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Meditation, metaphysical assumptions and rebirth

Hi!

(Before I explain my question and it premisses, I’d like to make clear that here I’m not discussing nor stating my beliefs on rebirth. As this topic is posed, there’s no need to debate about the reality of rebirth. Also, I apologize in beforehand for paraphrasing more that what I’d like to, but I’m not sure whether my ideas have grounding in the suttas, or if I’ve heard them from someone else, or if I fabricated them by myself inadvertedly.)

  1. If I recall correctly, I’ve heard in some Dhamma-talks or read in some suttas about the Buddha’s take on the dangers of assuming meditative “mystical” experiences as indicating some ontological, metaphysical or cosmological facts about reality. What characterized and differentiated Samma Samadhi from other meditative techniques was its predisposition to let go of views, which allowed to see phenomena arise and ceasing, without any distorsions and without superimposing gratuitous interpretations on whatever is experienced during jhana.

  2. I’ve also heard some practitioners state that their beliefs on the reality of rebirth coming from directly experiencing the recalling of past lives. In addition to that, I’ve read somewhere that it is unfair to say that the Buddha “believed” in rebirth, because it was not a matter of mere opinion or taking a position, but his belief was supported by direct experience of the phenomenon of rebirth.

In these two lines summaries of ideas, I see some contradicting points:
It seems to me buddhist practitioners deny metaphysical ideas that one could assume from mystical experience (i.e. the permanence of some essence, the unity of the soul and an all-pervasive God, etc.), while at the same time assuming the metaphysical idea of rebirth (and/or the idea of an stream of consciousness/kamma surviving the death of the physical body) precisely from a experience that could be called “mystical” (or by adhering to others’ claims on having experienced that).

I’m I understading those ideas correctly? Is my logic or understanding faulty?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. I’d appreciate any correction to the premisses above mentioned if I’m misconstruing some ideas.

Thanks in advance for your time. Kind regards!

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That is correct, and is described in DN 1:

*Fourth, 20 of the views (1–3, 5–7, 9–11, 17, 52–57, and 59–62) are based on meditative experiences: jhāna, the formless states, and knowledge of previous lives that can be gained based on jhāna. This fact corrects two misunderstandings: one, that the practice of jhāna began with the Buddha; and two, that any insight coming from a concentrated mind can be trusted to be true. If the Buddha were the first to have discovered jhāna, none of these cases would have occurred in time for the Buddha to refute them. If all insights coming from concentration were reliable, no one would misinterpret what their meditative experiences meant."—Thanissaro translator’s note, DN 1

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Re Rebirth… the Buddha’s stance on that is as clear as his stance on meditative experiences. It is undeniable that such things exist, based on lived experience… however, the experience itself is dependently co originated and therefore, impermanent, attachment to such experiences being the source of suffering, there being no permanent essence worthy of being considered as Self.

SN12.20
When, bhikkhus, a noble disciple has clearly seen with correct wisdom as it really is this dependent origination and these dependently arisen phenomena, it is impossible that he will run back into the past, thinking: ‘Did I exist in the past? Did I not exist in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what did I become in the past?’ Or that he will run forward into the future, thinking: ‘Will I exist in the future? Will I not exist in the future? What will I be in the future? How will I be in the future? Having been what, what will I become in the future?’ Or that he will now be inwardly confused about the present thus: ‘Do I exist? Do I not exist? What am I? How am I? This being—where has it come from, and where will it go?’

“For what reason is this impossible? Because, bhikkhus, the noble disciple has clearly seen with correct wisdom as it really is this dependent origination and these dependently arisen phenomena.”

MN8
It’s possible that a certain mendicant, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, might enter and remain in the first absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, while placing the mind and keeping it connected. They might think they’re practicing self-effacement. But in the training of the noble one these are not called ‘self-effacement’; they’re called ‘blissful meditations in the present life’.

The advantage of adopting a stance of recognizing the existence of rebirth and the various meditation states is that it helps a trainee to become virtuous, to purify the mind and set the causes for the arising of the factors of awakening.

AN5.179
You should know this, Sāriputta, about those white-clothed laypeople whose actions are restrained in the five precepts, and who get four blissful meditations in the present life belonging to the higher mind when they want, without trouble or difficulty. They may, if they wish, declare of themselves: ‘I’ve finished with rebirth in hell, the animal realm, and the ghost realm. I’ve finished with all places of loss, bad places, the underworld. I am a stream-enterer! I’m not liable to be reborn in the underworld, and am bound for awakening.’

The awakened one however, does not stick to views of rebirth or various meditative states… he has gone beyond that- towards the cessation of all conditioned phenomena… Nibbana!

MN102
The Realized One understands this as follows. There are ascetics and brahmins who assert a self that is neither percipient nor non-percipient and sound after death, describing it as having form, or being formless, or both having form and being formless, or neither having form nor being formless. Some ascetics or brahmins assert the embracing of that dimension merely through the conditioned phenomena of what is seen, heard, thought, and known. But that is said to be a disastrous approach. For that dimension is said to be not attainable by means of conditioned phenomena, but only with a residue of conditioned phenomena. ‘All that is conditioned and coarse. But there is the cessation of conditions—that is real.’ Understanding this and seeing the escape from it, the Realized One has gone beyond all that.

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Indeed, this is emphasized in a number of suttas, such as DN 1 Brahmajala (as already noted by faujidoc1) and also, for example, MN 136 Mahakammavibhanga.

The distinction is one familiar to a scientist: the facts are what they are, but how we interpret them is another matter.

Yes, although it’s the case that “right” samadhi follows from “right” view, which is the four noble truths. It’s not that there is a lack of views, but that the views one has incline you to letting go.

Okay.

Indeed, this is stated in the Suttas, and is implicit in the basic idea of the “direct knowledges” (abhiññā).

So far so good! For the next part, I’m going to want to break it down before we can really get to the nub of the matter.

First thing:

This is pretty broad, and it’s hard to generalize on what people say. For now, let me just focus on what the suttas (or EBTs more generally) say, and I’ll leave it to you to see whether this agrees with what you’ve heard modern practictioners say.

Let’s do some definition here before proceeding. The best philosophical work in this area has been done by Jayatilleke and his student Kalupahana. They pointed out that the description of such things as rebirth in the EBTs are expressed in terms that are empirical rather than metaphysical. But since these are philosophical terms used in a range of senses, let’s consider what they mean by these terms here.

The essential idea is that empirical claims stay close to sense experience or what can be inferred from sense experience (which in Buddhism includes the mind). Metaphysical claims are separate from sense experience and relate to phenomena of a different order. (Jayatilleke accepted Nibbana as the only metaphysical reality in Buddhism, a point on which Kalupahana disagreed, arguing that even Nibbana was described in empirical terms.)

This distinction historically arose in considering such things as the nature of the heavens. When we look at the world around us, we can see a messy, complex reality, where things follow certain rules, such as gravity: things fall down. But in the sky, things appear to be quite different. It’s like an eternal, pure realm, where not even gravity applies: things just hang there. Thus it is natural to assume that there is one natural (or “physical”) order that governs things down here, and a separate (“metaphysical”) order for the heavens. Gravity applies down here, but not up there. And this was believed for many centuries.

It wasn’t until Galilleo and Newton that we realized that we can in fact describe the motion of the stars using exactly the same force of gravity that we experience here on earth. There is no separate “metaphysical” order for the heavens; we had simply not understood gravity well enough. Thus, even though the apparent behavior of the heavenly bodies is so different from what we see on earth, we can in fact infer the motion of the stars from the observable facts of gravity as it works here on earth. Gravity is subtle and its workings hard to discern; but it is an empirical reality, amenable to the methods of evidence, inquiry, and hypothesis.

Are the heavenly bodies, then, “metaphysical” or “empirical”? Well, it depends on who’s talking. For a long time many people would speak of them as metaphysical, regarding them as gods. Now, however, almost everyone thinks of them as empirical. One can imagine, however, a transition period when both ways of talking were found: and that would have been confusing.

We are in such a transition period when it comes to talk of rebirth. In the Judeo-Christian and Western philosophical tradition more generally, talk of what lies after death has traditionally been conceived of as a metaphysical discussion. The soul is a metaphysical entity, unamenable to the methods of science, and conceived of as an expression of the divinity of God. It is eternal, and so is the state in which it abides after death. None of these assumptions apply to the Buddhist concept of rebirth, yet people still treat Buddhist rebirth as if it were metaphysical.

The Buddha rejected metaphysical terms such as the attā or jīva, and consistently rejected notions of eternity or permanence; such, indeed, form the most distinctive part of his philosophy. Likewise, he rejected discussions of whether the universe was infinite or not, or whether there was a first beginning of samsara. Such questions are metaphysical since the notion of infinity or eternity cannot be inferred from sense experience, which is invariably local and temporal.

When rebirth is spoken of, it is through extensions or refinements of ordinary sense experience. The “divine eye” or the “recollection of past lives” are not separate from ordinary faculties of the mind; they are those same ordinary faculties of memory or inner vision empowered and enhanced through meditation.

Now, as empirical realities, these are subject to the same limitations and cautions as any other empirical realities. One may “see” something in meditation, and that is valid as an experience, but what is it? What does it mean? This is where the application of wisdom, honed by a critical rationality, is essential.

Empirical claims may be true or false, they may be more or less supported by evidence. They may be unknown, but they are not unknowable. Metaphysical claims do not have a truth or evidential value in the same way. They are, in a deep sense, unknowable by definition.

We can infer from this moment of lived experience to what experience might be like in a minute, a year, a lifetime, or a millenium. But even if we were to infer a trillion trillion eons, we would not be a moment closer to eternity.

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Thanks, bhante (and everyone else!) for your answer(s)!

Just in case, when I use the world “metaphysical”, I don’t just mean “what lies beyond the empirical, or the experiences of the (six) senses”. Instead, I tend to understand it with a definition closely related to what Aristotle defined as “first philosophy”, with questions on a rage of topics such as what it means to be, what is causality, what is existence, what is real, etc. And as far as I’ve read the suttas, whenever the topic of rebirth appears, it seems to me that is not just treated as talking about an experience, but as stating a fact about “reality” (i.e. about what exist having its properties regardless about what one can think of them), namely, that there is “a stream of consciousness” (which is not one fixed consciousness nor an “I”) or some mental content (memories, inclinations, tendencies of intentionality, and so on) that somehow keeps existing after death and without the need of a physical body. That, to me, is as metaphysical as it can get.

As I understand metaphysics, physics and metaphysics are complementary disciples, because, in order to do science, you have to take some position in some metaphysical issues (or in other words, I think that there is not a default and neutral position about ontology, causality, reality, the difference between external/internal); scientifical procedures are supported by metaphysical frameworks and positions, whether they like to call them metaphysical or not. And I think the same happens with the topic of rebirth: the suttas seem (to me) to be claiming the reality of the phenomena of rebirth, and such claim is made because there is an experience happening during meditation, which I still do not see as radically different as to what other meditative traditions did or still do, with the difference between buddhist and non-buddhists meditators lying in the steps one has to take from some experience to a metaphysical claim.

Thanks again for your time, and I’d be very thankful if you (or anyone else) could give me some feedback to correct any misunderstanding.

Kind regards!

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No. Right concentration is based on right view. The difference between right concentration and the jhana practiced by other sects was its basis in a belief in the action of kamma, and that actions had moral consequences.

“Religious knowledge or “vision” was indicated as a result of practice both within and outside the Buddhist fold. According to the [Samaññaphala Sutta (Samaññaphala Sutta - Wikipedia) this sort of vision arose for the Buddhist adept as a result of the perfection of ‘meditation’ (Sanskrit: dhyāna) coupled with the perfection of ‘ethics’ (Sanskrit: śīla). Some of the Buddha’s meditative techniques were shared with other traditions of his day, but the idea that ethics are causally related to the attainment of “religious insight” (Sanskrit: prajñā) was original.[51]”—Wikipedia

In reference to DN 1, the Buddha’s argument against wrong views is based on that the jhana of Brahmins and ascetics is not founded on morality. This is indicated by the placing of the second section on sila at the beginning of the discourse, which directly follows in answer to the episode of his criticism by wandering ascetics. In a similar case when the Buddha’s teaching was criticized by wandering ascetics, the Buddha later responded:

“If, when an asceticism is pursued, unskillful qualities grow and skillful qualities wane, then I tell you that that sort of asceticism is not to be pursued. But if, when an asceticism is pursued, unskillful qualities wane and skillful qualities grow, then I tell you that that sort of asceticism is to be pursued.”—-AN 10.94

“Skillful” means karmically wholesome, and that the qualities are accompanied by non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion.

MN 136 shows that the causes of the rebirth destination can be misleading (in those with wrong view/concentration), and AN 10.103 states that wrong concentration leads to wrong knowledge:

“In a person of wrong concentration, wrong knowledge”

Right or wrong concentration is dependent on view, and the primary kind of right view is belief in the effects of kamma:

The Blessed One said: "Now what, monks, is noble right concentration with its supports & requisite conditions? Any singleness of mind equipped with these seven factors — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, & right mindfulness — is called noble right concentration with its supports & requisite conditions.

[1] "Of those, right view is the forerunner. And how is right view the forerunner? One discerns wrong view as wrong view, and right view as right view. This is one’s right view. And what is wrong view? 'There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed. There is no fruit or result of good or bad actions.”—-MN 117

That’s true, the teaching on rebirth is definitely a claim about reality, not “just” a subjective experience.

But be careful: the word “just” in this context is a tell, a hangover from western philosophy. You’d never hear a Buddhist philosopher saying something like this. In Buddhism, subjective experience is as real as anything else, and exists interdependently with the external. Try taking it out and see the difference. A Buddhist way of stating the same thing might that the cycle of rebirth is a reality which has both internal and external dimensions.

That’s fine, the word is used in many senses. I tend to be influenced in this respect by the logical positivists, for whom “metaphysics” was a Bad Word. The important thing is not the language, but the nature of the claims.

  • In Buddhism, claims about what lies after death are an extension of ordinary knowledge reached via a process of inference from sense experience. It may be difficult to know (like scientific knowledge), but it is potentially knowable, and there is a method to gain such knowledge. “Faith” is a contingent virtue until one sees for oneself in this very life (akāliko). Life in any realm follows the same principles as life here, and it is all impermanent.
  • In “ordinary” religions, claims about what lies after death involve inherently unknowable properties such as “eternity” and hence are ultimately unknowable and untestable. “Faith” is an absolute virtue as truth is withheld from devotees in this life. Life after death is a totally separate realm of experience that is not subject to impermanence.

This is not a minor or trivial distinction: it is the heart of the Buddha’s critique of other religions (prominently Brahmanism and Jainism). Conflating these perspectives is philosophically untenable.

To give an obvious example of the difference:

  • A Buddhist may claim to have had a past life as John Cage, the well-known composer. That’s easily refuted if they were born before August 12, 1992, when John Cage died. On the other hand, it may be supported if they can supply details of his life that are not public knowledge.
  • A Christian may claim that because of their faith they will be lifted up into eternal life at the side of the Lord. It’s not possible by any empirical methods to affirm the existence of a being who is the omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect creator. Nor is it possible to affirm “eternal” existence in any state, as we only have temporal reality as our guide.

These are two radically different kinds of statements. Which kind of statement you prefer is, of course, a matter for one’s own personal faith and theological ideas. There are many who believe that the very unknowability of their God makes their faith the font of their highest virtues. Buddhists, however, do not.

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What would you say, bhante, to those who after ingesting some substance claim that they have communicated with beings from other dimensions, which can even give some knowledge about something unknown until that moment, and also asserting that such beings exist independently from our thoughts (i.e. they have external existence)?

In my opinion, such experience also comes from sense experience and they don’t seem so different in appearence.

Just in case, I’m neither saying that the recalling of past lives is equivalent to the use of psychedelics. I’m trying to explore this issue as if I were reading the suttas from the first time, without any exposure to buddhism before.

Kind regards!

Well, if I may butt in… I encounter such patients from time to time in my professional practice. Sometimes they are on drugs, sometimes they have a mental illness. Over time, I have become far more sympathetic of such people. Even though you and I might dismiss what they perceive as ‘just’ a hallucination … for them its REAL (and mostly far more REAL than just real!). One should consider the true nature of our own experience- can we prove that our reality truly exists, outside of sense experience? How can that be done without using the senses? So which is the hallucination and which is the true reality? Someone who has understood the Buddha’s Dhamma, knows the answer to that dilemma!

SN12.61
When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases. That is, with ignorance as condition, volitional formations come to be; with volitional formations as condition, consciousness…. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. But with the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance comes cessation of volitional formations; with the cessation of volitional formations, cessation of consciousness…. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.

SN12.15
Kaccāna, this world mostly relies on the dual notions of existence and non-existence.

But when you truly see the origin of the world with right understanding, you won’t have the notion of non-existence regarding the world. And when you truly see the cessation of the world with right understanding, you won’t have the notion of existence regarding the world.

SN22.94
A proponent of the Dhamma does not dispute with anyone in the world. Of that which the wise in the world agree upon as not existing, I too say that it does not exist. And of that which the wise in the world agree upon as existing, I too say that it exists.

AN3.66
Come, Salha, do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or with what has come down in scriptures or with conjecture or with logical inference or with weighing evidence or with a liking for a view after pondering it or with someone else’s ability or with the thought ‘The monk is our teacher.’ When you know in yourself ‘These things are unprofitable, liable to censure, condemned by the wise, being adopted and put into effect, they lead to harm and suffering,’ then you should abandon them…
When you know in yourself: ‘These things are profitable, blameless, commended by the wise, being adopted and put into effect they lead to welfare and happiness,’ then you should practice them and abide in them.

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I don’t know, it depends on the person and the context. The most important thing is to empathize and sense whether they are mentally stable. Most of the time such trips are harmless, but they can trigger psychosis.

I agree, and I wouldn’t necessarily rule out a priori the possibility that they are having a genuine experience. It’s subject to the same rules of evidence that one might use for a meditation experience.

The great difference, though, is that a meditation experience, if done properly, happens in the context of a gradual path and training and deepening of understanding, and emerges from a mind that has been carefully and consistently cleansed of the forces that twist understanding.

Compare your example with, say, physics. Imagine that someone takes mushrooms and, while tripping, sees a vision of a formula that resolves the conflict between relativity and quantum theory. Now suppose a genius physicist in a stroke of insight comes up with a different formula that does the same thing. Who to believe? Well, it’s possible in principle that the shrooms have bestowed a genuine insight. But on the face of it, I’ll trust the physicist, thanks. But neither of them can really be taken as fact until it’s been thoroughly tested and vetted: after all, even the best physicists get things wrong.

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Well said, Bhante! It’s the framework, form, intensity, transiency and interpretation that differentiates the pathological from the spiritual, as discussed here.

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I agree, and I’m starting to notice the differences between the cases mentioned.

If I didn’t misunderstand you, I interpret the main points of your post as saying that:

a) Even the best ones can make mistakes.
b) All claims are subject to the same rules of evidence.
c) There is a chance of having a first-person sense experience (a kind of redundant phrase) that may not be representing some fact about the external reality (i.e. does not produces knowledge about how the world external to the mind works).
d) A useful criteria to decide to whom to pay attention is to see who uses the best procedure to arrive to knowledge and who has the best record of producing verifiable knowledge through that method. But that method does not ensure that the one applying it would always get things right.

I agree with all of those points. However, I constantly see people assuming the reality of rebirth by:
a) Having themselves the experience of recalling past lives.
b) Stating the Buddha had the same kind of experiences, and since it is assumed that the Buddha cannot be wrong, he had to be knowing a fact about reality by having that experience.

If we apply the four points mentioned, aren’t those two last reasons insufficient to assume without a doubt the reality of rebirth?

Just to be clear: what I’m questioning is the criteria used in the suttas to declare knowledge about reality as a whole. I’m not denying that the experiences are being experienced, but I don’t understand how does the Buddha or the suttas decide what’s knowledge and what’s just an idionsyncratic experience.

Kind regards!

Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying!

Sure, and this is why I didn’t want to comment about what “people” say. That we should be cautious about our truth claims is emphasized again and again in the suttas, and it is only one of many of the Buddha’s lessons that has not sunk in very deep.

Very much so. See the Shorter Elephant’s Footprint (MN 27):

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Thanks, dear Bhante. I appreciate the time you take to answer these questions.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to retake the last point I asked about, regarding the concept of “knowledge” in the suttas:

What I’m questioning is the criteria used in the suttas to declare knowledge about reality as a whole. I’m not denying that the experiences are being experienced, but I don’t understand how does the Buddha or the suttas decide what’s knowledge and what’s just an idionsyncratic experience.

How can the Buddha know the reality of rebirth? He experienced a phenomena which he called “calling of past lives/abodes”, but how does one jump from that experience to a metaphysical claim?

Maybe one example can highlight a little bit more the point I’m struggling to understand: How did the Buddha know that after attaining arahantship, he was free from the cycle of rebirth, specially since he has still alive? Does that count as “knowledge”?

Kind regards, and thanks again!

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Indeed, and in his case of course there was no real possibility of an “external” check on the “facts”. So this claim then rests on the previous point I made, that this knowledge emerges near the very end of a path whose purpose was to eradicate any unclarity or distortion in the mind.

Which leads us to:

Again, yes, this is a form of knowledge, and it is an inferential knowledge. Like the previous, it emerges from a mind clear of defilements; but even more so, now the very possibility of defilements are completely removed from the mind. not just from the manifest mind.

In both these cases, the ultimate test of knowledge lies in the effects. These are not mere “theoretical acceptance” (diṭṭhinijjhānakkhanti) but effective realizations that have produced a definite result.

Another way of seeing it is from what you might think of as the “other side”. What if the problem were not, “how is one able to see entrapment and freedom from the round of samsara?” for that is all we have ever known. What if the problem was that our knowledge of entrapment is staring us right in the face, the most obvious truth of reality, but we’re just too blind to see? Lift the blindness and there it is, boom crikey! You see the nature of things and know what that means.

Does that help?

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Yeah, it does, but I’m still left with the feeling that I have some points to connect yet.

One example of these points (which I mentioned in another thread) was how did the Bodhisatta knew, before attaning Nibbana, what he was looking for. In the way the suttas tell the stories before enlightenment, it seems as if he knew all along that Nibbana was a possibility (or at least that’s how always strikes me).

I know there is a phenomenon which I (and many others) call suffering/dissatisfaction, and that’s why the Dhamma seemed so captivating to me when I started to know more about it: it related to a phenomena I experienced everyday. However, I don’t feel the same regarding Samsara and the round of rebirths. If you were to tell me that this constant fluctuation between ups-and-downs was Samsara, then I’d easily understand the idea of “getting out” of Samsara; but when we’re talking about rebirths, that idea “creates” some problem that was not in my field of experience before, and there’s a bunch of religions and spiritual traditions offering a solution for a problem I have a hard time seeing.

I apologize for returning to this idea again, but I don’t know how to feel about trying to reach people for help in understading this problem I didn’t know I was experiencing (rebirth), and getting most of the time answers like the ones I mentioned before: “The Buddha knew everything, so he’s right”, or “a lot of people remember their past lives, so it’s true”, or “the suttas are always right”, “or you just have to keep your mind open”, or some variations of those. When someone comes to Buddhism running away from answers likes those ones, I understand where they’re coming from, because the idea of rebirth is one that always feel like has not a coherent answer, at least from the perspective of the suttas.

As you’ve been showing me in these exchanges, there’re two kinds of knowledge in the suttas: experiential/direct knowledge, and inferential knowledge. I’m happy to read this from you, because it’s the first time I see someone explicitly stating that not every knowledge the Buddha had was a direct one. This allows me to try to new perspective to comprehend this “foreign” phenomenon of rebirth. At the same time, it causes more questions to arise: isn’t there a chance of other traditions making their statements about reality by inference as well? Could it be possible for the Buddha to arrive at his inferential conclusion about the end of rebirth, only to be wrong after death (and with no way to “tell others”, because he would’ve been, well, dead?).

I’m really thankful for this. If you have more ideas to share about this, I’d love to read them.

Kind regards!

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I understand the Buddha’s trajectory towards awakening as you’ve described: His complete removal of all defilements of his mind, a total clearing of any and all obstructions to recalling past experiences and rightly understanding. That’s what sets the Buddha apart.

Sure… and the Buddha has already answered this question 2500 years ago in his own inimical style! :smiley:

MN60

Since you haven’t found a teacher you’re happy with, you should undertake and implement this guaranteed teaching. For when the guaranteed teaching is undertaken, it will be for your lasting welfare and happiness. And what is the guaranteed teaching?

There are some ascetics and brahmins who have this doctrine and view: ‘There’s no meaning in giving, sacrifice, or offerings. There’s no fruit or result of good and bad deeds. There’s no afterlife. There’s no obligation to mother and father. No beings are reborn spontaneously. And there’s no ascetic or brahmin who is well attained and practiced, and who describes the afterlife after realizing it with their own insight.’

And there are some ascetics and brahmins whose doctrine directly contradicts this. They say: ‘There is meaning in giving, sacrifice, and offerings. There are fruits and results of good and bad deeds. There is an afterlife. There is obligation to mother and father. There are beings reborn spontaneously. And there are ascetics and brahmins who are well attained and practiced, and who describe the afterlife after realizing it with their own insight.’

What do you think, householders? Don’t these doctrines directly contradict each other?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Since this is so, consider those ascetics and brahmins whose view is that there’s no meaning in giving, etc. You can expect that they will reject good conduct by way of body, speech, and mind, and undertake and implement bad conduct by way of body, speech, and mind. Why is that? Because those ascetics and brahmins don’t see that unskillful qualities are full of drawbacks, sordidness, and corruption, or that skillful qualities have the benefit and cleansing power of renunciation.

Moreover, since there actually is another world, their view that there is no other world is wrong view. Since there actually is another world, their thought that there is no other world is wrong thought. Since there actually is another world, their speech that there is no other world is wrong speech. Since there actually is another world, in saying that there is no other world they contradict those perfected ones who know the other world. Since there actually is another world, in convincing another that there is no other world they are convincing them to accept an untrue teaching. And on account of that they glorify themselves and put others down. So they give up their former ethical conduct and are established in unethical conduct. And that is how wrong view gives rise to these many bad, unskillful qualities—wrong view, wrong thought, wrong speech, contradicting the noble ones, convincing others to accept untrue teachings, and glorifying oneself and putting others down.

A sensible person reflects on this matter in this way: ‘If there is no other world, when this individual’s body breaks up they will keep themselves safe. And if there is another world, when their body breaks up, after death, they will be reborn in a place of loss, a bad place, the underworld, hell. But let’s assume that those who say that there is no other world are correct. Regardless, that individual is still criticized by sensible people in the present life as being an immoral individual of wrong view, a nihilist.’ But if there really is another world, they lose on both counts. For they are criticized by sensible people in the present life, and when their body breaks up, after death, they will be reborn in a place of loss, a bad place, the underworld, hell. They have wrongly undertaken this guaranteed teaching in such a way that it encompasses the positive outcomes of one side only, leaving out the skillful premise.

Since this is so, consider those ascetics and brahmins whose view is that there is meaning in giving, etc. You can expect that they will reject bad conduct by way of body, speech, and mind, and undertake and implement good conduct by way of body, speech, and mind. Why is that? Because those ascetics and brahmins see that unskillful qualities are full of drawbacks, sordidness, and corruption, and that skillful qualities have the benefit and cleansing power of renunciation.

Moreover, since there actually is another world, their view that there is another world is right view. Since there actually is another world, their thought that there is another world is right thought. Since there actually is another world, their speech that there is another world is right speech. Since there actually is another world, in saying that there is another world they don’t contradict those perfected ones who know the other world. Since there actually is another world, in convincing another that there is another world they are convincing them to accept a true teaching. And on account of that they don’t glorify themselves or put others down. So they give up their former unethical conduct and are established in ethical conduct. And that is how right view gives rise to these many skillful qualities—right view, right thought, right speech, not contradicting the noble ones, convincing others to accept true teachings, and not glorifying oneself or putting others down.

A sensible person reflects on this matter in this way: ‘If there is another world, when this individual’s body breaks up, after death, they will be reborn in a good place, a heavenly realm. But let’s assume that those who say that there is no other world are correct. Regardless, that individual is still praised by sensible people in the present life as being a moral individual of right view, who affirms a positive teaching.’ So if there really is another world, they win on both counts. For they are praised by sensible people in the present life, and when their body breaks up, after death, they will be reborn in a good place, a heavenly realm. They have rightly undertaken this guaranteed teaching in such a way that it encompasses the positive outcomes of both sides, leaving out the unskillful premise.

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Ah! Perhaps we can agree that:

  • Some will find endless rebirth a boon (“may I be a wealthy person…”)
  • Others will find endless rebirth satisfactory (“these lives are interesting…”)
  • Others will find endless rebirth suffering (“Enough!”)

Non-returners and arahants realize that endless rebirth is suffering. This is the sobering truth captured in MN1 and implied by dependent origination.

MN1:172-194.26: Because he has understood that relishing is the root of suffering, and that rebirth comes from continued existence; whoever has come to be gets old and dies.

If you find that thought unhappy, you would not be alone:

MN1:172-194.31: But the mendicants were not happy with what the Buddha said.

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Thanks this wonderful sutta!

As I said, the main issue I’m trying to settle in my head is the idea (and method of justification) of knowledge of metaphysical facts from personal experience.

That sutta focuses on ethics and virtue, but sadly, does not tell us much about the above mentioned “problem”.

Kind regards!

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