Karma and Rebirth



Stephen Jay Gould Western Buddhists are said to be among the most highly educated practitioners of any religion in North America. It is difficult to become highly educated in North America without having quite a bit of exposure to scientific method and to the scientific hypotheses that have so far survived the tests that they have been subjected to. Most educated people would probably agree with Steven Jay Gould's observation that “Science does not deal in certainty, so ‘fact’ can only mean a proposition affirmed to such a high degree that it would be perverse to withhold one's provisional assent.”*

* From an article in the August 23, 1999 issue of Time, quoted in Miller, [2002, p. 139]

The question around which most of the following squibs revolve is whether the Buddhist doctrines of karma and rebirth can be considered as facts in the sense that Steven Jay Gould uses the term. Is the doctrine of rebirth in the same league with the theory of evolution and the theory that the earth rotates around the sun in that “it would be perverse to withhold one's provisional assent”? If the doctrines of karma and rebirth are not in the same category as “facts” of that nature, then to which category do they belong?

It is probably best to understand modern Buddhist understandings of karma and rebirth as following patterns of modern thought in general, and especially modern Indian thought. In his reflections on how the theories of karma and rebirth have taken shape in modern Hinduism, Wilhelm Halbfass Halbfass, [1998] notes the following trends:

  1. Karma is, more or less radically, dissociated from the traditional mythological implications of saṃsāra, which include heavens, hells and other transempirical realms of existence; rebirth itself is treated as a less essential adjunct of karma.
  2. Karma is presented as a fundamentally scientific notion, a comprehensive ‘law’ and principle of explanation, which supersedes all merely physical causality and regularity.
  3. There is a stronger commitment to empirical evidence, to ‘case studies,’ to the collection and analysis of ‘reports’ and personal claims concerning rebirth; research in this sense is foreign to the traditional treatment of karma and rebirth.
  4. The doctrine is associated with modern Western concepts of evolution and progress; the world of karma and rebirth appears not so much as the realm of aimless wandering saṃsāra which calls for transcendence and ultimate liberation (mokṣa, but rather as a sphere of potential self-perfection and spiritual growth.
  5. In response to European criticism, any fatalistic implications of karma are strongly and passionately rejected, and its compatibility with action, initiative and social responsibility is emphasized.
  6. The notions of ‘collective karma', ‘group karma' or even ‘national karma', which have no place in traditional thought, but seem to be taken for granted in theosophy, emerge in Neo-Hindu thought and discourse, although their uses are somewhat elusive and in some cases merely rhetorical.

Such concepts appear also in modern Buddhism, together with other reinterpretations and transformations of the traditional concepts. An important trend is exemplified by the work of the modern Theravadin M.W.P. de Silva, for whom the theory of karma is primarily a theory of psychological and characterological development, and who de-emphasizes its ‘judicial' or retributive implications. Even more radical forms of ‘demythologizing' karma and rebirth may be found in modern Japanese Buddhism. In both Buddhism and Hinduism, reinterpretations coexist with more traditional and traditionalistic versions. There has even been a certain resurgence of mythical and esoteric ideas concerning intermediate stages and the like, most conspicuously among Western proponents of Hindu or Buddhist traditions.

Although not all these trends will be explicitly mentioned in the squibs that follow, it is evident in what follows that the contributors to buddha-l have been grappling with the implications of modernity, sometimes endorsing it and sometimes resisting.

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Reincarnation, anyone?

February 24, 1992

Steve asked:

I was wondering if anyone on buddhist were strong believers in reincarnation. As for me, I feel I don't have enough experience to support the claim.

As you probably already know, Steve, it is customary in Buddhist circles to distinguish between reincarnation and rebirth. The former term implies belief in an enduring and essentially spiritual self that moves from one fleshly body to another; literally, “reincarnation” means “getting back into some meat.” It's possible that you could find some (perhaps even many) Buddhists who do believe in reincarnation in that sense, but the usual stance of Buddhist philosophers has been to reject it.

In lieu of reincarnation, Buddhist thinkers usually prefer to talk about “arising again” (punarbhava, punarjanma). That which arises again, according to this way of talking, is a certain kind of mentality. Mental traits have a tendency to become habitual and deeply entrenched. Habits of thinking, and the behaviour that results from thinking in certain ways, can be transmitted from person to person, because people have a tendency to learn behaviour by mimicking one another. Therefore, such general mental habits as aggression tend to be reborn again and again. And, fortunately, such habits as gentleness and thoughtfulness can also be reborn. Any mental action that is cultivated, dwelt upon, reinforced and acted upon is likely to be repeated in the future. Therefore, one can speak of mental habits being reborn, but not of people being reborn.

The ethical implications of the notion of rebirth as described above are fairly obvious. If one acts in a way that has harmful consequences, someone somewhere will suffer those consequences. Since all Buddhist ethical guidelines are founded on the principle that one ought to avoid causing harm to anyone anywhere, it is very important to reflect on the possible consequences of every thought that arises in one's mind. Some thoughts can be acted upon without harm, and others cannot. Cultivate those thoughts that most minimize the risk of causing harm. Cultivate the sort of conduct that others can mimic without harming themselves.

The notion of rebirth as discussed by Buddhist philosophers makes good sense in the context of the Buddha's insight that the fundamental source of all harmful behaviour is the belief in reality of the self or person or “I” (ahaṃkāra) and the belief in ownership or property (mamakāra). It is rather easy for those who do not insist on believing in their own unique individuality and in their distinction from others to understand the concept of rebirth as the tendency of mental habits and certain patterns of conduct to be repeated.

But for those who cling to the notions of individuality and ownership, there does not seem to be sufficient reason to avoid actions if the harm done by those actions will be experienced by someone other than themselves. This is why people find it easy to build hydroelectric dams that will flood other people's villages and drop bombs that will kill other people's children. Selfish people tend to avoid only those actions that will bring fairly immediate harm to themselves.

So, realizing that several people in the world are selfish, the Buddha taught them ethical principles in the only conceptual framework they had available: selfishness. “It is in your own best interest to avoid certain actions,” he said, “because every action has consequences. You yourself will suffer the harm of whatever harmful action you may do—if not in this life, then in some future life.”

Evidently the Buddha was counting on the likelihood that people who are selfish are also likely to believe in future lives; this provided him with some leverage. He therefore talked at great length of purgatories and other unpleasant situations in which people would be reborn in future lives if they did not learn to act harmlessly in the present life.

What a reflective Buddhist is likely to find most challenging about the present age is that the prevailing ethos is one of intense selfishness, but most people do not believe in survival after death,\footnote{Since this was written, I have read results of polls indicating that most Americans do in fact believe in survival after death. I am not sure what percentage of people tell the truth about their beliefs when interviewed by pollsters.} or if they do, they think in terms of the afterlife being like Disneyland, except with lower prices. Therefore, if people do not already believe in reducing the risk of being harmful to themselves and others, there is very little leverage by which to persuade them. People in our times have become very much aware of how much people try to manipulate one another through mythology. Given these circumstances, if you say to someone else “If you are greedy in this life, you'll be reborn as a hungry ghost in the next life,” be prepared to have them laugh in your face. The kinds of myths that worked in the Buddha's age are less likely to work in our own time.

There is no point, I believe, in trying to get people to believe a myth that they don't already accept. Most people do not already believe that naughty people will be reborn as hungry ghosts, and I think it would be a waste of precious time to try to convince them that they will. Buddhists of the present age should (as I have argued before) take advantage of the myths of the present age and use them to help bring people to the stage where they no longer require myths at all.

If you wanted a simple Yes or No answer to your question, this will have been a disappointing reply.

Richard Hayes

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Philosophical smuggling

October 9, 1992

In the 1980s I gave well over 100 dharma talks and introductory lectures on Buddhist thought and practice in various Zen and Tibetan Buddhist centers. In those days I had the rather peculiar idea that one should never say anything in a dharma talk that one does not sincerely believe. One of the things I have never believed is the doctrine of rebirth, so I always tried to find ways to avoid any mention of that topic.

It always bothered me a little bit that I couldn't accept the doctrine of rebirth, so I asked a number of Buddhist masters about this problem, and to my great surprise many of them also confessed that they didn't really believe in rebirth either. Knowing that I had some good company in my skepticism, I finally became bold enough to start actually attacking the doctrine of karma and rebirth in public talks and offering reasons for why I thought it should perhaps be quietly discarded, along with various other superstitions from the dark past, in order to present a leaner and meaner dharma. So I started trying to preach a kind of Buddhism in which everything was left intact except the doctrine of rebirth.

It didn't take very long, of course, to discover that nothing much is left intact when rebirth is removed from Buddhist doctrine. It's like taking all the mortar out of a brick building. You end up with a stack of pretty bricks but no edifice. So since I had a bit of an edifice complex in those days, I kept looking for other ways to make all the nice doctrines of Buddhism cohere. And the only way I could find to do it was to smuggle the doctrine of rebirth back in by disguising it under the cloak of new terminology.

This experience of dealing in contraband doctrines made me aware of what a very old practice smuggling is among Buddhist (and indeed all) philosophers. Having exiled certain dogmas and concepts to the hinterlands and then discovering that life is impossible without these concepts, philosophers find ways of smuggling them back in. One example that everyone is familiar with is the doctrine of an enduring self, something that remains stable while other things change. This is quite simply an indispensable idea, and most Buddhists recognized it. But since there was a bit of a taboo against calling this self an “ātman,” Buddhist philosophers called it a “svabhāva.” Some (e.g. Nāgārjuna) felt a bit ashamed about this and tried to point out that a svabhāva is every bit as unsavory as an ātman, but others (e.g. Dharmakīrti) built their entire systems of philosophy around the concept of the svabhāva. Take it away, and the whole enterprise of Buddhist logic goes bankrupt.

Philosophical smuggling does not only take the form of wrapping formerly exiled concepts in new dress. It also takes the form of using old dress to bring in new concepts. The most obvious examples of this are found in such words as “buddha”, “bodhisattva,” “bodhi” and “arhant,” all of which have radically different meanings in different schools of Buddhist thought.

Richard Hayes

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Smuggler's guide to Buddhist philosophy

October 14, 1992

In my previous note on philosophical smuggling, I mentioned only two of the methods by which philosophers reintroduced concepts that had previously been banished: giving new names to the old concepts, and associating new concepts with old terms. What I didn't mention was the most commonly used smuggling strategy of all: the theory of two truths.

The two-truth theory distinguishes between conventional statements that are to be understood on the purely popular level, at which most of society operates most of the time, and refined statements. Popular statements have the advantage of being readily understood by most people, but the disadvantage of not being capable of standing up to close scrutiny. What is said at the popular level of discourse has a way of disintegrating when it is examined with any degree of logical rigor.

When any philosophical theory or religious doctrine begins to unravel (and all do unravel if one looks closely enough), it can always be maintained (if it is at all useful) as a popular teaching. So when the notion of personal individuality is taken apart and replaced by the theory of impersonal dharmas being produced according to impersonal causal principles, the notion of a person can still be used in ordinary conversation, but it is stigmatized as a popular and ultimately false idea. Continuing to use a concept that has been shown to be ultimately unsustainable is an example of what I call philosophical smuggling.

So far as I have been able to gather, the doctrine of karma and rebirth (and the closely associated concepts of merit and demerit) were regarded by Nāgārjuna, Vasubandhu, Dharmakīrti, and by most of the thinkers in the schools founded by those fellows, as a popular teaching. That is, karma and rebirth are both recognized as concepts that make sense only in the context of a doctrine that still recognizes the existence of persons. But once it is shown that persons cannot really exist at all, then of course it follows that karma and rebirth cannot really exist either.

People who are not yet capable of seeing the world in any other way than in terms of personal identities still require some doctrinal framework within which to practice, even if that framework is ultimately false. So the doctrines of karma and rebirth can still be helpful for those who think in terms of self, others and possessions. And of course the doctrines are enormously useful as political tools; much of the political edifice of Tibet was held together by the doctrine of rebirth. Without the doctrine of rebirth, the Dalai Lama is just another monk with a really cute giggle (and, it might be added, a very sharp mind and a most admirable character).

One further observation that one can make about popular teachings is that they are socially mediated and culturally determined. Different cultures have different sets of fundamental beliefs (or at least ways in which they agree to talk about things). In fact what makes one culture distinct from another is just the set of popular beliefs it comprises. The many Asian, European and American cultures have all found rather different forms of popularity.

Back in the days in which I was trying to teach Buddhism without karma and rebirth, what was motivating me to try that experiment was the perception that the popular beliefs of North Americans do not normally include the doctrines of karma and rebirth, except among a subculture who tend to use them to expand rather than to reduce their already bloated egos. So, I reasoned, instead of trying to get people to adopt foreign popular beliefs, why not just use the popular beliefs they already have? If the goal is to get people to walk around naked, what's the point of making them first change their shirts?

My little experiment with rebirthless dharma was nothing new in the history of Buddhism. It has been suggested that the doctrine of sudden awakening and reaching the goal in this very lifetime in this very body evolved in China and other parts of East Asia because those people could never fully accept the doctrine of rebirth. I have heard at least one prominent scholar of modern Japanese Buddhist philosophy, Jan Van Bragt, report that hardly any thinker in the history of Japanese Buddhism has felt comfortable with the doctrine of rebirth, and I have heard similar things said about Korean Buddhism.

This whole issue is well behind me now. It was an issue I thought about a lot back in the days when I thought that North America could benefit in some small way from the doctrines and practices of Buddhism. Now I've pretty well given up on the Americas. But while the missionary zeal may have died in this old gray head, I am still keenly interested in these issues as an academic and as a philosopher.

Richard Hayes

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Reporting live from hell

October 15, 1992

Last week I walked into the classroom and gave a little talk to the students in my Survey of Theravāda literature course. I told them that over the years I had seen students who worked very hard and did all their own work and got very high grades. And I have seen students who spent most of their time having fun and doing very little studying who got very low grades. I have, however, also seen students who got very high grades by doing very little work and purchasing essays from off-campus essay services. And I have seen students who did very little studying and still got high grades even without plagiarizing and cheating. Now from all these observations, I said, one might conclude that there is no correlation between hard work, honesty and marks. But, I continued, students must realize that whatever marks they receive in university are the results not only of the work they are doing now but of work they did in previous lives.

The students began to look at one another with smirks on their faces. Undaunted, I continued. I told them that I spend a lot of time meditating and that in one of my recent meditations I had a vision of hell, and I saw that hell was filled with former students who had plagiarized their essays and with lazy students who had wasted their parents' hard-earned money by going to colleges and universities and not studying. Then the students laughed openly. So I read them the Subha Sutta (Dīgha-nikāya Sutta 10) in which the Buddha makes exactly the same argument I had just made. The students stopped laughing.

“If you laugh at me,” I asked the class, “why don't you laugh at the Buddha, or at least at those masters of fiction who wrote stories in which a character called the Buddha makes arguments like this?”

* * * * *

Some years ago I went to a day-long meditation workshop where the participants were taught a kind of metta-bhāvanā exercise. A Tibetan lama told the participants that we have all been here an infinite number of times, and during that time every other living being has been our mother countless times. Therefore, since we all love our mothers, and since every living being is our mother, we should have compassion for everything. Everybody worked on that for a long morning. Then we broke for lunch. Most of the people went to a nearby restaurant and ordered hamburgers and chicken sandwiches. Well, so much for the effectiveness of the loving-kindness workshop. I asked one of the participants whether he didn't feel just a little funny wolfing down something that had been his own mother countless times. He said “Why should I? Geshe-la eats meat.” Well, so much for setting good examples to one's disciples.

After the workshop I talked to a couple of other participants. One of them was a science student. He said the one thing that most bothered him about the exercise was the logic. Even if one has been here an infinite number of times, he explained, it simply does not follow mathematically that every living being has been one's own mother at some time in the past. Another chap piped up and said that actually he hated his mother anyway; she had been a mean-spirited, abusive bitch.

No wonder these guys were still eating hamburgers. Give people outmoded mythology supported by faulty logic based on completely unverifiable premises, and people eat hamburgers.

* * * * *

Now I don't want to harp on vegetarianism especially, but it does help illustrate what it is that I do want to harp on. So let me continue on this theme.

I often accept invitations to speak on vegetarian living. My talk is a pretty simple one in which I tell people about my experiences working as a cowboy in Alberta when I was a young man of twenty-one. I tell them about throwing young bulls on the ground and holding them down while another cowboy cuts off their balls and throws them in the bloody dirt, along with the testicles of several hundred other young former bulls. One can feel their bodies convulse with pain as they bellow helplessly. Usually they are given a minute or two to recover before being thrown down again and having a red-hot iron placed on their flesh. The pain knocks some of them unconscious for a couple of moments.

I tell them about riding around shooting rabbits whose only sin is that they eat grass that ranchers want to save for beef cattle. When rabbits are shot, they scream like human babies.

One of my favorite movies, Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, was based loosely on the true story of a family of intellectually challenged slaughterhouse workers who got laid off and had no other skills than hacking up dead bodies with electric saws; while unemployed, they lived by raiding cemeteries and exhuming freshly buried bodies and eating them. Unfortunately, Hollywood turned this powerful story into just another horror movie.
I tell them about packing terrified cattle into trucks and shipping them off to the slaughter house where they are shot in the head and cut into pieces with electric saws. The stench is overpowering. But the men who work in slaughterhouses become so numb to what they are doing that at lunchtime they sit down on a bloody carcass, spread out the contents of their lunch buckets and eat as if at a picnic in the woods.

I tell them that although I was man enough to smoke a pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes every day and drink rye whiskey straight from the bottle and work long hours outdoors in freezing winter weather, I was never man enough to watch all this brutality without having to sneak out behind the barn and blubber like a little kid. I even tried switching to Marlboros, but no matter what I smoked, and no matter how many John Wayne movies I went to see, I just couldn't seem to develop the kind of macho necessary for this line of work.

I spent a lot of time thinking about all these things I was seeing. If people get so outraged and horrified when they hear of how Nazis treated Jews, gypsies and homosexuals, I asked myself, why don't they get equally outraged when people brand and tattoo cattle and pack them into crowded trains and trucks and send them to death camps? Why are people still looking for long since disappeared Nazis when Ronald McDonald is right under their very nose?

Finally one day, after packing another truckload of cattle off to the slaughterhouse and sneaking off for my cry, I went to the pig barn and poured myself a big bowl of the slop we fed to the swine. It was pretty good. So I started eating with the pigs every night. We became pretty good friends. So I turned them loose, along with about 150 head of cattle and the horses. Then I got fired and spent the next six months unemployed and unemployable. It was during that long lean winter that I began reading books on Buddhism, and I read so many of the damn things that I was unfit for any kind of work at all. So I had to became a professor.

I often end my talk by citing these lines from chapter five of Aśvaghoṣa's Buddha-caritam:

Because of a longing for the forest and because of the excellence of the earth, he went to a nearby piece of land on the skirt of the forest, and there he saw the earth being plowed, with the track of the plow broken like waves on the water.

After seeing the ground in this condition, with its young grass scattered and torn by the plow, and covered with the eggs and young of tiny insects that were killed, he grieved violently, as for the slaughter of his own kin.

And beholding the men as they were plowing, their complexions spoiled by the wind, the sun's rays and dust, and their cattle overwhelmed by fatigue from pulling, the utterly noble one felt utter pity.

After dismounting from his horse, he slowly wandered over the earth, overcome with sorrow. And reflecting on the birth and destruction of the world, grieving he said “This is miserable indeed!”

“Alas, it is contemptible that people, though themselves unhappy and marked by sickness, old age and death, nevertheless, foolish and blinded by passion, shun another who is afflicted by old age or who is disabled or dead.

If I, being like this myself in this world, should shun another having such a nature, it would not be worthy or appropriate of me who am aware of this most excellent virtue.”

As he thus saw clearly and accurately the dangers of disease, old age and death belonging to the world, the pride in himself, prompted by strength, youth and vitality, vanished in a moment.

These verses, which happen to be among the most beautiful verses in the Sanskrit language, convey a powerful and direct image. Note the absence of any mention of karma and rebirth.

* * * * *

The doctrines of karma and rebirth are for some people a means of access (upāya) to ethical sensibilities. But to most people in our society, these doctrines are even less accessible than the goal to which they are supposed to provide access.

I want for people to stop and think about the obvious and the hidden consequences of their conduct in the world. My own experience has been that a lot of traditional Buddhist dogmas obstruct rather than facilitate the view. The doctrine of rebirth gets in the way. So I chuck it in the dustbin.

With one foot in hell, I remain
Yours with mettā,
Professor Hayes

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Rebirth (What? Again?)

July 16, 1994

Trent asks:

Can there be a (meaningful) Buddhism without a literal belief in the doctrine of karma/rebirth?

This question is impossible to answer without some clearer idea of what exactly qualifies as a “literal” belief in karma and rebirth. So let me try to state my beliefs, and Trent can decide then whether they are sufficiently literal for my Buddhism to be meaningful.

First of all, I claim that every doctrine was invented by human beings to solve a human problem. The doctrines of karma and rebirth are no exception, so we must first try to figure out why someone invented them. What problems do these doctrines solve? (And, for the sake of being intellectually honest and thoroughly mindful, we must also eventually ask: what are the hidden “costs” of that solution? But let's leave that for another day.)

It is not difficult to find out what problems the Buddha thought were solved by the doctrine of rebirth as he formulated it. It had to do with the problem of accountability for one's decisions and the actions that flow from them. Some people, he observed, believe that human beings have no control over how they behave and therefore cannot be held responsible for their actions. There are various versions of this doctrine; some say that everything about us is determined by fate or by the whims of an omniscient being or by the conditions of our birth and our consequent environment. Others argued that our True Self is outside time and space and the world of action and change, and so this True Self is not in the least affected by what our empirical self does, so it does not really matter what the empirical self does. Still others claimed that there is nothing to the human being but matter, and when this matter decomposes, there is no one left to experience the consequences of what the physical body did; therefore, we all “get away with” all our actions by simply dying before we experience the consequences. The Buddha rejected all these views and advanced a view that was supposed not to undermine the stress he wished to place on the importance of ethical responsibility.

Seen in its simplest form, the doctrine approved by the Buddha says that the consequences of an action can endure for a very long time—much longer than the span of one human life. Somebody in the future is going to have to experience the consequences of the kind of life that people are willing to live in this century. Countless billions of beings will be happy or miserable as a direct consequence of the condition in which we leave the planet and the space around it. Our actions do, therefore, have consequences, and there is no use trying to deny that fact. The world is not the way it is because of factors totally outside the control of sentient beings; we are not at the mercy of an omnipotent and omniscient deity, or of impersonal fate, or of purely mechanical forces. We can have at least some influence on how sentient beings in the future will live.

Looking at our present existence, we can also see that what we are today is the result of hundreds of factors of which we are aware and of billions of factors of which we can never be fully aware. I am the person I am today because of the genetic codes of my ancestors and because of all the decisions my ancestors made about whom to choose as sexual companions; because of how my parents trained me; because of how the educational system indoctrinated me; because of the attempts of countless commercial and political interests to manipulate my intellect and my emotions; because of the availability of the work of almost one hundred generations of gifted philosophers, poets, musicians, painters, sculptors, scientists and educators from India, East Asia and Europe and because I enjoyed the leisure to study them and absorb some of what they had to offer (to no small measure because I inherited a taste for such things from my family, plus the financial means to pursue them); and because of the influence of about a dozen influential teachers of secular subjects, a few spiritual teachers and several dozens of close friends whose examples inspired and encouraged me.

I am the product of billions of decisions and actions of people who have lived before me and who have lived with me. Everything that I am today, therefore, is the result of the lives of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, George Fox, Thomas Jefferson, Karl Marx, Charles S Peirce, John Dewey, and Bertrand Russell; of Hildegaard of Bingen, Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Vaughan Williams, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and even Bob Dylan (before he became a Christian); of Siddhartha Gautama, Nāgasena, Nāgārjuna, Asaṅga, Vasubandhu, Dignāga, Dharmakīrti, Śāntarakṣita, Kamalaśīla, Hui Neng, Lin Chi, Dōgen Zenji, Chinul, Thich Thien An, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sangharakshita and Tenzin Gyatso; of Confucius, Mencius, Hsün Tzŭ, Mo Ti, Chu Hsi, Wang Yang-ming and Mao Tse Tung; and countless hundreds of others.

Given all these consequences of actions by different people, how could I claim that everything that I am began when I was conceived? How could I claim that it will cease to exist when the molecules I am borrowing this afternoon become parts of other living beings and when the space my body is now occupying is freed up for others to dwell for a while? How could I claim that there is really a me at all, aside from an uninteresting and momentary spark in a maelstrom of fire.

This enormously complex flux of events, of which the spark of consciousness which which these words are written is a part, is beyond all human reckoning. If it were one ten billionth its actual complexity, it would still be beyond the collective reckoning of every human being who has ever lived. Every attempt to reckon it must therefore me taken as a gross oversimplification, a mere story told to a child, a myth that enables one to act as if sensibly.

The doctrine of karma is one such myth. It is a simplistic story told by simpletons to simpletons, a story that emphasizes the fact that someone will experience a world that we create. It is a very dull and uninteresting and almost a useless story if it says nothing more than “Hi, my name is Richard. Before being Richard in Canada I was a tree toad in Mexico, and before that I was a soldier in the army of Córtez, and I can remember all these things. Someday I hope to be a Buddha who liberates all beings from their suffering.” That is a story told by an ego to make itself sound interesting to itself and its neighbors.

But the story of karma is a much more interesting and useful one if it makes me pause before snapping angrily at someone who has just carelessly intruded into my awareness, enables me to smile and project a feeling of love towards him and to find a way of unobtrusively helping him remember to be a little less careless next time. Insofar as it transforms a germ of irritation into a blossom of love and tranquility, the story of karma is one that I am willing to be told and to tell others.

Is that belief literal enough to make my Buddhism sensible, Trent?

Richard Hayes

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I've had this dejà vu before!

17 July 1994

Every now and then I am overwhelmed with this strange feeling that I have been through all this before. I just did a very quick search through the log files of buddha-l (since it began in October 1991) and buddhist (since I subscribed in July 1990) and discovered that the topic of rebirth has come up for prolonged discussion five times on each list. By far the most lengthy and exhaustive discussion took place on buddha-l, where it was the main topic of discussion for much of October and November 1992. It came up again in February 1993 and February and March 1994. On buddhist, it came up for a long discussion in October 1991 and again several times for three months this year (April, May and June). Despite all this discussion, hardly anything new has been said since the discussion of October 1992 on buddha-l. Somehow I doubt that there really is much more that even can be said beyond a few basic positions, all of which have had plenty of exposure. Those basic positions are:

  1. The accounts of rebirth in Buddhist literature should be taken at face value. The arguments in favor of this position range from personal testimonials of recollections of previous lives to an appeal to the authority of the Buddha, who is reported to have been able to recall his previous past lives and the past lives of everyone else in the universe. (Funny how it never seems to strain anyone's sense of credibility that one man could remember the details of all the past lives of billions of living beings in the matter of a couple of hours.) Oh yes, the “fact” of sprul-sku (tulkus) is usually cited at least once per discussion.
  2. The accounts of rebirth in Buddhist literature should be understood not as history but as myth, along with the accounts of the Buddha being able to fly in the air, transport himself instantaneously over a distance of several hundred kilometers, make raging elephants lie calmly at his feet, and heal deep gashes in another person's body by simply looking at them.

Those two positions have been repeated many times each. They have usually been attended by another corollary debate, which also has two basic positions.

  1. The doctrine of rebirth is of vital concern to Buddhism, for nothing in Buddhism makes much sense without it, and it is hard to imagine why anyone would be a Buddhist if they didn't do so in order to become free of having to be reborn yet another time, or to be reborn again and again in order to help others from being reborn again and again.
  2. The doctrine of rebirth makes very little difference to Buddhism; it is a completely non-essential and gratuitous accretion to what is of essential importance.

It has also been pointed out by scholars of various traditions that Buddhists of various Asian traditions in the past also held very similar debates and arrived at about exactly the same impasse as modern Buddhists have come to. Some have taken the rebirth story as a literal truth, others as a myth that breaks down when it is closely examined, some as a doctrine that is essential to Buddhism, others as piece of Indian cultural baggage that had no real place in other cultures. What more can possibly be said? It's a matter of personal conviction and faith; even the question of whether it is an important matter of faith is a matter of faith. Opinions differ. Buddhism survives all these differences and ends up being fulfilling to people no matter what their opinions are. Perhaps that alone should tell us something.

A few years ago, a colleague of mine was researching an article on traditional and modern Hindu arguments for rebirth (since the Hindus have had all the same materialistic opponents as the Buddhists), and by sheer coincidence I was researching an article on how various Indian Buddhists had argued for rebirth. My colleague was struck by the fact that he had never once encountered in a classical Indian text an appeal to personal memory as a piece of evidence. That is, he had never read an argument that went “I personally recall my previous lives” or “Swami Mūrkha Pramāda recalls his previous lives.” We began wondering why this appeal to memory was so rarely made in India; in contrast, it seems that very nearly the only evidence that anyone finds convincing in modern North America is the personal testimony of people who swear they can recall their past lives. Why the difference?

On looking into the matter a little more, I discovered that the only mentions of memory I could find in the context of this question in classical texts dismissed the testimony of personal memory as compelling evidence. Even those who were trying to find all the arguments they could for rebirth dismissed memory as evidence. Why? Because the phenomenon of having a memory that appears to be of a past life could have any one of several causes, and it is impossible to decide which possible explanation is the right one. That which feels to the experiencer like a memory of a previous life might be a “waking dream” (hallucination), which is the effect of fever, drugs, an imbalance of the humors, a magical spell, or the influence of a god or demon. Of all the senses, the memory is the most subtle and the most easily tricked by false appearances and by one's personal belief.

Modern scientists tend not to accept the hypothesis that a purported memory was caused by a magical spell or the influence of a god, but they do often test other plausible hypotheses. It is a scientist's job to be skeptical and to seek for various possible explanations that may be less problematic than the explanation that first suggests itself. That being the nature of science, I find myself somewhat puzzled by people who find fault with scientists for not being quite as “open-minded” as true believers would like them to be.

For me this whole topic of rebirth is a sideshow, a little bit like the god-awful circus that use to come through town when I was a kid with a display of unusually shaped people known by the cheerful term “freaks.” I am much more interested in Dharma than in mnemonic freaks. I have yet to see much connection between Dharma and the question of rebirth, beyond the Buddha's telling his disciple that there is no knowing for sure whether there is a life beyond the present one. But, he continued, if one acts as if there is a life beyond this one and acts now so as to ensure happiness in that future life, then one will also be much happier in this very life.

Richard Hayes

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The concept of group karma

25 October 2001

To my mind, one of the best questions ever asked in the history of the human race is: “Why is it that our teeth set on edge when it was our fathers who ate the sour grapes?” (I leave it to you Hebrew scholars to tell us where in the Bible that quote occurs, and what the actual wording of the question was.) I have been thinking about that question quite a lot recently.

Hardly a day has gone by since September 11 when I have not found myself crying as a result of hearing some story connected with the tragedies of that day. Today I wept as I read a story in the New York Times about a young man who has spent the last twenty years searching for his long-lost father, who had abandoned the family some time ago. The father had been a narcotics addict, had spent time in prison for a robbery, had left his family and become a street person and then had finally gotten his act together and found a job paying minimum wage. The prodigal father was trying to find his only child, and the child was trying to reconnect with his only father. The father had saved up $250 and had drawn up a neatly written will leaving his life savings to his son, if he could ever be found. The father's job was recycling papers in the World Trade Center. He is one of the dead people who has been positively identified, thanks to DNA swabs offered by a heart-broken son with whom he never got reunited. God, that story rips me to pieces. How on earth does anyone make any sense of such a story? How can one possibly see a story like that as one that somehow had a satisfactory ending?

Some people have suggested that the theory of karma somehow offers an adequate explanation. As those of you who have read my worst-selling book, Land of No Buddha, will already know, I have never much liked the dogma of karma, especially when it is coupled with the dogma of reincarnation. I especially don't like the Theosophical innovation (later adopted by many Tibetan Buddhists) of group karma, whereby an entire people collectively suffer the consequences of wrongs that their ancestors collectively did. To say that Jews died in Nazi concentration camps as a just recompense for their earlier collective sins just never made much sense to me. Nor does it make any sense to me that people who happened to be in the WTC on September 11 were paying for the sins of earlier generations of Americans.

And yet.... And yet....

For obvious reasons, my mind has involuntarily been jerked back to memories of a book that terrified the bejesus out of me when I read it when it first came out in 1968. I cannot seem to purge my mind of Seymour M. Hersh's terrifying tome entitled Chemical and Biological Warfare, the book in which I first learned the word “anthrax.” Hersh chronicled how the American military had manufactured and stockpiled enough anthrax to kill every human being on earth. He also chronicled how tests of this biological weapon had killed everything larger than a cockroach on an island in the British Isles, and scientists were then predicting that nothing larger than an insect would be able to live there again for at least a century. Hersh also noted how the US military had come up with virulent anti-biotic-resistant strains of smallpox, bubonic plague, pneumonic plague and measles. The only real worry then was that these weapons might fall into “the wrong hands”; it seems not to have occurred to many people in the military that such weapons in anyone's hands at all were, by the very fact of existing, in the wrong hands.

So a robust defender of the dogma of group karma might reason something like this:

In the 1950s and 60s, the Americans and the British were the only nations on earth defying United Nations charters and developing biological weapons, and they were doing it in secret. So it is only fitting that Americans now die of the weapons-grade anthrax that they themselves carefully cultivated for use against human enemies.

This explanation might satisfy some, but to me it is a travesty of rationality. It just makes no sense at all that a postal worker, who may not even have been born when the Pentagon was developing biological weapons, would die of a weapon that he probably never even knew existed—and might have strenuously protested against if he had known it existed. It does not even make any sense to me that such a person might die because of actions done in a previous life.

So if I reject the doctrine of karma as offering any kind of workable explanation, what answer does make sense? Divine wrath? Those of you who have read David McCollough's biography of John Adams may recall that Abigail Adams toyed with the idea that the terrible influenza epidemics of the 1770s were God's punishment of Americans for allowing anyone in their country to own slaves. No, I don't find much of value in that one either, especially in a time when two or more Holy Warriors are killing each other's populations on the grounds that the other side are Evil-doers who have annoyed the all-forgiving and unconditionally-loving God, who is merely using Good People as instruments to carry out his divine rage.

What answer is left? Why do the teeth of the descendants itch when the ancestors are the ones who ate the sour grapes? Well, I like the old rabbinic answer to such questions, which is to say “Sometimes there is no justice at all, because sometimes God is just not present.” (Some Buddhists may think that God is never present anywhere anyway, so for their benefit one could translate the rabbinic answer in karmic terms: “Sometimes there is no justice at all, because sometimes the mechanism of karma just breaks down.”)

To be quite honest, nothing else makes any sense at all to me than to admit that none of this makes any sense at all in moral terms. Justice is on holiday. Everyone is dying everywhere, and no one ``deserves'' any of it. Death just takes us all away, usually one by one, but sometimes in big armloads. And we don't much like facing death. But we die anyway.

And yet.... And yet....

Even though we can't make a hell of a lot of sense out of why the decisions of our forebears are at least the indirect cause of so many of us dying earlier than we would have hoped, perhaps we could give some thought to living as if our actions would have some bearing on those who follow us on this planet. Perhaps rather than acting in ways that will probably ensure that the great-grandchildren of those who suffer because of our actions today will hate our own great-grandchildren, we could try acting in ways that will not destroy enemies but actually make friends. This, as I understand it after more than thirty years of study and practice, is the Buddhist way.

Because I am deeply influenced by Quakers, I try to live by the Quakerly advice “Consider that you may be wrong.” Perhaps my call to make friends rather than destroying enemies is bad advice. But I am willing to take a gamble on it being a good thing to do at this juncture in history. And I am bent to try to persuade as many others as possible to take this gamble with me.

I trust this message will not strike too many of you as deeply anti-American or pro-Marxist or cold-hearted or soft-headed. If it does, may I ask you to “consider that you may be wrong”?

Dayāmati Dharmacārī

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Halbfass 1998
Halbfass, Wilhelm. “Karma and rebirth, Indian conceptions of.” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Edward  C. Craig. CD-ROM, Version 1.0. New York and London: Routledge, 1998.
Hersh 1968
Hersh, Seymour M. Chemical and Biological Warfare: America's Hidden Arsenal. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968.
Miller 2002
Miller, Mark  Crispin. The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.