The Problem With Buddhism – Reincarnation
April 20, 2011 19 Comments
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.