Many SelvesCritical thinking, skepticism, and experimentation are not only important in science, but our everyday lives. This is also true in Buddhism, and especially secular Buddhism. In fact, the Buddha was well known for saying, and I’m paraphrasing here: Don’t just believe what I say. Look for yourself.

When we first began practice with meditation, and mindfulness in our daily lives, many of the teachings prove themselves to be true. It becomes starkly apparent, for instance, that we cling to pleasure and we have aversion to pain. Our reactions to such clinging often cause a great deal of internal suffering. Mindfulness goes on to reveal much more than just clinging, but also how we create and recreate a feeling of self.

The teachings about not self had me very skeptical, even disbelieving. Though I have been an atheist since I was ten years old and have not believed in a soul since then, not having a static self driving the show seemed absurd. I was determined to dig into this teaching through simple observations, which is all you need, and prove the Buddha’s teachings about not self to be incorrect.

Well, as with the teachings about clinging the rise of suffering from attachment, I realized I could not find a static self, a central driver in any part of myself that I explored. But something else interesting revealed itself to me .  .  .

As we go through our day, we react to our environment externally and internal by creating a sense of self, a feeling of me, mine, and I. For instance, at first there is a feeling of hunger in the stomach. It’s simply a physical sensation. That sensation, the need for food, gives rise to the thought, “I’m hungry.” With that thought a feeling of “I” arises, a sense of self.

I noted over time that the “I” I had come to assume was a static self was not a central driver at all, a me, but instead simply a reaction to the world that arose and faded thousands of times a day. This fragmented feeling of self gives the illusion of a central self who is experiencing, making decisions, being in charge. The more I observed, the more I realized the Buddha was right about the not self teachings. Note, Buddha didn’t say there isn’t a self. What he said was you can not find a self in any part of you. Everything you observe is not a self. There is a feeling of self, a feeling that arises and fades, and arises again.

Over time neurologists published books about how our consciousness creates an illusory self. In fact, one book suggested the brain actually creates two illusory selves, one that feels in charge, and the other one that observes the other. This explains why when we sit and meditate if feels like I am the one who is sitting, but I am also the one who is observing that I’m sitting.

I don’t quite agree with the Buddha at this point that the reason we have this fractured yet repetitive arising of feeling of self is from a tainted mind, one impure. According to neurologists, much of this arising of self is necessary to our survival, and with out it, you would not bother to feed yourself. Yet, I do see very clearly how we form false impressions around the arising of the feeling of self, how it creates more clinging, hence more suffering.This feeling of self is in essence the ego, a bloated one at that.  That’s what I think the Buddha was onto.

But as all this observation proved the Buddha correct that there is no self, it also proved to me that there can be no such thing as rebirth, or reincarnation after death, for there is no one to be reborn. Consciousness, a function of the brain, and the manufacturer of the feeling of self, dies with the death of the body. But even more importantly, there is no central driver, no self to continue, because it never existed.

“… if you understand anatta correctly and truly, then you will discover for yourself that there is no rebirth and no reincarnation.” — Buddhadasa Bhikkhu

In the suttas, the Buddha does speak about rebirth after the death of the body, of being reborn in heavens or hells, etc. Given what I have observed within myself, I have to disregard that teaching as literal. Instead, I see it metaphorically as the way we give birth to the ego. I see no reason to consider anything after death, since I can not test and explore that situation. What I do know is everything that is born dies. That’s really all we need to understand for death. Our day will come. We can be certain that there is life before death.

In secular Buddhism, the focus is on this life, this moment, and being mindful of how we interact with the world externally and internally.  It’s fascinating to watch how the mind responds through thought and emotion, and creates story that could possibly be way off the  mark. Meditation and mindfulness help us be skeptical of our very own inner workings so we don’t buy into dogma, don’t cling to beliefs just because someone said something was true, even the Buddha in the suttas.

While at one time I found the idea of not self shocking and insulting, I’m now fascinated by it. And what neurobiologists are adding to these conversations verifies what we have discovered in our own self observation. We are complex people, but there is no one inside, no unchanging entity to be reborn. Seeing that encourages me to appreciate this one life all the more, to alleviate what suffering I can, and to be with each moment as it arises.

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  1. star on June 25, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    Wonderful post, Dana. One quibble (I love to quibble). You said, “I don’t quite agree with the Buddha at this point that the reason we have this fractured yet repetitive arising of feeling of self is from a tainted mind, one impure.” I think you’re mistaking his use of language that was common in his day, for literal meanings in our day. The Brahmins were deeply concerned with purity. When he framed a lesson in the language of the Brahmins (notably when speaking in terms of karma and rebirth in a variety of heavens, or this world/that world, or bathing(!)) he will often frame his lesson about what we need to improve, in their language. Thus we get “purify your mind” but (like so many other words he does this to) he’s redefining the word to a *slightly* different concept. He may talk about “purity of mind” but he is referring to his morality (intention) based in clarity (mindfulness, insight), not “purity” in the sense of “sin” (even the Brahmins of the day were seeing purity as less about sin and morality than as about perfecting their rituals).

    The Buddha seems to use a format of “Yes, you are so right” at the start of many of his conversations, “exactly, it’s exactly as you say, we must purify ourselves…” and then goes on to redefine what this means (it isn’t about bathing, for sure!). He does this in a fairly straightforward way in specific places, and then uses the same terms — without explanation — elsewhere.

    What I see is that the Buddha didn’t see our problem initiating with any literal lack of purity, or with taintedness. He talks often about “underlying tendencies” and so it seems to me that he saw what we saw — though he hadn’t the benefit of Darwin to explain the *why* — that we are born with this instinct to behave the way we do.

  2. Dana Nourie on June 25, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    Quantum mechanics, yes. I am a big fan of physics, including the quantum. However, it is being abused to explain a conscious universe or metaphysics. QM explains subatomic behavior, and it’s important to remember that while we are made up of those particles, we all operate at a macro level.

    Emptiness is indeed not nothingness! Emptiness is the understanding that everything is devoid of a static self, and is interdependent on many other things. This does not bring in the mystical or the unexplainable. Indeed, it shows us how greatly we influence each other, how dependent we are on other people and the earth itself.

    Neither QM or emptiness are an explanation for the kinds of one mind or single consciousness that people want to believe. Just because we don’t understand fully quantum mechanics does not mean it may explain people’s outlandish ideas. Always we have to rely on the present, and the reality of what we are. That is a macro being operating with the laws of physics.

    Quantum mechanics is some weird stuff! But people are really abusing it to explain their weird ideas. We really need to stick with what we can observe, as that is what we are dealing with in our every day lives. I’m not saying quantum mechanics should not be pursued. Indeed, it should, but we have to be careful how we speculate about it.

  3. roryn3kids on June 25, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    Thought provoking post, I enjoyed it. Although I myself have a more “mystical” viewpoint I agree there is much to be learned and profited from secular buddhism. It concerns oneself with this life and that was one of Buddha’s major points. Buddhist psychology stands strongly on its own without any need for other-worldly beliefs.

    However 🙂

    You may have traveled this road already, but in case you haven’t I would spend some time trying to comprehend Quantum Mechanics. There are many good books on it. Although not specifically about QM, Thomas Cambell, a NASA physicist, has written a book called My Big TOE, has formulated his Theory Of Everything which in essence theorizes that the “ground substance” of the universe is consciousness. Quantum Mechanics suggests this as well (proof is too strong a word). Dr. Campbell bases much of his work on out-of-body (astral projection) research that he conducted. The point being that “emptiness” is not “nothingness”. There is a quantum field out of which particles are constantly coming into existence and disappearing so rapidly they are not considered real. We are made of those particles. So the “no-self” or this “empty-self” is not a “nothing-self” it is an imagined separation of what we call self from and a WHOLE and SINGLE consciousness (the field). I like to say that although there is no “inherently” existing self, there is an “apparently” existing self. This is part of our delusion. I don’t believe this is mystical or supernatural but rather natural, the way our universe is made. Our physical laws operate within (or are derived from) this “matrix.” Buddha and Buddhism strongly make the point that meditating on emptiness is important to achieving enlightenment. I think this is why. Understanding this allows us to see how we fit into the universe. According to Dr. Campbell the universe is akin to a giant computer and all of our memories are recorded and can be accessed. So while we may slip back into the bigger consciousness like water poured into a stream (on death) and lose our “self”, this mainframe can just as easily isolate that water and assign it the associated memories and “walla” – we have our old familiar non-self back! The interesting thing is that in a sense none of this really matters. Most people don’t care what makes there car run, only that it gets them where they want to go. This is the realm of secular buddhism – and I like that.

  4. frank jude on June 25, 2011 at 9:31 pm


    Thanks for your response to “Rory…” regarding the abuse of QM.

    I also reject (as I wrote in a previous comment) the idea that consciousness can exist independently of a living brain. I just don’t believe there is any compelling evidence that I, at least, am aware of. Of course, if there were, I’d have to change my own beliefs about this.

    Also, the idea of some common underlying ‘sub-stratum’ (even if it’s something as subtle as ‘consciousness) leads to a monism of a dhatu-vada way of thinking the Buddha rejected similar to what is taught in Vedantic philosophy. What has always appealed to me about the teachings of emptiness/interbeing is that each individual, unique phenomenon can be ‘celebrated’ without falling into reifying ‘it’ as an ontic entity. You are not I. I am not you. Yet we are not separate. It can even be said we are identically ’empty!’ This is a teaching from the prajna-paramita texts that is often forgotten: form is emptiness, yes. BUT, emptiness is also form!

    In case you’re interested, I’ve a post on the Not-Self teaching here:

    Thanks again!
    frank jude

  5. Dana Nourie on June 25, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    Yes, I agree, Rory, with most everything you say in that last post. But even though we know our bodies are made of individual cells, and our digestion has some trillion bacteria helping, we don’t say good morning to each of those cells and bacteria. True we are made of billions of processes and systems, and we tend to view ourselves as a whole person. We do need to recognize the bits, but we must always be careful of the interpretations of new science. An open mind indeed doesn’t not come to fancy conclusions:-)

    So, I appreciate all that is being studied in quantum mechanics. It fascinates me what they are learning, but I am not quick to adopt an interpretation from any because we are just not there yet.

  6. Larry Reside on June 25, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    Hi Dana….. Interesting post and thought-provoking as others have said…..

    I think that you’ll find that you will eventually come to understand the process of rebirth that the Buddha described, just as the idea of no-self was rejected by you, but on further investigation, you saw the wisdom of it.

    Even though there is no “static” self, the relative, changeable self goes through transitions as I’m sure that you know. The momentum and inter-relationship between these changeable selves is where the laws of Karma and therefore the process of rebirth takes place.

    The most valuable teachings for me on this subject are the teachings on the Bardo – but not just in terms of the transition from one lifetime to another, but from the present moment as a moment of choice between the effects of the past and the directions of the future and the choice within the present between the forces of tainted, clung-to, energy in the form of the tainted emotions versus the untainted, liberated, fully experienced energy of the 5 Buddha Wisdoms. Snow Lion Publications has many books on the subject.

    Here is also a link to my own interpretation of these teachings:

    I believe that if you continue to investigate, you will find how it makes sense. I don’t believe that the Buddha ever taught as a metaphor. I have a lot more to investigate myself, but so far it makes sense.

  7. Dana Nourie on June 25, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    Larry, I had to smile at your post. That promise that I will some day come to understand the process of rebirth is identical to my grandmother promising I would one come to understand god, and so many other promising Jesus or Allah. Just like you. my Tibetan Buddhist nun teacher also said one day I would understand rebirth in the sense of after death.

    But what I have come to understand is that rebirth and the bardo can not be investigated, as they occur after death. Additionally, there is absolutely no evidence for the existence or occurrence of either.

    The more radical the claim, the more evidence we need. Clinging to the idea of rebirth is no more beneficial than clinging to an idea of god:-)

    Now, if I had a way to investigate, if there was any evidence at all . . . but like claims of god, Jesus, Allah, rebirth, the bardo, etc are but claims from others.

    • Larry Reside on June 30, 2011 at 2:32 pm

      Hi Dana…..

      I think that you missed the point of what I was trying to say… Maybe I wasn’t clear..

      The teachings of the Bardo and the choices between expressing Buddha Wisdoms or expressing the mind-states of the various realms can be applied to each individual moment. We are always in a Bardo and we are always presented with the choice between a wise expression of our nature and a neurotic, confused expression. This is expressed in terms of the contrast between the 5 Buddha Wisdoms and the 5 Realms of Existence. With each moment we are expressing our position on the scale between these extremes. The descriptions of the mind-states of the various “realms” are key to how they apply to our lives right at this moment. – understanding the bardo teachings and then using mindfulness and focus to apply them as we go about our day can lead us to see how the possibility that the same process continues after death is likely. The same way that we know that after winter, spring comes or after night time, the sun rises – it may not, but odds are pretty good that it will.

      • frank jude on June 30, 2011 at 5:06 pm


        I for one respectfully, but strongly disagree with your analogy.

        I DO use the psychological/existential model (as does Buddhadasa) that each moment is a kind of ‘bardo’ in that we are always in flux, and thus in a ‘liminal’ state.

        However, I do NOT think it “likely” in the least that “the same process continues after death” for the very obvious reason that the brain dies and decays and there is no convincing evidence that consciousness continues independently of a LIVING brain. Thus, while the seasons follow a NATURAL order, and day follows night, easily observed by independent observers, leading to the ability to predict with precision because such processes are natural, the same cannot at all be said about any kind of life after death including rebirth.

      • Larry Reside on June 30, 2011 at 6:29 pm

        According to Tibetan Buddhist Tantra, the seat of consciousness is the heart and not the brain – the brain is the domain of the secondary mind, the mind involved in discursiveness and sensory input processing (another organ) – I suggest that you investigate how past motivations and intention create the present consciousness and how the momentum of our past physical existence leads to our present one. It’s obvious that once present consciousness is created all of the other aspects of body and mind arise with it. – It’s all about what gets reinforced and how we seek out these reinforced states of being over and over again…. that’s basically all I can tell you – working with the bardo teachings has led me to be inclined towards the possibility of a life after this one etc… ultimately, of course, we’ll only find out when we die, but I think the macrocosom acts in the same way as the microcosm on all levels…. so we’ll see…..

  8. roryn3kids on June 25, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    You are mostly right, and yes QM is being abused greatly by many new agers with wild claims QM being proof that we create our own reality, we can use “intention”, via The Secret, to obtain material wealth and such. Even within QM there is disagreement as to whether consciousness does indeed interact with matter, but it is one ofthe possible explanations and accepted as such by many physicists. It is one of many competing theories. Also remember that we are made of those same quantum particles, and that effects of QM continue to be observed on a larger and larger scale, approaching our macro-scale world. The double slit experiment has been shown to occur with molecules as large as 36 atoms (they are continually pushing that boundary with new experiments). Recently coherence (a QM effect) has been determined to occur in photosynthesis. Several other areas of biology have also demonstrated QM effects occurring in high temperature, macro-level processes. So while true we should focus on the here and now (life is for the living as they say) one also needs to keep an open mind. One can go just as wrong by being too skeptical as one can by being too gullible. No progress would ever be made of people didn’t challenge conventional views or think outside the box. I consider that part of the middle path.

  9. beginningdharma on June 26, 2011 at 11:13 am

    Dana, lovely post. I especially appreciate that at the end, you point out how this Secular approach allows us to in fact appreciate and respect life all the more. I often find it frustrating that non-secularists will often assume that we don’t have a real appreciation or respect for life, be if our own or the lives of others. Thank you for putting it so eloquently!

  10. Dana Nourie on June 30, 2011 at 10:40 am

    “Because there is no one born, there in no one who dies and is reborn. Therefore, the whole question of rebirth is quite foolish and nothing to do with Buddhism at all.” ~Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Heartwood of the Bodi Tree: The Buddha’s Teaching on Voidness

    • Larry Reside on June 30, 2011 at 3:10 pm

      The Bhayabherava Sutra (sutra 4, Majjhima Nikaya – middle length discourses of the Buddha)


      “When my concentrated mind was thus purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperterbability, I directed it to knowledge of the recollection of past lives. I recollected my manifold past lives, that is one birth, two births, three births, four births, five births, ten births, twenty births, thirty births, forty births, fifty births, a hundred births, a thousand births, many aeons of world contraction, many aeons of world expansion, many aeons of world contraction and expansion: ‘There I was so named, of such a clan, with such and appearance, such was my nutriment, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such my life-term; and passing away from there, I reappeared elsewhere; and there too I was so named, of such a clan, with such an appearance, such was my nutriment, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such my life-term; and passing away from there, I reappeared here. Thus with their aspects and particulars I recollected my manifold past lives.


      This was the first true knowledge attained by me in the first watch of the night. Ignorance was banished and true knowledge arose, darkness was banished and light aronse, as happens in one who abides diligent, ardent, and resolute.”


  11. Dana Nourie on June 30, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Yup, Larry, I have read that, and first I wonder if someone misunderstood him when they wrote that, or if this is simply part of the myth that contradicts itself. I’ve never had any such recollection, and if I did how would I know my mind is not making it up? The argument will be because he was in a concentrated state. But I remind you again, there is no one to be reborn.

    • Larry Reside on June 30, 2011 at 6:39 pm

      I have a terrible time with what I see as the misunderstanding of the teachings on emptiness. The truth is that there is no ULTIMATE self, but there is a relative self that is born, suffers, dies, (and I know you don’t want to hear this LOL) and is reborn again and again. I feel that until we reach Buddhahood, we are stuck on the relative path and most important of all, the Buddha constantly admonished us to not take our relative existence as an end in itself, because it was impermanent, subject to suffering and change, and therefore could not be considered a permanent fixed self.

      You’re going to hate this too, but, I’ve learned that, as a Buddha, we can then create multiple relative emanations to engage with others and teach them – that I’m not sure about, but I’m aiming in that direction.

      The Buddha also said in many sutras that it was a wrong view to believe that there is no this world and the next world. – yes we have to look for evidence and, as I’ve said, the evidence in my opinion is to be found in how our bodies and minds move from our current past, through our current present and into our current future.

      I was a lot more cynical until I started practicing Tantra and studying the Bardo teachings….

  12. Dana Nourie on June 30, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    “According to Tibetan Buddhist Tantra, the seat of consciousness is the heart and not the brain.” And that right there is in large part why I decided Tibetan Buddhism was too out of date to follow and just simply incorrect.

    If you want to say that as a metaphor, well, still stretching a bit. As someone very interested neurobiology, I can tell you we KNOW the seat of conscious IS in fact the brain. You can even test this just by going to sleep. When the brain puts itself in sleep mode, bye bye consciousness. It amazes me people just gloss over this everyday experience.

    Now neurologists are discovering more interesting info about the brain and consciousness by studying the difference between awareness, sleep, and being unconscious for surgery, which is actually more like death.

    Larry, if you suffer brain damage, your consciousness and your awareness are going to be affected. And when you die, the brain no longer has the function of consciousness.

    The brain is to consciousness what the eyes are to sight. To deny this is to deny what we see every night and morning in our own experience. No one ever says they think we can see with our elbows. And we don’t assume worms can walk without legs. Where do you hear your thoughts? In your head!

    • Larry Reside on June 30, 2011 at 11:11 pm

      Ah but Dana – where do you experience your feelings? When you feel anger, joy or anxiety etc. There are many people who feel that the chakra system is equivalent to the endocrine system which also regulates our moods. The Heart is a part of that system.

      What do your studies say about consciousness while dreaming? It’s still a matter for investigation, but I don’t think that people are in any certainty about where consciousness is and how it operates. My own belief – which I have yet to find proof of – is that under certain circumstances, thought consciousness loses its connection to physical reality through problems with the brain, but there are still the other sense consciousnesses also.

      It could be that when we die, the brain and mental consciousness lose their connection to each other. If the physical body continues after death, in the form of elements recombining with earth and air (decomposition with gas – burp) why can’t the mental energy also continue after death?

      Have you seen any of the documentation and publications of the mind and life conferences? (

      The brain is to THOUGHT as eyes are to sight – but thought is not consciousness – consciousness is the knower. In all the organs in Buddhism there is the organ, the object, and the consciousness – as in the Eye, the Form, and the Visual consciousness, Ear, the Sound, and Sound Consciousness. With the Brain, there is the Brain, mental objects, and mental consciousness.

      Overall the important things in my opinion are to eliminate our attachment to the objects of the six senses and recognize how our body and minds arise and pass away in every moment. This recognizes interdendence and also recognizes that, because no aspect of our bodies and mind are graspable (because they are in a continual state of change), then we cannot hold onto any aspect of reality as our permanet self. At that point we truly go from the home life to homelessness…

  13. Dana Nourie on June 30, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    Larry, I agree that there is no ULTIMATE self, but there is the person, full of dynamic processes, in ever change, who ages and dies.

    You can go through the canon or the sutras and find places where the Buddha speaks of rebirth after death of the body, and you can go through and find stories where he won’t speak of such matters, and you can go through and find stories that illustrate once the body is dead, it is not longer fuel for consciousness to arise.

    Buddhist mythology is full of contradictions. The Tibetans had their own take on it all, wrote their own version, as did many other cultures, and like so many offered no evidence of such claims.

    Therefore, we have to test these out for ourselves, combine what we discover with what modern day science tells us about the body, and use the tools that are truly useful, while discarding that which was wrong or lacking in evidence.

    When you say, “we can then create multiple relative emanations to engage with others and teach them” . . . How can you test this in your experience? What evidence do you have that that is in any way true?

    I can test and see that there is no ultimate, unchanging self. I see how the mind and emotions in reaction to external and internal events creates a feeling of self. This is observable. In addition, neurobiologists are saying the same thing from their rMRI findings and other studies, that the brain creates the “illusion” of a self, but that there is no central processing area of the brain.

    If you can not test a teaching and verify that it is true, you are simply holding a belief based on what others have told you. Top that off with the extreme conditions that tantra rituals create in order to get people to hallucinate, and you are ripe for being taken advantage of by religion. Believing in reincarnation is no different than believing in gods, heavens, or hells, ghosts, etc, all of which have no traces in the physical world in which we live. Therefore, until there is evidence, why waste time on them? Life is short.

    • Larry Reside on July 1, 2011 at 12:00 am

      Those particular verses are said by the Buddha every time he describes in the sutras his own attaining of enlightenment. They are also used every time he describes the path to be taken by someone who becomes an arhat (after attaining the 4 meditative absorptions and the 4 formless concentrations) – so they’re not just random. I have seen through study of the sutras that there are actually no real contradictions in what is being taught.

      What was said during the sutras is that if you can completely eliminate attachment to all forms of being, then you can put an end to rebirth or taking future existence.

      My problem with science is that it is based totally on the physical. They are even trying to find dark matter, because they are afraid of having to deal with empty space. Quantum physics is starting to approach adding a non-physical component into the mix, but not always. You can’t describe something non-physical in physical terms. A 16th century Chinese sage said, mind is the essence of all phenomena and phenomena is the functioning of mind. Therefore the universe is composed of all mind and all phenomena. We know of mind from our own experience, but science has yet to find an experiment that can really measure it. They find measurements for thought and nerve impulses – but they are only the physical results of mental activity.

      We base these ideas on our experience and we test them out with our experience. Our experience is physical, and thought based and emotionally based. We test the same way that science does – we hear a description of reality and then we run tests to see if it’s valid or possible. Science is very good at saying things are impossible first and then having to correct itself (the world is flat, the sun revolves around the earth, humans can’t fly, there are no black holes in the centre of galaxies and so on, and so on.) The problem is that you can slice the physical world into a million parts and still slice some more and you can look at a physical object from a million points of view – they don’t conflict really, even though they seem to. (think physical, mechanical, biological, chemical, electrical, and molecular explanations of the body)

      Science is as much a religion as religions are in that respect, especially if they forget to keep an open mind and forget to apply the scientific method to their own conclusions.

      I cannot at this moment test the validity of multiple emanations. I would need to attain the pure bodhisattva levels before that would be possible. To quote Einstein, “you can’t fix a problem with the type of thinking that led to the problem in the first place.” – so we can’t perceive these things until we are able to think differently and have a different experience of reality – it’s like explaining a car to a cave man. The closest that I can see to this is when teaching a class. You can see that how one person was affected by what you said is different from what another person experienced. In a social situation, what one person experiences from an exchange with you is different from what another person took from the experience. In the doctor’s office my wife hears one thing and I hear something different.

      There are many parts of the teaching that are not tested nowadays because there are very few people who have the level of attainment necessary to validate their existence. We need to investigate these things to test their validity which means that we need to engage in meditation to attain complete Shamata or Calm-Awareness. We need to attain complete understanding of selflessness to attain complete Insight or Vipashyana. We need to attain the 4 Jhanas or absorptions and the 4 formless concentrations and Then we need to understand the processes of dependent arising, rebirth, and liberation, Trying to prove it at the level we’re at now won’t work – It’s like me trying to fix a car – I’ll only make it worse!!!

      Anyhoo – all very interesting – as my teachers Geshe Khenrab and Zong Rinpoche used to always say “Question and question until you’ve run out of questions.” – keep questioning……

      Just thought I’d add some fuel to the fire………. I worry that people reject things because they don’t have evidence of their existence, even though they also don’t have evidence of their non-existence – I’ve never been to the Moon but some people say that they have – Are they lying?

      • stoky on March 10, 2012 at 9:52 am

        Maybe one important point: There is a difference in rejecting things and in asking for evidence. I don’t reject any claim about what happens after deaths. I’m just agnostic about it. I don’t know and that’s fine.
        Sometimes these two things “We don’t believe in rebirth” and “We belief there is no rebirth” get mixed up, but there’s an important difference. Most secular Buddhist stick to the more agnostic “We don’t believe”.

        Also (I can’t remember the precise sutta) it is said somewhere that we shouldn’t care so much about our rebirth. That thinking about “my rebirth” will increase the feeling of “self” and thus lead to clinging.

        I can see how mindfulness for the death leads to less clinging because we realize that our live will end sometime. I can’t see how the believe “I will get reborn” leads to less clinging. If you know, I’ll be pleased for an explanation!

  14. Dana Nourie on March 10, 2012 at 11:43 am

    Hey Stoky,

    Argh, sorry you got there error. I’ve been chasing down ways to get rid of those, and apparently it’s still going on.

    Anyway, to your points .. . Ted and I have been chatting about agnosticism lately. While I get your point that there are some things we can’t know, and we don’t want to deep dive into rejection, there are some things we can set aside because evidence is against it.

    For instance, do you feel you need to be agnostic about the tooth fairy, magical dragons, fairies in the forest, etc? Do we really need to say we are agnostic about things we are confident are not possible? And sometimes there is evidence that something is extremely unlikely.

    Because of how visible it is to me now on the many ways the feeling of self arises on thoughts, feelings, reactions, and because I can see how there is a conventional view of self, and because I’ve seen no evidence whatsoever for a soul, I have zero reasons for belief in anything of me existing beyond my death. So while I can’t say with certainty that rebirth is impossible, I have a lot of good reasons to think it is impossible and that it doesn’t make sense for there to be anything permanent that continues on.

    So having fully investigated it and seeing evidence that piles up against the idea of rebirth, I’ve set it aside. It’s a big claim and therefore would require big evidence to convince me otherwise.

    That said, it doesn’t matter one way or the other to my practice. My practice focuses on this life, what arises in my human experience now, and how I act in this life. This life is what I have to work with.

    So, the point is not to get people to reject the idea of rebirth outright, but to focus on what we do know . . . that there is life before death.

    You make good points in the second to last paragraph. If one is finding they are continually returning to the idea of rebirth, clinging to a belief in rebirth, then there are likely attachments to the idea of a self, and even more, clinging to the idea of existing forever. Everything in our present life is impermanent. Everything. So, why would there be an exception for us to continue on after death? That rolls right back to a clinging of ego, of specialness:-)

    I’ll delete that extra post. No problem and sorry to hear you got that error!

  15. NaturalEntrust on August 15, 2012 at 4:41 am

    I always struggle with concepts and what word
    to use and what it all means when I say them.

    To be mindful in the ordinary meaning seems
    to exactly same as mindfulness.

    mindful in the ordinary meaning does not
    require that one are non-judgmental or
    that one drop clinging or let go and
    does not need that one go back to
    listening to your breath or something.

    Huge difference. Buddhist Mindfulness
    is not to be mindful in the everyday sense.

    That we don’t have a static driver is most likely true.

    But the driver we do have is fairly constant in
    that people recognize that one still are the
    arrogant prick they remember from childhood.
    One have the same talents or lack of talents.

    Sure some people do have talent for to change
    their personality. Actors on Stage and in Movies
    needs to be able to at least try to be another
    personality. A usually shy and low self esteem
    person playing an outgoing self assured and
    doing it in a way that feels real to the viewers.

    Then after the show when they get interviewed
    they may be the shy person again and having
    a hard time to be outgoing and self assure
    as the audience maybe expect of them.

    Some refuse to get interviewed because they fail
    to be other than very shy and stammering.

    So even if there is not static self there is a self
    that only slowly change.

    And take all these people that suddenly change
    personality and fail to get back to their old one?

    Their close family and friends don’t recognize them
    anymore. Their loved ones have lost their beloved

    I don’t trust that The Buddha talked about self
    in that drastic way. if we would change personality
    several times a day then very few would trust us
    from day to day. Reliable one day and the next
    not caring to go to work or to pay bills.

    There is something very odd about how Buddhists talk.

    Take the word clinging or craving or desire or similar
    words that Buddhists are so keen to point out is
    very bad behavior.

    Why then cling to that the Buddha needs to be right?
    Why cling to Buddha at all. Why cling to the word Buddhism?

    What is wrong with just being a human? Why do we need
    to cling to Buddha at all? Edison made the Lamp and many
    other things. We don’t cling to him each time we switch it on 🙂

    Darwin came up with Evolution. Sure there exists Darwinists
    that visit a Museum in London to show reverence to him but …

    I mean compare with Buddhists. Not that many Darwinists
    that meat regularly and read his original text and translate
    to modern English. Maybe Einstein has more eager fans
    being enthusiastic over his accomplishments.

    I guess Jesus, Kr*sna and Muhammad are the only others
    that are treated with similar clinging and craving and desire
    that Buddhists treat Buddha with? Looks a bit hysterical
    from outside. He where just a human was he not? Not a God?

    They have some kind of Suicide prevention center at
    Karolinska Institute here in Sweden. I am not expert
    on preventing suicide but as I get it having a stable self
    is rather important and not a clinging or craving or desire
    to get rid of.

    So like I often say. Buddhism use words in very particular ways.
    They mean what the Buddhists use them for to mean.

    One can not take them as they are written.

    Clinging when a Buddhist use it is something very particular.

    I know too little but I try to translate Buddhist clinging to
    being overly obsessed with oneself to be self centered
    in a un-healthy way to expect too much to live a lie or
    similar way to refer to a bad behavior. A “needy” person
    could be said to be clinging. “Needy” persons are so
    clinging that almost everybody are painfully aware of
    that they fail to rely on themselves and are a burden
    to others. That is clinging or craving.

    To have a stable sense of self if I get it at all is very important.
    Those that begin to lose their sense of who they are
    can be on a destructive journey that end up very bad.

    They had a blog entry by an author that had lost who she where.
    A very frightening experience that she barely survived.

    So all that talk about not self only work within a very
    particular context.

    It could be part of a psychological test of
    “Hard To Fake Sign of Commitment”.

    You show your loyalty to Buddhism by
    accepting to use very intricate rhetoric
    that is confusing to the ordinary person
    listening in for the first time. A kind of test
    that one endure to learn all these sophistic
    word games. Only my naive take on things.

  16. NaturalEntrust on August 15, 2012 at 4:43 am

    To be mindful in the ordinary meaning seems
    to exactly same as mindfulness.

    should be

    To be mindful in the ordinary meaning seems to not
    to be exactly the same as Buddhist word mindfulness.

  17. Gavin on August 15, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    Thank you for this article. The anatta teaching troubled me for some time because of the contradicting language in the suttas/sutras. Your conclusion, that there is not any eternal essence to be reborn, was one I came to when first encountering the Dharma, and yet there were so many examples of exactly the opposite in so many Buddhist schools.

    Now, I have found that Buddhism and science don’t necessarily have to accord with one another for me. It’s nice if one can “confirm” the other, but this is not necessary for me. At this moment, I don’t really know how photography works, or lightning, and I could certainly educate myself but this wouldn’t necessarily explain my awe when seeing a good lightning storm in the distance. In any case, science does not have to inform an opinion on rebirth for me.

    However, I found an explanation of rebirth in such boring, undramatic and logical terms that the concept was demystified for me; essentially a person dies and his/her aggregate parts transform, the body disintegrates and perhaps joins with soil, fluids seep into water etc. Something doesn’t come from nothing, forms change. (This is very poorly worded but I hope I am making myself somewhat clear). This sort of rebirth merely emphasizes the transformation of form, but it still doesn’t make room for any “eternal form” to transcend change and transformation. I will die and my body will change form. “I” will no longer be around because “I” was merely the temporary sum of aggregate parts. The matter that shaped itself into this body has been kicking around the Earth for a long time and will continue to kick around in various forms, but “I” won’t experience these transformations they way I am experiencing writing this blog reply right now. This is perhaps a very unsatisfying view of rebirth because the magic is gone.

    Again, thanks for your thoughts. I look forward to reading more articles here.

  18. Dana Nourie on May 24, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    I thought that was very well-worded, Gavin:-) And “who we are” is a collection of ideas, our own, and how others view us, but nothing solid that moves on.”

  19. Anthony on June 28, 2018 at 7:02 pm

    Like the Buddha’s, there is this quote from Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra: “Only when you have all rejected me shall I return to you”, summarized as “Neither a follower nor a leader be.”

    Is it not true that we have none of the atoms we were born with? And was it not Chuang Tzu who likened life to a river, at each moment not the river it was a moment ago?

    Similarly though, with life and death, no thing can become nothing. But no thing is separate from the whole, and the whole is infinity, openness, shunyata.

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