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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Continued in Part Two.