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Why bother? (Identity, rebirth and Nibbana)

Hi,
I would like to begin by wishing everyone a good Vesak 2021!
I would also like to apologise for this rather negative topic but unfortunately I have not found an answer satisfactory to me, so posting this question.

Reading the Pali suttas, I am left with great respect for many of the incisive teachings of the Buddha but also with this basic quandary:

  1. Assuming we do not end Tanha and achieve Nibbana by the end of this life, I find no real comfort for the after life under buddhism. I am Mr.X now and perhaps I will be Mr.Y in the next life (so to speak). Now, Mr.Y will not remember anything about being Mr.X. There is no sense of identity (leaving aside anecdotal exceptions) with Mr.X . So you cannot really say Mr.X continues on. For all practical purposes, Mr.X dies here and that’s it.

or,

  1. Assuming we do end tanha and achieve nibbana, it does not involve any i-ness/mine-ness. No sense of identity with the personality factors/skandhas of Mr.X. It is even doubtful if nibbana is a form of awareness/consciousness. So it is at best a sort of stasis without any thought and sense of identity with X, at worst it is just glorified suicide.

So why bother with the path?

I fully appreciate the sanditthika/‘here and now’ aspect of the moral teachings. But my question is about afterlife.

To counter point 1 above, we can say two things:
(a) if you are good, you could be born as a ‘deva’ who will recollect past lives. But unfortunately, I have trouble accepting devas as anything other than beings evolved naturally like us, but perhaps at a higher state of evolution. The description of the devas in the Tipitaka do not seem very believable to me, and they match the descriptions in the jain/hindu literature. They seem to describe magical apparitional beings rather than evolved aliens.

(b) You could take an example of a person who knows he is going to have amnesia and forget who he/she is. Even though they will lose their sense of identity with their earlier self/life, they would still want their future life to be good. I could similarly wish a better life for Mr.Y, though he would have no sense of identity with me/to Mr.X.

Frankly, neither (a) nor (b) is entirely convincing to me.
Any other thoughts/better suggestions?

Much Metta!

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I’d say it would be beneficial to reflect on your questions from the perspective of anatta (not-self). There is no Mr. X, even right now. There is only a chaotic flux of elements that give the illusion of Mr. X. So Mr. X doesn’t end at death because he never existed. There being no Mr, X, there is nothing that belongs to Mr. X, either. So you don’t even lose Mr. X’s body or “his” memories when death happens. Think of how many memories you’ve already lost. I don’t know if there has ever been a study about this, but I think people fail to remember the majority of their lives. I mean what were you doing on the 2nd Tuesday of the third week of November 8 eight years ago? What about the day after that? Or the day before? However, it seems that when you reach enlightenment, you will be able to remember all of your past lives. What’s interesting is how being able to recollect all those past lives affects a person. It was life-changing for the Buddha.

The Buddha didn’t describe Nibbana in great detail, so I think you’re making assumptions when you say, “it is at best a sort of stasis without any thought and sense of identity with X, at worst it is just glorified suicide.” The Buddha and his disciples did talk about how blissful it is to experience it while alive, though. So I think you’ve come to the wrong conclusion about it. Seeing through the self, which you could say is synonymous with attaining Nibbana, brings a tremendous amount of relief, and ultimately ends all our suffering. It sounds like you’re seeing the loss of a self as something negative, though. However, you only feel that way because of the sense of self, and feeling that way is a great example of how the sense of self creates suffering.

The Buddhist path is one of joy and happiness. The Buddha spoke about joy and happiness all the time. The suttas are filled with different descriptions of joy and bliss. If Nibbana and enlightenment didn’t lead to such happy states, the Buddha wouldn’t have talked about them over and over.

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How about the guaranteed teaching of MN60 ? Putting aside all speculation, simply try to be a moral and ethical person right now, developing Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech and Right Action. Surely that is something all religions (and even atheists!) agree upon?

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From AN3.40:

And what, mendicants, is putting oneself in charge? It’s when a mendicant has gone to a wilderness, or to the root of a tree, or to an empty hut, and reflects like this: ‘I didn’t go forth from the lay life to homelessness for the sake of a robe, alms-food, lodgings, or rebirth in this or that state. But I was swamped by rebirth, old age, and death; by sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress. I was swamped by suffering, mired in suffering. And I thought, “Hopefully I can find an end to this entire mass of suffering.”

The basic motivation seems to be not being into sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness and distress :slight_smile:

You are saying something like “I won’t be there in my next life to experience suffering, so why care?”. To reformulate the point that @dayunbao made; you are already not here, but delusion makes it seem like you are.

In your next life, delusion will make being Mr. Y feel as real as being as being Ravi feels right now, because it’s the delusion that propagates through rebirth (see dependent origination) that makes things feel like “this is me, this is mine, this is my self”.

Clearly, it would be a contradiction to state that consciousness is suffering and have nibbana be a form of consciousness.

IMO, this is genuinely challenging aspect of the Dhamma; thought, identity, consciousness are all suffering, and their cessation is the ultimate spiritual goal.

But, what if you sit down in meditation and experience the absence of thought and any sense of identity, and it’s just better?

It’s interesting to hear from people who have had near-death experiences. They’re basically like, having a physical body sucks, I can’t wait to get out of this earthly realm.

It seems to me the proof of the pudding is in the eating :slight_smile:

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True, there is no disputing that, as I briefly mentioned in my post.
“I fully appreciate the sanditthika/‘here and now’ aspect of the moral teachings. But my question is about afterlife.”

Thanks for the patient reply.
You do make valid points but I remain unconvinced.

I am aware of the anatta doctrine. But my question is more pragmatic.

If as the sutras say there is no self even now(and I think its possibly true), there is certainly not going to be in the next and it’s all skandhas dependently arisen etc, my question remains, why bother? For whose sake should I do this when there is no atta to carry forward?

If pursuing pleasures of life(even if moral), is called ‘anariya’/ignoble and only following after nibbana/letting go of all desires(tanha) is ‘ariya pariyesana/noble’, the goal at least must be clearly defined and explained. All we have are - nibbana is ending of tanha/raga/dosa etc and some scattered references to positive terms despite the Tipitaka having thousands of suttas…

I agree I am assuming things about nibbana, but thats because it is not defined clearly and the assumptions I put forth are what we can infer from the suttas. I’m eager to hear a better explanation of nibbana if there is one and why it is desirable.

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Maybe an9.34 has a partial answer for you:

At one time Venerable Sāriputta was staying near Rājagaha, in the Bamboo Grove, the squirrels’ feeding ground.

There he addressed the mendicants: “Reverends, extinguishment is bliss! Extinguishment is bliss!”

When he said this, Venerable Udāyī said to him, “But Reverend Sāriputta, what’s blissful about it, since nothing is felt?”

“The fact that nothing is felt is precisely what’s blissful about it.

Thanks Erik, for the patient replies!
I am not a troll (even if I say so myself), but am going to argue the point nonetheless… Doing this to only see if I get more convincing answers that’s all.
On this question, if the point is to escape suffering - I agree buddhist techniques have helped me here and now. But with regard to after life, assume I have led an immoral life and am going to be born as a monkey. That monkey would not remember Ravi and won’t identify with him. So why should I pursue ending of tanha instead of enjoying this life?
(note : I do agree as a society we need to live morally and that it does not depend on any afterlife theories but stems rather from ‘social contract’)

I have mentioned this in the earlier reply. Even if I don’t exist as a ‘self’ even now, my point remains - why bother/why care about Mr.Y?

Again, agree with this ‘here and now’ aspect.

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Why not quit your job, spend all your money on whatever pleases you? The Ravi a few weeks from now will not be the same as the Ravi right now, why bother?

Why not smoke and eat whatever food you like, the person who develops life style diseases in the future will surely be someone else?

Why not take up a huge loan? It’s not you who will be paying the interests, but someone who is continuously becoming less and less the Ravi you are now…

Thanks again, I have read this Sutta before. But if nothing being felt is blissful and, going by other sutras, nibbana does not cling to personality factors/skandhas - it is difficult to imagine a nibbana where I still identify as Ravi. In fact, sutras teach the opposite. So, if there is no such identification, it is not me at all, practically speaking. Why should I strive for such a state?

Because it feels better :slight_smile:

(according to the suttas)

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That is not a fair argument right? A few weeks from now I will still carry my memories and desires and aspirations. It is not the same thing.

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Here seems to be the core of your own self-theory. It seems to me like you are unable to imagine a meaningful continuation of experience in the absence of your memories, desires and aspirations.

That is, to you, if someone deleted your memories, desires and aspirations, the feeling of e.g. being punched in the leg – it would be like it happened to someone else, you would not be inside that body anymore (because you were those memories, desires and aspirations).

And death is basically a deletion of memories, desires and aspirations, since the new personality is formed “from scratch” with a new rebirth.

(Most of us have self-theories; this is not meant as a critique of you personally in any way.)

One way to challenge this theory would be to enter a meditation where you experience being conscious in the absence of your memories, desires and aspirations. That is, directly observing the process of some of your mental content fading away, while other parts remain. IMO, part of the role of meditation is falsifying one’s own self-theories via direct experience.

Furthermore, I hypothesize to you that even if someone came and deleted your memories, desires and aspirations, the same delusion that made you identify with your memories, desires and aspirations, will now make you identify as a person without memories, desires and aspirations, and this will feel as personal to you now as before.

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You have summarised by ‘theory’ if I can call it that, quite well.
What I am talking about is a sense of continuing identity/memories.
Now, to your point on deletion of memories, I tried at address that by taking the example of a person who will get amnesia. You make a similar point, but here the body provides continuity and so logically, one can say even if I don’t remember myself as Ravi anymore, after memory deletion, I would want me(as in this body) to be well.
I find it difficult to extend this analogy to next life where we know there is no memory or sense of identity or physical continuity left. Why should Mr.X bother about Mr.Y of the next birth?

Now this coupled with the fact that nibbana itself is so ambiguous/impersonal, I have this question.

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Anatta is very pragmatic.

Because the “you” of the next life will continue to suffer. Anatta is not nihilism. There is a continuity between a being from one life to the next. Also, another prime aspect of the Buddhist path is compassion. If you can’t bring yourself to have compassion for your future self, then why should you have compassion for anyone else?

It sounds like you aren’t convinced by what the Buddha spoke of as the causes of true happiness. The Four Noble Truths weren’t taught exclusively for the happiness of future lives. So if you want to be truly happy now, but are still asking yourself “why should I pursue ending of tanha instead of enjoying this life?” then you working against your own best interests.

I personally think that a lot of Buddhism won’t make much sense until someone really believes in what the Buddha taught about suffering and happiness.

It would be compassionate of you to check with yourself whether you have already arrived at the conclusion that you should not bother about your future lives, and are now looking only to confirm and rationalize that belief.

Yes, your idea of your relationship to your future life is as the relationship that you now hold to a stranger who also lives now. In your mind, there is no continutiouty of suffering. It’s like meeting a person on the street; you can have compassion for them, but you cannot directly experience their suffering or pleasure.

To communicate with you, I have to infer your self-theory. I.e., I have to think “what sort of ontological beliefs about the self would a person who makes these type of statements have”.

Your self-theory seems to have to do with the continuity of some mental phenomena (memories, desires, etc.) and the physical body. I.e. the self is or is made up of some sort of continuity of certain mental and physical phenomena (basically some combination of the five khandas).

The thing is, you could be wrong. Your basic assumptions about the nature of your own experience and selfhood could be totally missing the mark.

However, it takes a certain kind of intellectual humility to interrogate one’s own basic beliefs. Not everyone is into that :slight_smile:

Edit: What about remembering past lives? Wouldn’t that ‘connect’ you to your previous lives, creating one being through time?

Hi Erik!

I think an important point is that we suffer because of our attachments to certain beliefs and values that set standards for how “should” life be.
Memories and desires are relevant because when they present to the consciousness some content that contradicts our standards, we suffer, because we are experiencing something we would not like to experience.
When one is born, there’s no such thing (at least for the majority of people) as the pain from past memories and desires. In a practical sense, I do not carry the pain of past memories and desires.
However, one could argue that what goes from one life to the next is the cultural inertia that is taught to new beings, and that each one will process according to its few past experiences (from being in the womb and from the first days/weeks/months/years of being born) and biological predispositions. If we accept this view, i.e. that there are some kind of influences from past lives and from others in the present, our current understanding of how the mind works seem to deny the possibity of an exact replica of some meme with the exact linked behavior passing from one person to the other.

I agree with Ravi’s doubts: it’s hard for me too to see some usefulness in the doctrine of rebirth, at least in the sense it is commonly accepted.

Kind regards!

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If you were Mr. Y and Mr. X could see that a calamity which would cause deep suffering was about to happen to Mr. Y, then would you not want Mr. X to do his best to stop that calamity from happening if he had the ability and tools to stop it?

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Hi bridif1 :slight_smile:

Many of us grow up with core assumptions that are at odds with the EBTs, like materialism. I think you have to be interested in questioning your own core assumptions if you want to see usefulness in the doctrine of rebirth.

One might want to do this because one sees that rebirth is an important part of right view in the EBTs.

But if someone has already decided on a certain view, there is not much point or fun in discussing :cowboy_hat_face:

Do you remember everything in this life? Do you remember what you had for lunch 8 years ago, the second tuesday of March?

Most people’s memories are just stories they keep repeating to themselves, “I was at this place 10 years ago”, but the actual first person sensory images have long been degraded, maybe you only remember a fuzzy 5% of the original memory.

In short, if you judge your sentience or “aliveliness” by your memories, then you may as well consider yourself dead, because what you call memories are really just fabrications (stories) that you repeat to yourself and that you assume are vaguely accurate.

What you actually call “existence” is a sense of continuity of the 6 senses. Whether there will be continuity after death is unknown, no one can know, not even master astral projectors like Robert Monroe who was able to leave his body at will, as for all we know the astral body dies when the physical body dies.

So you won’t get any confirmed answers on continuity after death, but regardless the main premise of Buddhism is relief from discontent and suffering here and now.

The Buddha said that the dhamma is good in the beginning, middle, and end. So if properly understood, the Dhamma is a no brainer, it’s the best choice there is to live a present life. As the purpose of life is to maximize pleasure, and the Buddha said sublime pleasures are the best category of pleasures. Who needs pleasure when there is no pain cover up?

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