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Understanding Anatta, Rebirth, and Materialism

A question I have been struggling with is reconciling the teachings of anatta in regards to rebirth.

Assumptions

Anatta - The five aggregates are not self, meaning ownerless, impermanent, and conditionally arisen. Form, the body, is not self. This is obvious, even from a scientific materialist perspective. Likewise, that which is dependent upon the body – namely, feeling, perception, and mental formations are not self. Consciousness I understand to be a kind of fundamental element of existence, similar to earth, water, air, and fire. All these combined create the “person”, almost like a self-aware robot.

Rebirth - With the breaking apart of the body, and the disintegration of the five aggregates, a new conditioned arising occurs based upon the kamma accumulated in that life, and in previous lives, just as one candle can be used to light another. From here I’ve heard two explanations, and I am unsure which to believe:

(a) Rebirth is not the continuation of an unchanging essence, i.e a soul, but rather the process of one life conditioning the initial parameters of the next.

(b) There is some awareness, or “mind”, linking these lives, however it is ownerless and undefinable.

Questions

  1. If we take the (a) understanding of rebirth, what self-motivated incentive does one have to seek a better rebirth? If, at death, one merely conditions the arising of another set of five aggregates, and there is no continuity of consciousness, no memory of the previous life, would this not be equivalent to the annihilation of that “entity” as far as it is concerned? The only way I can make sense of this is if there is some possible perceived sense of continuity, just as there is in this current life, despite the entity dying and being reborn in every moment, to a certain extent.

  2. If Nibbana is merely the exhaustion of this process, why is it spoken of in experiential terms? For example I have heard Nibbana called “the highest bliss”, “peaceful”, “radiant”, etc. What is it that experiences Nibbana for it to be characterized as such? Is Paranibbana merely the consciousness element in its unconditioned state? Is it the ownerless “mind” that has ceased its localized grasping and identification? Or is it true annihilation in the scientific materialist sense?

Thank you for reading this. I hope my questions make sense. May you be happy.

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Welcome to D&D Dushan!
:pray:t4:

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The immediate situation is that suffering can be reduced and seen to be so doing. It is important to come to grips with the reality of the practice as it is, a misplaced perspective (common with western practitioners) does not result in progress:

“Even though this wish may occur to a monk who dwells without devoting himself to development — ‘O that my mind might be released from effluents through lack of clinging!’ — still his mind is not released from the effluents through lack of clinging. Why is that? From lack of developing, it should be said. Lack of developing what? The four frames of reference, the four right exertions, the four bases of power, the five faculties, the five strengths, the seven factors for Awakening, the noble eightfold path.”-

[…]

“Just as when a carpenter or carpenter’s apprentice sees the marks of his fingers or thumb on the handle of his adze…”–SN 22.101

The practitioner should be aware of how much their strategy of practice is making an impression on reducing the effluents, and how much freedom they have achieved as a consequence.

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(a). On rebirth, if you only see rebirth between 2 lifetimes, there’s certainly somethings which remains the same, and thus, most people are tempted to call it the soul, the unchanging essence of oneself which undergoes rebirth. However, consider this: when you expand to many many lifetimes (beginning-less in Buddhism), not 1 thing remains the same throughout the rebirth going to the lowest realms, insects, spiders, to humans, to the highest gods, Sakka, Mara, Brahmas, even formless realms. We all had been there before, and given even only 1% change for each rebirth, all of the 5 aggregates for everyone had completely changed countless times since beginningless rebirth. No immortal unchanging soul is found in this picture.

Also, materialism is inherently incompatible with rebirth, as they cannot admit mind to be fundamental and obeys its own laws of kamma and rebirth. As materialism is not necessary in science and has data here which shows rebirth evidences to disprove it, I wouldn’t place any weight to materialism philosophy.

(b). Mind is not undefinable, it’s the 4 other aggregates. It’s well studied and defined in the Dhamma, especially abhidhamma, if you care to read it.

  1. According to Abhidhamma, there’s clear continuity of mind from one life to another. Memory is also passed on for some, as the rebirth evidences above shows. Delusion of self motivates the self betterment or seeking for end of rebirth.

  2. It’s not useful to speculate on the specific nature of nibbana, there’s plenty of description of nibbana in the suttas and one might have to content with those. As people with delusion of self, it’s not easy to imagine what nibbana is without putting our conception and delusion of self into it and then the picture becomes different from what it actually is.

As the Buddha claimed that both annihilationism and eternalism are extremes and he taught the middle path of dependent origination and cessation, it’s good to keep those two extremes in mind when thinking about nibbana.

Nibbana as end of rebirth seems close to annihilationism. Nibbana as permanently the highest happiness seems close to eternalism. This is due to having delusion of self that these swings of perspective happens. There’s no self in the first place to annihilate. There’s no self in the first place to be eternalised in nibbana. Not understanding no self, it’s not easy to understand nibbana.

One way to say the experience of nibbana is possible is via the cessation of perception and feelings, after which upon emerging, one can confirm that nibbana is the highest bliss. Although there’s still subtle differences between that cessation attainment and nibbana. I think I need expert’s help on this topic. I am not sure on this part.

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Thank you for putting it this way. It describes the middle way between annihilationism and eternalism in a concrete sort of way, that I’ve never been able to grasp. It’s a great help.

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To add on, comparing materialism. Those who believe in materialism, that is only form (body/ physical things like brain) exist fundamentally can very easily theoretically have some understanding of no self in form.

After all, we are made of cells, which are made of molecules, which are made of atoms, which are made of electrons, proton, neutrons, which ultimately are made of quarks, together with the bosons in the standard model. Where’s a soul or self in there? Yet, their mere intellectual understanding doesn’t help them even intellectually. The materialists still have notion of personal property, of being hurt by people, thus hate, of having feelings delighted by this or that, thus likes and dislikes.

So they are very much trapped by the delusion of self and only paying lip service when they agree with the no self nature declared by the Buddha. It’s only when they properly learn the Buddha’s teachings, properly practise them, abandoned the philosophy/ view of materialism for the right view of Buddhism, then the realisation of no self may happen.

Mere lip service and not able to live like an arahant is useless in terms of the goal of ending of suffering.

It’s due to this lip service to the belief of no self that the wrong views of annihilation arises in the materialist after death. They have this intuitive notion of self exist, but is no more after death, thus annihilation. Whereas the Buddhist point of view is that there’s no self in the first place to annihilate.

When the view of annihilation is established in one with regards to nibbana, that’s wrong view, it can be a hindrance towards attaining to nibbana. In many suttas, the Buddha scolded monks who thinks of nibbana as annihilation. If you can see within yourself that your mind is trying to create something which enjoys nibbana forever, that’s switching to eternalism. Thus it’s very hard to think about nibbana when one has delusion of self.

So it’s good to abandon the naive notion of nothing after death of the materialists when thinking about nibbana. Focus more attention on trying to practise and realise no self and developing the no self perception after morality is firmly established.

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Ajahn Brahmali discusses rebirth and consciousness at length in his dependent origination series. He quotes many suttas to show how the EBT (Early Buddhist Texts) talk about rebirth and consciousness. It’s an excellent series, well worth watching. If you’re only interested in the rebirth/consciousness part, you’ll have to jump to the specific workshops where they discuss that. He might not address your particular question, but it might still be beneficial to watch it. Here’s a link to the whole series: https://bswa.org/teaching/dependent-origination-workshops-2020/.

Regarding your questions:

  1. The Buddha was primarily driven by compassion. His whole purpose was to free beings from suffering, and that includes being reborn into realms or situations with a lot of suffering. However, he was also very pragmatic. So, even though birth is seen as something to escape altogether in Buddhism, including births in better realms or situations, the Buddha acknowledged that we need certain conditions present to be able practice the Dhamma (which is how we free ourselves from birth). For example, if you’re born into intense poverty in a war-torn area and you don’t have access to the Buddha’s teaching, and so are unable to practice the Dhamma, that obviously isn’t a good rebirth. There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to be reborn into a situation like that. It’s also generally understood in Buddhism that being reborn into some of the heavenly realms isn’t ideal either. Those realms are so pleasurable that it’s hard to practice the Dhamma.
  2. I don’t know where you heard those descriptions of Nibbana. They might not be from the EBTs. In general, the Buddha didn’t talk about what happens after parinibbana in the EBTs. He refused to talk about many philosophical points related to that and some other topics. Ajahn Brahmali has said that the bliss of the jhanas is similar to how an enlightened mind feels because there is little to no greed, anger, and delusion present during or shortly after attaining jhana. So we can infer that Nibanna would be blissful.

Bhante Sujato did a series on kamma and rebirth. He’s done it more than once, actually. Here’s a link to one of those series: Karma and Rebirth Course | Buddhist Society of Western Australia. He does some “myth busting” about kamma in the beginning, which is quite eye opening as there are many incorrect views held by Buddhists (from the perspective of the EBTs). Ajahn Brahmali does this, too, at the beginning of many of his workshops. The ongoing Noble Eightfold Path series he is doing is definitely worth watching. There are 15 parts to that series, so far. Here’s a link to the first couple of videos in the series https://bswa.org/event/workshop-series-noble-eightfold-path/.

This might also be of interest to you: Are rebirth, old age etc. 'dukkha'? Or, merely *characterised* by dukkha? - #10 by Brahmali

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