitely trying to convince you of something, but perhaps not what you think I am.

Jayarava: It's 'mere' because life and people are never so simple as a black&white distinction. I see this kind of absolute distinction as facile. These kind of extreme views belong to the abstract world of the philosopher.

Guilty as charged. My background, I am afraid, is in philosophy, so I spend a fair bit of time in that abstract world. I'll try to suppress this urge for the moment.

Jayarava: Of course quoting a lunatic on the subject of reality is a gamble, but there are things that are not belief-system dependent. Gravity. You can try not believing in it if you like, but I'd still advise you not to jump off a cliff. Yes?

Yes. (And I, too, am a fan of PKD.) But let's dig a little deeper here. If you jump off a cliff, you fall down-- and that didn't change with Galileo or Newton. The physical phenomena is undoubtedly not belief-system-dependent, but the explanatory mechanism changes across time and culture. I'm not arguing that all explanations are equal; some are clearly better than others (where "better" here is a shorthand for "adequate to the phenomena").

Jayarava: Evolution does not appear to depend on what you believe, though there are different explanations for it, some of which, like Neo-Darwinism constitute self-contained belief systems. The consequences of not believing are less dire, and people clearly thrive despite not believing in evolution. Rebirth hovers around this same level of demonstrability. I've set out why it is not plausible in some detail, and you have not commented on that directly, but want to have a hypothetical argument instead. Which is not my kind of pragmatism.

OK, I'll take that as a challenge, and comment directly on your arguments in some detail below.

Michael Dorfman said...

Jayarava: In fact some axioms, or better propositions since what we're talking about is not axiomatic, are in fact more reasonable whatever you happen to believe. Not absolute truth maybe, but denying gravity is not easy to defend at any level. It's often more reasonable to believe one thing or another.

I guess I must not have explained myself very well, because I am speaking specifically of axioms and not propositions-- certainly not about denying gravity (or the like.)

Let me attempt to explain my meaning. There is a well-known philosophical principle called "Agrippa's Trilemma", which states that all systems are (and must be) either (a) ultimately founded on axioms not provable within the system, (b) circularly grounded, or (c) founded on an infinite regress. All attempts at foundationalism must result in one (or more) of these options. So when I speak of axioms, it is this to which I refer. The axioms of classical logic, for example, are not provable within classical logic. Lewis Carroll, for example, famously proved that the notion of "inference" is based upon an infinite regress. I, like pretty much everyone else, accept the axioms of classical logic, including inference-- but I can't give you a particularly solid reason why I do, except on utilitarian terms: they sure come in handy.

Jayarava: So far no one has offered any solid defence of the opposite position or offered me any evidence whatsoever that my view is less reasonable that I say it is. So for me it stands that rebirth is extremely implausible and I shall conduct my life as if it doesn't happen. I set it up as a challenge, but no one has taken up that challenge. Mind you only about 14,000 people have read that post, so who knows somewhere out their is someone who knows different and can prove it.

I believe I can do so, with one caveat; I agree that rebirth is extremely implausible if one overlooks the testimony of an omniscient Buddha. If, on the other hand, one takes this testimony seriously, it is very plausible indeed.

In your posting "Rebirth is Neither Plausible Nor Salient," you state "mental activity without brain activity, while not inconceivable, has not yet been observed, and seems unlikely ever to be observed." I would go farther and state that it cannot be observed-- a purely non-material phenomenon such as that cannot be perceived by direct perception. Similarly, when you write "The problem is that the plausibility of post-mortem survival is undermined by rigorous observations of life and living organisms and how they function", I would argue that no amount of rigorous observation (in the sense of direct perception) can provide any evidence for or against such a hypothesis. It's simply not falsifiable. Nor does your claim that "Neuro-anatomical investigation shows us that mental activity is inseparable from brain activity" actually true, either. We have not witnessed mental activity separated from brain activity, but such a thing is not, in principal, observable by direct perception.

So allow me to clear the field and state unequivocally that I believe that there is absolutely no evidence of a scientific nature for rebirth. (Needless to say, I completely reject Ian Stevenson, et al, and the Out-of-Body-Experience and Near-Death Experience pseudo-research.)

At the same time, I believe that there is absolutely no evidence of a scientific nature against rebirth. It's not a empirically falsifiable proposition.

Michael Dorfman said...

Naturally, that does not mean that we couldn't reject it on other grounds. You raise a few specific qualms (the need for a physical locus of memory, and the need for a soul of some kind to be reborn). I am not deeply familiar with the Pāli responses to these qualms, but in Madhyamaka and post-Madhyamaka literature these problems are avoided by positing the conception of a stream of mental states, each conditioned upon the one prior, with the similar conception of the physical world as a series of physical states, each conditioned upon the one prior. There is thus no need for a physical locus of memory, as an omniscient Buddha could trace the causes and conditions back through previous lives; nor is there a need for any soul-like structure to persist, or for anything (physical or mental) to be more than momentary.

In the absence of any scientific evidence for or against rebirth, one might ask, wouldn't it be prudent to reject it, on the basis of Occam's razor? Clearly, the answer is "yes", unless there were persuasive evidence of another kind-- and this brings us back to the problem of axioms.

Those operating within a framework which accepts the dharma (as received in the textual tradition) as the testimony of an omnisicient Buddha have evidence that they take as reliable.

Jayarava: So to some extent yes, framework is important. It's vitally important if you want to communicate with anyone. The unwillingness of people to enter my framework in which to discuss my ideas is extremely frustrating and dispiriting.

Well, for orthodox Buddhists, entering your (our?) framework would mean giving up one of the axioms of the type I spoke of earlier. That the Buddha is omniscient goes without saying; if he is not dharmically omniscient, he is not the Buddha. (I assume you know the arguments in this regard, so I won't rehearse them here.) So, if one chooses to go for refuge and put one's complete faith in the three jewels, one thereby (it seems to me) accepts the testimony of the Buddha on those matters which are not empirically testable by non-Arhats.

This does not necessarily reduce to fundamentalism; one can (like HHDL) view the texts as fallible and at times metaphorical, and be willing to override dogmas warranted through the pramāṇa of authority with scientific findings warranted through the pramāṇa of direct perception. That being said, I don't see any textual reason for doubting that the Buddha believed the doctrine of rebirth to be central to the dharma. In fact, I don't think there are very many doctrines better attested than the idea of rebirth-- to the degree that we can say anything about the Buddha with any certainty, we can say that he believed in (and preached the necessity of believing in) rebirth although, as you point out in your most recent posting, the details vary across teachings.

Jayarava: So yes, of course your "axioms" are more reasonable that an orthodox Buddhist's. Buddhists have blind faith in these things. And even orthodox Buddhists argue that blind faith is unreasonable. They don't usually see the contradiction, but there it is.

Well, my axioms, I suspect, are the same as yours. But I am not sure that these axioms are actually "more reasonable" than that of the orthodox Buddhist. Not all faith is blind faith, and if one tests the testable claims made by the Buddha, and finds that they are consistently and without exception adequate to the phenomena, it doesn't seem particularly unreasonable to then take his word for those non-testable phenomena. It's not a leap I'm personally able to make, but I can't find a cogent argument as to why one shouldn't do so, any more than I can find a cogent argument for accepting the axioms of classical logic. As in that case, it seems to come down to utilitarian (or soteriological) grounds.

Jayarava said...

Hi Michael

Getting less boring, definitely ;-) There is starting to appear the possibility that I might learn something, which is interesting.

Nice use of formatting btw, I really appreciate the clarity it lends.

I think having made a commitment to living a Buddhist life changes one's perspective. This isn't my hobby, this is me. I have made a major lifelong commitment, had it formally and ritually acknowledged and become a member of a Buddhist community. As I have argued and will argue again very forcefully on Friday, this changes the shape of information space. It changes the shape of my Virtual Self Model and my Virtual World Model (to use Thomas Metzinger's terminology which I find very useful).

Since I lost the bet please nominate your charity and I will donate £1. I was pleased to lose by the way. It makes you seem more honest than average. Many people deny they are arguing with me in order to convince me of their point of view!

Yes. I like that. Some explanations are more adequate. But this of course raises the question: adequate for what purpose?

Looking forward to more detail. Perhaps you could choose one or two arguments to make rather than tackle everything at once? My attention is very much elsewhere at present - a paper to polish up for a Journal, etc.

Best Wishes
Jayarava

Jayarava said...

"I agree that rebirth is extremely implausible if one overlooks the testimony of an omniscient Buddha. If, on the other hand, one takes this testimony seriously, it is very plausible indeed."

Now you're just bullshitting me.

Michael, the Buddha is a fictional character. We only know what early Buddhists attributed to him about 400 years afterwards. There is no Buddha in any real sense. And no omniscient Buddha in any sense.

You're taking the existence of supernatural entities and forces as axiomatic (as I understand that word) and then arguing backwards to try to show that they're plausible. With two fingers up to Occam, and reason. This is what I am referring to when I say that beliefs shape information space and make reason travel in curves. We experience that curvature as gravitas.

Of course I can't disprove metaphysics using physics, because the stories are composed in such a way as to make them inaccessible to physics. But if you start from no explanation, there is no way to derive the supernatural empirically from first principles without invoking logical fallacies or existing belief systems. There is no way to observe "the supernatural". Indeed it is conveniently defined so that it can be experienced, but not observed But even this absurdity is not enough to formally disprove it.

The burden is not on me to disprove the tooth-fairy. The burden is on tooth-fairyists. In the end the argument is not about the phenomena at all. It is about interpretation. When I talk to my friends about their many experiences of the supernatural they always involve sensations from the ordinary senses given extra-ordinary spin. The sensations themselves are all remarkably mundane I find: feelings, images, sounds, smells, thoughts; but usually the cause is not obvious. I say that this is because most people are:
a. blinded by their belief system;
b. biologically predispositioned, for example to see conscious agency everywhere, and patterns (especially faces) in chaos;
c. have no formal training in observation, and know next to nothing about science.

And let's face it admitting you've had an hallucination is a lot less Romantic and exciting than having been in touch with the other side. Fear of madness is quite potent.

No Michael we do not share a framework; you seem quite alien to me.

Michael Dorfman said...

Michael: "I agree that rebirth is extremely implausible if one overlooks the testimony of an omniscient Buddha. If, on the other hand, one takes this testimony seriously, it is very plausible indeed."

Jayarava:Now you're just bullshitting me.

Michael, the Buddha is a fictional character. We only know what early Buddhists attributed to him about 400 years afterwards. There is no Buddha in any real sense. And no omniscient Buddha in any sense.


Ah, and here is where we get to the subject I am actually interested in: hermeneutics. One thing that all of the various x-Buddhists (as Glenn would say) and speculative non-Buddhists all have in common is that we are all reading (parts of ) the same body of texts. (I'm using "text" in the broader sense here, to include oral transmissions, archeological remains, etc.) However, we're all reading them in different ways.

From the standpoint of modern textual criticism, the Buddha is a highly fictionalized character, no doubt. I disagree that we only know what early Buddhists attributed to him about 400 years afterwards-- I think that readings of the Aśokan inscriptions, and reconstructive work like Gombrich is doing allows us to get a good idea of what was being attributed to the Buddha much closer to his lifetime-- but that's just a matter of degree. I gladly concede the point that the teachings attributed to the Buddha may be quite far, at times, from the teachings of any "historical Buddha" we might posit. But, whereas we can't say with any historical certainty that what we possess are "the historical Buddha's teachings", we can say with some certainty that we have a set of teachings attributed to the Buddha by some relatively early followers, a core of which are consistent across sectarian schools and geographical distribution. So, we're not completely in the dark.

Furthermore, this state of affairs does not mean (at least for me) that "there is no Buddha in any real sense." We're perfectly capable of speaking about fictional characters, and do it all the time. My brother-in-law, the Shakespearean, makes a living at it. So, even if the Buddha is no more historical than Hamlet, we can still speak about his words and teachings as received in the texts.

Now, returning to hermeneutics for a moment: although you and I seem to agree that the teachings are not necessarily an accurate representation of the assumed historical Buddha, we should also agree that this is a very modern and heterodox view. Orthodox Buddhists have, for millenia, read the texts as if they were an accurate representation of the historical Buddha's teachings. The orthodox read the texts very differently than you or I do.

Again, to clarify: I'm not claiming that all readings are equally good (or adequate to the phenomena). I'm merely pointing out the obvious-- that different readings exist, and that there are different hermeneutical principles underlying these readings.

Jayarava: You're taking the existence of supernatural entities and forces as axiomatic (as I understand that word) and then arguing backwards to try to show that they're plausible. With two fingers up to Occam, and reason.

I'm actually attempting something somewhat different: let me take another crack at it. Again, I apologize in advance for the length of this, and will completely understand if you wish to table the discussion until such a time as you see fit.

I'm afraid that in order to make my case I will have to make a brief detour into Dharmakīrti and the 6th century Indian epistemological tradition. My goal is not to get you to adopt my framework in any way; I simply don't have any clear examples from your period of specialization. I apologize in advance for the detour, but it's the quickest way I know to get to the crux of the issue.

Jayarava said...

Michael,

You're just trying to win a theoretical argument that has no real world consequences for you. Armchair philosophy. Your opinion is noted, but it simply doesn't matter on any scale of value that I possess - it has no salience for me. You could even be right, but I just don't care.

I'm more interested in what I can actually *do*, in the world of people, that might make a difference.

jundo cohen said...

A wonderful, informative post. Thank you. One case be a "Buddhist" while fully recognizing the Buddhism has changed over the millenia, and without buying into every old belief hook, line and sinker. To quote Sanatayana, " Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." A kind of rebirth.

Gassho, Jundo Cohen, Treeleaf Sangha
www.treeleaf.org

Mog Rhod said...

It is a very good basis for further examination, and highlights accurately before and during and shortly after Buddha's time, Iranian (Airya) influence and dispersion. However regarding reincarnation there are even cautions within Buddhist practice about its very abstract and complex nature being a distraction. http://youtu.be/0jg4yk82pgU?t=28s

Mog Rhod said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mog Rhod said...

On this point: "Richard Gombrich has argued that the Buddha used brahmasahāvyatā as a synonym for nibbāṇa; which in turn explains the brahmavihāras". This seems too shallow, as the Brahmaviharas or abodes of the Creator are none other than the Four Immeasurables: Equanimity, Love, Compassion, Joy. On a less literal and tool like explanation... The Brahmaviharas in its contemplative practice are akin to saying "G-d is love" or these are inevitable characteristics even beyond Creator Brahma, as the immeasurables are not possible with attachment. The four cardinal directions are also in indigenous cosmologies, quadripartite austronesian social structures (the varnas were later corrupted by social upheaval in India) are endemic to India, and well, Brahma had four heads. The best representation of the Brahmaviharas coming together in a Mahayana context are at Ta Prohm (Ancestor or Eye of Brahma) which is a temple built by Jayavarman VII and dedicated to his mother. It has four faces, representing both the Four Immeasurables (Brahmaviharas) and recognition of Brahma (typical with four heads or faces). http://cdn.siemreap.info/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Taprohmfacetower01.jpg

Jayarava said...

When someone vaguely comments in a wafflely way on a theory that he has not apparently not read or understood that "This seems too shallow" I can only smile and walk away.

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