Rebirth has been confusing me lately. I understand Anatta and Rebirth, and I understand how they fit together, but what I don’t understand is how it actually works. I see Anatta and how it makes perfect sense, but I also see how the access to memories of our current lives offers us a kind of continuity that still isn’t a self, but still lets us build on what’s been learned. If rebirth works the way most buddhists think, why does it even matter? Our next “life” isn’t even really “ours.” It’s, for all accounts and purposes, a totally different person. The only connection is that it’s existence is conditioned by our actions. But that really isn’t much of a connection, seeing as though the same thing could be said for your children, and they are quite obviously not connected to your 5 aggregates other than that fact of conditioning. So then, with the current model of understanding, in a strange way the only reason to care about your own future lives is out of metta and compassion. Metta and compassion for someone who doesn’t yet exist.
This is an odd way look at it, but doing certain things in the hope of rebirth in a deva realm is totally ridiculous. Anatta, no memories or continuity, and totally different and unconnected 5 aggregates besides the fact of conditioning. In any way you look at it, it is not you, I mean I know it’s not “you” anyways, but on an even deeper and stranger level, this new being won’t even have the same delusion of self that you do. When you look at it this way, it makes sense that there’s really no reason to be more compassionate and concerned for your future “self,” than for the person you last walked by on the street. It really opens things up in regards to emptiness and compassion. When you truly understand emptiness, you see that there is no one, ever, no one suffering, no future “selves” to accrue merit for, there is just suffering, plain and simple. And so what matters really is the elimination of suffering and the movement toward awakening in a very general sense, not suffering for any particular person or future self.
Now here’s where the blasphemy comes in, and try not to hate me for it. I can’t help but wonder how accurate the rebirth notion is in reference to the Buddha’s actual teachings on the subject. I see how the Buddha took common concepts of the time and flipped them all on their head, but then we come to rebirth, and the idea that is claimed he proclaimed is really not that far from the original. I know it’s combination with Anatta changes things a lot, but still, everything else is so, I don’t know, intuitively logical. Even Karma, which to me is just determinism in another form, cause and effect, conditions and results. Even consciousness I understand as an intrinsic quality to the pattern that holds namarupa together, not necessarily as a totally separate element like an immaterial particle or whatever the abhidhamma says; and so consciousness depends on namarupa, and namarupa depends on consciousness. All of these things make total sense to me, and then we get to rebirth and we start talking about karmic streams of consciousness or something. That just doesn’t make sense to me, but I do recognize that the texts do say things like “with the break up of the body,” and “reappear in the deva realm.” I wonder what the possibility is that the original teachings became convoluted before they were written down, or if maybe the Buddha just meant being reborn moment after moment. I mean, is that totally crazy? The break up of the body part is tough to argue, but that could have easily wormed its way in somehow and became a staple of talking about rebirth in other realms. Otherwise it still makes complete sense if it was actually rebirth in the same life. Since there is Anatta, every moment is a rebirth in a sense, a rebirth of the delusion of self. So in that sense, dependent origination would be the cause of rebirth of the delusion of self in each moment. Then the deva realms could be much less suffering than a normal person because the mind is far more pure, hungry ghosts could be drug addicts or just those totally obsessed with sense desire more than the average person, hell realm could be people whose minds are just totally wrecked and just pure non-stop suffering.
I know, I know, then what karma decides where a person is born in the first place, and what about the life span of all the devas or hungry ghosts and so forth. I don’t have explanations for all of that, maybe the time span is actually not as long as people think and it’s only in minutes and days, and maybe there really isn’t a karmic stream and more of a karmic ocean, whatever conditioned your particular aggregates to arise at your birth are “your” karma. And I am not necessarily saying that the texts are wrong and that this doesn’t exist. I guess my real point is that I think Buddhism has gone off the rails a bit with certain aspects of the teachings. I think the Buddha was actually far more in tune with a more scientific view of reality and he just used the concepts available to him at the time to explain what he had learned. I’m not saying he was a materialist, not at all, but I am saying he was a naturalist, and that some ideas have spun out of control. Its difficult because it’s hard to know what could have been lost or twisted up or convoluted in the 500 years after his death. So take this all with a grain of salt. I would love some input though.