Saturday, May 09, 2015

Reincarnation and karma: Buddhism, Christianity, and Science..

Here's my response to an interesting blog over at Pathos by the Christian blogger Christian Piatt titled "Do Buddhism and Quantum Theory Support the Idea of Original Sin?"  Mr. Piatt shares his ruminations about original sin and reincarnation from a Christian perspective as they were stimulated by an NPR radio program  "talking about the philosophy behind the doctrine of reincarnation." (He doesn't say which program it was but it might have been Radiolab's program "After Life.") 


Interesting to eavesdrop on the inner musings of a Christian grappling with the big picture of reincarnation/rebirth. As a Buddhist it is just now self-evident to me in the way that gravity has become self-evident after Newton put together the conceptual framework that allowed the new idea to be "perceived."

1. It is important to know that the Buddhist frame for karma-rebirth is not the same as other religious views of rebirth, such as the classical Hindu, the Albigensian or Rosicrucian Christian, Egyptian, Neoplatonist, etc. So, as you note, modern physics is catching up to Buddha’s view of reincarnation without individual entity, soul, or self. But in the Buddhist view this also means no universal soul or self as well.

2. As it stems from the first, the idea of karma-reincarnation is as complex and nuanced as genetics and understanding the genome, or understanding global weather patterns and climate change. We “understand” plate tectonics, but can’t predict an earthquake or volcano. We “understand” weather but can’t predict the formation of hurricanes or tornadoes and can’t foretell how the jet stream will modulate. Likewise, we can “understand” karma in a general way, but can’t predict how it will be formed in new rebirths in a specific space-time reference.

3. Karma and rebirth have absolutely nothing to do with morality or “learning from my past lives.” So the idea that memory should be there so we can learn from our past lives is an erroneous assumption. Karma means action, and the law of karma is no more “moral” than the laws of thermodynamics. When we put a hand into a flame, it hurts or worse depending on how long the hand is in the flame. We don’t say the flame is evil or that it was an immoral act or that the pain and blistering are “retribution” for our “sin” of putting our hand too close to the flame. Likewise, karma has nothing to do with the concept of “sin”, though unfortunately the idea of karma is too often translated into Western parlance using such ideas as sin or moralization.

4. The selflessness of karma and rebirth are very difficult for beginners and those attached to the idea of a self to realize. For example, take the idea “So when we die, there’s really no need any more for the ‘self’ to continue.” That represents a Western view of rebirth, because in the Buddhist view the statement is based on the false assumption that there was a self to begin with in this life. The idea of a self, is just that, an idea, an image, i.e., a self-image. Our mental processes are creating selfie images constantly and stringing them together by means of memory and this concatenation of self images is put together and called my self. But outside the mental image, there is no objective self. So since there is no self in this life, there is no self that is reborn in another life.

5. So what is reborn that warrants the prefix “re”? In the Buddhist context we can say it is the Dharmakaya, the body of reality, if we want to use religious terminology or to be poetical we simply say it is the ocean that is reborn as the wave. In the physics context we could say it is energy that is reborn. In the Christian context we can say it is God that is reborn. Every birth is the rebirth of that which is. But there is more, because there is the identity factor that connects one birth to another. And in the Buddhist context this identity factor is what creates the illusion of a self or soul passing from life to life. In our modern context of physics, we see this selfless continuity between lives in the field of wave dynamics. When a wave travels through the ocean there is no physical “thing” that is moving across the face of the waters. At any one location on the surface, such as indicated by a log or a duck, we see the object merely go up and down as the wave passes horizontally. The wave is not a “thing” at all, but the pattern of force traveling through the water creating the image of a wave. Likewise, a single life constitutes an up and down motion on the surface of the water but over “time” the up and down motions of the surface create the image of a wave traveling through the ocean, and this wave is just a force, not a thing. Thus, our rebirths are the expressions of the karmic forces that have been created and thus there is continuity without any soul, self, or entity passing from one life to another. What is reborn is just the karmic force or influence, not a thing. There is connectivity, but no “tissue,” other than what we might call God, Energy, Reality, Dharmakaya, Tathagata, Suchness, etc.

6. The burden of our forebears that we bear today is exactly right as one important dimension of the meaning of karmic fruit. We reap what we have sown and that sowing is both on the physical dimensions of earthly continuity and on the mental dimensions of continuity, but for us who live in the dimension of earthly continuity, it is more than enough to realize that our actions today will definitely bear the fruits of their development in the future generations. We are necessarily bound to those fruits as they take shape in and through the forces of space-time.

7. The idea of “sin” is very important to confront, as it is the very idea of sin that maintains sin as an influence in law of karma. This is an extremely nuanced philosophical truth that is easily and readily misunderstood by philosophical beginners and people who believe in the literalization and objectification of evil. In Buddhism, the basic “sin” is ignorance. It is the primal ignorance that creates the separation from reality that is the source of all good and evil, i.e., the source of sin. In Christian myth this is represented in the story of eating from the tree of knowledge. This myth is alive in each of us, first as our own consciousness develops form the moment of birth to our self-consciousness, and also moment to moment in our current self-consciousness. It is our own sense of separation from God (to use the Christian terminology) at any and every moment that is the continuity of eating from the tree of knowledge and is the sin of the present moment. The original sin of the separation of self and other is at the root of all suffering. Knowledge rests upon the bifurcation of our perceptions so that we can perceive reality though a frame of reference. However, the simple polarizations of perception, such as high-low, left-right, large-small, become confused with the other simple polarizations such as pain and pleasure to form complex polarizations such good and evil, and then we become self-deluded about the ontological reality of the complex polarizations because these complex bifurcations become the basis for our mentally constructed self, our self-image of our self consciousness and the separation from the “other.” Thus, the original sin is believing in the reality of our individual self as separate from others as well as separate from total reality because we have based that self on our frame of reference that includes the complex polarization of good-evil. In Zen we have a saying, that the True Good is the Good that transcends, or is not subject to, good and evil. In other words, the True God is the God that transcends the deluded dichotomy of God and Devil.

8. The idea that nirvana and heaven or analogous is correct. But suffice it to say, in both Buddhism and in Christianity both nirvana and heaven are grossly distorted and misunderstood by people who have only a superficial realization of Buddhism and Christianity, which unfortunately, means most of the people who “believe in” these religions without actually practicing and awakening to them.
Lastly, for now, the importance of understanding that all theories “are fabrications of human imagination” can not be overstated. In Buddhism, this is stated as the “mind-only” teaching of the One Mind. All views, perspectives, and constructs of consciousness are only manifestations of mind. This is not the philosophical notion of idealism, but a psychological recognition that there is no way to bootstrap ourselves out of our psyche. The very idea of a “physical world” is an idea of our psychology. This fundamental realization is so disorienting that most people flee from it in confusion or fear. It is much safer for our the stability and fixation of our self-image to believe in the stability and fixation of a physical world. However, as noted in the post, even the most sacred ideas of the physical sciences “simply break down on both infinitely large and infinitely small scales.” This is because the simple bifurcation of large-small breaks down when taken to its own ends. In fact, all oppositions and bifurcations break down when taken to their extreme ends, and this is one of the ways we can learn that the bifurcation and opposition is itself a construct of the psyche and a manifestation of mind.

1 comment:

Antique Buddhas said...

Many theorists said that Buddhism and Christianity are quite the same but I think the very core principle of Buddhism is quite different than that of Christianity.