Saturday, October 9, 2010

Thoughts about rebirth

The Quick and the DeadThe Quick and the Dead, Helsinki, 2010

I've heard a few introductory lectures about Buddhism. One question that invariably comes up is something along the lines of "Uh, so, you guys believe in reincarnation, then?"

Buddhism has a reputation for being a rational religion—systematic, pragmatic, science-friendly, non-supernaturalistic, even intellectual. Perhaps for this reason, the concepts that appear, on the surface, to be supernaturalistic easily rise to the surface: karma and rebirth in particular.

Although I'm making some progress, I still don't quite get rebirth. However, over the past couple of years that I've done some serious thinking about Buddhism, I have been repeatedly struck by the way difficult and hard to digest concepts suddenly fall into place. Something that doesn't seem to make sense finds a context and clicks. It's there for a reason. Nowadays my default assumption about Buddhist stuff that doesn't appear to make sense is that I don't understand what it means, so I kick the can down the road a lot. I've been reading bits and pieces from Dōgen's Shōbōgenzō this way, for example—some bits are very easy to get to grips with; other bits don't make any sense at all, but might suddenly do so later.

Thanks to a bunch of stuff I've read on and off the Net, and especially to a few people kind enough to answer some of my questions,1 the fog has started to clear a bit, even if I still have some unresolved questions.

There are a whole bunch of different views, or metaphors, for rebirth that I've come across.

The naive view

Like most people, I started out with a naive view of rebirth. I assumed it meant simply a belief that when you die, your 'soul'—or some close equivalent—leaves your body and is reborn as something else, with the specifics being determined by your 'karma,' which I assumed meant a collection of merit points and demerit points, adding up to some kind of net positive or net negative. So if you did your best to live as a decent human being, you might be reborn as a monk; if you went around being a dick, you'd be reborn as a cockroach, and if you do a really good job of meditation, you might escape the whole thing into some blissful state called 'nirvana.' This always seemed a bit silly, much like any religious fairy-tale made up to make death a bit more palatable.2

Relatively quickly, I discovered that this isn't quite how Buddhists see things, although some flavors of Buddhists do come quite close to it. This leads to:

The Appropriating Consciousness view

When studying Vasubandhu, one of the founders of Yogācāra Buddhism, I came across another description and explanation of rebirth. This could be called the Appropriating Consciousness view. It's a great deal more refined and interesting than the naive view, and even if you don't quite swallow all of its implications, it's well worth studying.

In Vasubandhu's model, the personality consists of a bundle of interleaved streams of consciousness-moments called cittas. There's a large variety of different types of cittas, such as perceptions of sense-impressions, motivational dispositions, volitional actions, ideas of 'objects' and 'subjects' and so on and so forth. Each citta conditions the citta that immediately follows it. So, for example, a perception of pain could condition a motivational disposition to avoid the pain, which could condition a volitional action intended to stop the pain.

The interesting thing about volitional actions in Vasubandhu's model is that they also condition a specific type of citta, which he calls a "seed." This seed-citta is different from other cittas in that it cannot be directly apprehended; it stays somewhere in what Freud would have dubbed the 'subconscious.' However, in other ways seed-cittas behave just like other cittas: they only last an instant, and their only effect is to condition other cittas. Most of the time, seed-cittas condition other seed-cittas, still in the 'subconscious.' It is only when a seed-citta conditions a citta within the conscious part of the mind that you can become (indirectly) aware of their existence. For example, a memory might surface, or an aversion or attraction might arise due to something that happened a long time ago. One highly significant feature of this model is that memories and other 'latent' things in the mind aren't static and persistent; they're dynamic series of consciousness-moments, each similar but not identical to the preceding one. Thus we forget, have distorted memories, develop and alter habits, and so on.

Vasubandhu called the interleaved bundle of streams of seed-cittas the seed-consciousness, root-consciousness, or appropriating consciousness. He also made it very clear that this root-consciousness is nothing more than the collection of streams of seed-cittas, no different from other streams of cittas in any way other than by way of happening somewhere it's not possible to reach them with the conscious mind. No special substratum or substance is needed for them any more than for the cittas happening at the conscious level.

I really like this model. It describes what goes on in the mind in a very precise and useful way, accounting for all kinds of things like memories, forgetfulness, conditioned reactions, and so on and so forth. What's more, it very neatly accounts for karma. An unbeneficial action—one motivated by ill-will, greed, delusion, etc.—would deposit a seed-citta that would eventually mature into something nasty, whereas a beneficial action would do the opposite. It's also a highly parsimonious solution, because it only posits a few simple concepts that can be categorized into a manageable number of classes, and makes no major metaphysical assumptions.

Now, Vasubandhu also labeled this collection of seed-citta-streams the appropriating consciousness. This is because of his take on rebirth. He believed that when you die, this collection of seed-cittas will condition another birth, and the karmic process of seeds maturing and conditioning other seeds will continue in that life. So, it's not that this seed-consciousness is reborn as something; instead, it appropriates a suitable vessel to continue evolving. However, the seed-consciousness does not constitute a 'self' any more than any other stream of cittas, because that's all it is—a bundle of streams of consciousness-moments. His description of death is simply 'a special transformation in the consciousness-series' and 'a cessation not through contemplation,' no different in principle from forgetting something or falling asleep—also 'cessations not through contemplation'—or falling in love, becoming enlightened, or experiencing intense pain after hitting your thumb with a hammer—also 'special transformations in the consciousness-series.'

I understand the Tibetan Buddhist view of rebirth is somewhat similar to this; they're certainly pretty big on Vasubandhu. It's pretty easy to plug in the concept of 'bardo'—this would be the state of the seed-consciousness after the death of one body and before it has appropriated another.

I have some problems with this second part of Vasubandhu's model. I can see how cittas condition other cittas within an 'individual personality.' I can also see how cittas in one 'individual personality' condition cittas in another 'individual personality'—for example, if you walk into a room where someone is feeling surly, some of that surliness will rub off on you, even if the surly individual doesn't do anything particularly dramatic. However, I do not see how one particular bundle of seed-citta-streams could condition one particular rebirth. That would require positing a bunch of metaphysical unknowables again—namely, some mechanism by which the bundle could maintain its coherence through the death of the 'individual personality' hosting these streams.

The Thermodynamic View

The third model of rebirth that I've come across could be dubbed the Thermodynamic View. While I've had it explained to me in a number of different ways and metaphors, from billiard balls to sacks of rice passed from one person to another, Vasubandhu's model (minus the second part) will do just fine.

In this model, we have intentional actions conditioning consciousness-moments and karmic seeds just like per Vasubandhu. The change of perspective is that the process of conditioning itself is seen as being the same thing as rebirth. We're reborn every instant, as each flickering consciousness-moment conditions the next, similar but not identical to the previous one.

Moreover, we have intentional actions conditioning rebirths in other people, also constantly and at every instant. What I say or do affects you and conditions your rebirth in the instant after it registers with you. If I say something unkind to you, you might get hurt or angry; that will manifest in your actions, and spread the ripples of karma—intention, action, and consequence—ever further. Samsara is a system where this continuously created and maturing karma bounces around and changes form, just like energy in a closed system can neither be created nor destroyed, but only transformed.

This description is closest to my current take on the matter. Birth and death are still 'special transformations in the consciousness-series,' no less, no more. Rebirth is the continuous process of recreating the self moment to moment. Karma is the continuous process of intentional action conditioning this recreation of the self, in the one who acts and the ones who are affected by the consequences of the action (i.e., ultimately everybody and everything).

There is nothing supernatural involved, just a radical view of what a 'personality' is, and the interconnectedness of everything and everyone. Anattā, anicca, and dukkha, all dancing together in the intricate steps of pratītya-samutpāda to the music of karma, on the great dance floor of saṃsāra.

The Problem of Past Lives

Buddhist literature contains a good deal of stuff about enlightened teachers recalling and describing their past lives. One of the siddhis—perfections—that intense meditational practice is said to produce is this ability. The Jātaka is a book in the Pāli Canon that contains stories presented as accounts of Siddhattha Gotama's past lives. Many Buddhists take these descriptions very seriously.

Vasubandhu's 'appropriating consciousness' model of rebirth can account for recollection of past lives: in it, death and appropriation of a new body are simply transformations in the consciousness-series, there is a transfer of karmic seeds from one life to another. There is nothing in principle to prevent a sufficiently accomplished yogin from attaining the ability to cause these seeds to resurface, and thereby recall 'his' past lives. From the point of view of textual orthodoxy, Vasubandhu's model is impeccable. Its main problem is related to information theory: we need some medium through which those coherent memories and karmic seeds are transferred from one life to another, which requires some metaphysical assumptions bordering on the supernatural, which I find difficult to swallow.

The 'thermodynamic model' doesn't have this problem. However, it can't explain 'past lives.' In it, actions, causes, and consequences bounce around samsara, but bundles of these chains are only temporarily coherent, and the death of an individual disrupts the coherence. Karma does keep on going on as actions condition rebirths. If I hurt your feelings today and immediately die, that won't stop the chain of causation started by my ill-willed action—my subsequent death could even aggravate the consequences, since we wouldn't have the opportunity to kiss and make up. However, it is not possible to say that 'that life' was a past life of 'this life,' except in the sense that, perhaps, every life was the past life of this life, and every life is also the future life of this life. Coherent structures such as memories and narratives don't stay together.

The only solutions to this problem that I can see are either to accept Vasubandhu's 'appropriating consciousness view' on faith with its metaphysical implications, or to reject a literal reading of those parts of the Buddhist canon that speak of recollections of past lives.

My Provisional View

I'm still working my way around this question (and many others). Rebirth is quite interesting in that it connects up a good many of the most central features in Buddhist teaching—karma, no-self, impermanence, suffering, samsara, interdependence. A lot of Buddhist philosophy just stops making sense if you reject the notion of rebirth outright, in any of its forms.

However, I can't see how the notion of past lives would be similarly central to it. In fact, if we accept the notion of anattā—no-self—the whole notion of a specific past life becomes problematic. Whose past life are we talking about anyway, which one, and why that one and not some other one? What's more, if memories and karmic conditioning consist of streams of mind-moments constantly conditioning each other below our level of awareness, perfect recall would become impossible by definition even in what's normally thought of as a single life, never even mind such drastic transformations in the consciousness-series as 'death' and 'birth.'

I still can't say I understand what's meant by rebirth. What has become clear, though, is that there's a broad range of views on the topic within Buddhism. There doesn't appear to be a particularly strong conformity around this topic even within particular Buddhist traditions; for example, I've come across Theravadins and Zennies who appear to have a very literal view of rebirth including the accounts of past lives, and other Theravadins and Zennies who appear to hold the 'thermodynamic view' of it, or something quite close to it in any case. Tibetan Buddhists appear to identify most closely with something like the 'appropriating consciousness' view; I believe this must have something to do with their institution of reborn tulkus, which doesn't really make much sense if you're not able to determine which particular life follows from which other particular life and don't have some explanation for this process.

One thing I have learned is that this is something of a contentious topic, which sometimes excites some strong feelings. I'm unfortunately nowhere near familiar enough with the relevant sources yet to be able to decide for myself what those sources actually mean to say. Given the diversity of views among people who are familiar with these sources, though, I think it's safe to say that there isn't a pat answer to be had there.

As far as I'm concerned, that's a very good thing indeed.


1Thanks, NellaLou!
2Les Thanatonautes by Bernard Werber is a pretty cool sort-of-sci-fi novel based on the conceit that this is how it works, and people find a way to explore the intermediate state between rebirths; this state is known as The Continent of the Dead. Well worth a read, if you read French—I don't think it's been translated to English.

Recommended reading

Bernard Werber: Les Thanatonautes
Vasubandhu: Karma-siddhi-prakaraṇa


  1. Lots of interesting stuff in here. I think your instinct to allow things to fall into place in their own time on this subject is a sound one. If one regards all this as a journey into learning what matters, rather than a bunch of questions that have to be answered, then it seems reasonable to suppose there will be places along it that don't yield up their full meaning by merely walking through them and taking a snapshot. They may need to be visited more than once, even lived in, or one may need to learn a new language or learn more about a previously unknown culture, to truly understand them. Or one simply may have to have new experiences somewhere else to look back and tell what those places really are. I think there's a often an alternation of epiphany and process involved when we try to grapple with the concepts of self, birth and death and come to some kind of peace with them, whatever framework we choose to employ.

    Thanks for all the definitions of terms, source links and clear explanations that help this piece along.

  2. Great pondering and presentations of different views here!

    This subject has often bothered my mind too, as rebirth is something very difficult to explain in an acceptable way, yet it is something you can't ignore if you take a close look at it, or rather at the concept of it.

    The prefix "re" in rebirth seems to imply that it is a birth which is happening again or after death. But quite clearly for anything to happen again or after something a past is required. In the everyday concept of one's life the past usually reaches one's first childhood memories and the assumed birth preceding them. The most common view in our society seems to be that even though the world has existed before my birth, I haven't. It follows that if your existence has started from your birth, you call it just birth and not rebirth. Then, if don't think you are going to be born again or continue living in any way after your death, you obviously must see your personal existence ending there.

    So, where are we? In exactly the same situation where we were before the birth: non-existence. And what happened in your previous non-existence? You were born. And of course when you are born from a place where there is nothing, especially no past, you don't call it a rebirth. This naturally leads us to the philosophical question about the reality of time, and that is an endless discussion.

    So what I'm trying to say with this some kind of logic is that birth and rebirth are not very much different from each other. And as interesting as explaining how rebirth can happen would be to explain how it couldn't happen.

  3. "A lot of Buddhist philosophy just stops making sense if you reject the notion of rebirth outright, in any of its forms."

    I agree.
    If one is committed to Buddhism, then, one should try to make sense of rebirth. The other option is to try and understand why one should be committed to something called "Buddhism".

    I see Buddhists hanging on to reincarnation much like progressive Christians want to hang on to "resurrection". Since "resurrection" is central to Christianity, and they are committed to Christianity, they have to make it work.

  4. You don't have to be committed to Buddhism in order to attempt to understand it. If you do want to attempt to understand it, it's lazy and counterproductive to throw out stuff you don't like or find hard to understand. From where I'm at, any system of thought or belief is best approached on its own terms.

  5. I don't think I am trying to promote laziness. Instead, I am pointing at a principle. An old out-of-date notion gets re-invented with new nuanced twists and definitions to preserve its felt necessity in the tradition.

  6. Surely you're not claiming a priori that a notion is old and out-of-date, before making your best effort at understanding what that notion even is? Because that would be lazy.

    Also, would you care to explain your use of the term "reincarnation?" Was that just a slip, or are you unaware of the difference between "rebirth" and "reincarnation?"

  7. Part I (rejected by blogspot for length):

    You are correct -- it was not an a prior judgment. Thanks for asking.

    Oh, exciting. It sounds like exactly one of those nuanced preservation moves coming up: No, I am not actually aware of people who use the terms differently, though I know many use them the same. Interestingly, I have a couple posts open right now that I shot over and read that are simultaneously exploring this issue.

    Bad Batchelor

    First is Dennis Hunter's Article over at Buddhist geeks on "The Problem with Stephen Batchelor...". Interestingly, several people have told me I should read Batchelor because I sound just like him -- at least I sound like someone who has thought things through even if many disagree with him. :-)

    Hunter tells us the Batchelor foolishly claims the Buddha did not teach rebirth and goes through "hermeneutical gymnastics" to prove it. My post on "Do you care what the Buddha Taught" is meant to show that I don't care what the Buddha Taught if it is wrong -- I have no problem doubting the Buddha [putting aside the accuracy of the sutras]. But I know you agree with that.

    Reading Hunter further, it seems I do agree with who he disparagingly calls "The Revisionists" and "The New Rationalists". Though he patronizingly compliments some of Bachelor's points, he dismisses his arguments with little persuasiveness (except, perhaps, to believers) and thus mere rhetoric -- at least in this article. I find it interesting, given our recent exchange, that Barbara O'Brian is quoted to put down Bachelor. It is fun to see how I naturally (with little intellectual background) fall into a clear sect of Buddhism and out of another. :-)

  8. Part II:

    But it seems odd that Hunter seems to be mixing the term Rebirth and Reincarnation in that he counts as evidence the recalled rebirths of thousands of children analyzed by Dr. Ian Stevenson. Jayarava's article argues against this.

    Jayarava on the "Science" of Rebirth Recollections

    Jayarava's on Rebirth & Science discusses recalling previous lives -- which you would call "reincarnation [the Naive View]" and we agree here.


    So, I was long winded -- but in the comment section of Hunter's article he tells us the difference between rebirth and reincarnation that I think you are hinting at. I quote it at the end of this comment. But I think even Hunter conflated these.

    Further, in your post (which I enjoyed), you point out that even Vasubhandu's version of rebirth demands a metaphysical jump that (at this point) you find unpalatable. And if I understand the "Thermodynamic View" it might just as well not be called rebirth or reincarnation because it is stripped of all potency just to keep the word. Maybe I perceive it wrongly.

    Lastly, your position seems to still be firmly grounded in the skeptical side much like Batchelor, but unlike him, you wonder if your eyes won't open after time and see the wisdom of your wise predecessors. (I hope that is fair) While Batchelor feels he has already given them a fair shake and feels that the mindset that creates the Karma-Rebirth model has too much negative fallout and needs to be addressed.

    Here is Hunter's comment differentiating rebirth and reincarnation:

    "To my mind, they are philosophically distinct notions. Reincarnation, as I understand the term, has come to signify -- in many people's minds, anyway -- what Julian characterizes as the transmigration of a truly existing soul from one body to another -- a very un-Buddhist idea, indeed.

    Rebirth, on the other hand (as I see it) encompasses a process of becoming and rebecoming that is far more subtle and difficult to understand or express in a conceptual way. It is interdependent with the essential Buddhist view of anatta or no-self (which is also subtle and difficult to understand) and teachings on the nature of mind (which, guess what, is also subtle and difficult to understand -- in fact, "it" can't be "understood" at all conceptually -- it can only be experienced). "

  9. You are correct -- it was not an a prior judgment. Thanks for asking.

    Oh, good. Perhaps you can explain it to me one of these days, then.

    Re Dennis Hunter's article, I read that, and didn't much care for it either. Nor do I care much for Alan Wallace's rant about Batchelor, although he did make some good points before he trotted out Stalin and Mao.

    And if I understand the "Thermodynamic View" it might just as well not be called rebirth or reincarnation because it is stripped of all potency just to keep the word. Maybe I perceive it wrongly.

    To call it reincarnation would certainly be absurd. To call it rebirth IMO isn't. The reason for this comes down to the question, "What is reborn?" If you accept the notion of an immortal soul or essential self, you end up with reincarnation. If you don't, even the concepts of birth and death become rather problematic, and re-birth looks very different too. Sure, you could find an alternative term for it, but calling it 'rebirth' is a pretty well-established convention.

    Hunter expresses this rather well in the last paragraph you quote, IMO—I'm totally on board with him on that.

    Lastly, your position seems to still be firmly grounded in the skeptical side much like Batchelor, but unlike him, you wonder if your eyes won't open after time and see the wisdom of your wise predecessors.

    Not quite. I'm just hoping that I'll eventually understand what said wise predecessors meant. Until I'm reasonably confident that I do, I'm not going to throw anything out.

    Point being, I'm not trying to believe anything here; I'm trying to understand (and apply) it. "I don't ask you to believe in evolution, but I do expect you to pass a test on it," to quote a somewhat analogous situation.

  10. I'm just hoping that I'll eventually understand what said wise predecessors meant. Until I'm reasonably confident that I do, I'm not going to throw anything out."

    Yeah, I guess Bachelor felt he understood and is reasonably confident and he has thrown it out. There are tons of religious claims out there expecting us to weigh all their subtleties. Only so much time in the day. I can appreciate your stance, though. Seems you are holding it all very lightly.

  11. Yes, he most certainly felt so. I've only read excerpts of his stuff, so my opinion is a bit tenuous, but going by them, I'm not quite sure he actually did, though. I want to make up my own mind.

    Only so much time in the day, as you say. I'm sure there are similar subtleties in, say, Vedic Advaita philosophy. What I've read of it hasn't struck me as relevant to my interests, though, so I have no intention of immersing myself in it. OTOH I don't talk much about it either, since I recognize that my understanding of it is extremely superficial and I have no strong interest at this time to deepen it.

  12. I agree. Such further demands are made by:
    * Christians to understand the resurrection
    * Muslims to understand the real Qu'ran
    * Jews to understand the tetragram
    * Marxists to understand Marxism

    Etc... So, like you admit, part of our decision process is not a matter of being "lazy" but instead of not being relevant to our interests. Ah the world we swim in!

  13. Of course. What else would it be based on?

    Where laziness comes in, though, is if and when you choose to speak about it. I don't have much appreciation for people who choose to pontificate about stuff they neither understand nor wish to learn to understand, and I try to avoid doing that myself (and feel properly chastised whenever I get caught doing that anyway, which does happen).

    That's why I feel comfortable pontificating about dialectical materialism (which I understand) or rebirth (which I'm actively attempting to understand), but not the Resurrection, the Tetragrammaton, or puruṣa, which I neither understand nor am actively attempting to understand.

    What do you do?

  14. @ Petteri

    Good question.
    I think there is a place for stating one's positions at any level of depth of understanding as long as one is open to dialog. Taking a stance even on minimal information is a necessary human predicament. So if we do it with an openness to others and an interest of eliciting other opinions, such an effort can be useful. Taking a strong stance may be further helpful because it allows clearer insight to the consequences of the stance as long as one is open to "Triangulations" (my blog title) and thus holds the strong stance lightly -- an art, indeed.

    Never taking a stance and only waiting until we feel safely wise to state an opinion can leave people frozen and hinder what might otherwise be fruitful dialogue. I could also lead to an unnecessary false security when finally stating an opinion and thus reactive dialogue.

    So, you ask "What do you do?"

    Well, I am wagering you already have an opinion on that -- I gladly "pontificate" from a position of ignorance.

  15. I pontificate from a position of ignorance too—but only if I'm genuinely interested in dispelling some of that ignorance. In fact, every single one of my Buddhism-related posts on this blog have been pretty much that.

    However, I see no value whatsoever in pontificating from a position of ignorance without that interest. Nor do I feel that there is any necessity to take a stance on something that you're neither interested in nor understand; on the contrary, I think that in such a case it's far better to suspend judgment. I don't believe such stances can lead to meaningful dialog either, since one party isn't interested in understanding what the other party is saying.

    I already knew that you pontificate from a position of ignorance, and I have no beef with that. What I was asking is if you also pontificate from a position of ignorance and a lack of interest in dispelling that ignorance.

    For example, earlier on, you called rebirth an 'old and outdated notion.' Then you said that this was not an a priori position (so presumably one arrived at through careful consideration). However, you also appeared to be making a common beginner's mistake in conflating reincarnation and rebirth. Now, after a bit of discussion, you appear to suggest that you don't understand it that well after all and don't have the interest to take the time to educate yourself about it, given all the other religious and philosophical notions you might be spending time on (and presumably don't understand either).

    Taken at face value, this is a combination of positions for which I don't have much respect: a firmly held belief based on a superficial understanding, and a lack of interest in deepening that understanding.

    If I'm misreading you, I would appreciate if you restated your position. If not, then I don't see much point in continuing to dialog with you, for the reasons stated in my second paragraph above.

  16. @ Petteri:

    Sorry, don't think I can better illustrate myself to you -- perhaps you understand my position and my attitude as much as possible at this point. But I indeed do find your responses to my comments very unpredictable -- color me puzzled.

    Jayarava's comments to me concerning "rebirth" here on his blog were very helpful for me today -- if you want to take a look. Have you dialogued with him successfully? Like you, he seems incredibly well thought-out.

  17. I do read Jayarava's blog and find it often highly interesting and insightful, but our attempts at dialog have failed dismally.