Sunday, September 13, 2015

Karma and Rebirth Revisited – Part One

This is a response to James Ford's recent blog on the marvelous question of karma and rebirth as Westerners attempt to make sense of this Buddhist teaching.  The Karma and Rebirth Debate Within Contemporary Western Buddhism: Some Links to Follow

Ford's blog begins by saying,

Way back when he reviewed the Buddhist monk Stephen Batchelor’s lovely book “Alone With Others,” The Western Buddhist John Blofeld wrote an introduction praising the young monk scholar and his writing. Blofeld went on to say it was unfortunate that Batchelor did not touch upon the critical doctrines of karma and rebirth, but understood there is only so much one can do in one book. He added how he hoped Batchelor would turn to the subject some day. Some years later, after Blofeld’s death, Batchelor did.
I can only imagine that John Blofeld must have been “turning over in his grave” when Stephen Batchelor finally got around to writing about karma and rebirth taking the position of a "Buddhist Atheist.".  At this point, one wonders if Batchelor can still even be called a Buddhist.

To me, the most socially interesting aspect of this "debate" on karma and rebirth is in determining the ground upon which the debate occurs. How can people with completely different orientations find a common ground upon which to debate? Or will the "two sides" be forever upon opposite shores of the river?   The "Western" Buddhists who are fully attached to their materialistic and dualistic views of corporal reality will not even admit the ground upon which the non-materialist mind-only Buddhist stands.

That ground of the mind-only Buddhist is most closely related to psychology in the West, but not the pseudo-psychology of current academia.  Today, Western Scientistic Buddhist thinks psychology is the measurement of neuro-physiological brain activity. They have no appreciation for what psychology even means, especially from the perspective of the greatest psychologist of the 20th Century, Carl G. Jung, who even wrote a psychological essay titled "Concerning Rebirth" (found in Volume 9.A “The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious” of “The Collected Works.”). More on this essay in Part Two. 

What usually happens in these so-called “debates” is that the people are using the same words, such as “rebirth,” with vastly different meanings all without fully revealing the premises and assumptions upon which they stand and base their argument. I found this especially true of the Robert Thurman-Stephen Batchelor exchange in Tricycle, titled "Reincarnation: A Debate" where the two were arguing past each other like “ships passing in the night” or going around and round like "ring around the rosy."
So it’s essential in any dialogue about karma and rebirth to know what views the participants hold. Based on their views, there are several discussions that could be going on. Just as not all Christians have the same views about the nature of works or grace, not all Buddhists have the same views about karma and rebirth.

We may consider first the discourse between Buddhists and non-Buddhists.  Here, the Buddhist needs to know what preconceptions the non-Buddhist holds.  There are non-Buddhists who believe in rebirth from a Christian or Hindu perspective that holds the personality (pugala) or soul (atman)transmigrates.  There are, of course, the non-Buddhists who scoff at the whole idea of rebirth as primitive superstition, in which case, there must first be a recognition that there is no common ground as yet developed for the discussion of whether rebirth is a viable concept. Here, until there is a bridge built that would satisfy the disbelievers with definitions of rebirth that clarify the materialistic biases present in their skepticism or denial, there can be no hope for removing the confusion of bifurcated conceptualizations and the conversation will be unproductive if not outright unbeneficial.  Another way of saying this is that karma and rebirth are not grounded upon or based within a materialistic worldview or frame of reference, and attempts to "debate" karma and rebirth from such a materialistic worldview, either the materialistic view of the soul or the materialistic view of matter, will be fruitless.

Likewise, the non-Buddhist needs to know which kind of Buddhist is on the other end of the table, because some self-purported Buddhists also still hold onto unorthodox notions of a personality or soul transmigrating on the wheel of life  Similarly, Buddhists in mutual discussion need to be aware of each other’s presumptions with talking about rebirth.  The modernist scientistic Buddhist may have an "ordinary person" perspective that is called “bompu (凡夫)" Buddhism. This is a Buddhist whose views are generally considered to be within "the teaching of humans and divines" characterized by correct belief in cause and effect, nonetheless still longing for enhanced spiritual states and seeking to escape lesser states, that is, Buddhists whose practice is oriented to good behavior and right views for the purpose of being reborn in the better conditions of human life or heavenly realms.  The ordinary person Buddhism includes those who are merely agnostic about rebirth, maintaining a “don’t know” position, but with an open mind, or they may actually be pseudo Buddhists who atheistically deny rebirth with a closed mind based on a preconceived non-Buddhist materialist stance.  Also, traditional Buddhists may be engaged in the discourse using either Pali-canon or Sanskrit-canon terminology and perspectives that can be confusing when not distinguished from each other.  

We also need to clarify the dimensions if the discussion, i.e.,  are we talking about whether or not rebirth occurs or about whether rebirth is even a viable notion, and not confuse that discussion with the technical discussion of how rebirth occurs.  In the Buddhist context, there is great importance given to the basic understandings of no-soul or no-self (anatman) and impermanency (anicca), and in the context of the fundamental question of birth and death, these two characteristics of all appearances distinguish the Buddhist orientation to karma and rebirth from non-Buddhist perspectives on karma and rebirth.

It is primarily the question of the two marks of no-self and impermanence within the analysis of karma and rebirth that creates the foundation for confusion with Western Buddhists.  The question of the two marks (i.e., no-self as the emptiness of separate independence and the impermanency of codependent origination) also provide the Western Buddhist with a fundamental dilemma when it comes to understanding Buddhist ethics.  In "Korean Buddhist Philosophy," Chapter 27 of the book The Oxford Handbook of World Philosophy, Jin Y. Park writes, "If things are by nature void of independent essence and polar opposites are to be understood according to their mutual penetration, how does one construct an ethical system from such a nondual philosophy?"  Though this question is asked in regard to ethics, it is equally relevant in regard the grappling with the systems of karma and rebirth. 
In The Way to Buddhahood, Venerable Yin-shun presents the question rebirth in the context of no-self and impermanence in this way.
For theists and those non-Buddhists who are connected to the Buddha Dharma, however, such a concept is extremely difficult to believe and understand. How can there be transmigration without an entity of the self?  If birth and extinction are momentary, how can the previous life and the future life be connected?  In the Buddha Dharma these questions have been asked since ancient times.  For example: "If the self is really nonexistent, who is it that goes from one state of existence to another in the cycles of birth and death?" (pp. 315-16.)

If the terms and positions of the participants of the rebirth discourse-cum-debate, are not clearly set out in the beginning then only further confusion is sure to follow as the discussion proceeds at crossed purposes and definitions. 

Continued in Part Two.

1 comment:


I read a great secular interpretation of reincarnation by Toni Bernhard author of "How To Wake Up.". The self that reincarnates is the self that is reincarnating in THIS lifetime, as in all the identities that we think we are and possibly shed while we're alive. The karma in this context is obvious (to me, if it's not to you I would be happy to discuss). Along the way to experience emptiness, which I have, we will reincarnate this self. I have never met anyone that has remained in the emptiness state (not a mystical state in my book - but it sure feels like it!). I didn't read the article! i'm sorry. I'll read it now and hope I have not repeated something brought up in it.