The Problem With Buddhism – Reincarnation

Before I move onto rebirth I would like to point out another peculiar feature of Buddhism. The ultimate goal, according to Buddha is the elimination of the samsaric cycle of suffering by attaining Nirvana – a state of “enlightenment”. Nirvana has been defined in a very peculiar manner. The Buddha does not go into detail regarding the qualities that the state of Nirvana possess. Nirvana is essentially defined as “the absence of suffering”. This “negative definition” sheds no light about this supposed state of enlightenment. I find this peculiar as well as interesting. Peculiar because all the other major religions have some sort of end goal that has been laid out in great detail while in Buddhism it is sketchy and vague. In the case of Catholicism it is the escape from certain torment in hell and purgatory into the everlasting life offered in heaven. Evangelicals and Christians also hold this ultimate goal to be true and their actions on earth are motivated and shaped by this goal. The same goes for all the other monotheistic religions like Islam and Judaism. Having an elaborately defined and clear end goal is a great way to retain followers and bring in new converts to the religion. The goal is tangible and it sure feels real when the preacher or priest reads a passage from the holy texts regarding the wonders of paradise, sitting next to Jesus, milk and honey etc.

Buddhism does not place a lot of emphasis on this end goal by way of descriptions and such but rather hammers into the mind of the adherent that her life is nothing but suffering and that desire is the root of this suffering. To be born again is to desire and desire leads to suffering. I hope to rigorously criticize this word view in the upcoming posts, but for now let us turn our attention to the three metaphysical and supernatural elements in Buddhism, namely rebirth, karma and the idea of samsara.

As I pointed out, if we are to take Buddhism seriously we must also take rebirth and karma seriously. You cannot deny these elements and then claim to be a Buddhist. It would make no sense to emancipate oneself (nirvana) from a process (samsara and rebirth) that one does not believe in or take seriously. If an individual claims that she does not take rebirth seriously but believes in the teachings of Buddha then she is ipso facto a non believer and a non-Buddhist (?). Faith – and it is faith since there exists no proof – in rebirth, karma and samsara is the necessary and sufficient condition for the acceptance of Buddhist teachings. The ideas cannot exist independently of each other. You cannot prescribe to the parts and neglect the whole.

The underlying driving force of reincarnation is karma. In simple terms bad karma will ensure that you are born as a “lower life form” and good karma can elevate your status. There are many arguments against reincarnation and scientists have conducted a number experiments examined claims and written extensively on this matter. My problem with reincarnation and thus with Buddhism has to do with the tacit assumption that there exists a duality between what Buddhists call “the mind” and the “brain” (body). If we are to take reincarnation seriously we must also accept that there exists an entity called the “mind” (consciousness, soul etc) which can exist independently of the physical mechanisms of the brain and the body. Some essence of this soul or “mind” is what gets transfered into the next body during rebirth. This assumption that mind body duality exists is extremely troubling. Current experiments in neuroscience and various interdisciplinary fields suggest that the mind is some kind of emergent phenomenon. The current evidence is strongly in favor of a materialist interpretation. The consciousness we perceive is a result of the physical changes taking place in our bodies (the nervous system is an extended network) and in our brains. For example neurological disorders and mental illness such as depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety attacks can traced back to problems in brain chemistry (low Seratonin levels etc), the chemicals can be substituted by synthetic medication with remarkably effective results.

The behavior of the mind is subject to physical constraints. This should not be a surprising conclusion. Why cannot the mind be constrained by and be subjected to the same laws of physics, biology and chemistry that the rest of the physical “stuff” is subjected to? If the mind is subjected to the physical constraints of the body and the brain how can it have an independent existence? If it cannot exist independently of the body how is reincarnation possible?

The answer is that it is not.

On an unrelated note the Huffpost has an article on how the concept of karma can be damaging  to the post conflict situation in Sri Lanka. Yet to read the article. Will post my thoughts on it next time.

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19 Responses to The Problem With Buddhism – Reincarnation

  1. R says:

    “My problem with reincarnation and thus with Buddhism has to do with the tacit assumption that there exists a duality between what Buddhists call “the mind” and the “brain” (body).”

    Unfortunately you have got it wrong. This is a misunderstanding by most ppl including most Buddhist. According to the little Buddhism I know Mind / Soul / Self is simply an illusion created by once experiences. I figured that you would be heading this way. That is why I posted a comment to your previous post asking to read up on ‘Anatma’.

    Now don’t ask me if there is no permanent self/mind/soul what goes from body to body. My guess is as good as yours 🙂

    • PravNJ says:

      Well yes Buddhism doesn’t explicitly say that the soul exists etc. In fact it denies it completely and deals with the question of “self” through this doctrine of anatma. But for reincarnation to work there must be some quality that remains invariant when one moves from one life to the other. I have not seen this element discussed in conjunction with (and this is important) the doctrine on the self and the mind (anatma). In the absence of such a mechanism I was forced to call it a “soul” but this word can easily be replaced with “that which remains invariant when one moves from one body to another”.

      Anatma is an interesting explanation of the self and the mind but how does one reconcile this “illusion of self” with what “transmits” across life cycles. Frankly I think that the doctrine of antama contradicts the whole notion of rebirth. But this is all speculation. Facts speak otherwise, reincarnation is not falsifiable and it cannot be demonstrated.

      In some sense it is unfortunate that Buddha had to cling to these supernatural ideas of the Hindus and the Vedic tradition 🙂 but I guess he was forced to do so given the state of mind of the people at the time. When it comes down to it Anatma itself is a Hindu and Vedic concept (see Alan Watts for example)

      • R says:

        “In some sense it is unfortunate that Buddha had to cling to these supernatural ideas of the Hindus and the Vedic tradition but I guess he was forced to do so given the state of mind of the people at the time”

        Also you have to keep in mind that Buddha had to use existing words to explain his teaching. If you take a word out of Buddhism and try to discuss it completely based on its literal or hindusm meaning without considering the descriptions and definitions given to it in Buddhism. I don’t think that we are achieving anything.

        Also according to Buddhism there is nothing that is invariant. Nothing is permanent. Everything is changing and has an end. So what ever that make the link between lives in Buddhism cannot be an permanent / invariant entity. This is one of the reasons concept of soul is rejected in Buddhism. But many of us still use the same word anyway.

        Also I remember reading in a book that concept of rebirth is simply a result of mixing up Buddhism with Hinduism. There were plenty of opportunity for that to happen given the time between Buddha and documentation of his teachings. If that is the case. We have lost a major component in Buddhist teaching and replaced it with Hinduism :).

      • rationality says:

        This article shows ignorance on your part. (no offence) The core of buddhism is Anicca, Dukka, and Anathma (impermanence, suffering, selflessness – not sure these are the best english words). These 3 are evident in our everyday life. Every hour, every minute, every second, every moment. If one needs to attain enlightenment one should contemplate (ie: meditate) on this track. And you too can try it 🙂

  2. අමා says:

    Hmm. Does the mind HAVE to be subject to the physical laws? what if the current laws of physics are incomplete? Just like Newton could not have explained quantum mechanics from his classical laws?

    ‘If it cannot exist independently of the body how is reincarnation possible?’
    maybe that’s why the ‘mind’ or what is referred to as the Vinnana attaches it self to a new body when the old body dies?

    @R think you have something there…

    Maybe the answer lies in this line from Matrix:
    ‘there is no spoon’

    😀
    Just a few thoughts…

    • PravNJ says:

      It doesnt have to but it is. Chemicals have an effect on our behaviour 🙂

      • අමා says:

        True, but chemicals are not the only things that affect our mind. Just because they have an effect, does not mean they define the mind 🙂
        If we are being scientific, as long as something is not proven, we cannot use the term ‘IS’ to describe it, and as far as I know there is no sufficient proof to say that the mind is purely a result of chemical reactions. If that was the case, artificial intelligent would have been a reality.

  3. PravNJ says:

    @R but surely you must it agree that Buddhism presupposes the existence of some invariant quality? if not how does karma accumulate and deplete with respect to an entity? it must be tallied against “something” right? if what you say is correct and I have reason to believe so then once again we have a contradiction. If nothing is invariant then what of the karmic law and samsara? may we not emancipate ourselves when samsara itself ends?

    As you can see the waters are muddy already. All of these inconsistencies can be thrown out of the door once we accept that Buddhism is nothing a but a set of philosophical musings peppered with Vedic mysticism.

    • අමා says:

      @PravNJ
      I believe there is a misunderstanding in what is meant by
      ‘there is nothing that is invariant. Nothing is permanent.’ and your statement ‘If nothing is invariant then what of the karmic law and samsara? may we not emancipate ourselves when samsara itself ends?’

      As his last words, Buddha said “handa’dāni bhikkhave āmantayāmi vo, vayadhammā saṅkhārā appamādena sampādethā ti.”
      >>”Impermanent are all created things;
      Strive on with awareness”

      ‘Sankara’ does not cover principles or laws as I understand. ‘Sankara’ is translated as “all conditioned things”. Which would mean Rupa (body), Vedana (sense contacts and sensations), (sanna) Perceptions, Samskara (mental actions) and Vinnana (Consciousness).

      • PravNJ says:

        Haha ok. But this is a simple question I’m posing. “What” is karma tallied against? what feature? is it the self? according to anatma that would seem wierd. Is it the soul? think not. The mind? again NO

        Can someone explain to me the “mechanism” of rebirth and karma. I shall pose this to the next notable monk I meet as well 🙂

    • අමා says:

      Yeah you definitely should pose these to a priest. Although it should be someone would welcome the questioning (!)
      If I knew all the answers, I’d be enlightened! (which I clearly am not ) So my answers are purely based on little knowledge gathered in an ad hoc manner.

      Anyway I suppose it is the Vinnana (Consciousness).
      what do you refer to as the ‘self’? and there is no concept of ‘soul’ in Buddhism. Mind is not the same as Consciousness.

      Now are you going to ask if Consciousness is impermanent, how can it accumulate karma though different lives? 😀
      Consciousness has been described as a flame that sparks another flame. The second flame is not the same as the first one, yet it is not an entirely different one.

      Using the same analogy, as one life ends, its accumulated karma gives rise to the next life.

      • PravNJ says:

        I use the words interchangeably and this is (probably) not a huge issue. The flame analogy is interesting though. Certainly poetic

      • The way of the Dodo says:

        Meh! i think people have made a terrible error over the years in believing that such a thing called consciousness exists

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  5. Aaron says:

    Its funny how you say that Buddhism only states that enlightenment is the end of suffering and that the description is vague with no clear goals, and then you state that all monotheistic religions do have clear end goals that are well laid out and say the exact same thing – the end of suffering for blissful existence. There is a logical fallacy in that. “a ≠ a” cannot exist.

  6. kurthewett says:

    First of all I would suggest that you rephrase the title to “The problems I have with buddhism”

    Now I hope you’ll agree with me on the fact that each person perceives the world in their own way, trying to fit or model things that they dont (or partially) understand after things that they completely understand. In this post you show that you are trying to fit a partially understood notion of rebirth (or reincarnation or what ever you call it) to a well known and understood concepts of science.

    As a person who knows a little buddhism (not a buddhist*) I see that you have your mind set on the fact that “Some essence of this soul or ‘mind’ gets transfered to another body” I would like to know why you would think so? and does that matter?
    In my model (made according to the little buddhism I know) when I die I will never be reborn, but someone else will. That someone (or thing) is a result of my karma. (its the famous – its not you but it’s not not you either – phrase) but according to one of the main principles of “maithree” to all beings I would want that beings life to be good or better (what you would refer to as an elevated state). I definitely dont want that being (or any being for that matter) to be a “lower life form” and suffer. Thats why should have good karma : to make sure that being I resulted in, is a “higher life form”
    I believe that the basic teaching of “maithree to all beings” has a much more greater meaning. imho it means to see your self in everyone else (even that being that you will cause to be born) therefore I want that life to be good.
    I believe that lord buddha or any other person who reached enlightenment (or even true buddhists) have so much maithree in them towards all living things that they saw themselves in others and thats why they would say that when you die you will be reborn but really its not you, not a part of you, nor the essence of your soul or mind. but you are responsible for what happens to that next being.
    if you are with me so far, If the karama (I have, to cause the birth of another being) is all thats left when I die, isn that just what “I” or “me” is?
    This modle has served me well so far. Help me improve it or discard it.

    (*according to my definition of a buddhist)

  7. Ravana says:

    The relationship between mind and brain is like the relationship between superman and Clark Kent. The relationship between mind and brain is like the relationship between Mr bean and Rowan Atkinson. The relationship between mind and brain is like the relationship between One shot and Ranjan. Mind is not something “other than” the brain. Mind IS the brain. In other words, mind is a manifestation of the brain-that is-the brain is the thing that appears as mind. Other than the brain, there is no non-physical entity called mind.

  8. hanciong says:

    if you question why nirvana definition is so vague, then let me ask you: can a blind person knows what color “green” looks like? Buddha’s explanation is vague because we haven’t reached nirvana. when we have, we will understand without explanation. also, there is a danger that overexplaining color green to a blind person can result in misunderstanding. if you say that color green is “cool”, then the blind person will think that ice is green. and so on. and if he meets other blind person with different understanding of green, they can fight each other to prove which one is correct…………………………….

    …………..because all the other major religions have some sort of end goal that has been laid out in great detail………

    if you say their end goal has been laid out in great detail, then let me ask you: what will they do spending eternity? do they need to work? eat? how about all animals who have died in the past? are they there too? does it have castles? cities? money? pizza? angels? what is the colour of the sky there? and so on 😀

    Having an elaborately defined and clear end goal is a great way to retain followers and bring in new converts to the religion.

    Buddha doesn’t care how many converts he can bring. He just explained the way he found to end suffering. if other prople listen, good. if not, they can leave in peace.

  9. hanciong says:

    sorry, the first paragraph of my previous reply looks strange. here is the corret version:

    There are many arguments against reincarnation and scientists have conducted a number experiments examined claims and written extensively on this matter.

    may you give links to these claims? also, remember that there are many stories about people who remember their past. people who can recognize a place although he never goes there. there are also “evidences” from past regression in hypnotherapy. past regression is the method used to find when is a mental problem (phobia for example), first happened to the patient. in trance state, the patient is asked to go back 5 years, 10 years, and so on, until the moment when the phobia first appear. and in several cases, this is more than the age of the patient. for example, the patient is 30 years old, but he claims that the phobia happens 50 years ago. things like that.

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