Monday, March 20, 2006

More notes on rebirth

Thinking more about rebirth in Buddhism I thought of Rorty's description of the self in Objectivity, Relativism and Truth:

"Think of human minds as webs of beliefs and desires, of sentential attitudes - webs which continually reweave themselves so as to accommodate new sentential attitudes. Do not ask where the new beliefs and desires come from. Forget, for the moment, about the external world, as well as about that dubious interface between self and world called "perceptual experience." Just assume that new ones keep popping up, and that some of them put strains on old beliefs and desires. We call some of these strains "contradictions" and others "tensions." ....the web of belief should be regarded not just as a self-reweaving mechanism but as one which produces movements in the organism's muscles - movements which kick the organism itself into action. These actions, by shoving items in the environment around, produce new beliefs to be woven in, which in turn produce new actions, and so on for as long as the organism survives. I say "mechanism" because I want to emphasize that there is no self distinct from this self-reweaving web. All there is to the human self is just that web."

(Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, p93)

Using this definition of a self and applying it to a concept of transmigration one could say that samsāra can be understood as an uncontrollable 'rebirth' of beliefs and desires within each new situation. We are all familar with the short-lived quenching of desire which is soon followed by its resurgence, often in greater magnitude and potency. This cyclic arising, ceasing and re-arising of beliefs and desires is perhaps nothing short of the continuing rebirth of the self. Rorty is simply describing a process here for his own purposes but Buddhism pays attention to this process in the context of the suffering it entails when the same set of beliefs and desires, particularly those characterised by greed, hatred, and prejudice, are reborn again and again with less of the 'reweaving' occurring than perhaps should or could be.

To balance out my thoughts here, I have found a few articles which would view what I am saying with disdain. I copy below an example, taken from this link:

The aim of the Buddhist path is liberation from suffering, and the Buddha makes it abundantly clear that the suffering from which liberation is needed is the suffering of bondage to samsara, the round of repeated birth and death. To be sure, the Dhamma does have an aspect which is directly visible and personally verifiable. By direct inspection of our own experience we can see that sorrow, tension, fear and grief always arise from our greed, aversion and ignorance, and thus can be eliminated with the removal of those defilements. The importance of this directly visible side of Dhamma practice cannot be underestimated, as it serves to confirm our confidence in the liberating efficacy of the Buddhist path. However, to downplay the doctrine of rebirth and explain the entire import of the Dhamma as the amelioration of mental suffering through enhanced self-awareness is to deprive the Dhamma of those wider perspectives from which it derives its full breadth and profundity. By doing so one seriously risks reducing it in the end to little more than a sophisticated ancient system of humanistic psychotherapy.


Matt K said...

"By doing so one seriously risks reducing it in the end to little more than a sophisticated ancient system of humanistic psychotherapy."

Ah-haah, I see that my Freud comment was headed off at the pass ;-)

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