At Naḷakapāna: Did the Buddha "Scheme to Deceive"?

A couple of weeks ago I attended a lecture by jhana-expert Leigh Brasington where he brought up the Naḷakapāna Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 68; the linked translation is from Bhikkhuni Upalavanna, I use Ñaṇamoli/Bodhi). Brasington cited it as an example of where the Buddha may have opened the kimono a bit on some of his claimed supernormal insights.

In the Naḷakapāna Sutta, the Buddha asks the bhikkhus whether they “delight in the holy life”. They are silent, which to be fair may indicate assent. However, perhaps to emphasize the point to his younger disciples, he asks the venerable Anuruddha the same question. Since the Buddha is speaking to a “venerable”, senior monk, we should assume the lesson before us will be advanced rather than introductory. Anuruddha says they are happy. (4)

Then the Buddha’s questioning takes rather an extraordinary turn.

What do you think, Anuruddha? What purpose does the Tathāgata see that when a disciple has died, he declares his reappearance thus: ‘So-and-so has reappeared in such-and-such a place; so-and-so has reappeared in such-and-such a place’? (8)

Recall that the Buddha claimed that on the night of his enlightenment, during the middle watch, he came to the understanding of the kammic rebirth of all beings (MN 4, paras. 29-30). After that, when one of his disciples died, the Buddha would often say where and how he had been reborn. Now, he asks Anuruddha why he would make such assertions.

Anuruddha wisely replies that he would prefer that the Buddha give the answer.

The Buddha responds:

Anuruddha, it is not for the purpose of scheming to deceive people or for the purpose of flattering people or for the purpose of gain, honour, or renown, or with the thought, ‘Let people know me to be thus,’ that when a disciple has died, the Tathāgata declares his reappearance thus … Rather, it is because they are faithful clansmen inspired and gladdened by what is lofty, who when they hear that, direct their minds to such a state, and that leads to their welfare and happiness for a long time. (9)

In other words, the Buddha describes the rebirth of passed disciples in order to inspire remaining disciples to greater efforts on the path, and so in order to lead to their eventual happiness. (One assumes that these descriptions would be of uniformly ‘good’ rebirths).

Cynicism or charity?

What can we say about the Buddha’s response to Anuruddha? Several things come to mind.

First, it’s clear that the Buddha did say he knew of the kammic future lives of dead disciples.

But second, a skeptical, perhaps even a cynical, response might be: is the Buddha telling the truth? The Buddha’s question to Anuruddha comes out of the blue, as does his seemingly defensive claim that he has no intention of “scheming to deceive people”, and so on. At least as the sutta stands now, nobody has accused the Buddha of having such an intention. Perhaps the Buddha ‘doth protest too much’.

Likely there is some back story here that has been lost. Perhaps the Buddha asks this question because he believes that Anuruddha has such concerns. However this assumption is not open to verification, and so must remain hypothetical.

Perhaps the Buddha understands at some level that his assertions about the kammic futures of his disciples are less than entirely credible. Even if Anuruddha is not directly implicated, it is likely from this interaction that concerns were voiced by some of the more skeptical monastics, and it is at least conceivable that the Buddha shares them. (“Am I really deceiving myself? Well, at least I’m doing good for the remaining disciples, who are the ones that matter now.”)

Since the Buddha’s ethical system is based upon intention or volition rather than action, the intention with which the Buddha makes such assertions is paramount. Thus, “[I]t is not for the purpose of scheming to deceive people” that he makes such claims. In other words, his intention is not one of deception. His intention is to inspire and gladden. So he makes up happy stories to that end.

If this is what the Buddha means to say in this passage, it is an example of sophistry. If the Buddha in fact believes that he does not know the kammic futures of his deceased disciples, it is wrong speech for him to assert otherwise. (C.f., MN 41, para. 9).

What I have just described is an interesting and thought-provoking interpretation. It is not, however, one that is forced upon us by the sutta. Another interpretation is open to us: to take the Buddha more charitably. He in fact does not intend to deceive, because he does not believe he speaks falsely. Even so, however, there might have been some monks who believe he is attempting to ‘show off’ (“for the purpose of gain, honour or renown”).

It is also possible that some monks feel the Buddha shows a “flattering” favoritism to certain passed monastics, perhaps some of whom may have seemed less than entirely worthy to their “faithful clansmen”. This latter interpretation also makes sense of why the sutta opens with monks unwilling to assert their “delight in the holy life”: they are perturbed by claims of happy rebirth for one they feel undeserving.

It might even explain why some would say that the Buddha was making up his claims of supernormal insight.

What should we say?

Some may want to use the Naḷakapāna Sutta to find a Buddha who uses tall tales to inspire, rather than one who truly believes what he says about kammic rebirth. This is one possible reading of the sutta, which does make some sense of the defensive tone of the Buddha’s question to Anuruddha.

However such an interpretation is also less than completely charitable to the Buddha’s own words. It assumes he speaks intentional falsehoods, where such an assumption is not strictly forced upon us by the text.

My own view is that the Buddha is sincere. I do not believe he “schemes to deceive”. The question that opens the sutta is one of happiness, and the Buddha is here illustrating one skillful means he uses to bring such happiness to his monks. (Even if it is a means many of us would not find skillful today). Nevertheless, in his discussion with Anuruddha the Buddha reveals concerns and conflicts that likely would have been present in the early sangha: ones for which the Buddha also might have felt slightly defensive.

As a source for contemporary practice, of course, suttas will be repurposed to more modern ends. In so doing, though, we ought to be aware of the gap between text and purpose, and so do our refiguring openly rather than with any hidden scheme to deceive.

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  1. Mark Knickelbine on November 9, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    I am aware of at least one instance in the canon in which Gotama’s claim to know the rebirth status of a recently departed follower is met with open skepticism. In SN 55.24, lay follower Sarakani the Sakyan dies, and Gotama declares him to have been a stream enterer, “no longer bound to the nether world . . .with enlightenment as his destination.” This is controversial among the Sakyans : “It is wonderful indeed, sir! It is amazing indeed, sir! Now who here won’t be a stream-enterer . . .with enlightenment as his destination? Sarakani the Sakyan was too weak for the training; he drank intoxicating drink!” Gotama tells them that Sarakani had confirmed confidence in Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, and such individuals are “freed from hell, the animal realm, and the domain of ghosts, freed from the plane of misery, the bad destinations, the nether world.” So the canon does give at least one clear instance in which Gotama had to confront the skepticism of his followers regarding his rebirth prognostications.

    • Doug Smith on November 9, 2012 at 3:42 pm

      Excellent, Mark, thanks a lot for the info. While this doesn’t prove the same happened at Naḷakapāna, it at least lends some credence to the hypothesis.

      • mufi on November 10, 2012 at 1:34 pm

        Credence to which hypothesis? And why is important whether or not Gautama was challenged by skeptics? Did his confronting such challenges modify in some way his extraordinary claim to “know the rebirth status of a recently departed follower”?

        Perplexed.

        • Doug Smith on November 10, 2012 at 2:09 pm

          Sorry if I was unclear, mufi. I mean it lends some credence to the hypothesis that the background to the sutta — and the reason why the Buddha seemed defensive in his questioning of Anuruddha — is that he may have claimed a high rebirth for some departed monastic who was not well beloved of the bhikkhus. So at the opening of the sutta they were not willing to express their “delight”, and may indeed have been harboring doubts about the Buddha.

          As to whether the skeptical responses of some sangha members modified the Buddha’s claims to know the rebirths of departed monastics, I don’t see any reason to believe so.

          Is this clear? If not please let me know where I have fallen short.

          • mufi on November 10, 2012 at 2:22 pm

            Much clearer, thanks.

            I’ll just add that I, too, am harboring doubts about the Buddha (presumably for very different reasons than the bhikkus’). I don’t mean to suggest that therefore he has nothing of value to offer us 21st-Century, Western skeptics. But then I suppose the same could be said of other legendary figures from the various wisdom traditions (e.g. Plato, Jesus, and Confucius).



          • Doug Smith on November 11, 2012 at 6:14 am

            Thanks for that, mufi.

            As to your point: a couple of responses.

            First, as we both agree, the Buddha was an ordinary human being. That’s to say, he got stuff wrong. I think what should be an almost defining characteristic of ‘secular’ Buddhism is a willingness to look at the Buddha warts and all. He wasn’t a god, he certainly wasn’t omniscient.

            So part of what must be done is to understand what the Buddha got wrong, and perhaps why he might have done so, along with what the Buddha got right. But few people, it seems to me, want to really look hard at the suttas and see both sides. It’s very easy to dismiss what one doesn’t like, but I don’t think that’s an adequate response.

            Second, I am quite a fan of other pre-modern thinkers. Plato and Socrates were geniuses, as was Aristotle. Jesus I am less sanguine about, and Confucius is someone who I don’t know in great depth, but who seemed a bit too attached to hierarchies for my taste. We all, of course, know about Newton’s obsession with Biblical analysis at the end of his life; this takes nothing away from his great achievements in physics, though an honest appraisal of him as a person will take it into account.

            But of all of them, I find the Buddha to be the greatest fount of personal wisdom: that is, wisdom to life as it is experienced at a personal level. I turn every day not just to the Buddha’s approach on reality, but to his approach on life, and to his specific path of practice. (Modified for a modern householder rather than a premodern bhikkhu, of course).



  2. mufi on November 11, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Doug: The analogy to Newton is an apt one (and one that I’ve also made, only with a focus on his interests in alchemy and the occult), but (like all analogies) is also limited.

    In particular, what I have in mind here is that, while Newton is still often revered as a “Great Man of Science” for his contributions to classical mechanics (and who shares credit with Leibniz for the development of calculus), I’m unaware of anyone who celebrates him as “the greatest fount of science” (or of anything else, for that matter).

    More to the point, I strongly suspect that this observation is a product of a modern-day attitude or social norm, which recognizes the incremental and progressive nature of scientific development, such that Newton is but a link in a chain – a very important link, of course, but a “mere link”, nonetheless. That understanding makes it easier to overlook those biographical points in Newton’s life that are irrelevant to science as it is understood and practiced today.

    Is Gautama similarly a “mere link in a chain”? If so, then I suppose that I’m already pretty comfortable with that view (although, on that basis alone, I’m about as likely to self-identify as a “Gautamist” as I am a “Newtonian”).*

    If, however, Gautama is supposed to be more than that – which is how I interpret the words “the greatest fount of personal wisdom” – then the analogy to Newton is even more strained, I think, as I cannot so easily overlook biographical details in this case, such as these in which Gautama reputedly made incredible, self-aggrandizing claims. After all, those suggest to me the very opposite of wisdom – unless perhaps one defines “wisdom” in prudential, calculating, and political terms (i.e. a “wisdom” that attracts more gullible followers over time), as opposed to one that honors truth, good, and beauty (as typically understood in Western tradition).

    * …assuming that we have the same chain in mind, which we may arguably call “Buddhism”, insofar as it we refer to a particular contemplative/wisdom tradition, although we may arguably want to avoid it, as well (e.g. for historical reasons provided by Stephen Schettini in his latest SB Podcast interview).

    • Doug Smith on November 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm

      Note: my claim that the Buddha was “the greatest fount of personal wisdom” was relative to “all of them”, that is, all those great thinkers just mentioned. I don’t know how to figure “the greatest fount of personal wisdom” of all humanity, much less of all possibility. (Which, of course, some believers will take the Buddha to have been).

      As to wisdom: any objective survey of the suttas will conclude that the supernatural elements are secondary to his teachings about reality: that all we experience is impermanent, that all we experience includes suffering, and that the self is a cognitive construct. It is also secondary to his way towards lasting satisfaction, equanimity and happiness. That is, his teaching of ethics, renunciation, and meditation: the eightfold path.

      I don’t think it’s possible to grasp the import of his teachings without doing the meditative practice. There are other philosophers that came to similar ontological conclusions, such as Heraclitus or Hume. But they lacked any deep insight into wise practice.

      • mufi on November 11, 2012 at 5:01 pm

        Doug:

        My apologies. Upon review, my earlier response does appear to overlook your “of all of them” clause.

        That said, I’m not so sure that I (or, more importantly, that all experts in Buddhism) would agree that the supernatural elements are secondary to the Buddha’s teachings. However, I would say that they are of little interest to me, but then I don’t approach Gautama as reverently as some others do. That’s not a swipe at Buddhism, so much as it is an assertion that Buddhism has evolved since Gautama and continues to do so (as per the chain metaphor in my last comment).

        Re: the “they lacked any deep insight into wise practice” comment, I’m not sure what you mean by “wise practice”, but my hunch is that it makes certain Buddhist presuppositions.

        In other words, consider the idea that Hume’s writings have the potential to change someone’s life for the better – not in the exact same way that the suttas do, of course, but then it’s doubtful that Hume would have intended that. Rather, here’s where I’m going:

        A) to practice critical thinking is a kind of “wise practice”;
        B) Hume’s work promotes critical thinking;
        C) ergo, Hume’s work promotes “wise practice.”

        We needn’t assert that Hume is the first, last, or best word on critical thinking
        in order to buy this argument. We need only accept that he made an historical contribution to it, and thereby to a certain brand of “wise practice.”

        I’m already willing to accept something analogous to this argument with respect to Gautama – one which recognizes his contributions to human flourishing, even while bearing in mind his “warts” (viz. that he reputedly made what I characterized as “incredible, self-aggrandizing claims”).

        • Doug Smith on November 11, 2012 at 8:04 pm

          Hi mufi,

          Re. the supernatural elements: the Buddha proposed a path to end suffering. This was the central thesis of his teaching, and most of what he spent his time explicating, in one fashion or another. None of this path depended *necessarily* on anything supernatural.

          Sure, the Buddha did believe in devas, hell and heaven realms, and that it was *possible* to gain supernatural abilities by walking the path; but those abilities were always secondary to the goal of attaining nibbana. They were never the goal itself. And again, sure, he did believe that by attaining nibbana one would escape the cycle of rebirths, but one can safely disregard that in one’s own practice (or take it as metaphorical), and there’s nothing self-aggrandizing about assuming that we are all normally reborn.

          So I would reassert my claim that the supernatural elements, present though they are, are *relatively* incidental to the Buddha’s teaching.

          The one caveat here is that *some* interpretations of nibbana I’ve seen take it as itself something of supernatural import. I am skeptical of these interpretations, but until I’ve done serious study of the matter, I’ll leave them to one side.

          Re. critical thinking, the problem with rational thought is that, as Hume famously argued, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions”. Neither Hume nor any other western philosopher of whom I’m aware understood the power of a meditative approach to training the mind. Reason alone is virtually incapable of changing desires. If one desires the wrong things, one is screwed without some proper method of retraining.

          This is not to say that Hume, Socrates, or the other philosophers mentioned had nothing to say about “wise practice”. Of course, they did, in one way or another. But I think the Buddha said something crucially more.

          But now we are getting into personal preferences. One has to weigh the pros and cons and decide for oneself which outweighs which.

          • mufi on November 11, 2012 at 9:14 pm

            Doug:

            …there’s nothing self-aggrandizing about assuming that we are all normally reborn

            Of course not. In the context of this thread, the “incredible, self-aggrandizing claim” is Gautama’s claim to “know the rebirth status of a recently departed follower” (i.e. not to mention other superstitions that he either simply took for granted or actively promoted).

            Can I “safely disregard” such a claim? Sure, but I can’t so easily forget it or change how I regard it (viz. as one of the “warts” that you referred to).

            Look, I’m in no position – nor am I motivated – to defend the orthodox view that the supernatural elements of the canon are indispensable to Gautama’s message. I’ll leave that case in the able hands of Buddhist experts like Bikkhu Bodhi, Alan Wallace, or Donald Lopez.

            But I will add that, in a certain sense, “mind training” is very much a component of Western philosophical tradition. Of course, it’s not done in precisely the same way as in Buddhism (or in any other Eastern wisdom tradition, for that matter), but it is done nonetheless – for example, within the stoical, academic traditions that flow from ancient Greece and Rome via Judeo-Christian cultures. Some credit, I think (however begrudgingly), is also due to the Church for its contemplative strain (notwithstanding their own brand of superstition that it’s entangled with).

            That’s not to suggest that we should settle for only Western versions of mind training. Indeed, I would agree that we are likely to be further enriched if we open our borders to the East. But surely you don’t mean to suggest that Westerners were haplessly ill-equipped to regulate their passions, prior to the discovery of Buddhism. More likely, I think, you’re simply trying to express a “personal preference” (as you put it) for an Eastern/Buddhist version. Is so, then that’s cool.



          • mufi on November 11, 2012 at 9:30 pm

            PS: I just remembered that that the first book on meditation that I ever read and practiced to some degree was this: Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide by Aryeh Kaplan. It’s not something that I would recommend nowadays to fellow naturalists/atheists, but I would definitely characterize its techniques as a Western version of mind training.



          • Doug Smith on November 12, 2012 at 5:45 am

            Hi mufi,

            I’ll leave that case in the able hands of Buddhist experts like Bikkhu Bodhi, Alan Wallace, or Donald Lopez.

            Apart from the issue of reincarnation, and perhaps that of the eventual status of nirvana, which I mentioned above, there is no case to be made here. None of the supernormal powers are essential for the attainment of enlightenment. That includes the power to know the rebirth status of the dead.

            … “mind training” is very much a component of Western philosophical tradition.

            I’m not sure how to take “very much”. Mind training is not at all central to the Western philosophical tradition. AFAIK it plays virtually no part whatsoever in any of the first-rank philosophers’ work, such as those mentioned in this thread.

            It’s true that meditation — and a generally Buddhist outlook — is part of stoicism, which makes it a particularly interesting Western tradition, however I think we can agree that it lacks the completeness and sophistication of the Buddha’s treatment. For one thing, there are only a very small amount of original stoic writings that remain.

            surely you don’t mean to suggest that Westerners were haplessly ill-equipped to regulate their passions, prior to the discovery of Buddhism.

            Well, I wouldn’t say “haplessly”, but I’d say that in general the tradition has little of interest to say in this matter. Regulating the passions is either claimed to be essentially impossible (Viz., Hume), or it’s left up to reason to do the work. Or it’s left up to socio-politics.

            Of course, Westerners are more than their philosophical traditions, and people everywhere do have standard techniques they use to regulate the passions. Sociopolitically, that’s why we have laws, police forces and jails. But apart from matters of common sense, there’s not much that’s been done. (Recent advances in scientific psychology are a different matter).

            Re. Jewish meditation, I am aware of some meditative and esoteric traditions in the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic traditions. How much of that goes back to their origins, and how much goes back to Buddhism, I have no idea. (Buddhist ideas were disseminated to the West from very early times). But at any rate, since those monotheistic traditions are otherwise of no interest to me for philosophical reasons, I wouldn’t consider them part of any relevant contrast class. That is part of my personal preference, of course.



  3. Linda on November 11, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    Here is my understanding of the sutta. First, I note that he is talking to a bunch of monks who are clansman, and out of them he picks a venerable who is also a clansman, his cousin Anuruddha. He’s not talking to a group that came from the heretical wanderers whose beliefs vary to include atman-brahman eternalism, nor is he talking to converting Brahmins, who are concerned with one afterlife, not many. He is (in my understanding of what was going on in those days) talking to the third group, the one that draws from the ksatriya/warrior class, the potential-raja class, and they were (1) the Buddha’s own group and (2) the ones who were concerned with cyclic rebirth.

    Because dependent arising uses as its structure the then-current concepts of how ritual affects the creation of the self and its rebirth, throughout the suttas the Buddha uses the language of rebirth to access the lesson of dependent arising. This gives him the ability to speak on two levels at once, a practice that was typical of guru-types. It was expected that disciples would need to decipher the pronouncements of their masters.

    If, then, we have a group here who has just come to understand that when the Buddha talks about rebirth he isn’t *really* talking about rebirth (but is instead talking about how we create a self out of our beliefs, and that process leads to suffering so that rebirth=dukkha) — and the Buddha is sure that his cousin Anuruddha understands this best of all — the Buddha might hope that he would understand and be able to explain why the Buddha talks about those rebirths as he does. Because even within the system of correspondence between statements about future births pointing to dependent arising, it is pushing things a bit to state with certainty that someone who died will have a rebirth, any rebirth. He can be specific about what level the fellow was at when he died (it’s clear to me from reading the suttas that he has specific achievements in mind when he talks about how many lives a person has left though I am as-yet unclear on what exactly it is he’s using as his measuring stick — it’s as if he knows where they are on the path to awakening, and this is what he refers to; or maybe he has just graded the particular beliefs of the day), and I suppose his logic may be that *if* there is an actual rebirth, he’s confident of what sort of rebirth that fellow will have. But those sitting in this group, who know that when he talks about rebirths it is a metonym for conceptions of self, and who now understand that he says no one should claim belief in a particular system of cosmic order since none of us really knows, this group of clansman would be a little less than happy to find that their leader seems to be bending his usual rules.

    But, he says, it is not to deceive — he is staying as faithful to the language and structure he works with as he can — nor is it to claim that he does indeed have the power to see destinations, it is to gladden the hearts of those who don’t understand the depth of his teaching about “rebirth” but will be encouraged to keep learning.

    • Doug Smith on November 11, 2012 at 2:36 pm

      Hi Linda,

      Thanks for the post. I think we are coming at the texts with very different eyes. I don’t see the same need for deep hermeneutics that you do. Probably that’s because it seems clear to me that the Buddha did believe in rebirth, and that he didn’t typically expect his disciples to “decipher” his pronouncements. Indeed, he typically taught with an ‘open hand’, in ways that would have been as clear and approachable as possible for his audience.

      I do understand that if one assumes the Buddha did *not* believe in rebirth, then one will need to do some creative reinterpretation. But the only reason I can see for denying the Buddha had such a belief, given that he claims otherwise, is to assume that the Buddha was infallible, which is not an assumption I share.

      • Linda on November 12, 2012 at 7:51 am

        Interesting, Doug. Since I don’t claim the Buddha was infallible, I must have some reason for understanding what he’s doing that’s outside your view.

        I didn’t start from the assumption that “the Buddha did not believe in rebirth”, so I have had no need to do anything like “creative reinterpretation”. I’ve simply read the texts, wanting to understand what was there from a historical perspective, rather than from an “I want to believe the Buddha was worthy of following” perspective. My aim has always been to understand what he taught and why, just because the puzzle is an interesting one to solve, rather than because I had any need for him to have believed or taught one thing or another.

        This is why a lot of my research has required that I go well outside the Pali canon, studying the texts from around his time, many of which he makes sly references to in his sermons (so they were obviously influences on him as well as the people he was speaking to; the humor only works if his audience knows the references).

        In reading the suttas, I found those of substance to be largely consistent, with notable exceptions like MN 60s sudden break in logic and momentary lapse into an inconsistent style, which seems indicative of “a different voice” inserting something for reasons of their own — probably a later voice. I find reading the texts as largely consistent to be much simpler, and require much less creativity, than a view of the Buddha’s whole teaching as being inconsistent: as telling us to pay attention to the difference between what we have known and seen for ourselves, and what we just imagine we have — a position where his primary focus is on deflating illusions — all the while, himself being completely deluded into thinking he’d seen his past lives and could see everyone else’s as well. The Buddha you believe in tells people that views of what happens after death are not useful to ending dukkha (ala the parable of the fellow shot with the arrow) and yet goes around telling everyone what happens after death even though he knows they won’t have experienced what he has, so for them to take that at face value they’ll have to be actively fostering the views that lead to dukkha in themselves.

        And, yes, it’s true, he taught with an open hand. The context for dependent arising that has been lost for many centuries to us — thus making its structure obscure — was not lost to those in his time; they still had the context of the Prajapati myth, and the rituals that created and perfected the self (the perfect model for his lesson about how our rituals create what we think of as the self) . His lesson about how views about rebirth were at the heart of the problems of people of his day was there for anyone to hear, if they came and listened to all of what he was saying rather than just a few introductory talks. Every teacher whose work we have from the times speaks in this way; it is a well-noted facet of his culture (I recently read K.R. Norman on the subject) that apparently simple statements are many-layered, and that is actually the point of the statements, that layering of meaning. To me, that you think he was likely to have spoken the way modern teachers speak, instead, takes creative reinterpretation. Those who believe that when he said he had nothing hidden in a “teacher’s hand” he meant that he spoke perfectly literally, leaving behind all the conventions of his culture, and instead speaking as we do in our age — those are the ones who are having to distort what’s going on in the suttas.

        But I do not actually mean to suggest that this is any kind of conscious, intentional “reinterpretation”; I don’t think it is. I think it is very difficult to step outside our own culture, and our own way of doing things, to correctly interpret the many different factors of speaking styles and cultural assumptions that shaped the way he spoke (I’m still working on understanding it all, myself — it’s hard). In a way, I think the reason we interpret the Buddha as ‘speaking literally, the way our open-handed teachers would’ is for the very same reason that dukkha comes about, the very thing the Buddha was pointing to with dependent arising: we assume the world is and always has been and always will be the way the world is *for us* and we just naturally interpret everything through that filter; it takes a great deal of effort to get outside that view. The first step is being willing, willing to just listen to the texts and the times, and try to understand them in their own context, rather than expecting that what’s said is said the way we would say it. Admittedly, not everyone has the interest in, or good fortune to have the time I have had, to be able to study not just the canon but the times, full time.

        • Doug Smith on November 12, 2012 at 8:13 am

          OK, Linda. My main concern with the hermeneutic approach is that it allows leeway for creative reconstructions that go well beyond anything in the text. I think so long as we stick to what can be shown there, we’re doing OK.

          I have read a lot of Gombrich’s work, and so do see how certain Upanishadic mythic tropes did get used by the Buddha when he was making his points to brahminic audiences. Though without very specific cross-textual identities, these interpretations do end up more like scholarly hypotheses than demonstrable facts.

          • Mark Knickelbine on November 12, 2012 at 8:53 am

            Doug, you ought to read Linda’s paper on this topic. The upending of Upanishadic tropes was not just an occasional device Gotama used — it is the central strategy of core concepts such as the Three Fires, nibbana, and kamma. Therefore we should not be surprised that the concept of rebirth should be repurposed in a radical way, and Linda’s interpretation of 12-step DO through the lens of the Prajapati myth (linked as it is to the other fire ritual myths we know Gotama repurposed)does much to open up (for me anyway) certain obscurities about how the concept of DO functions. I share with you a skepticism that the authors of many of the sutta materials shared this radical retake on rebirth, but that does not invalidate the interpretation nor the likelyhood that, if we assume its reasonableness, it would also have been available to Gotama’s audience.

            @Linda, gold star for using “metonym” in a sentence!



          • Doug Smith on November 12, 2012 at 9:26 am

            Hi Mark,

            I have read Linda’s paper. It is interesting but it explicitly does not touch on the Buddha’s belief in literal rebirth, which is what’s at issue here and elsewhere in the texts. Of course, the DO can be used within this lifetime as well; this is not controversial.



          • Linda on November 12, 2012 at 12:12 pm

            What I am saying the Buddha is doing with his discussion of rebirth *is* in the texts, Doug. It is revealed in many places if we just care to notice. I put some of it into the Sutta Support section of the paper, but there is much more.

            Two examples of it being in the texts start off with the sutta you mention in the post above. By mentioning that his naming where an individual is reborn can be interpreted as an intent to deceive, he is admitting that it is a deception, but he is pointing out that his *intention* is not to deceive, his *intentions* are honorable, and we know that it is intention that is key. In MN 74, Sariputta’s awakening comes about when he finally understand that the Buddha speaks in a way that is familiar to others, without himself investing in it (Thanissaro’s translation: “A monk whose mind is thus released does not take sides with anyone, does not dispute with anyone. He words things by means of what is said in the world but without grasping at it.” Would you think he excluded himself from that style of speaking?).

            And once you’ve understood the underlying structure of dependent arising, how it talks of rebirth while simultaneously pointing out that clinging to speculative beliefs like rebirth is the big problem, it’s hard for me to see how we could not revise our understanding of what he means when he talks about rebirth; we have to recognize that he was equating the birth-of-the-self-after-death with dukkha-here-and-now, so that when he talks about how Doing The Right Thing Here and Now will get a pleasant rebirth, he’s saying we’ll get pleasantness but it’s still dukkha as long as we believe in the self and knowing about life-after-death while we have insufficient evidence to do so. When he talks about his past lives, he is talking about how he had conceptions of his self that led him on and on to keep creating that problematic sense of self.

            It’s true that in the paper I don’t argue that the Buddha didn’t teach rebirth (I say so right there in the paper) but it’s not because I couldn’t, it’s because it would not have been helpful (skillful) to have done so. I felt fine about leaving that out because it is my belief that once people can see what the Buddha was doing with dependent arising they will, over time, come to see what that new understanding says about the whole of his teaching.

            I also think it’s interesting that, while your comment about “creative reinterpretation” implies that I might have a wish to interpret what the Buddha said in ways that make me comfortable with who he was, and who I am following (someone “infallible”), what I see is that those who insist the Buddha was being perfectly literal in his mentions of rebirth are doing the same thing: something drives the need to have the Buddha be “honest” the way we think people should be honest, the way they are nowadays. It’s just sad that the need for him to be speaking the way we do then results in him being a bit of a self-deluded mad-man. I think it does a great injustice to a historical figure who understood delusion so well. I am not particularly happy to find him being less than 20th century-honest; I could wish that he spoke simply, clearly, and literally, as we do now — but my wishes do not make it so, and what turns out to be his “skillful means” is entirely consistent with everything else he teaches, as this sutta demonstrates.



          • Doug Smith on November 12, 2012 at 12:42 pm

            Hi Linda,

            MN 41 para. 9 makes clear that the Buddha’s notion of honesty is the same as ours today. If there is an interpretation by which the Buddha could be said to have lied in this text, it’s by taking MN 41 not to cover the Buddha’s attempts to dissemble for the sake of gaining nibbana. (He says that unrighteous speech covers speaking “falsehood for his own ends, or for another’s ends, or for some trifling worldly end.”) And then we might say that the Buddha would consider these basically ‘white lies’, since they led one to true happiness.

            While I still do not think that is the most charitable interpretation of the text, it is one that is more in line with modern sensibilities, at least among secular, science-knowledgeable westerners.



          • Linda on November 17, 2012 at 11:22 am

            But Doug, don’t you see that the deceit we’re discussing is not “falsehood for his own ends, or for another’s ends, or for some trifling worldly end”? What I say he is doing in MN 68, discussed in your post, is entirely consistent with what you’ve just cited in MN 41, because it isn’t falsehood for his own ends, or for another’s ends (though we could say it is for the end of the other’s self), and it certainly isn’t about trifling worldly ends.

            As I’ve said, I don’t find it “charitable” to see it this way either — I believe that’s part of my point, that I am not adjusting the text to make the character of the Buddha fit what would make me most happy. But what is uncharitable is thinking that we should hold someone who lived in an entirely different culture, with different speaking styles, not to mention a very different way of looking at the world from the one we were raised with, to our standards, with the end effect of twisting what he’s saying out of its original context with the result that we now have him speaking in ways that make him seem like he’s “honest” by our standards, but he’s also deluded. When his whole point is how to see through delusion.

            And he tells us what he is doing: “He words things by means of what is said in the world but without grasping at it.” You didn’t answer my question: Would you think he excluded himself from that style of speaking?



      • Linda on November 12, 2012 at 11:41 am

        Interesting, Doug. Since I don’t claim the Buddha was infallible, I must have some reason for understanding what he’s doing that’s outside your view.

        I didn’t start from the assumption that “the Buddha did not believe in rebirth”, so I have had no need to do anything like “creative reinterpretation”. I’ve simply read the texts, wanting to understand what was there from a historical perspective, rather than from an “I want to believe the Buddha was worthy of following” perspective. My aim has always been to understand what he taught and why, just because the puzzle is an interesting one to solve, rather than because I had any need for him to have believed or taught one thing or another.

        This is why a lot of my research has required that I go well outside the Pali canon, studying the texts from around his time, many of which he makes sly references to in his sermons (so they were obviously influences on him as well as the people he was speaking to; the humor only works if his audience knows the references).

        In reading the suttas, I found those of substance to be largely consistent, with notable exceptions like MN 60s sudden break in logic and momentary lapse into an inconsistent style, which seems indicative of “a different voice” inserting something for reasons of their own — probably a later voice. I find reading the texts as largely consistent to be much simpler, and require much less creativity, than a view of the Buddha’s whole teaching as being inconsistent: as telling us to pay attention to the difference between what we have known and seen for ourselves, and what we just imagine we have — a position where his primary focus is on deflating illusions — all the while, himself being completely deluded into thinking he’d seen his past lives and could see everyone else’s as well. The Buddha you believe in tells people that views of what happens after death are not useful to ending dukkha (ala the parable of the fellow shot with the arrow) and yet goes around telling everyone what happens after death even though he knows they won’t have experienced what he has, so for them to take that at face value they’ll have to be actively fostering the views that lead to dukkha in themselves.

        And, yes, it’s true, he taught with an open hand. The context for dependent arising that has been lost for many centuries to us — thus making its structure obscure — was not lost to those in his time; they still had the context of the Prajapati myth, and the rituals that created and perfected the self (the perfect model for his lesson about how our rituals create what we think of as the self) . His lesson about how views about rebirth were at the heart of the problems of people of his day was there for anyone to hear, if they came and listened to all of what he was saying rather than just a few introductory talks. Every teacher whose work we have from the times speaks in this way; it is a well-noted facet of his culture (I recently read K.R. Norman on the subject) that apparently simple statements are many-layered, and that is actually the point of the statements, that layering of meaning. To me, that you think he was likely to have spoken the way modern teachers speak, instead, takes creative reinterpretation. Those who believe that when he said he had nothing hidden in a “teacher’s hand” he meant that he spoke perfectly literally, leaving behind all the conventions of his culture, and instead speaking as we do in our age — those are the ones who are having to distort what’s going on in the suttas.

        But I do not actually mean to suggest that this is any kind of conscious, intentional “reinterpretation”; I don’t think it is. I think it is very difficult to step outside our own culture, and our own way of doing things, to correctly interpret the many different factors of speaking styles and cultural assumptions that shaped the way he spoke (I’m still working on understanding it all, myself — it’s hard). In a way, I think the reason we interpret the Buddha as ‘speaking literally, the way our open-handed teachers would’ is for the very same reason that dukkha comes about, the very thing the Buddha was pointing to with dependent arising: we assume the world is and always has been and always will be the way the world is *for us* and we just naturally interpret everything through that filter; it takes a great deal of effort to get outside that view. The first step is being willing, willing to just listen to the texts and the times, and try to understand them in their own context, rather than expecting that what’s said is said the way we would say it. Admittedly, not everyone has the interest in, or good fortune to have the time I have had, to be able to study not just the canon but the times, full time.

        Let me try to put this a little more succinctly. Your view is that the Buddha spoke, not the way teachers in his time did, but the way we do now; because you see his teaching this way, you are forced to conclude that the man who taught how to see through delusion was, himself, deluded; that the man who taught people to rely on what they could see for themselves went around telling people that he had seen something they hadn’t, and in order to be liberated, they should believe him, and treat that belief as real, even though they hadn’t seen it for themselves; and, further, that he was totally blind to this contradiction in what he taught and how he behaved. You say that he held beliefs that those of us moderns who see through delusions have easily seen through. In other words, he spoke like a modern, but didn’t think like one.

        Whereas my view is that the Buddha spoke the way teachers in his time did, not the way modern speakers do, and because I see it that way, what he taught had internal consistency. His discussion of rebirth was a wickedly pointed metaphor for how we do ourselves harm in this very life, in ways that we can all easily see nowadays, notably with the help of his teachings. What I see is that he taught the way out of delusion, because he saw the way out of delusion. So I say he spoke the way teachers in his time spoke, not the way moderns do, and with the help of the insight that he came to teach, he saw the world as accurately as modern thinkers do, right through those delusions, just as he said he did. The way people *speak* has changed; the way people *hurt themselves* has not; so he saw what we see, but didn’t express it the way we do.

        The way I see it, once upon a time there was one smart man who taught a brilliant and consistent lesson, and the people who came along afterwards managed to slowly shift its meaning over to something more comfortable and more ordinary. The way you see it, one deluded man taught an inconsistent lesson that has been passed on with extreme accuracy (as far as its core interpretation goes) by a hundred or so generations of men afterward.

        To my point of view, your way of looking at it requires two inconsistencies: that the Buddha didn’t speak the way people of his time did, and that he was blind to the inconsistencies in the lesson he would have been teaching had he talked the way you think he did. Whereas mine has two consistencies: he talked the way people talked in his time, and therefore his lesson is consistent.

        • Mark Knickelbine on November 13, 2012 at 9:32 am

          Doug —

          The value of Linda’s interpretation is that it indicates that Gotama intended DO to help us understand how the false sense of self is created in our lived experience of consciousness, rather than how karma is passed from life to life. If we are interested in understanding Gotama’s teachings, this observation is of crucial importance, in part because it underlines that a literal belief in rebirth is irrelevant to Gotama’s teaching. What matters is not whether Gotama did or didn’t believe in rebirth. What matters is whether principles such as DO, karma, nibanna, etc, rely on supernatural foundations or not.

      • Linda on November 12, 2012 at 11:43 am

        Sorry, I somehow double posted there. The above should have just the last four paragraphs, starting with “Let me try to put this another way…”

        • Doug Smith on November 12, 2012 at 12:25 pm

          Hi Linda,

          Yes, the Buddha did go around telling people he had special kinds of higher knowledge, as many holy men did in India of that time. In that way, he spoke as teachers in his time did, not how we do today. I am reminded of the quote that Donald Lopez cited, from the Mahāsīhanāda Sutta (MN 12):

          “Should anyone say of me: ‘The recluse Gotama does not have any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. The recluse Gotama teaches a Dhamma [merely] hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him’ — unless he abandons that assertion and that state of mind and relinquishes that view, then as [surely as if he had been] carried off and put there, he will wind up in hell”

          Yes, the Buddha was deluded about this higher knowledge. He had experiences, probably in meditation, involving past lives, the action of karma, and visions of life in other realms of existence. He believed that states of deep samadhi and deep insight provided direct understanding of reality. Again, this is much as other holy people in India and elsewhere have claimed to have. But not being cognizant of modern science, not being cognizant of the foibles of memory and the weaknesses of such accounts of extraordinary events, he was not aware of these as “delusions”. In this, he spoke as teachers in his time did, not how we do today.

          So my “inconsistencies” are not inconsistencies at all. The Buddha did speak just as we would expect one of his time to speak. And his “blindness” was only blindness when viewed by anachronistic, modern standards.

          • Linda on November 17, 2012 at 11:21 am

            So we have, at the beginning of MN 12, the Buddha saying that if folks are saying that his dhamma is merely “hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him, and when he teaches the Dhamma to anyone, it leads him when he practices it to the complete destruction of suffering”, the Buddha will take that as praise. He goes on to say that the person who started this up will never infer of him (the Buddha) that he is (any number of wonderful things, including) “an incomparable leader of persons to be tamed, teacher of gods and humans” and one who “enjoys the various kinds of supernormal power, having been one he becomes many…” and having “the divine ear” and the ability to encompass “with his own mind the minds of other beings”. He doesn’t actually say the fellow *should* infer all this, doesn’t say which parts one should or shouldn’t, he just plainly states that he won’t, ever, infer them. If I wanted, I could say the same thing of you, Doug, that you will never infer that the Buddha was a teacher of gods and humans, one who enjoys the various supernormal powers; I would not say that you should make the inference, largely because I would not say *how* you should understand these things; I’m certain you aren’t going to understand them in the way they are meant.

            There is nothing in the ten powers that is inconsistent with his usual statements about his powers, as he understands what’s possible as possible and impossible as impossible (note that he does not say that he can say, for every concept, which a certain thing is though — is rebirth possible or impossible? he doesn’t say, but when he knows something is possible, it’s because it is); how the actions have results; how ways lead to all destinations (I’d say that is DA’s “birth” which is not about literal birth); the world and its many elements (DA describes how we build up the world along with the self); the disposition of the faculties of others (which is, after all, what DA is about, not just our own); how the jhanas etc clean all this up; about his past lives (which I explained elsewhere on this page as referring to DA); as being able to see how ‘beings’ pass away and reappear each ‘according to their actions’ and even the ‘on the dissolution of the body’ is pointing to DA, in its ‘becoming’ (the parallel drawn is to the funeral pyre); right down to his own liberation from that process (of what is being parallelled, not the funeral pyre itself — as we know he went on to a pyre). He says he has those ten powers, says it right out, but it’s up to us to understand how they relate to his core teaching, and not stop at ‘face value’.

            In this he is not making the same *claims* as those other gurus — I hear you saying that he was a charlatan in this, proclaiming actual superpowers, just like the rest of them (if not through fooling others intentionally, then by being a fool himself) — but I say all that he has in common there is that he used the same *style* of speaking, in which anyone who knew anything about the way teachers taught would know that you needed to listen and work on understanding, and not take it on surface value, and as for those who did take it on surface value, at the least “when they hear that, direct their minds to such a state, and that leads to their welfare and happiness for a long time”.

            He goes on (and on and on) about (for example) encompassing mind with mind, and seeing how someone behaves, and “on the dissolution of the body, after death, he will reappear in a state of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, in hell”. Well we know that there is no “he” — we know that the Buddha has told us there is no one to go on, so it is clear to me, at least, that he is tying this to DA, and saying that at the breakup of the body (which is the death-transition of bhava) what follows is a rotten state — and he’s not talking about an eternal “he” he’s talking about the created self which does not actually survive death, so he’s talking about in this life. He’s seen that happen to many others — hell, *I’ve* seen that in others, I’ve experienced it for myself, that total breakdown of my self and my worldview and coming again into a world where I have to deal with the consequences of all that I did before because of the way I saw things, and the future being better or worse, depending on my actions, and what is driving them.

            Doug, I get that you aren’t going to change your mind on this. You’re going to stick with what you’ve been taught, and you believe in the life story the traditions have told you. I have no expectation that you’ll change your mind on it, but I will continue to occasionally point out that there is another way to see it because there is, and the site’s readers need to know that and the arguments for it. It is undoubtedly a new way of looking at “what the Buddha taught”, but I’m not the first to have suspected that he was “being metaphorical” and I will not be the last. I may be the first to have come up with a big piece of evidence to show just *how* he was being, hmmm, “metonymic”? But I also expect not to be the last.

            Now if you want to argue that the structure I saw in DA is entirely a figment of my imagination, I’d be interested to hear that argument. Or if you recognize that I couldn’t have bent texts enough to put that structure there, so it is there, but you have another way to interpret what it is saying, I’d be glad to hear about that, too. I’m still hoping for constructive argument, for anyone to show me evidence that it should be read a different way.



          • Doug Smith on November 17, 2012 at 6:17 pm

            Doug, I get that you aren’t going to change your mind on this. You’re going to stick with what you’ve been taught, and you believe in the life story the traditions have told you.

            For what it’s worth, this has nothing to do with what I’ve been taught, nor what “the traditions” tell me. I’m capable of seeing through traditional interpretations. (Even Bhikkhu Bodhi is at times skeptical of the commentarial tradition). It has to do with reading the texts without preconceptions. These claims are plain as day in the suttas themselves.



  4. mufi on November 12, 2012 at 7:49 am

    Doug: Apart from the issue of reincarnation, and perhaps that of the eventual status of nirvana, which I mentioned above, there is no case to be made here. None of the supernormal powers are essential for the attainment of enlightenment. That includes the power to know the rebirth status of the dead.

    That’s just it. The traditionalist authors that I’ve read (most recently, B. Bodhi) apparently do not believe that one can set aside supernatural concepts like rebirth and “the eventual status of nirvana” and still speak meaningfully about “enlightenment.” Who am I to disagree with them?

    I, too, can reinterpret terms like “enlightenment” (or the Pali equivalent) to mean something in the same vicinity (e.g. a predisposition towards equanimity and other this-worldly character traits that Gautama, I suspect, would have approved of). But I won’t claim that that’s what he or the sutta authors intended by that term.

    Anyway, this thread is getting longer than I intended, so re: the contemplative strains of Western tradition, I’ll just add that it would strike me as weak, if not chauvinistic, to assume (without a strong empirical case) that these strains could not have emerged independently of Buddhism. But I will grant you that they are not as central to Western cultures as they are in Eastern, and insofar as they were transmitted by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, they are indeed entangled with their superstitions (much as Buddhism is still entangled with other superstitions).

    • Doug Smith on November 12, 2012 at 8:08 am

      Hi mufi,

      The traditionalist authors that I’ve read (most recently, B. Bodhi) apparently do not believe that one can set aside supernatural concepts like rebirth and “the eventual status of nirvana” and still speak meaningfully about “enlightenment.” Who am I to disagree with them?

      Right. Well, to accept their interpretation that rebirth and nirvana are both supernatural, and to accept their interpretation that they are both so interpreted necessarily, one must of course reject the Secular Buddhist program. I have no question in my mind that both can be rejected (both the existence of literal rebirth and the supernatural nature of nirvana) without harm to the Buddhist path. We can argue about that, but really that’s what this whole site is about, so we’re sort of off the topic of this particular post.

      • mufi on November 12, 2012 at 8:28 am

        …to accept their interpretation that rebirth and nirvana are both supernatural, and to accept their interpretation that they are both so interpreted necessarily, one must of course reject the Secular Buddhist program

        That depends on how comfortable the SB program is with “creative reinterpretation” (to borrow your words) and/or cherry-picking.

        I’m quite comfortable with the idea that the orthodox are interpreting their scriptures more or less the way the authors intended. Does that put me at odds with the SB program?

        • Doug Smith on November 12, 2012 at 8:38 am

          I can’t speak for the SBA program. But speaking for myself, what I’m trying to do here is point out what it seems the Buddha (at least, the Buddha of the Canon) believed. And I agree with you that the orthodox teachers seem to have got their interpretations pretty plainly from what the Canon says. I’m not going to say they got everything right, but overall they do a very good job.

          Then, as 21st c. practitioners, it’s up to us to decide what is worth keeping and what is worth either tossing or reinterpreting. This I think is the heart of the SBA program. (It’s the “Secular” in “Secular Buddhism”).

          If one ends up tossing most of it, then one probably won’t be sticking around the SBA for very long, since the program will seem kind of silly. But if it seems one can toss some, while retaining a substantial kernel, then perhaps the SBA program might be of use.

          • mufi on November 12, 2012 at 9:11 am

            Doug: Then, as 21st c. practitioners, it’s up to us to decide what is worth keeping and what is worth either tossing or reinterpreting. This I think is the heart of the SBA program. (It’s the “Secular” in “Secular Buddhism”).

            OK, then we’re on the same page.

            Caveat: Let’s be careful not to define Buddhism so narrowly (e.g. as only what’s written in the Pali Canon, especially the earliest strata) that, if we end up tossing most of that, we then interpret our actions as a wholesale rejection of the entire family of wisdom and contemplative teachings.

            After all, I normally enjoy flowers more than their roots.



          • Doug Smith on November 12, 2012 at 9:28 am

            Let’s be careful not to define Buddhism so narrowly (e.g. as only what’s written in the Pali Canon, especially the earliest strata) that, if we end up tossing most of that, we then interpret our actions as a wholesale rejection of the entire family of wisdom and contemplative teachings.

            Of course. I personally find the stuff in the Canon to be the most interesting and persuasive, as well as the most philosophically tractable. (If we include the abhidhamma, etc. alongside). But it’s not for everyone, your mileage may vary, and I’d certainly not claim it was all of Buddhism.



  5. mufi on November 12, 2012 at 10:57 am

    Doug: Our latest turn in the conversation seems to segue nicely into Justin Whitaker’s post on “Toward a (Good) Buddhist Fundamentalism.” (I assume that the “Doug” in the comments is you.)

    PS: I’m doing my best not to react to Robert Ellis’ swipes at Owen Flanagan and “scientific naturalists”, in general. So I’ll just say it here: If it’s true that Flanagan – whom I credit with “vetting” Buddhism for folks like myself (i.e. “scientific naturalists”) – has “learned nothing” of the topic, then the outlook for my continued interest in Buddhism is poor.

    • mufi on November 15, 2012 at 11:33 am

      PS: In case anyone’s interested, I eventually wound up replying to that Justin Whitaker thread, after all (to Justin, rather than Robert), starting here.

    • Ted Meissner on November 21, 2012 at 1:23 pm

      Thanks for your restraint, mufi, that can be difficult and I do appreciate it. Let’s simply say that I also am more positively inclined to Flanagan’s view on these things than Robert’s. It may be ignorance on my part, certainly, but it strikes me that some philosophical approaches question things so far, that they go beyond having any pragmatic value. It may be interesting, certainly, but I’ve yet to find anything useful to me in daily practice with such discussions.

  6. leebert on December 11, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Dear God, all these bloody words & tit-for-tats betwixt omphaloskeptics is completely unnecessary. Buddhism wouldn’t be a popular religion if it didn’t in fact make some kind of basic sense!

    It’s plainly obvious that Gautama knew quite well that he was pandering to his culture, & he was giving Annarhudda the old wink-wink, nod-nod. Do we scheme to deceive when we concoct Santa Claus stories for Xmas/Yule?

    Was he blowing smoke up his disciple’s backsides? No. They expected him to teach a moral system that included karmically-consistent reincarnation, EVEN IF the rest of his teachings:

    +) Relegated the Brahmin concept of reincarnation to be functionally soulless & of marginal gravitas, evincing an equivocal stance on the importance of reincarnation (a teaspoon of salt in the Ganges). Talk about the “butterfly effect” in a hurricane! First Rule of Industrial Hygiene: Dilution of Pollution is the Best Solution.

    +) Included the Safe Bet doctrine to fortify the concept, concocted in response to disciples questioning the importance of the teaching;

    +) Revealed a schema that unifies reincarnation with an ethical code that places “other” as fungible to “self” (at times an almost-Jainist injunction to “be kind to our web-footed friends”);

    +) Revealed a desire to unify noumena, phenomena & ethics by unifying rebirth & morality. The hazard of Dependent Origination is that it is impersonal & invites nihilism. By fusing by fusing Karma & No-Self/Openness/Emptiness to a vast sea of coarising phenomena, the present moment is rendered not only personal, but ethical.

    Why waste words on this when it can be clearly stated? And why, for God’s sake, is it not clearly stated MORE OFTEN!?!?!?

    • leebert on December 11, 2012 at 11:00 am

      … and I forgot to mention that the “Safe Bet” doctrine has got to be the biggest hedge of all time. Can an appeal to one point of doctrine be any more equivocal without admitting that it’s still an option? It’s hardly even coercive at all – unless, that is, one’s teacher is particular tough on this point.

      If if we set aside the suspicion that ol’ Sid deliberately perpetuated a fairy tale of *hard* reincarnation (OK, soft & squishy yet warm & fuzzy) in order to assuage the emotional needs of his disciples, this milquetoast Buddhist Perpetualism is of equal inconsequence to other conjectures that Gotama advised against (Pantheism, Ontology & Eternalism).

      Why is this such a nettlesome topic? It almost seems that those who boast they are the best vanguards of Buddhist doctrine are also the ones most in need of defending reincarnation & karma as hard-reified notions & views — EVEN THOUGH the goal of Nibbana abrogates hard karma & hard reincarnation (non-returner)!

      So there’s that two-tier system again, but if we dispense with the damned dialectics then the system stops being infested by dualisms. Human nature being what it is muddles the whole thing up, so go figure… 🙂

    • Linda on December 14, 2012 at 12:49 pm

      I’m going to take your post as being written with a sense of humor though having a serious point. I don’t see how else I can take a post that begins by complaining “Dear God, all these bloody words & tit-for-tats…” and then goes on to deliver a bunch of similar words and add to the tit-for-tats.

      “Why waste words on this when it can be clearly stated?”

      Because others don’t agree with what you would be saying when you ‘clearly state it’, that’s why, nor do we agree with each other.

      Doug reads texts that, I say, are clearly edited (so the Pali reflects) and translated (so the English reflects) one version of a story about Gotama’s life, and he believes it to be the true story, at least as far that it is the story of how Gotama behaved and the things he said and *believed* about himself (that he could do miracles, see past lives, etc.). You apparently believe more or less the same thing. His point of disagreement is that Gotama ‘got it wrong’, not that the story we have might be misunderstood — he believes the story is uncorrupted (enough to make no great difference, as do you despite your ‘composite figure’ caveat). Whereas I believe that it is edited and translated in such a way to convince us it is accurate and all *literal*. He doesn’t see it the way I see it: that he (and so many others) believe the party line because to the winners go the writing of the history. And I believe I have good evidence that the party line has missed out on the nuance for a long, long time, and that this is part of the reason the story is so good at fooling us.

      I’d almost agree with you, leebert, that he was allowing rebirth in because he was ‘expected …[to] teach a moral system that included karmically-consistent reincarnation’ *IF* I hadn’t seen in the structure of Dependent Arising that he is actually pointing out the error of that karmically-consistent view of reincarnation. If I hadn’t seen him, also, point it out in MN 117. If I didn’t see him as doing the same thing in suttas like MN 120, where he goes through an increasingly ridiculously escalating list of heavens one can aspire to and then ends with a (badum-tisss!) of *or* you could just go for awakening *here and now*. It would be inconsistent of me to perceive of him as trying to ‘unify reincarnation with an ethical code’ when I can easily see that he is pointing out that reincarnation as an ethical code is a sub-standard way of looking at things that still subtly perpetuates the problem. That is why I am wasting so many words here.

      “Why is this such a nettlesome topic?”

      Because there is a lot of confusion and many differing views. And because it actually *is* important. The reason I keep banging my head against this particular wall is because (1) I can see that the dharma the Buddha taught was entirely consistent — both internally consistent, and consistent with what secular folks see in the world today (this being the case because he was seeing human nature, not Great Absolute Truths) — and (2) the Buddha made some very good points within this very consistent structure that people are missing, that in fact *have* to be overlooked in order to hold that he taught rebirth, and these are the points that are (a) central to what he’s saying and (b) direly needed in our world, because they are about tolerance for differences in others’ views that understands where folks ‘are coming from’ in their beliefs.

      It rather breaks my heart to see us missing the point, especially because we are doing the very things he points out as being errors, and that is the cause of us missing his point. The tightness of that spiral is sharp-edged when I look at it.

      • leebert on December 15, 2012 at 11:26 pm

        Linda, that was EXCELLENT!

        I for one LIKE dialectics. They teach us more than who’s the winner in a debate, they teach a flexibility of mind that you & I share: Synthesizing varying viewpoints, deconstruction of preconceived notions, sympathetically exposing internally inconsistent interpretations, and so on.

        This is really important work that is being done here, and not for just our own sake, but for a non-dual mindfulness movement that needs a secular vanguard in the dharma.

        I find your interpretation very very encouraging, and it reminds me of statements made by others that there’s actually a great deal *more* consistency in the Tipitakka, but you have to know where & how to look for it.

        I’m not much of one for scripture, never will be.

        On the one hand I would very much like to see an enumerated outline of the rationale that you & others have spelled out here, perhaps laid out in much the same Q&A fashion that evolved between us.

        On the other hand, of course I’d rather just dispense with the controversy because it distracts from the actual practice & effort. Wouldn’t we all? Literalist disputes seem to boil down more to whether the piety cops & vanguards of conformity are getting their undue due, than actually empowering the congregation. It becomes a thin wedge to grab attention, or worse yet, Peddle Merit in the Sangha.

        Well, I gather teaching moments await us, and I’ll take your excellent points under serious consideration & incorporate them in any future discussions in which I engage on this (unfortunately weighty) matter!

        Thanks!!!

  7. LordranBound on December 11, 2012 at 11:02 am

    “Buddhism wouldn’t be a popular religion if it didn’t in fact make some kind of basic sense!”

    In my experience, whether or not a religion is popular has very little to do with how much sense it makes.

    I realize that these discussions may seem tedious to some and even harmful, but for someone like me who isn’t convinced of Gautama’s complete knowledge of transcendent truths, these discussions are useful.

    • leebert on December 11, 2012 at 11:28 am

      Don’t know if you got the full gist of my comments, but I’m in agreement with you there. That still doesn’t rule out the essential consistency within Buddhism, even if we *DO* confront some of the inconsistency within the system.

      It’s like trying to disentangle Jesus from Paul or Revelations. It can be done, and it very well needs doing. We liberate Buddhism from societal distortions when we disentangle Buddhism from the disfigurement of *hard* karma & reified reincarnation (perpetualism).

      Un-reifying these doctrines will meet a great deal of opposition, however, because of Dana & the wanton & still ongoing selling of Merit in the Establishment Sangha.

    • leebert on December 11, 2012 at 11:31 am

      Also in discussions, the point is often overlooked that the historical Buddha is likely a composite figure, with some share of apocrypha & reattribution having evolved in his day at the hands of his closest disciples.

    • Linda on December 14, 2012 at 12:50 pm

      Thanks for saying that LordranBound.

  8. Brc on December 17, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    The correct answer from Anuruddha to the Buddha’s question is, “Yes, Blessed One, there are bhikkhus who delight in the holy life, but all bhikkhus seek the bliss beyond bliss of Nibbana.”

    Based on what you’ve presented about the Buddha’s words in this post, what he appears to be expressing is a concern that some might think that he’s encouraging nothing more than happiness with this life or a happy rebirth in a heavenly realm (which is, in fact, subject to dukkha), while the true goal of the Dhamma is escape from the rounds of rebirth, i.e. the end of dukkha.

    Obviously, the Buddha did not teach that the goal was happiness by means of rebirth in a heavenly realm. And it makes sense that he would be concerned about whether some bhikkhus were misinterpreting his words.

    • Doug Smith on December 17, 2012 at 3:05 pm

      Hi Brc,

      I’m not entirely sure to whom you’re responding, but I’ll give it a shot.

      You’re absolutely right that the Buddha did not teach that we could achieve final happiness by means of rebirth in some heavenly realm. It is one possible reading of the monks’ silence at the beginning of the sutta that they were upset with him for saying that so-and-so monk was reborn in such-and-such heaven, rather than for saying that this monk attained nibbāna at death, or some such thing.

      But the Buddha’s response to Anruddha at P9 (quoted above) sounds like someone who is concerned about appearing to flatter: “… not for the purpose of scheming to deceive people or for the purpose of flattering people or for the purpose of gain, honour, or renown …” In other words, the Buddha was concerned that the monks might feel he was being too nice to a passed disciple.

      In that context I think it makes more sense to assume the monks felt that a good rebirth was too good for this disciple. Cf., Mark’s citation above from SN 55.24.

      • Brc on December 17, 2012 at 3:31 pm

        The Buddha faced skeptics and had to correct bhikkhus who either misunderstood him or even misrepresented him fairly often according to the Pali Canon. The Buddha lived in a time of great spiritual vitality and was confronted by people who expounded all kinds of views and beliefs. Some schools openly rejected rebirth, while others embraced it (see DN 2, for example).

        The most obvious example of a bhikkhu who not only misunderstood the Buddha’s teaching on rebirth, but also taught that his wrong view was what the Buddha was teaching, is Sāti the Fisherman’s Son (MN 38).

        So, what’s the point of the post?

        • Doug Smith on December 17, 2012 at 3:40 pm

          The point, Brc, is that this is a confusing sutta, partly because the silence of the monks at the beginning is unexplained.

          It seems at first glance like the Buddha claims to be teaching with a ‘closed fist’, that his tales about rebirth are just “scheming to deceive”: tall tales told with good intention, to lead disciples for “their welfare and happiness for a long time”. But I think that is not a correct reading. It makes more sense of the sutta to take the Buddha as having a subtle conflict with these monastics. As I say,

          It is also possible that some monks feel the Buddha shows a “flattering” favoritism to certain passed monastics, perhaps some of whom may have seemed less than entirely worthy to their “faithful clansmen”. This latter interpretation also makes sense of why the sutta opens with monks unwilling to assert their “delight in the holy life”: they are perturbed by claims of happy rebirth for one they feel undeserving.

          • Brc on December 17, 2012 at 4:05 pm

            Yes, but what’s the point?

            To say that there was a variety of views regarding rebirth in the time of the Buddha is well-known and obvious from the sources.

            Bhikkhus weren’t supposed to take delight in the holy life. That wasn’t and still isn’t the point of cultivating the mind and gaining wisdom according to the Dhamma as taught by the Buddha.

            Otherwise, the Buddha knew from the beginning that there would be many who would not easily understand what he had to teach them.



          • Doug Smith on December 17, 2012 at 4:18 pm

            To say that there was a variety of views regarding rebirth in the time of the Buddha is well-known and obvious from the sources.

            Of course. I was not arguing otherwise.



          • Brc on December 18, 2012 at 6:49 am

            The Buddha knew from the beginning that there would be many who would not easily understand what he had to teach them.

            And he was right. Many in his day could not easily understand what he had to teach them. Many didn’t understand it at all, as has been true every day since his passing.

            We should all be thankful, however, that he decided to teach for 45 years anyway and that he left us so much to help us in our spiritual development.



      • leebert on December 17, 2012 at 10:24 pm

        [quote]
        In that context I think it makes more sense to assume the monks felt that a good rebirth was too good for this disciple. Cf., Mark’s citation above from SN 55.24.
        [/quote]

        This suggests to me that the disciples saw this as more of an honorary epitaph than a literal prognostication of a good afterlife.

        IOW they expected the Buddha to give hagiographic epitaphs to those whom everyone liked & respected, but to withhold them for those who had fallen into disrepute *and* they didn’t see Gotama as having the final word on whose destiny was what.

        In a sense we might see this as a less-than literal view of the Buddha’s omniscience, much less the doctrine of reincarnation.

        • Doug Smith on December 18, 2012 at 5:31 am

          Hello leebert,

          I expect there might have been some whose skeptical hackles were raised when they heard of a rebirth-claim made for someone they did not feel merited the claim. But in the context of scores of suttas in which the Buddha said that rebirth literally happened, and in which he said that rejecting rebirth was “wrong view” that would get one sent to hell, it’s clear that kammic rebirth was to be taken as literally as any other element of the Buddha dhamma.

          One can say that the monks didn’t believe the Buddha really knew all of this, but only at the cost of saying that the monks were wiser, less in the thrall of ignorance and delusion, than their own teacher. I don’t think that is an apt reconstruction of the intent of these suttas, much as it conforms to contemporary sensibilities.

          • leebert on December 19, 2012 at 7:38 pm

            Ahhh, but behind curtain #3 we have the Kalama Sutra.

            I’m mulling over the various options here.

            The historical Buddha meant for his teachings to be:

            1) internalized according to inclination.
            2) experienced with an eye toward increasing nuance.
            3) customized to meet colloquial need.
            4) taken literally.

            As I understand them, the following suttas contradict each other:

            a) Kalama Sutta (reincarnation is dispensable)
            (the Kalama people didn’t follow Brahmanism)
            https://www.google.com/search?q=stephen+batchelor+kalama+sutra

            b) Nalakapana Sutta (reincarnation comforts the votaries)
            (this article)

            c) Apannaka Sutta (wrong view =’s hell *and* safe bet)
            http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.060.than.html

            d) Yavakalāpi Sutta (thinking about rebirth causes suffering)
            (see: http://jayarava.blogspot.com/2012/04/atman-ego-and-rebirth.html)

            ===
            What we have then is a mess, on par with the Christian New Testament. I think it’s worthy to establish that the Tipitaka *is* indeed a mess *and* that we should become aware that the Historial Buddha might’ve been more flexible on this point than anyone cares to admit.

            I see that you’re not in agreement with Linda’s point above, that “.. the structure of Dependent Arising [the Buddha]e is actually pointing out the error of that karmically-consistent view of reincarnation. … [also in ] MN 117 [ and in ] MN 120, where he goes through an increasingly ridiculously escalating list of heavens one can aspire to and then ends with a (badum-tisss!) of *or* you could just go for awakening *here and now*.”

            http://justalittledust.com/blog/

            I’m afraid you’ve met your match in Linda’s assertion that the Buddha has also said *other* things that indicate a less-than-literal doctrine – that is, a heterodoxy. This is where B. Alan Wallace got into a pissing match with Batchelor, that getting loosey-goosey with the Tipitaka isn’t Buddhism.

            My main point is this:

            If the Tipitaka is riven with contradictions, then everybody’s off the hook: One size fits all/none!

            My other point is to consider the implications of a strictly literal Buddhist doctrine of a “hard” reincarnation:

            i) Spiritual materialism is permissible hence Anatman is broken.
            ii) Mental formations causing discomfiture are coddled at the expense of emptiness.
            iii) Eternalism threatens Dependent Origination (Brahma inside).

            Not to wax polemic here, but even if you make the strongest case for the preponderance of the Tipitaka leaning toward “hard reincarnation,* I can’t see making a case for its *exclusivity* as a doctrine throughout the Tipitaka.

            In other words the Tipitaka is in fact a heterodox document.



          • Doug Smith on December 19, 2012 at 8:10 pm

            Sorry, leebert, I don’t follow your argument. Nowhere in the Kalama Sutta, for example, is rebirth “dispensable”, in the sense that the Buddha actually said it wasn’t true. He merely gave what to him was a counterfactual conditional: even if it weren’t true, still by behaving as if it were true one lives well.

            The Canon is quite consistent on this point throughout. It is acknowledged as an essential part of the dhamma by every Buddhist scholar including Gombrich himself. Even Batchelor agrees that the Buddha asserted literal rebirth. I know this is an inconvenient truth, but there it is.



          • leebert on December 19, 2012 at 8:17 pm

            And while I’m beating this dead horse, I’ll quote from a friend:

            “.. Well, I used “contemporary ideas” is a simplified placeholder for teachers like
            Purana Kassapa (who advocated annihilationalism),
            Makkhali Gosala (founder of the Ājīvikas),

            Nigantha Nataputta (aka Mahavira, one of the founders of the Jains),
            Pakudha Kaccayana (who taught a kind of atomic eternalism),
            Ajita Kesakambala (one of the earliest Indian advocates of Materialism),

            Sanjaya Belatthaputta, who was agnostic.

            In that crowd, you have two guys that deny rebirth, one who refuses to comment and three who taught a kind of rebirth. The Buddha disagreed with all of them and spelled their arguments in detail too.

            So detailed in fact, that we know more about the ancient Jains from all the stuff the Buddhist scriptures say about them than what the surviving Jain scriptures say.

            Actually, his response to Sanjaya is interesting, because Sanjaya isn’t too far off the kind of spiritually modest attitude often attributed to the Buddha:

            “If you ask me if there exists another world [after death], if I thought that there exists another world, would I declare that to you? I don’t think so. I don’t think in that way. I don’t think otherwise. I don’t think not. I don’t think not not. If you asked me if there isn’t another world… both is and isn’t… neither is nor isn’t… if there are beings who transmigrate… if there aren’t… both are and aren’t… neither are nor aren’t… if the Tathagata exists after death… doesn’t… both… neither exists nor exists after death, would I declare that to you? I don’t think so. I don’t think in that way. I don’t think otherwise. I don’t think not. I don’t think not not.” [ Samannaphala Sutta ]

            The Buddha, evidently not shy about nailing his colours to the mast when necessary, summarised such an outlook as being “a theory of eel-wrigglers.” [Brahmajala Sutta]

            ===========

            So, is the Tipitaka a huge mess?

            Why shouldn’t it be anyway?



          • Linda on December 20, 2012 at 12:19 pm

            leebert,

            Is the Tipitaka a huge mess? No, it’s a quite modest mess.

            Of the four suttas you cited as contradictory:

            a) Kalama Sutta (reincarnation is dispensable)
            (the Kalama people didn’t follow Brahmanism)
            b) Nalakapana Sutta (reincarnation comforts the votaries)
            c) Apannaka Sutta (wrong view =’s hell *and* safe bet)
            d) Yavakalāpi Sutta (thinking about rebirth causes suffering)

            Three are consistent with each other and the outlier is consistent except for one bit — the bit that breaks the logic of the whole. Anyone with even a little training in the logic of debate will recognize that the Apannaka Sutta has been messed with; even Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out the break (though he wisely refrains from offering just one opinion on how it might have happened). To me it’s pretty clear that those who edited the canon later who were trying to make sure everyone understood that The Buddha Did Indeed Teach Belief In Rebirth As Necessary stuck in the “B” bits to make their point, even though it clearly undermines the whole rest of the sutta (they must not have been too smart and their audience less still — they thought no one would notice).

            a) Any way you look at it, the Kalama sutta says belief in rebirth isn’t what’s significant, it’s how you behave. As Doug points out it’s not a denial of rebirth — but I think, leebert, that you agree with that? At any rate, the view of rebirth preached in the Kalama sutta fits with “2) experienced with an eye toward increasing nuance”

            b) Nalakapana: reincarnation *does* comfort, and it too fits with (2), saying that offering a destination that loved-ones are heading toward inspires “faithful clansmen” who are “gladdened by what is lofty”.

            c) The Appanaka sutta is through-and-through saying the same basic thing as the Kalama sutta — its only problem is the logic break.

            d) The Yavakalāpi Sutta’s point that thinking about future rebirths causes suffering is consistent with all the rest too, because it is how we think that leads to how we act, and the Buddha is saying all along that the problem lies with thinking we know what is going on in the cosmological order when we don’t.

            He uses rebirth as a teaching tool, a structure to make points. Some of the time it is primarily a framework that folks are familiar with that he can use to explain things but even then it refers back to rebirth’s use in dependent arising.

            Seen this way the Tipitaka is not a huge mess, and the little messes of later insertions of dogmatic statements stand out.



          • Linda on December 24, 2012 at 7:11 am

            Doug said: “But in the context of scores of suttas in which the Buddha said that rebirth literally happened, and in which he said that rejecting rebirth was “wrong view” that would get one sent to hell, it’s clear that kammic rebirth was to be taken as literally as any other element of the Buddha dhamma.”

            I was reviewing the thread and I must have missed this on earlier passes.

            The thing to notice is that the *why* is missing. “This is wrong view” he says (over and over and over) but when he says this I don’t see him overtly telling us *why* it is Wrong View. We easily leap to the assumption that he says it’s Wrong View because it’s WRONG but we miss the possibility that he’s saying it’s Wrong View because it is a VIEW. All throughout the canon he is telling us that our big problem is that we cling to views, we cling to self, we cling to views about the self. It is quite clear to me that the Buddha is trying to tell us that when we say “There is no rebirth” we are creating a problem for ourselves because we are being dogmatic about something we have no evidence for. (This, BTW, is one of the reasons I don’t quite consider myself a Secular Buddhist — because the approach here seems to be to take a stance about rebirth, and I agree with the Buddha that “taking a stance” is part of the problem, and that it is not a useful — nor Buddhist, really — thing to do.)



          • Doug Smith on December 24, 2012 at 7:44 am

            Linda, the Buddha does say “why” this is wrong view, in the Apannaka Sutta, which I discussed in a prior post. Namely, the Buddha believed that “nihilistic” beliefs, those that completely denied rebirth, were liable to lead to unethical conduct, as well as “censure by the wise” in this life. And if there was rebirth, then those beliefs would also lead one to hell. And the Buddha (para. 8) says that since in fact rebirth *does* occur, the belief in rebirth is “right view”.

            In Thanissaro’s translation (I’m away from home now so don’t have access to Bodhi’s):

            B2. “Because there actually is the next world, the view of one who thinks, ‘There is a next world’ is his right view. Because there actually is the next world, when he is resolved that ‘There is a next world,’ that is his right resolve. Because there actually is the next world, when he speaks the statement, ‘There is a next world,’ that is his right speech. Because there actually is the next world, when he is says that ‘There is a next world,’ he doesn’t make himself an opponent to those arahants who know the next world. Because there actually is the next world, when he persuades another that ‘There is a next world,’ that is persuasion in what is true Dhamma. And in that persuasion in what is true Dhamma, he doesn’t exalt himself or disparage others. Whatever bad habituation he previously had is abandoned, while good habituation is manifested. And this right view, right resolve, right speech, non-opposition to the arahants, persuasion in what is true Dhamma, non-exaltation of self, & non-disparagement of others: These many skillful activities come into play, in dependence on right view.



          • Linda on December 24, 2012 at 10:24 am

            There are two parts to your comment, Doug. Let’s take them individually.

            Part One:
            “…the Buddha does say ‘why’ this is wrong view, in the Apannaka Sutta, which I discussed in a prior post. Namely, the Buddha believed that ‘nihilistic’ beliefs, those that completely denied rebirth, were liable to lead to unethical conduct, as well as ‘censure by the wise’ in this life. And if there was rebirth, then those beliefs would also lead one to hell. ”

            Agreed, though my statement that he doesn’t say *why* still stands.

            He is saying the reason it is wrong is because it is a *view* that leads to bad behavior and that behavior will be censured, and *if* (note the *if) there is rebirth one goes to hell. In this part he is not saying that the reason it is wrong view is because he knows that the nihilistic view is not the way things are and he in fact knows how the universe works, which is that rebirth is the fact. He does say that that particular philosophy leads to bad behavior, though again he does not explain (here, in MN 60) the *why* — there is no description of the mechanics of how it leads to bad behavior; he simply states that it does.

            Part Two:
            “And the Buddha says that since in fact rebirth *does* occur, the belief in rebirth is ‘right view’.”

            This part I have addressed elsewhere in this thread, where I mention what the translator Thanissaro Bhikkhu says about it. I’ll quote his actual words this time:

            http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.060.than.html

            “It is noteworthy that the arguments in A2 and B2 are not safe-bet arguments, for they assume that A is wrong and B is right. Whether these arguments date from the Buddha or were added at a later date, no one knows.”

            The sutta is all about the safe bet. And yet the parts where the Buddha makes a dogmatic statement of how the universe works undo the logic of the safe bet.

            Anyone who has taken debate classes or logic should be able to recognize that the “if” in the first quote above is made nonsensical by the A2 and B2 arguments — the logic of the whole sutta is broken by the insertion of dogmatic statements. Now if one assumes — as you seem to, Doug, that the Buddha was a confused, illogical fellow, then this is consistent. I recognize the Buddha-of-the-canon to be a logical person who is extremely meticulous in the construction of his sermons and his logic, and when I find something this badly broken I ask myself if anyone anywhere might have had a reason for inserting words into his mouth. I also ask myself: does he say this thing over and over in the suttas? If he does, then it’s pretty hard for me to say it’s not his words. Or does it appear just once or twice? In which case why would that be?

            How many other places in the suttas do we find the Buddha saying “rebirth *does* occur” and saying it just that plainly?



          • Doug Smith on December 24, 2012 at 12:18 pm

            Anyone who has taken debate classes or logic should be able to recognize that the “if” in the first quote above is made nonsensical by the A2 and B2 arguments — the logic of the whole sutta is broken by the insertion of dogmatic statements. Now if one assumes — as you seem to, Doug, that the Buddha was a confused, illogical fellow, then this is consistent. I recognize the Buddha-of-the-canon to be a logical person who is extremely meticulous in the construction of his sermons and his logic, and when I find something this badly broken I ask myself if anyone anywhere might have had a reason for inserting words into his mouth. I also ask myself: does he say this thing over and over in the suttas? If he does, then it’s pretty hard for me to say it’s not his words. Or does it appear just once or twice? In which case why would that be?

            Well, I haven’t taken debate classes, but quite a bit of logic. The “if” is prudential. It is the same “if” that a theist will use when putting forward Pascal’s Wager to a non-theist audience. If God weren’t to exist (wink, wink, though I know he does), then it would still be better to behave as though he did. This is neither a confused nor an illogical argument as it stands. Though his wager itself is as unconvincing as Pascal’s, it is fair to note that Pascal’s is often considered one of the great theist arguments. The fact that the Buddha gave essentially the same argument two millennia earlier is some evidence of his uncommonly sharp and analytic mind.

            Of course, great analytic sharpness is no guarantee of the truth of one’s claims, particularly when one accepts the information gotten in states of deep samadhi as immediately revelatory of one’s own and others’ rebirths.

            And yes, the Buddha does say this kind of thing over and over in the suttas. (Not this exact argument, of course, but the claim that literal rebirth happens, and that denial of literal rebirth is “nihilism” which is Wrong View). It’s really not a matter for serious argument.



          • Linda on December 24, 2012 at 3:26 pm

            That he does or doesn’t says things than can be interpreted as “literal rebirth happens” was not the argument I was making, Doug.

            I was saying that he does not say that the reason Wrong View is Wrong View is because in fact there is rebirth. My question was not does he say things that can be read as “literal rebirth happens”; all of his discussions of dependent arising via rebirth can be read that way if you want to read them that way, though it is not the only way to read them. Rather, my question was where does he say that the reason he is saying Wrong View is wrong is because the universe doesn’t work that way. He doesn’t, with the rare exception like MN 60; he says the reason Wrong View is wrong is because of the behavior that comes out of it. Sorry if I wasn’t being clear.



          • Doug Smith on December 24, 2012 at 4:02 pm

            Certainly, one major thrust of the Buddha’s teaching is to reorient behavior. But his teachings around wisdom, around the wisdom that sees impermanence for example, are generally stated as claims about seeing into the way things really are, as opposed to ignorance which does not see the way things really are. The difference between mindfulness and insight is that the latter stage of meditative achievement is insight into reality; it sees that “the universe works that way”. This is central to the Buddha’s message, and so claiming that the Buddha is entirely agnostic about the way the world works gets his message wrong.

            So taking that, wrong view is any view in contrast to the Buddha’s view about the way the world works. Those include, from the Brahmajala Sutta, such views as eternalism and nihilism, the latter of which is the denial of literal rebirth.



          • Linda on December 27, 2012 at 6:11 am

            “…it sees that ‘the universe works that way’. This is central to the Buddha’s message, and so claiming that the Buddha is entirely agnostic about the way the world works gets his message wrong.

            “So taking that, wrong view is any view in contrast to the Buddha’s view about the way the world works.”

            That, in a nutshell, is the basis of our disagreement. Your perception is that the Buddha’s central message is about how the universe works whereas mine is that it’s about the way people work. You don’t cite any other sutta where he says “Wrong view is wrong view because the universe works differently than that” because he doesn’t say it. That, alone, is a good piece of evidence that the piece in MN 60 is a corruption added later — I would suggest by monastics who were trying to quell debates just like ours.



          • Doug Smith on December 27, 2012 at 7:05 am

            You don’t cite any other sutta where he says “Wrong view is wrong view because the universe works differently than that” because he doesn’t say it. That, alone, is a good piece of evidence that the piece in MN 60 is a corruption added later — I would suggest by monastics who were trying to quell debates just like ours.

            Linda, MN 60 is perfectly consistent with the rest of the Canon. The Buddha over and over says that right view is right view because it grasps the way things work. Wrong view is just the denial of right view. Right view is the first step in the Eightfold Path that gets us to freedom by conditioning such things as right intention. We cannot get there without an understanding of the way things work, at least as regards our own mental and physical formations.

            Certainly the Buddha did not intend to make a complete theory of cosmology; in that sense he wasn’t interested in how “the universe” worked, and considered general cosmological questions as being useless to the Path. But issues of kamma and rebirth are not mere cosmological questions for the Buddha: they were the essence of samsara, which he believed he was trying to escape. I think if one does not see this, one does not really see the Buddha’s intended message. Which does not mean we have to agree with the entirety of that message, of course.

            It’s convenient to reject bits of the Canon that one doesn’t find congenial as “corruptions added later”. But in the context of the Buddha’s extensive discussions about literal rebirth, about the denial of “nihilism” in the Brahmajala Sutta and elsewhere, about his own abilities to see past lives and the kammic results of actions, rejecting the passages in MN 60 amounts to special pleading.



          • Linda on December 27, 2012 at 12:59 pm

            “But issues of kamma and rebirth are not mere cosmological questions for the Buddha: they were the essence of samsara, which he believed he was trying to escape. I think if one does not see this, one does not really see the Buddha’s intended message.”

            I say the exact same thing, Doug. But I say that if you don’t recognize what he was expecting you’d come to see through the practice he sets out for you to see — which is to see right through the delusions of the views we build, and how they warp our behavior, and further to understand not just how we do what we do, but why we do what we do (cognitive dissonance in our day, the first five steps of dependent arising describe it for his day’s audience) — then we do not really see the Buddha’s intended message. The thing is, I think that in your practice you *have* seen what he intended you to see, you just are not recognizing that this is what he was aiming for, for you and I and all of us who practice deeply to recognize for ourselves that we can’t see literal rebirth, and to match that up to what he’s saying with the structure of dependent arising.



        • Linda on December 27, 2012 at 12:46 pm

          “The Buddha over and over says that right view is right view because it grasps the way things work. Wrong view is just the denial of right view. Right view is the first step in the Eightfold Path that gets us to freedom by conditioning such things as right intention. We cannot get there without an understanding of the way things work, at least as regards our own mental and physical formations.”

          Yes, but “the way things work” has nothing to do with the cosmic order. Or, to be more precise, the only thing it has to do with “the cosmic order” is our grasping at views about that order as regards “the self” when we have too little evidence to support those views. The Buddha says again and again that this is something we can see for ourselves: come and see. He doesn’t say “This is something you will see only when you are fully awakened to it” — he says we can see it.

          Here you say, “But issues of kamma and rebirth are not mere cosmological questions for the Buddha: they were the essence of samsara, which he believed he was trying to escape. I think if one does not see this, one does not really see the Buddha’s intended message,” and yet above you say “…’the universe works that way’. This is central to the Buddha’s message…”

          I’m confused, Doug. You dismiss the cosmology that you perceive to be ‘central to the Buddha’s message’. Is it central? Or is it disposable? How do you reconcile following a philosophy where you throw out something that is ‘central’ to it?

          “It’s convenient to reject bits of the Canon that one doesn’t find congenial as ‘corruptions added later’.”

          Far more convenient to your mind, I guess, to dismiss things that you say are central to his teaching?

          I am reminded, again, of the game of ‘whisper the secret’. When I sit at the end of the chain, and the message that gets passed to me is nonsense, my interpretation is that it started out as sense, and the number of people it passed through caused the corruption. Your interpretation is that it was nonsense to begin with, and every single individual in the circle passed it on correctly. It seems to me your take flies in the face of what we know about human nature. I believe the Buddha’s message “took” in the first place because it did make sense and not just to those who believed in rebirth, but that it got slightly twisted along the way, twists we see already happening while he lived and which can only have gotten worse after he was no longer around to straighten them out. Whereas you seem to perceive 2,000 years of perfect transmission.

          • Doug Smith on December 27, 2012 at 1:15 pm

            The Buddha says again and again that this is something we can see for ourselves: come and see. He doesn’t say “This is something you will see only when you are fully awakened to it” — he says we can see it.

            He does not say that one will see all of this immediately. One sees it in parts, or understands bits of it conceptually, which is not the same as true insight. Indeed, the Buddha distinguishes several steps in the Path. For example, one does not see nibbana for what it is until one becomes a sotapanna. One does not receive the iddhis (including the ability to see past lives, etc.) until one has mastered at least the first four jhanas. There is nothing in the Buddha’s description of the Path that says one will see it all before being awakened to it. Indeed, full awakening to the Path just is seeing it for what it is for the first time.

            As for the rest of this, you are confusing what I believe with what the Buddha believed. For the Buddha, rebirth and kamma was explicitly a central part of the teaching. What makes me interested in Secular Buddhism is that I do not agree with that aspect of the Path. I am very careful to distinguish what I believe from what the Buddha of the Suttas believed. Otherwise one is only engaged in wish fulfillment.



          • Linda on December 27, 2012 at 8:09 pm

            You’re right, it is a gradual path — I had a whole long chunk in my previous post about that but deleted it as unnecessarily side-tracking what I’m addressing here.

            So then I am hearing you say that karma and rebirth are not central to what the Buddha taught, that we can understand what he taught and follow it without any need for belief in these at all, is that right? When you say “it is central” it is only to the Buddha’s worldview, but we moderns may be able to recognize it as not central at all?



          • Linda on December 27, 2012 at 10:21 pm

            The more I think about it, the more fascinated I become by the concept of “wink-wink-nod-nod Buddha”. Is there something that indicates to you that he is making it clear to his audience that this is what he is doing? For example, are there other suttas where he uses the w2-n2 method of speaking, Doug, so we could see that it was a familiar mode? If there are I’d like to look at them, as I don’t recall anything like it (but I haven’t read every sutta yet). Or maybe something in the Brahmanas or Upanisads that shows this was a common way to speak?



  9. leebert on December 20, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    Right Linda, that’s pretty much the gist of what I’ve always heretofore understood (despite Doug’s inadvertent framing of my position).

    I’m trying to reconcile the various readings of the Kalama Sutta, for instance:

    “…This is the only text I know of in the Pali Canon where the Buddha explicitly states that the practice of the Dharma is valid and worthwhile “even if there is no hereafter and there are no fruits of actions good or ill.” This is the closest he comes to an agnostic position on the subject. At the very least it suggests that he did not regard belief in rebirth to be necessary for all those who followed his teaching.” — Batchelor, Mandala Mag, Open Letter..

    There are many aspects to the discussion of scripture, far, far beyond my breadth or expertise, but that’s not my interest. My point is that any attempt to nail down Gotama’s position on reincarnation is functionally vainglory – that Gotama left sufficient room to keep his metaphysics malleable & flexible, which I believe remains Batchelor’s position.

    Moreover I see Batchelor’s position as sufficiently well-informed to leave it at that, without further despair of attempts to liberalize the Dharma otherwise as, in of themselves, disparaging of the Dharma!

    That is, that it’s completely OK to view a heterodox Dharma, one that can be reasonably discussed within the context of the Tipitakka. In the name of tolerance we’re free to accommodate the irreverence of Ikkyu and others, and for that matter the those Buddhalotrous sects. The standard has long been set, well before DT Suzuki & Rhys Davids, that the Dharma is open to interpretation, compatible with various theistic creeds, & can (and has) allow Buddhalotry (Nichiren) & conjectures of after lives (Pure Land) *even though* those practices are also aspersed in the Tipitakka.

    It’s a non-issue to me, as it should be. But I’m intrigued that even a non-partisan foray into the discussion reveals intractable positions, and from all quarters! I see this as a far greater error for the Humanist & Non-theistic Buddhists than the Buddhalatrous & Theistic ones.

    To me a broad acceptance of heterodoxy is especially the agnostic’s position to lose, because it is a point that’s not only sufficient to make simply, but a fair case is being made that it enjoys support in the canon.

    So it’s breathtaking to me to find bold statements that the discussion has been settled, & any new interpretations must be quashed. I see this as a weird sort of orthodoxy, an attempt to preserve and ossify a multiculturally sacrosanct Tipitakka. This would be objectionable from any sectarian quarter, but it’s particularly disorienting when brought forth by scholars of the canon, erstwhile humanist or the ethnographically astute.

    As a naive partisan in this discussion I find this vexing not because I actually have a pony in this race, I’m already inclined – as are many – to dismiss the quandary as sideshow to begin with. The nascent fourth wave of cognitive behavioral psychology is already poised to confront all these questions & resolve them heuristically, empirically, so a “Buddhism 2.0” will avail itself regardless.

    No, what really leaves me scratching my head is this driven, nigh-obsessive debate over whether a canonical doctrine cannot suffer exception, and that attempts to open up the original system are more products of wishful thinking than hard-nosed scholarship.

    The error as I see it is this: In defense of scholarship, we’re accommodating not a broader dissemination of the Dharma, but rather an obstreperous & defensive vanguard of scripture, reifying a large body of teachings into a new, anthropological fundamentalism.

    The entire discussion borders on mass idiocy & is certainly an embarrassment to everyone involved. I mean really!? A watered-down rebirth is still a point of contention, even though the historical Buddha dispensed with it in almost every respect via the doctrine of anatman as well as his deconstruction all the contemporary materialist, enternalist and agnostic positions on the matter!?

    I’m buggered to fathom the entire mess. Batchelor’s brief is completely modest & reasonable – and I don’t blame Batchelor in the least for coming to the defense of contemporary Buddhists. Moreover I completely fault B. Alan Wallace for the worst kind of sanctimonious scholarship (never mine engendering pointless acrimony via a misguided philippic).

    Really, we’re all capable of more-nuanced discussion, and heterodox thinking. Everyone who stakes out an unequivocal position in this should be embarrassed by their foisted dialecticalism, when they aren’t waxing polemic.

    “Yuh, well, you know, that’s just like, uh.. your opinion, man.” — The Duddha.

    • Linda on December 24, 2012 at 11:09 am

      leebert,

      “No, what really leaves me scratching my head is this driven, nigh-obsessive debate over whether a canonical doctrine cannot suffer exception, and that attempts to open up the original system are more products of wishful thinking than hard-nosed scholarship.”

      I have to confess, leebert, that sometimes your high-fallutin’ language leaves me scratching my head as to what you’re actually trying to say. What does “cannot suffer exception” mean here? Can you be a little more specific as to what you’re objecting to? I’m also not sure what you mean by “open up the the original system” — is that a reference to Batchelor etal wanting to reinvent Buddhism? Or does it include my work on returning to the original and seeing if there is good stuff already there that is not addressed in the traditions?

      Are you saying that you think these attempts are “wishful thinking” or are you tsking at people who say that (I am suspecting you’re doing the latter but am unsure from the phrasing).

      “Nobody, not even Batchelor, is trying to un-write rebirth out of the Tipitakka, b/c it serves very good purpose when integrated into the overall system of Dependent Origination & Arising (D.O. & D.A.), particularly the latter, which is the Gestaltic ‘rebirth’ applicable to all phenomena & noumena, sentient or not.”

      Again I am having a little problem with your terms since maybe I could be said to be ‘trying to un-write rebirth out of the Tipitaka’ but maybe what I’m doing isn’t what you mean. I can certainly imagine the uncharitable describing what I’m doing that way in the course of an argument that pre-supposes I set out with an agenda to remove rebirth rather than that I set out to see what’s in there and discovered that literal rebirth, at least, isn’t what’s being discussed.

      So I would say that “Nobody, not even Batchelor” is a misstatement since I see him as conservative of tradition, and taking a very different route from mine. He’s simply going to rewrite Buddhism to keep up with modern thinking, using shears to cut out the parts that, simultaneously, aren’t unique to the Buddha but are suitable to a secular society. As I see it this should work well enough because *the whole* of the Buddha’s teaching (including the parts he cuts out) are secular to begin with. So he will end up with a product that is consistent with the core of the Buddha’s teachings but he will have lost a whole lot of richness and probably some of the strength of the points the Buddha is making along the way (in more or less the same way that the modern understanding*s* of dependent arising have a sort of fuzzy generalized feel for what’s being said and get a lot of it right but the blurriness of the understanding loses the specific power of the message that was intended). Whereas I am not *trying* to ‘un-write rebirth out’ but it can be seen as a side-effect of what I’m doing.

      So when Doug quotes Batchelor: “I am not in any way suggesting that the Buddha rejected the idea of rebirth, or did not believe in it..there is just too much in the Canon to say the Buddha was even agnostic about this.”

      And then says: “I think this is clear. If we stick to that, there should be no argument,” I am only too glad to ‘stick to’ agreeing that Batchelor said this, but there is no way I’m going to agree with Batchelor, because although the Buddha never *rejected* the idea of rebirth (to do so would be clinging to a view, which he would not do), I cannot agree that it is incorrect to suggest that ‘the Buddha did not believe in it’ because I have good evidence that he saw belief in rebirth as just as much ‘a view’ as disbelief in it*. And I base this on not just one insertion into a sutta, but it’s what he’s saying in many, many suttas, and with the whole structure of his teaching. The traditions’ blindness to this (a blindness passed on to many of us) means that they (we) lose the strength with which the Buddha made his point about clinging to views.

      * The difference between the two views (Wrong view: there is no rebirth, and Right view: there is) is not that one is an incorrect understanding of the cosmic order and the other is correct, the difference, to the Buddha’s point of view, is in the quality of behavior that comes out of the two belief systems.

  10. Doug Smith on December 20, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    … Gotama left sufficient room to keep his metaphysics malleable & flexible, which I believe remains Batchelor’s position.

    Well, not correct as regards rebirth. Here is what Batchelor has said:

    I am not in any way suggesting that the Buddha rejected the idea of rebirth, or did not believe in it..there is just too much in the Canon to say the Buddha was even agnostic about this.

    I think this is clear. If we stick to that, there should be no argument.

  11. leebert on December 20, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    Doug, might you be confusing me with somebody else? Did I *ever* once claim that either Gotama rejected the idea of rebirth OR that Batchelor claimed he found that he did? I’m puzzled as to why you continue to operate under the assumption that I made either claim.

    What I did say, which you seem to have latched onto with preconceived dialecticism, is that Gotama indicated that a particular belief (in this case, reincarnation) was dispensable, which to me means optional. Perhaps dispensable is the wrong word to phrase this idea (it seemed an economic choice for a word at the moment…), as it also may connote “superfluous.”

    Review this narrative with me & perhaps you can suggest a better way to summarize Gotama’s position whereby he “… asserts that a happy and moral life would be correct even if there is no karma and reincarnation.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalama_Sutta#The_Buddha.27s_Assurances

    Note the commentary at the bottom of that page tag, by Soma Thera:

    “…the four solaces … point out the extent to which the Buddha permits suspense of judgment in matters beyond normal cognition. The solaces show that the reason for a virtuous life does not necessarily depend on belief in rebirth or retribution, but on mental well-being acquired through the overcoming of greed, hate, and delusion.”

    That summarizes my point quite well, one I thought was self-evident within the context of this discussion all along.

    Nobody, not even Batchelor, is trying to un-write rebirth out of the Tipitakka, b/c it serves very good purpose when integrated into the overall system of Dependent Origination & Arising (D.O. & D.A.), particularly the latter, which is the Gestaltic “rebirth” applicable to all phenomena & noumena, sentient or not.

    The Gestaltic Rebirth of D.A. underpins its further embodiment in a metaphysical, anthropomorphic or animistic Reincarnation / Rebirth. This is Buddhism, straight & simple. So far so good!

    And with an anthropic rebirth, we get something critically important in understanding the Buddha’s thinking: Making the case for compassion, by seeing our lifetimes and other people’s lifetimes as functionally equivalent, fungible, interchangeable.

    This particular semantic architecture isn’t a literal statement “You’re no different from some other guy,” or “You could be him.” There’s a pattern in the teachings, and although I haven’t any idea whether it was ever stated literally, or kept to an obliquely metaphor, the system comes down to a broader paraphrasing of the Golden Rule.

    It’s broadly implicit that a capacity for empathy for others & their suffering is a fundamental awareness, and that rebirth puts us all in the same boat. Of the various cases, the first that comes to mind is that of Sarapani the drunkard, but I could imagine there were others.

    But it’s not just a matter of scriptural readings & innate compassion, part of the awakening process is to recognize the artifice of self. A common experience is the disassociative recognition that Self & Other lie on a continuum within the frame of Samsara. The interrogatory “Who are you” teaching method of eliminating all the things that construct an ersatz sense of identity is directly in that line of de-selfing & analysis. It’s innate to the process of attenuating Self, and appears quite intuitive to me.

    In this we find the case for rebirth-ala-anatman, whether it’s a fully conceptualized anthropic rebirth, or it’s salt in the Ganges, D.O. & D.A. are put into an ethical context via reincarnation.

    I don’t see a problem with this analysis of Gotama’s Dharma, I don’t know whether Stephen Batchelor would, but it seems to be a nettlesome point. Somehow an attempt to unify the INTENT of Gotama’s Dharma creates discomfiture in a dialectic of spiritual materialism (in pursuit of a comforting perpetualism) and naive materialism (in pursuit of a comfortable rationalism).

    Likewise I see Karma again as very instructive, not least of which in understanding the similarity & difference between Samsara & Nirvana. Nirvana, without the halos & levitation, is pretty simple. Karma is the realm of cause & effect *as experienced by creatures* with an inherent personal & moral dimension. Without Karma, whereby cessation of notions & compositions reduces experience to experience itself, is the clear, static & non-linear remains of direct experience. Nirvana: Samsara minus the karmic line noise.

    And again, with respect to reincarnation itself, the non-returner is said to experience no additional rebirths. This is basic enough stuff that reiterating it is almost trite: becoming a non-returner is due to no new karmas. Except, if no new karmas lead to a final lifetime – ultimate & final cessation – then reincarnation is in fact optional. The Boddhisatwa of the Mahayana system returns to continue on with the good work. If belief in reincarnation isn’t optional, its consequent arising becomes optional for those who don’t need the world of forms.

    But since the world of forms includes concepts, ideas & compositions, then the belief in reincarnation seems also a candidate for cessation. Or not.

    Oh, sure, I’m stumbling right back into the same thicket of contention, that we get to pick our interpretation of the scripture according to how clever we think we are (or at least how enlightened we think we are), which is an underhanded way to serve vainglorious self, so it’s tricky navigating the actual method of deconceptualizing and deselfing without managing to only feed concepts that defend self.

    This is where we have to get away from doctrine & scripture, and go find refuge in direct experience, in the present moment. That’s where Gotama said salvation was to be found, and to get there requires a bit of faith in the program as he spelled it out. But that’s a sensible leap of faith, and one that’s carries far more weight than any “safe bet” hedge against errancy by token of mental legerdemain.

    • Doug Smith on December 21, 2012 at 5:32 am

      Doug, might you be confusing me with somebody else? Did I *ever* once claim that either Gotama rejected the idea of rebirth OR that Batchelor claimed he found that he did? I’m puzzled as to why you continue to operate under the assumption that I made either claim.

      You made several claims to that effect, above, in particular with regard to a “less-than literal view of … the doctrine of reincarnation” and the Canon’s purported “heterodoxy”. The fact that those claims have not stood up, at least as regards literal rebirth, should give pause.

      Now, as to the more salient point of whether we can live a good life without belief in literal rebirth, my own view should be plain as day on that issue, as I have repeated it many times: I do not myself believe in rebirth, and I think I can live a good life without that belief. In that, I see we are in happy agreement.

      As to whether the Buddha would have agreed with us, it’s hard to say. I suspect that being a generally compassionate, open-minded fellow he probably would have cared more for our actions than our beliefs, much though he would have counseled us that our views on rebirth and kamma were “wrong view” and hence liable (though maybe not guaranteed) to send us to hell. True, the aim of the path is the extinction of the taints, the extinguishing of greed, hatred, and delusion; and depending on how we interpret “delusion” perhaps that can be overcome (for the Buddha) without any particular belief with regard to views on rebirth and kamma. Or perhaps not. I don’t think that’s at all clear.

      I suppose the overarching question here is, if what you are looking to do is engage in a sort of “Buddhism 2.0” practice, like some form of Secular Buddhism, what does it matter to you what the Buddha of the suttas actually believed? Because assertions of it being a “non-issue” aside, it’s clear that it does matter to you a great deal. For my own sake, I don’t regard the Buddha as having been omniscient, nor infallible. He made mistakes. He was wrong about the four elements, he was wrong about rebirth.

      The reason I nonetheless find a practice based around his system congenial is because one can dispense with rebirth, even if this does not follow the letter of his instructions, without doing any real damage to the system. That said, I have read some very eminent scholars of early Buddhism say that Buddhism without rebirth is not Buddhism at all, and I can also sympathize with that view. Rebirth is an essential part of all historical forms of Buddhism.

      Thing is, I don’t really care what one calls it. Labels are a convenience, and if Buddhism without rebirth isn’t Buddhism, then we can call it something else. Perhaps we can call it “Secular Buddhism” or even “Ted Meissnerism”!

      🙂

  12. leebert on December 21, 2012 at 6:16 am

    “… Because assertions of it being a “non-issue” aside, it’s clear that it does matter to you a great deal…”

    Doug, again, you’re projecting your experience in past debates upon myself. Until last week I avoided the mess, seeing it for the mess that it is. I’m afraid to say that I’ve found a poor debating partner in you as you have foisted your dialectics upon me. It’s a sloppy mental habit we all share, but please take better care.

  13. leebert on December 21, 2012 at 7:28 am

    For those following along, I’ve engaged in some rapid Googling on the ongoing debate. A great deal of light & noise has been generated on the topic, some good, some not so. After a week of (in)digesting this annoying mess I’ll share my observations on this, and my findings:

    The quandary, as Stephen Batchelor & others find it, is that problem it presents to people of various stripes feeling more welcomed into the greater Sangha. This problem is NOT by any means exclusive to atheists, but also to theists who want to take up Zen – the Zen Christians who practice mindfulness.

    Are we supposed to sit to the sideline and say nothing when orthodox Buddhists claim authority on the matter, when they are in fact citing a reified rebirth?

    Why do atheists & Christians find this obnoxious? It’s not because the claims comes across as a slight twist on Brahman reincarnation & rather transparently so! For Jews & Catholics taking up Zen, for instance, they understand the need for faith & can still sympathize with those stated metaphysics entailing an after life. And for non-theists, a live-and-let-live approach has long sufficed: Each to their own.

    The belief is not the problem, it is the underlying ATTITUDE. Those who claim to defend rebirth from abridgment are making a claim to authority, and as part of the claim are evincing the age-old pattern of condemning other votaries to a subordinate position (in the back pews, where we belong). And it’s a Goddamned attitude at that!

    This is not the same as Gotama’s Dharma. It reveals itself as a common human tendency to create dualisms out of mid air, in response to other voices. Unfortuantely the result is that it ends up framing discussion participants into opposing positions.

    Where this is unnecessary but inadvertant, it’s sufficient to review the questions at hand & then move on. When we find a deliberate foisting of dialectics, however, into a reasonable debate, we’ve moved into the realm of wrong views, etc. Why? Because we’re now firmly in the realm of reifying … and not just reifying rebirth into reincarnation, but reifying scripture into authority.

    It goes beyond theory into claiming evidence. Evidence for what? That 49 days of prayer sends a loved one into a new body? Or more so, the unstated agenda: That some Dharmas are more equal than others? In science the riposte that it’s “not even wrong” might settle the matter. In religion? Oh well!

    But for whom is it most important to seek redress in this particular matter? For one, a fair bulk of humanity who in the future might take refuge in the Dharma, but are identified as neither Buddhists nor theists, nor former theists. Another would be folks like myself, who’ve long since departed from a filial creed for all the usual reasons: Disgust with atavistic authoritarians, having suffered ostracism at the hands of the controllers & acceptance-seekers — for the sin of properly ingesting the expansive evidence & other fruits of 20th Century rationalism. We’re not disbelievers, we’re not stuck in some post-apognosis state of anti-theism: Trifling concepts like an afterlife have simply become irrelevant & unproductive.

    If you’re still reading, the take-away message here is this: All of human culture results in position-taking that in turn become opinion constructs. The underlying impetus for this is two-fold: Acceptance and control.

    Acceptance: For those who need to defend cherished positions (a comforting hope for an afterlife, identity with the culture itself, and a culturally-sanctioned afterlife with additional blessings). Control: For those whose position includes maintaining a status that they enjoy, and benefit via maintenance of a status quo. And courtesy of Mr. Venn, the also two overlap into various declensions.

    Undoing this ugly dynamic is actually part of the Buddhist agenda, and yet jammed right into the middle of it all is this damned mess. Google around & it doesn’t take long to find discussions about authoritarian pedagogy in Theravada, Vajrayana & Zen sects (and I won’t even venture into what goes on in the SGI sangha).

    The discussion isn’t about rebirth at all, it’s about having the freedom to relinquish counterproductive constructs, consistent with the rest of Gotama’s Dharma. But for too many Buddhists, they find themselves at loggerheads with the establishment Sangha over this one point. By many accounts interest in Buddhism is fading, and fading hard and fast, in its originating lands, and it is for many of the familiar reasons: Lack of relevancy in every day life, corruption in the congregation (selling of merit?) and anti-rationalist demands of faith & belief. Those three syndromes in a faltering faith go hand-in-hand. This isn’t difficult stuff, it’s been a long on-going process across all cultures.

    Additional reading on the general matter has led to some good analyses of the debate.

    Citations:

    http://www.tricycle.com/p/1952
    (Stephen Batchelor)

    “…That the Buddha does not take a position on this undermines the entire metaphysics of rebirth. Because if it is not soul, or mind, or some such thing, that survives bodily death, it is very difficult to know what rebirth can actually mean. Despite this very explicit warning, most Buddhist traditions have adopted a mind- body dualism as dogma. That seems to fly in the face of a very central part of the Buddha’s teaching. He is basically saying these things are not conducive to pursuing the way of life I am teaching and encouraging, through which one can address and hopefully resolve the question of suffering. Maybe he does know the answer to these questions; it is simply not an issue.”

    [Well, it should not have to be an issue, but here we are defending the stance that it’s not an issue, so … Voila! It becomes an issue! ]

    =====================================
    http://buddhism.about.com/od/karmaandrebirth/a/reincarnation.htm

    (Barbara O’Brien)
    Would you be surprised if I told you that reincarnation is not a Buddhist teaching? If so, be surprised — it isn’t.

    “Reincarnation” normally is understood to be the transmigration of a soul to another body after death. There is no such teaching in Buddhism. One of the most fundamental doctrines of Buddhism is anatta, or anatman — no soul or no self. There is no permanent essence of an individual self that survives death.

    However, Buddhists often speak of “rebirth.” If there is no soul or permanent self, what is it that is “reborn”?

    […]

    Zen teacher John Daido Loori said,

    “… the Buddha’s experience was that when you go beyond the skandhas, beyond the aggregates, what remains is nothing. The self is an idea, a mental construct. That is not only the Buddha’s experience, but the experience of each realized Buddhist man and woman from 2,500 years ago to the present day. That being the case, what is it that dies? There is no question that when this physical body is no longer capable of functioning, the energies within it, the atoms and molecules it is made up of, don’t die with it. They take on another form, another shape. You can call that another life, but as there is no permanent, unchanging substance, nothing passes from one moment to the next. Quite obviously, nothing permanent or unchanging can pass or transmigrate from one life to the next. Being born and dying continues unbroken but changes every moment.”

    [ … and …. ]

    There is no question that many Buddhists, East and West, continue to believe in individual reincarnation. Parables from the sutras and “teaching aids” like the Tibetan Wheel of Life tend to reinforce this belief.

    The Rev. Takashi Tsuji, a Jodo Shinshu priest, wrote about belief in reincarnation:

    “It is said that the Buddha left 84,000 teachings; the symbolic figure represents the diverse backgrounds characteristics, tastes, etc. of the people. The Buddha taught according to the mental and spiritual capacity of each individual. For the simple village folks living during the time of the Buddha, the doctrine of reincarnation was a powerful moral lesson. Fear of birth into the animal world must have frightened many people from acting like animals in this life. If we take this teaching literally today we are confused because we cannot understand it rationally.

    “…A parable, when taken literally, does not make sense to the modern mind. Therefore we must learn to differentiate the parables and myths from actuality.”

    ============================
    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/soma/wheel008.html

    Soma Thera:

    “ The Kalama Sutta, which sets forth the principles that should be followed by a seeker of truth, and which contains a standard things are judged by, belongs to a framework of the Dhamma; the four solaces taught in the sutta point out the extent to which the Buddha permits suspense of judgment in matters beyond normal cognition. The solaces show that the reason for a virtuous life does not necessarily depend on belief in rebirth or retribution, but on mental well-being acquired through the overcoming of greed, hate, and delusion.[7]

    =================================

    Interesting, germane (Naked Monk):

    http://www.mandalamagazine.org/archives/mandala-issues-for-2011/april/an-old-story-of-faith-and-doubt-reminiscences-of-alan-wallace-and-stephen-batchelor/

  14. leebert on December 21, 2012 at 7:45 am

    “..I have read some very eminent scholars of early Buddhism say that Buddhism without rebirth is not Buddhism at all, and I can also sympathize with that view. Rebirth is an essential part of all historical forms of Buddhism.”

    As have I. I find that underlying their position is the age-old dynamic of acceptance & control.

    On facet of this is that Gotama taught two different types of Rebirth. The one that’s underlying all the contention, its escalation into a full-bore Reincarnation. Again: Reified Rebirth. Gotama appears to have functionally condoned Reified Rebirth (aka Reincarnation) and used it in his teachings. This is fine with me, it’s always been there.

    In other places he didn’t push the metaphor anywhere nearly so hard, and sometimes he was either equivocal and even demurred, although these are the exception to the rule. It appears to have depended on his audience, but where the exception arises, it’s clearly an original voice speaking not only to a minority view, but speaking with a liberal freedom in exceptional situations.

    I find this hardly surprising, his teaching effort spanned four decades, to a wide pre-literate, pre-scientific audience.

    The problem, Doug, isn’t my belief or disbelief. I’ve already asserted that. My concern is that one group of Buddhists can gang up on another group & chase them off, by throwing the book at them. That’s the problem here, not the scripture, or your or my interpretation of it.

    • Doug Smith on December 21, 2012 at 8:23 am

      The problem, Doug, isn’t my belief or disbelief. I’ve already asserted that. My concern is that one group of Buddhists can gang up on another group & chase them off, by throwing the book at them. That’s the problem here, not the scripture, or your or my interpretation of it.

      Ah. That doesn’t bother me. The only reason to care about it is if we are clinging to something called “traditional Buddhism”, or “textual orthodoxy”. If not, none of it matters. Labels are just labels.

      But just to be clear: the scholars who said these things were not, AFAIK, members of any group of Buddhists.

      • leebert on December 21, 2012 at 7:35 pm


        Ah. That doesn’t bother me. The only reason to care about it is if we are clinging to something called “traditional Buddhism”, or “textual orthodoxy”. If not, none of it matters. Labels are just labels.

        It’s not that easy, for until that time some Buddhism 2.0 does reach fruition, and then gains recognition throughout the world, it should bother you. Why?

        Because pious sanctimony causes real suffering in societies.

        Because there’s not a damned thing wrong with being able to discuss a heterodox Dharma for the sake of all people seeking refuge, and that includes Sri, Burmese & Thai Dharma protestants who find themselves burdened by a truly atavistic system that reifies Buddhist Rebirth into Brahmin Reincarnation.

        Because these Brahmanist Bastards are chasing people away from the Dharma with their functionally theistic doctrines, suffering upon votary and apostate alike some claim to scriptural inerrancy and spiritual monopoly.

        If that’s OK with you, then we can let Joseph Ratzinger continue to hire Paul to hijack Jesus for another millennium, & Ayatollah K. III to keep wishing for a Caliphate that’ll continue to piously behead rape victims.

        But just to be clear: the scholars who said these things were not, AFAIK, members of any group of Buddhists.

        Are you referring to the Zen & Theravada Buddhists I cited above?

        Thing is, I don’t really care what one calls it. Labels are a convenience, and if Buddhism without rebirth isn’t Buddhism, then we can call it something else. Perhaps we can call it “Secular Buddhism” or even “Ted Meissnerism”!

        That said, the Buddhist big tent already accommodates plenty of variety under the rubric of the Buddha, the aegis of the Dharma & the agency of a Sangha: The Buddhalotrous Nichirenites; the Votarian Pure Landers; the Heretical Zen Buddhists; the obsequious Sinhalese — they are all fully entitled to take the moniker “Buddhist.”

        It’s already a big tent. As such newcomers & apostates alike who happen to be anti-theists, atheists, panentheists and theists of every persuasion — all of them are just as entitled to lay claim to the heritage as any other fool on the planet.

        Likewise for Christianity, that the hijacking of Jesus by Paul & St. Augustine is not immune from modern critique, and that although the corruption of Jesus into a Pauliad is established and still enjoys broad currency, new generations of Christians are questioning the establishment position, revisiting their own canon, and revisiting their faith as apostates in search of a living wisdom.

        As for Buddhism, then, criticizing a non-theistic, lower-case “r” rebirth Dharma-positive votary for apostasy *while defending* the privilege of Upper-Case “R” Rebirth Eternalists is functionally the same as running cover for Crypto-Brahmanists who want to continue reifying Rebirth into Reincarnation.

        The non-theistic Buddhists have made a fair case for their inclusion in the greater Sangha, that an agnostic or indifferent stance WRT Rebirth-ala-Reincarnation is in fact condoned from within the Tripitaka itself. As such, they needn’t suffer opprobria or sanction from the other camp and they are fully entitled to speak up for themselves (as they already have).

        • leebert on December 25, 2012 at 12:30 pm

          The Kalama Sutta:

          “..Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture … When you know for yourselves that ‘These qualities are skillful […]’ … then you should enter & remain in them.”

          The Kalama Sutta is an exceptional chapter out of the Tipitaka. It appears to allow contravention of a great many other suttas, so it had to have been a novel & original statement by the historical Buddha.

          There is no need for non-theists and humanists to be defensive, or feel they can’t argue the brief for an agnostic Dharma. It’s right there in the Kalama Sutta, and considering that it does permit both interpretation and variance from the rest of the canon it will suffice in making the case for a heterodox, even nuanced dharma. Buddhists may actually cite the Tipitaka as lending support to the position.

          If one set of Buddhists can go off & pray 40+ days for a good rebirth (a mind-body dualism of hard reincarnation) then the agnostics & non-theistic ones can do as they please as well without necessarily having to declare a schism in pursuit of a Buddhism 2.0.

          • mufi on December 27, 2012 at 8:34 am

            leebert: If one set of Buddhists can go off & pray 40+ days for a good rebirth (a mind-body dualism of hard reincarnation) then the agnostics & non-theistic ones can do as they please as well without necessarily having to declare a schism in pursuit of a Buddhism 2.0.

            At least in Batchelor’s use of the term (e.g. here), the only “schism” assumed by Buddhism 2.0 is that which dispenses with “such key doctrines as rebirth, the law of kamma, and liberation from the cycle of birth and death”, summarized as the particular “soteriological framework” that Gotama developed within the historical context of ancient Indian (e.g. brahmanic – later Hindu – and Jain) metaphysics – a.k.a. the Buddhism 1.0 operating system.

            That said, does any other Buddhist school (e.g. Theravada, Zen, Shin, Nichiren, or Tibetan) dispense with that framework?

            If so, then you have a point.

            If not, then Buddhism 2.0 is as much of a schism as the metaphor suggests, but presumably no more so – assuming that comparable software programs (functionally speaking) can run on the new operating system.



  15. jak42 on January 29, 2013 at 10:18 pm

    Hi,

    Just ran across this post today. An interesting discussion.

    I think the Buddha was probably responding to some discontent in his tendency to make statements about the rebirths of monks when other arhants were forbidden to make such displays of so-called “supernormal powers”. He wanted to motivate his actions. I take this interpretation because the monks’ response to his initial query was silence. That is, I think, an indication that there was some problem in the Sangha he was trying to address. Otherwise, the monks would have said something like: “We are happy, lord”.

    I also think the Buddha did have some experiences which he regularly interpreted as knowledge of the rebirths of people who had died, probably in a deep state of concentration. I also think he had the “Three Knowledges” experience under the Bodhi tree, two of which involved some kind of “supernormal power”. The question is why he had those experiences, because, as we know today, rebirth is physically impossible, and these so-called “supernormal powers” are fiction so it can’t have been anything to do with the physical world. I think, like many people in the India of his time, he believed in rebirth, probably quite strongly. Belief comes before fact (see Michael Shermer’s book The Believing Brain for more on this) and so I think during states of deep concentration, his mind constructed these experiences which he then took at face value. He then taught based on these experiences.

    So I don’t share Stephen Batchelor’s contention that all the mystical stuff was added to the Pali Canon after the Buddha died. I think the Buddha probably had these kinds of mystical experiences, generated from his beliefs, reported them accurately, and used them to a certain extent as the basis for his teaching. I think the Buddha was probably no different than other people in this respect.

    • Doug Smith on January 30, 2013 at 5:20 am

      Hi jak,

      I also think the Buddha did have some experiences which he regularly interpreted as knowledge of the rebirths of people who had died, probably in a deep state of concentration. I also think he had the “Three Knowledges” experience under the Bodhi tree, two of which involved some kind of “supernormal power”. The question is why he had those experiences, because, as we know today, rebirth is physically impossible, and these so-called “supernormal powers” are fiction so it can’t have been anything to do with the physical world. I think, like many people in the India of his time, he believed in rebirth, probably quite strongly. Belief comes before fact (see Michael Shermer’s book The Believing Brain for more on this) and so I think during states of deep concentration, his mind constructed these experiences which he then took at face value. He then taught based on these experiences.

      Absolutely. Indeed, I think it would have been quite unusual for him not to have taken these altered-states experiences at face value, especially given the high regard he and others of his time viewed the epistemic access provided in deep meditation.

      … I don’t share Stephen Batchelor’s contention that all the mystical stuff was added to the Pali Canon after the Buddha died.

      I haven’t heard Batchelor make that argument. Can you provide a citation? All the arguments I’ve heard him make are quite the opposite: that the Buddha clearly did believe in rebirth, etc. It’s anyhow too fundamental a part of the Canon to disregard.

  16. Candol on January 29, 2013 at 11:49 pm

    “I also think the Buddha did have some experiences which he regularly interpreted as knowledge of the rebirths of people who had died, probably in a deep state of concentration. ”

    You should read the discussion with heinz on the podcasts that we’ve just been having. its the most recent one. Heinz has had this experience and describes. When one has a modern understanding of the body, and knowing that the buddha did not have htis knowledge, one can see why he might have interpreted his experience that way. Modern people haven’t got that excuse in my book. But heinz explanation of his experience shows very clearly what happens. And even how the buddha may have meant the secular sort of rebirth. Though i’m still not convinced of that. I am inclined to think he still belived in both cycles.

  17. Candol on January 30, 2013 at 6:59 am

    Doug, incidentally, John Peacock is one who asserts what Jak says of Stephen B. Although like you, i also thought i hadn’t heard Stephen B make that claim but then i wasn’t sure but i am glad to see someone else had that idea too.

    • Doug Smith on January 30, 2013 at 7:27 am

      Do you have a citation on Peacock? To take Batchelor, HERE is perhaps his most recent piece, and I think it reflects his opinion pretty neatly:

      My starting point is to bracket anything attributed to the Buddha in the canon that could just as well have been said by a brahmin priest or Jain monk of the same period. So when the Buddha says that a certain action will produce a good or bad result in a future heaven or hell, or when he speaks of bringing to an end the repetitive cycle of rebirth and death in order to attain nirvana, I take such utterances to be determined by the common metaphysical outlook of that time rather than reflecting an intrinsic component of the dharma. I thus give central importance to those teachings in the Buddha’s dharma that cannot be derived from the Indian worldview of the 5th century B.C.E.

      The point is that the Buddha did say these things, but that he said them because he was influenced by “the common metaphysical outlook of the time”; that is, they were not original to him, and therefore Batchelor considers them less important to the dhamma.

      This opinion is also very debatable. Thanissaro Bhikkhu has a pretty detailed refutation HERE:

      It’s hard to understand why modern scholars keep repeating the idea that everyone in India during the Buddha’s time believed in rebirth. Actually, the Pali discourses provide clear evidence to the contrary, evidence that has been available in Western languages for more than a century. …

      • jak42 on January 30, 2013 at 10:42 pm

        Hi Doug,

        Stephen and I discussed this during a pilgrimage in India a few years ago.

        Regarding the statement you cite above, that corresponds more accurately to my conversation now that I recollect it. But it really doesn’t say that Stephen believes that the Buddha had such mystical experiences, and that he used them for the basis of his teaching as all (the best) teachers use experiences of all types. He’s only saying that the Buddha was reflecting the metaphysical views of his time. The Buddha could simply have been presenting a theoretical view, though of course his direct statements about the rebirths of monks and others would contradict that.

        As for Than Geoff, my impression (and I am not a scholar of 5th century BC India) is that in fact rebirth was the predominant metaphysical view and that most of the others were small minority opinions held by various philosophers and their schools. These are perhaps overly represented in the Pali Canon to contrast with the Buddhist view.

        • Doug Smith on January 31, 2013 at 5:40 am

          He’s only saying that the Buddha was reflecting the metaphysical views of his time. The Buddha could simply have been presenting a theoretical view, though of course his direct statements about the rebirths of monks and others would contradict that.

          Agreed, that’s how I see it.

          As for Than Geoff, my impression (and I am not a scholar of 5th century BC India) is that in fact rebirth was the predominant metaphysical view and that most of the others were small minority opinions held by various philosophers and their schools. These are perhaps overly represented in the Pali Canon to contrast with the Buddhist view.

          Yeah, that sounds plausible as well. It fits with what Mark argued against Thanissaro’s article.

  18. Mark Knickelbine on January 30, 2013 at 9:33 am

    You can read my refutation of TB’s refutation here: https://secularbuddhism.org/2012/03/18/thanissaro-bhikkhus-the-truth-of-rebirth-a-review-part-2/

    To summarize, Gotama frequently talks to laypeople about rebirth; in fact even children are expected to be familiar with the concept. The disputes about rebirth recorded in the suttas are with members of renunciant sects. The fact that such spiritual specialists did not accept rebirth scarcely means that it was not the dominant world view of the period.

    • Doug Smith on January 30, 2013 at 10:01 am

      Thanks for that, Mark. Although I think there are some issues with that treatment (for instance the Udana quote with the boys isn’t obviously about literal rebirth, but instead life after death; SN 22:85 quote is about the Tathagata‘s self in particular, not about ‘selves’ generally; and the other quotes aren’t about metaphysical opinions generally, only about certain ones) I think we’re in pretty close agreement. It certainly appears from the suttas that even though rebirth was not universally accepted among the Buddha’s audience, it was largely so.

      But the overarching problem is that Batchelor’s argument as stated is weak. Thanissaro is right to point out that the option of rejecting rebirth was open to the Buddha. Other renunciants made that move, and so it wasn’t the sort of thing that was anathema. Gotama had to make the conscious decision to leave it as part of the dhamma, and indeed to make it relatively central. Not, as I’ve argued, absolutely central, but certainly central enough that it is universal in all religious forms of Buddhist belief throughout history.

    • mufi on January 30, 2013 at 10:05 am

      For whatever it’s worth, Richard Gombrich’s view is that Gotama “ethicized and radically reinterpreted older ideas of karma (human action) and rebirth.” [source]

      So, on the one hand karma & rebirth were in some sense features of Gotama’s cultural milieu, and on the other hand what Gotama meant by those terms (or their Pali equivalents) was somewhat original.

      As a lay person, I don’t want to take sides here, but it seems to me that Batchelor’s suggestion (based on Doug’s quote above) that Gotama’s view on karma & rebirth can “be derived from the Indian worldview of the 5th century B.C.E” is (if I understand him correctly) somewhat at odds with Gombrich’s scholarship.

      • Doug Smith on January 30, 2013 at 10:09 am

        Good point, mufi. Gombrich is absolutely right that one of the most original parts of the Buddha dharma was his novel reinterpretation of kamma to stem from “intention” rather than “action” (which is what the word literally means in Pali/Sanskrit, and what the Brahmins interpreted it to mean. It was your actions — not your intentions — that had merit for the Brahmins, who were most interested in ritual. Not so the Buddha).

        • mufi on January 30, 2013 at 10:23 am

          Yeah, I didn’t want to stake a position here, but the truth is that I trust Gombrich’s authority on this (basically historical) matter more than I trust that of the other two figures mentioned above.

          As for what this means for Secular Buddhism, I think your On Subtracting What You Don’t Like essay already addresses the matter admirably.

          I’ll just quickly add here that I see Gotama’s creative will to infuse new meanings into older ideas & terms – at least when his conscience & conviction told him that it was the right thing to do – as a kind of inspiring.

          And what’s more Buddhist than following Gotama’s example – even in this regard?

  19. Candol on January 30, 2013 at 5:26 pm

    “Do you have a citation on Peacock? ”

    Hi Doug, i didn’t read it, i heard him say it on one of his podcasts. I don’t think i can tell you exactly which one it is but I will make a stab at it.

    http://www.audiodharma.org/teacher/207/

    I’m pretty sure i heard it one of these talks. I would suggest its in one of the earlier ones about early buddhism. SOrry i can’t remember more exactly.

    Otherwise you could probably write to him and ask him yourself.

    • Doug Smith on January 30, 2013 at 7:50 pm

      Hi Candol,

      I’m familiar with Peacock’s talks on early Buddhism, and I’m pretty certain he didn’t say anything like that there.

      • Candol on January 30, 2013 at 8:35 pm

        I promise you he said it. I know this because at the time i was struck by his assertion. listen again. I would also say that the first time i listened to his talks i didn’t hear him say that. We are selective listeners don’t forget. So write to him if you want to be sure that he holds this view or not. Otherwise continue to doubt me.

        • Doug Smith on January 31, 2013 at 5:16 am

          I’m quite sure he didn’t, since that would have stuck out at me like a sore thumb. What I believe he did say is what I quoted Batchelor as saying, above: viz., that the Buddha relied on the beliefs of his time.

          But since I already have Batchelor’s quote in this, there’s no point looking to Peacock. If you are interested, I suggest contacting him yourself. Though it seems if he believes this of Batchelor, he should check again.

          For more evidence, see Batchelor’s piece HERE from 2010:

          I am not in any way suggesting that the Buddha rejected the idea of rebirth, or did not believe in it..there is just too much in the Canon to say the Buddha was even agnostic about this.

  20. Candol on January 30, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    “It’s hard to understand why modern scholars keep repeating the idea that everyone in India during the Buddha’s time believed in rebirth. Actually, the Pali discourses provide clear evidence to the contrary, evidence that has been available in Western languages for more than a century. …” (batchelor from doug’s post)

    I was reading some wiki articles yesterday. (I have to reread this sort of thing because i tend to forget most of the detail of what i’ve read about stuff except the main idea). So i was reading about the development of hinduism (which for indians, buddhism is still hinduism) and it showed a clear development of ideas that i found helpful. I think i started off reading about the vedas. Anyway it seems that reincarnation is an idea mostly developed and used by the sramanas which are the ascetics. The ascetics of the time and still to this day are quite different from mainstream hinduism. But in those days it seemed they set themselves against the brahmins. So there were the jains, the yogis and later the buddha. Probably some other lesser known schools as well. All in this group begin with a belief in reincarnation so maybe they developed it and before this time it was more ancestor worship and gods. It seems of these groups, only the buddha ran an argument against the atman and the soul. Hence his idea of reincarnation is not so much the transmigration of souls but transmigration of karmic remainder through the “flame of consciousness”.

    Rebirth i now think i understand more clearly is described by Heinz Hilbrecht in the conversation we had just after his podcast which you can read. He describes the experience of “past lives” but in a different way. He describes it as being able to see all your memories which he believes is scientifically possible. I admit to being quite taken by what he said. It seems credible to me. (you should read it before taking up issue with what i say here so that you understand it properly.) He talks about the death of you with each moment. This is something you can experience in meditation. With this description of an event in meditation, i now see the difference between rebirth and what i thought was rebirth but was really a version of reincarnation before. So now my understanding is that rebirth only refers to this awareness of death and rebirth with every living moment.

    I am still not sure that this means that the buddha did not believe in reincarnation (the word i will continue to use now for the past life idea whether or not there’s a soul involved). It makes sense that the buddha would have not have been able to interpret the experience in the same way that Heinz could. He just did not have any scientific understanding of the workings of the body and mind in those days so it must have seemed a very strange experience and as nothing was known about memory, it makes sense that the buddha could have understood it in terms of past lives. I just think that if he did not retain a belief in past lives, the pali canon would have been clearer on this point. What seems clear is that the buddha is referring to past lives in the pali canon. If he is referring to momentary death, it should be more clear. It is just not explicit. So i think when the pali canon talks about rebirth, it is referring to both at hte same time, particularly because it always goes along with the the business about birth sickness and death in a way that seems unambiguous. Surely becuase of the importance of this idea, it would be so much more clear in the canon than it is. IT would be clear like the middle way is clear and unambigous. It would be clear like the noble 8fold path is unambigous. It would be clear like the 4 noble truths are unambiguous. But it is ambiguous.

    But heinz’s explanation indicates that the experience of past lives is not past lives at all but just the memory bank going nuts. After all we have been exposed to a great deal of stuff over time and as in dreams it is all jumbled up and confused and could give the impression to those who don’t know anything about memory or who are just inclined to believe in past lives, that this is the meaning of that mind event. This also explains why tibetans only remember past lives as being tibetan and indians as being indian but westerners reckon they have past lives in all sorts of culture – though its doubtful that these people actually had the experience that heinz has had and rather they are just fantasising.

    I don’t know if this seems clear.

    • Doug Smith on January 30, 2013 at 8:05 pm

      Hi again Candol,

      I can’t speak to Hilbrecht, but it’s impossible to remember all our memories: memory has long been known to be fallible and indeed reconstructed each time we remember something, and it tails off pretty steeply. I think the best hypothesis for the Buddha’s claimed knowledge about past lives is, as you put it, “the memory bank going nuts”, or more accurately, confabulation or a species of dream-state. That itself is not problematic to understand from a scientific perspective, and when we get a feel for the Buddha’s epistemic milieu, we can see that he would have taken these confabulations with much more seriousness than they really deserved. Thus his confusions about past lives.

      As regards rebirth (or reincarnation, which is a synonym for rebirth), it’s quite clear from the suttas that the Buddha believed in it. One common phrase he uses in the text is: “… on the dissolution of the body, after death …” (E.g., quoted HERE). There is no room for creative reinterpretation using a this-life picture of moment-to-moment rebirth when we’re talking about “the dissolution of the body, after death”. Further, passages like the ones I cited HERE from the Saṃyutta Nikaya are similarly not open to a this-life interpretation: we don’t supply oceans of tears, of blood, or mountains of bones in a single lifetime. Further still, in the Brahmajāla Sutta (DN 1) the Buddha says that claiming we do not survive death at all is “nihilism” and is therefore wrong view. The Buddha was explicitly anti-materialist. Indeed, he was explicitly a believer in supernaturalism, such as the iddhis, as well as rebirth and active kamma.

      This doesn’t mean we can’t creatively reinterpret the Buddha dharma along materialist or naturalist lines, of course!

      • Candol on January 30, 2013 at 8:39 pm

        Clearly you haven’t checked out my suggestion. I would assert that Heinz has been a serious meditator for 18 years and is a scientist in this field. I am convinced he is not lying or misrepresenting his experience. Listen to his podcast and then read through the discussion i had with him. You can ignore my posts just read his.

        I continue to believe that the buddha believed in supernatural experiences.

        Incidentally how long have you been a student and practitioner of buddhism?

        • Doug Smith on January 31, 2013 at 5:20 am

          Candol, Heinz’s having been a scientist tells me he probably knows something about the underlying causes of the Buddha’s confabulations. I know a bit about this as well, having studied cognitive psychology back in the days I was doing my work on philosophy of mind. None of this is particularly controversial.

          His having been a scientist has no bearing on the contents of the Pali Canon, however.

          I’ve been a student and practitioner of Buddhism on and off since around 1984 when I had my first course in meditation. Though I’m not sure why that is relevant in this context.

    • jak42 on January 30, 2013 at 11:01 pm

      Hi Candol,

      I think what you mean by “moment to moment” rebirth might be covered by dependent origination maybe?

      Regarding such mystical experiences, Charles Lindberg reported in his autobiography an experience quite similar to the First Knowledge, knowledge of people and their lives, during his flight across the Atlantic. It was probably a combination of sleep deprivation where the dream state leaks into waking and a kind of altered state of consciousness resulting from the monotony of flying an open cockpit plane alone across the ocean.

      Thanx for the tip about the Hilbrecht podcast, I’ll check it out tomorrow night.

      jak

  21. Mark Knickelbine on January 31, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    Doug, re the Udana quote one assumes it is the same “reappearing” that is referred to throughout the suttas; And although the SN statement is about the Tathagata, the basis of the argument is that if the aggregates aren’t self before death, they aren’t self after death, so it applies to everyone else as well.

    Batchelor’s argument isn’t that Gotama was somehow compelled to teach rebirth. He’s saying that as we attempt to figure out what an historical Gotama did and didn’t teach, ideas that were unique to early Buddhism in comparison to other religious movements are more likely to have originated with him. That’s why Batchelor chooses to focus on them. Like me, he’s suspicious about the claims of most of the Nikayas to be reliable records of Gotama’s teachings, and so is looking for a kind of litmus test.

    • Doug Smith on January 31, 2013 at 3:37 pm

      The quote you provided from the Udana underdetermines what sort of afterlife is under discussion. It could be any kind, so it isn’t evidence for a literal Buddhist rebirth into a new body. It’s true that virtually all cultures have some notion of life after death, but that isn’t the same as Buddhist rebirth, so doesn’t demonstrate that it is unoriginal.

      Re. the SN statement, in Buddhist metaphysics there is a real difference between the rebirth status of a Tathagata, who no longer has the desire for rebirth nor is producing the kammic results that would get him reborn, and an ordinary person who does have a desire for rebirth and is producing kamma. There are a number of places where the Buddha or others decline to discuss the rebirth status of a Tathagata, but that isn’t evidence re. rebirth generally. It’s basically irrelevant to the ordinary picture.

      Re. Batchelor, as we can see from the above citations, he asserts that the Buddha believed in rebirth, which I think is all that’s relevant to the issues here. I agree that he uses the apparent non-originality of rebirth in the Buddha dhamma as some justification for rejecting it. My point is that that is a weak argument. It’s basically ad hoc. We don’t typically reject people’s beliefs just on the basis of their non-originality. Very few beliefs are original to anyone.

      Now, if for example it could be shown that all this rebirth stuff was exclusive to the Pali version of the Canon, and for example that it didn’t exist in the Chinese Agamas, that would be evidence for the kind of thing you’re after. But AFAIK there is no such evidence. So I think it’s best to give up on that quest and just accept that the Buddha held these beliefs.

      • mufi on January 31, 2013 at 8:17 pm

        I agree that he uses the apparent non-originality of rebirth in the Buddha dhamma as some justification for rejecting it. My point is that that is a weak argument. It’s basically ad hoc. We don’t typically reject people’s beliefs just on the basis of their non-originality. Very few beliefs are original to anyone.

        Agreed.

        In fairness to Batchelor, however, elsewhere he provides a somewhat stronger argument for rejecting rebirth. For example:

        …for those who have grown up outside of Indian culture, who feel at home in a modernity informed by the natural sciences, to then be told that one cannot “really” practise the dharma unless one adheres to the tenets of ancient Indian soteriology makes little sense. The reason people can no longer accept these beliefs need not be because they reject them as false, but because such views are too much at variance with everything else they know and believe about the nature of themselves and the world. They simply do not work anymore, and the intellectual gymnastics one needs to perform to make them work seem casuistic and, for many, unpersuasive.

        [source]

        I think the argument could be made strong still (e.g. along the lines that Owen Flanagan develops), but Batchelor does not claim to possess the skills of an analytic philosopher or a scientific skeptic. Like many of us, he is a practitioner – albeit, a particularly experienced and talented one.

  22. David S on May 4, 2013 at 8:18 pm

    So many interpretations. All these types of discussions about interpretation of text are about supporting one’s view, which was probably arrived at before finding Buddhism to begin with.

    It doesn’t matter what this character in a book REALLY believed, and it can never be proven one way or another anyway. At this time, all that can be sought (and fought over) is an agreement on language and description, but this isn’t likely given language’s inherent ambiguity, and thus prone to re-interpretation regressions. It can’t be done. We will not be in agreement.

    So what to do with this material.

    I think what is important for us to discuss are our experiences, and our interpretation of them. I am sick and tired, once again, of discussions about interpretations of text being correct, wrong, or justified. It doesn’t matter. All that is important is, how are your experiences being interpreted by you, not someone else.

    Texts make it seem like all you need to understand are the texts to have wisdom. I’d say it is how we interpret our experience using texts to be the most interesting exchange we could possibly be having.

  23. Linda on May 5, 2013 at 8:57 am

    David S, you recognize that what you are doing there is propounding a view, not some Absolute Truth that everyone needs to agree with, right? There are many good reasons for having a closer look at the texts, and it is not impossible to get a better understanding of what was meant. True that we will never all agree, but that’s not news on any subject — a little ridiculous to propose that having an expectation of coming to total agreement is a criteria before we start studying something.

    If the process annoys the heck out of you, don’t get involved in it when it comes up — simple! Leave it to those who do recognize the value in the old texts; no reason to spit on others’ efforts just because you don’t find them worthwhile.

    I agree with you that it is important for us to discuss our experiences, but only after examining them, paying attention to them, experiencing them fully. I have learned a great deal from those texts about ways to go about doing this. It’s quite clear to me that I did *not* already have all this good insight before I started reading the texts, and it is actually reading and understanding the texts in versions as close to the original speaker’s language as I can get that has made a drastic improvement in my life. Now that I think about it, actually, it hasn’t been listening to others rendering their understanding and practice of Buddhism that has done the most for me, it’s reading the old texts. But listening to others has helped quite a bit, too.

    This is not to say that you should drop everything you’re doing and read the old texts too — what works for me may not work for you. But there is room in the world for more than one method.

  24. David S on May 5, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    Hi Linda.

    Yes of course I have a view. So do you. That is why in my post above I began statements with… “I think…” “I am sick and tired…” “I’d say…”. These are my opinions and thoughts about interpreting texts.

    In the “text interpreters” category I think your view is valuable, and I wouldn’t ask you to stop. In fact I support you. I think it would be great to hear a debate between you and some of the more prolific monks, who seem to me to be completely enthralled with their view of reincarnation as true, as if it is being stated by these texts as true. So carry on and thanks for having the desire to do so.

    I didn’t propose leaving texts completely out of the discussion. That is why I ended with… ‘I’d say it is how we interpret our experience using texts to be the most interesting exchange we could possibly be having.’

    Some feedback on your comments far above, somewhere you state that you aren’t bringing anything to your readings of the texts and I’d have to doubt that could be possible. We all have views prior to everything we do. My guess is your basic bottom line view on reincarnation for instance hasn’t been affected greatly after having read the texts. So I’d disagree with your presumption of being led only by the texts. At the same time please understand I don’t intend to disregard that you have learned from the texts, as I have too.

    Also, in your responses for the Buddha’s white lies regarding reincarnation contradicting his right speech dictum I didn’t see how you rationalize this contradiction. If he spoke using the intention to lift people’s spirits it doesn’t negate the falsity of the content. This can’t be overlooked. Although it can be rationalized, in differing directions, given one’s view and desire to substantiate one’s view. But these are all interpretable views.

    I also understand your view that he is more interested in people’s mind states and not the content of their beliefs (Is this the answer to the above?), hence at times he comes across as having an agnostic view on reincarnation. This leads him to devise statements to bring people to this point using the beliefs of the time. I would agree. I think this tactic is taken because of his focus on meditative states which are entered upon after quieting parts of cognitive functioning. In this quieting, my view is that the brain switches off aspects of mental functioning, one can’t will this to happen, hence all the practice behind “the practice”. Beliefs and strong chatter prevent this from occurring. He valued these experiences, and through his interpretation of them he saw “truths” to be integrated into one’s daily life. This is my view anyway. If I understand you correctly, I understand the direction of his intention pretty much like you do, but with my own particular perspective based on my experience.

    I’m sorry for sounding like someone who doesn’t want anyone to talk of texts. I like to read others’ views. I really only wanted to express my frustration with so much discussion over what texts REALLY say devoid of relating these understandings back through one’s own experiences. After all, most posting to this site are probably in agreement as to how they are interpreting the texts with regards to their beliefs about reincarnation. So why do we even need to interpret the texts to confirm our view?

    This is a question I ask of myself. What am I looking for? Why did I spend all this time last night reading all the above posts?

    With such constant recourse to what the Buddha “meant” we remain focused on justifying our understandings. When we could be talking of what we understand for ourselves and how we came to this understanding. How do we interpret our experiences? We don’t need to know exactly what someone else thought 2500 years ago. We get to interpret and reflect through experience lived now.

    Understanding the world and knowing others’ thoughts becomes a strange form of seeking a sort of security. A social drive for unity and connection. Or maybe just another need to control one’s relationship to the world, or a means to adjust one’s relationship to the world such that it disturbs one less. Funny isn’t it?

    Thanks for the exchange.

  25. Linda on May 8, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    Hi David, thanks for carrying on the conversation.

    You said: “…somewhere you state that you aren’t bringing anything to your readings of the texts and I’d have to doubt that could be possible.”

    Quite right to doubt — but take a step back further in your doubts, and doubt that you remember what I actually said, which was *not* that “I am not bringing anything to my readings”. I understand the limits of my ability to interpret the world well enough to know that there is no such thing as a clean slate. What I did say was: “I didn’t start from the assumption that ‘the Buddha did not believe in rebirth’… I’ve simply read the texts, wanting to understand what was there from a historical perspective…” So my filter was that there was a way to understand the texts that would fit with history.

    Then you said, “We all have views prior to everything we do. My guess is your basic bottom line view on reincarnation for instance hasn’t been affected greatly after having read the texts.”

    Well, you’d be mistaken in that assumption. I have written (elsewhere) of how profoundly disturbed I was to discover that I was still holding out hope for rebirth to be the order of the day — though I had thought of myself as agnostic, I discovered a deep well of desire to have my self survive death. Understanding the Buddha’s agnosticism made very significant changes not just in my beliefs, but in my way of looking at the world. I think of myself as lucky to have had first-hand experience of seeing how my attachment to self and views of life-after death affect how I live my life.

    “So I’d disagree with your presumption of being led only by the texts.” But that’s because you’re being presumptuous (I say with a grin). Funny how certain we can be, isn’t it, filling in the gaps in our knowledge with whatever fits our pre-existing worldview.

    “Also, in your responses for the Buddha’s white lies regarding reincarnation contradicting his right speech dictum I didn’t see how you rationalize this contradiction.”

    It’s because he recognizes language as empty — he often says that he speaks to people the way people speak in the world, but he doesn’t cling to the language he is using. Also, he has built a construction with Dependent Arising that uses the language of rebirth, so when he speaks of the destination of someone after death, he is pointing to what happens to them after “bhava” (which is the point where the funeral pyre comes in) *in Dependent Arising*. And this is the way gurus spoke in his time, in just exactly that way of building themselves an idea and a language to go with it, and making pronouncements using that idea and language, and expecting people to do the work to understand it. In that sense it is not a lie at all, it’s a test to be passed.

    “If he spoke using the intention to lift people’s spirits it doesn’t negate the falsity of the content. This can’t be overlooked.”

    You are thinking about what he did then using the standards of your own culture. *That* can’t be overlooked!

    “Although it can be rationalized, in differing directions, given one’s view and desire to substantiate one’s view. But these are all interpretable views.”

    Yes they are, but I have the history of the times, and the consistency of his message backing up my understanding. It’s very easy to dismiss my understanding as a rationalization, but you don’t actually know me, or why I do what I do. You leap to conclusions (as above) about what I’m doing without much evidence to go on, just that your assumptions fit *your* worldview.

    I don’t like that Gotama did it the way he did it — I’m a Westerner too, and it’s hard for me to let go of that back-and-white, plain-speaking, “I chopped down the cherry tree” view of truth, too. It had been hard for me to accept that this is what he was doing — I keep on trying to see it any other way — but nothing else fits with everything else he says *and* with the culture he lived in.

    I’m not sure what you’re saying here:

    “I also understand your view that he is more interested in people’s mind states and not the content of their beliefs (Is this the answer to the above?), hence at times he comes across as having an agnostic view on reincarnation. This leads him to devise statements to bring people to this point using the beliefs of the time.”

    I don’t think that “at times he comes across as having an agnostic view” I think he is always agnostic for a reason: because being anything else goes counter to everything he teaches about how to avoid delusion by seeing accurately and at the same time results in dukkha. He cannot be both telling us how to do that and asking us to believe in rebirth (which was not the only way of seeing the world in his day, just as it is not in ours).

    “I’m sorry for sounding like someone who doesn’t want anyone to talk of texts. I like to read others’ views. I really only wanted to express my frustration with so much discussion over what texts REALLY say devoid of relating these understandings back through one’s own experiences. After all, most posting to this site are probably in agreement as to how they are interpreting the texts with regards to their beliefs about reincarnation. So why do we even need to interpret the texts to confirm our view?”

    Because maybe, just maybe, a mind will get opened up to the possibility that there’s more depth to those texts than the traditional way of looking at them indicates. It’s not about “confirming our view” it’s about learning to listen to someone else’s. I have been listening to the Buddha and what I hear him saying about agnosticism has changed my life and my understanding of everything he teaches. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll recognize that we don’t have to feel our way through trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t — what’s right there in the suttas does work without the need for faith or guesswork. It is simple, elegant, all fits quite nicely together, and is visible and ready for use right here and now.

  26. David S on May 8, 2013 at 11:20 pm

    Hi Linda.

    I guess… I guessed wrong then about your beliefs. Thanks for taking the time to restate how it went for you. Coming back to make your points is helpful for me.

    If the Buddha can lie because words are empty then what does that mean for all the rest of it? That train of thinking seems particularly problematic. If he can lie with best intentions to lift spirits, he would also be creating dukkha for those who didn’t get it and went on to believe the lie wholeheartedly. No more seeing accurately for them. And what ‘lifting of spirit’ would such a lie be catering to in the first place? If it feels good then believe it? This is the ground for delusion itself.

    Switching to another topic…

    I would be interested to know what you think of the word enlightenment.

    I find the concepts in Buddhism of ‘awakening’ and ‘enlightenment’ to be very troublesome. What do you make of these words?

    I am not trying to set you up for any argument here! I am asking just to know, and given your studies it would be interesting to hear your take. I just don’t use them nor put much belief in them as anything at all. Now these words are empty!

    …and full of delusion. Who’s delusion I don’t know.

    • Linda on May 11, 2013 at 12:02 pm

      I do understand that you’re not being argumentative. I am enjoying the conversation, and it always helps me as a writer to have the chance to hear what questions people have and work on my answers, so you’re doing me a favor.

      “I would be interested to know what you think of the word enlightenment. I find the concepts in Buddhism of ‘awakening’ and ‘enlightenment’ to be very troublesome. What do you make of these words?”

      Enlightenment comes from a different age so I try not to use it (though it still slips in when I’m tired) — the Buddha did suggest we be a lamp unto ourselves though so I suppose it’s not totally unwarranted.

      Awakening is fair enough — the Buddha said of himself, at least once, that he should be known as awake (buddho), and it’s a good enough metaphor, especially if we consider that we’ve never met anyone who is awake all of the time, and when one is tired it is especially difficult to stay awake.

      The problem I have with these terms as they are generally understood is that they are taken to mean an off/on switch that once turned to the On position never turns back to the Off, and that post-Awakening one is permanently Awake without effort. But I don’t see that as precisely what the Buddha described. I find him describing a process that keeps happening (the five aggregates keep arising) but that we learn not to cling to. He speaks of the cessation of dukkha and people take that to mean “dukkha ends and then without any effort in the future it never arises again” but when I hear him say “experience for yourself the cessation of dukkha” I hear him say you’ll experience it — for example in meditation — and then you’ll experience the cessation again another time, and another time, and another time. The causes keep arising and we keep breaking the cycle. (Or sometimes we fall asleep and fail to stop it and dukkha happens — it is a learning process and we get better and better at it.)

      I suspect that the idea of awakening as a permanent state came about from a variety of causes (as all things do!) like My Buddha Is As Amazing If Not More Than Your Buddha (for they spoke often in the suttas of people who where sambuddha — fully awakened), as well as making it a state that anyone could see from their own experience of practice would have to take many lifetimes because — damn! no matter how hard I try, that dukkha just keeps wanting to come up, I must be nowhere near Awakening yet! Awakening as a permanent state supports the belief that the Buddha was talking about a process that takes many lifetimes. It also supports the idea that monks are the only ones likely to achieve it, that they are doing something Very Special, and that they deserve alms for their efforts (it supports The System). Lots of good reasons for it to have come to be perceived the way it is.

  27. David S on May 9, 2013 at 10:43 am

    Revisiting my comment above and yours…
    I see you don’t consider it a lie. So what I’ve said is not how you view this.

    “If the Buddha can lie because words are empty then what does that mean for all the rest of it? That train of thinking seems particularly problematic. If he can lie with best intentions to lift spirits, he would also be creating dukkha for those who didn’t get it and went on to believe the lie wholeheartedly. No more seeing accurately for them. And what ‘lifting of spirit’ would such a lie be catering to in the first place? If it feels good then believe it? This is the ground for delusion itself.”

    But revisiting this comment without the use of the word lie, and all I said regarding the subject using this word, it still remains problematic for the same confusion would come of his tactics.

    • Linda on May 11, 2013 at 11:40 am

      David — thanks for revisiting! I had started (and got pulled away from) a draft of a response that suggested the word “lie” was blocking understanding, but you saved me the effort of finishing it.

      So we are left with the problem — and I agree there is a problem — that results from the way he handled it.

      You stated it this way: “he would also be creating dukkha for those who didn’t get it and went on to believe the lie wholeheartedly.”

      First of all (just to clarify from the language you used), I am pretty sure he was not converting people to believe the lie wholeheartedly from a position of “they never believed it in the first place” — remember that he speaks to people in the language/worldview/idiom/paradigm they are living in. So his words would just add another voice to whatever was already all around them. No one who didn’t already believe in rebirth would come to him with the question “Where did he go after he died?”

      What I understand from what he says about why he speaks as he does — -“in the way the world speaks, without myself clinging to it”- — is that he has determined that it causes *less* dukkha to do this than to speak the way folks usually do. This is consistent with his philosophy of tolerance for others’ views, and of views themselves being pretty close to the root of all evil (though it actually goes back a step or two further than that). (As an aside, I had always heard, prior to reading the suttas for myself, how hard he was on Brahmins, so I was astounded when I started reading them for myself to find how nice and generous he was to them about their beliefs.)

      The idea remains that he says comforting things to them in a time when that is what they need to hear. Note that in Brasington’s translation, it isn’t monks he’s saying these comforting things to: “It is because, Anuruddha, the are faithful clansmen who are insipred and gladdened to hear it.”

      And then he says, “Hearing it they arouse interest and direct their minds to that, and that leads to their welfare and happiness for a long time.” I believe that he recognizes that this is not the time to try to make converts with bald truths, but he tries to inspire them to strive upwards in their own lives by letting their loved ones be an inspiration to them — whatever understanding we go by (the casual layman’s or the Buddha’s own) the monk who died *was* an inspiration. The idea is that even if they don’t come to him in the future and become liberated themselves, at least the beliefs they have are ones that encourage them to good behavior (as modelled, as best they understand it, on his own monk’s). And if he is kind to them now, they may come to him in the future and he can help them *see for themselves* what he teaches — as it seems to me he has long-since come to the conclusion that only seeing it for oneself is going to make what he’s trying to explain plain to most people.

      And, of course, with the construct he built, what he said to these folks is not a lie — everything he says is consistent with Dependent Arising’s use of rebirth as a model. Did you notice what Brasington came up with in the previous line? “Without wasting time, before you die, be born in something higher”? What does that mean, “before you die be born in something higher”? It sounds to me like he is saying what I say he is saying in Dependent Arising.

      And then, my understanding of the reasons the Buddha says what he says the way he says it in much of the texts about views is not that Wrong Views are Wrong because they portray a cosmology different from the one he has seen, but that Wrong Views are wrong because they lead to bad behavior, or less-than-liberating behavior. Some views are worse than others — the attavada view (of the self as One With All) seems to be the worst of them in his book, they are portrayed as those who selfishly (naturally) and adamantly deny everyone else’s views (a cardinal error). Meanwhile those who believe in karma and rebirth at least have beliefs that encourage them to selfless behavior, and tolerance. So he is supporting the lesser of imperfect views (as portrayed in MN 117 at the least) when he supports a pre-existing belief in karma and rebirth.

  28. jak42 on July 19, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    Hi Linda and Doug,

    If you want to talk about experience, here’s mine.

    My feeling is that when the Buddha spoke of past lives, devas, and daemons, he was accurately reporting on his experience. I think that the Buddha actually believed in past lives, devas, daemons, and the other metaphysical stuff like most people in India at the time. I think that he actually saw these things and I think that he took these experiences at face value, i.e. he believed that these entities actually existed. Why do I say this? Because I’ve actually experienced the past lives of myself and others, and devas and daemons as well. But because I’ve grown up in a secular modernist society and not a premodern religious society, I don’t take these experiences at face value (at least not in retrospect, when I was having them they seemed pretty convincing to me). I consider them as a kind of “internal film” at best, or a hallucination at worst. I’ve had these experiences as a side effect of deep concentration meditation.

    I think he used reports of these experiences as a way to help people with their suffering. For example, a bunch of villagers come to him weeping and in grief, Grandpa has died and they are wondering if the Bhagvan can tell them where he has ended up. The Buddha goes off, does some deep concentration meditation to jhana, sees Grandpa has become a deva. He reports this to the villagers and their grief is resolved. He didn’t tell a white lie and he didn’t deceive the villagers, he reported on what he saw. The Buddha was, if nothing else, a deeply compassionate guy and I think he did what he could to help people with suffering.

    I don’t think the Buddha was speaking metaphorically (as Linda maintains in her otherwise stellar book “Dependent Origination in Context”) because, where the Buddha speaks metaphorically in the suttas, he actually says so. Unlike other philosophers of his time, the Buddha was a master of concentration meditation. Deep concentration meditation is kind of like a psychedelic drug, it causes an altered state of consciousness when you come out of it (probably caused by the release of massive amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine in your brain). What you tend to see then is what you believe. In other words, your brain starts making up stuff to match your beliefs. This then tends to reinforce your belief in these metaphysical entities. At least, that is my experience and I see no reason to doubt that the Buddha had the same experience with concentration meditation.

    Michael Shermer in his excellent book “The Believing Brain” describes how people use their beliefs to filter their experience and interpret it in a way that reinforces their beliefs. So, rather that “seeing is believing”, it is rather “believing is seeing”. This is actually consistent with dependent origination, we use our beliefs to construct a self then filter our experiences and use them to continue constructing the edifice of self or reject them as a threat to it. In an altered state of consciousness, where sensations are under modification by chemical changes in the brain, beliefs become even stronger and you can actually see and hear things that aren’t there, i.e. you begin to hallucinate.

    There are many others who have had this experience. Joan of Arc, a young French girl, had visions of Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret who convinced her to become a warrior and drive the English out of Orleans. Hermann Leicht, a young shepherd at a Franciscan monastery near Langheim in Upper Franconia, saw a vision of the 14 protective saints which resulted in the construction of a beautiful Baroque church, Vierzehnheiligen (you can visit it today, and I did a couple months ago). Even Carl Jung, one of the founders of transpersonal psychology, had visions that he interpreted in a context combining Christianity and Nietzsche starting in 1913 and running to 1916, which he reported in the “Red Book”, that became the basis of his work on the collective unconscious, archetypes, and other areas. Tibetans cultivate them too as part of completion stage tantra.

    The real amazing thing about the Buddha’s teaching is that he was able to draw the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and dependent origination out of his experience and separate them from the metaphysical part in a way that, despite the post-lifetime efforts of Kasyapa and the religonizing faction, we can still see the roots of a basically secular guide to how to live a good life. Along with the suttas where he refuses to confirm or deny the existence of a life after death, etc. (sorry, I don’t have the reference at hand).

    Anyway, that’s my experience. Hope it helps with the discussion.

    • Doug Smith on July 20, 2013 at 4:54 am

      Hi Jak, and thanks. I agree with your take. You may want to look at my piece on “A Secular Evaluation of Rebirth” which makes some of the same points along Shermer’s lines regarding confabulation. Although I dealt more specifically with memories from one’s own (purported) lifetimes, the same confabulation can occur with any purported memories.

    • mufi on July 20, 2013 at 12:35 pm

      Jak: Your astute comment reminds me of something that religion scholar David McMahan wrote in The Making of Buddhist Modernism, only in reference to the popular notion that Buddhist contemplative practice qualifies as a kind of science, in which individuals can “come and see [for themselves]” the metaphysical truths of the Buddha’s teachings:

      “How do we distinguish a Buddhist meditator’s “discoveries based on firsthand experience”…from those of Christian or Hindu contemplatives who through repeated “experiments” have confirmed and had verified by their peers-and superiors-that there is, in fact, an eternal soul beneath the fleeting apparitions of the personality? If I am doing Buddhist meditation and make such a discovery, what then? There is no scientific way to adjudicate between Buddhist doctrine and my conclusion. This does not mean that there can be no personal grounds for one or the other conclusion; it simply means that it is not publicly verifiable, as scientific experiments must be. This example suggests that Buddhist meditation in its traditional contexts, rather than being an open-ended “scientific” experiment, is bounded by Buddhist suppositions that guide the practitioner toward certain experiences and conclusions. It is a method less of open-ended inquiry than of discovering for oneself the truths of the dharma that the Buddha put forth, that is, those authorized by the tradition.”

      So, we know that different traditions authorize different interpretations of private experience (especially when it’s extraordinary). Of course, that doesn’t necessarily stop a particular individual from interpreting his/her private experience in a counter-cultural way, but s/he does so at the risk of alienating him/herself from the rest of the pack.

      Now, my knowledge of the Buddha’s cultural background is slim at best, but if certain historical scholars are to be believed, then I think it’s fair to say that the Buddha was one of those risk-takers. If so, then do we dare to follow his example in this regard? even if our doing so leads us to interpret our private experiences rather differently than what Buddhist tradition authorizes?

      Arguably, what we secular types are doing here is simply interpreting our private experiences in ways that a modern-scientific culture authorizes (e.g. as neurophysiological events from a subjective/phenomenal frame of reference), while following traditional Buddhist prescriptions for personal & social well-being. I think there’s fairness in that charge, but then it’s also fair to counter-argue that we have prudential reasons for choosing those traditional prescriptions over others: that is, they still work.

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