Not many things in life are free, but there are exceptions. One of them is Insight Journal, the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies publication edited by the center’s co-director Andrew Olendzki. The organization supports itself through its paid courses and the generosity of its members and friends. This issue features a piece by Stephen Batchelor on his doubts about (or nowadays, his outright rejection of) rebirth—and he finds what he feels is support in Pali Canon. Years ago we featured a debate between Stephen and Bob Thurman on the topic—Stephen played skeptic, of course, and Bob the true believer. But nowadays Stephen isn’t particularly interested in arguing the point and is more likely to reflect on how he came to his beliefs and his ever-evolving understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. Here’s an interesting excerpt from the Insight article:
I am not in any way suggesting that the Buddha rejected the idea of rebirth, or did not believe in it..there is just too much in the Canon to say the Buddha was even agnostic about this. But there is another strand of text that seems to not quite fit that very well. I think the Pali Canon actually has multiple voices within it, not a single, monolithic voice. You get contradictory perspectives introduced all the time, which is part of the very richness of that literature. In the Kālāma Sutta the Buddha says, don’t just accept what I say because I am your teacher, because the tradition says it, or because it seems to be reasonable. At the end of that text, he speaks about the four solaces, or rewards, that come from the practice of the Dhamma. One solace says, if there is indeed another life, if there is, indeed, a law of karmic cause and effect, then, after death, you will be reborn in a happy realm and benefit from the results of your present karma. The second solace says, if there is no future life, if there is no law of karma, then, too, by practicing the Dhamma you will live happy and content, here and now, in this world. That is very striking: the Buddha seems to be saying what really matters is not what may or may not follow after death, but the quality of your experience, here and now in this very life. Admittedly, this passage occurs once, whereas rebirth and karma occur everywhere. Nonetheless, it looks oddly out of place. For that very reason, it is probably original: It would have been in no orthodox tradition’s interest to have added it later. Even more to the point is “the declared and the undeclared” in the Mālunkyovāda Sutta, Majjhima 63:
Suppose, Mālunkyaputta, a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends brought a surgeon to treat him. The man would say, “I will not let the surgeon pull out this arrow until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me, until I know whether that man who wounded me was tall or short, or of medium height, …lives in such-and-such a village or town or city, whether the bow … was a long bow or a crossbow, the bow string of that bow was fiber or reed or sinew …” All this would still not be known to that man, and meanwhile he would die. So too, Mālunkyaputta, if anyone should say, “I will not lead the spiritual life under the Buddha until the Buddha declares to me the world is eternal, the world is not eternal, … the soul is the same as the body, the soul is one thing and the body another, after death, a Tathāgata exists, or after death, a Tathāgata does not exist, or both exists and does not exist, or neither exists nor does not exist.” All that would still be unknown to that person, would still remain undeclared by me, the Buddha, and meanwhile that person would die. It is very clear that the Buddha sees his teaching not as the presentation or belief in certain theological doctrines, but rather as a methodology to remove what is causing us suffering and pain. The teaching is primarily pragmatic and therapeutic. In fact, all this business about the long bow and the crossbow is a parody of the how-many-angels-can-you- fit-on-the-head-of-a-needle type theology. He is teasing those who get preoccupied with fine details of doctrine and dogma, and saying that really does not matter. What matters is the removal of the poison arrow that is killing you, which is craving, or grasping. Metaphysics is not the crucial issue; suffering is. The questions the Buddha refuses to make declarations about are rather significant—they address rebirth, although it is somewhat obscured. The third pair of questions is “Are the body and the soul the same, or are the body and the soul two different things.” The words he uses are jiva and sarira. Sarira is the word often used for relics, but it means basic matter, such as our bodies. The word for soul, jiva, is probably taken from the Jain tradition; it means the animating principle, which we could clearly understand as the mind, spirit, or soul. He is saying don’t bother about whether these two are the same or different. If you do, you will spend a lot of time getting, as they say in England, your knickers in a twist. It is striking that these questions are the same ones we still argue about. The Buddha was quite prescient. Two and a half thousand years of philosophy, metaphysics and theology and we still struggle with the mind-body problem. That the Buddha does not take a position on this undermines the entire metaphysics of rebirth. Because if it is not soul, or mind, or some such thing, that survives bodily death, it is very difficult to know what rebirth can actually mean. Despite this very explicit warning, most Buddhist traditions have adopted a mind- body dualism as dogma. That seems to fly in the face of a very central part of the Buddha’s teaching. He is basically saying these things are not conducive to pursuing the way of life I am teaching and encouraging, through which one can address and hopefully resolve the question of suffering. Maybe he does know the answer to these questions; it is simply not an issue.
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