04 May 2012

Rebirth & Buddhist Fundamentalism

Nullius in verba
Accept nothing on authority
Motto of the Royal Society
RECENTLY THANISSARO, the Theravāda bhikkhu of Access to Insight fame, published a forty page essay entitled The Truth of Rebirth and Why it Matters for Buddhist Practice. Thanissaro's essay is quite measured, and makes it clear that the Buddhist tradition has believed in rebirth since its earliest records of belief. To not believe in rebirth goes against a long record of believing. But as I've tried to show the evidence emerging from several branches of scientific enquiry make any afterlife belief seem implausible, but that this hardly matters to the majority of Western Buddhists. [Rebirth is Neither Plausible nor Salient].

It seems as though belief in rebirth is going to be a watershed issue for Buddhism in the modern world. Either we take rebirth on faith and believe, or we do not. And if we do not, we stand accused by Old Buddhism of being non-Buddhist. Though Thanissaro himself does not make this accusation, several of my readers have suggested that because my views are not traditional, they are not ipso facto Buddhist. Thanissaro himself takes a 'Pascal's Wager' approach to Rebirth (better to believe than not), and rather than dismissing the non-believer, he does suggest that we will not get the best out the Buddha's teaching if we do not at least "give [the Buddha's] statements on rebirth a fair hearing".

Faced with a forty page essay, filled with many citations from the texts, we may feel daunted. We may feel overwhelmed by the sheer mass of the citations from the Canon. One way to win an argument is just to keep talking until your counterpart gives in. We may grant to Thanissaro and other fundamentalists that the Buddhist texts are full of references to rebirth. Thanissaro himself is very familiar with the contents of the Pāli Canon, something of an expert, so he should know.

But we do not need to deal with Thanissaro's argument on the level of detail for the simple reason that his essay rests on a couple of false assumptions, indeed the whole stack of his citations is built on very flimsy foundations.

Citing Scripture

I too can play the "Citing Scripture" game. Perhaps not as well as Thanissaro, but well enough. In response to Thanissaro I ask readers to consider the Tevijjā Sutta (D 13). I've done this before, but let me recapitulate. In the Tevijjā Sutta many different Brahmins claim to lead out of saṃsāra and into union with Brahmā. But when the Buddha questions the students who have approached him, it turns out that none of their teachers, or their teachers' teachers down to the seventh generation, or any of the ancient ṛṣis who composed the mantras (under divine inspiration) have ever met Brahmā, or been to his realm personally. 'So if they have no personal experience how can they teach?' the Buddha asks. Their words are religious cant (appāṭihīrakata D i.239); indeed their words are just laughable, prattle, empty and worthless (hassakaññeva, nāmakaññeva, rittakaññeva, tucchakaññeva D i.240).

So my main question to Thanissaro is this: if he knows and sees for himself from personal experience why does he argue from scripture and lineage? If he does not know, and does not see, why does he teach? Or is he like the Brahmins in the Tevijjā Sutta: yaṃ na jānāma, yaṃ na passāma tassa desema. 'we do not know, we do not see, yet we teach'. My sense is that Thanissaro, and other Buddhists, do not argue that we should believe in rebirth because they know from personal experience that it is true, but from fear of the consequences if we cease to believe. They fear that without the supernatural elements Buddhism will cease to be meaningful. This is something I need to address separately, but for now let's just say that it's a poor foundation for a lifetime of renunciation (so it must haunt a bhikkhu). The situation is probably worse for someone who's life is predicated on being a "Buddhist Teacher" because in changing their story they'd have to admit they got it wrong all these centuries. Not easy.

Consider this: if our scriptures are to be taken literally, then why not other scriptures? By Thanissaro's underlying logic we should also take the Bible as the literal word of God and an accurate history of the times it discusses. I don't know Thanissaro, but somehow I doubt he would accept that God created heaven and earth in six days just 6000 years ago, and that we will only come to the Father through the Son, else go to hell for eternity. The Buddha's advice to the Kālāmas was not to base their behaviour on revelation, lineage, tradition or citations from scripture, but to act as they knew from experience to be good.

The modern evidence is very firmly against the plausibility of rebirth. Experience is telling us that rebirth is simply no longer plausible, whatever our texts say. I do not deny that this creates problems for us. But we'll just have to deal with them. Won't we?

Textual Authority

Thanissaro has a much, much deeper problem which is the naive assumption that the Pāli texts represent the actual thoughts and words of the Buddha, and an accurate record of the history of mid-to-late first millennium BCE India. There are some extreme positions on this issue - the most extreme seem to come from North American scholars who say that all of this is simply untrue. I try to take take a middle way and to see the value of the texts while seeing their limitations.

What we have, what the Pāli Canon is, is a series of parallel oral histories several of which coalesced and were translated into the dialect we now call Pāli thus becoming "the Pāli texts". Other streams manifested as other lineages in other languages, but most disappeared without a trace. With the Pāli texts we often find several re-tellings of stories with differences in the details (compare for instance D 27, M 95 and Sn 3.9). Where we have records of texts over time (such as when they reappear in Mahāyāna guise) we find that Buddhists have often made major changes to the texts. The example of the Samaññaphala Sutta is one that fascinates me. In the Pāli kamma is inescapable (c.f. Dhp. 127) and Ajātasattu is doomed to hell for killing his father. But this changes in later editions where the magical power of meeting the Buddha firstly mitigates, and then removes altogether the negative consequences of his parricide. The Doctrine of Karma in fact underwent very significant change outside of the Theravādin milieu - there's a long essay in this sometime.

We also see clear evidence of tampering with the texts by monks. For example in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta we find, in section five, a discussion about pilgrimage places beginning at 5.8 (p. 263 in Walshe's translation). The discussion continues in 5.10-12, but 5.9 is just a diatribe against women. As that old curmudgeon Walsh mildly points out: "this small passage seems arbitrarily inserted at this point" (p. 573, n. 430). This means that monks, since it could not have been anyone else, have tampered with this 'sacred text'. The Therīgāthā verses of Bhaddā (Thig 107-111) give the lie to the bhikkhu's hatred towards women having a basis in the Buddha's own attitude (an idea found in many sutta passages, and most of the Vinaya). Reginald Ray has also shown that the story of Devadatta as an evil murderer has been clumsily superimposed on the story of Devadatta the arahant (Buddhist Saints in India p.162ff), probably by sectarian monks.

These are just some of the most blatant examples of tampering. What about the monks who were less clumsy, but no less bigoted or sectarian? How do we tell what comes from the Buddha and what comes from the monks? The answer is that we cannot know with any certainty!

And if you are reading a translation you are in an even worse position since the translators make a range of arbitrary decisions about what the text means when the translate - it's an arcane art. But something even worse happens in Pāli text translations. Frequently, and tacitly, a translator will simply translate the commentarial gloss rather than the text itself, usually because the text is so obscure the translator cannot make sense of it. I've caught most of the famous translators doing this. We don't know for sure that this has not happened from the first - that difficult passages have simply being changed, usually to fit the orthodoxy of the time. You'll never know unless you read the text in Pāli whether you are reading the supposed words of the Buddha or actual words of Buddhaghosa (who lived about 800 years later in Sri Lanka!).

Nor can we be absolutely sure of the period that the texts represent. I do not accept the arguments which say that there is no evidence at all of Buddhism before Buddhaghosa, or the slightly less extravagant version which says that there is no evidence before Asoka. I think these are extreme views that take too narrow a view of what constitutes evidence (literalism is no more attractive in scholars than it is in religieux). There is a middle ground that involves a careful reading of circumstantial evidence. It places the origins of Buddhism this side of the middle of the first millennium BCE, probably in the fifth century or thereabouts. One can quibble about this, but an argument from absence seems considerably less substantial than an argument from circumstantial evidence. There is a further problem in identifying the period of the Pāli literature. At best, if we accept that the form of the Canon became fixed in the first century CE, the Pāli texts represent a period of at least several centuries. Some of the Canonical texts are clearly written a long time after the Buddha - some centuries at least.

Some argue that the consistency in the Pāli texts points to a single founder and point of origin. However one could also argue that the inconsistencies point to an incomplete process of standardisation, as in the cases Devadatta and Bhaddā! Where a list exists in versions with 8, 10 and 12 items, we generally assume that monks added items as time went on. This phenomena of incrementing lists is a fundamental feature of the Canon - the texts remained relatively fluid for an unknown period of time. They do not represent a single written revelation like the Bible or Koran, but the collective working out, over several centuries, of what was understood of what was remembered, by a disparate group.

There is also the embarrassing fact we discover on closer inspection that in some cases we no longer understand the texts on their own terms. Some of the words, and passages can be explained, but when we dig we often find that these explanations originate in the commentary and it's clear that the commentator was also at a loss to understand the text. Important aspects of the Canon are in fact incoherent in ways that are hidden by the received tradition. The down side of learning Pāli and actually reading the scripture is that these problems start to become apparent almost immediately. Thanissaro's translation notes make this clear less often than Bodhi or Ñāṇamoli, but he also has to grapple with mysteries.

Thanissaro's section on "Modern Ironies" seems very dated indeed. I certainly don't think the "modern" arguments that he puts forward only to by refuted by scripture, are very convincing. They appear, ironically, to be tired old straw dogs from philosophers, rather than new arguments from scientists or historians. And I think the really devastating critiques of religion come from history rather than science! There is no answer to the charge of lack of personal experience on the part of Buddhist teachers. So called "scientists" interviewing young children notwithstanding, where are the Buddhist teachers who don't have to rely on scripture, Iron Age world-views, and Medieval dogmas; but who know from personal experience?

Don't get me wrong, I love the Pāli language and the Canon. I spend a lot of my time reading and studying the Canon. But one has to be realistic about what it represents, and Thanissaro, in this essay at least, is not realistic. The texts are not the source of authority he claims them to be. We pejoratively call someone who takes scripture literally a fundamentalist. And Thanissaro is taking scripture literally in this essay. At best we may say that in this essay Thanissaro is expressing a fundamentalist view of Buddhism. For a contrast Thanissaro's critique of Romanticism in Buddhism is really useful. My intention here is not to criticise Thanissaro personally, but to criticise the ideas expressed in his essay. I'm grateful to Thanissaro for his translating efforts.

According to the Tevijjā Sutta Thanissaro announcing the "Truth of Rebirth" is just like a man who has announced that he is going to marry the most beautiful girl in the land, though he doesn't any idea about her background, what she looks like, or where she lives; and in fact has never met her. "The truth about rebirth" is just an idea we read about in books.The irony is that the texts themselves give stern warnings about this approach to Buddhism.

What Danger Does Buddhist Fundamentalism Present?

I've already written about my attitude to Buddhist fundamentalism, but I want to take another look at it in the light of Thanissaro's essay. We might ask what danger Buddhist fundamentalism presents. Isn't it all quite harmless? What does it matter if, on the basis of a literal reading of scripture, someone forms a firm belief in rebirth? On the face of it Buddhists seldom go to war on the basis of what they read in their scriptures, and compared to fundamentalist Christians or Muslims they are relatively benign. Indeed I have argued that a blind belief in rebirth could conceivably motivate a person to be more ethical (which was, I believe, the original impetus for the idea of an afterlife.) But there is a problem, which is that Fundamentalism discourages the use of reason. Thanissaro effectively tells us we don't need to think about rebirth, we just need to read scripture and have (blind) faith.

Actually the same texts tell us that Buddha asked his followers to understand the teachings, and to reason with, and about the concepts he used to teach. Yes, one had to have faith in the Tathāgata (e.g. D i.63; p. 99 in Walshe's trans.), but this came about because what the Buddha said made sense. In the Pāli literature there are some striking examples of the Buddha failing to make sense (or at least people failing to make sense of him) with disastrous consequences: in the Piyajātika Sutta (previously mentioned) the Buddha's failure to empathise with a man whose child has died repels the man and sends him into the arms of vicious gamblers (contrast this with Kisagotamī episode!). Elsewhere the Buddha teaches bhikkhus to reflect on death, then goes off on a retreat. When he returns he finds that there has been mass suicide (the commentator tries to fudge this by invoking a deterministic version of the Law of Karma and the Buddha's psychic powers, but it's really unconvincing!) See my long essay on Suicide in the Pāli Canon for details [written before my ordination, so under my old name]. Reasoning and making sense are important.

Fundamentalism discourages individuality. Where a dogma exists, members of the group will incorporate that dogma into their self-image, so that anyone who disagrees becomes an outsider (a heretic!). My views, for example, have more than once brought forth the idiotic charge that I'm not really a Buddhist. Of course Buddhists don't burn heretics, but they do shun them, and they do disparage them. This contributes to divisions and partisan thinking. At times it has resulted in Buddhists instigating or condoning acts of violence. One only needs to mention, for example, the recent history of Theravāda countries such Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia; Japan in WWII; or the Tibetan Shugden debacle - which has resulted in violence and murder. Yes, the violence is rare, but could it exist in the absence of dogma inspired group think? If we want to make the world a better place then one of the main things we can do is dismantle dogmas (we need to be dogmanoclasts). As Buddhists our responsibility is to constantly test our own doctrines against experience. If they are not useful we should not insist that they are necessary. Thanissaro's case is not that rebirth is useful, but that it is Canonical.

Unfortunately fundamentalism also obscures what is good and useful about Buddhism. If we present it as just another superstitious belief system based on sacred texts, instead of a different system of practice based on centuries of experience, then we will lose the attention of the people who we desperately need to reach! Just as we can't drift towards enlightenment, we can't bullshit our way to making a difference in the world. Let's just drop the dogmatic assertions and focus on the practical. Doctrine is the least of what Buddhists have to offer the world! We pride ourselves on our techniques producing results, and they often do. But I would argue that our beliefs change nothing, whereas our actions might just change everything.

Finally dogma makes our mind unreceptive to experience. Indeed a forty page scriptural defence of a belief, with no argument from personal experience or substantial evidence, looks like the work of an intelligent, but ultimately closed mind. It is the experience of disappointment that makes most people interested in practice, and certainly this is the experience that the texts focus on. The central point of the texts is that all unawakened experience is disappointing (or 'stressful' Thanissaro's translations). You can't pour liquid into a cup that is already full. And for most of us the cup is full of dogmas and other beliefs. What can experience teach us, if we have no receptivity to it because we already "know" what it signifies.

I think Thanissaro fails on the idea of using the texts as an authority for belief because the texts are far from being as authoritative as he makes out; but even on the basis of those texts the kind of argument he makes is criticised as unhelpful. The bottom line is that, as far as I have know, the Buddha is never portrayed as saying to anyone: "you must believe in rebirth". In fact he never says "you must believe" in anything. So why is insisting on belief a feature of modern Buddhism? I suggest that we emphasise belief in the absence of personal experience.

I suppose we could see Thanissaro's long essay as a small victory. I see a forty page apologetic for rebirth as a sign that the case against is starting to hit home. The fact that the apologetic rests entirely on a fallacious appeal to authority shows us how flimsy the case for rebirth is. This is helpful in the long run, because it simplifies the task of the dogmanoclastic. So, I hope that rather than finding the Truth of Rebirth daunting, that those of us struggling to throw off the oppressive superstitions and dogmas of Old Buddhism will take heart from it. Clearly our arguments are starting to bite, and dogma is not really defensible.

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