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Buddhism Without Reincarnation/Rebirth - A Thought Experiment

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  • Here's some thoughts:

    The Buddhist teachings, whether rebirth is or is not included, lead not only to a better and happier life for oneself but also to a better and happier life for others and for the world in general. It is largely due to greed, hatred and delusion that the world is in such trouble at the moment - it's fast falling into the "chaos and barbarism" that you mention. Buddhist principles are designed to remove greed, hatred and delusion. One might conclude that "all will be well", or at least better, for the world as a whole if one follows Buddhist principles than if one does not.

    You might think that this only addresses the issues of society as a whole, and that the individual might still ask, "What's in it for me? I don't care what happens to the world after I'm dead." But of course most people have children, and want very much for their children to be happy and live in a peaceful, prosperous, just world. And having regard to the Buddhist teaching of anatta, there's more to it than that. If there is no self, then one can see the interests of others, and indeed the interests of the world as a whole, as one's own interests. One ceases to make these arbitrary distinctions. Therefore a Buddhist who accepts the teaching of anatta but does not believe in rebirth would still have a reason for hoping for a better world after his/her death, and a reason for acting to as to bring such a world about.

    Having said that, let me add that I do believe in rebirth and I think that without understanding it one cannot be fully free of the delusion that causes it and causes dukkha (as per dependent origination). Therefore it is not a superfluous belief, as some would have it. I've never actually understood why some people have trouble accepting it. While some refer disparagingly to "ancient Indian metaphysics", I think the issue is more likely to be a superficial modern Western world-view that they never question.


    • I highly recommend MN60 - The incontrovertible truth. It basically says that even if there is no rebirth, living with bodily/mental/speech restraint (a good life) is seen by others and oneself to be a good and blameless life.


      • Hi Alex.
        This is only my second time responding to a post, so, first I am now checking to see if I am on a Monastic Thread ( lesson learned from the first post) and now that is cleared up
        I read your comments and feel your existential angst. I recognize it from my own personal experience many years ago prior to discovering Buddhism. Sartre of course as well as Camus write at length on the subject. Searching for meaning in life can be extraordinarily painful and yet for some of us, the search has to go on, because acceptance without that " truth" does not alleviate the angst. It brings to mind a quote from " The Razor's Edge" Somerset Maugham wrote: "Life is like a page torn from its context without beginning or end". That is how it seems to the weary Searcher looking for meaning in a chaotic world . Quite a miserable dilemma. My own search for meaning was rewarded (fortunately when I was still quite young) when as the result of that book, I discovered Hinduism,which because of its theistic teachings among other things, was eliminated but it lead me into Buddhism. Buddhism was like coming home.. Many of my question I had already pretty much figured out on my own, coincided beautifully with the Buddha's teachings. As far as Rebirth goes, which seems to be a problem for some, I had already come to that conclusion on my own. . Coming from a country where the Four Seasons are clearly defined its very easy to see how rebirth works. When the bitterness of winter finally ends and the first Robin appears you know the tree in your garden is about to bloom again. Is that not rebirth? Dhukka of course is super easy to accept. Who could not understand that and accept it? Its constantly present, and often in our face. Or as Ajahn Brahm would say: " Who ordered this truckload of dung?" I found the more I studied and the deeper I went I realized how exceptionally profound these teachings are.When questions arose I dug further and studied more. I found a real in- dept study of the Twelve Nidanas,with some emphasis on Consciousness extremely helpful.. Something you can actually prove in daily life,just by observing Cause and Effect. It makes sense.
        Of course I hope you don't mistake these comments as preaching or my trying to convince you of anything, or even to prove a point,I would not think of doing that. After all I don't know you and I do not assume anything about you or what you believe or don't belief, that is hardly my business, I am simply sharing my thoughts on the subject and how I see Buddhism. To my way of thinking there would be no Buddhism without the doctrine of Rebirth, its essential to the overall message of Buddha. Without Rebirth Kamma falls apart,the Nidanas and the Four Noble Truths are fiction. Its no longer Buddhism and I would think time to take the search elsewhere. I do not think any Spiritual Path, including Buddhism fits all. While it is the Truth for some, others will never be able to accept the teachings, and for them , they will have to travel on to find their own Truth. I know I eliminated many before the "penny dropped" for me. The standard I applied was not whether the teachings were true or false, provable and accepted by the world unanimously, ( for that is a pure impossibility I ) but whether these specific teachings are True for me. " What is Truth said the jesting Pilate, but would not wait for the answer" (John 18:38) implying there is an answer. I agree there is an answer, but where to find it. Once again I am reminded of a Poem I read years ago, which I no longer know the name of or the name of the author, only the words I recall. In particular when the Deity was asked where one should hide the most precious gem of Truth, they were told to hide it deep within the hearts of Man for no one would think to look for it there. That sounds about right to me.
        Thanks for reading these rambling thoughts .Hardly the " intellectually stimulating discussion " you were hoping for, but I have long since lost the taste for such mental dueling, preferring instead to focus inward on that hidden gem referred to above.
        I enjoyed your Post. Thank you.


        • My view is that Buddhism is not a practice concerned with the afterlife with regard to the being that is here and now.

          Understanding rebirth, for me, has not been a comfort at all. If anything, it is all the more reason to practice and attain whatever level of awakening is possible in THIS very lifetime.


          • I agree with you Jarrod... no comfort at all, Samsara is a place for work and is no walk in the park or something to cling to.


            • Since this question has been reborn again
              I looked at the question again;
              It asks "Buddhism Without Reincarnation/Rebirth - A Thought Experiment"

              Reading the question it dawned that, how can a thought ever get at what rebirth is.
              Surely thought is not our experience, it is a story made up by an illusory mind, distorted by our hindrances, to try to explain what just happened, so it's basically a fairy story at best.
              So the experiment is to think of what Buddhism is without rebirth,
              Why would we even try to do this, as everything we come up with is just another fairy story, maybe a hopeful one, or a fatalistic one, but still a fairy story.

              So my answer would be, lol, Buddha came to free us of suffering, not later but NOW !!! thinking is suffering
              I'll get my coat............

              Now for meditation.
              With Metta,
              Last edited by Mark Hyland; 8th-July-2014, 07:47 PM.


              • "thinking is suffering"

                Brilliant, Mark.


                • Originally posted by Carol Hyland View Post
                  I agree with you Jarrod... no comfort at all, Samsara is a place for work and is no walk in the park or something to cling to.
                  Samsara is a place for work....

                  You all are on fire with these today! Excellent.


                  • While I agree that learning how to live a good life, with or without a specific Afterlife belief (such as a belief in Rebirth), is very important, I still hold to the view that a general hope that "All will be well" after one dies is essential to maintaining a sense of well-being. Obviously there have been many attempts to further define and describe this general hope, thereby transforming it into more detailed, specific Afterlife doctrines, which is why various versions have existed among the world's religions. As noted earlier, the general hope alone does not suffice as a core teaching for a religious or philosophical system (with the possible exception of Agnosticism).

                    Assuming that none of the more specific Afterlife doctrines will prove sufficiently convincing, the question arises: How could a view that non-existence follows death be compatible with such a hope, as far as Buddhism is concerned?

                    I think that one of the reasons that people cling to the idea that there is an Afterlife is that they are afraid of the prospect of an eternity of non-existence. Those who believe in an Afterlife, but who also believe that they did not exist in the eternity before they were conceived, do not consider that "non-experience" to have been negative, however.

                    Another reason is that people fear losing their capacity to have positive experiences - the pleasure and happiness that they experience in life. But considering this reason raises the questions of what defines such experiences are and who or what is having them.

                    One question to consider is whether pleasure and happiness have an absolute existence independent of suffering, or whether they exist relative to it, as relief from, or lessening of suffering. Certainly humans have a potential to suffer which is far greater than their capacity for pleasure. If pleasure/happiness are just forms of relief - a lessening of pain or satisfaction of needs and cravings - then the complete relief which occurs with death and non-existence may be the ultimate happiness.

                    However, even if pleasure/happiness may sometimes be more than relief from suffering, who or what is experiencing it, and how? If we are products of natural selection, pre-programmed to believe that we have a self and to evaluate certain experiences as relatively pleasurable or painful simply because such beliefs and perceptions are adaptive, then maybe they have no inherent reality. Maybe they are just ephemeral modes of conditioning existing within a far greater system, manifesting a temporary illusion of discrete individuality which dissipates like a dream upon termination of the program.

                    When considering a particular religious or philosophical doctrine, it is necessary to define which version of that doctrine one wishes to examine and evaluate. Within various religions, simple, allegorical versions of complicated or ponderous doctrines are sometimes presented so as to make the doctrines more accessible to the masses of adherents. I'm setting aside what I regard as the cruder versions, such as Reincarnation of humans as non-human animals and the like, in order to consider the more developed ones.

                    This from "Buddhism in a Nutshell", by Narada Thera:
                    "If there is no soul, what is it that is reborn, one might ask.

                    Well, there is nothing to be reborn.

                    When life ceases the kammic energy re-materializes itself in another form. As Bhikkhu Silacara says: "Unseen it passes whithersoever the conditions appropriate to its visible manifestation are present. Here showing itself as a tiny gnat or worm, there making its presence known in the dazzling magnificence of a Deva or an Archangel's existence. When one mode of its manifestation ceases it merely passes on, and where suitable circumstances offer, reveals itself afresh in another name or form."

                    Birth is the arising of the psycho-physical phenomena. Death is merely the temporary end of a temporary phenomenon.
                    Just as the arising of a physical state is conditioned by a preceding state as its cause, so the appearance of psycho-physical phenomena is conditioned by cause anterior to its birth. As the process of one life-span is possible without a permanent entity passing from one thought-moment to another, so a series of life-processes is possible without an immortal soul to transmigrate from one existence to another.

                    Buddhism does not totally deny the existence of a personality in an empirical sense. It only attempts to show that it does not exist in an ultimate sense. The Buddhist philosophical term for an individual is santana, i.e., a flux or a continuity. It includes the mental and physical elements as well. The kammic force of each individual binds the elements together. This uninterrupted flux or continuity of psycho-physical phenomena, which is conditioned by kamma, and not limited only to the present life, but having its source in the beginningless past and its continuation in the future — is the Buddhist substitute for the permanent ego or the immortal soul of other religions."
                    So according to this, each individual is an "uninterrupted flux or continuity of psycho-physical phenomena" bound by the "kammic force of each individual", and "not limited only to the present life."

                    I partly agree with this. Certainly, there is a continuity of matter and energy - the body dies, becomes fertilizer, etc.. One could also call this a continuity of "psycho-physical phenomena", because since consciousness is a complex manifestation of matter and energy, so long as matter and energy exist, there will exist the potential for consciousness.

                    However, I take issue with the idea that phenomena are bound by the "kammic force of the individual", insofar as Karma is not simply a doctrine of causality, but also an ethical doctrine. Examining the basis for ethics - why we define certain intentions or actions as good and others as bad - I find that attachment lies at the root of it. We claim that theft and murder are bad, because we fear being robbed or murdered. We value acts of compassion, because we fear living in a cruel society, and would prefer a living in a kinder one. If the situation were reversed, and being murdered was the most pleasurable thing one could possibly experience, and it led to more pleasure, while charity resulted in nothing but suffering, then we'd consider murder a good act and charity a bad one. Our ethics are based upon attachment - essentially the fear of suffering and loss, and are therefore as ephemeral and ultimately illusory as other expressions of the human mind which are based upon attachment.

                    In a deterministic world of cause and effect, all of us, including Hitler and Gandhi, experience the same thing after the physical deaths of our bodies. The cessation of attachments includes the annihilation of our capacity to ethically evaluate actions and intentions.


                    • Blimy Alex,
                      Lots of thoughts there, are you doing a university course in this.
                      With the greatest of respect, thoughts can't get at this.
                      be quiet,
                      experience this instant,
                      there is the answer,


                      • Seems to me that ethics is based not so much on attachment, as Alex would have it, but on evolutionary principles - the things we believe are right are things which, in the long run, promote the survival of the species. Attachment may go contrary to ethics and cause us to do unethical things. It's more a matter of the survival of a more limited gene pool. Fear of death is also, it seems to me, a matter of the survival of the gene pool. But these considerations don't help address the question of whether there is or is not rebirth.


                        • Rory -

                          Ethics can be based both on attachment and evolutionary principles if natural selection creates ever more adaptive structures and systems of attachment. Perhaps we should view attachment as not merely a highly developed psychological phenomenon, but something much deeper, which at more rudimentary levels of sentience might involve pain avoidance/pleasure maximization or the fight-or-flight response.

                          You're correct that my criticism of the ethical element of the doctrine of Karma/Rebirth had more to do with the use of the doctrine to promote ethical behavior in society than whether or not there is rebirth. This relates to the secondary, social aspect of the question of what Buddhism would look like without Rebirth. It does tie in indirectly in the sense that it suggests that attachment motivates the perpetuation of the doctrine.

                          The problem that I've encountered regarding the whole Rebirth question is that even if one dismisses from the discussion the cruder versions of it, such as Reincarnation, there's quite a bit of ambiguity and disagreement about what is meant by Rebirth, especially when it's combined with a doctrine of Non-Self.

                          Here's what I've been pondering:

                          - If the Self doesn't exist in the first place, and what we call consciousness is also illusory - something akin to a complicated computer deluding itself into "thinking that it thinks", then there isn't anything of any significance to be reborn.

                          - If the Self doesn't exist as a separate discrete entity, then it means that what we call consciousness is part of a greater system of consciousness, or that what we call consciousness may simply be a potentiality of matter/energy. If that is so, then it's fair to say that as long as matter/energy exist, there is at least the potential for consciousness to exist, and that therefore consciousness itself is perpetuated. Is it fair to call that general perpetuation of consciousness "rebirth?"
                          Last edited by Alex Rogolsky; 11th-July-2014, 09:23 PM. Reason: syntax


                          • Alex,

                            You had some good information up there. Insofar as my understanding goes you only took a wrong turn when you describe kamma as a moral doctrine. Conventionally, yes. In actuality, no. Morality, like most things, is a subjective doctrine in and of itself. Buddhist morality differs from Catholic morality, which differs from Judaic morality, which differs from Satanic morality. Kamma is much more pragmatic and far less grandiose than you imagine. Kamma is not a lucid entity with aims and goals or a program for getting the bad guys and rewarding the good guys. Just contemplate the old saying "to live by the sword is to die by the sword" for a bit. Where do criminals usually end up dying? Where are respected, loved and revered people die? How do these deaths often occur? Yet to see the comings and goings of beings is not a skill everyone develops, it can be pondered on a fundamental level, I believe, without causing too much stress. To go too deep into this could drive one mad. Suffice it to say, one meets his or her ends in accordance with their kamma. The number of soldiers shot and killed in brutal ways is somewhat greater than that of Catholic Priests or Buddhist Monks. I'm sure we can agree on that. It's a start.

                            Be well


                            • Alex - I'm not sure where you get the idea that consciousness is illusory, which seems to be self-evidently false, or that it is akin to thinking. However, your subsequent idea that rebirth may be the perpetuation of consciousness seems right to me. That means that what is reborn is an illusion, or, better expressed, ignorance.

                              In case you think I'm contradicting myself here, what I mean is that consciousness is not illusory in the sense of not really existing, but it's an illusion in the sense of considering itself to be a manifestation of some kind of external objective reality including permanent independent selves capable of affording satisfaction. To avoid ambiguity it's better, I feel, to use the term "ignorance" for what is reborn. You might also say that a further samsaric world is reborn as a manifestation of ignorance.


                              • Whether living by the sword usually means dying by it (a saying from Matthew) is an open question. I dom't see much evidence of such a force for fairness in life, as plenty of murderers and thieves get away with their acts, and many, many people who don't deserve to be victimized are, and never receive any reparation. That many people consider life to be unacceptably unfair is the reason that so many religions cater to the desire to believe that the balance is redressed after they die.

                                But this is actually irrelevant to the subject of my original speculation: that maybe our very ideas of ethics and fairness are rooted in attachment, and that if they are, maybe they cease to have any meaning after we die. This would mean that people who we consider "good" or compassionate might experience the very same thing after they die as people who we consider cruel, inhuman monsters, and how we judge or evaluate them is based upon delusion. Maybe what society (any society) promotes as morality is based on attachment - we prohibit the behavior that we fear - and maybe, by extension, the various religions therefore make deluded, moralistic claims about how the perceived unfairness of life is resolved via reward/punishment after we die.

                                Regarding consciousness, the question which I've been wondering about is whether it actually exists, or whether the semblance of consciousness and the belief that it exists are just adaptations that have been programmed into us by natural selection. The "Data" character from "Star Trek:The Next Generation" comes to mind. If one produces a computer (or android) that is sufficiently complex, it may appear to have consciousness, and maybe it'll be an even more advanced machine if it can be programmed to "think" that it actually is aware, has experiences and evaluates them, and so on (to "think" that it thinks).

                                If that were true, then paradoxically the machine being "aware" that it's machine rather than something that is capable of awareness might be a kind of liberation, although it wouldn't matter, because then the machine would realize most directly that beneath its apparent psychological complexity there was a fundamental, unchangeable core of utter apathy.
                                Last edited by Alex Rogolsky; 13th-July-2014, 10:18 PM. Reason: syntax



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