June 16, 2009

I don’t believe in Reincarnation. Am I still a Buddhist?

I grew up in a Buddhist family. As the Dalai Lama says of Buddhism,

Anything that contradicts experience and logic should be abandoned. – His Holiness the Dalai Lama

In fact, the Buddha himself said something along the lines of “Buddhism is what can be experienced, not what I say it is.” And so I’ve never believed in reincarnation—I’ve never experienced it, it strikes me as superstition, as a spiritual hangover from Buddhism’s origins with Hinduism (I also don’t particularly believe in eight-armed green deities).

Still, from a strict Buddhist p.o.v., reincarnation is part of our dogma. Wait, I thought we didn’t have dogma, we only “believed” what we could experience? Well, there’s the rub. If you ask my teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the fact that I don’t believe in reincarnation means I’m not, strictly speaking, a proper Buddhist. I say, show me the evidence of it, and why it matters to my Bodhisattva Vow: to be of benefit.

Because that, after all, is the whole point of all this Buddhist stuff (at least as I was brought up to understand it in Chogyam Trungpa‘s sangha community): to become sane (Hinayana), work for the benefit of others (Mahayana) and fully involve onself in this short, precious human existence (Vajrayana). And Trungpa Rinpoche himself never emphasized reincarnation, or the six realms (except as psychological analogies).

So call me a dis-believer. But given that Buddhism is a non-theistic tradition, I think that just makes me a…Buddhist. ~ elephant journal editor-in-chief, Waylon Lewis.

Via one of my favorite Buddhist e-newsletters, Upaya, which also has an elegant site that’s chock-ful of events and Dharma:

Shinshu Roberts was looking at Suzuki Roshi transcripts and ran across this:

Student F: “Reincarnation. What do Buddhists believe?”

Suzuki-rōshi: “Yeah, that is—it has been Buddhist belief, and no one can deny it, you know. It is difficult to say it doesn’t exist. It is very difficult to say. [To say,] “It does exist” is easy [laughs], but we cannot—if you want to deny something, it is very difficult, you know [laughs]. It is easy to say, “I am not enlightened.” This is easy. But it is very difficult to say, “I have no easy [?] desires”—I have no such easy desire as you have. Can you [laughs] clearly declare in that way, you know?

Maybe, you know, your idea—the thought of reincarnation—someone may say it is—it is superstition. It is easy—it is not so easy to say that is superstition. You have to prove, you know, everything from every angle if you want to say that is—reincarnation does not exist. It is almost impossible to deny something, some idea which you have. So maybe we shouldn’t [laughs]. It is better not [to].

And actually, some of you may say that is superstition. Some of you may say so, but he himself, you know, what exactly what he does, actually, is based on that kind of idea—idea of reincarnation. That is how he is—how human nature is going. I may die tomorrow, you know, but I—until I die, I think I will live tomorrow too. When I go to bed I think I am quite sure [laughs] that I can get up tomorrow at five o’clock. I am quite sure. But we cannot be so sure [laughs]. You see, we—I believe in my future life always. That is actually what we are doing. So it is more than belief, you know. [It is] actual life we have. Okay?”

Now, I have little idea what Suzuki Roshi is saying. I think he’s saying reincarnation happens now—it’s beyond superstition. But whatever he means, I agree with it—he’s the author of one of my favorite Buddhist books, like, ever.

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Gwyneth Llewelyn Jul 21, 2014 5:20pm

When that happens, it might be more reasonable to admit that Western science might devise a similar explanation to Buddhism to how the mind (and the self) arises from the body, than to think that it might come up with a completely different explanation which does not require causality.

I should also comment on Cameron's argument that 'reincarnation presumes linear time and individual self'. That's the reason why translating 'reincarnation' from the Buddhist term is perhaps not a good choice (but we're stuck with it). Buddhism's causality does not 'presume' linear time at all; as said, time is just a conventional perception of our minds (and we don't even perceive time in the same way!). Buddhism, for instance, has no problem with quantum causality that can go against the arrow of time — which perplexes non-quantum physicists, for example — because 'linear time' is never implied in Buddhist causality. Time is, however, an useful convention which we can use to explain things to beings who are familiar with the concept — so long as we don't forget that it is merely a convention, a concept, and, as such, has no intrinsic existence. This also means that Buddhist reincarnation does not necessarily need to be 'a linear sequence of people being born at the precise moment when the last life ends'. Perhaps an analogy with relativity would help — imagine that someone is reborn near a black hole, with time completely distorted in relation to outside observers. Then that rebirth might actually take millennia or even millions of years later (there might not even be more human beings on this universe!), from the perspective of an outsider. Even though the person that is reborn might 'think' otherwise — i.e. that they were born immediately after their last incarnation died — assuming they would be aware of their own chain of causal connections (which is usually NOT the case). There is no contradiction here — just different local perceptions of time. The causal connection still holds true.

Also note that, in spite of the length of my comment, this is not the 'full' explanation. There is a lot more that needs to be added to explain where memory comes from, how it is 'stored', and how Buddhas can easily trace back their own chains of causal connections to identify previous lives. Like everything in Buddhism, it's very logical, has been debated for centuries, and is not easily dismissed as 'religious mumbo-jumbo' — if you follow the consequences of the line of reasoning, you will reach the same conclusions on your own. However, it's fair to say that the 'full explanation' — if there is something like that! — is quite complex to follow. I, for, one, always need to consult my own notes to recall every nuance and subtlety, and most often than not, I get them wrong!

So I prefer to use an old example. Imagine a chain of unlit, identical candles. You light the first and let it burn until the end. But before it goes out, you use a wooden stick to transfer the dying flame to the next candle. Now you have light again. In terms of our perceptions it's the same light — identical candles burn with the same light. But… almost, but not quite. There will always be tiny imperfections between two candles, and the light might sputter, or the flame waver, in not-exactly-the-same way. Similar enough that we might say, 'it's the same light', but enough differences to tell us 'it's a different candle'. Of course, if we are close enough, we can see now that the second candle, while identical to the first in terms of wax content, wicker composition, etc, it is not the 'same' candle but a different one. The 'stick' here represents the chain of causality (the analogy is not quite correct as it tends to imply that this chain of causality is something physical or at least substantial, but of course it isn't). The almost-but-not-quite identical candles represent successive rebirths. We can clearly see how each is different from the other, but we can also see how they are causally connected: it's the flame on one that gives rise to the flame of the next one.

Why is the concept of reincarnation so important and central to Buddhism? Mostly because Buddhism teaches that we create the causes and conditions not only of what happens in this life — in the very next moment of our existence — but that the same causes and conditions will also influence, causally, our next life. Thus, we have to be aware that the least of our actions, even if it doesn't give fruit in this life, might causally influence us on the next life. But our actions can also cause something much more important: the ability to break free from the chain of continuous rebirths (which we might call 'awakening', or 'enlightenment', if you prefer). And this is merely done through our actions; since chains of causal connections are independent of each other, nobody can 'cause' another's chain of causal connections to be affected (that's why even Buddhas cannot 'incite' someone else's enlightenment). At best, they can contribute with some conditions (typically, by teaching the Buddhadharma!) — but if that actually happens or not, that depends solely on our own actions.

Gwyneth Llewelyn Jul 21, 2014 5:19pm

When we die, Buddhism explains that the chain of causal connections is not 'broken' — in Buddhism, there is really no 'beginning and end' but just infinite chains of causal connections (Western philosophers tend to frown upon that, as they point out that there was a Big Bang, etc. and that time flows into a certain direction. For Buddhism, however, 'time' is merely a construct of the mind — a very sophisticated and useful one, surely, but not more than that. Einstein would agree: time is dependent on the observer, so how can it be something intrinsic and absolute?). So the accumulation of causes during our own lives is necessary and sufficient to 'cause' a different entity to emerge with a new mind. The difference is more one of quantity than of quality. Just like the chain of causal connections 'connects' two moments in time — even if the particles that compose our body are not the same any more — the chain of causal connections can 'connect' a complete change of all those particles. Even across death? Well, yes, if we take 'death' to mean just an ordinary event in the chain of events. Imagine that we suffer a terrible car crash and our body is hopelessly mangled beyond recognition, and we need all our limbs to be amputated, etc. but the brain still works. Would we say, 'it's a new person, unconnected to the person that crashed in the accident?' Of course not. The body might have changed beyond recognition, but we know it's the same person.

'All compounded phenomena are impermanent'. So is the body. But so is also the mind that is interdependent with that body. At the moment of death, of course both the body will fade, but so will the mind (it is, after all, also a compounded phenomenon — and one which depends on the body). However, the chain of causal connections persists. It will 'cause' a new mind in a new body. Is it the same person? Not if we consider a person to be the conjunction of 'mind + body'. It is most certainly a different person, with a different mind, with (usually) no recollection of any 'past lives'. But there is a causal connection between the person who died and the newborn baby that now cries on the maternity ward. This, in a nutshell, is the meaning of 'reincarnation' in Buddhism, and it has little to do with superstitious, religious, or magical thought. But as you can see it's way, way harder to explain.

The Dalai Lama has once said that, if Western science disproves the existence of this chain of causal connections across lives, then Buddhism has to be revised and discard the notion of reincarnation. He was being quite clever when he affirmed that, because he knows that most Western science — with the exception of relativity and quantum physics — is postulated on a non-processual philosophy. This actually leads to some of the biggest loopholes in current science — exposed by quantum physics — which is to explain how the Universe can be both causal (allowing science to study it, to register those studies, to formulate theories, and have predictive power with accuracy) and acausal (allowing things like epiphenomena, epigenetics, etc. which are apparently 'events without cause'). As Western science progresses more and more along the paths of processual philosophy (in recent decades, you can do your PhD using processual philosophy, which is still frowned upon in some more conservative circles…), it is more likely that they follow the steps of Buddhism in explaining what the mind is, and how minds can be causally connected (NOT be 'the same mind'), and, using those assumptions, have much more explanatory power.

Gwyneth Llewelyn Jul 21, 2014 5:19pm

Instead, Buddhism postulates something else. What connects the mind in one moment of time to the mind of another moment of time? Consider the question at the quantum level. At one moment, we are just a bunch of particles at a slightly higher density in a certain area. On the immediately subsequent moment, the particles have changed position. If we are sitting down, we might have exchanged some electrons (or even atoms!) with the chair where we're sitting in. Some photons from the Sun, shining on us, might have triggered some photoelectric effects. Most definitely, the bunch of particles on the next moment is different from the one on the preceding moment. Why do we 'feel' that we're the 'same' person? Buddhism answers this very neatly with the law of cause and effect. That particular bunch of particles in one moment, interdependent with a moment of consciousness, causes the next moment. Strictly speaking, we cannot say that it is 'the same mind' or 'the same particles'. But there is a causal connection. Without the bunch of particles in the first moment, there would not be a bunch of particles in the next moment (even if it's a slightly different bunch of particles). However, the causal connection binds the two together.

What Buddhism teaches is that this process goes on and on during our whole lives. This bunch of particles is constantly changing; we grow, we get older, we get sick, but there is always a 'connection' through causality that gives us this sense of continuity. Some translate this sense of continuity as the 'stream of consciousness', even though, strictly speaking, this might be misleading, as we tend to reify the 'stream' and give it intrinsic existence — i.e., Buddhists might discard the notion of the soul, or anima, or atman, but they 'believe' in something similar, this 'stream' of consciousness. However this is not strictly correct. The 'stream' just describes a particular chain of causal connections; it doesn't have intrinsic existence either. We can, however, distinguish a chain of causal connections from a different one — thus, we have different minds (and not One Mind!), and we have different 'selves'. Where the concept of similarity comes in is that one's stream of consciousness — one's chain of causal connections — has the same nature as everybody else's chain (thus leading many to make the mistake of believing that 'the same nature' means 'the same thing'. That's not true. Imagine two empty glasses of water. Now pour water into them from a jar. Both are 'glasses of water' — in the sense that both contain H2O, and the H2O in one glass is not different, at the molecular level, from the H2O on the other glass. But it would be stupid to say 'it's the same glass'. Clearly both are confined in two different regions of space; they are two independent glasses of water. If I drink water from one glass, I don't affect the outcome of the other glass. So, the nature of a glass of water — H2O — might be the same, but the two glasses are independent entities. The same happens to our minds. All have the same nature, but all have different chains of causal connection, and are different because of that).

Now comes the important point. We tend to look at a picture of ourselves at the age of 7, and say: 'that's me'. But that isn't true. The body was completely different. And so was the mind: we had different urges, different goals, different priorities, different ways to look at things, and thought in a completely different way. Nevertheless, we still draw the chain of causal connection between that entity at the age of 7 and ourselves at this moment.

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Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of Elephant Journal & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat.” Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword’s Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by “Greatist”, Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: “the mindful life” beyond the choir & to all those who didn’t know they gave a care. elephantjournal.com | His first book, Things I would like to do with You, touches on modern relationships from a Buddhist point of view. His dream of 9 years, the Elephant “Ecosystem” will find a way to pay 1,000s of writers a month, helping reverse the tide of low-quality, unpaid writing & reading for free online.