Discover more from Christopher Titmuss - The Buddha Wallah
ON LIFE AND DEATH. Part Four. Rebirth. After Death views. Future Lives. Awakening.
The Place of Rebirth in After Death Views
What Continues after Death?
The View of Future Lives
The Place of Rebirth in After Death Views
There are five primary views to determine what happens to us after we die. There is no evidence to confirm anyone of these five views. One survey shows that around one in four people have taken up a Buddhist or Hindu view of belief in future lives.
There is nothing after death. There is one life. Death is extinction. There are no past lives and no future lives. This is a common scientific materialist belief and belief of secular Buddhists.
There is rebirth. There is rebirth of karma according to our actions, wholesome and unwholesome. This is a common Buddhist belief.
There is reincarnation. Everybody has a soul, an essence, which leaves the body at the time of death and reincarnates. The soul is indestructible. This is primarily a Hindu belief.
There is Heaven and Hell. According to faith and religious beliefs, we go to Heaven or Hell for all eternity. This is a common belief in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Roman Catholics also believe in purgatory – between heaven and hell.
There are disembodied spirits, ghosts or angels of people who died. They can appear to the living. This is a common belief in religion, spirituality and secular culture.
You probably think that the Buddha believed in past lives and rebirth. If you read in the English translations of the 10,000 discourses of the Buddha, you will see a number of references to “past lives” and “rebirth.”
In 1100 pages and 152 discourses of the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, there are 12 references to “knowledge of the recollection of past lives.”
There is one problem with the above translation. The Buddha never used the term “past lives.” This is a free translation of the Pali term pubbe- nivas anussati which actually means “to remember (to turn mindfulness to the past) one’s former dwelling place” or “to remember one’s place of entering on or settling on.” Sati in anussati is the Pali word for mindfulness.
We can consider ‘past lives’ as a metaphor for the influences of the past, recent and far, far into the past, which give shape to the formations of this life. Past lives are the atomisation, notion of individuality, the selfie existence. Past lives are a poor metaphor out of touch with karma and becoming. The exploration of karma and becoming matter deeply in the teachings of awakening.
In a similar way, we hear scientists make reference to the ‘selfish gene.’ There is no reality whatsoever to a ‘selfish gene.’ The application of a state of mind to a gene is grossly misleading. The metaphor gives the impression that human beings are robots that genes direct. Past lives and the selfish gene are equally poor metaphors.
The Dharma does not fall into the dualistic trap of either claiming “past lives,” refuting them or upholding an agnostic position. The teachings acknowledge the countless numbers of times where the “I” and “my” landed without drawing a line in terms of one life or many.
The Buddha consistently placed the emphasis on visible and immediate experience. In a much loved verse, he stated:
Svakkhato bhagavato dhammo
“The Dhamma is well expounded by the Blessed One,
directly visible, immediate,
inviting one to come and see, applicable,
paccattam veditabbo viññuhiti
to be personally experienced by the wise.”
Religious Buddhists tend to take for granted past lives and believe rebirth comes to an end through awakening and complete liberation.
Such Buddhists will point to the various places in the texts referring to past lives and future births after this existence. There are claims among the orthodox religious in Buddhism that we can only understand the Buddha’s teachings in light of karma and rebirth. To ignore the teachings of karma and rebirth mounts to a major blind spot, they claim.
Secular Buddhists take up a polar opposite view. There are secular Buddhists who never refer to past lives or future births. They believe that we only have one life and it is merely speculative to make claims on past and future lives. Such Buddhists also rarely make any reference to karma as it is so strongly associated with past and future lives. Yet this position ignores the Buddha’s regular references to karma rolling on through evolution, through becoming.
Secularists adopt the view that that there is no evidence of influences on consciousness before conception. Yet, human life does not start with a state of purity and innocence, free from history. Parents see in their little ones latent tendencies that may have no obvious connection with themselves or inherited conditioning from the family history.
Agnostic Buddhists steer of a position about past lives, past dwellings or a single life. They hold to the view “I don’t know. Nobody really knows. I just get on with my practice.”
There is a point of view that rebirth refers to the rebirth of “I” and “my” owing to unresolved latent tendencies from a previous life. These unresolved latent tendencies explain the differences between siblings, such as twins with vastly different behavioural patterns, despite being brought up in a very similar environment and treated equally.
Those who accept rebirth assert some kind of “self” passing through birth and death repeatedly.
Those who reject rebirth believe the “self” takes birth only once.
One self, many selves or an ongoing self bear no significance to karma rolling on
There is no evidence to show a self in this life, let alone a single self in ongoing lives.
What can be pointed to as a self?
Can one self point to another self?
Dharma teachings need to employ a careful language that neither denies nor accepts rebirth, nor sits on the fence. It is important to stay true to the teaching of dependent arising rather than grasp onto views about a self that suffers extinction at death or is reborn in the future. There is rebecoming – not rebirth.
It is not easy to point the way to liberation free from the extremes of self and no-self. It is not easy to keep trust with dependent arising rather than notions of a permanent or impermanent self. The ‘self’ merely confirms a friction in the mind-body process. This friction gives the notion of “I” and “my.” There is no substance to this “I” and “my” – no matter how often we refer to ‘self,’ ‘I’ and ‘my.’ Stated simply: “I” is not “I” – it is dependently arising on a variety of causes and conditions. “Do I exist or not exist after death?” bears no relevance to a wise enquiry.
Meichee Patomwon, 72, ordained as a Buddhist nun at the aged of 12. She is the head nun of the Nakorsridhammaraj province of southern Thailand. During her teens, she had an experience in meditation that she described as a recollection of her last life. She recalled being a very young child who was on her death bed. Patomwon found the village and house where she died. She had never been to this area before. The couple confirmed that their child had died at a date shortly before the conception of Patomwon.
The story of her recollection became famous in Thailand at the time, although the nun never promoted the story. Patomwon and I practised Vipassana in the same monastery. Our teacher said in the Dharma hall once that if she disrobed she could become a model since she walked in meditation with such upright elegance. She disapproved of such comments. We were both in our mid-20’s when we met and have stayed friends since. She continues to be a much loved and respected Vipassana teacher in southern Thailand.
The combination of deep meditation, silence, fasting or minimal food intake and focussed energy can trigger depths of experience and memories that bear no relationship to anything known in this life. A human being carries in himself or herself that long history of becoming, of evolution. The long distant past and the receptive consciousness touching deep into the being can act as a catalyst for a range of experiences outside of the conventions of the construct of a so-called single life.
We would be foolish to refute the process of becoming before birth that gives shape to the expression and some experiences in the current life.
What Continues after Death?
If there is rebirth, what continues after we die? This question arises for believers in rebirth, for those who reject rebirth and for those who cannot make up their mind.
Some demand an answer to the question of whether a self exists or does not exist after death. From a Dharma perspective, the question gets in the way of understanding the process of rebecoming. The question is based upon a false premise – of a self that exists or not exist after death or whether it is the same self or a different self after death.
There is the movement of karma, of wholesome and unwholesome processes from the near and far, far past influencing the arising of formations in the present. The history of our species and our environment goes back a long, long way and continues to influence today.
Various Buddhist voices of authority and people looking into the crystal ball claim to know the ‘past lives’ of their followers or clients. They often like to say their clients lived in Egypt or lived in Palestine with Jesus or were a disciple of the Buddha or lived in a cave in Tibet. The same fortune tellers tell their believers they will be reborn at the time of the next Buddha or Messiah. People who feel good about themselves tend to be more generous.
Some Buddhists believe that that final thought of life acts as the spur to trigger an influence in conception of the next life. This view puts pressure on practitioners to die with a calm mind and clear final thought. Such pressure could rob a person of any peace of mind in the last second of their existence.
Some Buddhists will compare rebirth to one candle flame lighting another candle flame or the force under one wave in the ocean influencing another wave. It is not the same candle or wave that is reborn but it also not different. The Buddha did not use such language or metaphors. He simply referred to former dwellings and rebecoming.
“When my composed mind was purified, bright, malleable and steady, I directed it to knowledge of recollection my former dwellings. I recollected numerous former dwellings, one past dwelling, two, three, four five, ten, twenty thirty, forty, fifty dwellings, a hundred, a thousand dwellings, a hundred thousand dwellings, aeons of expansion and contraction. There I was of such a name, of such a clan, of such appearance, happiness and suffering, passing away from this place I reappeared in that place; there, I was of such a name, of such a clan, of such appearance.”
In SN 22.79, the Buddha then explained even further what he means by settling on former dwelling places. He stated that a meditator recollects many places of settling upon through the five compositions (aggregates of a human being).
“When recollecting, ‘I was one with such a form in the past,’ one is recollecting just form. Or when recollecting, ‘I was one with such a feeling in the past,’ one is recollecting just feeling. Or when recollecting, ‘I was one with such a perception in the past,’ one is recollecting just perception. Or when recollecting, ‘I was one with such mental fabrications in the past,’ one is recollecting just mental fabrications. Or when recollecting, ‘I was one with such a consciousness in the past,’ one is recollecting just consciousness.”
I remember in Bodh Gaya in January 2004 a Tibetan Mahayana student giving me the transcript of a talk on karma by a senior Tibetan lama. The lama claimed that the bad karma of fishermen caused their suffering and death in the terrible Tsunami on December 26, 2003 in south Asia resulting in 230,000 deaths in 14 countries. The lama also said the fishermen would go to the hell realms for 500 lifetimes after their death until they exhausted their negative karma.
Not founded on any evidence whatsoever, these gross beliefs belong to medieval thinking about karma. Such views show a strong parallel to the belief in God who distributes rewards and punishments for what we do. Incidentally, the lama who made these claims is not even a vegetarian.
With such views about karma, it is not surprising that karma has hardly entered seriously into Western thought except for followers of new age ideas.
The Buddha clearly affirmed volition as the basis of karma (A 111.45), thus making it clear to all practitioners that the activities convey a range of ethical values which produce a range of consequences. The Buddha urged examination of this process to understand the volitions, choices and impulses that influence behaviour in the short and long term. Cetana, the Pali word for volition, also signifies “to intend.”
Dependent on the context, cetana can also imply aim, impulse, will or choice that supports our actions. There is often a long history to these karmic influences.
We would be wise not to try constrain everything into the box of a single life or a past life. We certainly need to address the distorting influences of the past (karma) on consciousness and the ending of karma so that it does not perpetuate into the future.
The Views of Future Lives
The Buddha declined to take up an optimistic or pessimistic view of the rebirth or extinction of the self but simply referred to rebecoming (puna bhava) or again becoming. If the Buddha had referred to rebirth, he would have said puna jati. The term puna jati (literally rebirth) does not appear in the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha kept trust with his teaching on the process of rebecoming, namely what remains outstanding or unresolved from the past. Such processes keep dependently arising until there is realisation that ends the rebecoming of unresolved issues. There is no teaching of the Buddha confirming a “self” either a seperate self or a connected self.
Polls reveal that one in four people believe in some kind of future life after they die. Perhaps the thought that death brings total extinction seems too much to bear. After a hard life with all the effort to maximise income, accumulate property and consumer goods, it seems a brutal consequence to end up with absolutely nothing. Yet not a single possession, not a single € can pass through death. The belief in a future life, such as rebirth or going to heaven for eternity to be with God, make the transition from death to rebirth or from death to eternal life easier. It is seen as a reward for a good life and a life of faith and devotion.
There are those who dismiss rebirth and belief in eternal life. They believe without a shadow of doubt that the self has a single life and religious views on such matters only offer compensation to the harsh reality that life is short with a single birth, a single death, and only the void before and after. Some express relief in the view that they will never have to live again regardless of the circumstances of their life.
The language of past lives and future rebirth belongs to the Buddhist tradition bearing little relevance to the voice of the Buddha.
Has “I” and “my” landed as various identities in the past in forms/body/feelings/perceptions/mind formations and consciousness? Yes. We know that from experience.
Have we experienced unresolved issues rebecoming until they are resolved? Yes. We know that from experience.
The belief in the existence of the self passing through endless successive lives misses the significance of the Buddha’s teachings. He challenged this eternalist view.
The belief in only one life with annihilation at the end of it also misses the significance of the Buddha’s teachings. He equally challenged an annihilationist view.
I wrote a review of a book where the author stated he believed he had only one life: In the review, I said: “I cannot even see the evidence for the self having even one life, let alone numerous lifetimes. There is no evidence to show the self has anything at all, or is anything whatsoever. To believe the self has one life or many lives misses the whole point of understanding the nature of dependent arising.”
The Buddha made it clear that an eternalist view or an annihilationist view confirm the standpoints of extremists. The middle way remains essential to the entire body of his teachings.
Far too many religious and secular Buddhists have become caught up in views of existence or non-existence while far too many others sit on the fence.
Awakening refers to the emergence from grasping onto the good and the not good.
Let us put an end to seizing on selfie existence.
Let us neither hold onto life nor feel fear of death or vice-versa.
Let us see the emptiness of ‘I’ and ‘my’ – a mere friction in consciousness.
Let this awakening confirm a liberation of the non-self.
The middle way between the extremists offers a liberating way of seeing.
Meditate on this.
May all beings be free from fears of life and death
May all beings be free from any clinging
May all beings know the liberation of the middle way
end of four parts of four