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Buddhism Without Reincarnation/Rebirth - A Thought Experiment

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  • Buddhism Without Reincarnation/Rebirth - A Thought Experiment

    As an avid reader of sci-fi and alternative history novels, I think it can be interesting to consider the question "What if.....?" Three such novels that come to mind are "Children of the Reich" (What if the Nazis hadn't been defeated?), "Pastwatch" (Orson Scott Card's novel - What if the indigenous peoples of the Americas had successfully resisted the European invasion?), and "11/22/63" (Stephen King - What if JFK hadn't been assassinated?) come to mind.

    In the same spirit, I suggest considering the question "What would Buddhism be like without the doctrine of Reincarnation/Rebirth?" If, in the wildly fanciful alternate reality that we might try to imagine, Buddhists discarded the R&R idea and Buddhism somehow adapted to the new circumstances, what would be the consequences and implications?

    Certainly, a half-measure is possible, in which there might be an "agnostic" approach to R&R, which neither accepts nor rejects it, but I think that one condition of the thought experiment should be that even with such an approach, a "Buddhist Agnostic" in the alternate universe would have to consider the possibility that both consciousness and Karma end with death, and that, in effect, Gandhi and Hitler get the same thing.

    I completely understand should some members of the Community view this exercise as a waste of time, and I sincerely hope that I haven't offended anyone simply by asking the question.

    Best,
    Alex

  • Alex Rogolsky
    replied
    Regrets for not responding sooner. I've been suffering the bureaucratic torments of Health Insurance Hell.

    A few light and breezy thoughts related to the question of rebirth:

    The complex of attachments that we simplistically call the "self" is far deeper and more powerful than we can possibly realize. It's roots are far older than human culture, or even our existence as mammals or vertebrates; their origin goes back to the beginning of sentience itself -single-celled organisms billions of years ago. Hence it's tied to the most basic and primal interpretations of and reactions to experiences - pain and fear, and the desire to lessen them. The "self" is indistinguishable from our concept of consciousness, because each individual is bound to a self, and when the self defines consciousness, it necessarily defines it as a characteristic of an experiencing entity. Even when it speculates that consciousness may be collective or not tied to the body, there is an assumption of some kind of unity which binds it together, such as a continuity.

    If we assume that this complex of attachments that we call the self is illusory, then it follows that the self's interpretation of consciousness is also fundamentally delusional. Therefore when we speculate that there is some form of continuity of the self's conception of consciousness after the death of the physical body, we are simply expressing the illusory self's desire for continuation.

    The self abhors non-existence. Its tentacles have evolved with the evolution of species, and it has become increasingly more complicated and refined over the eons. Yet it is the elimination of the self-bound consciousness upon the death of an individual's physical body that eliminates the evaluator and recorder of whatever happens to an individual ("experience") as negative or positive, as painful or pleasurable. What is defined as pleasurable are those experiences which support and sustain the self, the function of which is to fearfully avoid experiences which it interprets as painful or destructive to the self. However, this is not to say that an individual with a highly developed self cannot act in a manner which seems self-destructive at a more primitive level, because his potential for reinterpretation and redefinition are greater.

    So what ceases to exist when we die is the self, which evaluates experience as either painful or tending toward a lessening of pain - in fact, the possibility of feeling pain at all. And with that, both the self and the self's conception of consciousness dissolve and dissipate like the ending of a bad dream.

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  • Daniel Ionita
    replied
    Fair enough. Be well Jerrod

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  • Jerrod Lopes
    replied
    All people are at different points on the path Daniel. I like to try and only speak from my experience and views. My view, for my travel of the path is that there is no rushing nor delaying enlightenment. It is there waiting to be accepted. Very little, in my view, needs to be done to accept it except for the absolute dedication to the acceptance of truth as it is. Rebirth in any realm, for me specifically, holds little intrigue or promise. There's nothing better in the next that can't be cultivated here. Just my view, for me.

    Be well friends

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  • Daniel Ionita
    replied
    What about wishing for a rebirth in a realm with less distractions, where Buddhism is widely spread, accepted and better kept, being born with a mind more conductive to good meditation all leading to better progress on the path?

    "I desire to conclude this path now, in this life"
    I don't think you can rush enlightment

    " Just as the ocean has a gradual shelf, a gradual slope, a gradual inclination, with a sudden drop-off only after a long stretch; in the same way this Dhamma & Vinaya has a gradual training, a gradual performance, a gradual practice, with a penetration to gnosis only after a long stretch"

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipit...5.05.than.html

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  • Jerrod Lopes
    replied
    I would agree with those teachers that rebirth is an important teaching central to Buddhism. You also have to remember that few schools of Buddhism view rebirth even remotely similarly. You cannot take Buddhism as an umbrella label to describe all things that claim to follow the Buddha and mix and match views seamlessly. Going solely by my own experience I would also say, as have many times, that rebirth is not a subject for most beginners on this path. I would go so far as to suggest that perhaps it cannot be understood correctly or well by one without the intent to practice because it is a teaching integral to the path and not something easily understood, if at all, without a certain foundation of experiential knowledge being firmly in place. You can't hold water in a bucket made of fire.

    In my experience, knowledge of rebirth is important, but not for the reasons I think it is important for you. Rebirth, in my experience, is an impetus to act NOW,in this life. It is not something to strive for, fortunate or otherwise. The idea of being reborn, for me, is not a peaceful reassurance. It simply means I did not fulfill this path to the ultimate conclusion. Out of my sense of self, I desire to conclude this path now, in this life. Yet compassion does come in for the beings I may give rise to, for I hope very much that if I should fail again on this path in tis life, my hope is that those subsequent beings will experience it in theirs. Or at the very least, I hope that each subsequent being has a more fruitful and better life than each of those before.

    I will go out on a limb here, because in my limited understanding of things I think it is beneficial to say, that if a being practicing the path the Buddha set out to follow that path and believes that rebirth, fortunate or otherwise, is an attainment to strive for; that one is mistaken in their aims and understanding of the purpose of the path and the place rebirth has in it.

    Be well

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  • Alex Rogolsky
    replied
    I agree with the view that meditating and cultivating compassion are more important parts of Buddhism than the particulars of what one chooses to believe happens after death, as long as one's version of it offers sufficient hope. As John Lennon said: "Whatever gets you through the night..."

    However, in order for it offer sufficient hope, doesn't such an idea have to be sufficiently convincing? I've seen a number of videos of monks claiming that R/R is an essential teaching of Buddhism, and while I question that claim, I don't question the idea that what one believes (or chooses to try to believe) happens after death is often an important cause of hope or despair (or both), and can be at the center of one's world view and a powerful motivator of action.

    It may be enough for a hope to be sufficiently ambiguous that it functions because it is "insufficiently unconvincing" to be dispelled (like "All will be well"). Maybe many people maintain such a hope, and then pay lip-service to whatever more detailed and specific Afterlife version is prevalent in their community. But if that's so, then why can't a community of such individuals be honest about it, rather than making less believable claims?

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  • Jerrod Lopes
    replied
    If we understood everything, inside and out, and had true and direct knowledge of everything we wished; what would be the point to any of this? This all reminds me very much of the simile of the arrow where the man, shot and pierced by an arrow demands of the physician treating him to first know who shot him, with what kind of bow, what kind of arrow, what material the arrowhead is made of. Is the tip forged or ground? What was the archer's intent when shooting? This speculation is pointless in that there can never be an answer except upon death. Even in death the mind will tell stories and lie unless it is pure and liberated at death. There is no satisfactory answer we can give.

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  • Alex Rogolsky
    replied
    Rudite -

    Thank you for the question.

    A tendency to speculate is either part of my nature or a consequence of my upbringing or culture. It's possible that I distrust and question authority more than most. The tendency does not bring me happiness, but I think that I'd be less happy if I tried to repress it. To some extent it's an expression of curiosity.

    Daniel-

    I, too, have a gut-feeling that in some way, the world is fair or that the end-result for all is a happy one. Maybe that in itself is sufficient because maybe we can't know the details, and all of the different versions of what happens next are just allegorical.

    However, maybe it is necessary to wonder about and question the various versions expounded by the different religions, because they are important parts of the religions' world views and affect how those who accept them think and act. They have important consequences to both the individual and society. Also, to the extent that they are not convincing and are vulnerable to doubt, the inner and outer dynamics resulting from the alternation between faith and doubt also have consequences.

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  • Daniel Ionita
    replied
    Alex, if you can be kind, compassionate and contempt while discarding rebirth than I respect that.

    On my side, rebirth was a solution to my own inner conflict. I've always had a gut feeling that things had to be fair but I could not make sense of how the world would be fair in either non-existence after death or heaven/hell after death.

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  • Rudite Salina
    replied
    Originally posted by Alex Rogolsky View Post
    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.
    This sent a chill down my spine.
    Does this kind of thinking inspire you to do good and beautiful things in your life? What do you get out of this endless speculating business, does it really bring you some happiness?

    Leave a comment:


  • Alex Rogolsky
    replied
    I agree that without an Afterlife doctrine, the world seems broken, hopeless, and meaningless at first glance. I also think that if one could believe in such a doctrine sufficiently strongly to banish doubt to a tiny corner of one's mind such that it wouldn't result in significant inner conflict concerning one's world view, it might well result in a happier life.

    Increasing one's understanding of compassion, which I take to mean trying to learn to be kinder and gentler to one's self and others, seems like a positive approach to me. Since this would include being gentler with one's thoughts, including doubts or admissions of ignorance about certain topics, I wonder whether there's a way to consider the question in a gentle manner that doesn't inspire fear or despair.

    For instance, maybe one could hope that "All would be well" whether there is rebirth or not, because even if there isn't, there might be a silver lining to non-existence, which we can't know at the moment because we're incapable of understanding what non-existence means. Perhaps a kind of humility is the silver lining to admitting that one doesn't know what's going to happen after one dies, although one may maintain hope. Mysteries can make life interesting.

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  • Daniel Ionita
    replied
    To any non-buddhist, rebirth is a doctrine of what happens (or not) after this life ends (the only known life).

    I still maintain that an afterlife is not a primary focus of the path.
    Perhaps it's not the main focus, but if making sense of Buddhism is ones main concern before stepping onto the path, giving rebirth a chance as at least "probable" is crucial.

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  • Jerrod Lopes
    replied
    I would like to correct myself and say that the ultimate goal of this path is not a life of contentment now, but of course, it is Nibbana. Though a life of contentment could be an integral part of that goal. I still maintain that an afterlife is not a primary focus of the path. Sorry for any confusion I may have caused with this.

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  • Jerrod Lopes
    replied
    One of the things making this subject survive in perpetuity is the mistaken view that rebirth is an afterlife doctrine. One will need to understand compassion a bit more fully before realizing the importance of rebirth. What happens after this life is not quite as important to the path of Buddhism as it is to many other trains of thought. The ultimate goal is not to acquire a comfy afterlife, but to live one of contentment now.

    Can a hope that all will be well survive the ejection of any afterlife doctrine? Absolutely. It's all a matter of perspective. What's the manifestation of hope? A more joyful outlook in general and less time during THIS life spent wondering what the next life will experience.

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