(Cross-posted to A Pagan Sojourn)
The Buddhist concept of rebirth and karma are oft-misunderstood here in the West. What are some common misconceptions?
- People hear "rebirth" and think, "A soul that is me is reincarnated."
- People think they can be reborn as a slug based on violating moral principles in this life.
- People consider rebirth like a ladder—you learn a lesson in one life and move up a rung, or you don’t learn a lesson and you stay put or regress.
- Within this framework, there may be an overarching godforce with which you are trying to become one, or that is of greater absolute status than you.
During the Buddha’s lifetime, in the 4th century BCE, Indians predominantly practiced Hinduism. In Hindu thought, an atman, a soul, animates each person. The atman is an unchanging, permanent kernel of Brahman, the "concept of the unchanging, infinite, immanent and transcendent reality that is the Divine Ground of all being in this universe." (wikipedia) Hence, Hindu practice centers around uniting one’s essence with all that is.
The Buddha refuted this principle by asserting the emptiness of all things. While that is a topic for another essay (or thousands of essays!), in short it does not mean that things don’t exist or that all things are illusions. Emptiness describes the condition that nothing exists as a permanent, unchanging, independent entity. The Buddha observed that all things are inter-dependent, i.e. we are not animated by unchanging, permanent "essence of Brahman," but rather are comprised of aggregates, all of which are also inter-dependent. Basically, nothing can exist in the world independent of other things. Everything in the world arises dependent on one or more other already-existing things.
Based on the principle of emptiness, there is no soul to reincarnate. But then what is reborn? I discuss it in detail in section 2.2.8 of my essay here. In essence, Buddhism views consciousness as a digital continuum. Each instant of consciousness is based on the previous instant of consciousness and one’s current mental state. For example, let’s say your sister tells you she’s getting married. Pretend you like the guy. :) That input, and her enthusiasm, will make your next instant of consciousness a joyful one. As you continue to talk to her about it, joy continues as a constant input from your interaction. This, combined with your previous instant of "joy consciousness," results in continued joy consciousness. Eventually, you two change the topic. The joy will then slowly dissipate as the previous instant of joy consciousness combines with a new input. Then that “reduced-joy consciousness” combines with whatever input your current mental state provides to form the next instant of consciousness.
In that same way, the final instant of consciousness of your life will act as one of the causes for another instant to be generated—in a new life! There is no soul to be transferred between bodies. There is simply cause-effect: one instant of consciousness acts as one cause of the subsequent instant, potentially modified by one’s current state.
Stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow!