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Buddhism without Reincarnation? Examining the Prospects of a “Naturalized” Buddhism

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Buddhism without Reincarnation?

Examining the Prospects of a “Naturalized” Buddhism

Jan Westerhoff

8.1. Introduction

The relationship between Buddhism and contemporary science has been surprisingly cordial, characterized by a mutually beneficial exchange of ideas. This is especially (though not exclusively) the case for the modern sciences of the mind, neurobiology and cognitive science. Studies on the physical effects of meditative practices abound (see, e.g., Benson, Lehmann, Malhotra, Goldman, Hopkins, et al., 1982; Austin, 1999; Lutz, Brefczynski- Lewis, Johnstone, Davidson, & Baune, 2008; Singer & Ricard, 2008); there are investigations of how Buddhist spiritual exercises can help to overcome destructive emotions (Goleman, 2003), development of mindfulness- based stress-reduction techniques derived from Buddhist practices (Kabat-Zinn, 1982), research on Buddhist meditation and lucid dreaming (LaBerge, 2003), and more. In addition to these cross- disciplinary research projects many researchers also see a considerable theoretical agreement between the Buddhist conception of the mind and views being developed in contemporary cognitive science. The central point of contact is the Buddhist notion of non- self (anātman) and the modern idea that our sense of self is a brain- based simulation (Metzinger, 2010), a “user illusion” (Nørretranders, 1999), a mistaken assumption of a “Cartesian theatre” (Dennett, 1991), a centerless memetic complex (Blackmore, 2000). The underlying idea here is that because we do not find any neurobiological functional unity in the brain that acts as a unifier

of incoming sensory information or locus of control, but rather a complex of spatiotemporally spread- out processes, our belief that such a unifier (namely the self) exists is a higher-level superimposition, not a reflection of the fun damental architecture of the mind. This agrees with the understanding in Buddhist texts of the person as wholly decomposable into a group of physical and mental factors, though none of them can individually function as a self. The self or ego is something projected onto the collection of these factors, but nothing that is fundamentally real. Yet despite this agreement there appears to be a fundamental incongruity between the contemporary and the Buddhist conception of mind, an incongruity which, even though quite obvious, is frequently ignored.1 The incongruity results from the fundamental tension between the naturalist presuppositions that form the basis of the modern conception of mind and clearly non- naturalist notions underlying the Buddhist view. According to the predominant, scientifically informed contemporary conception of the mind, mental processes are either identical with or at the very least existentially dependent on physical processes, in particular on neurobiological events that take place in our brain. If these events were not to take place, mental processes would not be taking place either, and as a consequence there would be no mind. As the neurobiological events that support the existence of minds cease at death, our minds too cease at death.

The Buddhist view of mind disagrees with all of this. First of all it does not agree with the claim that the continuity of our mental existence is broken when our body ceases to exist. Mental processes carry on despite the destruction of our brain and the rest of our body at death. Moreover mental processes are subsequently associated with new bodies and new brains—this is the doctrine of rebirth. Finally, the kinds of experiences the old minds have in the new bodies are to a significant extent dependent on the intentions and actions that characterized these minds in previous bodies—this is the doc trine of karma. Once the opposition between the modern and the Buddhist view of mind has been set out like this, there are two possible positions to adopt. The first understands the Buddhist and the contemporary scientific view of the mind as two mutually inconsistent theoretical systems. At most one of them can be true, and while there is of course room for a debate between the two, there are no prospects for any kind of synthesis. One needs to make a choice about which view one wants to adopt. The second view assumes the superiority of the contemporary view but argues for a cherry- picking approach that accepts only those parts of Buddhist theory and practices that are consistent with naturalist assumptions or can

at least be reinterpreted in such a way. Even though no naturalist could take on Buddhism in its full form, this view maintains, particular parts (such as the theory of non- self and mindfulness- based meditative techniques) can be fruitfully adopted. Interpretations of this approach vary; some regard it as a kind of cafeteria-style eclecticism that adopts parts of the theory and practice of a variety of traditions; others conceive of it as resulting in a “tamed” or “secularized” Buddhism purged of supernatural “hocus pocus” that preserves as much of the Buddhist teachings as is compatible with the naturalist outlook commonly attributed to members of WEIRD (Western educated industrialized rich democratic) societies.2 Neither of these positions seems to be wholly satisfying. The former, never- the- twain- shall- meet approach cuts off any discussion before it even gets started, while the latter, eclectic position faces the danger of ending up as a hodgepodge of theory fragments, none of which makes much sense outside of the context in which it was devised. It is therefore necessary to develop a more nuanced view of relations between the Buddhist and the contemporary theory of mind. In this essay I focus on one particular difficulty for naturalized Buddhism (the “suicide argument”) and discuss some possible responses.

8.2. The Suicide Argument

In the Sāmaññaphala Sutta the views of a materialist philosopher, Ajita Kesakambalī, are related to the Buddha. His position is the following: There is nothing given, bestowed, offered in sacrifice, there is no fruit or result of good or bad deeds, there is not this world or the next, there is no mother or father, there are no spontaneously arisen beings, there are in the world no ascetics or Brahmins who have attained, who have perfectly practised, who proclaim this world and the next, having realised them by their own super-knowledge. This human being is com posed of the four great elements, and when one dies the earth part reverts to earth, the water part to water, the fire part to fire, the air part to air, and the faculties pass away into space. They accompany the dead man with four bearers and the bier as fifth, their footsteps are heard as far as the cremation ground. There the bones whiten, the sacrifice ends in ashes. It is the idea of a fool to give this gift: the talk of those who preach a doctrine of survival is vain and false. Fools and wise, at the breaking- up of the body, are destroyed and perish, they do not exist after death. (DN.i.55)

This view is regarded as erroneous, for later in the sūtra the Buddha speaks of the power of clairvoyance (dibba- cakkhu, the divine eye) developed through meditative practice that allows one to see the “passing away and arising of beings.” In particular one perceives that some beings “at the breaking-up of the body after death … are reborn in a lower world, a bad destination, a state of suffering, hell. But these [other] beings, on account of good conduct of body, speech or thought, of praising the Noble Ones, have right view and will reap the karmic reward of right view. At the breaking- up of the body after death they are reborn in a good destination, a heavenly world” (DN.i.82).

It appears as if the tenets of materialism as expounded by Ajita Kesakambalī are incompatible with the insights obtained on even a relatively low level of realization. There seems to be at least a tension between being both a Buddhist and a materialist (or physicalist). One particularly important point is summed up well by Richard Hayes (1993, p. 128): “If there is no rebirth, then the very goal of attaining nirvāṇa, understood as the cessation of rebirth, becomes almost perfectly meaningless. Or rather, nirvāṇa comes automatically to every being that dies, regardless of how that being has lived.” More specifically the problem is the following. The central goal of the Buddhist path is the complete and permanent eradication of suffering (duḥkha). If there is no continuity of mind after the decay of this physical body, and if the existence of our mind depends on the existence of our body, the third Noble Truth, the truth of the cessation of suffering, would be to put an end to the existence of this body, and the fourth Noble Truth, the way to this cessation, would be suicide. This would lead to the permanent destruction of the complex of the five skandhas, the physic- psychological elements that make up the person, thereby leading to the complete elimination of suffering.

In this case none of the three trainings of ethics, meditation, and wisdom would be necessary for the cessation of suffering, but the simple act of destroying the body would be sufficient. I regard this as a reductio ad absurdum of a specific kind of attempt of naturalizing Buddhism, that is, of one that rejects all Buddhist tenets not compatible with naturalism. The defenders of this naturalizing endeavor would have to establish that their view does not in fact entail this peculiar consequence.3 On the other hand, if this consequence is entailed it seems hard for the naturalist to make sense of most of what the Buddha taught as the Buddhist path. What would be the point of even obtaining the first of the four stages of enlightenment, that of a stream- enterer (sotāpanna), which guarantees that one does not have to be reborn for more than seven times if nobody is reborn in any case? What is the point of meditative practice if the ultimate instrument for the destruction of suffering is the destruction of the present body?

In order to get around this absurd consequence the defenders of naturalism need a reply to the suicide argument. So let us consider what a (hypothetical) naturalized Buddhist might bring forward to establish that even if there is no mental continuity after the destruction of our physical body, we should still not kill ourselves.4

8.3. Possible Responses

Suicide Violates Key Principles of Buddhism

Within the Pāli canon we find the Buddha stating various key principles and precepts that appear to be in clear conflict with even a permissive attitude toward suicide.5 These include the principle of nonharm (avihiṃsā, ahiṃsā);6 the first of the five precepts (pañca- sikkhāpada), which entails abstaining from taking life (pāṇātipātā); and the third “defeat” (pārājika), taking the life of a human being, which leads to expulsion from the community of monks. The difficulty for the naturalized Buddhist in responding to the suicide argument by recourse to the precepts is that he will presumably not accept them just on the basis of the Buddha’s authority but only because they serve a particular purpose within the Buddhist system of thought. Their purpose is arguably to prevent behavior that continues to bind us to the cycle of saṃsāra. As such they are of limited use in convincing somebody who doubts the existence of this cycle in the first place.7

Compassion Argument (Synchronous Version)

Even though our death might mean the complete cessation of our suffering (since there is no subject to be suffering subsequently), our suicide may cause suffering for the people around us. Since our goal is to eliminate suffering independent of the bearer, out of concern for the suffering of the people around us we should not kill ourselves. Suicide deprives the world of the potential good influence of the persons killing themselves.8 This argument is unlikely to convince the skeptic, since its consequences are even more extreme than those of the original position. If suffering should be eliminated in general, and if suffering can be eliminated by the destruction of the bodies of the beings who are suffering, we should strive to kill not just ourselves but all other beings as well. Switching from a Theravāda perspective focusing on individual liberation to a Mahāyāna one that emphasizes the liberation of all living beings does not refute the suicide argument but makes its consequences more extreme. If

nirvāṇa comes automatically to every being that dies,” we might be tempted to kill ourselves to speed up the obtaining of liberation, but if we believe that we should liberate all beings, the suicide argument can be transformed into an argument for universal homicide.9 Indeed if there is a way of bringing about the simultaneous complete extinction of all living beings we should bring it about, for in this way all beings can attain nirvaṇā simultaneously. Needless to say, anybody who had his doubts about the suicide argument is unlikely to be convinced by this argument for universal homicide.

Compassion Argument (Diachronous Version)

Instead of emphasizing the presumed good consequences not killing ourselves has for others right now, the naturalist might argue as follows: “Whether or not we believe in the continuity of the mental stream after death, there is no question that the actions we carried out in this life form part of causal chains that continue even a long time after our death. The more wholesome actions we carry out, the more positive consequences there will be in the future. This is a reason against killing ourselves now. Of course as our mind ceases at the death of the physical body, we will not experience the good consequences of our actions. But other beings, who are alive then, will do so. And by the familiar Buddhist arguments from no-self we should value their happiness as much as we value our own.”10

This attempt at providing a naturalistically acceptable version of mental continuity after death and karma is an interesting proposal,11 but unfortunately it fails to address the key issue of the suicide argument. If the first Noble Truth holds, and all experiences are fundamentally suffused by duḥkha, then whatever positive consequences our present actions have for beings living after us will be little more than honey on a razor blade of existential suffering,12 falling well short of the final liberation of nirvāṇa. The obtaining of this final liberation, however, does not require any effort and will happen automatically, if we are to believe the naturalist. As such the support for a moral purpose in our staying alive for the benefit of our contemporaries and descendants appears to be rather thin.

Pascal’s Wager

In Āryaśūra’s Jātakamālā we learn of a king skeptical of the possibility of rebirth who tries to convince the future Buddha of a highly dubious investment scheme: You pay me 500 ounces of gold now, and I’ll return them with 100% interest in my next life (Halbfass, 2000, p. 199).13 It is unlikely that we would

be very interested to invest our money in this scheme, but how about the following variant: You pay me 500 dollars (or any finite sum) now, and I will pay you back an infinite amount of money in the next life. Following the argument we find in Pascal’s wager, even if there is just a small possibility of continuity of mind after death, the possibility of an infinite reward makes the present finite investment worth the effort. This argument could therefore be used against any proponent of the suicide argument who agreed that there is a small chance that he might be wrong and that mental continuity would not stop at death. By committing suicide he would deprive himself of the opportunity of practicing the dharma, and thus of the chance of winning an infinite reward (or rather that of avoiding an infinitely bad negative result: being stuck in cyclic existence for ever). Unfortunately criticisms of Pascal’s wager abound, and a problem often regarded as the most serious one is also a problem here: the many gods objection. Assume some religion promised an infinite reward in the next life on the condition of performing a large number of animal sacrifices in this life. It would be rational to enter into this bet as well, but the conditions for betting in each case (dharma practice, animal sacrifice) are not compatible. Yet the wagers don’t give you any criteria for choosing between them.

Present Benefits Argument

This approach suggests that the suicide argument overlooks that Buddhist practice produces great benefits even in this life.14 Buddhism can be practiced profitably without the presupposition that it yields specific consequences after the death of our present body. The proponent of this approach points out that in fact the Buddha himself raises the possibility of the nonexistence of rebirth and karma in the Kālāma Sutta when he speaks of the “four assurances,” the second of which is this: “If there is no other world, and if there is no fruit and ripening of well- done and ill- done deeds, still right here, in this very life, I will live happily, free from enmity and ill will” (AN.i.193). So we could argue that the aim of Buddhist practice is to live happily in this life, independent of whether or not there is a continuity of mind after death. This is an argument we encounter frequently in the contemporary Buddhist literature. Here is one example: “The most important thing … is to live a skilful, compassionate life. If we do this, we need not worry about what may or may not happen after death, since if there is rebirth we will have established a wholesome foundation for our next existence, and if there is no rebirth it won’t concern us. We need not rely on the possibility of some ‘reward’ after death because there are great benefits to be gained here and now through

spiritual practice” (Nagapriya, 2004, p. 139). Yet the difficulty with the present benefits argument is that even a practitioner’s life will not be free from the three kinds of suffering: the suffering of birth, old age, illness, and death (dukkha- dukkha); the suffering of change (vipariṇāma- dukkha); and the fundamental unsatisfactoriness underlying all conditioned phenomena (saṅkhārā- dukkha). So for the Buddhist naturalist the choice appears to be between a reduced amount of suffering (through practice) or a complete and permanent removal of all suffering (through suicide). It is difficult to see why the former should appear to be the more attractive option. It is worthwhile to note in this context that the present benefits argument is also employed by the Buddhist naturalist in a slightly different context. Apart from being appealed to as a reason not to kill ourselves it is also used to address the worry that if there is no mental continuity after death, all religious practice will have been a waste of time. If the time of our life is so strictly limited and the outcome uncertain, why spend time on strenuous and time- consuming observances?

It is clear that this is not the point the suicide argument is making. According to this argument, the problem is not that the outcome of our religious practices is uncertain, but that it is as certain as it can be. It is just that its certainty is independent of our practice. If physicalism is true, the complete cessation of our mental stream, and with it the complete and irrevocable cessation of suffering experienced within this stream, will obtain for each living being when it dies. To the extent that this permanent cessation of suffering is the highest goal of Buddhist practice, all special efforts to achieve it appear strictly pointless. Whether or not dharma is its own reward, to the extent that there are “great benefits to be gained here and now”, it plays no role in the final liberation from suffering. If this liberation is the objective, the defender of the suicide argument points out, it is by suicide, not by spiritual practice, that we are going to arrive at this goal in the most speedy manner. But is the present benefits argument at least a good answer to the it- might- all- be- a- waste- of- time worry? I have my doubts, at least regarding the way this answer is usually presented.

Consider the following scenario: You set out to travel to the remote country of Obscuristan, and I try to sell you a large quantity of a fairly expensive snake- oil mosquito repellent to protect you from mosquito-borne diseases. When you ask me whether there really are all these aggressive mosquitoes in Obscuristan I reply, “I don’t really know whether there are any mosquitoes there or not. But if there are, you’ll be happy you bought my snake-oil, and if there aren’t—well, in that case I can guarantee that you won’t have any problems with mosquitoes.”

You can be excused for thinking that the snake- oil salesman is trying to take you for a ride. It is not sufficient that the defender of the dharma-is- its- own- reward response to the it- might- all- be- a- waste- of- time worry shows that the practice of dharma has some benefits; he has to show that the benefits are higher than the costs. The Buddhist writers are clear in their statements that this is the case. Śāntideva notes in the Bodhicaryāvatāra, “This limited suffering of mine, the means to perfect Buddhahood, is like the pain of extraction when getting rid of the agony of an embedded thorn. All doctors use painful treatments to restore health. It follows that to put an end to many sufferings, a slight one must be endured” (BCA 6.22– 23). In the context in which Śāntideva is arguing we can straightforwardly use the example that the benefit of the absence of future thorn-induced pain is higher than the cost that is the pain felt at extraction to argue that the effort invested into spiritual practice is well spent. But then this is a context that presupposes rebirth.15 Whether this argument can be replicated in a this- life- only context is far from obvious (and very much depends on what kinds of spiritual practices are envisaged).

Nirva¯n. a Properly Understood Cannot Be Attained by Suicide

We might argue that the notion of nirvāṇa employed here fails to take into account the full complexity of the concept.16 Nirvāṇa is not just total extinction; it is also qualified by a variety of positive attributes. Some predicates attributed to nirvāṇa in the Pāli canon include “peace” (santa), “wonderful” (acchariya), “marvellous” (abbhuta), “purity” (suddhi), “ultimate bliss” (paramaṃ sukhaṃ), and “unshakeable bliss” (acalaṃ sukhaṃ).17 As it seems clear that this kind of nirvāṇa is not the mere extinction obtained by killing oneself, the defender of the suicide argument might be described as barking up the wrong tree.

Yet consider the fact that as the Buddhist path is conceived as a reaction to the first Noble Truth, the truth of suffering, its aim is the complete elimination of this suffering. When liberation is achieved, there is no more suffering. For the naturalist, there is no more suffering after death, since suffering requires a conscious subject that can suffer, and with the destruction of the body this subject ceases to exist. So liberation-for- the- Buddhist and death- for- the-naturalist share this property. So all the naturalist is able to say is that liberation- before- death may have properties over and above the extinction of suffering, but the state a liberated being and a nonliberated being are in after death is the very same.18 She may then argue against the suicide argument by pointing out that liberation- before- death is better than liberation-after- death (which for her is coextensive

with death), on the grounds that it is better to be alive than to be dead. As such, those striving for liberation should not plan to achieve that goal by killing themselves.

The difficulty with this approach is that it necessitates a radical reconceptualization of the enlightened state. According to the traditional view, a key benefit of enlightenment lies in the fact that it is the only alternative to being stuck in the painful loop of cyclic existence forever. Yet according to the view just described, the alternatives to consider are no longer liberation versus remaining in saṃsāra forever but n years of enlightened existence versus n years of unenlightened existence (where n stands for the number of years up to our death). But if these are the alternatives to choose from, whether enlightenment is a goal we choose depends on how involved the practices are that are supposed to get us there. Since being endlessly trapped in saṃsāra is such an unattractive prospect, any amount of temporal investment, whether it takes up the whole of this life or even a large number of future lives, can be considered justified. But in the naturalist scenario this is no longer the case. It would be hard to justify, for example, a set of practices that took up nearly our entire life span since the period during which we could remain in liberation- before- death would be so very short. This entails that enlightenment can no longer be considered an unconditional good for all living beings, but only a conditional good, a good for some beings in some circumstances. Suppose that for most beings achieving enlightenment took ten years of dedicated practice. In this case it would be something to be recommended to a man of 30 since he could afterward remain in liberation- before- death for 35 years (assuming a life span of 75 years), but not to a man of 70, as he would be more likely to die before achieving liberation, thereby paying the costs (spiritual practice) without reaping any of the benefits (liberation- before- death).

I would argue that the resulting shift of enlightenment to a conditional good is sufficiently severe to make the Buddhist naturalist question whether the two chariots he is riding at the same time are not drifting apart to such an extent that it is time to decide which one to relinquish.19

Suicide Results from an Unwholesome Mental State

We might argue that the act of suicide always results from an unwholesome mental state of self- aggression and that, since unwholesome mental states should be avoided, the act of suicide should be avoided as well. The impulse to kill others arises from an unwholesome emotion (such as anger), and directing this impulse at ourselves does not change its fundamental moral quality.

It is doubtful whether any act of suicide is necessarily accompanied by an unwholesome mental state (the Stoics would disagree with this), but let us grant this point for the sake of argument. The difficulty that remains is that the unwholesomeness of a mental state like anger is a direct consequence of the state’s unwholesome consequences in the future, not a fact about the state’s intrinsic nature. But this also implies that the emotion occurring at the last moment of one’s mental stream could not be unwholesome (or, for that matter, wholesome) because after the stream terminates there are no more consequences, since any potential experiencer of consequences of that mental state has disappeared. Even presupposing that the act of suicide is always preceded by a mental state phenomenologically very much like the states we usually subsume under the term anger, we could not argue that this state should be avoided because of its unwholesome quality, as this unwholesomeness is only relationally defined in terms of the consequences the state has for succeeding mental states of the same person.

One way to rescue this argument would be to argue for the intrinsic unwholesomeness of the mental states in question. Quite apart from any worries the Buddhist philosophers raise about qualities belonging to an object intrinsically (svabhāvatas), to say that a certain mental state has a (moral) quality intrinsically also means that it has this quality independent of its consequences. But reconciling a theory that assesses states of mind independent of their karmic consequences with Buddhist ethics as we know it seems to be a task that is unlikely to succeed. An alternative (and more promising) response would be to argue that a particular mind- moment (of, say, anger) is unwholesome not because of the way it relates to some future state (possibly after rebirth) but because of the way it relates to the rest of our psychology right now. Consider the initial verses of the Dhammapada (Dhp. 1– 2):20

1. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind- wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

2. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind- wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never- departing shadow. This seems to support the idea that it is the purity or impurity of a mental state that determines the consequences, not the other way around. We are unable to ascribe a negative moral valence to the last mind- moment before suicide only if we assume that these valences arise in a fundamentally consequentialist 517 manner. As the naturalist assumes that the last mind- moment before death has no consequences because it has no successor, it should not be assigned any karmic valence.

Whether Buddhist ethics is to be best conceptualized along consequentialist lines is of course very controversial.21 One argument sometime raised against this interpretation is that it would imply that we have no indication as to how we should be living now, since the full complexity of karmic consequences is knowable only to a Buddha, a consequence that would be difficult to reconcile with such characterizations of the Buddha’s teachings as sandiṭṭhiko (Sanskrit: sāṃdṛṣṭika), amenable to examination, and ehipassiko (Sanskrit: ehipaśyika), being such that each can see the truth of the teachings for himself. This in itself does not appear to present much of a difficulty for the consequentialist interpretation, as we would need to know only some, not all, of the consequences of a particular action to be able to assess its karmic valence. Even if we agree that only a fully enlightened being can survey all the karmic implications of a particular action, just with limited insight into actions and their consequences we know that actions like those of the serial murderer Aṇgulimala will not be conducive to a happy and peaceful state of mind. A greater difficulty for consequentialist theories appears to be the role Buddhist theory assigns to intention (cetanā) in the determination of karmic valence. If this undermines the attempt to interpret Buddhist ethics in a purely consequentialist manner, there appears to be an opening for attacking the suicide argument by pointing out that the mind- moment before suicide would be unwholesome because it involves an unwholesome intention of anger, despair, desire for annihilation, and so forth. And if the avoidance of unwholesome mind- moments is a fundamental ingredient of Buddhist practices, this provides us with a good reason against committing suicide. For this reply it is not necessarily problematic that intention is a mental state directed (via anticipation) at future mental states. Even if certain mental states have nothing they are directed at in this way (because they are the last mind- moment), their quality as present anticipation might still be unwholesome. This unwholesomeness manifests in these mental states being experienced as painful in the present. Any action leading to suicide would be in direct contradiction with the Buddhist path aiming at the cultivation of wholesome present mind-moments, mind- moments that by their particular quality determine their ethical valence, not by the future consequences of the actions associated with them.

The difficulty with this otherwise very interesting response is that it presupposes that we give up not only a consequentialist interpretation of Buddhist ethics but also a consequentialist interpretation of karma. Karmic

consequences are not understood as positive or negative results we obtain at a later time or during a future life, but as the wholesome or unwholesome, joyful or painful quality of an intentional state here and now. This “instant karma” view suffers from its apparent implausibility: while forming the intention to lie or to steal, the liar and the thief do not necessarily undergo great mental pain. (Otherwise, why would they act the way they do?) The defender of this approach might reply that the quality of instant results is apparent only to beings with sufficiently trained faculties of observation. But this leaves us with the question to what extent we are dealing here with an ethical theory applicable to the majority of human beings and their actions, and not just to a small group of highly trained meditators.

A second difficulty with this approach is that it was not taken up within the Buddhist philosophical tradition in places where it would have constituted a very natural fit. If we assume (as many Buddhist schools did) that the mind consists of instantaneous mind- moments in rapid succession, how to make sense of karmic consequences (which stretch a multitude of such mind- moments) becomes an obvious problem. In this context, adopting the instant- karma view would have been an equally obvious solution. There would have been no need for something like the Sarvāstivāda concept of avijñapti- rūpa, the Sautrāntika notion of seeds (bīja), or the Yogācāra ālaya to tie together the present mind- moment having a certain intention and a later mind-moment reaping the karmic result (Dowling, 1979, p. 85; see also Walser, 2005, pp. 194– 203). Instead the present moment would be simultaneously sowing the karmic seed and reaping the karmic fruit. The fact that proponents of momentariness did not take up the instant- karma view to resolve this problem but developed a variety of complex theories to account for karmic “traces” should make us suspicious that perhaps they did not understand karma in this presentist, nonconsequentialist way.22 I WILL LEAVE the discussion of the suicide argument at this point. Having surveyed a variety of responses the Buddhist naturalist can provide in defense, it still appears as if the suicide argument continues to constitute a considerable difficulty for a naturalized form of Buddhism that rejects mental continuity after death.

Assuming the naturalist has no satisfactory answer to the suicide argument, where would this leave us? Would we simply have to assume that any form of Buddhism has to reject contemporary insights into the biological basis of mental processes and retreat to a form of dualism, as found in the theory of the five skandhas? I believe that neither this nor starting from the contemporary naturalist view of the mind in order to determine how much of

the traditional Buddhist conception can be deemed to be acceptable is likely to be successful. Instead, taking the reverse approach might yield more fruitful results.

This approach would begin with a careful analysis of the Buddhist doctrinal position on mental continuity, rebirth, and karma and would subsequently try to determine which of the positions in contemporary cognitive science and the philosophy of mind might be compatible with it, and which would be most suited to explaining the view of the mind the Buddhist thinkers developed. What would these positions be? Unfortunately considerations of space do not allow us to discuss this matter more fully, so some pointers have to suffice. Two obvious candidates to explore are functionalism, with its idea that mind can be instantiated by a variety of underlying bases,23 and panpsychism, which assumes that what we consider to be matter is at its very basis in some way conscious (Blamauer, 2011; Strawson, 2006; Skrbina, 2005). Other useful theoretical avenues to explore in this context are the Madhyamaka idea of universal constructivism (Westerhoff, 2009), Madhyamaka-inspired transcendental arguments against eliminativism (Tillemans, 2015), and the observation that a brain-based view of the world must regard the brain as a brain- based construct as well (Westerhoff, 2015). Starting from approaches such as these to explain, analyze, and expand the Buddhist view of mental continuity after death is, I believe, more likely to yield interesting results than any attempt to streamline the Buddhist tradition in the light of contemporary forms of naturalism.24


AN Aṅguttara Nikāya, volume and page in the Pali Text Society edition. Translations from P. Harvey (2009).

BCA Śāntideva, Bodhicaryāvatāra. Translations from K. Crosby & A. Skilton in Śāntideva (1995).

Dhp. Dhammapada, verse number. Translations from A. Buddharakkhita (2013).

DN Dīgha Nikāya, volume and page in the Pali Text Society edition. Translations from M. Walshe (1995).

MN Majjhima Nikāya, volume and page in the Pali Text Society edition. Translations from Nyanaponika (1988/2013).


1. Flanagan (2011) is an exception.

2. The terms “tamed,” “secularized,” and “hocus pocus” come from Flanagan (2011).

3. I am thus not addressing the view that it is really the case that the result of the Buddhist path can equally (and with less effort) be reached by suicide—and so much the worse for the Buddhist path. Clearly the argument I am considering here can be regarded as presenting a difficulty for naturalism only if we do not think that the effects of nirvāṇa without remainder and suicide are one and the same.

4. Not entirely hypothetical, though. A group of practitioners referring to themselves as “secular Buddhists” claim to avoid any “consideration of the supernatural or reincarnation” while regarding this as “an attempt to return to the original teachings of the Buddha.” See 5. There is a considerable literature on the “suicide” problem in Buddhism (see,

e.g., Wiltshire, 1983; Keown, 1996; Harvey, 2000), which concerns the question if, and if so under which circumstances, it is permissible for Buddhists to kill themselves. In the Pāli canon we read of several cases of monks who kill themselves, often during the course of a degenerative and fatal illness. The case of Channa (see Keown, 1996, for a detailed discussion) is particularly relevant since it appears to involve an example of the Buddha condoning or at least exonerating Channa’s action. Much hinges here on the translation of the term anupavajja, which the Buddha uses; it can be understood to mean “blameless” or “without reproach,” or along the lines of the synonyms given in the commentaries: anuppattika, “without further arising,” and appaṭisandhika, “not leading to rebirth” (p. 22). In the latter case it can be argued that the Buddha was not actually commenting on the moral quality of Channa’s act but was pointing out that (either because Channa was already an Arhat or because he became one at the moment of death) he would not be reborn again. Even though of related interest, this is not a question that concerns us here. I am investigating the question whether for a “naturalized Buddhist” who rejects rebirth suicide might not be just permissible but in fact desirable.

6. See, e.g., Sallekha Sutta: “Others will be harmful; we shall not be harmful here” (pare vihiṃsakā bhavissanti mayamettha avihiṃsakā bhavissāmāti; MN.i.42). Dhammapala’s Majjhimanikāyaṭika comments on this passage: “But why is harmlessness (or nonviolence, ahiṃsā) mentioned at the very beginning? Because it is the root of all virtues; harmlessness, namely, is a synonym of compassion. Especially, it is the root-cause of morality because it makes one refrain from immorality which has as its characteristic mark the harming of others” (Nyanaponika Thera, 1988/ 2013 note 17).

7. Note that the naturalized Buddhist would not have problems accepting the Buddha’s ethical pronouncements in general, though not for the reason of the

Buddha’s authority. Killing harms both other beings and ourselves and is therefore to be avoided. In the case of suicide, however, neither the self-harm nor the harm to others resulting from the act is evident to one rejecting continuity after death, and for this reason the justification of the precepts in this particular instance is subject to doubt. 8. See Mahā- Kassapa’s reply to Pāyāsi at DN.i.330– 331: “The longer such moral and well- conducted ascetics and brahmins remain alive, the greater the merit that they create; they practise for the welfare of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the profit and benefit of devas and humans.”

9. It is worth noting in passing that advocates of homicide as a means to liberation may well have had predecessors in ancient India. The Ghaṭacaṭakas (“pot- breakers”) are described as a sect that “taught ‘immediate liberation through breaking the pot’ (jhaṭiti ghaṭacaṭakamokṣaḥ), implying that the body is a kind of container from which an imprisoned soul ought to be liberated” (Halbfass, 1991, p. 98). The Saṃsāramocakas (“liberators from saṃsāra”) are considered to be “a special branch of materialists” defending killing on “the assumption that ‘final release’ takes place when the body is destroyed, coinciding with the destruction of the ‘soul’ contained in it” (p. 99). It should be noted, however, that determining the tenets of these schools is far from straightforward. (Halbfass, 1991, pp. 97– 102 offers a good discussion.) In particular, whether the Saṃsāramocakas were materialists is unclear. Advocating homicide as a means to liberation certainly does not imply materialism, as the tantric notion of sbyor sgrol demonstrates (on this see McKay, 2003, p. 6).

10. See, e.g., Śāntideva’s BCA 8.102: “All sufferings are without an owner, because they are not different. They should be warded off simply because they are suffering. Why is any restriction made in this case?” (asvāmikāni duḥkhāni sarvāṇyevāviśeṣataḥ | duḥkhatvādeva vāryāṇi niyamastatra kiṃkṛtaḥ).

11. For a similar approach see Johnston (2011).

12. To use Śāntideva’s metaphor from BCA 7.64.

13. The future Buddha replies that this attitude will take the king straight to hell, and it will be difficult for his debtors to collect the payment from there. The description of the suffering of hell finally causes the king to change his mind.

14. This is the reason for the Buddha’s teachings being described as akāliko, immediate, that is, bestowing results here and now, not just in some future state.

15. “I shall be cut up, sliced open, burned, and split open for innumerable billions of aeons, and still there will be no awakening” (BCA 6.21).

16. “Robert Caesar Childers, in his famous and still useful Pali dictionary (1875), devoted a whole long article, in fact a short treatise, to proving to his own satisfaction that Nibbana implies total extinction, and this view, though certainly erroneous, is still to be met with among some Western scholars. And yet, it would

be odd indeed if Buddhists were supposed to have to tread the entire path right up to the attainment of Arahantship merely in order to finish up with that total obliteration which the materialists, and many ordinary people today, assume to occur for all of us, good, bad and indifferent, at the end of our present life” (Walshe, 1995, pp. 27– 28).

17. Pasanno and Amaro (2009, p. 30); Dhammapada 15.6; Udāna 2, 8.10.

18. So for the naturalist either the positive properties of liberation are not essential (as these properties presuppose a conscious subject, and since there is no such subject after death liberation must still be liberation without them) or liberated beings stop being liberated after they die (there would then be no parinirvaṇa and the Buddha, for example, could not be regarded as liberated, since he is not alive any more).

19. It is for this reason that I do not discuss here attempts of responding to the suicide argument that involve a radical reconceptualization of nirvāṇa, understanding it as the reduction of self-constructed cravings, a regulative ideal that nobody actually attains, a minimization of the suffering in this world, or other approaches that view nirvāṇa as a somehow improved saṃsāra. Such reconceptualizations make it doubtful, I would argue, whether we are still speaking about a naturalized form of Buddhism, and not simply about a kind of naturalism.

20. Dhp. 1.1– 2: “Manopubbaṅgamā dhammā manoseṭṭhā manomayā | Manasā ce paduṭṭhena bhāsati vā karoti vā | Tato naṃ dukkhamanveti cakkaṃ’va vahato padaṃ|| Manopubbaṅgamā dhammā manoseṭṭhā manomayā | Manasā ce pasannena bhāsati vā karoti vā | Tato naṃ sukhamanveti chāyā’va anapāyinī.”

21. The matter continues to be debated in contemporary literature. See Goodman (2009) for a consequentialist interpretation, Keown (1992) for one in terms of virtue ethics, and Hallisey (1996) and Garfield (2010) for pluralist interpretations.

22. Of course there is still the possibility of arguing that all these thinkers misunderstood what karma is all about. Yet given the prominence of theories accounting for diachronic karmic potentialities in the Buddhist philosophical literature, this raises the question whether what we are dealing with here is an explication of the Buddhist conception of karma.

23. The assumption that minds can exist in the absence of brains is also made by some kinds of transhumanism that consider the possibility of “mind uploading” (the transfer of the information contained in a human brain to a computer). See Sandberg and Boström (2008, p. 7). Given that a computer is fundamentally an abstract structure, the step from this position to one that accommodates the existence of minds without a material basis appears not to be too great.

24. I would like to thank audiences at Columbia University, both at the 2011 conference Contemporary Perspectives on Buddhist Ethics and at the Columbia Society for Comparative Philosophy, for useful discussion of these matters.

Special thanks are due to Jake Davis for bringing a variety of important points to my attention that allowed me to develop the discussion of the suicide argument further.


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