The 8th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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Q&A Karma and Rebirth
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Q: Yes, I know. But wasn’t he just accepting the outlook of his day? Didn’t many of his contemporaries just assume that each person had a former existence and that, owing to karma will continue to have more rebirths?
A: I seriously doubt that. Jayatilleke pointed out in his book, _Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge_, that it is false to conjecture that rebirth was generally accepted in India during the Buddha’s time.
Q: How so?
A: The theory can’t be found in either the Rigveda or the Atharvaveda. Nor do even the early Upanishads endorse it, being only one of many such theories. So, I can’t agree with you that ‘rebirth’ was the accepted outlook of that day. The Buddha’s insight seems to me to be quite original and only finds parallels in ancient Greece. In fact, explicit mention of rebirth is only found in Hellenic culture and in Buddhism.
A: It was hardly a ploy in the Buddha’s mind! In fact, the Buddha’s own recognition of rebirth proved that morality is necessary. If there is nothing upon which to base morality, why, therefore, bother to practice morality?
A: The Buddha says that ‘consciousness/vijnana’ rather than self is reborn. There is a huge difference. Presently, you may or may not understand the Buddha’s notion of ‘self’, but you are certainly aware that as you speak, you are conscious of what you say. This is what transmigrates. Not a self.
A: Certainly, it is not impossible. For example, when a sodium atom occiliates at 510 billion times to the second, there is an interval between the atom’s death and its subsequent rebirth. In that interval, or zero phase, there must be a pattern of the sodium atom if it is to reappear after one of its periodic deaths. If the pattern is kept inside the atom, then when it cessates, so should the pattern for the atom also cease. If not, then you must be open to the idea of a "consciousness field" between sodium atom events which conserve the pattern of the atom. Let me say that I think the Buddha was well within science to universalize birth, death, and rebirth. It is the mode of everything. Indeed, this happens at the micro level of our universe as I have shown. So, why shouldn’t we assume the rebirth of consciousness after death? Maybe this is the true meaning behind the Buddhist idea of a conservatory of consciousness which perhaps mediates between discontinuous phenomenal events. But whatever the opinion on this matter, it is better to have an open mind.
Q: Is it really necessary to believe this stuff? I am an agnostic.
A: That is rather simple minded. Demonstration is limited. Ironically, all demonstration ultimately rests on some undemonstrable basis. Even the basis of the empirical sciences rests on theoretic consciousness which is ideal and axiomatic. And what about the so-called scientific observer? Can this ‘observer’ be demonstrated? Treating the subject of rebirth as if it were a scientific object will always give us cause to reject it. The validity of rebirth lies elsewhere than by means of physical demonstration. Next, you will be suggesting that we disbelieve compassion because it cannot be demonstrated [laughing]!
A: Yes. Are you familiar with Ian Stevenson’s work from the University of Virginia? You should read his book entitled _Children Who Remember Past Lives_. Although it is not proof positive, nevertheless, it is reasonable to believe that rebirth is possible just as it is reasonable to believe in global warming. Stevenson conducted a rigorous study of the subject with children who had no motive to deceive him. I find his conclusions reasonable.
A: That is not a very scientific question [laughing]. First, let’s see whether or not it is reasonable to believe in rebirth. In this direction, Stevenson operates by establishing a rigid set of criteria by which to determine the truth or falsity of a rebirth claim. If there are enough cases which fit his criteria, then the argument for rebirth cannot be brushed aside, as there is no other way to account for the goodness of fit. As for rebirth’s practical value, it prevents the intrusion of relativistic morality. It also prevents us from temporarily side stepping morality for short term profit. Who knows, maybe in the future we will evolve a new morality based on a science of rebirth.
A: When is the suspension of belief just veiled disbelief? Perhaps it is an attempt to escape from Buddhism’s tenets—and morality. Being open to the possibility of rebirth demands a reasonable open mind - not a suspended one. At least, for me, it is reasonable to accept rebirth if only because the Buddha is a worthy person and personally verified it. But your view, as I see it, is almost that of an unbeliever! Remember that in the Buddha’s time, he describes the views of six heretics with whom he disagreed. Five of the heretics rejected karma and rebirth. It must be borne in mind that rebirth and karma are integral to Buddhism.
Q: Just recently I finished reading Stephen Batchelor’s book, _Buddhism Without Beliefs_. He makes a fine case for suspending blind belief. Don’t you agree that we should weigh the Buddha’s statements according to logic and evidence?
A: Well, according to the Kalama Sutta which Batchelor cites at the beginning of his book, we shouldn’t! Why he used this particular citation to shore up his arguments is beyond me. The passage clearly states that we should not be satisfied with "logical inference" or with weighing evidence". On the other hand, in the "Parable of the Water-snake" [[[Majjhima]] 22] it clearly states that we should test the meaning in the canon by "intuitive wisdom". Such wisdom is mystical, I must say.
A: Show me your original face before you were born!
Q: I can’t!
A: And since you can’t, you are constantly being incarnated as the human form to which you are presently attached. If, on the other hand, you can see your ‘original face’, you will not be reborn as your original face is unborn. Said another way, you will be reborn in the unborn!
A: Yes, if you are tied to perceptual cognition out of which this world is made. But when we go beyond perceptual cognition, there we find the unborn. Here the opposition between perceiver and perceivable has ceased. The original unity of Mind is restored. Duality is ended.
A: To learn many lessons. But most of all to see your original face before you were born.
Q: What does your original face look like?
A: Like yours.
Q: Thank you.
A: You’re welcome.