Hi guys, just turning the wheel again
I have just read this whole great rebirth debate, all 149 pages! (over the course of several days of course, some skimming over redundant arguments) I must be nuts or a masochist
Anyways, I see that these are issues that arise again and again and have no end to them. I realize that this is a Sisyphean attempt at bridging some of these disagreements, but here we go. I have encountered two major points of contention.
1 - What the Buddha taught - Main issue seems to be the Procrustean attempt to make the suttas fit one's preconceived notions of what they must say.
1.1 - That the Buddha of the suttas taught rebirth ONLY as 'selfing' or didn't teach it at all.
1.2 - That the Buddha of the suttas ONLY taught agnosticism or skepticism about rebirth - the 'no-view' view.
2 - The relevancy of rebirth to dhamma practice. Various claims to the effect that people who do not actively believe in some form of post mortem continuum of conscious or mental elements (or hold to annihilationism) hold wrong view and that therefore they will not get far on the path. This is said to be because:
2.1 - Not believing means their sila is compromised.
2.2 - The soteriological goal of the dhamma is negated by this belief, suicide=nibbana according this account.
(1) Is a futile attempt as anyone who reads the suttas or any of the scholarly literature will eventually see. This is not to say that the interpretation of birth as 'selfing' is always wrong, sometimes is makes sense and it can be useful for practice, but clearly the Buddha taught 'literal' rebirth, whether you accept rebirth or not is a different matter altogether that can be very problematic, especially for westerners. I realize this is of course the crux of the problem, these are ancient Indian teachings and coming to them with a western skeptical and scientific point of view can be difficult. The important thing to keep in mind here is that what the suttas do say that it is OK to remain agnostic about this (and therefore gain the four assurances of the Kalamas). This doesn't mean that the suttas don't teach rebirth as a view (yes, you can teach a particular view, even while holding that clinging to views is bad - without views you have nothing to teach).
This brings us to 2.1, which of course, can be sourced and found in the suttas, though I do not believe this is universally true, there are many atheists and non-believers who are moral and believers in a next life that are immoral. I don't need to cite examples of atheists who have been charitable, of prison statistics showing a lower percentage of atheists in comparison to the total population (a total population which general believes in punishment for misdeeds after death), as of all this is found all over the net thanks to the acolytes of Dawkins et al. What I do think we need to do is look at this statement in its proper context, in ancient north India this may have been in the case, we don't live in ancient north India.
That being said, 2.2 can be problematic without 'literal' rebirth, but I don't think that it follows that suicide is nibbana. Nibbana seems to be something more than just a negative annihilation of all sensation, and it certainly wouldn't be something that caused intense suffering to everyone around you if you achieved it. What does follow is that if rebirth is negated or reinterpreted, then nibbana must be affected by this also.
Of course, all this only leaves us where we left off, and the wheel of rebirth threads spins its course ever onwards. How to stop this samsaric cycle? I propose the following.
1 - Study the suttas and understand what they say in the context of their time. Be aware of the many interpretations. If you choose to put your own interpretation on them, that's ok, but be mindful of what you are doing and don't cling to your own exegesis.
2 - As an atheist and a skeptic myself, I understand the difficulty in accepting supernatural theories based on scriptural evidence alone. The solution is of course, what I have always thought about life after death, a healthy agnosticism. Note that it is perfectly fine to hold an agnostic position according to the suttas. This does not mean that they say that this was the Buddha's personal position however, and it certainly does not mean they don't teach rebirth. I think that once we are able to separate these two often conflated notions (what the suttas say about rebirth
and what the suttas say about believing in rebirth
) we can move on, and practice without clinging.
3 - This is a sort of way to make everyone happy. I propose that atheists/agnostics who find it difficult to accept literal rebirth take rebirth as a sort of moral thought experiment or ethical imperative. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant formed his famous deontological ethics on the basis of one imperative "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction."
You don't need to believe that universal moral laws exist, but you can be ethical by using this thought experiment every time you make an action. I propose a Buddhist kamma categorical imperative:"Act only according to that maxim whereby you would act if kamma and rebirth were literally true and your actions would have consequences over multiple lives"
You don't need to believe rebirth exists, you can remain agnostic, you can retain your naturalistic & phenomenological explanations about kamma and rebirth (maybe even combine it, symbolically, with the above), but using this you can be ACTIVELY agnostic about literal rebirth, not just passively so. I think this is something that we can all come together and accept as a common ground, a middle way for skeptics who cannot bring themselves to accept literal rebirth at the moment. The moral force and effect of the belief in rebirth is kept more or less intact - if you follow the maxim, without having to accept something on faith and scripture. At the same time, those who have a more orthodox view of rebirth can accept that this at least helps to ameliorate the problem of total agnosticm with regards to rebirth (which I personally don't see as a problem). All of this is unimportant however, if we are unable to let go of our dependency to views (ditthinissaya) - yes, even the thought experiment outlined above - which cause sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair.
"And how is there unyoking from views? There is the case where a certain person discerns, as it actually is present, the origination, the passing away, the allure, the drawbacks, & the escape from views. When he discerns, as it actually is present, the origination, the passing away, the allure, the drawbacks, & the escape from views, then — with regard to views — he is not obsessed with view-passion, view-delight, view-attraction, view-infatuation, view-thirst, view-fever, view-fascination, view-craving. This is unyoking from sensuality, unyoking from becoming, & unyoking from views."
- Yoga sutta
I apologize for the long post and probably repeating some of what has been said here again and again, it was something of an intellectual exercise for myself to understand this issue better and come up for a solution. I have seen much sutta quotes about detachment from views, I have seen less actual attempt at putting this into practice, hopefully it helps some people unfetter themselves as well.
Maha-Metta for all