The impact of rejecting rebirth

23/11/2012

There are currently two prominent fractions in Buddhism when it comes to the question of life after death. One is leaving the answer open, like some of the teachers in the Dogen Zenji tradition (“just be prepared to do your zazen”), for others like the Tibetans it is fundamental for their concept of the reborn tulkus and dalai lamas. You will rarely find a Buddhist who definitely denies reincarnation. The reason mainly lies in the concept of a mind to which someone awakens which is not his but “universal”. Even those Buddhists who are aware of the Buddha’s (correcting) teachings of the atman (self!) as eternal and pure in sutras like the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana regularly miss that there is no “re” in dropping one’s ego, that the insight given in the nonsubstantiality and impermanence of the “I” that leads us through our earthly existence does not include any coming back of anything personal or individual, as all those features are “empty” (shunyata). What is eternal, naturally is free of impermanent features, so the nature of beings is that of an eternal Buddhanature that is not dependent on an individual biography and character flaws. The effects of deeds will not be directed on a certain rebirth that accumulates a personal, individual karma, but follow a rather chaotic way in accord with a thermodynamic law which states that energy within an isolated system is neither created nor destroyed. Thus it is impossible to know a deceased through certain tests and discern him as a former dalai lama, as it is only the energy that survives and the individual characteristics do not, otherwise their nature would not be of emptiness (in Buddhist terms it would actually be the unenlightened who returns and not the awakened one …).

Of course this is not in line with the Pali Canon’s teachings of hells and animal realms in which one could fall when doing, speaking or even thinking wrong. One might cynically answer that those teachings were given to a rather dumb audience, as traditional Buddhists believe it is important to whom the Buddha spoke (well if it was, you could forget about studying the Pali Canon at all because he surely never spoke to you). In this blog, the Pali Canon is considered to be a work of  literature (with facets of fiction and fairy tale) which one has to understand by historical-critical exegesis and metaphorically. Metaphorical understanding does not mean that you project something into the Pali Canon that cannot have been there, as recently a monk Sujato did when asking Buddhists to support same sex marriage but insisting that it would exclude minors – whereas in Shakyamuni’s lifetime the marriage of (what we consider today as) children was as normal as much later in the times of  a certain Mohammed and even during the Khmer empire in Angkor. Interpreting scriptures does not justify enforcing modern views in an historical incorrect way. If you stick to a literal understanding and want to transmit it over the course of time, contradictions like the one above are common. Shakyamuni has just not spoken of many topics that dominate discussions today, be it sexual abuse, the internet, stem cell research or organ donation. The answer has to be given by your “own” freed mind, not by quoting out-of-date data. A Buddha’s achievement lies in providing a way of detachment from greed, hate and illusions, i.e. from suffering. This way means awakening to a higher wisdom, in the detection of a universal mind. Anything that a historical Shakyamuni said in terms of marriage (condemning adultery which for not just a few people is the beginning of relief), eating (snakes are not a common dish in Europe), sleeping (on the ground is practiced until today widely in Asia, although the same people who seem to follow a precept there do not hesitate to outsmart customers the other day in their market booths) , ordination (not allowed for effeminate homosexuals, the Pandika) etc. are limited views developed at a certain place in a certain time.

Linking an old understanding with a modern topic: If you want to know where the ethical dilemma of an attachment to reincarnation lies, just ask a Buddhist if he/she is an organ donator. You will be surprised to see how many Buddhists do not accept brain death as the end of their conscious life, as there may be a subtle consciousness living on that is able to somehow feel and suffer wherefore no organs should be taken. Once again, those adepts mix up the empty, non-substantial features of their person that they somehow secretly just value too much and wish to survive instead of “giving up” to the universal mind that knows no suffering.

One argument given by religious people helps manifesting the real power of zen ethics (here I have to add that a lot of prominent “masters” believed in reincarnation – but they were all linked to institutionalized Buddhism, wearing robes and ranks). It is the conviction that in a limited life without any afterlife, justice (as implied in rebirth according to karma or Last Judgment) would not be done and chaos and immorality would rule the world. Not only does this view contradict scientific findings of an instinctive moral, it also reveals a moral insecurity of those religious people – they simply do not trust their own instincts and ask for an artificial code to show them the way. Actually, they project from themselves onto others. The history of our world religions, all equipped with a much similar set of ethical rules, discloses how wrong they are. There is no doubt that artificial commandments have not made mankind any better, on the contrary. To me it seems that they help to disturb people’s minds, just look at the hypocritical justifications of violence by rabbis and ulamas nowadays. The people who cannot trust their moral instincts are those you cannot trust. Remember this when you are in doubt next time, and see if I’m right. Of course, this is just another rule, so beware of exceptions.

It is crucial to understand that “justice” is not done by nature itself and men have to fight for it. It cannot be delayed, the consolation that people look for in a life after death is the hope of the helpless. The crooks of our world, when you ask them, will either not believe in a judgment after life or, being part of institutionalized and classic religion, trust in the forgiveness of a god. So rejecting rebirth (resurrection etc.) does not only root a person in its natural moral abilities (without any intellectual superstructure), it also requires full responsibility, e.g. for bringing people to justice as well as making one’s remains available to those in need. No one who believes he has “dropped body-and-mind” (a popular saying in the Dogen tradition) and cannot be an organ donator has dropped anything than a clear mind.

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