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Karma, Rebirth, and Faith in the Buddhist Tradition

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Karma, Rebirth, and Faith in the Buddhist Tradition

In a recent discussion generated by Alan Wallace’s bold article Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist I put forward a couple claims that some of you might like to read. As my comments were a response to the topic in general, and  not anyone persons thoughts, I pass them on. Not because they are correct, not even because they are useful, but because someone somewhere might get something from them.

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Couple of points. First, the issue surrounding the development between the time of the Buddha and creation of the canon is perhaps not all that straight forward, as you have suggested. I wish, however, to emphasise the word “perhaps”. For it is my understanding that any evidence that does exist regarding this point is limited and weak at best.

But you are right when you say, Buddhism is a “whole bundle of conditioned and changing phenomena.” I totally agree. We must remember, however, that Buddhism is unlike religion for this very reason. Buddhism is interested in soteriology, not just doctrinal servitude. And we can see evidence for this when the Buddha of the Pali canon says one thing to one person at one time, and something completely different to another. Cognitive transformation is at stake here, not whether this or that historical figure existed or made stuff up. Thus, if a philosophically incorrect answer can effect transformation, so be it. And this gets me to my point: central to soteriology is causation, and karma is a causal thesis. Therefore, karma is fundamental to the Buddhist project. Moreover, the subjects of Buddhist-karma and rebirth have been central to all schools of Buddhism, and evidence for their exposition can be found across the Buddhist world throughout it’s history (I would imagine if these topics were simply “add-ons” there would be evidence of this).

The reason why Buddhist-karma and rebirth are found within all schools, is because karma and rebirth are central to the Buddhist project, as I have said. They are prime to the thrust behind the possibility of developing ones mind into the mind of an enlightened being. It is obvious that if one is to become a Buddha, one needs time to do so. And without the notion of causation and lots of time, this transformation is moot! It might be interesting to know that when reading Parfit recently I was taken by his account of psychological connectedness. It struck me as a nice way to explain rebirth. As you know, for Parfit, “identity is not what matters in survival”. Similarly, an inherently existent self or person is not what matters for rebirth. Relation-R, or psychological connectedness, can give us a cogent thesis for survival. Although, it is important to understand it is not the same “person” that is reborn. But, to explain myself fully here would be to take too much space. So let us move onto the next subject.

Karma is, in the end, a causal thesis—albeit of a particular kind. Should we discount causation simply because it is difficult to understand? Babies and bathtubs notwithstanding, even Hume saw this problem. I feel that people, all too often, react to the language of karma and rebirth, and their traditional usage, rather than the theories themselves. Both are simply a theory of causation, yet many take them to be démodé? These people, being all too quick to speak of karma and rebirth like historical artefacts. As if we, in the modern world, have no need for those silly little ideas. It is for this reason that Buddhism needs to be explained fully, and explained well. And it is for this reason that Batchelor is doing Buddhism a disservice. While it is true that we all bring our own predilections to the discourse, removing, as apposed to delimiting or bracketing out, core features of that discourse is, to use a Garfieldian polemic, stupid!

Moreover, being too quick to dismiss karma, to my mind at least, is a methodological error. For while it is true that one may advance along the path with mere confidence, this will not produce the fruits of the path—to use traditional parlance. Maitreya, as Patrick can attest, made this point in his Ornament for Clear Realization (Abhisamayaalaṅkāra) when he divided students into two types—those of sharp faculty (SF) and those of dull (DF). SF students proceed along the path by first understanding emptiness and dependant-origination. While DF students proceed on the basis of confidence (Śraddhā, dad pa) alone. However, Śraddhā, which is often translated as faith, is a very different beast in Buddhism. This is so, because in the end even those of DF cannot bypass wisdom. Enlightenment will not come via faith alone, yet Buddhist-faith must not be left out of the practice. It is for this reason that Candrakīrti said, “faith is the mother of all qualities.” Meaning, it is faith, ones confidence in the practice, that gives rise to the qualities of the path—including an understanding of emptiness. So even if one does not understand the subtleties of the wisdom aspects at this point, if you have confidence in the practice, and most importantly in yourself, there will be a time when understanding dawns. Candrakīrti’s exhortation is, therefore, important for this two-fold reason. That is because having faith in yourself and faith in the practice is fundamental to moving forward. No one can do it for you. It is in the “palm of your hand”, as Pabongka Rinpoche told us.

On the other hand, by thinking, “it is all too difficult to understand” one will not even try. And by thinking, “I don’t get it, therefore it does not exist” places psychological obstacles to understanding any topic. So while stories of a atheist Buddhism might seem compelling to some, I believe they should be resisted. Even if he did not take his own advice to its proper end, the much maligned Descartes saw the virtue of doubting what he took to be true. The givenness of what appears to us, does not make it so; not understanding, does not make a subject nonsensical. Here we need to draw a distinction between doubting as a dialectic and dismissal viz. denial of a subject. For one, there is a difference between not finding, and finding somethings non-existence. Geshe Jampa Gyatso’s advice might be useful here. He once told me (this was back in Italy 1999 and I am paraphrasing), “it is good to be dissatisfied with ones level of understanding, for this will drive you to a deeper analysis of the topic at hand.” It appears that both an atheist or agnostic approach do the opposite. It appears as if they create a kind of lazy and floored approach to education. And who wants to be lazy and floored!

Finally, you might be interested to know that recently I had an email conversation with Galen Strawson (for those who don’t know, Strawson is a famous Analytic philosopher and a hardcore 2nd generation materialist from Oxford university). Even though we were discussing something entirely different, Galen sent a link to a book on surviving death…suggesting that the arguments found within were “compelling” arguments for rebirth. This shows real philosophical maturity. For aren’t we, like Strawson, interested in knowing the truth regardless of where that takes us? I am.