Thursday, February 4, 2010

Rebirth Can't Possibly Be True Based on What I know Scientifically!

We've been studying the Diamond Sutra for the past few weeks, and will continue to do so as a sangha for the next several weeks. It's a sometimes confounding teaching, filled with efforts to undercut just about every idea you have about your life and the world. Personally, I'm enjoying wrestling with it again, and plan on writing a few posts about it in the coming weeks.

One thing I'll say now, though, is that this is one of those Buddhist texts that is easily irritating to anyone who works with it too rigidly or literally. I can imagine it's probably been tossed out of consideration by more than a few people who have come across it, saying that it has nothing to do with their everyday experience. And maybe that's true, but like the easy rejections of rebirth and other aspects of Buddhism I sometimes see and hear, I question any quick tossing out of the Diamond Sutra.

It's not terribly often that I agree with The Zennist, but his post this morning resonates in a way that surprised me. Seeing the title, "Rejecting Buddhism based on Personal Knowledge," got my juices going for some reason, and I was, (laughing now), ready to reject his post before I even read it. Instead, I opened it up and found this:

It has become accepted in modern circles of Buddhism, particularly in the West, that the doctrines and teachings of the Buddha shouldn't be accepted just on the basis of belief; rather one should follow one’s own personal knowledge when deciding which doctrines are to be accepted and which ones are to be rejected.

All this sounds great. But is it? Not to mince words, and cutting to the chase, it is a flawed methodology that decides which doctrines and teachings of the Buddha should be observed and which should be rejected based on one’s personal knowledge.

Now, I'm a bit tired of his heavily negative commentary on "modern, Western Buddhists," but that's not the point of this post, so let's move on. What's important to note is that it's not about accepting teachings with blind faith - I don't think even The Zennist would say that. It's more about the way in which we place our personal experience and perceptions ahead of teachings that have functioned in the lives of millions of people for centuries. The kind of thinking that says, Based on what I know scientifically, rebirth can't possibly be true. Or all these teachings about renunciation don't apply to me because I live in the "real" world, not in a monastery.

Here's The Zennist doing what he seems to do best, writing a line that is similtaneously insulting and worthy of considering.

"In fact, the huge majority of people that populate this planet live most of their lives without accepting or rejecting things or ideas based on any degree of personal knowledge."

One the one hand, the stench of elitism is like a rotting corpse in the midday August sun here.

On the otherhand, if you shift it a little bit - say instead of the "huge majority of people," you say "nearly all of us spend a lot of our lives" it's probably fairly accurate. Think about it. How often are you running on auto pilot, accepting common views of things without examination, and letting others (government officials, spiritual leaders, parents, cultural norms) guide your life? How often are you "too busy" to examine anything that's going on? How much of your Buddhist practice is confined to your sitting, chanting, and/or sutra studies?

I think most of us think we know enough to pick and choose what to "believe in," when the reality is that we barely even know ourselves, let alone the world around us.

"Who" is it that knows, for example, that rebirth is a false teaching from a superstitous past? Who is it? And where did such an understanding come from?

My experience (snicker, snicker) is that a lot of what I think I know ends up being full of holes, like the telephone pole above. Lately, I'm putting much more faith in the questions that appear in my life than any definitive answers. And maybe The Zennist, in his own, overly confidently way is pointing us back to the questions as well. What do you think?


Kyle said...

I am even more tired of this Us vs Them negative argument. So this is what I think.
The New Semantics of Buddhism

And odd Nathan, how we both post about almost the same subject at almost the same time.

Algernon said...

There is a parallel theme going on here with the exchange between Kyle's and Barbara's blogs about conservative vs. eclectic approaches to Buddhist practice.

How thin is the line between interpreting the buddhadharma, and putting it into practice, in a way that works for one's particular situation; and picking and choosing based on our opinions?

It's an elusive distinction, but important insofar as one may help us practice in an authentic way, and the other wrecks our practice.

Unknown said...

I often get disappointed, when people point out a question like the plausibility of rebirth (or that of resurrection for the matter), in order to argue that religion and related doctrines don't make sense nowadays. It is such a plain argument!

From my understanding of the Dhamma, views themselves are an obstacle one should work to overcome. Questioning authority should be done not only outwardly, but inwardly as well, and thus not letting presumptions and beliefs to obscure our already clinging and limited senses. I think that this is an universal way to achieve understanding in just about every situation life has to offer.

I notice, when faced with a difficult situation, how a little voice in me begins to interpret aloud a teaching in various unskillful ways, like "What did I do [in my previous life] to deserve this?" It is clear that following this lead won't get me to peace. A rational person would laugh at my misery and ask me ironically "See what kind of stupid dilemmas you are banging your head with, despite following such and such wise teachings? If you ask me, you will be better off without them!" He will definitely have a point here. Sometimes I choose an ignorant way out of this. I turn the question down and try to attend to the problem.

So how to chose what to believe in? Well, first of all, are there any beliefs you absolutely must subscribe to, in order to be sure you are on the right path? Is this path about believing? I thought it was about threading.

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Wise is the man who knows at least that he is ignorant; foolish indeed is he who does not know is own ignorance. - Dhammapada something something....

The more I learn, the more I think I know. The more I practice, the more ignorant I realize I am. Hehe...

We need a continual evolution of Buddhadharma, always making it applicable to our contemporary situations - but always with a connection to the core, the old ways. As recently brought up by NellaLou in a book review, we need to melt down the Buddha and recast it - but, I commented there, we need to be careful not to recast it in our own image.

Jeanne Desy said...

I was glad to find out the picture is a telephone pole. And all those holes are where information was previously stapled. Now gone.

spldbch said...

I think it's very pompous of people to assume that all the knowledge that is to be known in the world can be proven objectively. I personally don't believe we can know all there is to know. Working from this assumption, it's much easier to accept things that don't necessarily fit with my pre-existing knowledge.