By Alison Page
As Buddhism moves from the East to the West, there has been an ongoing debate between Traditional Buddhists on one hand, and the emerging line of thought among Secular Buddhists on the other.
Traditional Buddhists believe that rebirth and karma manifest and emerge over many lifetimes, and they’re fighting to preserve traditional Dharma. Secular Buddhists usually don’t believe in rebirth or karma over many lifetimes, or they don’t consider them necessary to understand or conceptualize.
The secular thought tends to rely on strict logic, which would naturally ignore the notion of rebirth since it cannot be experienced or scientifically tested. Secular Buddhists often replace the concept of rebirth over lifetimes as rebirth from moment to moment.
Major concepts in Buddhism rely on rebirth over lifetimes. As a Traditional Buddhist, I have found that it’s necessary to understand rebirth from life to life, or realm to realm, in order to comprehend the Buddha’s teachings. Some of the major concepts in Buddhism rely on the notion of rebirth from life to life. Samsara, for instance, is defined in Wikipedia as:
“The beginning-less cycle of repeated birth, mundane existence, and dying again. Samsara is considered to be dukkha, unsatisfactory and painful, perpetuated by desire and avidya (ignorance), and the resulting karma.”
The Buddha also talked repetitively and in detail about the cosmology containing the different realms of existence. These include: the formless realms, which are reached through high meditative attainments, and the six realms of existence: Deva (heavenly realm), demigod (fighting god), Beastly Realm, Hungry Ghost Realm, Hell Realm, and Human Realm.
According to this teachings, depending on the karmic imprints you had accrued in previous lives, you would be reborn in a more or less desirable realm. Below is a Sutra where the Buddha describes how volitional actions result in karma which can decide a sentient being’s rebirth:
“Here, brahmin youth, a certain woman or man is a killer of living beings, cruel, bloody-handed, established in killing. Due to that kamma, on the breakup of the body after death, he or she arises in a state of woe, in a bad destination, in hell. If not reborn in hell, if he or she is reborn as a human-being he or she is short-lived. This, brahmin youth, is the result of killing living beings.
“However, brahmin youth, a certain woman or man abstains from killing living beings, having abandoned sticks and weapons, is scrupulous (lajjī) and dwells showing compassion to all living beings. Due to that kamma, on the breakup of the body after death, he or she arises in heaven, in a fortunate destination. If not reborn in heaven, if he or she is reborn as a human-being he or she is long-lived. This, brahmin youth, is the result of abstention from killing living beings.” – MN 135: Cūḷakammavibhaṅga Sutta, The Lesser Analysis of Action
Dependent arising, which includes the 12 links, is also a central concept in Buddhism. The 12 links include: ignorance, volitional action, consciousness, mind and matter, the aggregates, contact, sensation, craving, attachment, action, rebirth, decay, and death. It also relies on the notion of rebirth over many lifetimes. According to the Buddha, ignorance causes a mind to hold onto the concepts of self, craving for existence, and the resulting actions that stem from the concept of self and craving for pleasure and re-existence. Rebirth, death and decay are central to properly conceptualizing the 12 links.
A question I have for Secular Buddhists is why do they study the Four Noble Truths or follow the moral code laid out in the Eightfold Path if they do not believe in rebirth from life to life and realm to realm? If there is no existence after this life, and our actions—both helpful and harmful—are meaningless and hold no karmic weight, then wouldn’t life be better lived indulging in sense pleasures and enjoying ourselves as much as possible instead of studying and practicing the Dharma?
If the Buddha teaches selflessness, then what is the “I” that is reborn? The Buddha did not teach eternalism (a lasting permanent self), or nihilism (the concept of complete destruction or absence of consciousness). He does talk about the mind’s tendency towards ignorance, craving, and karmic imprints and tendencies.
These mental tendencies create a stream of consciousness which continues on after the death of the body. This stream of consciousness will continue to manifest within the different realms of Samsara until craving is extinguished and complete insight into the egoless nature of experience is realized, after which no more karma is created and the continuation of becoming ends.
The idea that after the death of the brain and body this stream of consciousness disappears is rebuked by the Buddha and now by scientists, doctors, and countless lay people who have had Near Death Experiences (NDEs) or other mystical experiences.
1. Erin Alexander, a neurosurgeon, wrote a book called “Proof of Heaven.” He wrote this after the experience he had in a comatose state:
“There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in a coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe… the same one described by countless subjects of near-death experiences and other mystical states… a world where we are much more than our brains and bodies, and where death is not the end of consciousness…”
2. Doctors at Southampton General Hospital studied 3,500 patients and concluded that cases of NDEs being reported involved, “Well-structured, lucid thought processes with reasoning and memory formation at a time when their brains were shown not to function.”
3. A 2001 study reported in the British medical journal The Lancet reported that the NDEs could not be explained by reactions to medications, a lack of oxygen to the brain, or fear of death. Perhaps most convincing is that patients are able to report events outside the room where their bodies were. For example, some claimed that their spirits went into the waiting room and heard conversations between family members, which they recalled accurately. Given the skeptics’ position on ESP (extrasensory perception), this should be impossible.
4. Mystics, shamans, saints of many religions have communicated with beings that have passed away from their physical bodies, including the Buddha himself, proving that consciousness continues after the death of the body.
In keeping with science, physics has shown that energy is never lost. It can only change form—the common law of the conservation of energy. Our spiritual and mental energies manifest in physical form through our volition and ultimately our bodies, but that does not mean that the mental energies cease to exist after the physical body manifesting these energies dies. This mental energy, and the physical actions which resulted from this mental energy while we exist in a body would be considered the energetic karmic stream which passes from life to life.
The body is a self-contained unit, which by definition, can only experience the five senses. Science has shown that what the human nervous system experiences is only a small fraction of the energies existing around us. In the book The Physics of God, they state that the human nervous system picks up on less than 1% of the energies around us.
Even some animals, as a result of their specific physiology, experience a completely different reality than humans and have more refined senses, which allow them to perceive things which are beyond human perception. Nectar-eating bird or insects, for instance, see petal patterns that we cannot. Infrared light, also invisible to humans, is detected by many snakes. This is a useful ability for hunting animals that are warmer than their environment and thus stand out as brighter in the infrared.
This suggests that there could easily be different energetic realms that the Buddha refers to in the cosmology that the human nervous system cannot perceive; this does not mean that they do not exist. Just like nectar-eating birds can perceive petal patterns that humans cannot, it is quite possible that there is plenty more that humans are missing.
That is why so many spiritual traditions promote the importance of meditation—which cuts us off from our senses—in order to gain access and insight into different energies that our nervous systems do not readily pick up on, especially when they are constantly bombarded and distracted by sense impressions. Below is a quote from the Buddha about rebirth in the different realms of existence:
“Bhikkhus, those who depart from the human realm, those will be reborn as humans or devas can be compared to the few grains of sand that I pickup on my fingernail. Those who are reborn in the lower four realms are exceedingly many, compared to the sand on this great Earth.
“From those who have expired their kamma in the lower four worlds, and are reborn in the human or deva worlds can be compared to the few grains of sand that I pickup on my fingernail. Those who are repeatedly reborn in the lower four realms are exceedingly many, compared to the sand on this great Earth (This is because one can accrue only bad kamma while they are in the lower four world).” – Nakhasikha Sutta
Faith and Stream Entry
The Buddha talks about faith in his teachings. He says that in order to become a stream-enterer—someone who is bound to reach enlightenment within seven lifetimes and will not fall to the lower realms—there must be some level of faith, or confidence, involved. Faith in the triple gems: The Buddha, The Dharma, and the Sangha.
My question for Secular Buddhists is whether they are taking Refuge in the Dharma when they reject the central concept of rebirth which many of the Buddha’s teachings conceptually rely upon? I consider accepting rebirth as part of Right View, which is the first stepping stone on the Noble Eightfold Path.
Alison Page lives outside of Boston, MA and is an artist and a Buddhist. She enjoys watercolor painting, writing, camping, the ocean, and being around compassionate and open-minded people. Feel free to visit her Etsy shop: WaterBrushPaint
Editor: John Lee Pendall
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