The Debate (gets Heated): Does God Exist? Deepak Chopra + Jean Houston v athiests Dr. Michael Shermer + Sam Harris.

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deepak chopra debate science god

God v Science?

A fascinating, heated and important debate.

As a Buddhist (non-theist), I’d like to believe in the sort of god Henry David Thoeau talks about—but I certainly can’t, and don’t believe in the sort of Old White Man God represented in the Bible. It’s mythology, to me, though full of mostly wonderful teachings (though I don’t go in for all of it). D

“The very embodiment of woo woo.”


“Maybe you need to meditate more..!”

I first heard tell about this impassioned, and slightly nasty week-long (!) debate on twitter, direct from Dr. Chopra, who was saying “It’s all good” or something to that effect, in response to Sam Harris (a hero in Buddhist circles) sort of apologizing, sort of bragging that he got a bit nasty in his debate with Dr. Chopra.

Enjoy (for once, a serious, important subject is packaged in a fun manner [like everything Dr. Chopra does] on mainstream TV):

The complete debate is on youtube. Watch the below, then doubleclick and follow the various videos posted by AtheistMediaBlog:

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About Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of elephant magazine, now & 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. | His first book, Things I would like to do with You, is now available.


47 Responses to “The Debate (gets Heated): Does God Exist? Deepak Chopra + Jean Houston v athiests Dr. Michael Shermer + Sam Harris.”

  1. Some of the ancient Yoga sages believed in a very personal God and others believed in an impersonal God, or God as simply the life-force of the universe.

    Many religious thinkers define God as “that which is unknowable, but which drives us towards love and goodness”.

    Given this commonly accepted definition, almost everyone believes in God. In the end what matters most is that we all agree there IS some universal drive toward making the world a better place, not where that drive comes from.

    The result is the same, whether one believes it comes from an unfathomable life-force or a personal divine being. Both are equally mysterious, both can legitimately be called “God”, and both lead us to love, goodness and morality.

    The sages who wrote the ancient Yoga texts were themselves in disagreement about God. Their debates are evident in the three major Yoga texts, the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutra, and the Upanishads.

    In the end the texts themselves allow for the entire spectrum from secularism to traditional religion. That’s one of the things that makes them so amazing and enduring.

    In the time of the Yoga Sutra (about 2400 years ago) the sages couldn’t agree on whether or not there was a God, and if there was a God, was it a personal God or an impersonal God. So Patanjali cleverly wrote the Yoga Sutra to appeal to all these sides.

    Yoga was itself a comparatively rational attempt to deal with all the irrational Gods and rituals of the Indian religious culture of the time. It was quite rebellious in that it wanted to learn about consciousness from direct experience rather than the ancient Vedic hymns and priests.

    The more scientifically-minded sages simply made everything they couldn’t accept as reality into a metaphor and moved on accordingly. That’s what they did with the entire pantheon of ancient Gods — they made them into powerful metaphors of our inner struggles.

    And that’s what each of us individually should do today when the texts challenge us with concepts we can’t accept as literally true — turn them into powerful metaphors. The essential message will remain the same.

    Bob Weisenberg

  2. Also highly relevant:

    Albert Einstein as Yoga Sage

    Did you know that Albert Einstein had a very Yogic point of view?

    Actually, this is true of many advanced physicists and other scientists, even if they don’t actually practice or study Yoga. They are simply overwhelmed with what they have seen with their own eyes and minds, and come to the same conclusions as the early Yoga sages.

    Here’s a typical Einstein quote:

    “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.

    This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty”

    Does that sound like the Yoga of the Upanishads or what?

    By the same token, the ancient Yoga sages saw themselves as early scientists. They openly rebelled against the overly elaborate, ritualistic, and irrational religious thinking of the time in favor of direct experience and experimenting with states of mind.

    They defined spirituality in the same way Einstein did — absolute wonder in face of the unfathomable universe. Yoga is, in many ways, a scientist’s vision of spirituality.

    “The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.

    To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”

    (Albert Einstein – The Merging of Spirit and Science)

    Bob Weisenberg

  3. Liz
    I would love to point out that the Bible does not refer to God as an old white man, not anywhere. That is a post-modern American white guilt concept.

    What God or Goddess is or isn't is all in your mind.

    Peter S
    Not sure about that. I seem to recall many works of art from the 15th Century. for example the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, (that are not what I'd call post modern American) showing God as an old white man.

    Julia M
    But those are works of art that are Western interpretations of G-d. Not the Bible.

    Yes, that was in the 15th c. Today, in the United States, there are people who subscribe to the notion that God is an old white man. I am speaking of now, not the 15th c. Two different eras. Today, there is a huge population of white folks who suffer from white guilt. Silly, really.

    Nevertheless, if you read the Bible, there is no indication that God is an old white man.

    Kari, do you realize that ALL of your thoughts are generated from your mind?
    God is of course referred to as He. And he's depicted consistently in Western works of art as an Old White Man… See More—which have nothing to do with "post-modern American white guilt" as you put it. The real point is that most good Christians I've debated with view God not as something "inside" us, but external to us. That we're full of Original Sin. That we are not God, that God and us are separate. That's important. Why? Well, because that's what leads to theism: viewing good and God as external, sin as internal, and our need to be saved. Buddhism says: we're okay just as we are, we need only become more who we truly are, and that there's no external savior, we need to do the work (and play) ourselves.

    • Wholly Yoga says:

      The view of Christianity you are referring to is only one, very western very modern, view of the Christian faith. It represents more the dogmatic view of that stream of Christianity, than the historic or biblical view of God. Itis unfortunate that that is the view most people have experienced or know.

  4. I thing Chopra makes a huge mistake in claiming that God can be proven by science and Shermer makes the equally grevious mistake of claiming science is the only reality.

    Yoga spirituality is being the infinite wonder and awe of what we don't know, just as Einstein says above, so by definition can not be scientific per se, because science is about what we know and can prove.

  5. Roz says:

    So basically there is no god. Chopra just calls the psychology of science "god".

  6. Karl Boyken says:

    Sure, there is a god–the concept of god. Whether or not there actually is anything like god in existence, it's certain that our concept of god is not god. So our clinging to a concept of god, believing or disbelieving the concept and arguing heatedly about it, simply serves to bind us more deeply to a conceptual way of dealing with experience, and takes us out of direct experience of the present moment–which is the only place anyone will find anything at all like god.

  7. Greg says:

    The Buddhists (who were not present) won the debate. The root cause of samsara is ignorance. When one speaks of samsara, and all its dependently-arisen forms, one necessarily speaks of ignorance.

    Until one addresses root causes of ontological ignorance one cannot speak coherently about God or the causes and conditions that bring about all fabricated phenomena.

    Thus, talk of an iconic God (man with white beard) will be silliness – both on the part of those who advocate for such a God and on the part of those who criticize such a God. Shermer (and Harris) play to this straw man God and knock him down easily but it is a silly game. Most Christians would knock that God down as well.

    Chopra, unfortunately, failed to define the debate so that such a straw man argument was off the table.

    Chopra's move to quantum physics was poorly conceived as one has to be careful here, also, to carefully define terms and define the debate. One can understand quantum physics at a completely mechanical or engineering level without really grasping the ontological significance of the research. Two different discussions when it comes to mechanics and ontology. Conflate one with the other and game over.

    The crux of the debate has to do with how we know. The question of God or the origin of all dependently-arisen conditions is where ontology meets epistemology. This is where they merge. One must carefully consider both views.

    Epistemology (and ultimately ontology) have to do with the nature of consciousness. It is here that the Buddhists have gone beyond all "science" and blazed a research path for thousands of years. The work of the Mind and Life Institute (associated with HH Dalai Lama) — if taken as a foundation for this debate — would have yielded more insights.

    I am not sure why Chopra did not call Sam Harris on his claim to be a student of Dzogchen. That would have ended the debate and Harris would have had to move to the other side of the stage. That Harris would allow Buddhism to be so misrepresented by association with Shermer is one of those quirky "things that shouldn't be" moments. The hatred that Harris feels toward iconic religion overwhelms any awakening he might have had.

    Christian mystics and monastics, those who have practiced the faith in great depth, like Buddhist monastics, would not agree with the straw man version of God debated. From the viewpoint of those who have most overcome ignorance the debate would have struck a false chord. Those in both groups, Christians and Buddhists, would have nodded slowly with enigmatic smiles, agreeing that ignorance is the cause of suffering. Meanwhile, the audience continued to suffer.

    Elephantjournal should produce a more enlightened version of the debate.

    • integralhack says:

      I agree Greg. Ever time I hear a Buddhist rev up analogies with Quantum Physics I start to groan. And Harris . . . ugh. I read his book The End of Faith years ago and I was astounded that people were so impressed with it.

  8. Hi, Greg.

    How could this Buddhist obsession with suffering be anything more than human egotism? Spirituality for me is something that takes me utterly beyond the human dimension and on to things that supersede and dwarf even the question of human existence, much less human suffering.

    If all humanity was destroyed by an asteroid tomorrow, as once happened to the Dinosaurs, it would change nothing about the essential nature of the universe, even though all suffering was decisively extinguished.

    I agree that relief of suffering is critical, moral and instinctual. But I don't see how it can be the primary basis for a wider understanding of the universe.

    Bob Weisenberg

    • Greg says:

      Buddhists are not obsessed with suffering. The point of the practice is to address suffering and bring about a cessation of ignorance and attachment, root causes of suffering.

      In the Buddhist view consciousness is not limited to human bodies. Thus, destroying all humanity would not extinguish suffering. In fact, given the attachment of conscious beings to the life forms on the planet that were destroyed, they would suffer a loss and more suffering and might then become even more attached as clinging to that which we lose is common.

      Typically the unconsciousness of loss plays a huge role in preventing awakening. A key aspect of the practice is viewing and cleansing away karmic imprints that often are a product of clinging in a moment of loss.

      An understanding of the wider universe includes understanding the role that consciousness plays — separate from any form or group of forms. In the Buddhist view (and in the yogic Hindu view) all forms emerge (dependently arise) from Mind. (Buddha Consciousness, Christ Consciousness, God Consciousness, etc.)

      In such practices one works toward the realization that all forms are but mental projections – fabrications.

      Unlike naturalistic or materialistic science — which can never prove or verify its fundamental premise that matter exists prior to consciousness — the Idealistic view can be verified through conscious observation the nature of dependently-arisen forms as mental projections. (Which is exactly what the Buddha did.)

      The view that Chopra argued (poorly) is the only view that can be subjected to verification. Shermer is stuck with blind faith to support his view. That should have been the end of the debate.

      • That's getting pretty abstract for me, Greg. I'm not sure I can even follow your logic. You're saying even without any people the universe suffers? I dunno about that.

        And I think you're badly twisting the word "verification" in your concluding paragraphs. Science is non-verifiable and Buddhism is. I dunno about that either.

        Bob Weisenberg

        • Greg says:

          Not too abstract. More a matter of practice and observation.

          What I am saying is that consciousness is not bound to a body. In Buddhism (and with the yogis as well) when the body dies we, as conscious beings, do not die. There is a separation of consciousness from the form. This is a key principle within Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and other faiths. (And it is a matter that can be verified through the personal accounts of those who have died – both those who recall prior reincarnations and those who have had near death experiences that involve separation from the body.)

          It is also a key principle that we may suffer as conscious beings when separated from the body. In Buddhism, for example, there is considerable literature on the bardo stages in which we may suffer after body death. In other religions we have very similar accounts.

          Everything we observe we observe through our consciousness. Everything that has ever been observed has been observed by a conscious agent. Such consciousness is not anchored to a form. In fact, the practice of Buddhism directly addresses and focuses on this fact — the practice is intended to allow one to cease attachment to the aggregates (the bodily form). (As well as subtle forms.)

          The entire practice revolves around coming to know Buddha Consciousness or Buddha Nature as that which transcends all forms. This is Buddhahood. It is enlightenment. This is based on direct observation not on blind faith.

          Buddhism is verifiable as everything the Buddha taught can be observed. There is nothing in Buddhism that is taken as a matter of blind faith. This is true in all religions where direct revelation is the cornerstone. The basic premise of all religion is that consciousness exists before the creation of forms.

          (Religions then differ on the relationship between individual, collective, and divine forms of consciousness. However, when one studies mysticism deeply through practice one finds there is more difference due to language than there is in a practical sense.)

          Science, on the other hand, posits material conditions exist before any consciousness exists. This, however, must always remain an unverifiable and unobservable matter of faith. If one posits conditions before there is any conscious agent to observe then, obviously, it cannot be observed.

          You certainly are aware of the role that consciousness plays in yoga and that consciousness in yoga is not something that arises from the body but rather is a state that transcends any one form. The texts you cite all make this quite clear, right?

          • I think we are on different logical planets, Greg. I don't have too much more to say if your position is that literal reincarnation is verifiable fact but science is not. As you well know, many learned Buddhists don't believe in reincarnation except as metaphor. There's not the slightest thing verifiable about it.

            The ancient Yoga texts are interpreted in many different ways by different commentators. As I wrote in the very first comment above, the ancient Yoga sages had major disagreements among themselves, even about central issues such as the existence of God. Why should it be any different today?

            Bob Weisenberg

            • Greg says:

              Bob, Greg here signaling from a distant logical planet…

              If I were not such an inept communicator I could probably make sense. Will have to get you the special quantum localization filter that translates incoming messages. That way, as Chopra argues, the exact thought in my mind will appear in yours… but then they might have to put you in a special padded room.

              I do argue literal reincarnation is a verifiable fact. Its verification depends on the same thing any science depends on – observation by a conscious agent.

              All science depends on observation by a conscious agent. The problem science encounters is a lack of understanding of consciousness. Thus, science cannot calibrate its most basic instrument – conscious observation. The conscious agent remains a mystery to science.

              This is why I pointed out the key intersection of epistemology (how we know, the nature of conscious observation) and ontology (the fundamental nature of what is). Understanding the two lines of thought – what is and how we know it – as one is important.

              In naturalistic science we have an arbitrary premise that says we can only observe (be conscious of) natural or material phenomena. The premise is that nothing exists outside material forms. This is an arbitrary premise, an a priori. (And is false.)

              In Buddhism we find, as a practical matter, that one can become aware of (observe) states of being that transcend material conditions. In Buddhism, epistemology (conscious observation) intersects with ontology (state of being) — we have pure consciousness absent objects. One simply is aware of being aware.

              One discovers that pure consciousness (Buddha Consciousness) absent any objects is a fundamental state. The state of Buddhahood precedes (in a causal sense) all fabricated phenomena. Thus all that science observes — material forms — are causally secondary, they are dependently-arisen from Buddha Mind.

              Thus, it is not that scientists cannot verify – rather the problem is that they verify a limited set of causes and conditions. This is the point Chopra was trying to make.

              As for Buddhists who do not know literal reincarnation (not a matter of belief) they stand in the courtyard outside the Sangha and do not enter. The Buddha makes this very clear in all his teachings. The core teachings of the Buddha make no sense at all without an understanding of reincarnation. Such is no longer Buddhism.

              For example, the Buddha explains the practice will accomplish freedom from the wheel of birth and death. If one does not have reincarnation how does one have a wheel of birth and death?

              The Buddha talks of his past lives. Why would he talk of such specifics if he did not mean to teach reincarnation?

              The Buddha over and over again speaks of reincarnation – it is a fundamental aspect of the practice – those who chose to dismiss the core teachings and still call it Buddhism work in illusion.

              That does not mean there cannot be those who say, "I personally have not yet come to know reincarnation firsthand." That can be an honest statement. That differs greatly from those who say, "I do not know of reincarnation, therefore it does not exist and the Buddha and everyone else who speaks of it are speaking lies or speaking in metaphor."

              Anyway, the next time the planets come close in orbit we can attempt to find a clear signal.

              • Hi, Greg.

                That's a bunch of self-congratulatory, hallucinogenic woo-woo. (Just kidding again.)

                Seriously, as soon as one person in a spiritual discussion declares himself to be holier-than-thou or more-enlightened-than-thou the conversation is pretty much over, don't you think? (In this particular case you're even deciding who is a real Buddhist and not, so it has nothing to do with me, since I'm not even trying to be a Buddhist!)

                I still enjoy our sincere efforts to communicate. Thanks for taking the time to engage.

                Bob Weisenberg

                • Greg says:

                  Right, don't step in the woo-woo.

                  Did not mean to be holier than thou — though, what the heck…

                  The discernment of who is a Buddhist and who is not would be pretty easy without any need to measure holiness. It would simply be a matter of who adhered to the teachings and the practice of the Buddha Shakyamuni and who does not.

                  It has more to do with simple definitions. If the Buddha says A, B, and C but the student says X,Y, and Z then one might argue they are not talking about the same thing and thus should probably not be called by the same name. (Unless one was happy with such confusion. Then, what the heck..)

                  Thus, those who discard the Buddha's teachings might be very holy but they would not necessarily be a Buddhist. Reincarnation is so fundamental to Buddhism that removing the concept would take one outside the discipline simply by definition.

                  The importance of reincarnation is not the woo woo of past lives per se but rather the recognition of our true nature that comes from knowing of past lives and reincarnation. If one rejects that aspect of the teachings, one is not rejecting a tangential idea but rather one is rejecting a core aspect of what Buddhism teaches us about our true nature.

                  We could change the discussion to Hinduism rather than Buddhism and thus join the yogic tradition and discover that there, too, reincarnation is a fundamental and foundational concept.

              • Hard to imagine a better reply from a more credible source than this:

                "The Buddha Wasn't a Buddhist" by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

                although his new book is called "Rebel Buddha", so perhaps he's not a real Buddhist either.

                • Greg says:

                  Bob, I do not know much about Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. The article that you have linked does not address the issues we have put on the table. He may very well agree with my argument (above) but there is no way of knowing without going deeper into dialogue with him.

                  The context of the article on a self-help page appears to that of how the Buddha spoke to new students, teaching them that the practice involves their direct observation rather than taking lessons on authority. This is very accurate.

                  Some people, however, mistakenly take this to mean "anything goes." They believe they can make up their own notion of what the discipline involves – self made Buddhism.

                  That, however, was never the teachings. The Buddha taught — if you do as I instruct, if you follow the practice I have laid out, then you will observe for yourself, firsthand, the truths I have laid before you. He did not say, do whatever you want and you will see what I have seen. That will not work.

                • Greg says:

                  Bob, I took a brief look at his website. There is no reason to suspect that he does not adhere to the views regarding reincarnation that the Buddha taught. When you see "Dzogchen" and "Rinpoche" in a name you can be pretty sure they will have a grasp of those teachings.

  9. yogi Tobye says:

    I think Anthropomorphic personification was the term Michael was striving for….. I don't feel either Him or Sam have the inteligence to understand the debate, they're highly ego driven and only have an interest in rebelling against the society of their parents generation. Whereas Deepak, in the true spirit of yoga, is trying to explain the connection and unite Science and religion. The religion Michael sees is metaphorical and rhetorical dogma created in a different age. As we evolve, so "God" evolves with us. You cannot make a conclusion until you have every answer.
    Science knows that if you took all the space away from every atom, in every human on the plane, the whole human race, all 6.8 billion of us would be the size of an apple. Religion knows that "God" is that space.

  10. Roger Wolsey says:

    Sigh. I suppose I could offer some deftly insightful and profound thoughts about all of this… something about reminding us of that Mahayana (Big Vehicle) Buddhism embraces many gods, etc.. reminding us of the diversity within Judeo-Christian theology, advocating for the progressive Christianity that I promote and practice…. but i’ve only had 3 1/2 hours of sleep in the past 24 hours and I’m not feeling up to that sort of thing just yet. Need a long hot shower (but not too long or too hot as I’m an eco-friendly Christian) to help me shed my stink and wake up from my travel fatigue. So, instead, I’ll simply tell a joke. Did you hear about the insomniac, dyslexic, agnostic? … He stayed awake all night trying to figure out if there really is a dog or not.
    Ciao for now elefriends! : )

  11. Thank God, Roger (if there is a God.) I was just thinking the other day how we need to get some progressive Christian writers on Elephant, and here you are. I hope you'll come back frequently and bring some of your friends. We need your point of view.

    I can not think of a more timely joke for this discussion! I had to read it twice slowly to make sure I got it all, then I couldn't stop laughing! Perfect. Got any more?

    Bob Weisenberg

  12. Greg says:

    Waylon, a response re your FB comments on God "out there" and original sin being "inside" and there being a separation…

    A deeper reading of Christianity may come closer to your views.

    The core idea of Original Sin was/is separation. It is separation from God or in other words separation from the Divine. It is separation from who we really are as essentially divine, created in the image, in total communion with unconditional love.

    So the God "out there" and sin "inside" simply states the separation. It is not an endorsement or embrace of that being the best situation. Nor is it an expression that that is how it always is or will be.

    This is very similar – if not identical – to the idea in Buddhism that through ignorance (sin) we separate from who we really are (Buddha Nature) and become lost in suffering (samsara) as a result of attachment and clinging (sin) to that which is other than our true nature.

    In both approaches one is becoming aware of one's condition of separation from who we really are and one is walking a path toward a healing of the separation and toward an awakening/revelation of our Divine (Buddha) Nature.

    In the same way that many change Buddhism and turn it into a banal subject (Batchelor) there are Christians who diminish the Bible and the teachings so that they, too, become banal.

    Of course we have to be cautious when we criticize those who are on the path and we should not fail to recognize there are steps and stages and plateaus.

    I know that, way more than you, I tend to fall into the trap of being critical of those with not-yet-perfect understanding of these disciplines…and that sends me, time and again, back to the feet of the guru or the foot of the cross for a dose of humility.

    Maybe that is what your reader (on FB) was trying to point out — we need to approach others' imperfect understanding with a recognition of our imperfect understanding and the humility that goes with that. (If there is one thing I hate about samsara it is the need to be humble. Arrrgghhhh.)

    • Gee, Greg. Most of us don't have as much trouble being humble as you seem to! (Just kidding.)

      Seriously, I thought your innovative analysis of the similarities between the seemingly disparate core beliefs of Buddhism and Christianity was brilliant the first time you wrote about in a comment on Bill Harryman's Original Sin blog .

      Bob Weisenberg

    • Gee, Greg. Most of us don't have as much trouble being humble as you seem to! (Just kidding.)

      Seriously, I thought your innovative analysis of the similarities between the seemingly disparate core beliefs of Buddhism and Christianity was brilliant the first time you wrote about in a comment on Bill Harryman's Original Sin blog .

      Bob Weisenberg

      • Greg says:

        Yeah, the pride thing (lack of humility) has been a challenge. However, life keeps serving up doses of reality that bring me to my knees. Only humor gets me through. Assuming the down dog pose daily helps keep me rooted and facing in the right direction.

  13. integralhack says:

    Sam Harris is a "hero in Buddhist circles?" Which circles would those be? Has anyone read this:

    A "one issue" philosopher is one with limited perspective. Religion is the cause of all the world's troubles . . . gimme a break. Like there have never been things such as resources, competing nationalisms and ideologies to fight over.

    As long as there is ignorance and perceived separation (not helped by Harris' inflammatory rhetoric, IMHO) people will always find something to fight over.


  14. Hello everyone.

    A few comments ago Greg and I had a long discussion that got buried in the hidden replies, I guess, because no one else replied. The question we came down to is this–Is it required to believe in literal reincarnation to be a "real Buddhist". Greg says yes. I say no.

    One would think that Greg would be right about this since he is an advanced practitioner and I'm not a Buddhist at all. But I 'd really like to get the opinion of you gentlemen and gentle ladies. Am I way off base on this, as Greg says I am?

    Egolessly Yours (on this issue at least),

    Bob Weisenberg

  15. Matt Helmick says:


    Weird, but I thought I read a question where you asked “does a Buddhist need to believe in reincarnation (rebirth) to be a ‘real Buddhist’.” Now I don’t see the question.

    It depends, I suppose, on what “being a real Buddhist” means to the practitioner.

    If one is trying to stick close to what Sakyamuni Buddha said in the early Canon, then yes, Buddha did say he perceived rebirth and its cessation as part of his enlightenment. In terms of Buddhist philosophy, rebirth is tightly connected to the ideas of karma, anatta (not-self), impermanence and dependent arising (aka dependent origination).

    In Buddhism, our karmas, or actions, can bring about positive or negative effects (vipakas) in this lifetime and it can also result in negative or positive “fruits” (phalas) in the next lifetime. So karma is a doctrine of moral agency (beyond simple “cause and effect”) and it is what helps define our fate. The “good news” is that this indicates we can potentially improve our lot in this life and future lives.

    But remember that confounding notion of anatta (anatman) or not-self in Buddhism? Because Buddha defined the human being as five heaps (skandhas) including form, feeling, perception, volitional dispositions (samskaras) and consciousness, he introduced a very different notion of self as it was previously understood. What Buddha seemed to be trying to dispel was a coarse understanding of self as an unchanging self (atman). When we analyze the self as the five skandhas we recognize that all five of these heaps are constantly in flux, changing and impermanent–we can’t get a bead on them, really. The only thing we can know is that we can modify or improve our volitional tendencies by moral action (this is to a limited extent, demonstrable) and this naturally has bearing on the rest of the skandha. Furthermore, if we can get to the point where we don’t perceive the coarse notion of an independent, non-changing self, we have truly dissipated the ego and realize our more interconnected being. This nirvana is the cessation of rebirth since there is no longer a “conventional self” to be reborn.

    The doctrine of dependent origination tells us that rebirth occurs, but based on anatta alone, the “self” that survives isn’t what we typically think. When King Milinda asked the Buddhist monk Nagasena if the person reborn is the same or different than the person who died the answer was “neither.” Pressing on, Milinda asks “what” is reborn and Nagasena responds with “mind and matter.” Naturally, many scientists wouldn’t have trouble with this notion of rebirth. Even from the standpoint of basic causality, we can see how ideas from long-dead people survive and our matter breaks down as fertile soil for other life. I’m not saying that rebirth is necessarily this basic, but anatta alone implies that rebirth is not simply a transference of one ghost-like soul from one body to the next.

    One would need to have the enlightenment of a Buddha to see the complex transference, first of karma (which in itself is difficult to discern–since the vipakas and phalas can be psychological and physical, latent and kinetic) and then of rebirth. What we can conclude, however, that this isn’t as simple as “Fred Jones” dying with his volitional tendency to smoke cigars and then a baby is born with the urge to smoke a cigar.

    For the unenlightened lot like me, I can only grok rebirth from the the conventional standpoint of interconnection or Interbeing (a term coined, I believe, by Thich Nhat Hanh). All I can “know” with my limited perspicuity is that “mind and matter” is transferred from this life to the next and moral agency plays a big part. We all return to the world in some sense or another and our thoughts and actions matter. Rebirth then, as an integral part of dependent origination, is a moral doctrine that speaks to our humility (we can’t really “know” our sum effects, after all) and then compels us to act with compassion and work to improve our lot and that of others.

    So yes, I would say “rebirth matters,” but it usually isn’t what people–including many Buddhists–think it is. After all, you don’t necessarily need to “believe” in it to benefit–or suffer–from its effects.;)

  16. Greg says:

    Matt, I love your in-depth response. You have conveyed some very important concepts.

    Thanks for noting karmic effects are difficult to discern initially — as it is difficult to see one's reality as being fabricated when one is heavily invested in playing that reality.

    The question the monk answered should be understood in the sense that a prior aggregate (skandhas, heaps) self and a future aggregate self are both not who we really are — sometimes this is given a nihilistic or materialistic interpretation when the opposite (a Buddha is formless and timeless) was the purpose of the teaching.

    There are a few tweaks I might add regarding:

    1) Continuity of consciousness.
    2) Buddha consciousness versus skandhic consciousness.
    3) Karmic mind as a repository of karmic imprints (and thus skandhic identity from lifetime to lifetime).
    4) The triple body or Trikaya concept which is critical to an understanding the states of being in reincarnation.
    5) Confusion that often arises with regard to eternal skandhic self (a no no) and a timeless, formless Buddha.

    BUT, no point in taking the time if there is no interest. Readers may be hitting the "Dude, I don't really care because it does not seem important to me now" stage. In which case, best to let it go…

    • Hi, Greg. I'd like to offer some friendly, well-meant advice.

      You can't possibly know whether or not you are more spiritually advanced than other people here. So you are really off base by continuing to talk down to Elephant readers.

      At the very least it's not a useful way to conduct a conversation here. We are not necessarily at a lower spiritual "stage" striving to work our way up to where you are. Even if we were, you couldn't possibly know that just from exchanging a few comments.

      Bob Weisenberg

      • Greg says:

        Did not mean to talk down. Actually, was doing the opposite.

        I was noting that the topic may not be of interest to some as it does not concern things that are important to them. This does not mean they will never be important, only that, right now, they are not of interest. The comment was actually offered in a light manner not in a serious manner.

        The point was that if one is looking for a blue car there is no point in going on about the red car.

        You said the topic was woo woo so that might be taken as a signal that it was not perceived as being pertinent or important to you at this moment.

        (Actually, your sentiment that what I was saying was "woo woo" might be taken as an expression of your perception that you have "advanced" knowledge in this regard. I did not take offense but rather acknowledged the topic may not be something you wish to hear more about.)

        Does that make sense?

    • integralhack says:


      Thanks, I'm still foolish enough to try to convey complex topics in the space of a few paragraphs that people write entire books about. So, you're right that there are some oversights and areas that I gloss over. Other times I miss the mark entirely.

      Naturally, I only mentioned the portion of Questions of Milinda that was germane to the topic so much is omitted.

      I respect and appreciate your scholarly understanding so you won't get a "Dude" response from me. After all, I get accused of being a McBuddhist (guilty, but I'm trying and doing what I can. Shall we move on?) and yet I find that many "real Buddhists" have never wrestled with any of this essential stuff. I seem to have missed the fast-track course to ultimate Bodhicitta.

      Anyway, thanks again and feel free to point out my gaps. I always appreciate criticism when it is offered constructively.

  17. Hi, Greg. It doesn't matter. Let's just try again next time.

  18. A.K.Satsangi says:

    In Bhagavad-Gita Lord SriKrishna says to Arjuna:
    “I taught this immortal Yoga to Vivasvan (sun-god), Vivasvan conveyed it to Manu(his son), and Manu imparted it to (his son) Iksvaku. Thus transmitted to succession from father to son, Arjuna, this Yoga remained known to the Rajarisis (royal sages). It has however long since disappeared from this earth. The same ancient Yoga has this day been imparted to you by Me, because you are My devotee and friend, and also because this is a supreme secret”.
    At this Arjuna said: You are of recent origin while the birth of Vivasvan dates back to remote antiquity. How, then, I am to believe that you taught this Yoga at the beginning of creation? Lord SriKrishna said: Arjuna, you and I have passed through many births. I remember them all, you do not remember.
    1. Radha Soami Faith was founded by His Holiness Param Purush Puran Dhani Huzur Soamiji Maharaj on the prayer of His Holiness Huzur Maharaj who later on became second Spiritual Head of Radha Soami Faith. The prime object of the Radha Soami Faith is the emancipation of all Jeevas (Souls) i.e. to take the entire force of consciousness to its original abode. There is a tradition of succession of Gurus or Spiritual Adepts in Radha Soami Faith. I am one of them as is evident from the following facts or ….
    “My most Revered Guru of my previous life His Holiness Maharaj Sahab, 3rd Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith had revealed this secret to me during trance like state.
    HE told me, “Tum Sarkar Sahab Ho” (You are Sarkar Sahab). Sarkar Sahab was one of the most beloved disciple of His Holiness Maharj Sahab. Sarkar Sahab later on became Fourth Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith.
    Since I don’t have any direct realization of it so I can not claim the extent of its correctness. But it seems to be correct. During my previous birth I wanted to sing the song of ‘Infinite’ (Agam Geet yeh gawan chahoon tumhri mauj nihara, mauj hoi to satguru soami karoon supanth vichara) but I could not do so then since I had to leave the mortal frame at a very early age. But through the unbounded Grace and Mercy of my most Revered Guru that desire of my past birth is being fulfilled now.”

    • Greg says:

      Yes, reincarnation is a basic tenet of the yogic path as well as Buddhism (and early Christianity). More important than the past life per se is the accompanying awareness of the continuity of consciousness or immortality of being.

      Very difficult to discuss, however.

  19. vakibs says:

    The ultimate question is not "Does God exist ?" but "Who am I ?". If one can see the answer to this question properly (even though one may not be able to express it using words) then that is Nirvana, Moksha or enlightenment.

    One may or may not use God or religion to achieve that end.

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