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Rebirth and Personhood in Buddhism

When speaking of ‘rebirth’ some conception of ‘personhood’ is necessarily entailed. In the Western Theistic Tradition, the essence of a being or person is the soul that indwells but does not share the ephemeral nature of the body with which it is associated. While the latter is characterized by transience and death, the soul partakes of the nature of the divine and is, hence, immortal. The time-honored belief among Theists is that the abiding essence of personhood is the imperishable soul –not the physical dynamics of the transient body. It is that which makes our being or person sensitive to values, purpose and design. Material systems (so it is argued) cannot have such properties. The Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) had little to say about the ‘transmigration of souls’ (Metempsychosis) given that Hell, Purgatory and Heaven were the only habitational options for a ‘departing’ soul. Animals were glorified automata and the ‘ensouling’ of these inferior beings was ruled out. More importantly, the time-frame of action in these faiths was very limited – a few thousand years according to the orthodox. This must be contrasted with the endless eons that the Eastern Faiths accord to the Universe that serves as the background to their religious thinking. The Greeks (the Pythagoreans, for example) were less constrained by doctrine and were prepared to accept the possibility of the soul passing from body to body – not necessarily of the same species. The notion of Karma is not explicitly discussed, but the hidden assumption is that the transmigration or metempsychosis spoken of is driven by the ethicality of action. In the Indian religions (Buddhism is the great exception) this line of thinking (metempsychosis) is greatly refined. The concept of a samsaric odyssey is developed for the first time – a heroic struggle of the soul to rid itself of the dross of material corruption to reach that transcendental excellence that marks the true habitation of the Divine. In the religion of the Jainas (Jainism), this outlook is most clearly expressed. The path of purification is through Ahimsa - not harming others, including here the lowest and meanest forms of life. The liberated soul reaches the highest stratum in an existential hierarchy ranging from corrupted material dross to the divine. Let us turn to other Indian religions (a conglomerate of often disparate views that are lumped together as “Hinduism’). In a standard formulation (usually attributed to the great religious metaphysician Shankara) there is only one divine stuff but a shadow-play or emanation of this ontological primality manifests itself as the phenomenal world of beings and material objects. Persons (in the larger sense of sentient beings of all kinds) are ensouled with the divine. Indeed, the recognition of the fundamental oneness of the Divine in its grandest sense and the indwelling spirit that characterizes our aptitude for the moral life is the sublime and redeeming truth. The samsaric odyssey has as its object the epic discovery of this highest truth. Let us note parenthetically that this austere form of Hindu belief has been eclipsed in recent centuries by a form of ‘paternalistic ‘ religion based on Bhakthi or faith. The crudities of the latter need no comment. Buddhism does not speak of a Godhead or a primal stuff. Its base metaphysical assumption is the Trilakshana of all that there in the world. Impermanence, soullessness and transformative flux characterize all that constitute the world. It follows necessarily that that to posit the perdurability of the soul (or its equivalent) as the defining essence of personhood is mistaken. The person is a system in flux and some other means must be found to anchor the concept of personhood to the empirical reality of the persistence of beings. Here a caveat must be entered – popular or ‘folk Buddhism’ has glossed over metaphysical subtleties and has no hesitation in speaking of ‘rebirth’ – a succession of lives in which an identified person is tracked along a line of karmic succession. This is very close to the metempsychosis professed by some non-Buddhist schools of religious thought even if the concept of a divine essence is eschewed. However, a close reading of the canonical texts demands a far more nuanced approach to the dynamics of a Karmic line (or the World Line of a samsaric wayfarer.)

Let us re- examine the concept of self or personhood. This is a functional concept. The hidden assumption that a ‘person’ has an eternal ‘core identity’ or soul is a fiction propagated from ancient times by the religiously inclined . It is helpful to take the case of ‘organism’ to illustrate this point. A living organism has distinctive functional properties and persists as an identifiable system in time. It has associated with it birth and death events. It is purposive and reactive. Despite these distinctive properties no contemporary scientist speaks of a ‘soul’ of a mouse or a house-fly. The ancient Aristotelians spoke of an ‘elan vital’ as the inner essence of a living organism but such notions have long been discarded. A ‘person’ can be regarded as an upgrading of the concept of ‘organism’. It is the acquisition of the powers of the mind that marks off a person from a mere organism. It is the great achievement of the Buddhists to develop a theory of the mind on a modular-functional basis (The Five Aggregates and its elaboration in the Abhidhamma) much as is done in contemporary neuro-physiological practice. The Cartesian model of the ‘soul’ ensconced in the cockpit of the brain is a laughable anachronism. A ‘person’ has hopes, beliefs, desires etc and acts with foresight to attain goals. All this suggests a surrogate of the divine residing within us to seek for the sublime. This is an illusion. Anatta is the basic truth. How can we resolve the problem of the seeming continuity of personhood despite the inexorable turnover of the contents of the mind? . Using your powers of memory, recall yourself as a child of ten. (I am assuming that a mature adult is reading this article.). Are you the same person? Is this not a fiction based on fading memories? In body and mind, are you not radically different from your juvenile precursor? What links you to your recalled state as a child? Two things – firstly, perceived physical continuity and second, and more importantly, the existence in your current mind of the memory-traces of an earlier era. These two things give you the illusion of a persistent self or ego. It is important to enter a caveat here – at every moment we are self-centered and act as if we are historically-defined autonomous agents with passion and intellect. We function as if we are persistent beings with a defined past and a future that we view with hope and trepidation. What the Buddhists deny is the existences of an eternal entity of some kind (soul) that gives an everlasting linear identity to flux of these states. A succession of states can be linked by a distinctive ‘world line’ and hence have an overall identity even if every constituent state is ephemeral. It remains to tackle the contentious issue of the linking of lives based on the law of karma. Note that we speak of the ‘linking of lives’ or ‘karmic catenation’ – not rebirth. By definition, rebirth can be a meaningful application only if an identified agent reappears in a different guise or form in another place and time. This is metempsychosis and it has no place in Buddhism even if the vulgar practice is to conflate it with the strictly Buddhist concept of the linking of lives. Suppose X (a plebian) is ‘reborn’ – to use the popular but misleading expression – as a Nobleman. It is a gross error to suppose that the former plebian is now a nobleman. What is the Buddhist truth? At the death of the plebian, his end-stage karmic heredity is transferred to the nobleman who is ‘aborning’ in the womb of his mother. There is a transference of information (karmic promptings) from one to the other and in this sense their lives are linked. Just as there is chromosomal (DNA) transference from parent to child that constitutes the hereditary link between them, there is a further link between lives based on a pattern given in detail in the doctrine known as Dependent Origination (Paticcasammupada). Needles to say, this doctrine is extra-scientific. There is nothing in science to indicate that there is a form of heredity – a linking of lives – that stands outside the bi-parental mode understood in conventional science. Nor has the ancient doctrine of karma – the idea that the ethicality of action can effect a trans-generational transformation of the physical nature of beings - any warrant in contemporary science. However, it is wise to remember that we are dealing with religion, not science, .