25 September, 2020

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Can population growth be reconciled with Buddhist reincarnation?

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Applying a ‘one-out-one-in’ view of reincarnation like it’s a metaphysical maths problem isn’t in the spirit of Buddhism. There are now 7 billion people on earth, a billion more than 12 years ago, and 6 billion more than two centuries ago. How does this fact fit with the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation?

The Buddha taught that all things are impermanent, in a state of continuous change and flux – and this includes us./Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images AsiaPac

The idea of reincarnation is commonly thought of as “one-out-one-in”– you die and then you get reborn somewhere else. That’s not at all how it’s perceived in Buddhism: one of the hallmarks of the Buddhist teaching is arefutation that there’s any permanent self or soul that could endure from lifetime to lifetime. This is such a different view to the one above that most Buddhists prefer not to use the word reincarnation at all, opting instead for something like “rebirth” or “rebecoming”.

The Buddha taught that all things are impermanent, in a state of continuous change and flux – and this includes us. We’re constantly mutating as we grow, develop, age and decay, and what we tend to think of as “myself” is actually an ever-changing heap of body parts, thoughts and feelings, influenced by a vast range of past and present causes and conditions (family and cultural history, environment, schooling, biology and so on). Ask yourself: are you the same person you were when you were five years old? The same person as five years ago? Five minutes ago? If not, then aren’t we being born and dying in every moment?

The Buddhist doctrine of rebirth (and this is where we’ll probably part company with a lot of people) proposes that this extends beyond our current lifespan on this planet – consciousness is seen as unbound by bodily form, and so will re-emerge in other aggregations, even in other worlds. In this scenario, there would be no reason why the number of people on earth has to remain constant, and several explanations for population growth arise: 1. Life previously expressed in other forms (animals, or insects, say) might now be taking human birth. 2. There could be an influx of energy from other planets, realms, universes – a kind of cosmic migration. Or 3. “Human” consciousness could manifest as a greater number of people than it did before. It’s a bit like waves in the sea – different numbers and types of wave arise and dissolve depending on the weather conditions and the flow of water.

However, trying to hammer this out like some metaphysical maths problem isn’t really in the spirit of Buddhism. Belief in rebirth (or any other doctrine, for that matter) is considered much less important than insights that come from carefully investigating the nature of phenomena as they are, here and now. Not knowing, not latching on to a solid belief, might be more helpful in making this an investigation without prejudice. The Buddha also generally discouraged speculation on questions such as whether there’s life after death, comparing this with someone who’d refuse to have a poisoned arrow removed from their body until they knew who shot it, what kind of bow they used and what the feathers of the arrow-shaft were made of. “The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him,” he said. A fair point, no?

Instead, a focus of Buddhist practice is on deep, embodied realisation of the insubstantiality of incarnation in this moment, from the view that it’s grasping to a nonexistent fixed self that heightens our stress and suffering, and stops us connecting compassionately with others. All the rest is fiddling while Rome burns …

Courtesy The Guardian

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    Ed Halliwell has interpreted the Buddhist concept of rebirth with remarkable clarity,

    Many people confuse rebirth in Buddhism with reincarnation in Hinduism.

    Buddhism denies the existence of a permanent soul (atta), which goes through several cycles of re-incarnation until one attains moksha when his/her soul merges into the supreme soul called the Brahman. Re-incarnation is like the transfer of an individual’s soul from this existence to the next. No change.

    Buddhism asserts that anatta (no self) is the truth of existence because everything is anicca (impermanent). An atta does not exist. Each sentient being is the composite of its namarupa (name and form) and vinnana (consciousness), which invariably are in a state of flux. Thus, each being undergoes change from moment to moment. Thus, no being has a self/soul. These changes are broadly called bhava (becoming).

    At death, a being discards its material form (rupa) but carries the elements of its consciousness (nama)–onto its rebirth. Its new environment adds new influences to its upbringing making it more or less different from what it was at death. Nama refers to the mind-related elements constituting consciousness.

    The 7 billion population on Earth has little relevance to rebirth because Buddhist cosmology refers to 31 planes of existence grouped into three categories: Kama Bhava, Rupa Bhava, and Arupa Bhava ranging from heaven to hell. The human (manussa) plane is one of the 11 in the Kama Bhava.

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      Hi Shelton, Using your terms of existence and assertion I would say , Buddha denies the existence of permanent state, but asserts the continuance of soul or consciousness. your use of the terms atta and anatta is incorrect. and misleading.
      The original explanation of Ed seems on the spot and clear.

      Wipula Fernando

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    Please refer to Thanhasankya Sutraya, Majjima Nikaya , Pali cannon.

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    It is not a secret that Buddhist philosophers are feeling rather uneasy about the increasingly difficult task of having to explain human population explosion with the “rebirth” concept. They have to resort to quite lame explanations like insects promoting themselves, or alien civilizations decreasing elsewhere in the universe etc etc.

    Although the writer of this article has gone down that path briefly, he has come back with a very sane explanation in the end. If we take currently prevailing Buddhist philosophy is a teaching of Lord Buddha, then lord Buddha himself has addressed this issue in the Malunkya Putta Wattu. As the writer points out (although he has not mentioned Malunkya Putta) the aim of Buddhism is to alleviate human suffering. The philosophical model of Buddhism is created for the purpose of achieving this goal. All of the concepts within the model should be taken as relative truths (Sammuthi Sathya) and not absolute truths. Therefore it is not within the interests of Buddhism having to explain facts proposed by other knowledge systems such as the population growth on the planets etc etc. One can safely argue that fact that human population is ‘growing’ in not an observation one can make unless you subscribe to the facts presented by a totally different knowledge system, viz. “modern science”.

    Lord Buddha has shown the way out of these metaphysical arguments (in the conversation with Malunkya Putta). Buddhists better take the advice of Lord Buddha and stay away from such metaphysical debates. If Buddhists consider all concepts within Buddhist philosophy as literal and absolute truths, AND if they also consider scientific models of the universe also as absolutes truths, then in my not-so-humble opinion, it is difficult to prevent them shooting themselves in foot, trying to reconcile the two models

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    Thank you, Saman, for drawing my attention to Mahatanhasanya Sutta. I listened to an audiotape discourse by Bhikku Bodhi, an American Theravada monk on this sutta–an explanation of consciousness (vinnana).

    In this sutta, the Buddha upbraids bhikku Sati for holding the incorrect view that one’s “consciousness transmigrates through existences.” Buddha explains the causal process of how each of the 12 nidanas, including consciousness, arise dependently and never by itself, This is the doctrine of paticca samuppada:

    “When this arises, this arise Such as, because of ignorance arise determinations. Because of determinations arise consciousness. Because of consciousness arise name and matter. Because of name and matter arise the six mental spheres. Because of the six mental spheres arise contact. Because of contact arise feelings. Because of feelings arise craving. Because of craving arise holding. Because of holding arise being. Because of being arise birth. Because of birth arise decay, death, grief, lament, unpleasantness, displeasure and distress. Thus arise the complete mass of unpleasantness. With the complete cessation of ignorance, cease determinations. With the complete cessation of determinations, cease consciousness. With the cessation of consciousness, ceases name and matter. With the cessation of name and matter, ceases the six mental spheres. With the cessation of the six mental spheres, ceases contact. With the cessation of contact, ceases feelings With the cessation of feelings, cease craving. With the cessation of craving ceases holding. With the cessation of holding, ceases being. With the cessation of being, ceases birth. With the cessation of birth cease decay, death, grief, lament, unpleasantness, displeasure and distress. Thus is the complete cessation of unpleasantness.”

    Consciousness itself is a very complex nidana. My understanding is that it is the mind-related stream of consciousness that passes from death to rebirth. This is why Buddhists do not believe in a soul or self.

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    Its like Darwin’s crazy doctrine, the idiot and his cohorts never realised the mathematics in ‘if a monkey evolves to be a donkey, there is no monkey’. Praise be to his arch for Wilbeforce who formidably defended against his idiotic ideas.

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