Rebirth and the Thicket of Views

I am writing a book on rebirth and the Buddhist cosmology. Rebirth is quite a hot topic in Western Buddhism. I think that it is safe to say that most Western Buddhists do not accept the doctrine of rebirth. That is fine. It does not have to be a hindrance to practice at a certain point. To be honest, I did not think about rebirth much for about the first 15 years of my practice.

But beyond that certain point it does become important. And this is where we have to confront our opinions, our cultural conditioning, and what the Buddha called “attachment to views.”

In the Buddha’s teaching, attachment to views is one of the great hindrances to Awakening. We often hear that clinging is one of the causes of suffering, but the Buddha was specific about what types of clinging lead to suffering:

Bhikkhus, when a Tathāgata, accomplished and fully enlightened, claims to propound the full understanding of all kinds of clinging, he completely describes the full understanding of all kinds of clinging: he describes the full understanding of clinging to sensual pleasures, clinging to views, clinging to rules and observances, and clinging to a doctrine of self. – [MN 11.14]

The types of clinging to which the Buddha referred are:

  1. Sense pleasures
  3. Rules (“Rites”) and observances (“rituals”)
  4. A doctrine of self

In modern parlance we might refer to the attachment to views as opinions. Opinions are what we have when we don’t know something.

I was very blessed to have a career as a software engineer because when I was young I had a lot of opinions. But computers, as I like to say, are coldly indifferent to your opinions. Something either works or it doesn’t. So despite my stubbornness, I was forced to (mostly) adopt a fact-based view of life. This is very helpful in Dharma practice.

Sadly, in our modern society we have elevated opinions to deified status. I read earlier this year that an ESPN executive said that they specifically hire people for their opinions, not for their ability to be objective or report facts. Wow.

I even know someone – and this is an intelligent, educated person – who says that everyone has an opinion about everything. He thinks this is a good thing.

But sadly it gets worse, and this is a phenomenon that all inward looking people should know. Psychologists at the University of Michigan have studied and identified what they call “backfire.” This is when someone is presented with facts that refute their opinion. Instead of having the wished for effect of loosening their opinion, they actually become more adamant and deeply entrenched:

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.” – [“How ideas backfire”, Boston Globe, July 11, 2010]

So how does this relate to us as Buddhist practitioners?

As Westerners we come to the Dharma with a lot of cultural conditioning. Most of us believe that God created the heavens and the earth, that when we die we go to heaven or hell for eternity. Or, if we are philosophical materialists, we believe that when we die, we die, and that is all there is.

The Buddha famously rejected both of these views. As for philosophical materialism, he said this:

Here, Sandaka, some teacher holds such a doctrine and view as this: ‘There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed; no fruit or result of good and bad actions; no this world, no other world; no mother, no father; no beings who are reborn spontaneously; no good and virtuous recluses and brahmins in the world who have themselves realised by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world. A person consists of the four great elements. When he dies, earth returns and goes back to the body of earth, water returns and goes back to the body of water, fire returns and goes back to the body of fire, air returns and goes back to the body of air; the faculties pass over to space. [Four] men with the bier as fifth carry away the corpse. The funeral orations last as far as the charnel ground; the bones whiten; burnt offerings end with ashes. Giving is a doctrine of fools. When anyone asserts the doctrine that there is [giving and the like], it is empty, false prattle. Fools and the wise are alike cut off and annihilated with the dissolution of the body; after death they do not exist.’ – [MN 76.7]

This is a nihilistic view, and includes a belief that our actions do not have consequences. However, increasingly science, which is often at the root of philosophical materialism, is at odds with itself on this issue:

In his latest book, Return to Life, due out this month, Tucker details some of the more compelling American cases [of rebirth] he’s researched and outlines his argument that discoveries within quantum mechanics, the mind-bending science of how nature’s smallest particles behave, provide clues to reincarnation’s existence.

“Quantum physics indicates that our physical world may grow out of our consciousness,” Tucker says. “That’s a view held not just by me, but by a number of physicists as well.” – [“The Science of Reincarnation”, Virginia Magazine, Sean Lyons, Winter 2013]

The opposite view is probably more common, and that is the view that when we die we live forever. This is what the Buddha called “eternalism”:

When he attends unwisely in this way, [this] view arises in him…

‘It is this self of mine that speaks and feels and experiences here and there the result of good and bad actions; but this self of mine is permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and it will endure as long as eternity.’ – [MN 2.8]

The Buddha went on to say famously:

This speculative view, bhikkhus, is called the thicket of views, the wilderness of views, the contortion of views, the vacillation of views, the fetter of views. Fettered by the fetter of views, the untaught ordinary person is not freed from birth, ageing, and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair; he is not freed from suffering, I say. – [MN 2.8]

So where does this leave us?

It would be very un-Buddhist to ask anyone to accept a doctrine just because the Buddha said it. In fact, I cannot think of anything more un-Buddhist. Buddhist practice is all about experiencing truth for ourselves. That is the whole point of the training. The Buddha himself said as much:

If any recluses and brahmins, without knowing the past and without seeing the future, yet claim: ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being,’ they can be reasonably confuted. – [MN 80.16]

He then went on to say this:

Rather, let the past be, Kaccāna, and let the future be. Let a wise man come, one who is honest and sincere, a man of rectitude. I instruct him, I teach him the Dhamma in such a way that by practising as instructed he will soon know and see for himself: ‘Thus, indeed, there rightly comes to be liberation from the bond, that is, from the bond of ignorance.’

The Buddha often emphasized the importance of honesty. I first heard this many years ago, and since that time I have come to understand what the Buddha meant by honesty in a different way. Honesty has, I think, at least the inference of being open to the truth. Inwardly this means being open to the truth about yourself. And I think that in general meditators do this very well, at least after some practice. It is very hard to sit on the cushion hour after hour and lie to yourself about yourself.

But it also means being open to the ultimate truth of how things are. This requires humility. And that is a quality that is in very short supply in our culture. We love our opinions, and we hate to be wrong.

But “being wrong” is also a way of learning and growing. If we think of it in this way we can embrace it.

When the Wright Brothers were discouraged by their experiments at Kitty Hawk in 1901, they went back to the drawing board. They did 100-200 experiments on wing designs in a wind tunnel of their own design. They painstakingly created lift tables that are so accurate that it was not until the 1960’s that they could be bested, and then only by some trailing decimal points. And by the way, it was their sister Katherine who stubbornly would not let them give up. Sometimes being stubborn is a good thing.

This is how to make “being wrong” a good thing. The Buddha taught many things that are counter-intuitive. But in my personal experience it is worth considering them as possibilities, and then diligently practicing so we can see them for ourselves. But if you refuse to even consider them, even in some subtle way such as feigned agnosticism, you can never realize them for yourself.

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