Sunday, April 03, 2011

Born Again

John Gfoeller recently posted a detailed response to my previous post on The Problem of Traditions . I won't respond to all of the points he raised in this post, but I would like to comment on his remarks about the relationship between Buddhism and the doctrine of reincarnation:
First, to the best of my knowledge, Buddhism does not believe in reincarnation. Buddhism believes in “anatman” — no (permanent) soul. Hence, Buddhism doesn’t believe in reincarnation because it doesn’t believe in a permanent soul that could reincarnate.

Rather, Buddhism believes in rebirth — which is a much more flexible concept.

At its most minimal interpretation, rebirth seems to mean a transference of consequences from one life to others’ lives. In other words, Buddhism teaches that a person is simply a temporary aggregate of various elements, and person simply dies when those elements come apart. No soul survives. Yet, the consequences of the person’s life continue in the lives of others. And, those consequences (directly or indirectly) can result in another person being born. And that is rebirth. This seems to be the interpretation preferred by Theravada Buddhism and by secular Buddhism.

It's true that, in English at least, the term 'reincarnation' is sometimes used to refer specifically to the view that there is a permanent soul or self which embodies different beings, and the term 'rebirth' is sometimes used to refer specifically to the Buddhist view that there is continuity between lives but no permanent soul or self. I am of course familiar with these uses of the terms 'rebirth' and 'reincarnation' in the English literature on Buddhism, but I didn't feel the need to introduce them in my original post, because the distinction between reincarnation and rebirth is not actually essential to the point I was making, and since in my view it's a somewhat artifical way of marking the distinction (though admittedly useful).

The Buddhist doctrine of continuity between lives is different from the view that a permanent soul incarnates in different bodies, but I don't think it is more flexible. I reject both views, because there is no good reason to believe that the thoughts, words, and actions of one life are uniquely and closely causally connected to the thoughts, words, actions, and experiences of other lives, past or present. Both views conflict with the view of living organisms we have from the natural sciences.

The Buddhist view of rebirth is puzzling to many, because if there is no permanent soul to connect different lives, then how is rebirth even possible? From the Buddhist point of view, the connection between lives is basically the same as the connection within a life. If there is no permanent soul, what connects the 'me' of yesterday with the 'me' of today? The answer is the causal connections between physical and psychological states. If I strike a person in anger today, then this has an effect on my future psychological states; and my current states and actions, while they affect a great many other beings, have a bigger effect on, that is to say they are more closely causally connected to, the future 'me' than they are to any other being. It is the nature and degree of the causal connections that forms the basis of a person's conventional identity over time, even though there is no single substance or set of substances which persist between any two moments (let alone over a lifetime, or between lifetimes). So, if the Buddhist can solve the problem of the identity of a conventional 'person' over a lifetime, he can solve the problem of the identitiy of a reborn or reincarnated 'person' over several lifetimes.

Note that the kind of causal connectedness required for continuity of a person is more than just the loose causal connection between persons that John mentioned in his post. Rebirth connects the lives of different organisms as closely, as least with respect to the law of karma, as different states of a single person's life are connected. The fact that I have influenced other people, including future people, and the fact that I may cause people to be born, is not enough to establish the truth of the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth, on howsoever minimal an interpretation. Rebirth entails a unique and close causal connection between the karmic states of different living creatures. Theravada Buddhists are as clear on this point as Mahayana Buddhists. And denying rebirth in this robust form is one of the sixty-two wrong views condemned by the Buddha in the Pali Canon. Now, a secular Buddhist could offer a looser view of causal connectedness between lives of the sort John suggests, but we should be clear that this amounts to a radical reinterpretation of the Buddhist tradition.
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