Karma, “rebirth”, the Buddha, and God enough for now

Perhaps it is better to concentrate on appreciating ordinary wonders, and each other, than dwelling too much on unanswerable questions

I have been reading an article in The Guardian, The new Buddhist atheism, by Mark Vernon, discussing the publication of a new book, Confession of a Buddhist atheist, by Buddhist practitioner and scholar Stephen Batchelor.

I was immediately struck by reading:

Reincarnation and karma are rejected [by Batchelor] as Indian accretions: his study of the historical Siddhartha Gautama – one element in the new book – suggests the Buddha himself was probably indifferent to these doctrines.

To be honest, my first reaction was, “how can one extract reincarnation and karma from Buddhism, these concepts are absolutely intrinsic to the philosophy?”

I should note that one understanding of “karma” (originally, Sanskrit for “action”) is as simple as “cause and effect” as experienced by living beings, and so it is not necessarily a religious doctrine at all: it is no more more mysterious than the notion that being rude to someone might lead to them being rude back to you.

A deeper understanding of reincarnation

As for reincarnation: well, a crude understanding of reincarnation is the notion that we have a soul that somehow passes from our body into another one when we die. Much Buddhist philosophy considers this notion to be every bit as simplistic as it will probably sound to many people. In fact, much Buddhist philosophy completely denies the existence of a soul that is somehow separate to our bodies, as it denies the notion that our personality may somehow survive our bodies. (Which is not to say that nothing survives.)

The comment thread on the Guardian article is very rich, and one, from a commenter calling him or herself vakibs, offers a far more nuanced understanding of the concept of reincarnation, one which I cannot possibly surpass. Someone earlier in the comments has posed the question:

Without the concept of a soul, what on earth is reincarnation?

And vakibs answers:

Actually, there is no concept of a soul in any of the Indian religions. But invariably, they all believe in rebirth. The reason is as follows.


(1) you want to have a universe governed by cause and effect and
(2) the very innate feelings and workings of your mind are to be held not distinct from, but very much part of the universe,

then they too should have a cause and they too should leave an effect.

Why exactly does a particular whimsical thought germinate in your mind? Why exactly do you decide to take a particular whimsical turn in your life, and then suffer a particular consequence? If you want to be absolutely deterministic about everything in the universe (including your own conscious experience), you cannot but believe in rebirth.

What Buddha says is that the instant of physical death of body is no different from any other instant in life. He says your image self constantly dies and takes rebirth every single instant. The says vehemently that the idea of a consistent self is an illusion. Nevertheless, the consequences of the actions you’ve done a few seconds ago will affect the you that shall be born a few seconds later. The very same thing is true for the physical moment of death of your body.

Other Hindu religions don’t adhere to Buddha’s concept of anattā. They argue that the consistent self over time is not an illusion, but a reality. That is, they say there is indeed a thread of you that is preserved over time. But the catch is that this you that is preserved (known as ātma) is not the same as your self-image (known as ahamkāra) which is the equivalent of soul. Various Hindu religions differ on what this ātma has to do with the rest of the universe. But the easiest thing to grasp (at least to me) is the philosophy of advaita, which says that the ātma is nothing but the universe in its entirety. In other words, that you which is preserved over various instants is nothing but the very thread of time which connects the universe.

Just like a ripple on the surface of water which oscillates particles up and down as it moves forward, this thread of time moves various mental images, both within the lifetime of an individual and later. Again, there is absolutely no distinction between the physical moment of death and any other instant in the life of an individual. Except that during life, one also keeps a book of memories in one’s head that reinforces the illusory sense of self (ahamkāra).

Is there a God? Is the question really so important?

I have a few friends who have been terribly caught up in the Dawkins-Hitchens-led culture war around God and atheism, arguing for atheism. I also know many Buddhists who consider themselves atheists.

Anyway, another astute commenter on this thread, savvymum, points out that in much tradition, the Buddha considered the question of whether or not there is a God to be rather pointless:

The Buddha’s answer was that we will never know — that in principle it was impossible to know for sure, and therefore speculation on this was idle. He then went on to explain that what really mattered was here and now, and compassion here and now. [my emphasis]

There were other questions the Buddha refused to answer as well, and one had to do with reincarnation. So it seems there is a reasonable basis for Batchelor’s argument that karma and reincarnation are “accretions” to Buddhism.

Later in the comments, there is an interesting description by someone else, of how he came to have faith in God.

Well, I moved from atheism to Catholicism firstly by coming to a realisation of the emptiness of atheism through a period of study and searching, Buddhism, Vedanta, Hinduism, Quakerism and then an encounter with God or glimpse of the Kingdom if you prefer. The crucial bit was the last one of course which was competely out of my power and which the previous searching may have helped me put into context but did nothing to bring about. After the encounter and the relationship that followed from it my course was set…

Is believing in God like being able to see red?

I can’t help but wonder at this stage, whether or not a belief in God in a sense has more to do with who we are than with who or what God is. Perhaps the nature of our senses determines our experience of the world. If we are colour-blind, we cannot see red. If we believe that red exists, it is because we choose to believe others who can see it.

The evolutionary psychologist Julian Jaynes famously argued that this is the case.

Jaynes asserts that consciousness did not arise far back in human evolution but is a learned process based on metaphorical language. Prior to the development of consciousness, Jaynes argues humans operated under a previous mentality he called the bicameral (‘two-chambered’) mind. In the place of an internal dialogue, bicameral people experienced auditory hallucinations directing their actions, similar to the command hallucinations experienced by people with schizophrenia today. These hallucinations were interpreted as the voices of chiefs, rulers, or the gods.

As human minds have evolved and changed, so, Jaynes argued, we have become less prone to having experiences of “God” or “gods”.

I should emphasize that I am not suggesting that those who believe in God are somehow “less evolved”, which would be to indulge the fallacy that evolutionary change somehow automatically moves living beings from being “inferior” to being “superior”.

God enough for now?

In the end (of this somewhat rambling post), I rather like Ed Halliwell’s take on the whole question, recounted in an older Guardian article, The magic of ordinary experience.

In the heat of the atheist/theist debate, we seem to have forgotten how to look – to be amazed that things are, rather than arguing about what caused them to be. Adopting a non-theistic stance could therefore be a starting point for investigating and appreciating the world, which might be a much more rewarding activity than attempting to explain it.

So for 2009, perhaps we could resolve to conserve the energy previously spent on chasing round in conceptual circles trying to prove or disprove the existence of a divinity, and use it instead to go for slow walks in the park, in which we really take the time to look at and breathe in the majesty of the trees, the birds, the sky and the grass. Isn’t that God enough for now?

About David

I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.
This entry was posted in Philosophy and religion and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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