Jackson Hawks: On Buddhism and Rebirth
First, we must put “atman” (Sanskrit: or “atta” in Pali) in historical context. At the time of the Buddha most people in his part of the world subscribed to the idea found in the Vedic literature and espoused in the Upanishads, that “Ultimate Reality” was “Brahman.” Many thousands of pages have been written describing the indescribable, and among those pages you will find the doctrine that, not only is Brahman “Ultimate” reality, Brahman is the ONLY reality! Turning that around, everything that is (ultimately) real is Brahman. Brahman is everything. Everything is Brahman. Tat tvam asi. Brahma is. Period. (LOTS of complisizing here. Nirguna Brahman, Saguna Brahman, Avatars, Devas, ad infinitum. Much speculation, lots of possibilities, very few probabilities. And, yeah, yeah, “complisizing” isn’t in the dictionary. I made it up.)
Now, among those pages describing the indescribable are statements that Brahman is eternal, fixed, unchanging, unwavering, perfect as is, and so on. For anything to be really “real”, ultimately real, it too must be eternal, fixed, unchanging, unwavering, perfect as is, and so on. And since everything that is, is Brahman, everything that is must be eternal, fixed, unchanging, unwavering, perfect as is, and so on. But… how then do you explain all the stuff that ISN’T eternal, fixed, unchanging, unwavering, perfect as is, and so on. Well, it is delusion. And what is being deluded? Well, not really Brahman, but rather a perturbation of Brahman… a little spark of Brahman that has gotten itself mired in the muck of samskara (Skt: Pāli, samsara) - the puported endless cycle of death and rebirth dictated by the karma of conditioned beings - and has blinded itself to itself’s true nature, i.e., that it is Brahman. This tidbit of Brahman is given the name atman/atta. And it is this atman/atta that is reincarnated over and over and over because it hasn’t found it’s way out of samskara/saṁsāra.
But, the atman, according to Vedic traditions, suffers and is in need of release from samskara/samsara, and it achieves this release – moksa - in various ways according to different Vedic traditions.
The Buddha (and not a few others, I might add) came along and questioned this whole premise. He said, “Show me the atta.” Sort of the antiquities version of “put up or shut up.” Of course no one could then, and no one can now, show us an atman, so the Buddha’s teaching of anatta – no atta, i.e., no atman – has yet to be disproved.
People being people however, have taken the basic teaching of anatta, and run with it. Today, in the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna traditions you will find a doctrine of “emptiness” (sunyata) which says that nothing is real because nothing has a true, eternal, unchaining, perfect as it is “self” or essence. The Buddha never denied reality; he just said it is constantly changing. This “emptiness” business is really contorting the idea that we are constantly in a state of change and flux. But, the Mahāyāna traditions assert that this is the TRUE teaching, that it was taught in secret to only those who were ready to hear it, and they ascribe this anathema to the historical Buddha.
Okay, so there is no atta – no permanent, eternal, unchanging bit of Brahman residing in us. Since there is no atta, there is no “incarnation,” thus there is no “reincarnation.” What then is subject to “rebirth?” For some reason, most people who are Buddhist are attached to the idea of rebirth. And since the Buddha did not expound on this… some say he refused to do so… we have no guidelines on it. The Buddha must have thought it just wasn’t that important, and didn’t need any attention. But, people being people, they can’t just “let it be” (despite the urgings of Paul McCartney). They struggle to explain what it is that is reborn, and invent and develop doctrines of puggala (personhood), mind-stuff, karmic energy, and on and on. They also struggle to describe the processes, stages, events, and so forth involved in rebirth. A lot of complisizing, if you ask me. (“complisizing” v. the act of making that which is quite simple increasingly complicated, abstruse, and difficult to comprehend, so as to acquire and maintain power, prestige, and control. I can define it any way I want: I made it up.)
According to the earliest texts in Buddhist literature, the Buddha saw no merit is getting too deep in such speculation. I fully agree and say, “Take the cash, and let the credit go. Heed not the rumble of a distant drum.” (Verse XIII, The Rubaiyat, by Omar Khayyam, the Astronomer Poet of Persia, 11th & 12th centuries. Good stuff. Google both the title and the author for more information.) Do the practice, work on eliminating dukkhā, and leave the speculating to others.
Here’s the thing: Either there is rebirth, or there is not. If there is, then practicing the Dharma (Skt: Pali, Dhamma) allegedly stops the chain of causation that leads to rebirth. If there is not, then practicing the Dharma leads to the elimination of dukkhā in this life. What more do you need to know?
I received the above from Jackson Hawks before the following quote appeared on Tricycle's Daily Dharma. Both point out that Buddha repeatedly emphasized that he taught the cause of suffering and how to end it and discouraged speculative and metaphysical questions and concerns as distractions from focusing on ending suffering.