Buddhism and Rebirth: Karma Crushes Dogma in 3-Body Pile-Up

IMG_0542Dear Readers: If you happen to follow my other (travel) blog, backpackers-flashpackers.net/, then be forewarned that I’ll repeat some of the same material as in my last post there, so I’ll understand if you have other fish to fry. It’s not that I’m lazy, but rather that the issue that presented itself last week I believe is worth repeating, since it affects my future and the future of this blog…

As you know, if you follow me here, I’ve been moving steadily toward a life of Buddhism over the past year or two, to the point of spending sessions in actual temples, in study of the Dharma, but also to prepare myself for eventually following the monk-hood myself, on a sporadic, if not permanent basis, something you can do in Thailand, whose Forest Tradition is extremely attractive to me…

But there are many other Buddhist traditions, also, and I want to discover as much of the others as I can, before making any final decision. So I spent a week at Kopan Monasery in Kathmandu, Nepal, which is a monastery and teaching center in the Tibetan tradition, and everything was fine until we got to the issue of reincarnation, which totally blew me away, and not positively…

Here’s how I described it in my other blog (excuse my smart-ass ‘tude, which is de rigueur there):“…when we finally do get down to dogma and karma, it turns out that if you have a young daughter who is raped, then it’s not the fault of the rapist, but it just so happens that she did something bad in a past life, and so is being punished in this one for it…

Moreover, this has even been proven by the testimony of clairvoyants, who can see that she in fact was in fact once a pirate who raped a young girl. Ouch! Double ouch!! This holds equally true for the Holocaust, which was, in one sense, and I quote: ‘no big deal. Millions of cockroaches are slaughtered all the time.’ Pause for a moment of silence…

Well, I considered leaving the class upon that pesky little revelation, and at least two girls actually did, broadly and vocally, but I decided to stay for the meditation practice and out of respect for other people’s bullsh*t (and pre-paid R & B). Still the verdict won’t go away: this is wrong on so many levels. Without free will there can be no morality…

The other instructor pedaled it back a notch, suggesting there was no one-to-one correspondence with Karma, but that it can indeed take a couple a couple of lifetimes to manifest itself. How convenient! The first instructor even suggested that we should thank someone who does us wrong for giving us the opportunity to prove ourselves as worthy practitioners of the dharma. Okay, but shouldn’t the wrong-doer be given the same opportunity? A small talk might be sufficient…

But still the damage is done. Theravada Buddhism is not like that, as far as I know, and which I intend to verify immediately upon return to Thailand. The Dalai lama himself said that when Buddhism is at odds with Science, then Buddhism must change. Since when does Science support the notion of past lives, much less omnipotent karma? Can someone clarify this for me?”

So I finally called my wife back in Thailand to see if she believes in past lives, and she replied something like: “Well, of course I believe in past lives. What, are you crazy?” But past lives aren’t really the problem, anyway—and my wife’s doctrines are not official. The problem is karma, specifically whether it applies to this life or the next (ones), and whether there is some direct or merely general correspondence between the occurrences…

Well, it seems that this has been a heavily debated subject over the years, not just in Buddhism, but also in Jainism, Sikhism and Hinduism, where it is famously infamous. For not only does it pose some issues for free will and determinism, but can also be used to underwrite a reprehensible caste system, the word for which is cognate with the word for such life cycles, I believe (an earlier term means, literally, color—yes, that color)…

Some sects have abandoned the two concepts entirely, while others make deals with devils, retrofitting logic to justify. A few key points are worth mentioning: Buddhism has a ‘no soul/no self’ doctrine which is explicit, so whatever ‘rebirth’ might occur is without that permanent fixture, or ’empty’ as we say. Another point is that Vajrayana/Tantric Buddhism of the Tibetan sort is definitely more derivative of the Hindu traditions than others, as witnessed by the many mixed temples here in Nepal…

So my current feeling is that I have enough wiggle room to continue with my Buddhist inclinations, albeit not likely in the Tibetan tradition, without compromising principles, which I refuse to do. And I also refuse to give up my free will, even if it is largely illusory and certainly limited. It is necessary for morality—and religion. Otherwise, we are here only to recite the liturgy by rote…

I will explore the issue further, though, with respect to Zen, also, where it’s very hit-or-miss. But for now, my sympathies continue to lie with the Thai forest tradition, and that’s likely where I will involve myself further. Thanks for letting me think out loud, and feel free to offer opinions…

Advertisements