Rebirth, Memories, & Blasphemy

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.

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Rebirth is everywhere, all over the place in the Suttas - The Buddha said that he was speaking about direct experience, he said that other disciples could also see beings undergoing the process of rebirth according to their kamma and they confirmed this. The Buddha talked about where his disciples had taken rebirth when they passed away, and that an Arahant was no longer subject to rebirth. If you think that someone slipped this idea into the suttas after the fact, and the Buddha never taught about rebirth, then why do you believe he actually taught about anything else you see in the suttas? The Buddha taught that even if you were skeptical about rebirth and kamma, you would still be better off believing in it - if there is no rebirth it really doesn’t matter that you lived as if there was. But if there IS really rebirth, well, you had the right belief and lived according to it!

Moment to moment rebirth, IMO, can be a useful thing to contemplate - but I believe, very, very strongly, that the Buddha was talking about ACTUAL rebirth, and that he spoke the truth from direct knowledge.

IMO the future you (after rebirth) will be “you” in the same sense that you are the same person you were five minutes ago. Actually, your body and mind have changed, and your experience is different - anatta - but that doesn’t mean you’re going to say “well, in 5 minutes I’ll be a totally different person, so what do I care about that person, I might as well eat 20 taco bell gorditas. Yea - there will be a stomach ache, vomiting, etc…but “I” wont be experiencing those things, it will be someone else!” But wouldn’t that be stupid? The future aggregates will be just as much “you” as your aggregates right now are, and that is the scary thing, and its one of the main reasons that we need to get off the wheel of samsara.

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That’s not true though, because if that were the case, then we would feel that all of our past lives were also ourselves, and yet, for most, we have no memory of them. The access to memories gives us the continuity. The reason we worry about the future in this life is because we will remember everything we remember now, the continuity of memory. So our future “self” would falsely identify with the past. But in another life entirely, there are no memories, and the 5 aggregates are so different that any continuity is cut off. It literally is an entirely different person, even more so than our future “selves” in this life already are. And I totally understand you believing the Buddha was talking about actual rebirth and not just rebirth in this life, honestly I am right on the fence about it. But the fact remains that it is just as possible that it is not what the Buddha intended. I don’t even think it is more or less likely or probable. If you read the texts in this way, they still make just as much sense, so it’s really difficult to reason this out. I only say it’s possible because the Buddha turned so many other concepts of the time completely around, and yet the “actual” rebirth doctrine still incorporates other realms and all of that. It just seems to similar to the original thing, just with Anatta instead, which I realize is a big difference, but still. And then the way you’re explaining, it really is almost the exact same, with Anatta, but not really cause it still seems like your “self”? That just doesn’t make sense to me. There are specific reasons we are lost in the delusion of self and why we identify with our past selves, if you take those away in the “next life,” it really is a totally different person.

  1. Some beings apparently do remember previous lives.
  2. We forget much about what we experience in this life. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, and it doesn’t mean we lost our sense of self somewhere along the way. We don’t remember most of what we experienced while we were sleeping, but when we wake up in the morning we still have an ‘identity view.’ So obviously, there is more to a sense of self than continuity of memory.

To me, it is more like a bad habit that we have - we just keep clinging to whatever we experience as if it were a self, or belonged to a self, or a self was hiding somewhere in it. And we don’t lose that habit just because we die. Whenever we regain consciousness, if we lose it at all, memory or not, we retain that basic sense of grasping at experience, of making everything personal.

Let me give you an example from my personal life: When I was about 12 years old, basketball was everything to me. I would watch every NBA game I could, I played constantly, I wore basketball jerseys to school, I obsessed over basketball shoes, cards, etc…I hung out with other kids who loved basketball. I would draw pictures of myself in my basketball fantasy universe - and I dreamed of playing professional basketball etc…My whole identity revolved around basketball. And other people knew it, and treated me accordingly…

By the time I turned 18, I realized that a professional basketball career was very unlikely, and I became more and more interested in other things. Music (and girls) mostly - and so everything I did revolved around music, and I went to music school, and I showed up at all the jam sessions, and I wrote songs and made recordings and a website and talked endlessly about music, and I hung out with musicians and did the kinds of things i thought musicians did, and listened to records and read music reviews, and read marxist philosophical music criticism, and eventually played real professional gigs! etc etc…and so I had fashioned for myself another identity, as a musician.

And I’m sure I could go on…So many identities (“Buddhist”) , all in this one human life!!

But belief in a self/personality view (IMO) is much deeper than superficial identities we create for ourselves; it is a much more subtle process. Even if I just did nothing my whole life and had no interests and sat in a sterilized white room from birth to death - unless I broke through to the Dhamma - I would very likely still have a sense of self. There would be some grasping at experience. Although I would not have a particular identity that I could present to other beings, or even make sense of in my own head.

As far as rebirth goes, I think you need to just think about the rebirth of an “individual” (an individual karmic accumulation, perhaps) rather than a “self.” And I wouldn’t get so hung up on the fact that the new body will effectively be a new person. It is just like changing your clothes or something - if I change into a new outfit, technically speaking, the body that was wearing the old outfit will not be the exact same body wearing the new outfit (because of impermanence and non-self). And yet, it isn’t someone else’s body - it is just the continuity of these same individual aggregates, and all of the feelings associated with that body - those will be experienced by this consciousness. And as long as I have the habit of taking the presently arisen feeling or experience to be “me” or “mine,” then self grasping continues…In short, there is no contradiction in my mind between rebirth and anatta.

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The irony of reading the above in preview mode. Hehe!

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@jimisommer … This is a very profound observation that you make, I congratulate you for it! The fact that the being that will, lets say, form around my enduring kamma, will not be myself, doesn’t mean that we should no longer care! This is the whole point about anatta and about not falling in nihilist or hedonistic views. The only reason you even think that this future being is not going to be yourself, is that you continue to act as if the present being is yourself! By your own logic, you shouldn’t care about the happiness and suffering of the being and the kamma that is “you” right now, because it, too, is not yourself! But you do care! Why? because the experience of dukkha is real and accessible to your consciousness. It is going to be real and accessible for the future being as well, and in both cases we should no longer take it “personally”! This is not a battle between “me” and dukkha; this is a battle between an actual blindness and possible gnosis, the existence of which is transcendental, and so to is the battle! The “me”, the namarupa, is both the battling parties and the battleground! This is why the “will” continues to matter; this is why we have a choice, this is why we must “give up” the ego!

Again congratulations for your contemplation. Keep going!

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Good call, it wasn’t really paragraph friendly, but I did what I could.

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Rebirth is so embedded into the suttas it’s almost comical that anyone could question whether the Buddha was talking about rebirth as an actual observable fact of reality. In this sutta I posted a few days ago, KN iti 81, the Buddha says explicitly he’s talking about seeing the process of rebirth happening from his own experience, not hearsay.

KN iti 81 in msg. 27 of the thread:

I was reading the first 10 suttas in AN 4 yesterday, and rebirth is mentioned in several of those suttas. In the very first sermon the Buddha gave, Dhamma wheel turning discourse, he talks about rebirth in there.

At best, we could say the EBT is corrupt, and that they don’t contain the Buddha’s actual view of rebirth.

Have you ever wondered why the ascetics of the Buddha’s time, including the Buddha, were willing to go through such extreme austerities, to the point of risking death, to look for a way out of rebirth in samsara? Why so many princes and wealthy people ordained under the Buddha? If there was no rebirth, wouldn’t they just stay as as wealthy comfortable worldling and just be a lay supporter?

Rebirth is an observable phenomena for anyone of any religion whose samadhi is developed to something similar to 4th jhana quality. Hindus, Essenes, Taoists, Chrisitians and atheists who are skilled meditators have witnessed it themselves.

This a very interesting account you might be interested in, it comes from a skeptical scientifically trained MD.

In any case, it’s completely understandable why people are skeptical about rebirth. You don’t believe what you can’t personally see, and that’s reasonable. It’s much more reasonable than people believing all kind of crazy things out of blind faith that are harmful to others and themselves.

But if you want to know the truth for yourselves, develop your samadhi to the point of 4th jhana and look for yourself. If you hang around skilled meditators, the divine eye, mind reading, seeing past lives and future rebirths is not an uncommon ability.

What I heard one lama say sums up the situation the best. “You don’t have to believe in rebirth, but you’re still subject to it.”

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I take your point, but I still see a dialectical difference between the form in this life and the form in the next. The difference being so great that it really is the equivalent to a stranger on the street. For example, if you were reborn as a human again, there is no real connection, you’ll grow as a fetus, born as a baby, and become a totally different person. I am not saying you shouldn’t have compassion for this person, I’m only saying it’s not unlike the compassion you have for anyone else.

I’m really just proposing that our "karmic streams are a little wider and more fluid than people may think. Something more like a karmic ocean, everyone conditioning eachother. I mean if there is no self, the karmic stream idea really pushes the limits of that. I understand that it’s a selfless karmic stream, but you can easily take the stream as a whole as a self, and then the release from that stream as awakening just reifies that view of self even more.

I don’t think I have all the answers to these questions, but I do think we need to take a closer look at our view of rebirth and really try to find out what the Buddha was really talking about. In AN3.34, there is an interesting passage at the end that kind of explains what the Buddha was really teaching for me, it’s all about release from suffering in this life. If that becomes less and less accessible, and more and more focus is put on the future, then we’re missing the point. In anyway that matters to “you,” this is it, this is all you have. Anything done for a future life after you die is a waste of time. Your motivation should really be anything but that. Compassion for others, purity of mind in this life, maybe even compassion for that future being. But if you’re looking to enjoy the deva realm, I think you’re gonna be disappointed. Not even because I’m saying it may not exist, but because that being isn’t going to be you, and won’t even be deluded into thinking it’s you like you are right now, it will be deluded into believing it is a totally new and separate person.

Yeah but that could still be taken in a different way. I mean our bodies change cells completely all the time, isn’t that a technical break up of the body? Every moment we have the delusion of self is a rebirth of that delusion. Again I am not saying that’s how it is, I’m just saying it’s a difficult notion to swallow even for people back then, and so in the 500 years before it was written down, it could have been twisted from metaphorical to actual. The metaphorical notion is still just as profound. For some reason it just makes more sense to me that the Buddha would take those concepts that everyone already believed in and give them all brand new meanings. The rebirth moment after moment fits perfectly into everything else, but once you take it into the actual rebirth world, or karmic stream, then it starts to sound just like what people already believed. Now the karmic ocean instead of the karmic stream still makes total sense, still explains “life” after actual death, but just not in the way that most people currently think, not in a way that makes it seem like you have a continuing kind of self or needs some supernatural consciousness element kind of explanation. Again not even exactly what I believe, just something to think about.

And we have Sariputta saying this in thag17.2:

The Blessed One, the Buddha, the seer
Was teaching Dhamma to another.
While Dhamma was being taught
I listened attentively, to understand the meaning—

My listening wasn’t wasted,
I’m liberated, without defilements.

Not for knowledge of past lives,
Nor even for clairvoyance;
Not for psychic powers, or reading the minds of others,
Nor for knowing people’s passing away and being reborn;
Not for purifying the power of clairaudience,
Did I have any resolve.

And in the end:

I’ve attended on the teacher
And fulfilled the Buddha’s instructions.
The heavy burden is laid down,
I’ve undone the attachment to being reborn in any state of existence.

I think that as long as the cause for birth (and subsequently suffering) is seen and eradicated, then one can say that the cycle of misery has been brought to an end. The cause for past births, this one and future ones is the same and the knowledge that it has been destroyed will coincide with the culmination of the Path.

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Its not supposed to: :wink:

"There are these four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them. Which four?
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"The Buddha-range of the Buddhas[1] is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.
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"The jhana-range of a person in jhana…[2]
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"The [precise working out of the] results of kamma…
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"Conjecture about [the origin, etc., of] the world is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.
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“These are the four unconjecturables that are not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness & vexation to anyone who conjectured about them.” AN4.77

You have the option of not taking it at face value:

"‘If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.’ This is the first assurance he acquires.
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"‘But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.’ This is the second assurance he acquires. AN3.65

Does it have to be? I mean, it is possible that other religious leader had some of these same abilities to see karma and rebirth. In fact there is one EBT sutta which says how one of them mistook Brahma as the being who created the universe, using his less then perfect psychic abilities. Buddha seems to have fine tuned those concepts and used them to aid liberation.

As far as continuity goes, there is no self now and no self in the future. But there is experiencing now and there will be experiencing in the future. If we want this experiencing to become progressively better and refined the N8FP is the solution. :anjal:

with metta

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This is so because the mere understanding of anatta does not by itself bring one to see and experience its reality in the present moment. This requires a lot of practice in awareness (sati), disinterestedness (nibidda), & dispassion (viraga). This “total stranger” attitude that you have right now toward the being that will inherit your kamma in the future, will gradually develop through practice toward the being that is holding your kamma right now, and which you call “myself”.

One way to understand it better is to think backwardly rather than forwardly: the kamma that is mobilising you right now, conditioning even your very contemplation right now, once belonged to someone else also. Does that make any difference in the fact that dukkha is real and vivid in your experience? And that it is very difficult to get out of it?

You are taking “experience” very personally! Where the problem is not who is experiencing dukkha, the problem is that “there is dukkha”. But there is also the transcendence of dukkha. So likewise, probably you’re thinking that “you” will attain nibbana, but the first thing you’ll notice if you actually do, is that “nibbana happened”, or “there’s no more dukkha”. You will not experience it personally in the same way you relate to all experience now. [I suppose ok?]

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Well actually, that helps a lot, but unfortunately it’s clearly no where near totally convincing evidence. So now for the most important question. Given that total belief one way or another without any personal experiential evidence would be, at least in some way, unreasonable; then how important is total faith that it is one way or another to actually walking the path and getting to the point when you actually can convince yourself? Every other aspect of the teachings from the texts locks in perfectly for me and entirely without a doubt. They just make perfect sense to me, not only logically although they do, but also experientially, through my meditative practice and just seeing all these truths in random daily experience. It’s just that when it comes to rebirth I start to stumble. And even if it does work in some karmic stream type of way, I don’t know if it has anything to do with an actual element of consciousness like the abhidhamma talks about. Although that’s neither here nor there, what’s most important to me at this point is how much “faith” (I hate that word) is really required of me, and also how much will be required of me when my practice becomes quite advanced and I still have not experienced evidence tipping me one way or the other? I will say that I have temporarily suspended my disbelief, so it’s kinda like I neither believe nor disbelieve (to use some sutta phrasing).

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Dear friend @jimisommer … No faith is ever required from you! I mean that’s not the way true faith works! IMHO.

Rejection of rebirth was my case as well at the beginning of the journey. I wouldn’t accept it: no empirical evidence, pure faith, no indications, nothing, “FORGET IT” I said! :).

What helped me a lot is that I was able to recognise and focus with the immediate psychological benefits of practice, independently from any other belief requirements. You could say I was not interested in spirituality at that time, but very interested in psychology. So I kept practising. I even thought of the Buddha (and still do by the way) as a great psychologist, but what eventually changed was to naturally begin to see how the actual absorption of mental health in Buddhist terms leads spontaneously to the development of one’s spiritual awakening and maturity. You really can never force it, however much hard you try. And to me it was all about Nibbana, it is this that really takes faith, probably more than anything else. And Nibbana always made sense to me. I don’t know about you. But if it is for you as well, then you don’t have to take a stance with regard to rebirth, keep practising for nibbana if you can make sense of it in the context of this life.

What you are actually seeking here is a “physicalist” evidence, at this point “rational” and “physicalist” are the same for you in terms of evidence. But there will never be a physicalist evidence about things like rebirth and nibbana, even about the possibility of the purification of the heart. So if I may be forward here; you are looking for “evidence” over an issue that cannot be proven; actually, that can never be proven, that cannot possibly be proven; very much like arguing with a Christian or a Muslim about the absence of “proof” of the existence of god! It’s the same here.

And in fact it’s not really rebirth as we customarily talk about it all the time (as in “you will be reborn here and there”), it’s rather what we call “atthikavada”; it is the belief that there are causes for the arising of beings such as you and me, and that, having arisen, those beings perpetuate those causes through action or will, thus giving rise to further beings, and so on. The believe that there is some continuity across successive beings, and that this continuity is consequential, the one being conditions both the arising and the nature of the other. It’s like a cosmological kind of procreation.

Seeking hard evidence of something like this is honestly … well I don’t know, it certainly doesn’t apply! You just observe and contemplate “what you are” right now according to Dhamma, and by observing and contemplating how a body and mind and a being like this has come to existence based on conditional causes, and by observing directly in experience how those conditional causes are still active and manifest in one’s existence, you eventually become able to ‘imagine’ how this gives rise to further existence and so on. Faith here arises directly supported by experience and understanding. So it is not experience of rebirth itself that makes one believe in rebirth, it is rather experience of one’s own conditioned existence in the present moment; because that’s the only thing that we will ever have direct access to (although some do remember their past lives, have you checked the work of Dr. Ian Stevenson?). Eventually and based on that, you reach a point where you nearly have no choice in believing in it. This is true faith, it is one that you cannot escape from any more!

But since this faith is based on both understanding and experience, we must remember that understanding and experience develop gradually; therefore, faith develops gradually as well. (on the gradual development of faith; does any one remember where it is mentioned by Buddha, in which sutta, or Dhammapada story perhaps?! thanks!). So my humble opinion is that you have to be patient and pursue with your self-observation and understanding independently from excessive needs to sort things out on the pure rational front right now. Peacefully carry that kind of indecision with you along the way; it’s okay, it’s natural; i mean tolerate it, coexist with it. For once accept that you are not totally in “rational” control here! And i hope you can see the benefits of practice independently from belief or disbelief in rebirth. Be patient because this issue can so easily lead to miccaditthi. And wish me good luck too! :slight_smile:

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