Friday, 10 October 2014

The Belief in Rebirth and the Gospel of Gautama Buddha

T.A.P Aryaratne

When we speak of Buddhism we mean the doctrine set forth in a certain collec­tion of compositions, chiefly discourses, orally transmitted over a period of some five centuries before the Christian era began, and committed to writing towards the close of that period. From this fact we cannot justly conclude that these documents are totally unreliable as a guide to the teaching of the Buddha; but to assume the opposite, namely that they constitute a completely or even largely accurate record of the Buddha’s doctrine, would be to discount the propensity of chroniclers of the an­cient world to take liberties with facts and events to enlarge, embellish, and adorn them. If, in addition, we have reason to believe that the various composers of the discourses had sectarian interests, or had their special causes to plead, we cannot reasonably expect from them an objective record of facts. And we do certainly know that the authors of the discourses, the Buddhist monks, belonged to an order that was badly split by dissensions which began in the very lifetime of its founder.

In this connection, what Dr. Edward Consze says, in a book published just four years ago, is very pertinent. He says: “The history of Buddha’s thought might be expected to begin with an account of the teaching of the Buddha himself or at least the beliefs current in the most ancient community. The nature of our literary docu­ments makes such an attempt fruitless and impossible.” Thus according to Dr. Consze not only the Buddha’s actual teaching but even the beliefs commonly held by the earliest Buddhist community are impossible to ascertain. I would not go all the way with Dr. Consze. I would not say it is altogether impossible to get a fairly clear notion of what the Buddha taught; but I would say that to do so demands a readiness to accept what investigation reveals, no matter how startling the revelation may be.

Before we go into the question of the authenticity of the texts, it is perhaps pertinent to ask why this question of authenticity should arise at all. What if the ancient authors of the canonical documents had in fact made a scrupulous effort to hand down to prosperity the genuine word of the Master? It would not be difficult to entertain that possibility if only the documents disclosed a consistent system and a credible narrative. But to our disappointment where we expect to find consistency we only find contradiction. We are presented with the startlingly original philosophy of impermanence along with the primitive Indian doctrine of rebirth and as part and parcel of it; we find the Buddha, whom we have pictured in our minds as a soul of humility, presented in many places as one given to vainglorious talk, to bragging about his wisdom; we find arahats, of whom we do not find a single nowadays, scat­tered far and wide in their hundreds in the Thatagata’s time; we find the arahat shown as being capable of miracles and marvels that would put to shame the miracles of the New Testament (he can multiply his human form and appear as many persons: he can become invisible at will; and he can go right through a wall or a mountain, crash through to the bowels of the earth, walk on water without sinking, fly through the air, touch and stroke the sun, the moon and the stars, creep through key holes, etc); we find the Buddha and the arahats shown as making flying trips to one or other of the heavens to hold converse with the gods and other exalted beings who inhabit them and we read of such monstrosities as the cutting of their own throats by arahats for fear of falling from the arahat state! There is also, of course, the other side of the coin; the Buddha is shown as noble and dignified in conversation, as denouncing miracles and marvels, as instructing his hearers again and again in the sublimely beautiful Brahmaviharas and the Eightfold Path of deliverance.

But which of these is the true picture? The meditations on abounding loving kindness and the path to the passionless state or the descriptions of the alleged super­normal powers of those who have reached that state; the non-self regarding principle of impermanence and soullessness or self-emphasizing doctrine of rebirth? A satis­factory answer to these questions can, I think, be found if we can first find an answer to the larger question, the pursuit of which Dr. Conze characterised as “fruitless and impossible” namely the question, “What did the Buddha teach?”

At the outset of this investigation I would make one assumption, namely that Siddatta Gouthama was an original philosopher and not a reformer or a reshaper of existing systems. The average Hindu, of whom Radhakrishnan is the typical representative, believes that the Buddha was a reformer of Hindu ideas. I think the evi­dence suggests that the Buddha was nothing if not original. There is no gainsaying that he was the greatest original thinker India ever produced. And if it is accepted that the Buddha taught an original philosophy which broke away radically from ex­isting traditions, then by eliminating from the texts all the elements of religion and philosophy that were current in India at the time the Buddha began his ministry, we can arrive at reasonably accurate idea of what his teaching was.

It is easy enough, at least for educated Buddhists, to discard a good deal of the supernatural elements in the Tripitaka, though some may be loath to surrender the belief in the miraculous powers of the arahat. But no matter how intelligent educated a Buddhist may be, he will cling to the rebirth doctrine as though it were the very life­blood of the Buddha Dhamma. And the reason for this passionate attachment to the belief in rebirth is not far to seek. The doctrine responds to man’s deepest craving - the craving for more life. Man has a vital stake in the doctrine, and it is easy to understand why all religions are founded on the craving for more life. Christianity is founded on the rock of personal immortality, and popular Buddhism founded on the rebirth doctrine. If after this life man cannot hope to live on in heaven, he must at least have another spell in this world, or in any world whatever; life anywhere is preferable to the finality of death and extinction.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the rebirth doctrine, which was deeply embedded in the Indian consciousness should have crept into the Buddhist Cannon and entrenched itself there after the Buddha’s death. Without it Buddhism had no chance of finding a foothold in India as a religion; the monks of the Buddhist Order, the Sangha knew this; and it is they who fixed the Canon as we know it. The monks knew also, no doubt, from the fact that the common man was not capable of grasping the revolutionary concept of impermanence of Anicca and even more from his natural horror of a teaching that denies the reality of his self, that there was no hope of survival for their Order amidst the other religious movements which catered for man’s lust for more life. So they set about purposefully garnishing the absolutely original teaching of the Buddha with elements of popular appeal - the rebirth dogma, the popular gods, the miraculous powers of the arahat, etc.

It would be interesting to compare the popular elements of the Jain religion with those of Buddhism. In both we have the Karma - and - rebirth doctrine; in both it is taught that enlightened ones appear in this world from time to time - from eternity until, eternity; in both there are exactly 24 previous enlightened ones named (the Jain list starts with Vrasabha and the Buddhist with Dipankara); both systems speak of the omniscience of the founder; both speak of deliverance from Samsara and attainment of Nirvana; and both were characterised by mendicant orders. And when we remember that the Jain system was first in the field, it becomes obvious which system borrowed from which. To say that popular Buddhism borrowed from Jainism, how­ever, does not mean that the Buddha was a borrower. There are two Buddhisms - the Buddhism of the monks, which is popular Buddhism, and the Buddhism of the Bud­dha- the esoteric original Buddhism. It is the Buddhism of the monks that borrowed the religious trappings of other faiths in India. And When these borrowings are re­moved from the system that has come to be known as Buddhism, the residue is the pure doctrine of the Buddha, which is entirely original; and this consists of the Anicca - Anatta doctrine with -its corollary, imperfection or ill or suffering and path out of his oppressive sense of suffering, which is also the middle path - the path that avoids the extremes of self-torture and of self-gratification.

Almost all the writers on Buddhism father on the Buddha all the ideas found in the Canon, and thus implicate him in the naive beliefs of his philosophical forbears and of his contemporaries. They forget one of the utterances frequently attributed to him that his doctrine was unheard of before, difficult to perceive, hard to understand, not grasped by ordinary minds. In the Ariyapariyesana Sutta and elsewhere, it is said that the Buddha did not at first want to teach this “toilsome, abstruse, deep, difficult, subtle doctrine” But out of compassion for humanity he eventually taught it. Now what is so hard to understand, subtle, and abstruse in the teaching that the individual has a series of lives and what he sows in one he reaps in another? The dogma is not only extremely simple to grasp but it is one that the average man avidly and fondly embraces; no mental operations are involved in apprehending it; and far from being unheard of, it was a very commonplace doctrine. What was unheard of before, what was deep, what was difficult to be understood by ordinary minds, was the denial of rebirth, the doctrine of Anatta, and the broader concept of Anicca. There cannot be the slightest doubt that this is the only meaning of the words so definitely attributed to the Buddha in the Canon.

Let us look more closely at the question of what is not original in Buddhism; what it shares, for example with the Jain system. The Jains taught that existence is suffering, that this suffering is due to karma in pervious births, that rebirth will persist so long as karma persists, that the way to end rebirth is by destroying past karma, that past karma can be destroyed by austerities, and that with the destruction of past karma by austerities rebirth is ended and the soul at the death of the body attains nirvana. The Jains also held that these truths were taught by enlightened beings, called Thirthakaras, who appeared at different epochs; and, as we saw, they named 24 of them. Now all these features are found in Buddhism, except for the following variations. The Buddhist system admitted the problem of suffering as humanity’s major problem, not as a truth that had to be discovered but as an obvious phenom­enon that cannot escape notice; and it explained that suffering was not due to past karma, as the Jains taught, but to the very nature of sentient life, which is short lived and necessarily therefore imperfect, and which is conscious of its imperfection (the man who is bountifully endowed with wealth and health will still think of the ap­proaching end of his good life and groan). And the way to escape from suffering that the Buddha taught was - a radical departure from the extreme path of austerities or self-mortification of the Jains; namely, the middle path of moderation, and constant meditation on the vanity of belief in an enduring self. When one unswervingly ob­serves the eightfold path of unselfish living, which includes the brahmaviharas or meditations concerned with identifying oneself with the whole of humanity or, more correctly, with the whole of sentient life, in this life itself (diththe va dhamme) one achieves nibbana or equanimity or deliverance from suffering; and release from suf­fering is identical with release from the sense of a separate self.

The problem facing the Jains and the Buddha was the same, the problem of suffering. In determining the causes and prescribing the cure for suffering, the Bud­dha differed fundamentally from the Jains; the physician was not content with publicizing his remedy; he also denounced the quacks, their diagnosis, and the rem­edy they prescribed. Again and again in the Nikayas, we find the Buddha denouncing the practices and the beliefs of the Jains or Niganthas, as they were called. In the Devadha Sutta of the Majjhima Nikayas, for example, the Buddha takes up the karma­and - Rebirth doctrine, which was a fundamental article of faith with the Jains, analyses it, and exposes it as hollow and false. At this point, I should like to digress a little and refer to a method characteristic of the Buddha when dealing with irrational beliefs. It is the method of one who accepts as true only those doctrines, the truth of which can be observed, or demonstrated, or directly inferred. In the famous Tevijja Sutta a young Brahmin asks him how he should affect union with Brahma, the highest God; and the Buddha’s answer is: How do you know that Brahma exists? Have you seen him face to face? And he proceeds to show that the only way Brahma should be understood is in impersonal sense, as man’s highest aspiration, and the way to union with Brahma is by practising universal love, which is identical with self-forgetful meditation.

It is with the same directness, amounting almost to bluntness, that the Buddha deals with the Iains’s concept of Karma and Rebirth. Addressing the Jains, he says: “You Niganthas believe that your sufferings are due to Karma coming over from past births. How do you know you existed in the past and produced such-and-such karma?” He ridicules the whole idea of previous births, and proceeds to show that cause and effect or Karma is an observable and demonstrable process; and he gives examples. A man is struck by a poisoned arrow, and he feels acute pain and experiences suffering; a surgeon is summoned and surgeon extracts the dart, and the extraction causes the wounded man intense suffering; the surgeon applies medicaments on the wound, and the man again suffers, acutely; eventually the treatment heals the wound, and the man suffers no more, and is free to go about his normal business.

Here a particular series of the occurrence of pain and suffering is analyzed and is shown to be due to observable cause, and the cessation of suffering, too, shown due to an observable cause. The question as to why that particular man and none other was struck by the dart is not raised because not relevant to the explanation of the man’s suffering; but I think it is implied that such a question leads one to postulate mystical, indemonstrable and irrational causes when the real cause stares in the face. Another example cited is that of a man who falls passionately in love with a woman: he sees this woman flirting with another man, enjoying his talk and his company and he feels the pangs of jealousy and suffers acute mental agony; then at a certain stage he de­cides to get out of his infatuation, and casts out of his mind all thoughts concerning the woman, and he suffers no more. Here again a particular effect is shown to have an observable cause. It is not necessary to postulate a cause beyond one’s birth to account for one’s sufferings; nor is a future birth necessary to overcome one’s present suffer­ing. In this example, it was utterly unnecessary to account for the lover’s sufferings by the unverifiable theory that in the past birth he committed the crime of weaning the affections of a woman from her rightful lover; the cause and the cure are both to be found in this life; they are symptoms and features common to human instincts anywhere. The same theme, with variations is the subject matter of the Cula-dukka­kkhanda Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya.

That the denial of rebirth by the Buddha was the unique and revolutionary fea­ture of the philosophical teaching in India of the 6th century B.C. is evident from a number of crucial passages in the texts in which the view is expressed in a variety of ways. Anicca or the principle of impermanence was emphasized in the first sermon itself. If this sermon is thoughtfully studied it will be seen that although it has not been seriously tampered with, the nooks have not been altogether blind to the possible danger of leaving it entirely unedited. It will be observed that when the discourse was ended the immediate reaction of Kondanna, one of the five original disciples was to exclaim “whatever by nature has a beginning has also by nature an end” and the Buddha’s reply to Kondanna’s exclamation was in turn to exclaim that Kondanna had understood, that is, grasped the meaning of the discourse. Therefore, we may safely infer that the starting point of the first discourse was Anicca, though the dukka phenomenon resulting from Anicca is elaborately described. We can reasonably pre­sume that at the out set the Buddha wanted his hearers to know that whatever begins must come to an end: for example a living being that begin existence at birth must finish it at death. He reinforced this idea in the next sermon by clearly demonstrating the absence of an enduring soul in man, which alone can be supposed to supply a basis for rebirth. And, logically, in the final message to his followers he emphasized, the same basic principle. “Perishable, are compounded things”, and compounded things have a beginning or organisation.

This is the vital principle that the Buddha laid his finger on: what is caused to come into being as an entity must in due course disrupt and perish. And cause is what we normally understand by the term - a real process that can be observed or directly apprehended or directly inferred: it just cannot be something that can only be imag­ined or must be taken on trust and is unverifiable. The Buddha knew that the belief in rebirth was widespread in his time; and he concentrated his logic right from the start on demolishing the mystical, superstitious, and unscientific nature of that belief.

It may be argued that by the statements “whatever has a beginning has also an end”, and “All samskaras are perishable” the Buddha meant that each span of life in the infinite samsaric series is of limited duration. But why should a world teacher repeatedly emphasize what is obvious to any simpleton, that every creature born must also die? And, again, it may be argued - and it has been - that the Anicca merely means that every thing including human beings change every moment, that the child is not the same as the youth or the youth the same as the old man. But this, too, is obvious to any average intelligence: Nothing is added to existing knowledge by em­phasizing the truism that everything changing that nothing is the same for long. The statement of the Buddha makes sense only when it is understood as a denial of the continuity of the individual beyond death or the disruption of the khandas.

And what of Anatta? Was the word coined merely to distinguish it from the Hindu Atman which wanders in Samsara unchanged and intact, did Anatta merely emphasize as popular Buddhism seems to assume, that the wandering Atman or Atta is changing all the time? Is not Anatta on the contrary the very negation of Atta, the denial of the reality of a wandering element changing or unchanged, from birth to birth? It certainly is what it means - it is the opposite of Atta, not a modified Atta or Atman, Anatta is implied in Anicca, in the statement that whatever by nature has a beginning has also an end. Samsara the stream of births by definition has no begin­ning and, logically, can have no end. Kondanna’s understanding of the first sermon was hailed by the Buddha, and since the same idea was repeated by him in many discourses and just before his death, it must be presumed to be the basis of his teach­ing; and eternal Samsara, which contradicts that teaching and which was taught by others before him, must be ruled out as having no part or lot with the Dhamma.

Let us for a moment assume that the Buddha did teach karma and rebirth, and try to work out the implications of the doctrine and see whether they square with his reputation for unsurpassed insight and intelligence.

For deeds to produce karmic effects, in the shape of rewards or punishments in this or a future life, it is said that they should be consciously and intentionally done. It is asserted that a man’s conscious and deliberate actions have reactions in some mysterious manner even after death, and that he must be reborn in order to reap the results of at least some of those actions. The mechanism of this scheme of retribution is not explained at all, but let that pass for the moment. Buddhists maintain that the Buddha expressly taught that good actions win reward or merit in this life or in a future life and that evil actions are duly followed by punishments in the course of repeated lives. Now what are good and evil actions? What are the norms for judging actions to be good or evil? Evidently deeds are classified good or bad according to conventional standards of civilized society. We are not told what happens when a cannibal or a head-hunter kills according to the decrees of tribal law. The savage kills from what he believes to be his duty; and his purpose therefore is highly moral. What are the karmic effects of such acts which are evil and criminal by our standards but correct according to the primitive conception of right action? What are the karmic effects of animal sacrifice performed in primitive societies from high religious mo­tives? It has been estimated that some 500,000 years ago there were no human beings on this planet, evolution had not proceeded to the point of producing man. How did Karma work for the inconceivable variety of animals, birds, insects and reptiles that roamed the earth in the pre-human age? The explanation of popular Buddhism might be that these animals were human beings who had previously existed in other planets, and other worlds and were, as animals in this world, living out the karmic effects of evil deeds in their earlier human life. This of course suggests that a being must first be born in human form, since the acts of animals are not motivated or deliberate and could not produce karma, whether good or bad. Those who would not make the karma theory an integral part of the Buddha’s teaching probably did not bargain for his impasse!

It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the real Buddha-vachana has got to be methodically extracted from the vast number of documents which constitute the canon; and in this process many portions of the canon, including whole Suttas have to be eliminated as being inconsistent with the basic doctrine. Even in the very earliest times there could be no agreement among Buddhist as to what the Master’s teaching was. There were even in those early days, about the second century after the Buddha’s death, as many as 18 different sects, and of the disputes that arose within the Bud­dhist community, this question of the surviving individual took first place. It is in fact, the first subject discussed in the kathavaththu, which is an account of the various disputes current in the time of Asoka. The question of the permanence of the indi­vidual self, or the pudgalavada, as the subject came to be known, was nothing but a symptom of the confusion created by the very earliest monks, who would not make up their minds to break with the Athma or Atta tradition therefore sought to effect a compromise between the Anatta and Atta.

A favourite method adopted by the authors of the documents in grafting the rebirth doctrine on the Dhamma, was to tack on to a Sutta on a definite subject some quite irrelevant passange bearing on the rebirth theme and in conflict with the general tenor of the discourse. Such a stock passage is the description of the monk who attains arahathood, going through the various jhanas or trances, in the course of which he recalls his past lives and acquires miraculous powers. The Devadha Sutta (already quoted) and others are disfigured and sometimes rendered meaningless by such passages.

I now come to a more sophisticated explanation of Karma, the alleged motive force of the wheel of rebirth. Karma is explained as the process or mechanism of natural justice in the universe. This is a dogmatic assertion without a shred of evi­dence to support it.  How do we know that the processes of nature are just? All that we know is that there are uniformities in nature; that there is system in the structure and operations of the physical world: for the rest nature is blind, wasteful, red in tooth and claw, utterly amoral. Natural justice indeed! What natural justice could there be in a world where animal life on land and sea is organised on the principle that the bigger must swallow the smaller in order to exist; where the reason for the existence of small animal species is to serve as food for the bigger; where the mouse is the foreordained prey of the cat, and the fly of the spider. Those who talk of karmic or natural justice talk only in human terms - terms agreeable to the mind of civilized man. All moral values are man-made. Justice is a value-concept born under the stress of the human situation and man tends to assume that his values are the highest and the most appropriate to the universe! The idea of natural justice or karmic justice is simply the desire to extend a human value-idea to the universe of eternal time and boundless space. It is of the same order as the concept of an almighty personal god. Both are arbitrary human concepts based on faith. The Buddha had no use for either.

We can legitimately or rationally explain only what falls within the limits of a span of human life, the limits being birth on the one hand and death on the other. Talk concerning possibilities beyond these two limits is idle talk. Nagasena in the Milinda Panna, trying to explain rebirth of beings changed by Karma can only de­vise, examples like milk changing into curd, one flame being lit from another, man­goes being produced from previously planted mangoes - all observable physical phe­nomena which do not reach out to the world of the seen and the unknown. You cannot prove the unseen or the mystical or the imaginary by the analogy of what is actual or real and observable.
The rebirth idea arose among primitive people and remained with them as an article of faith, and certain modern communities hold to the belief purely as a matter of faith and tradition, with no intelligent or demonstrable method of making it acceptable to the rational mind. Hence the feverish enthusiasm with which Hindus and Buddhists hail any person who claims to recall a previous birth. None of these cases of claimed recollection have been investigated under fully scientific condition, though a great many have received a quasi-scientific investigation, mostly by interested parties. When eventually such cases come to be investigated by genuine scientific methods of control, I have no doubt, that they will all turn out to be carefully engineered frauds, not unlike the hoaxes perpetrated in the sphere of spiritualism by mediums who have claimed to be able to contact spirits of dead people and who have successfully hoodwinked professors of psychology for years. Spiritualistic mediums rely heavily on human gullibility, particularly on the gullibility and sometimes the complicity of investigators. Lazlo-Lazlo, the Hungarian medium, soon after his exposure confessed to Cornelius Tabori the journalist, that he had been able to carry on his sham demonstration chiefly owing to the gullibility of the investigating university professors who attended his seances!

This is the condensed text of a lecture delivered under the auspices of the Rationalist Association of Ceylon in 1966, later published in The Ceylon Rationalist Ambassador brought out by Abraham T Kovoor. This paper is mainly concerned with Pali Buddhism. 

Courtesy: Soul, Spirit, Rebirth and Posession: Author & Editor: Abraham T Kovoor [Publisher: B Premanand, Indian CSICOP, Podanur, 2009]


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