This week, in her Tricycle Retreat “Buddhist History for Buddhist Practitioners,” Professor Rita Gross explores the ideas that were prevalent in the culture at the time when the Buddha was teaching. What ideas did he discard or leave behind, and which did he actively argue for?
One point of contention that comes up often in this context is rebirth. Buddhist academics tend to argue for the position that rebirth was widely accepted and that the Buddha was one among many who adopted it. Others argue that the Buddha went out of his way to provide arguments for rebirth. A retreatant asked Professor Gross the following:
Hello, I find it interesting that the idea of reincarnation was adopted by the Buddha. I wonder if there is any discussion of what caused him to accept this idea? On the other hand, he rejected certain ideas such as the power of ritual alone to secure spiritual benefits and the caste system. Is there discussion of why they were rejected by him? I think this is an excellent retreat so far and thank you.
First of all, for a subtle point, usually Buddhists prefer “rebirth” to “reincarnation.” “Reincarnation implies a stable soul or self that moves from one body to another, but Buddhist teachings about egoless make that view untenable, whereas “rebirth” only implies that the karmic continuum is not severed by the death of the physical body. Rebirth is one of the beliefs that is taken for granted in much Asian Buddhism, especially Indian and Tibetan Buddhisms, though less so in East Asian Buddhism. But many Western Buddhists find it very difficult to accept teachings on rebirth. i think that the caste system and reliance on ritual to save us make no sense at all, whereas rebirth is one common alternative to the view that death ends everything.
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Photo: Sam Mowe
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