Considering Buddhism

A forum for beginners and members of other Buddhist traditions to ask questions about Theravāda (The Way of the Elders). Responses require moderator approval before they are visible.
chatra
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Considering Buddhism

Postby chatra » Mon May 31, 2010 5:39 pm

I'm a new member here, and I'm considering converting to Buddhism. In fact, I might just convert right here and now - if it weren't for one issue.
I'm going to try my best not to rehash a topic I know has been gone over hundreds of times, but I'm having trouble accepting the concept of "rebirth". I cannot seem to find any logical justification for it. Is there any logical and scientific* explanation of exactly how this works?
Is it possible to be a Buddhist, accepting the ethical tenants, view of human nature, etc. etc., while rejecting the cosmology (rebith, the 36 planes, etc. etc.)? Or would this be as dishonest as claiming to be Christian, while rejecting the concepts of Heaven and Hell?
Thanks for any help you might have to offer. I'll keep an open mind, I promise.



*While an enormous compendium of people who explain and seem to have experienced rebirth might be classified as scientific, it still does not give logical justification.

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Re: Considering Buddhism

Postby Reductor » Mon May 31, 2010 5:49 pm

You'll find a lot of views on this, I suspect. I would say that if you are concerned about your welfare in this life, mental + physical, and wish to conduct yourself wisely, turn to the Buddha Dhamma and Sangha for guidance.

If you feel that you trust these three jewels above all other teachers and schools of thought, then you could say that you're a Buddhist, uncertainty about a specific form of afterlife not withstanding.

However, in the spirit of trusting the Buddha, don't dismiss what he says about rebirth outright, but don't claim to believe it when you don't. Just remain neutral and be honest with yourself and others about that.
Michael

The thoughts I've expressed in the above post are carefully considered and offered in good faith.

And friendliness towards the world is happiness for him who is forbearing with living beings. -- Ud. 2:1
To his own ruin the fool gains knowledge, for it cleaves his head and destroys his innate goodness. -- Dhp 72


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Re: Considering Buddhism

Postby Wind » Mon May 31, 2010 5:58 pm

Rebirth as the Buddha explains is like a passing the flame of a candle onto another candle. It is a process of causation. Notice that it's not the same flame that hops to another candle no soul that transfer, but rather the first flame causes the next flame to arise with similar characteristics. So if you look at it as a cause and effect process of karma where then you will understand the logic of rebirth. Just as in reality, there is a constant process of cause and effect that affects our everyday life. What you did yesterday, affected your reality today. There is a constant change of energy that goes about in your body as well that holds everything together which you call a person. In science, energy can't be destroyed, we know this as fact. Energy always change form, such as into matter. So going back to the analogy the Buddha gave about passing of the flame. Your "energy" or "flame" when you die will cause another one to arise. This linkage of two different flame is rebirth but it is from same line of causation or process.

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Re: Considering Buddhism

Postby Fede » Mon May 31, 2010 6:27 pm

Chatra,
if you're unsure about rebirth, contemplating it or making your mind up about it - then don't.
leave it aside for now.
There is no obligation in Buddhism, to take everything in at once, learn everything, understand everything, accept everything and live by everything all in one fell swoop.
can't be done.
Focus on the immediate matters....

You know, at the end of the day, however much you decide to adhere to the premise of rebirth, or however much you decide to not adhere to the premise of re-birth - one day, you will die.
And so shall I.
And thus, this life will cease.
I would, if I were you, focus on making this one as good, loving, skilful and compassionate as you can, here and now, rather than concerning yourself with something that frankly, is capable of boggling even the most experienced practitioners....!
Relax.
Let it go for now. Just sit, observe, absorb and take one day at a time.
It will come in its own sweet time..... eventually. :)
"Samsara: The human condition's heartbreaking inability to sustain contentment." Elizabeth Gilbert, 'Eat, Pray, Love'.

Simplify: 17 into 1 WILL go: Mindfulness!

Quieta movere magna merces videbatur. (Sallust, c.86-c.35 BC)
Translation: Just to stir things up seemed a good reward in itself. ;)

I am sooooo happy - How on earth could I be otherwise?! :D


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Re: Considering Buddhism

Postby Tex » Mon May 31, 2010 7:05 pm

chatra wrote:Is it possible to be a Buddhist, accepting the ethical tenants, view of human nature, etc. etc., while rejecting the cosmology (rebith, the 36 planes, etc. etc.)? Or would this be as dishonest as claiming to be Christian, while rejecting the concepts of Heaven and Hell?


Hello, chatra. You asked if it's possible to be a Buddhist without believing in rebirth, etc -- if you talk to Zen Buddhists it seems that the majority are annihilationists (you die, the end). You might ask this same question over at zenforuminternational.org and gets some opinions from them.

The standard Theravada take is that Buddha taught literal rebirth. That doesn't mean that you have to fully accept that in order to start practicing Theravada; you can, as Fede suggested, put it aside for now. Not accepting something isn't the same thing as rejecting it. And you might find that once you've practiced the other Theravada teachings for a while that you'll have a different understanding of rebirth and even acceptance of it once you see how it fits into the total teaching.

I wish you the best of luck with whichever path you pursue.
"The serene and peaceful mind is the true epitome of human achievement."-- Ajahn Chah, Living Dhamma

"To reach beyond fear and danger we must sharpen and widen our vision. We have to pierce through the deceptions that lull us into a comfortable complacency, to take a straight look down into the depths of our existence, without turning away uneasily or running after distractions." -- Bhikkhu Bodhi

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Re: Considering Buddhism

Postby Stephen K » Mon May 31, 2010 7:08 pm

I think these articles, written by famous and widely respected monks, may help:


Does Rebirth Make Sense?

DEPENDENT ORIGINATION
Last edited by Stephen K on Mon May 31, 2010 7:33 pm, edited 1 time in total.
With metta,
Upāsaka Sumana

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Re: Considering Buddhism

Postby Shonin » Mon May 31, 2010 7:27 pm

Tex wrote:Hello, chatra. You asked if it's possible to be a Buddhist without believing in rebirth, etc -- if you talk to Zen Buddhists it seems that the majority are annihilationists (you die, the end). You might ask this same question over at zenforuminternational.org and gets some opinions from them.


I'm sorry, but this is not an accurate representation of the views of Zen Buddhists. Most Zen Buddhists are not annihilationists nor are they materialists. Some Zen Buddhists believe in literal rebirth, some see moment-to-moment rebirth as rendering life-to-life rebirth as meaningless (or similar). A very small minority might be annihilationists.

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Re: Considering Buddhism

Postby tiltbillings » Mon May 31, 2010 7:36 pm

chatra wrote:Is it possible to be a Buddhist, accepting the ethical tenants, view of human nature, etc. etc., while rejecting the cosmology (rebith, the 36 planes, etc. etc.)? Or would this be as dishonest as claiming to be Christian, while rejecting the concepts of Heaven and Hell?
Yes to the first and no to the second.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.

dheamhan a fhios agam

"We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts." -- Jack Johnson

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Re: Considering Buddhism

Postby Wind » Mon May 31, 2010 7:36 pm

Chatra, you might find this essay very useful.

Buddhism for the modern skeptic.
http://www.justbegood.net/Downloads/e-b ... %201_1.pdf

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Re: Considering Buddhism

Postby Tex » Mon May 31, 2010 7:54 pm

Shonin wrote:I'm sorry, but this is not an accurate representation of the views of Zen Buddhists. Most Zen Buddhists are not annihilationists nor are they materialists. Some Zen Buddhists believe in literal rebirth, some see moment-to-moment rebirth as rendering life-to-life rebirth as meaningless (or similar). A very small minority might be annihilationists.


Hmmm, most of the Zen Buddhists I've talked to have said they don't believe in literal rebirth or anything else after death. I guess that could be due to small sample size, so apologies.
"The serene and peaceful mind is the true epitome of human achievement."-- Ajahn Chah, Living Dhamma

"To reach beyond fear and danger we must sharpen and widen our vision. We have to pierce through the deceptions that lull us into a comfortable complacency, to take a straight look down into the depths of our existence, without turning away uneasily or running after distractions." -- Bhikkhu Bodhi

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Re: Considering Buddhism

Postby chatra » Mon May 31, 2010 8:44 pm

I cannot thank you all enough for the help that's been offered, and for any help that might be offered after this post. The essays have, and will be, especially helpful. I'm not going to rush to any decisions at the moment; rather, I plan on spending a great deal of time analyzing all this and deeply considering it. Once again, I am deeply appreciative.

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Re: Considering Buddhism

Postby Jason » Mon May 31, 2010 8:47 pm

chatra wrote:I'm a new member here, and I'm considering converting to Buddhism. In fact, I might just convert right here and now - if it weren't for one issue.
I'm going to try my best not to rehash a topic I know has been gone over hundreds of times, but I'm having trouble accepting the concept of "rebirth". I cannot seem to find any logical justification for it. Is there any logical and scientific* explanation of exactly how this works?
Is it possible to be a Buddhist, accepting the ethical tenants, view of human nature, etc. etc., while rejecting the cosmology (rebith, the 36 planes, etc. etc.)? Or would this be as dishonest as claiming to be Christian, while rejecting the concepts of Heaven and Hell?
Thanks for any help you might have to offer. I'll keep an open mind, I promise.



*While an enormous compendium of people who explain and seem to have experienced rebirth might be classified as scientific, it still does not give logical justification.


Yes, you can certainly be a Buddhist without believing in rebirth, or you can even take a non-literalist approach to rebirth if you want. While I don't want to enter into a debate about the validity of rebirth, I'd like to at least mention how the process of rebirth is understood. To begin with, the Buddha didn't reject that specific mental events are contingent upon corresponding physical events in the brain, which is the prevailing view of modern science, but he didn't explicitly promote it either. In The Buddha and His Teachings, for example, Narada Thera notes that:

    In the Patthana, the Book of Relations, the Buddha refers to the seat of consciousness, in such indirect terms as 'yam rupam nissaya—depending on that material thing', without positively asserting whether that rupa was either the heart (hadaya) or the brain. But, according to the view of commentators like Venerable Buddhaghosa and Anuruddha, the seat of consciousness is definitely the heart. It should be understood that the Buddha neither accepted nor rejected the popular cardiac theory.

So even though the Buddha detailed the mutual dependency of mental and physical activity and consciousness (DN 15), he wasn't a strict materialist. In regard to name-and-form (nama-rupa), for example, he didn't see consciousness as merely the byproduct of matter; he saw mentality and materiality as mutually sustaining immaterial and material phenomena, using the analogy of two sheaves of reeds leaning against one another to illustrate their relationship (SN 12.67).

In Theravada, the literal interpretation of rebirth is viewed as an instantaneous process whereby the last consciousness of a being at the time of death immediately conditions the arising of a new consciousness (kind of like "spooky action at a distance" where two entangled particles communicate with each other instantaneously, even over great distances).

According to the teachings on dependent co-arising (paticcasamupadda) — a process of conditionality that's understood to occur moment to moment and over multiple lifetimes (non-literalists simply disregard the "three-life" model, e.g., see Paticcasamuppada: Practical Dependent Origination) — if there are sufficient conditions present, those conditions with inevitably result in future births (SN 12.35). Along with consciousness, craving (tahna) plays a vital role in the renewal of beings and the production of future births.

To illustrate how craving could result in future births, the Buddha used a simile in which he compared the sustenance of a flame to that of a being at the time of death. Essentially, a flame burns in dependence on its fuel, and that fuel sustains it. When a flame burns in dependence on wood, for example, the wood sustains that flame. However, when a flame is swept up and carried away by the wind, the fuel of wind sustains that flame until it lands upon a new source of fuel. In the same way, a being at the time of death has the fuel of craving as its sustenance (SN 44.9). Hence, the Buddha states, "Wherever there is a basis for consciousness, there is support for the establishing of consciousness. When consciousness is established and has come to growth, there is the production of renewed existence" (SN 12.38).

To better illustrate this, I'd like to make an analogy to a theory introduced by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. There, he presents his theory that those genes whose phenotypic effects successfully promote their own propagation will be favourably selected in detriment to their competitors, which is essentially a part of what helps species surive and reproduce. He does not mean that the human gene is actulaly selfish, but rather that it acts as if it were. Craving can also be seen to act in a similar way.

If we look at craving as being the cause by which this process happens at the molecular level, we can get an idea of the role that craving plays in realm of rebirth. In this pseudoscientific analogy, the propagation of genes is analogous to becoming and birth in dependent co-arising, and the cause of this process is craving; in the case of genes, it would be craving in regard for the reproductive success of the organism, or of other organisms containing the same gene, while in the case of beings, it would be craving in regard to the production of renewed existence, or the establishment and growth of consciousness.

Unfortunately, there are no suttas that give a detailed explanation of this process, and the detailed workings of this process are to be found in the Abhidhamma and Pali commentaries. While many people reject the Abhidhamma and commentaries as reliable sources of information regarding what the Buddha taught, I don't think the views of the Buddha and the ancient commentators such as Buddhaghosa are necessarily mutually exclusive. It's true, for example, that the Pali term "patisandhi-citta" (re-linking consciousness) — which is used to explain the process of rebirth in detail — is only found in the commentarial literature; but one can just as easily argue that such a "re-linking" consciousness is implied in places like SN 44.9, where the Buddha states that, "... when a being sets this body aside and is not yet reborn in another body, I designate it as craving-sustained, for craving is its sustenance at that time."

Of course, one can just as easily re-interpret such statements, or to be more precise, translations, in a way that supports a single-life presentation of dependent co-arising and non-postmortem rebirth (i.e., keeping solely within the framework of what I'd call psychological processes), which I have no problem with personally. That's why I prefer to leave it up to the individual to decide what interpretation or model they find more useful in their approach to the study and practice of the Dhamma. But in either interpretation, rebirth is the continuation of a process — nothing "remains," nothing "transmigrates," etc. — there are merely phenomena that condition other phenomena in the interdependent process we call life. The only difference I see is that one side believes this process ceases at death, regardless of whether there's still craving present in the mind, and the other doesn't.

As for myself, however, I'm agnostic when it comes to rebirth. I'm open to the possibility, but I don't consider it a fact. That said, I do think that rebirth can be a useful teaching. Being open to teachings on rebirth, for example, has the potential to lead to skillful actions. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains in "Faith in Awakening":

    ...instead of an empirical proof for his teaching on karma, the Buddha offered a pragmatic proof: If you believe in his teachings on causality, karma, rebirth, and the four noble truths, how will you act? What kind of life will you lead? Won't you tend to be more responsible and compassionate?

But luckily you don't have to believe in postmortem rebirth to be a Buddhist. As far as I know, there's no sort of Buddhist excommunication if you don't. You can be a Buddhist without believing in rebirth, or you can even take a non-literalist approach to rebirth if they want. The teachings are open to either interpretation.

For example, on one level, rebirth and kamma (literally "action") deal with the framework of morality and ethical conduct in general. In this sense, I understand rebirth to signify the Buddha's observation that there's a type of continuity that underlies experience in the form of our actions and their results — one that does not necessarily end at death — and kamma to represent the intentional element of our psyche that goes into experience.

This corresponds to what the Buddha called "right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in the acquisitions [of becoming]" (MN 117). Here, morality and ethical conduct are associated with intentional actions and their corresponding results — which aren't just limited to those within the present lifetime — and the continuous cycle of birth and death (which can also be taken metaphorically).

On another level, rebirth and kamma deal with the framework of what I'd call psychological processes, which corresponds to what the Buddha called "noble right view, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path" (MN 117).

Here, rebirth still signifies the Buddha's observation that there's a type of continuity that underlies experience in the form of our actions and their results, and kamma still represents the intentional element of our psyche that goes into experience, but they are placed within the context of the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path. In this context, the emphasis is on things such as recognizing and understanding the mental processes by which we construct our sense of self, as well as how to utilize those processes in more skillful ways.

Looking at it from a more non-literalist perspective, however, I think that the teachings on dependent co-arising, the aggregates (khandhas) and not-self (anatta) are quite insightful in that they are the parts of Buddhism that correspond to parts of modern psychology. For one thing, they basically detail the process by which we construct our sense of self — i.e., our ego or identity — and, ultimately, how to utilize that process in more skillful ways.

The aggregates themselves, for example, aren't simply descriptions of what constitutes a human being as some people mistakenly think—they're one of the many ways of looking at and dividing up experience that we find throughout the Pali Canon (e.g., aggregates, elements, six sense-media, etc.). More importantly, they represent the most discernible aspects of our experience on top of which we construct our sense of self in a process of, as the Buddha called it, "I-making" and "my-making" (e.g., MN 109). I think that Thanissaro Bhikkhu sums up the relationship between the teachings on not-self and the process of I-making and my-making very well in his essay "The Problem Of Egolessness."

Our sense of self is quite fluid — it's always in flux, ever-changing from moment to moment in response to various internal and external stimuli — and it's often hard to observe this process in action. Nevertheless, there are times when our sense of self causes us a great deal of suffering, times when we cling very strongly to that momentary identity and the objects of our sensory experience on which it's based in ways that cause a great deal of mental stress.

But if we can learn to be more aware of these mental processes, we can learn to master them through a combination of mindfulness training and other techniques. I imagine that there are methods found within modern psychology that are comparable and equally as effective, but many people still find Buddhist methods helpful (and even some modern psychologists are finding them useful). So I can definitely understand the difficulty in accepting concepts such as rebirth, but there are plenty of other things in Buddhism that can potentially have an immediate impact on our mental well-being in the here and now.

However, in the end, I don't think it really matters which view of rebirth one holds because the actual practice is still the same. What truly matters is what you do with the teachings, not what you believe about them. That's why I think the Buddha likened his teachings to a raft in MN 22:

    ...I have taught the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Understanding the Dhamma as taught compared to a raft, you should let go even of Dhammas, to say nothing of non-Dhammas.
Last edited by Jason on Mon May 31, 2010 9:01 pm, edited 4 times in total.
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Re: Considering Buddhism

Postby Shonin » Mon May 31, 2010 8:54 pm

Tex wrote:Hmmm, most of the Zen Buddhists I've talked to have said they don't believe in literal rebirth or anything else after death. I guess that could be due to small sample size, so apologies.


It could also be due to a logical error you are making called a 'False Dilemma' in that you are considering ONLY that

a. either one believes in an afterlife
OR b. one is an Annihilationist

There are other possibilities. In fact, both of the above are based on self-views.

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Re: Considering Buddhism

Postby Zom » Mon May 31, 2010 8:55 pm

"Because there actually is the next world, the view of one who thinks, 'There is no next world' is his wrong view. Because there actually is the next world, when he is resolved that 'There is no next world,' that is his wrong resolve. Because there actually is the next world, when he speaks the statement, 'There is no next world,' that is his wrong speech. Because there actually is the next world, when he is says that 'There is no next world,' he makes himself an opponent to those arahants who know the next world. Because there actually is the next world, when he persuades another that 'There is no next world,' that is persuasion in what is not true Dhamma. And in that persuasion in what is not true Dhamma, he exalts himself and disparages others. Whatever good habituation he previously had is abandoned, while bad habituation is manifested. And this wrong view, wrong resolve, wrong speech, opposition to the arahants, persuasion in what is not true Dhamma, exaltation of self, & disparagement of others: These many evil, unskillful activities come into play, in dependence on wrong view.

With regard to this, a wise person considers thus: 'If there is no next world, then — at the break-up of the body, after death — this venerable person has made himself safe. But if there is the next world, then this venerable person — on the break-up of the body, after death — will reappear in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell. Even if we didn't speak of the next world, and there weren't the true statement of those venerable brahmans & contemplatives, this venerable person is still criticized in the here-&-now by the wise as a person of bad habits & wrong view: one who holds to a doctrine of non-existence. If there really is a next world, then this venerable person has made a bad throw twice: in that he is criticized by the wise here-&-now, and in that — with the break-up of the body, after death — he will reappear in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell. Thus this safe-bet teaching, when poorly grasped & poorly adopted by him, covers (only) one side, and leaves behind the possibility of the skillful.


(from MN 60 - http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka ... .than.html)

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Re: Considering Buddhism

Postby Mawkish1983 » Mon May 31, 2010 9:10 pm

Wind wrote:In science, energy can't be destroyed
<coughs> ...in classical science. Heisenberg might not have strictly agreed with you on the small time-scale.

Sorry, :focus:

I don't believe in rebirth either. Doesn't mean I reject punabbhava though.

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Re: Considering Buddhism

Postby Wind » Mon May 31, 2010 9:42 pm

chatra wrote:I cannot thank you all enough for the help that's been offered, and for any help that might be offered after this post. The essays have, and will be, especially helpful. I'm not going to rush to any decisions at the moment; rather, I plan on spending a great deal of time analyzing all this and deeply considering it. Once again, I am deeply appreciative.


Excellent. :namaste:

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Re: Considering Buddhism

Postby Virgo » Mon May 31, 2010 9:54 pm

Chatra, just as there were causes and conditions for birth at the moment you were born, there will still be causes and conditions for continued existence at the moment of your death.

Kevin

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Re: Considering Buddhism

Postby Wind » Mon May 31, 2010 10:21 pm

Mawkish1983 wrote:
Wind wrote:In science, energy can't be destroyed
<coughs> ...in classical science. Heisenberg might not have strictly agreed with you on the small time-scale.

Sorry, :focus:

I don't believe in rebirth either. Doesn't mean I reject punabbhava though.


True, was speaking in classical sense. It is interesting to learn the laws of physics can behave quite differently in subatomic levels. Just enjoy the fascinating discoveries in Quantum physics, esp how an observer can alter the fabric of reality. Mind and matter seems to be link.

:focus:

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Re: Considering Buddhism

Postby retrofuturist » Mon May 31, 2010 11:23 pm

Greetings chatra,

I agree with what thereductor said to you above...

thereductor wrote:You'll find a lot of views on this, I suspect. I would say that if you are concerned about your welfare in this life, mental + physical, and wish to conduct yourself wisely, turn to the Buddha Dhamma and Sangha for guidance.

Even if someone could prove to me that rebirth is scientifically or logically false, I would still take refuge in the Buddha Dhamma and the Sangha, for the benefits that a Dhammic life presents here-and-now.

If you think the rest of the Dhamma makes sense without rebirth, why not just put the teachings into practice, cultivate the benefits that are available, and let whatever happens (or doesn't happen) after death take care of itself... which is, in reality, what it will happen anyway - your personal beliefs will not change what happens, so don't get hung up about it.

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


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One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: Considering Buddhism

Postby Ben » Mon May 31, 2010 11:56 pm

Mawkish1983 wrote:
Wind wrote:In science, energy can't be destroyed
<coughs> ...in classical science. Heisenberg might not have strictly agreed with you on the small time-scale.


Did someone mention Heisenberg??

51-3gyzp1GL__SX320_SY240_.jpg
51-3gyzp1GL__SX320_SY240_.jpg (26 KiB) Viewed 1130 times


Sorry!

Jason's post is excellent. Also, the other thing that I want to say is that there is no stipulation on anyone to accept anything except on a provisional basis. One's knowledge and understanding is supported by the canon, commentarial and other literature, but its through the prism of directly penetrating the nature of mind and matter through bhavana (practice) that we come to "know" the nature of reality. Until that time, teachings such as rebirth, as Jason puts it, are skilful tools to explore the Dhamma.
kind regards

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