Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Buddhism without rebirth?

As the famous story goes, following a profound experience at the age of 35, Siddhartha Gautama professed to have penetrated through his ignorance and confusion to uproot the conditions of cyclic existence before proceeding to instruct those who followed him to do the same. As is also well known, he didn't write anything down. His teachings were 'preserved' orally for around 300 years before being committed to the written word. Despite the occasional claims of putative anthological eminence the sheer proliferation of 'Buddhist' texts makes any knowledge of what the Buddha taught a question of choosing a favoured school and interpretation*.

I choose the school of Mādhyamika, and more specifically, Mādhyamika as interpreted by Garfield and Magliola. One important reason for this is that it is evident from sections of the Pali canon** that Siddhartha Gautama believed in karma as the process of rebirth, as was the dominant belief during his time. Indeed most biographies state that it was the experience of 'seeing' his previous lives and how they conditioned his present one that was the first of three insights leading to his enlightenment. For reasons stated above, just what the Buddha understood by 'rebirth' and how it differed from the prevailing world-view at the time is far from conclusive and would be an interesting topic to investigate - one which I may need to return to. However, like the majority of the Western world, I don't believe in rebirth in any literal sense and so my present concern is how Buddhism - in particular dependent origination and how it relates to samsāra and nirvāna - can be interpreted in the absence of what many consider to be the fundamental concept of rebirth. I believe Garfield's interpretation of Mādhyamikan Buddhism provides a good account of how this is possible.

He does this by distinguishing the psychological/philosophical aspects of Buddhism from the cosmological and soteriological aspects which may or may not have been directly inherited from the Vedic tradition. Transmigration (rebirth) is discussed when focussing on Chapter XXVI of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā - Examination of the Twelve Links.


One is caught in cyclic existence for a reason, Nāgārjuna asserts, because one acts. There are three general kinds of actions distinguished in Buddhist action theory - physical, verbal, and mental. These actions in turn have immediate psychological consequences for the agent. That is they give rise to new psychological dispositions. In the framework of Buddhist action theory, these dispositions are themselves conceived of as actions existing in a potential form, and of course when actualised, they emerge as new actions of body, speech, or mind. These in turn lead to a variety of new such consequences and to the continuation of cyclic existence. Transmigration - the continuation of samsāra - for Nāgārjuna is then simply a dependent consequence of one's actions.

Continuing through the traditional presentation of the twelve links, Nāgārjuna notes that consciousness is a consequence of dispositions and depends on them and that "name and form" follow as a consequence of consciousness. These, therefore, are obviously also dependent phenomena.

There are two ways to think of the twelve links, generating two parallel circles of explanation: One can approach them from the standpoint of transmigration, which provides a standard Buddhist explanation of the cycle of life. Or one can think of them as providing a phenomenological analysis of the nature of experience. In the former sense, we could say at this point in the story that actions performed in the past and dispositions inherited from one's previous history lead to new actions whose consequences are cyclic existence. In particular, the actions and dispositions from one's prior life, on this view, lead to the generation of a new consciousness, which upon entering the womb, gives rise to a body that will get a particular name.

Or, from a phenomenological perspective, we can see dispositions to attend to or to interpret particular phenomena in certain ways (perceptual or conceptual "sets") and actions upon them leading to our becoming aware of external or internal phenomena (consciousness), which leads to our representing them as having determinate locations and denominations (name and form). These two levels of analysis are obviously quite compatible, and while the former plays a central role in Buddhist cosmological and soteriological theory, the latter is important in Buddhist psychology and practice.

(Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, p336-337)


It is the latter understanding of the twelve links which I believe survives the transition to the contemporary Western world without much difficulty. I further believe that the Buddhist analysis of experience bears a strong resemblance to the contemporary study of what is termed psychological essentialism although I have only just started my reading on the subject. This is what I want to explore in more detail now.

* I should qualify this statement here and acknowledge that Zen Buddhism claims to be a "teaching beyond scriptures" and insists that what the Buddha taught can only be understood through direct experience.

** For example, in the Pali canon there are detailed descriptions of the six realms of rebirth, our human world being the most opportune for the achievement of nirvāna.

2 comments:

Psybertron said...

Good summary I reckon - though I'm curently only up to XVIII - Self and Entities.

Getting there.

Ian

Mat - t - P said...

"As is also well known, he didn't write anything down. His teachings were 'preserved' orally for around 300 years before being committed to the written word. Despite the occasional claims of putative anthological eminence the sheer proliferation of 'Buddhist' texts makes any knowledge of what the Buddha taught a question of choosing a favoured school and interpretation*."

I think you go too far in your claim that knowledge=choice.

First, scholarship on the Pali canon has reasonably, though not definitively, established that the core message of that body of work is derived from a single source, ie. the historical Buddha. Moreover, it is fairly certain that the single historical individual formulated the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path. There you have the teachings of the historical Buddha. Incidentally, some scholars dispute the claim that the 12 Link Chain of Causation derives from the same historical person. (Forgive me for not citing properly. I am on the road and do not have access to my library.)

Your out of hand dismissal of oral transmissions is also problematic in that there is a significant body of scholarship on orally transmitted traditions that indicates that the methods used to transmit information orally is remarkably accurate. If you ever read the Pali canon, you are most certainly aware of the repetition of key phrases and inclusion of mnemonic devices. Moreover, I can state from experience that it is not impossible to memorize, word for word, passages of thousands of words. How much more the case is for people whose whole lives are concerned with memorizing a specific text.

That is not to state that oral traditions are error proof means of transmitting and preserving information. However, I don't think it needs to be labored here that even written records are known to be problematic in that sense. I believe Garfield discusses such problems related to the translation of the MulaMadhyamikaKarika in his introduction.

In the Mulamadhyamika, Nargarjuna argues (I paraphrase as I do not have the text before me, but that Garfield translation certainly includes the passage), critique of emptiness fails because the critique presupposes what it seeks to prove. Applying this to your notion that knowledge=choice, you will see that you go too far even on your own chosen terms, namely Madhyamika. I hope you are not making the all too common mistake of equating emptiness with a license to believe whatever you want.

With all of that said, the traditions of Buddhism, particularly Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhisms which both incorporate Madhyamika, are not necessarily concerned with the historical authenticity of texts, but rather, they are concerned with the authenticity of the dharma contained in those texts. Buddhism may in fact be dying at this point in history, but the intellectual debates on these issues continue in some circles, more in some circles than others, and luckily for us, the final words have not yet been spoken. Those debates do not however boil down to a simple choice of an interpretation.

"However, like the majority of the Western world, I don't believe in rebirth in any literal sense and so my present concern is how Buddhism - in particular dependent origination and how it relates to samsāra and nirvāna - can be interpreted in the absence of what many consider to be the fundamental concept of rebirth."

Please explain how an affirmative denial of rebirth is any less speculative than a positive belief in rebirth. (I think you need to go back and brush up on Madhyamika, even the Madhyamika on the terms you choose to accept.) Plenty of Buddhists have not affirmatively believed in rebirth, Santideva, for one. Yet, there is no basis, let alone a reason, to deny rebirth and the teachings involving rebirth unless you have an overwhelming compulsion to conform the dharma to your own views. Doing so accomplishes nothing except make you feel comfortable. You are not taking Buddhism on its own terms and simply trying to claim it to reinforce you own notions, to prop up your own ego.

Maybe you ought to recheck your assumptions about the goal of Buddhist practice. If you think it is to conquer a set of intellectual hypotheses, you are going to ultimately be disappointed by your pursuits. There are pursuits more suited to that mind set. If you want liberation from suffering, well, then maybe Buddhism is for you.