Saturday, July 23, 2011

Memory, Rebirth, and Past Lives

A comment on Dangerous Harvests, Nathan's blog, got me thinking about rebirth again. For some reason, it irritates the bejeezus out of me every time some convert Tibetan blithely declares whichever Dharma gate he happens to be knocking on to be the end-all, be-all, indisputable Truth of Buddhism, and those times usually involve hell-beings, god-beings, pretas, and rebirth.

But it gets me thinking, so it can't be all bad.

On the other hand, I've been browsing some stuff by Theravadin monks with Western backgrounds lately, and the more I see of them, the more I'm impressed. They're direct, to the point, understandable, sensible, and refreshingly free of supernaturalism—and they manage to explain really complex stuff in comprehensible ways. I've been especially impressed by talks by the monks of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia. If you don't care for video (I don't, generally speaking), check out Ven. Shravasti Dhammika's explanation of karma, for example. Going by the results, Theravada seems to be working out a lot better for Westerners than Vajrayana!

One thing both Tibetans and Theravadins take as a given, though, is rebirth (although the Theravadins tend not to belabor the point). As evidence for rebirth, they offer accounts of enlightened people being able to recall their past lives. This features in the Tipitaka and other Buddhist writings, of course, but there are also plenty of contemporary or near-contemporary accounts of it.

I have no reason to doubt those accounts. My question is, what, exactly, is being recalled, and what does it mean?

Vasubandhu on Memory

The great Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu outlined a pretty damn useful model of the personality in a series of works in the 4th century CE. He sees the personality as consisting of a big bundle of interlaced streams of consciousness-moments (cittas, in his terminology). These cittas are conditioned by sensory impressions and preceding cittas. Psychological continuity is created by citta-streams that flow below the level of conscious awareness, in what he called the store-consciousness or seed-consciousness (Skt. ālāyavijñāna). Memories are created when a citta conditions another citta—or "seed"—in the store-consciousness. They're recalled when a citta triggers one of those submerged streams to break surface into conscious awareness.

The interesting feature of this model is that there is nothing static or permanent in it. Everything is just cittas conditioning other cittas. The memory isn't like a book where you write something, and then read whatever you wrote, later. It's a flowing, changing thing. When you recall something, the citta that breaks into your consciousness could—in theory—be traced back to the seed deposited by the citta that started the stream, but it's by no means the same. It's a descendant, and often a pretty far-removed descendant at that. Remembering is more reconstructing, not recalling; perhaps a bit like reconstructing an acorn by looking at an oak.

This model meshes rather nicely with more recent studies of memory. It's notoriously unreliable. Even very recent events are remembered differently by different people. They're conditioned by prejudices, previous experiences, suppositions, assumptions, and the further away you get from the event being reconstructed, the looser the relationship between the memory and the event. Memories do certainly contain information about past events, but they contain a great deal more information about the person doing the recalling—and without other sources to work from, it's completely impossible to disentangle the two.

Recall of what?

So, when an enlightened being recalls his past lives, what, exactly, is he recalling? What relationship does his reconstruction bear to past events? What information about "actual" past events do such memories contain? I prefer to leave that as an open question—but I think the idea that recollections of past lives are more accurate than, say, recollections of early childhood sounds pretty unlikely. That would require positing some deeper substructure of the mind that does provide perfect, reliable recall; a storehouse below the storehouse that is everything the memory we do know about isn't—unchanging, with limitless capacity, with limitless accuracy.

This is a pretty big assumption, and as far as I'm concerned, an unlikely one.

Which certainly doesn't rule out the idea of One Mind (aka the Original Face, the True Self, etc.). It would just mean that One Mind has nothing to do with information. I kinda like that idea.

1 comment:

  1. There seem to be at least two different types of long-term memory. The first is as you describe, a sort of narrative reconstruction of the past with many lacunae and inaccuracies. But there also appears to be a different kind of long term memory with some very different characteristics.

    For example, some autistic people are provably able to recall everything they see, like Stephen Wiltshire. And Wilder Penfield discovered that electrode stimulation in the temporal cortex would elicit extremely detailed memories in his patients during conscious brain surgery to treat epilepsy. And there are also many reports of people with near-death experiences who claim to remember their entire lives in extraordinary detail during their NDE.

    It seems that the ordinary long term memory we all have is probably tuned to the requirements of natural selection, but that another type of memory exists that almost seems to provide a direct link between the present and the past. I suppose we shouldn't be so surprised at that, given that we don't have a good grasp on the nature of time.