18 April 2014

Thinking Like a Buddhist about Karma & Rebirth

One of the things that most strikes me about discussions with Buddhists is how seldom they seem to think like Buddhists. All too often Buddhists merely unthinkingly assert Buddhist doctrines and do so in a way that seems to me to contradict the very doctrines that are being asserted.

Buddhists very often seem to be deeply resistant to the consequences of "everything changes" to the point where the history of Buddhist ideas is largely hidden from most modern Buddhists. And nominal Buddhists seem to unconsciously think in modernist terms: one begins to see why David McMahan called his book Buddhist Modernism and not Modernist Buddhism!

In my last essay (Pulling Wings Off Fairies) I outlined some contrasts between objective and subjective as understood in our cultural milieu. However had I been arguing from a purely Buddhist point of view I would not have used the terms objective and subjective at all. So what would it look like to think like a Buddhist in relation to a current issue in discussions with Buddhists?

karma & rebirth

One of the lively issues for Buddhists in the modern world is rebirth. With Scientific rationalism beginning to bite, apologetics for karma & rebirth are becoming common, e.g. Thanissaro, Śākya Indrajala, Bodhi, Sangharakshita, and Vessantara's resent essays Some Problems with Not Believing in Rebirth & More on Rebirth.

My point of view is that there is a triangular dilemma:
  1. On one side we have Buddhists saying that belief in karma & rebirth are essential to being a Buddhist. On this view karma & rebirth "make sense".
  2. On the second side we have the mostly hidden history of Buddhists struggling to make sense of the received tradition and constantly altering doctrines or inventing new ones. The received tradition has in fact never made complete sense to Buddhists.
  3. And on the third side we have scientific discoveries that make any kind of afterlife seem deeply implausible; and stories about a "moral universe" seem like wish-fulfilment fantasies.

For the most part we approach this problem on its own terms. We try to decide what constitutes evidence; assess which evidence is salient to the problem; weigh up the salient evidence and make a decision about what seems most plausible; and call that "truth". That act of deciding what is true is belief. Each stage of this process is complex. Indeed each stage is a decision making process in itself. So getting to a clearly enunciated belief involves a series of interrelated decisions. Almost none of this complex process is conscious. Even our most deliberate conclusions rest on a vast raft of unconscious assumptions. On the whole the way we approach this problem is the way that we approach any problem: it is a mix of standard human problem solving strategies; specific tactics associated with the culture we grew up in; and a veneer of Buddhist training. 

Discussions about karma & rebirth are particularly polarised. Belief plays a central role in our approach to Buddhist soteriology (contrary to our own narratives about the absence of 'blind faith' in Buddhism). Some argue that not believing in karma & rebirth has weighty consequences - it renders our soteriology meaningless. If we are not reborn then what is the point of Buddhism which aims to free us from the rounds of rebirth? If we just die and that's it, then buddhahood which takes so very many lifetimes to achieve becomes unattainable. 

For many Buddhists the belief in a moral universe, a fair world, is an article of faith. But the world, life, is demonstrably unfair: bad things happen to good people; bad actions regularly go unpunished. The solution, almost universally adopted in human cultures, is to have a post-mortem reckoning. Life clearly is not fair, but the afterlife is fair. Thus in denying an afterlife many people, many Buddhists, feel we are condemning them to an unfair world, and unfair life. And this thought is intolerable. It does not make sense to anyone who believes that the universe ought to be fair.

For many traditionalists the issue is so profound that they insist that denying karma & rebirth means that one cannot be a Buddhist. And for a zealous Buddhist, not being a Buddhist is a terrible thing. To exclude a fellow Buddhist from the fraternity of Buddhism is about as violent as Buddhists usually get. "You are not one of us" is about as horrible a fate as most Western Buddhists can imagine.  

Some colleagues have made sustained attacks against what they variously call materialism, physicalism and scientism. Such views, they argue, go beyond what is knowable. To many people the idea that by studying matter we can learn about the subjectivity of consciousness is anathema. Like Indrajala many are explicitly ontological dualists. Nothing we learn about matter can inform us on the subject of spirit (See Metaphors and Materialism). In this argument karma & rebirth get tucked under the umbrella of subjectivism and are thus freed from the restraints placed on them by materialism. Nothing need be measured, because the subjective cannot be measured. They frame the discussion about karma & rebirth as a polar choice between fideism and scientism and make it clear that scientism is entirely counter to the values of Buddhism as they understand it (again "you are not one of us"). 

More recently I have become interested in the history of the ideas of karma & rebirth. I'm working on a paper which proposes a partial history of karma. In an article for the Triratna Order I outlined eight problems with rebirth: Some Problems With Believing in Rebirth.pdf. I pay particular attention to the fact that, as far as we know, no Buddhist sect took the tradition on its own terms. Not even the Theravādins accepted the Pāḷi sutta version of karma & rebirth on face value. The history of these ideas is largely hidden, in part for the same of simplicity I suppose, but I begin to wonder if we Buddhists actively suppress our history where it might undermine our certainly. 

I've already mentioned some of the problems with karma & rebirth in my blogs about them: e.g. the disconnect between ethics and metaphysics (see also Does Karma Break the Rules?). I've been arguing for the implausibility of any afterlife for a few years now. Across a number of essays on this blog I have spelled out the kind of evidence that carries weight for me. I've also tried to show why some of the other evidence ought not to carry weight. I've tried to show why we should not take the Pāḷi canon literally for example, why testimony cannot always be trusted, and why subjectivism is a philosophical dead end. 

That said, I'm happy to acknowledge that rejecting karma & rebirth has major consequences for Buddhism, and that a lot of thought will have to go into understanding whether the resulting worldview can even be considered Buddhist. I'd like to participate in that discussion, which I find more interesting than apologetics or blind faith in tradition. 

But none of this is thinking like a Buddhist. Indeed most of the time I'm writing more as an historian of ideas, with a background in the sciences, than as a Buddhist. If we really wanted to get down to it, what would a Buddhist approach to this question be like? What, in short, would the Buddha make of this? What follows is my attempt to put aside modernism and analyse the problem from the point of view that I think pervades the early Buddhist texts, but which is picked up on by Prajñāpāramitā literature and to some extent by Nāgārjuna. 

What is Belief Like?

First off I would argue that the content of this debate is largely irrelevant if we're thinking like Buddhists. Whether we believe in rebirth or don't believe in rebirth is not that important. I'll qualify this a little. The content of our beliefs are not important so long as they do not get in the way of the kind of inquiry I'm about to outline.

What is belief? Or better, how do we know that we hold a belief about a subject. Say someone asks us "What do you believe about karma & rebirth?" Leaving aside the content of the belief, how do we even know that we have a belief? What is the phenomenology that accompanies the generic statement "I believe..."?

Broadly speaking we know what we believe because on introspection there is a combination of thoughts and emotions. And these occur along with a special kind of thoughts that we call "memories"; specifically memories of similar moments of introspection, either on this question or related questions. A belief is a combination of thoughts and emotions, linked through time by memories. 

Various different states are possible. Various kinds of thoughts, with various content. Various combinations and strengths of emotions. Various memories. And the sum of this is how we know what we believe and how strongly we feel about that belief. This is what belief boils down to: some thoughts and emotions and memories.

And what is really important about these thoughts and emotions and memories is not the specifics of their content; not that we have this thought and not that thought; this emotion and not that emotion. If we take any one aspect of this complex of what would traditionally be called cittas or dharmas we notice that it has certain characteristics in common with all the other aspects. The main thing is that it doesn't last very long. One second we're feeling certain about karma & rebirth, the next we're noticing something about the person asking the question, then scanning the environment, back to our interlocutor, check in on the belief, formulate a verbal response, evaluate the mental state of the other through facial expression and posture, scan the environment, notice the time, re-confirm the feelings associated with the belief... and so on. Each moment of cognition lasting a short time, and each being held in a way that can be framed as whole or at least a gestalt, in which "we" are self-aware and communicating with another being who seems to be self-aware in the same way as us; all discreet moments but seemingly continuous through time.

This whole or gestalt is "the world" or loka we inhabit. It is our world (though not the world). For the most part the details are lost and we take the whole to be real. And we experience it all from a first person perspective. Though all worlds overlap to a greater or lesser extent.

Acting Like a Buddhist.

Thinking like a Buddhist entails deconstructing this gestalt. It involves cultivating disbelief. Getting lost in a film or dramatic performance involves the suspension of disbelief so that we can get caught up in the show and experience it as though it is real. Buddhists argue that we are caught up in the show of our loka and this makes us unhappy because our expectations are not in line with the nature of the loka qua performance. So we must try to regain our sense of disbelief in the gestalt. Many Buddhist texts involve deconstructing the first person perspective. They do this in a way that is tuned to the times they were composed in (mostly Iron Age India). We might do it a little differently these days. But breaking down this whirlwind of sensations is what we're trying to do.

In order to do this Buddhists have proposed a method. Indeed we might say that thinking like a Buddhist is less important than acting like one. The first part of the method involves calming down. By restraining our sensory input, restricting what comes in through the gates of the senses, we reduce (in modern parlance) our level of arousal. Moderns are mostly massively over-stimulated. We need to get the hindrances to samādhi under control and (as a direct result) develop a sense of joy or well being (pāmojja). Then we use specific practices to do two things: firstly to enhance that sense of well being and our sense of being interconnected with everyone (the two are virtually synonymous); and secondly to focus on smaller and smaller aspects of experience and by doing so bring on, by stages, a deeply serene absorption or samādhi - a word which more literally means 'integration'. It is from the point of samādhi that the examination of the nature of experience can begin in earnest - the attempt to "see through" (vi-passana) the play of experience.

In this sense thinking like a Buddhist means setting up the conditions to reflect deeply on the matter in hand: not the content of thoughts but on the process of having thoughts; not on the emotion that is moving us around at any given moment, but on the process of having an emotion. Reflection is not something to be done at random or while still caught up in the tsunami of sensations washing over us. If we don't make an attempt to get to higher ground, we'll just be caught up in the wash. This is why renunciation has usually been valued in Buddhism.

Of course many variations on this procedure exist after more than twenty centuries of thinking about experience this way - Buddhism has a hidden history of development, innovation and diversification. Only a few of the methods that have been tried remain popular, and new approaches are being invented all the time. The common thread is the focus on seeing experience itself for what it is; though all too often we phrase this in terms of trying to understand the nature of reality (something the Buddha didn't do to the best of my knowledge). 

That said some Buddhists apparently disagree with this. Dharmavidya has recently argued, along the lines Shinran, for example, that effort makes no difference and that all that is required for liberation is faith. It's much harder to see this as part of the mainstream Buddhist project. It would appear to be a kind of belief that gets in the way of making an effort to examine experience in a way that unlocks it. It appears to require the kind of intervention that is specifically defined as impossible by early Buddhist texts (which was the point of my article about King Ajātasatthu). Some Tantrikas also disagree with this kind of view, though renunciation is still included in some form in Tantric practice - there is always a perfunctory stage of renunciation in Tantric sadhānas for example. Having attained bodhicitta one need not bother about ordinary human responses and can get on with antinomian practices.

In this view, if we believe in karma & rebirth and all that that entails, or if we do not, it does not change the task facing us. We still have to stand aside from the experience and analyse it. Even if we don't experience belief as impermanent, or especially when we don't, we need to make a effort to see that it is. In this sense having some doctrinal axioms like "all experiences are impermanent" is useful. We might introspect and find that our belief seems extraordinarily strong. We cannot imagine not believing in karma & rebirth. It totally makes sense to us on every level that we can think of to examine. But the belief itself is still just an experience. It's so easy to get caught up in the strength of the belief and the implications of that, but the acute observer will note the arising of that feeling and its passing.

Experience is always coming into existence (or awareness) and always passing out again. Moment to moment. In relation to this the content of the experience -- the pleasant/unpleasant -- is a minor consideration. Just as waves don't make any difference to the salty taste of the ocean. No doubt there are waves and they are important in their own way, if the subject is coastal erosion for example. But in the Buddhist view what's important is seeing through the fascination with our world and seeing it for what it is. One cannot effectively do this while caught up in strong beliefs about how the world is. 

And if I don't believe in karma & rebirth but believe in something else, then that too is just an experience. It does not change the task. It does not change the approach to the task. All it changes is how we conceptualise the ultimate outcome of the task. And for the most part the task is still the same: one is still trying to cultivate disbelief in the framework which makes belief seem to plausible. 

How important is the particular conceptualisation of the ultimate outcome of Buddhism? Does it matter that if we deny repeated deaths that the word "deathless" ceases to have any meaning? People who believe in rebirth see life as extending over a much longer period than people who don't. When Kūkai arrived back in Japan from China in 806, his slogan "awakening in this very life!" confused the hell out of almost everyone, because they believed that awakening took three incalculable lifetimes.

The time scale might be a significant aspect of belief. If our goal is life times away in the future and we're chipping away at a mountain by rubbing it once with a silk clothe once a century (a metaphor for awakening drawn from the Mahāyāna) then we won't be in a hurry. There's no call for a sense of urgency. If we are already 40 and can expect 30 to 40 more years of life at best, then the sense of urgency might amount to a counter-productive panic. If we think we'll get a second chance at awakening in the next life then we know we can get away with cutting corners this time around. This may be why some texts describe the chances of getting another human life as similar to those of a turtle swimming in the great ocean popping his head up once a year to breath and managing to put his head through a ring that is floating around on the ocean at random. If our chance of a second chance is infinitesimally small, that might also motivate us. On the other hand if out chance of liberation is infinitesimally small then we may decide it's not worth it. So beliefs are not totally unimportant because they affect our motivation to engage in the important task.


So that is my version of what thinking like a Buddhist would look like. The argument about karma & rebirth looks a bit silly in this view. Even if we win the karma & rebirth argument, one way or the other, so what? We're still caught up in experience; still drunk on sense pleasures. We're still disappointed by experience: pleasures that stop and pains that won't. There is a certain amount of pleasure in winning an argument. But like all pleasurable experiences, it doesn't last. We either have to find a new argument to win, or dine out on nostalgia. After a while it all just gets boring. If we're not resigned to a boring life we might look for more frequent or more intense stimulation. Become an internet troll, take up extreme sports, or whatever. But no one ever reaches contentment by going down that road.

Thinking like a Buddhist puts metaphysical speculation firmly off to one side. Thinking like a Buddhist, one simply does not get involved in such arguments. The wise don't get involved in disputes, as the scripture says. So the people we end up arguing with are not usually the wise. We think about problems not as Buddhists, but as philosophers of one kind or another. As though treating belief as a zero-sum game makes it meaningful. If in fact one does win the belief game and prove one's belief is "true" that is probably a long-run loss because it makes one less likely to examine the experience of holding a view. It means one is more intoxicated, rather than less.

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