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Reincarnation: A Debate

Batchelor v. Thurman

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The following debate took place in New York City in January 1997 at the home of Michael Marsh. Stephen Batchelor lives in England and is the Director of Studies at the Sharpham College for Buddhist Studies and Contemporary Inquiry. He is the translator of Shantideva's A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, as well as the author of several books, including the recently published Buddhism Without Beliefs (Riverhead). He is currently leading a Tricycle Retreat.

Robert Thurman is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies at Columbia University, and a cofounder of Tibet House, New York; his translations include The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and works by Vimalikirti and Tsongkapa. Both Batchelor and Thurman are longtime Buddhist practitioners and former monks in the Gelugpa order of Tibetan Buddhism. In the dialogue, "Tricycle" represents questions and comments put forth by those present at the debate—staff members Helen Tworkov, Mary Talbot, and Lorraine Kisly, as well as Michael Marsh, Pico Iyer, and Mark Epstein. The photographs were taken by Sally Boon.

© Sally BoonTricycle: The creation myth in Christianity is also very pragmatic.

Thurman: Yes. But that claim beyond myth is not plausible to me because God didn't teach voidness and since he didn't teach voidness then he can't prove his version of reality to me. Buddha taught voidness and that did prove itself to me.

Tricycle: Bob, in your view the rebirth story is very useful and it's very pragmatic, but you are talking about it in a way that undermines the possibility of its "reality."

Thurman: In a sense the only absolute reality is voidness. Buddhism is actually more scientific in the way Western empirical science understands itself. Accounts are always open for revision because voidness is a self-deconstructing account. There is no absolute truth other than that there is no absolute truth. In a way, that's what voidness means. So that relativizes it.

Tricycle: If you accept that Buddhism is about suffering and the relief of suffering then the question to you, Bob, is why, without rebirth, you would then change some part of your life? And the question to Stephen is, does the vow to relieve suffering become greater or lesser with a dependency on rebirth? Is there a way in which the dependency actually could subtract or undermine?

Batchelor: It could go both ways. I think that for people who are inspired by the notion of subsequent lives it could reinforce the vow to save all beings. But there could also be those who could feel, "Well, you know, this life is kind of busy. Maybe in some future life I'll get my act together." I don't think that there's anything to believing one way or the other that has any intrinsic ethical implications.

Thurman: But, Stephen, how can you vow to save all beings if you only have another fifteen years or eleven minutes? What does it mean to say it then?

Batchelor: What does it mean to say it anyway?

Thurman: If you have an endless amount of time, it means that's going to be your orientation over that endless amount of time.

Batchelor: But why would you slow down now, Bob? You've got a lot of work to do to save all sentient beings. The implication of what you're saying is that if you didn't believe in future lives—

Thurman: That's right. The vow becomes unrealistic, completely unrealistic, and says nothing.

Tricycle: But is it really more "realistic" if you have ten lives?

Thurman: Definitely. Absolutely. Not ten. Endless, because all beings are endless. In your Zen centers they say, "Beings are numberless, I vow to save them all." You say that all the time, and what does it mean if you're living at one moment and the next you're dead and buried in New Jersey?

Batchelor: That's a very literal interpretation of that vow. I'm inspired by that vow but not because of its literal implications.

Thurman: Then you're not literally taking the vow. You have to save all the beings! You have to save me! You'd better! You can't abandon even me. And if you don't mean that, you're not taking the vow.

That's certainly one way one could interpret it, but I would see it as an expression of a total commitment. In the language of those times, that's the most total expression, or total metaphor that you could come up with for articulating that passion.

Thurman: But can you genuinely articulate it if you are doing it right along with the belief that it is impossible and can't be done? If you don't think you have endless time to do this—or at least quite a long time, then you're not taking the vow.

Batchelor: It's very difficult to take that literally because if beings are numberless then it's a project that you will be engaged on forever.

Thurman: Do you take anything literally?

Batchelor: I take the teachings on shunyata literally.

Thurman: And you take New York City literally, and the street, and up and down, and life and death. You take some things literally although you know they're also only relative not absolute realities.

Batchelor: Yes, of course.

Thurman: So why would you exclude those imaginative possibilities?

Batchelor: For a start, it falls out of the range of my own experience, so I have to say that I cannot confirm or disconfirm those descriptions.

Thurman: Okay, agreed.

Batchelor: I think the great challenge for us is to come up with something comparable in imaginative power but one that does not require us to simply replicate the unique imaginative expressions of the past.

Tricycle: But isn't that searching for another useful story to make us feel a little bit better?

Batchelor: There is an element of that. I think a lot of these teachings perhaps do begin with stories of consolation. The difference is between a story of consolation that posits something fantastical—like New Age groups believing that there are space ships waiting to take up those who believe in them, or  whatever—and theories of consolation that are a first step towards an actual practice that can begin to change not only your ideas or your beliefs but actually begin to change your whole sense of who you are in this world. And Buddhism certainly is concerned with presenting a path, a way of being, that literally changes your obsession with isolation and leads you to an understanding that your uniqueness is something built up not on a metaphysical basis of some stuff that's distinct to you, but upon the unrepeatable matrix of circumstances and conditions that has generated your being.

To me one of the great insights of the Madhyamaka philosophers is how the individuality of a person does not contradict the emptiness of any separate nugget that defines that person; but individuality is the consequence of relationship, of what you and your parents have done, such that in this particular moment you are constellated in this particular way. Now, we sometimes take that individuality and see that as a ground for affirming some sort of isolated selfhood. That would be the illusion that the Buddhist teaching would seek to undermine. And that leads to the possibility of transformation, both individually as well as socially, and hopefully, in Bob's language, a new vista on the evolutionary possibilities of humankind.

Thurman: It sure would.

And this can be done without taking responsibility for past and future lives?

Batchelor: I believe so.

Thurman: Although you have conceded that you have to adopt a virtual past and future agenda of some sort. So in a way you posit a virtual continuity and connectedness, if not the literal former and future life one.

Batchelor: I think "virtual" is actually quite a good term.

Tricycle: You disagree on what continues. But there's been no difference in your views on the fact of continuity. Is that correct?

Batchelor: One way one could put it is: I would try to behave as if there were infinite lifetimes in which I would be committed to saving beings.

Thurman: Then in case it turns out that you have to spend infinite lives here, you'll be all set!

Image 1: Stephen Batchelor, left, and Robert Thurman, January 1997.

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celticpassage's picture

Basically, we only have statements written down and ascribed to the Buddha by later generations and interpreted to mean by even later generations that the Buddha said that reincarnation is true. That is, that we are reincarnated. So, this is an interpretation of statements (written down long long after his death) supposedly made by Buddha about reincarnation. And of course, reincarnation was a cultural belief in Buddha's time and at the times the "statements of the Buddha" were recorded. Reincarnation, then, is not a reality, but a statement of faith about what some people think of reality.

Sara Isayama's picture

The term is rebirth.
And, no we have far more than just statements. I've experienced past lives myself. Yes, you heard right, I've had them come up as part of my practice, as has my teacher, as have many people both laypeople and monks that I know. In Soto Zen Keizan talked in great detail about his own past lives (he wrote these down in the Tokokuki), and many Masters in many different branches of Buddhism have documented such experiences themselves.
It is not just the Buddha. We can, (and Buddhists do) directly experience these things. They are not simply a matter of belief. We can prove the existence of these things true for ourselves.

awalts's picture

A quote from a very useful piece Alan Wallace wrote about agnostic and atheistic interpretations of Buddhism (including Batchelor's), called "Distorted Visions of Buddhism": "Perhaps the most important issue secularists ignore regarding the teachings attributed to the Buddha is that there are contemplative methods—practiced by many generations of ardent seekers of truth—for putting many, if not all, these teachings to the test of experience. Specifically, Buddhist assertions concerning the continuity of individual consciousness after death and rebirth can be explored through the practice of samadhi, probing beyond the coarse dimension of consciousness that is contingent upon the brain to a subtler continuum of awareness that allegedly carries on from one lifetime to the next."

What I would add: if you don't like taking the Buddha's insights into reality on faith, instead of trying to explain why they don't mean anything (and in the process discarding centuries of serious scholarship and experience because they don't make sense to you), why not devote that mental energy to developing your own insight? Not that I claim to have direct experiential knowledge of rebirth - but the Buddha declared (over and over, and explicitly based on his own direct experience) that karmic rebirth exists, and I have found it very valuable to accept and work with this as a truth (albeit hypothetical for me and therefore very incompletely grasped by me), given the direct experience of karma that I do have.

If Batchelor's approach works for you, fine - I've read his books too, and the parts of Dharma he personally deems worth preserving are certainly very valuable in themselves and can be a good starting point for a modern secularist (or refugee from theism) who is new to Buddhism. But I see secularized Buddhism as wandering around fearfully in shallow waters, and prefer to dive into the ocean of Dharma. A secularist feels the sand drop off, and warns everyone: watch out! Stay here! Nothing to stand on out there! A Buddhist swims. The Buddhist is no less empirical and rational than the secularist - just bolder and more trusting, and with a greater destination in mind.

maximohudson's picture

I've been thinking about the topic of reincarnation quite a bit recently and it seems to me, that if one has a basic understanding of impermanence, that once can observe that a form of reincarnation is constantly manifesting itself before our very eyes. This all gets back to Heraclitus and the idea that as a result of change one can never enter the same river twice. This, of course, is also a Buddhist understanding and one of our arguments/proofs against an inherently-existent self. Now then, if we observe that the body is in a constant state of change (which we do) and we have reasoned that as a result of this change that there is no such thing as an inherently-existing self, we must then certainly ponder the nature of this process whereby we continuously imbue a continuously changing state with the concept of "I." From a Buddhist POV we are misinterpreting what is going on, like seeing the sun transversing the sky and then believing that it is traveling around the earth. The perception that the sun is traveling around the earth, however, is an illusion as is, we are told, an inherently-existing self. Now, all this being said, we are still left with something, some sort of (mis)perception, that there is an I that transcends all this change. I would like to put forward that the same mechanism (call it delusion, ignorance, karma, karmic conditioning, cause and effect, etc.) that manifests itself to our sense organs as a contiguous inherently-existent "I" is the same process by which reincarnation takes place. What we constantly observe is a perceived movement of our consciousness from place to place, from moment to moment, amidst a constant change not only of the world around us, but indeed in our own physical form and mind stream. This, I say, is a form of reincarnation which we can readily observe. It is based upon delusion, ignorance and misperception. And this is why when delusion, ignorance and misperception are overcome and the enlightenment state obtained the delusional cycle of rebirth ends.

hollyg's picture

I've read some of the articles in the Berzin Archives website. One of the articles talked about how a healthy debate can be beneficial to understanding and cognition. But before the debate starts, it is crucial to have a set of assumptions, definitions of terms that you can agree on before you can even have a productive discussion with each other. As I read through the debate, I found myself getting lost in the whole thing. In the end, what I got out of it is this: Batchelor seemed to be following the path of a person of Initial Scope according to the Graded Stages of Lam-rim. Thurman on the other hand, speaks more from the views of a person who follows the path of middle to advanced scope of the Lamrim. According to the Buddha's teachings, this is ok, but I think Thurman pointed out that with this limited understanding, one's mental continuum may be going through the cycle of rebirth indefinitely, and without even knowing it (i.e. not developing any insight to past or future lives because one doesn't have that indiscriminate awareness). I personally think without rebirth and continuity of consciousness, it lessens one's accountability of the karmic actions. As one gets to the advanced scope, the understanding of voidness is the most important. Once you have reached enlightenment the only thing left is voidness. Karma, nirvana, and rebirth will eventually be abandoned and therefore not needed.

wonderwheel's picture

Lastly, I note that the discussion about the Bodhisattva vow to save all beings is particularly dreadful considering that these two gentlemen were considered luminaries of Western Buddhism. From their discussion, it appears that neither has read, or neither could remember reading, either the Diamond Cutter Sutra or the Platform Sutra of Huineng. Thurman seems to entertain a litgeralist or materialist view of saving all beings by living an infinity of lives while Batchelor seems to hold an "it's only symbolic" view so we don't really need to worry about it. Neither addresses the essential point of "dreaming the impossible dream."

The Diamond Cutter Sutra says that even though all beings are saved not even one being is saved. The Platform Sutra says that all the beings that must be saved are all the beings in our own mind. This is not merely a symbolic metaphore, but is pointing directly to the fact that the very existence of all beings is their existence as beings discriminated in mind. Huineng's teaching that the vow is to save all the beings of our own mind directly indicates that there are no beings outside of our own mind and this is the same teaching of the Diamond Cutter Sutra in regards to saving beings.

wonderwheel's picture

As another example of cherry-picking the ego issue, Batchelor says, “There is no ‘you’ who continues into a future life. ‘You’ finish at death, and something else, another being is then born, like a parent giving birth to a child. That position takes the subject—me, the ego—out of the equation. The process of evolutionary change is not about me, Stephen Batchelor, but about what I can now do to improve the spiritual evolutionary advantage of those who come after my death. If you take the idea of otherness in this way, you no longer need to posit some personal consciousness that goes from one life to the next.”

Here, Batchelor is presenting a completely jumbled up version of Buddha Dharma. If there is no “you” who continues in a future life, then likewise there is no “you” who continues in this life, and therefore no “you” that finishes at death. In other words, you can’t be a Buddhist and still cherry pick when “you” begin and when “you” are finished.

Also, the Buddha Dharma view of karma does not “posit some personal consciousness that goes from one life to the next.” The revolutionary discovery related to karma within Buddha Dharma does not even posit a “personal consciousness” in this life. Indian karma posited a person consciousness and Buddha discovered the radical truth that even though karma functions as an activity of Dharma, there is no personal consciousness needed to make the activity of karma functional. This is the basic meaning of “anatman” or non-self. Consciousness takes definition by flowing along a “stream” or “river bed” but this flowing is not “personal” except to the extent that the stream of consciousness creates a self-image to represent itself in its own imagination. The self-image, being imaginary, is not “personal” except in the imaginary sense. So Batchelor is correct to point out there is no personal consciousness needed to go “from one life to the next,” but that just means that the consciousness that manifests in the life stream from one life to the next is an impersonal consciousness that dreams of itself from time to time as a personal consciousness.

wtompepper's picture


I find your comments very interesting and helpful. I love reading Batchelor's books--I read "Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist" twice--but I often disagree with him, and his arguments sometimes seem a bit sophistical. I'm not clear, though, what you mean by "cherry-picking the ego issue."

Would you argue that we should not make the distinction between non-self and the existence of a "conventional" self? Don't we need to accept that the self really does exist conventionally, just not ultimately?

Is your position a kind of "consciousness-only" version of Buddhism?

Thanks for taking the time to comment on these matters--vigorous discussion is essential to good Buddhist practice.


justone's picture

"So Batchelor is correct to point out there is no personal consciousness needed to go “from one life to the next,” but that just means that the consciousness that manifests in the life stream from one life to the next is an impersonal consciousness that dreams of itself from time to time as a personal consciousness."

Alan Watts would concur I think.

wonderwheel's picture

The problem with most “debates” about reincarnation (or its synonym rebirth) is that the discussion takes off without questioning the assumptions. For example, in this classic debate between Robert Thurman (pro) and Stephen Batchelor (con), Thurman begins by positing reincarnation as “evolutionary progress” and Batchelor responds by asking “does evolutionary progress have to be predicated on personal continuity?" Now, Batchelor’s question appears to challenge the usual assumption of individual continuity in the reincarnation scheme, but in fact Batchelor is resting that challenge squarely on the assumption of individual continuity in one life when he follows up by musing, “Wouldn't my contribution be what I can do in this life?”

Batchelor is on to something important when he asks about “a communal, cultural, or social continuity” in relation to karma and reincarnation , but his historical framework, in which a real “I” with historical individual continuity exists in only one life, gets in the way of realizing the meaning of his implied question. Batchelor can only accept an historical reality in which the only transmigration of karma between individual lives occurs by the medium of the historical reality of communal, social, or cultural continuity. The unchallenged assumptions are built into the historical framework itself in which the individual is taken for granted as the individual life continuity and the cultural is taken for granted as the transmigratory continuity. But this very idea of history as the medium of what connects individuals across lifetimes is the antithesis of reincarnation, not just a metaphorical reinterpretation of reincarnation.

Batchelor’s line of questioning goes, “Wouldn't my contribution be what I can do in this life? And then my legacy to future lives would be what I have managed to achieve now, through my work, through the effect I might have had on others now, or on subsequent generations?” When this is examined closely, we can see that the “my” and “I” are taken for granted and unexamined, yet the very efficacy of reincarnation is in the examination of the “my” and “I.” When Batchelor speaks about “my legacy” he shows that his is holding onto the self-image of an egoistic individuality. This is not what the legacy of karma is about. Most people, and apparently Batchelor as well, take reincarnation as stating the past lives are “my” past lives as if they are to be measured only in accordance with the self-image of today. However, the very notion of a past life, if taken seriously in all its implications, completely deconstructs the self-image of today. the reincarnation framework holds that there is no one lifetime that is any more or less determinative of our essential self-identity than another, only that one or another life time has more or less influence on this life time. There is no such thing as “my legacy”, to use Batchelor’s construction, except in the context of the deluded self-imagery in which ownership over the karmic stream is asserted.

Thurman does not fare any better. When Batchelor asks why does evolutionary progress have to be isolated within individual persons, Thurman answers, “Well, it doesn't have to be. But the Buddha's discovery was that it is.” Thurman’s response accepts too easily the framework of the concept of “isolation within individual persons” because that is not what Buddha’s discovery was. The cultural conception of karma and reincarnation into which Buddha was born already had “discovered” the concept of karma and reincarnation as “evolutionary progress isolated within individual persons.” It was the core fallacy of this idea of “individual persons” that Buddha discovered. Buddha discovered that karma and reincarnation are the actual functioning of reality, i.e., the activity of Dharma, but that karma and reincarnation are not “isolated within individual persons,” and on the contrary, it is the delusion of being isolated within an individual person that is the foundation of our activity that is our karma that results in reincarnation.

yourneighbor57's picture

P.S. Mr. Thurman says that a scientific paradigm makes people nihilistic - and feel helpless to make transformation. That has not been my experience. Over time my meditation practice has given me an experiential understanding of the interconnectedness of - well - everything. I also feel more and more the sense of my consciousness being created by mental processes. I find this strangely comforting. It gives me courage and helps me feel more compassion - and let go more and more of my psychology. Sometimes I can imagine what I think of as "me" just drifting apart into its component elements and moving out into the universe. This will happen to all beings and to everything...what a great motivator for compassionate action. It puts the day to day annoyances in perspective! We are not just interconnected - we are really one. One what? Don't know.

yourneighbor57's picture

For myself I don't care if reincarnation is real or not - and I would not live differently if I found out for sure (though I really don't get how no-self is consistent with reincarnation - what is it that gets reborn?). Cause and effect in this life is enough to show me that what I think about and do now affects outcomes for me and those around me in the future. Some of those outcomes even survive my own death - like my use of the world's resources or how I raise my children.

There are many people around the world who face extremes of suffering. This suffering is often a result of greed and aggression by OTHER people. Sometimes it is caused by acts of nature. It seems that the response by those who are able to respond needs to be to try and relieve that suffering, karma or no karma. What it looks like to me is that sentient beings ALL suffer from the actions/karma of some.

I like the Buddha's story - something like: "If someone is struck by a poisoned arrow, the task at hand is to remove the arrow and neutralize the poison. A discussion of the composition and origin of the arrow is irrelevant." On the other hand, if some people are motivated and energized to practice and to compassionate engagement in the world by belief in reincarnation and karma - great!

Dominic Gomez's picture

Closely related to this discussion is "Do You Believe in Karma?" in the Blog section. Both bring up for investigation and analysis notions that presently are very difficult to prove one way or the other. Brings to mind the firestorm that once existed over how many angels could fit on the head of a pin. As in the case in Western society regarding the existence of God, an eternal cycle of life and death as well as a law of causality underpin Eastern (read "Buddhist") thought and colors human behavior. In both, it all comes down to a matter of faith or belief concerning non-empirical matters.

Kenneth Daly's picture

In her recent retreat, Rita Gross defined karma very succinctly: "... where we find ourselves is not the result of fate, it's not the result of an accident, and it's not the result of the will of God. It's the result of our own actions, fueled by our intentions. That, in other words, we determine our own position in samsara, we determine whether or not we find the deathless by our own actions, fueled by our intentions.
Thus, this is in a nutshell, but his teachings about karma ...." Too many people use "karma" in another sense that implies or outright asserts fate as operative in our lives. In this context, the word "reincarnation" tends to be used in a way that contradicts the principle of no-self. However, in answer to a question about reincarnation (1996 Tricycle interview) , the Dalai Lama spoke in the same practical terms as the quote from Rita Gross: "Of course, even if you see only one lifetime, it's the same as if you see many births, many lives. If there are many unfortunate things in your life, or if you have had a much happier life with many good opportunities, you still want one hundred years of life. You see, the past is past, and the future is yet to come. That means the future is in your hands—the future entirely depends on the present. That realization gives you a great responsibility." Debates in the realm of conventional truth about reincarnation, rebirth, past-present-future, even with all their invocations of moral consequence, can serve as distractions from the practice of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

zhaozhouzhi's picture

''...where we find ourselves is not the result of fate, it's not the result of an accident, and it's not the result of the will of God. It's the result of our own actions, fueled by our intentions.''

 Try saying that to victims of an earthquake or tsunami or drought. Or people suffering from leprosy or some other dreadful disease.
The fact that you are starving due to a drought ''is not the result of fate, it's not the result of an accident, and it's not the result of the will of God. It's the result of Your own actions, fueled by Your intentions.''
Clearly that definition of karma does not work.

wonderwheel's picture

"... where we find ourselves is not the result of fate, it's not the result of an accident, and it's not the result of the will of God. It's the result of our own actions, fueled by our intentions. That, in other words, we determine our own position in samsara, we determine whether or not we find the deathless by our own actions, fueled by our intentions.
Thus, this is in a nutshell, but his teachings about karma ...."

The most important nuance of karma is in the connection between "where we find ourselves" and "our own actions" and "our intentions." These primary concepts all share the notion of "our" or "I" or "my, me, mine." In fact it is the self-imagery of "I, me, mine" that defines "our intention" and creates the identity in "where we find ourselves." The karma activity is the activity of creating an identity which then identifies intention as "mine" and "not mine" and then constructs a world-view of reality that reinforces the construction of "me" and "not me" and becomes how we incarnate (manifest) in the present moment. That we keep reinventing ourselves through the karma of identification with a self-image is how we reincarnate from moment to moment, from life to life.

feralyung's picture

As a person deeply educated in mathematics and the sciences, I have felt this debate within myself for many years. In 1995 I deliberately forced myself to meditate on the emotional acceptance of the very possibly real materialistic/mechanistic view of reality as perhaps expressed in QFT(quantum field theory). In a very popular version of applying this perspective to consciousness/mind, such sentient existence is an emergent phenomenon of biochemical processes in the brain/body with QFT as its causal roots. As such, once the physical process that instantiates the emergent phemenon of mind/consciousness ceases to exist, so do all of its entailments, such as consciousness/mind. My experience of freeing myself of the poison of aversion to this view of reality was a lot like Kubla-Ross's five stages of grief. A little like a self induced NDE(near death experience). Freeing myself from the emotional attachment (aversion) of perceiving death as a final snuffing out of the candle of life was a very liberating experience for me and allowed me to much more easily accept the view of Stephen Batchelor that rebirth was not essential to Buddhist practice. I believe that many people are drawn to rebirth because of unresolved fears about a final extinguishing.
On the other hand, since I have had many experiences of the reality of shunyata, I am loath to cling to any one particular view and to see all statements as one of a multitudinous variety of myths. Joseph Campbell influenced me initially to the reality that reality is a myth(i.e. all is myth). As a scientist and a pragmatist I do put a priority on experience and bayesian statistics. The idea that someone like Gautama Buddha just miraculously appeared in the midst of the axial age with a philosophy that is so advanced that western science and philosophy are only beginning to come to terms with it through Derrida and other deconstructionists not to mention the measurement problem in quantum mechanics or the problem of inertial frames in relativity it seems to beg credulity to believe that the existence of Gautama Buddha is some kind of historical quirk. I believe the best argument for the reality of rebirth is the fact that Gautama Buddha actually existed and taught the incredibly profound teachings for which he is credited.
I still side with Batchelor that rebirth is not essentially necessary to Buddhist ethics but am also deeply sympathetic to Thurman's assertion that materialism is a seed of nihilism and can sap the vitality of the spiritual quest.

wonderwheel's picture

"I still side with Batchelor that rebirth is not essentially necessary to Buddhist ethics but am also deeply sympathetic to Thurman's assertion that materialism is a seed of nihilism and can sap the vitality of the spiritual quest."

The question of "Buddhist ethics" is integral in importance. Ethics in the Western context is "the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation " But Buddhism looks as "what is good and bad" in a context different than Deity-revealed religions do that place "what is good and bad" within the context of authoritative imperatives devinely dictated. In Buddhism, the moral imperative does not arise from an external authority, but from within our own mind that is the One Mind of Suchness, also known as emptiness or sunyata. Since, notihing can arise in mind outside the context of the discrimination that relies on polarity, the morality of Buddha Dharma is usually explained in terms of beneficial and unbeneficial rather than in terms of good and bad. To ask how is this beneficial forces us to be aware of the context within which any beneficial effect can be determined, as compared to the concept of "good" that is measured against an artificial external measurment as if there is no subjectivity involved.

Basically, karma is inherently amoral because there is no external standard of good and bad by which it can be measured but karma is light, dark or neutral (i.e., beneficial, detrimental, or neutral) depending on the context of the intention within the volitional identity that is associated with the karmic action.

Understanding karma as a morally ethical system according to an external measurement of good and bad is a misunderstanding. There is the hilarious sutra in which two ascetics ask Buddha to tell them about their future births. One ascetic is a "dog-duty" ascetic who mimics the behavior of dogs and the other is an "ox-duty" asetic who mimics the behavior of oxen. They are like the Abbot and Costello or Laural and Hardy of Indian ascetics. Each believes his own form of animal mimicing is the true way to liberation and will bring them to nirvana. When they meet the Buddha they each ask the Buddha to tell them the future birth of the other so that they can prove to the other that he is practicing the wrong ascetic duty. The Buddha initially declines to answer the question, but when asked three times sincerely he relents and informs them that the dog-duty ascetic will be reborn as a dog among dogs and the od-duty ascetic will be revorn as an ox among oxen. The point is not that it is good or bad to be reborn as a dog or an ox, but that we will simply be reborn in accord to our conduct. We can't magically transform intention and divorce it from its context of identiy. Thus, even if our intention is to be liberated, if our identity is that of a dog, it is the actual actions based on that identity which reveal our true intention and result in our true rebirth, not on the imagined "intentions" we have about our actions based on our delusional self-image of ourselves.

wonderwheel's picture

"sentient existence is an emergent phenomenon of biochemical processes in the brain/body with QFT as its causal roots."

To understand consciousness we must be able to discern that the above sentence already assumes its conclusion. If we can see the truth aspcet of the above sentence AND at the same time see the equal truth aspect of the corrollary that "biochemical processess are the emergent phenomenon of sentient existence with QFT as its resulting leaves", then we are close to the Middle Way.

dharmatraveller's picture

Such an interesting discussion. I would love to hear more about how how "biochemical processes in the brain/body" have QFT as their causal roots.

I disagree with your perspective that people are drawn to rebirth because of "unresolved fears about a final extinguishing". I feel that we Western nihilists are all too happy about such a nihilistic ending. That means all we have to do is bear a few moments of pain and soon it with "all be over". That's the easy escapist way. If we are clear about "shunyata" we know that we are experiencing appearance after appearance. Only by gaining a full realization of emptiness will we stop grasping at these appearances as truly existing and see that they are dependent arisings. So after the appearance of dying in this life, our mindstream will emerge in a new circumstance--dependent upon our own previous actions, our karma. To my mind, that's a dash of cold water on complacency.

It seems to me that Batchelor hasn't delved far enough into Shunyata, even though he avows it as his spiritual baseline. There are clear implications if you follow Buddhas teachings, which lead to an airtight case for the continuity of consciousness. He's a very thoughtful explorer though, and I really appreciate his books, experiences, etc.

Mike Nielsen's picture

When you try in the last paragraph to see both sides of the argument to a certain extent, that touched a chord in me. My long-time adherence to a materialist orientation towards my life and the world around me has been undermined by my slowly developing awareness of the many ways in which I was led back to meditation (after a 35 year dry spell) through a series of contingencies. "Miracle" is too strong a word for the process but at least synchronicity has to be at play. The more I open up, the more people I seem to come in contact with who act as "gurus" to me. I assume they were always there but I shielded myself from seeing our shared dilemma because of my hard-line materialist orientation. Pema Chodron uses the term "softening" quite a bit in her writing and talks. I think this is what I am experiencing. I don't think I need to buy into reincarnation to experience this gradual softening. Would it accelerate the process if I did believe in reincarnation? That is a subject worthy of contemplation but I am pretty busy right now just trying to just simply open up to life around me without so much craving and aversion.

mitaky's picture

Buddha spoke about rebirth which is different than prevailing paradigm of reincarnation, which presupposes eternal immortal soul. Just as all matter is compound of elements, we human and sentient beings are made of ever-changing compound of five skandhas, My understanding is, Consciousness binds/attaches to and identifies with form, feeling. perception and habitual actions/reactions (Sankharas, volitional actions, karma) conditioned by views/beliefs (just came to know there are 62 wrong views, delusions that keeps samsara going), thinking and intention.

Following the Middle way of understanding, what is reborn is neither the same person, nor a totally different personality (mind-body stream) as the stream of consciousness/ mindstream continues after death of physical body/brain. We know attention, concentration, thinking, emotion all are mental energy. Consciousness is inseparable from energy and not bound to physical organism. Materialistic Science have a problem seeing consciousness as energy. So we are trying to change and control our external enviroment with lot of action and building structures, systems and technology in the world. We know how confused, defiled and entangled we have become in our mind and thinking. After death with shutting down of physical apparatus and brain consciousness temporarily detaches from form, feeling, perception etc and depending on one's level of mindful-awareness, clarity at the moment of passing away and karmic volition one can choose the circumstances, realms and timing of their rebirth. That is my sense anyway. Nibbana or deathless is the unbinding of conditioned/compounded/attached consciousness, Incidentally the Indian word vijnana (consciousness) is the same word used for 'Science'.

Dharma Sanctuary's picture

I like where you are leading:

"what is reborn is neither the same person, nor a totally different personality (mind-body stream) as the stream of consciousness/ mindstream continues after death of physical body/brain."

Can't we accept that whatever karmic stream we have created in our life can continue, but not be so personalized, as most people want to see it? If consciousness is energy, then it is likely diffuse and not bound to an indentity. My problem is our need for personal soul continuity. Perhaps we could see that what we create gets expressed in lots of diffuse ways, but doesn't have to stay packaged as influencing only our soul journey. We are all in this together. I think there's a lot more flow in this process than many of us are willing to imagine.

bendorje's picture

I don't follow "Western Buddhism", or the way we tend to remake Buddhism to suit our lives instead of taking it as it has been for thousands of years now. It is the only path to follow to gain enlightenment, and Americans can't remake it in our image, or to suit our life styles. It just doesn't work that way.
I am a very strict follower of Tibetan Buddhism which after 15 years of study has proven to me to be completely different from all other forms of Buddhism. It is also the only path I have found that eased my personal suffering, caused by pain that almost cost me my life.
The Buddha says that I will be reborn, and I take it as the truth. So I live my very simple life helping others to find their path toward enlightenment. I am in constant thought of how to achieve that goal, and to keep my karma in a state that I look froward to my death, and will welcome it with open arms.
Buddhism without rebirth to guide your life is akin to Christianity without Jesus. One must always think of what rebirth they will have, and what level they will be reborn in. I don't own anything except the clothing on my back. Over the past 50+ years I have given everything I once owned to those that needed it more. And I have never been happier. To be reborn and given another chance to continue my path toward enlightenment is all I have in this life, and it's all I will ever need.
Everything else is just greed, wanting what your neighbor has, or wanting more money then one could spend in a lifetime. And the poor, needy and infirm suffer while the greed is passed down from one rebirth to another. These are the people that I pray for most. They are the ones that will be reborn in the Hell Realms.

dharmatraveller's picture

What about the notion of a substantial cause? All things can be observed to follow their own continuum. Body comes from body (or the body of our parents, their parents, so on). There are many other causes of body like food and water, but the substantial cause is a previous moment of body. The same with mind. Mind is caused by previous moments of mind, and therefore is beginningless. The brain and body are important contributing causes of mind, like soil and light are important causes of plant. Plant still comes from plant (seed, etc.). So this is the "proof" Buddha gave, that we know from Nagarjuna, Dharmakirti and others. In turn, we can directly find the "empirical" evidence ourselves through meditation, by observing that mind comes from previous moments of its own continuum. Karma follows along these lines.
If you look, science has a problem solidly supporting the claim that something as unfathomable as consciousness is just caused by the brain (see Dualist Problem, Hard Problem, etc). Why should we be so troubled by "hard" evidence for hidden objects like past and future lives? "Soft" evidence abounds if we listen openly to our teachers, to Buddha. We know clearly that whatever is there (after death) is unavailable to our senses now. Then why not go with the best explanation and strongest evidence which Buddha amply provides. Add to that a little faith. (-:

Smith8's picture

Wow! That was kind of a long, tedious, wordy discussion. I prefer the simple way many famous Zen and Taoist masters advised; to just quiet your mind, connect with the universal mind and receive the information you seek through your intuition, instead of trying to work it out analytically like these two men seem to be doing. Then you'll just know, and you won't feel the need for endless words and labels, or to justify and argue about endless technicalities. But, to each his own.

matthewoconnell's picture

As you said, each to his own. I would actually argue that we need more such conversations between Buddhist VIPS. Challenging Buddhist beliefs and myths is essential in establishing a more robust Western Buddhism. Perhaps you would have been happier with a CliffNotes summary :)

Jakela's picture

Couldn't agree more. Conseversations like this are what lead people to think that meditation is too hard, too spiritual (whatever that is) or too complicated.
Only Don't Know.