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Karma and reincarnation/rebirth

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Karma and reincarnation/rebirth

Postby Brian P on Wed Mar 01, 2017 2:19 pm

Dear Teachers,

Thank you for all that you offer on this forum.

I have a decent understanding of Karma and reincarnation/rebirth as these concepts are described in the Yoga Sutras which also posit an individual soul, the Purusha. The practice described in the Yoga Sutras is a path towards the soul’s liberation from the cycles of birth and death.

Buddhism, as I understand it has a similar view of Karma, rebirth and release from the cycles of birth and death, but does not recognize an individual soul or individual entity. In Buddhism then, what is reincarnated or reborn and what is released from the cycle? Would you please shed some light on this?

Be well,

Brian
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Re: Karma and reincarnation/rebirth

Postby jundo on Wed Mar 01, 2017 4:30 pm

Hi Brian,

There are folks here who will provide better responses, but I usually explain that Buddhism typically posits, not a "soul", but more a Karmic stream of cause and effect rather like falling dominoes. It is more a tumbling avalanche or flowing stream from one life to the next, rather than a spirit that leaves one body and inhabits the next. In fact, Buddhist philosophers have struggled for generations, often bending over backwards, thus to explain how there can be a "you" which is reborn when there is no "you" ...

Here are a couple of modern attempts, one from the London Buddhist Vihara ...

The non-existence of a permanent soul or spirit that reincarnates from one life to another is fundamental to the Buddha’s teachings. A permanent soul cannot exist in the ever-changing, interdependent process of mind and matter which constitutes a living being. However, the momentum of accumulated kamma results in a new existence. The individual so born is neither the same nor different from the previous being. Buddhism, therefore, describes this process as ‘rebecoming’ or ‘rebirth’ in preference to reincarnation which implies a resurrection of the same entity. It is the force of one’s accumulated kamma which drives life onward from one existence to another. Only an enlightened being (arahant) creates no more kamma.
http://www.londonbuddhistvihara.org/qa/qa_kamma.htm



The modern Theravada scholar Walpola Rahulan, in his book What the Buddha Taught (1959), asked,

"If we can understand that in this life we can continue without a permanent, unchanging substance like Self or Soul, why can't we understand that those forces themselves can continue without a Self or Soul behind them after the non-functioning of the body?

"When this physical body is no more capable of functioning, energies do not die with it, but continue to take some other shape or form, which we call another life. ... Physical and mental energies which constitute the so-called being have within themselves the power to take a new form, and grow gradually and gather force to the full."


Let me also mention that not all Buddhist teachers consider such things central to Buddhist Practice, and I am rather skeptical of very literal models of rebirth into future lives. While I believe that our good and bad actions have effects on the people around us and the world, some of which effects will continue to have impact after our life much as the effect we have on our children, I do not put much faith in very specific claims of rebirth as human beings, ghosts, goats or gods in such future life. At best, I am agnostic on the topic and find it not crucial to Zen Practice. I often say:

If there are future lives, heavens and hells ... live this life here and now, seek not to do harm, seek not to build "heavens" and "hells" in this world ... let what happens after "death" take care of itself.

And if there are no future lives, no heavens or hells ... live this life here and now, seek not to do harm, seek not to build "heavens" and "hells" in this world ... let what happens after "death" take care of itself.

Thus I do not much care if, in the next life, that "gentle way, avoiding harm" will buy me a ticket to heaven and keep me out of hell ... but I know for a fact that it will go far to do so in this life, today, where I see people create all manner of "heavens and hells" for themselves and those around them by their harmful words, thoughts and acts in this life.

And if there is a "heaven and hell" in the next life, or other effects of Karma now ... well, my actions now have effects then too, and might be the ticket to heaven or good rebirth.

In other words, whatever the case ... today, now ... live in a gentle way, avoiding harm to self and others (not two, by the way) ... seeking to avoid harm now and in the future too.


As well, it is very often repeated in Mahayana Buddhism that rebirth is something of a self-created illusion anyway, not really there when we awake from the dream.

Of course, many more traditional Buddhist Teachers and students would have a more literal view perhaps.

Gassho, Jundo

SatToday
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Re: Karma and reincarnation/rebirth

Postby Brian P on Wed Mar 01, 2017 10:47 pm

Thank you for your response, Jundo.

Cause and effect is easily understood and it doesn't take deep insight to see that what we cause can have effects beyond our knowing and beyond the time of our lives. I agree with you too, if I understand correctly, that if we aspire to live a moral and ethical life only because it is "the right thing to do," it doesn't matter if you “believe” in any of these ideas. In that case, the consequences of heaven and hell or rebirth are not so relevant because we’re doing what we need to do anyway. So, I can’t help but wonder if Buddhism takes up these ideas only because they were the accepted doctrine of Shakyamuni’s time.

Brian
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Re: Karma and reincarnation/rebirth

Postby jundo on Thu Mar 02, 2017 3:43 am

Brian P wrote:Thank you for your response, Jundo.

Cause and effect is easily understood and it doesn't take deep insight to see that what we cause can have effects beyond our knowing and beyond the time of our lives. I agree with you too, if I understand correctly, that if we aspire to live a moral and ethical life only because it is "the right thing to do," it doesn't matter if you “believe” in any of these ideas. In that case, the consequences of heaven and hell or rebirth are not so relevant because we’re doing what we need to do anyway. So, I can’t help but wonder if Buddhism takes up these ideas only because they were the accepted doctrine of Shakyamuni’s time.

Brian


Hi Brian,

In my personal view (not being the last word on what happened in history), you express this just right. I believe that Shakyamuni (although he was also the 'man of no rank' beyond and right through all times) was a man of his times, in Iron age India and thus it is little surprise that he adapted, with some adjustments, ideas that were fairly current in India at the time.

Interestingly, the idea just held on and on. The "Karmic effects" of the rebirth idea itself are something that have lived on and on. generation after generation, changing and not changing to various degrees, whether or not it is correct or incorrect. That itself is a demonstration of a kind of "meme" Karma.

Yes, I personally do not find the system of post-mortem rebirth necessary to Buddhist Practice.

That is just my assessment, others will certainly disagree (they may be right, and I am wrong .... which I might end up realizing in the fires of hell, I suppose.)

I am reminded of the "cat" story about how Buddhist traditions develop.

When the spiritual teacher and his disciples began their evening meditation, the cat who lived in the monastery made such noise that it distracted them. So the teacher ordered that the cat be tied up during the evening practice. Years later, when the teacher died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the spiritual teacher wrote scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice.


Gassho, Jundo

SatToday
Founder Treeleaf Zendo, Japan. Member SZBA. Treeleaf is an online Sangha for those unable to commute to a Sangha, w/ netcast Zazen, interaction with other practitioners and teachers & all activities of a Soto Sangha, fully online without charge (http://www.treeleaf.org) Nishijima/Niwa
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Re: Karma and reincarnation/rebirth

Postby Brian P on Thu Mar 02, 2017 2:48 pm

Thank you, Jundo. I enjoyed the cat story!

Brian
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Re: Karma and reincarnation/rebirth

Postby Meido on Thu Mar 02, 2017 4:10 pm

Brian P wrote:So, I can’t help but wonder if Buddhism takes up these ideas only because they were the accepted doctrine of Shakyamuni’s time.


Statements to this end are often made when the subject of rebirth comes up, but they are problematic for several reasons.

One reason is that they imply the Buddha did not examine and question the prevailing views of his day with great care. In fact, everything we have suggests quite the opposite.

The main reason, however, is that they are just not true. Views of rebirth and karmic causation did certainly exist in the Buddha's day, but were not universally accepted doctrines at all; they existed among many competing and contradictory doctrines, in an atmosphere that appears to have been one of religious ferment and contention.

Furthermore, the Buddha's particular explanation of rebirth and karma may actually have been rather radical, and a departure from anything current at the time. As an example, Gombrich (see below) mentions the Buddha's emphasis on intent/mental state, rather than action, as the pivot point upon which karmic causation turns.

Sometimes confusion RE these issues comes from an assumption that ideas of rebirth and karma in India at that time were similar to what exists in modern Hinduism. In fact, what became modern Hinduism was greatly influenced by Buddhism, rather than the other way around. In any case the religious scene which, it seems, was prevalent in the region of the Buddha's activity (Magadha) was primarily Shramanic rather than Brahmanic.

Gombrich's "What the Buddha Thought" is perhaps the best-known popular work dealing with many of these points. It's a very accessible read for non-scholars (like myself). Here's a review:

https://api.equinoxpub.com/articles/fulltext/18444

Here's a long article that takes up some of these points, by a Theravadin bhikkhu. The first section discusses the religious scene in Shakyamuni's time:

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/auth ... birth.html

~ Meido
The Rinzai Zen Way: A Guide to Practice
Korinji monastery [臨済宗 • 祖的山光林禅寺]: http://www.korinji.org
Madison Rinzai Zen Community/Ryugen-ji [機山龍源寺]: http://www.madisonrinzaizen.org
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Re: Karma and reincarnation/rebirth

Postby Brian P on Thu Mar 02, 2017 4:44 pm

Thank you for your response, Meido.

Would you take up my original question as well? Here it is again:

Buddhism, as I understand it has a similar view of Karma, rebirth and release from the cycles of birth and death, but does not recognize an individual soul or individual entity. In Buddhism then, what is reincarnated or reborn and what is released from the cycle? Would you please shed some light on this?

Brian
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Re: Karma and reincarnation/rebirth

Postby Meido on Thu Mar 02, 2017 7:27 pm

Brian P wrote:In Buddhism then, what is reincarnated or reborn and what is released from the cycle? Would you please shed some light on this?


Well, from the Buddhist standpoint the question itself - though understandable - is mistaken or misphrased, and so not really useful. It is misphrased and not useful because any answer given to it will will tend to fall into some variation on the extremes of eternalism (there is an immutable self/soul that exists eternally) or annihilationism (there is no continuation, no existence following breakup of the material body, no consequence of actions, etc.). The Buddha specifically set forth a middle way between those extremes. All of this is in the sutras, where people ask the exact same question you did. You can find it all summed up online pretty easily in a lot of places (the article I linked to earlier makes some good points, actually).

From the standpoint of the path, a more correct way to ask would be, "why is there existence and rebirth?" In other words, a focus on the process of becoming. It is this process - a serial assemblage or appropriation of the aggregates, rather than the transmission or continuation of any "thing" - that the Buddha and later masters explained, along with the way to liberation from it.

If we want to sum up from the Zen view, we could simply say that what is reborn is delusion. It is the continuation of a misapprehension.

If one has doubt regarding rebirth, I agree that's fine. But it may also be that a little faith is required...if not in rebirth itself (since one has not yet arrived at certainty in one's own experience), than based on the likelihood that there are reasons the Buddha thought it important to affirm rebirth based on his experience. This kind of faith is not too difficult...really, not more difficult than the basic faith we have as beginners that the practice is valuable, that the patriarchs and teachers were not being deceitful, that our teachers might know what they're talking about, etc. In other words: a suspension of hard disbelief, if such exists, and a willingness to remain open. There's nothing about rebirth, after all, that is any weirder than anything else we experience each day.

In any case, if what the tradition says is true, we will eventually know for ourselves, based on our own experience. So, in the words of Bill Murray, we've got that going for us, which is nice.

Finally, another way this is often approached is to view rebirth through the lens of current existence, i.e. the continuation of the serial phenomenon we call "self" that is experienced moment to moment, here. In fact, in deep meditative absorption this can be clearly seen to not be the continuation of any thing, but rather a succession of arisings and passings-away, like the distinct frames of a movie reel, each of which conditions - but is not the same existence as - the one immediately following. This is interesting, and parallels some findings in brain research. We should note that this way of viewing rebirth in terms of current existence has never been meant to negate pre- and post-mortem continuation, however...just to demonstrate the closeness, and functioning, of rebirth.

~ Meido
The Rinzai Zen Way: A Guide to Practice
Korinji monastery [臨済宗 • 祖的山光林禅寺]: http://www.korinji.org
Madison Rinzai Zen Community/Ryugen-ji [機山龍源寺]: http://www.madisonrinzaizen.org
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Re: Karma and reincarnation/rebirth

Postby Brian P on Thu Mar 02, 2017 7:49 pm

Thanks, again, Meido.
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Re: Karma and reincarnation/rebirth

Postby jundo on Tue Mar 07, 2017 5:30 am

Hi,

The current issue of Buddhadharma magazine features essays by the Thai monk Ajahn Buddhadhasa, also skeptical or agnostic on post-mortem rebirth and overly mechanical views of Karma. It is good to see someone from the other side of the pond who shares these questions and criticisms on his own doctrinal grounds. It touches upon the question in the OP about how a "self" is reborn. The following is from the introduction by his long time student and translator, Santikaro, a western born Thai tradition monk. (Unfortunately, the bulk of the article is not online, so I present just a few quotes) ...

https://www.lionsroar.com/inside-the-sp ... -magazine/

The work of Ajahn Buddhadasa (1906- 1993) in Theravada Buddhism has been to recover the core perspectives that have been ignored, lost, or obscured as buddhadhamma was encumbered with the trappings of religious rituals, moralistic beliefs, afterlife speculations, donation-seeking rationalizations, and quick-fix meditation techniques. As a clerical caste emerged over the centuries following the Buddha’s passing, Dhamma was segregated into Dhamma for those identified as renunciate wanderers (bhikkhus) and Dhamrna for householders (upasakas). Further, a moralizing tone crept in, and emphasis began to shift from liberation in this life to earning a better life after death. While such developments may have their place, something crucial was muddled in the process. Ajahn Buddhadasa did not accept the segregation of practice and the bias underlying it, nor the superficial moralizing that overlooked the subtler perspectives found throughout the Pali suttas.

...

Exponents of the “the three lifetimes interpretation,” which insists that dependent co-arising must be understood in terms of past, present, and future lives, assert that it is consistent with anatta or not- self. Ajahn Buddhadasa found their explanations unconvincing, as they have not escaped the implications of something that remains the same as it carries over from one life to the next. This vehicle for karmic results smells rather like a self (atta)-that is, an individual, separate, and lasting entity. Such presentations fail to explain, although they claim to, how karma works over lifetimes without implying such an entity. In Ajahn Buddhadasa’s view, the karma and rebirth emphasizing approach sacrifices the liberating value of a not-self understanding of dependent co-arising for a moral version of dependent co-arising. It may conventionally be correct from an ethical perspective, and therefore may be of value, but it misses out from an ultimate perspective. Ajahn Buddhadasa found this unfortunate.

There is no doubt that passages that describe “rebirth” appear in the suttas. What are we to make of them? Do we take them to be literally, materially true? If so, how do we deal with the fact that they seem to contradict the notion of not-self? Do we fudge one to protect the other? Are the suttas any less contradictory when we read them less literally? Do suttas present ultimate truth or conventional truth? Might there be value in understanding dependent co-arising in a variety of ways, wherein no single way of understanding it, even Ajahn Buddhadasa’s, is the sole and whole truth?

Ajahn Buddhadasa is not the only intelligent, thoughtful student of buddhadhamma to have questioned an apparent logical contradiction in the standard View, though he was the earliest and most prominent of Theravada teachers to do so. ... In recent decades, a growing number of scholars and Dhamma students, lay and monastic, Asian and Western, have raised the same questions in various ways as well.
...

Fundamentalist minds seem unable or unwilling to consider this natural fact of language and instead seek to interpret all teachings literally. Ajahn Buddhadasa, being more creative and skillful, recogngnized two levels in the Buddha’s language: an ordinary level of language that speaks of people and beings, and a Dhamma level of language that expresses not-self and dependent co-arising.


The following is from the main essay by Ajahn Buddhadasa ...

This is a good place to consider karma. After all, it parallels the dependent co-arising teaching, though with less precision and depth. In the first account of the Buddha’s awakening, the second knowledge [sometimes said to have been realized by Buddha under the Bodhi Tree] suggests that beings carry on after death according to their karma. The difficulty with this understanding is that we cannot take this as the understanding of karma in line with core Buddhist principles. Rather, this understanding is simply the standard version of karma that existed in India before the Buddha's time. Before the Buddha’s awakening, the Upanishads already taught that beings are reborn after death according to the workings of karma. Even Christianity, at least mainstream forms, teaches pretty much the same. If that is not the true Buddhist teaching, then what is?

In Buddhism, the central teaching on karma is about the practice that makes karma meaningless. “the karma that ends karma.” This karma transforms us beyond all the influences of karma, which is the unique, more profound aspect of the Buddha's karma teaching. The idea that doing good deeds leads to good results and doing bad deeds leads to bad results was a general teaching that existed before the Buddha’s time. The Buddha did not deny or object to such karma doctrines, which were already common before he appeared and are found in some form in all religions. However, such teachings were not sufficient for his purpose: the end of suffering. Therefore, the Buddha went further. His real teaching is about not being trapped by karma, thus transcending karma and its consequences.

Allow me to reiterate that most of the books on Buddhism with chapters on “Karma and Rebirth” are not correct, not if they really intend to represent Buddhism. If we are to explain “Karma in Buddhism,” it is not enough to teach that good actions bring good fruits, bad acrions bring bad fruits, and we inevitably receive the fruits of our good and bad karma. Properly, a Buddhist explanation must focus on “the karma that ends all karma.” The practice of the noble eightfold path is that karma that ends all karma. The Buddha’s teaching on karma is to be free of karma, not trapped by it, so that karma has no more power over our lives.

MORE HERE:
https://www.lionsroar.com/the-choice-is-yours/


Very interesting read.

Gassho, Jundo

SatToday
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