The Buddhist Explanation of Rebirth
Morelia, Mexico, June 2000
[edited course transcript, supplemented with material from courses given in Munich, Germany, October 2000 and Berlin, Germany, February 2001]
Part Two: The Analysis of How Mental Continuums Perpetuate Themselves
Let us examine the nature of continuums, since understanding this is crucial for understanding the Buddhist teaching on rebirth.
One of the main qualities of a continuum is that whatever category of phenomenon there is a succession of moments of, it must always remain the same category of phenomenon throughout the entire succession. What does that mean? Let us give an example. We can speak about a continuum of something physical – in other words, a continuum of matter and energy. A seed can transform into a tree, then in a later moment it could be lumber, then a table, then fire and heat, then smoke and ashes. Like this, the continuum remains in the same category of phenomenon: it is always a succession of moments of some form of matter/energy.
Be careful, though. The words we’re using here, change and transform, don’t mean that there is some sort of truly existent “blob” of matter/energy that changes or transforms into various states, but underneath these transformations, remains the same static substratum. It’s not like a piece of clay being molded over and again into different shapes. Nor is it that there are the same unchanging atoms or the same unchanging subatomic particles, which are merely being rearranged to constitute the seed, the tree, the lumber, the table, the fire and the ashes. Nor is it that all these various forms of matter/energy are transformations of a greater static entity: the unchanging sum total of all the energy of the universe. Remember the image of the changing moments of a movie that we see. We’re always talking about a succession of something, but without that “something” being a static entity that endures. Please think about that. This is a crucial point.
The same analysis applies to a succession of moments of a subjective, individual experiencing of things. The type of experiencing changes from moment to moment, transforming into different types, but it still stays basically in the same category of phenomenon: a type of experiencing something. For example, interest in something, like in a television program, can transform into paying attention to it, and then attention can change into annoyance, and that can change into boredom and that into tiredness, sleepiness, being asleep, dreaming, and so on. The type of experiencing is changing from moment to moment, but always staying within the same category of phenomenon. It always remains an experiencing; although, as in the case of a succession of moments of matter/energy, there is no static underlying “thing,” such a “mind” or “consciousness,” that is taking a different form in each moment. Again, remember the analogy of the movie.
The most important point here, however, is that in moments of the succession of something, that “something” does not and can not change categories of what general type of phenomenon it is. Anger cannot transform into a table and wood cannot transform into anger. The next moment of wood cannot be anger. We are talking about two quite different categories of phenomena: matter/energy on one side and subjectively experiencing something on the other.
This is very profound, actually. It underlines the fact that we are talking about something quite different from physical things when we are talking about mind. It means that matter and energy cannot transform into experiencing things. That is very important because most scientists believe that a joined sperm and egg, or various biochemical compounds, can change into life. Buddhism says most emphatically that they do not change into life. We can look at this on a macro or on a micro level.
Comparison of the Scientific and Buddhist Assertions Concerning the Macro and Micro Levels of Continuums
According to science, first the universe evolves and then life emerges. So, matter/energy transforms into experiencing things. Buddhism, on the other hand, takes a much larger view than science does. It explains that matter/energy and experiencing things both have no beginning. In one particular universe, similar to the scientific explanation, the material environment develops first and, once that environment is sufficiently developed so that it can support life, individual beings start to take rebirth in it. Also, in agreement with science, the life forms available for rebirth in one particular universe or, on one particular planet in it, may follow the Darwinian laws of evolution. But, Buddhism asserts countless universes, with no beginning of universes in general, and with each universe going through a cycle of evolution and destruction, but out of phase with each other. So, in terms of beginningless time, we cannot say that the material universe came first and then transformed into the experiencing of things.
On a micro, individual level, many scientists assert that the chemical and electrical processes in an embryo transform into the experiencing of things, with the physical basis coming first. But again, Buddhism refutes this position. The electrochemical transformations in a network of neurons do not create or transform into the individual, subjective experiencing of things. A succession of moments of electrochemical processes and a succession of moments of experiencing things constitute different continuums, because they are continuums of different categories of phenomena. Nevertheless, the two continuums have a relation with each other.
Buddhism asserts that a mental continuum must always have a physical basis; it needs a support. On the grossest level, a physical body is needed as a support for a mental continuum. The support, however, doesn’t create what is supported on it. The ground supports the people standing on it, but the ground does not create or transform into the people standing on it, does it?
Perhaps we can understand this relationship between a body and a mind with an example that is not exactly precise, but it’s a nice example anyway: a glass of water. The glass represents the body and the water represents the mind. Now, the glass is necessary as the container for a glass of water, but the glass doesn’t create the water, does it? The glass comes from its own continuum; the water comes from its own continuum. But, you need the glass to contain the water in order to have a glass of water, right? And even when the water is not in the glass, still, basically, water has some sort of form, some sort of shape. That’s because it’s still matter and therefore is shaped by the forces of gravity and other physical forces.
So, we’re speaking here about “the experiencing of things.” The experiencing of things always has to have a support and it’s usually the gross matter and energy of a body, for instance during a lifetime as a human or as an animal. But it could also be just some subtler form of energy, such as in between rebirths or when reborn as a ghost.
If you have water and you pour it from one glass to another, it has a certain form and support in this glass; it has a certain form and support in that glass. But, during the time when it is pouring from one glass to another, you wouldn’t say that it doesn’t exist during that period, would you? It has sort of a subtle form, shaped by the forces of gravity. The same is the case with an individual continuum of experiencing things when it is passing from one body to the next. You can’t say it doesn’t exist then, just because it lacks the container of a solid body. Buddhism explains that during the bardo period in between one life and the next, an individual continuum of experiencing things is shaped by the forces of that individual’s karma.
Now, of course, this is just a rough analogy, since water and a glass are both forms of physical phenomena. As something physical, water can be physically contained inside something. Mental activity, on the other hand, is not some physical thing that can be contained inside another physical object. Mental activity is what a brain and nervous system are doing. Its locus may be a brain and nervous system, but the activity itself is not some thing sitting inside a brain and nervous system. Remember, Buddhism is not talking about a “mind” sitting inside our heads as a kind of “tool” that we, as individual beings, use to know things. But, in a loose sense, we can say that we have a gross physical body that serves as a support for experiencing things.
Now, our physical body changes from moment to moment and constitutes an individual continuum. The physical continuum of our body of this lifetime is one continuum; but, the continuum of our body in a past or future lifetime would be a different continuum, wouldn’t it? Our body of one lifetime doesn’t transform into a body of another lifetime, the way that our body as a child transforms into our body as an adult, does it? But, is it the same with our mental continuum?
Let’s look at little bit more closely at the difference between the physical continuum of a body and a mental continuum. First, consider every atom and every unit of energy, if I may use these words loosely, comprising the body at a specific moment. The body, in every moment, is made up of lots of various types and number of atoms and lots of various types and amounts of energy. Each of these little bits and pieces has its own individual, ever-changing continuum. The continuums of the bits and pieces present in any specific moment in the body continue to be present in the body for only a brief period and then the succession of moments of each may separate and go their own ways.
Some of the bits and pieces may have a continuum over successive generations. The joined sperm and egg of a set of parents transforms into the body of a fetus; the body of a fetus transforms into the body of a baby; the body of a baby transforms into the body of an adult; and part of the body of that adult, a sperm or an egg, together with an egg or sperm from someone else’s body, transforms into the body of someone of the next generation.
But, it is far more complex than that. Each little bit – let’s say each carbon atom or oxygen atom or unit of energy -- has previous phases as parts of something else. It may have been part of some food we ate, or part of some air we breathed, or part of the heat of the sun that we felt on our skin. It could have been part of some other being’s body, either as meat or as our parent’s sperm or egg. But it’s transformed and now has become part of our body of this moment. After a limited period of time as a part of our body, the continuum of that little piece is going to go on and be part of something else. It’s going to now be a part of bodily waste or the kinetic energy of a ball that we throw. It could be part of the body of somebody else: our child or a worm that eats our corpse.
In other words, all these little bits and pieces that compose our body at any given moment are coming from something else and going off and becoming part of something else. Each little bit of matter/energy is just constantly transforming. It can’t be created or destroyed, just transformed. And each little bit has its own individual continuum that lasts forever with no beginning and no end.
Of course, this is a bit of an oversimplification, because in light of the current Big Bang theory and views of how this present universe will end, it isn’t the case that the continuum of a particular carbon atom has no beginning and no end. Also, of course, in the succession of moments of the continuum of a specific carbon atom, the carbon atom changes from moment to moment, especially whenever it bonds with other atoms in a chemical reaction. But, I think you get the idea of what I’m trying to illustrate here.
Our present physical body endures as a whole entity for a finite succession of moments, with a beginning and an end. And while it exists as a whole entity, it retains its individuality, which is quite remarkable. How does it do that if every bit and piece of it is changing every moment? The atoms of the DNA in one cell when we were ten years old are not the same atoms as those of the DNA in some other cell when we are forty. And certainly the atoms of the genetic code of our parent’s bodies are not the same atoms as those of our own genetic code.
All the cells of our body are continually being replaced by new ones. Well, doctors would say that maybe there are a few cells or units from the parents’ sperm and egg that stay part of the marrow or something like that, and they remain like that for an entire lifetime. Actually, Buddhism says this too. Buddhism calls them “white bodhichitta and red bodhichitta.” But none of the rest of the little bits and pieces of the body is there from conception until death. And when we die, even those little bits that were there from our parents change into something else. They become part of a continuum of something else: soil or whatever.
So, in summary, it’s very clear that when we talk about our body, it’s coming from all sorts of other things. There is a continuum of the body as a whole entity – quite a strange one – but there is a continuum that lasts for a certain limited time – a life span. But all the bits and pieces are coming from all sorts of other things. What is part of our body at any one moment is actually just part of this continuum of our body for a short time, but actually it has its own continuum – it was part of something else before and will be part of something else later.
But, what about the experiencing of things, a mental continuum? Is it a similar same type of continuum? This is a very interesting question. This is really where we get down to the question of rebirth. Does part of our mental continuum come from our parents and part of it pass to our children, like some sort of genetic code, or what?
A continuum of experiencing things is also made up of many parts. In any moment, for instance, there can be the seeing of an object, such as an item in a store, interest in it, attention on it, liking it, feeling happy about it, desiring it, and so on. These are all parts of one moment of experiencing something. Each of these ways of experiencing something may have a succession of moments as part of one individual mental continuum. On our mental continuum, we could have a succession of moments of seeing something, of paying attention to something, of feeling happy about something, or of desiring something. That “something,” of course, may change, as may the level of attention, interest, happiness, or desire we feel. Some of these ways of experiencing things continue with unbroken succession even when we are asleep, such as feeling some level of happiness, unhappiness, or neutral. For others, such as desire, there is an in-between period when they are no longer manifest. Nevertheless, at those times, Buddhism explains that they still continue on our mental continuum in a subtler form, as a tendency.
But, unlike the atoms of our body, none of these mental bits and pieces will ever have a prior or subsequent phase in which it is part of another mental continuum. It’s not like a carbon atom being part of food, then part of our body, and then part of our bodily waste and eventually part of the soil. It’s not that the happiness we experience while watching a movie was part of the continuum of somebody else’s happiness before we experienced it and will later become part of the continuum of someone else’s happiness. It wasn’t that somebody else’s happiness stopped being their happiness, came into us and continued as our happiness for a while, and then left us and become somebody else’s happiness. It’s very different from the physical matter that makes up our body, isn’t it? A way of experiencing something didn’t come from our parents or from anybody else.
Now, we could say that our ability to experience things individually follows from the fact that our parents were able to experience things individually. We can say that. But, that’s like saying that because our parents experienced being alive, we can experience being alive. It’s true that if our parents didn’t experience being alive and having a body, we wouldn’t be able to experience being alive and having a body. But that’s an irrelevant truism. It’s not what we’re talking about when we analyze mental continuums.
The happiness experienced while watching a movie – the subjective, individual happiness that is experienced – is merely a subsequent period of previous periods of the experiencing of happiness within the same mental continuum. It can only be part of a succession of moments in one continuum! It didn’t come from our parents’ mental continuum and it isn’t going to pass into our children’s mental continuum. It can only be that it has its own continuum within one individual mental continuum – that’s what’s really significant here.
And our experiencing of happiness is individual and subjective, the same as is the case with our experiencing of things in general. We can learn from somebody else’s experience, but our individual, subjective experiencing of the weather doesn’t become somebody else’s individual, subjective experiencing of the weather. It is only another moment of our own individual, subjective experiencing of the weather.
For that reason, when we talk about our “individual mental continuum,” it doesn’t come from the body – in other words, from matter and energy. Each moment of our individual mental continuum has to come from a previous moment of an individual, subjective experiencing of things. And it can’t come from somebody else’s individual, subjective experiencing of things, such as that of our parents. It can only be part of the continuum of our own individual, subjective experiencing of things.
We have established that an individual mental continuum can only arise from something in its own category of phenomenon. Although a mental continuum requires a physical continuum of a body as its support, the physical continuum of a body is only a condition for a mental continuum – although a necessary condition. It is not the immediately preceding cause that transforms into a mental continuum. We have also established that an individual mental continuum cannot come from someone else’s individual mental continuum. It must come from itself and continue from itself.
The main question left, now, is whether or not an individual mental continuum can have an absolute beginning – regardless of whether that absolute beginning is at the moment of conception or at some point later when the embryo is sufficiently developed to be able to support mental activity – and whether or not an individual mental continuum can have an absolute end. It is because of these two questions that the discussion of rebirth is very much connected with the discussion of cause and effect and voidness. Can the first moment of a mental continuum, which gives rise causally to the second moment, arise from no cause at all? And can the last moment of a mental continuum, which arose as the result of its previous moment, not give rise to a next moment? Can there be a cause that is not the effect of a previous cause, and can there be an effect that is the not the cause of a later effect? These are the issues we must analyze logically in order to understand rebirth.
Also, if a physical basis cannot be the cause of a mental continuum and if each moment of a mental continuum does not arise from a previous moment of the same continuum and give rise to a next moment, then what is the alternative? Is it that an absolute “nothing” transforms into an absolute “something” at an absolute beginning, and that an absolute “something” transforms into an absolute “nothing” at an absolute end? In other words, does a nonexistent mental continuum become an existent mental continuum at an absolute beginning, and does an existent mental continuum become a nonexistent mental continuum at an absolute end? These are important questions to answer when considering the ethical implications of issues such as abortion, suicide and euthanasia.
Buddhism answers all these questions by saying that there cannot be an absolute beginning or an absolute end to a mental continuum. Just as science asserts that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed; Buddhism asserts that individual mental activity likewise can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed.
Recall that the physical continuum of a body -- or of some subtle energy in between lifetimes -- is merely a necessary supporting condition for a mental continuum, and nothing more. Now, the functioning of a particular body may support a mental continuum for a certain period of time. When a particular body stops functioning and can no longer support a particular mental continuum, Buddhism explains that this mental continuum continues with a different physical basis – first a subtle one and then another gross body. The mental continuum does not simply end when its present physical support stops functioning, because the physical support of a mental continuum is not the cause for the mental continuum to continue. As a form of matter/energy, the physical support is merely the supporting condition, as was just stated. The cause for a mental continuum to generate another moment of itself must be a way of experiencing things that is part of that same continuum. Nothing else makes sense.
According to the Buddhist explanation, three ways of experiencing things cause an individual mental continuum to generate a next moment during its samsaric phase, either in general or specifically at the time of death. These are (1) craving, (2) an obtainer disturbing emotion or attitude, and (3) a karmic impulse or urge that actualizes further existence – usually translated as “craving,” “grasping,” and “becoming.” These constitute three of the twelve links of dependent arising, a profound topic that explains the mechanism of samsara – uncontrollably recurring rebirth.
First, based on feeling some level of happiness, there is the disturbing emotion of craving. Craving may be (1) for not being parted from the ordinary happiness we are presently experiencing, or (2) for being parted from the pain and unhappiness we are presently experiencing, or (3) for a neutral feeling we are presently experiencing to survive and not to degenerate. As explained before during our general discussion of experiencing things, the craving does not need to be conscious. While asleep or even in a coma, we may still experience unconscious craving for the neutral feeling we are presently experiencing not to degenerate.
One or more of several different types of obtainer disturbing emotions and attitudes then follow, based on experiencing craving. They are called “obtainers,” since they obtain for us further existence with a body and mind tainted by unawareness of reality. The most basic of these obtainers is a deluded outlook toward our body and mind, with which we identify a seemingly solid “me” with some aspect or aspects of the two, or regard them as truly “mine.” For example, we may identify with our body or our relatives and, based on that, not want to ever be parted from them.
Craving and an obtainer disturbing emotion or attitude bring on a karmic impulse or urge that actualizes further existence. Somewhat like an urge to survive, this karmic urge actualizes further existence by activating the karmic aftermath of our previously committed karmic actions. “Karmic aftermath” refers to the karmic potentials, tendencies and constant habits imputable on our mental continuum. Consequently, our mental continuum generates a subsequent moment of itself, for instance the first moment of a next life. For short, let’s call this further existence urge a “survival urge.”
If you think about it, it’s very difficult to drown yourself by sticking your head in a sink full of water. Why? It’s because automatically, instinctively, you take your head out of the water. In the West, we might explain this in terms of a survival instinct or a survival reflex. Buddhism explains it with these three ways of experiencing things – craving, an obtainer emotion or attitude, and a survival urge.
During the samsaric phase of a mental continuum, then, certain disturbing emotions and attitudes and karmic urges account for the perpetuation of the continuum. During the nirvanic phase of the mental continuum, when the continuum of all disturbing emotions and attitudes, as well as karmic urges, that were parts of that mental continuum have come to an end, two other aspects of experiencing things that are parts of that continuum cause the continuum to keep on generating next moments. These two, in reference specifically to the enlightened phase of a mental continuum, are (1) untainted great compassion to help free all beings from their suffering and (2) the enlightening influence that a Buddha exerts to help bring about their liberation – sometimes translated as “Buddha-activity.”
Let’s summarize the logic behind these points concerning the perpetuation of a mental continuum, for instance concerning the samsaric phase. If moment one of a mental continuum produces moment two and moment two produces moment three, because moments one and two both contain craving, an obtainer, and a survival urge; then why shouldn’t moment three produce moment four? It must produce moment four in the continuum because moment three also contains craving, an obtainer, and a survival urge. This must be the case even if moment three is the moment of death. It makes no logical sense for cause and effect to operate throughout an entire succession of moments of a continuum, but not to operate in the first and last moments.
Similarly, a Buddha’s compassion never ends. If each moment of a mental continuum during its enlightened phase has great compassion for all beings, there is no reason why each moment will not produce a next moment.
Remember, we are not talking about the physical continuum of the body here. Even after death, the physical continuum of the atoms of the body will continue, although the body can no longer serve as the support of the mental continuum. But, just as the physical continuum of a sperm and egg cannot transform into or give rise to a mental continuum, likewise a mental continuum cannot transform into or give rise to the physical continuum of a corpse. As we have already discussed, a mental continuum must remain a continuum of the same category of phenomenon.
When we say that we have an individual mental continuum -- a succession of moments of experiencing -- and it is subjective, what do we mean by that? Is there something findable on the side of the mental continuum or on the side of its supporting physical continuum that gives it its individual identity or establishes that identity by its own power? Could it be a personality, fingerprints, or DNA that, as an individual defining characteristic mark, makes the continuum “me?”
Well, all the atoms of the fingerprints are changing throughout our life and so are all the atoms of the DNA in the cells. We can have an operation and have our fingerprints changed; we can have genetic therapy and have our DNA altered; we can change our personalities through intensive therapy or meditation training, or dementia may change it for us. So, what could that findable defining characteristic be? Buddha made a big point about this: there is nothing findable on the side of the mind or body that is solidly there, substantially, never changing, independent of everything else, and which, by its own power, by itself, establishes our individual identity. And yet, you are not me and I am not you. Everyone is an individual. How can that be?
There are two models for how a temporal continuum could continue and maintain its identity: the conveyor belt model and the movie model. Buddhism refutes the conveyor belt model in which there is a temporal continuum of a solid, substantial, unchanging, permanent “me” going from one moment to another -- through one moment of experiencing to the next moment of experiencing -- like a piece of luggage moving on a conveyor belt at the airport. It is not that now we are in this experience, now in that experience – the same identical “me”: “Here is a picture of ‘me’ in Rome; here is a picture of ‘me’ in India,” like a suitcase going further down the temporal conveyor belt of life. It’s not like that, despite the fact that most of us think like that and it feels like that, and so, unfortunately, with unawareness of reality, we believe that this model is true.
The more accurate model is that of a movie. Remember, with the movie analogy, we are talking about what is showing, what you see, not the strip of plastic. There is nothing solid there with what we see; everything is changing from moment to moment. We can label the film, we can give it a name and call it “Star Wars.” But a movie is not its title, and yet a movie does conventionally exist. The conventionally existent movie is what the title for it refers to. There is nothing findable on the side of the conventionally existent movie that maintains its individual identity as “Star Wars.” The title doesn’t appear with the showing of each frame. The movie retains its individual identity as “Star Wars,” simply by the force of the label “Star Wars” that can validly be imputed on it. And it retains this identity regardless of where or when it is screened and which copy of it is screened. That’s quite remarkable, isn’t it?
Likewise, we can label as “me” this mental continuum of the subjective experiencing of things, but there is no solid findable “me” inside that mental continuum, or inside the continuum of its supporting body, that makes the continuum “me.” All that is present is an individual, subjective experiencing of things, which can be labeled as “me,” and that “me” would refer to the conventionally existent “me.” And that conventional “me” retains its individual identity regardless of where or what it does, or when it does it, and even regardless of which body it does it with. Again, it maintains its individual identity as “me” simply by the force of the label “me” that can be validly imputed on it. But to understand this more deeply, we need to clarify the distinction between a conventional “me” and a false “me.”
We do conventionally exist. It is certainly true that I am sitting here; I am writing this page; I am reading this page. It’s not that someone else is doing it who is not “me,” or that no one is doing it. However, during each moment of the unenlightened phase of a continuum of individually and subjectively experiencing things, the mental continuum automatically arises with a feeling or a sense of a solid, unchanging, permanent “me,” separate from the act of experiencing something and existing as the one who is experiencing it. Instinctively, it feels like, “I’m experiencing it.” “I just experienced a terrible time.” “I just experienced a wonderful meal.” It actually feels like that, doesn’t it? It’s as if we were that piece of luggage moving down the conveyor belt of time.
But, although it feels like there is a solid “me” inside us – if we may use that very strange way of expressing it – there actually isn’t one there at all. What we feel is just a confusing feeling. Based on that feeling that I am a solid “me,” however, then, before liberation, we believe that what we feel corresponds to reality. Then, with further unawareness and confusion, the feeling arises that, in order to make this solid “me” secure, “I” have to gather around “me” and possess things that “I” like and “I” have to get rid of those things that “I” don’t like. So, we experience longing desire, greed, hostility, and anger as parts of our mental continuum of experiencing things. Based on those disturbing emotions, we compulsively act them out and “bam,” what do we get? We experience all the sufferings of samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth filled with problems.
Such a “me” – a solid, findable “me” – however, does not refer to anything real. The feeling that we exist as a solid, findable “me” is known as a “dualistic appearance.” It is dualistic in the sense that it does not accord with reality, because there is no such thing as a findable “me.” That findable “me” is known as the “false ‘me,’” and a conventionally existent “me’s” total absence of existing as a false “me” is known as the “voidness” (emptiness) of the conventional “me.”
Not only is there no such thing as a findable “me” on the side of a mental or physical continuum, with findable defining characteristics that, by their own power, establish our identity as an individual “me.” But, even further, the conventional “me” lacks any solid, permanent, unchanging identity as a human being, as a male, as a female, as an insect or a fish, as a Mexican, a German or an Indian. There is no findable defining characteristic on the side of the conventional “me” making it have the solid identity of a human and so on.
Nevertheless, there is a conventional “me” and it is individual. It sustains an individual conventional identity by a sensible sequence of frames of experiencing something. A movie maintains its conventional identity by the fact that there is an orderly story line. The sequence of frames and scenes makes sense. It is the same thing with the individual subjective experiencing of things. The orderly continuity of its “scenes” is maintained by its individual karma – interacting, of course, with the karma of everyone else and the physical dynamics of the universe. But the karma, too, is also not findable on the side of the mental continuum or its supporting physical basis – just as the plot of a movie is not findable in each frame of the movie.
So, what is it that establishes “me” as an individual “me?” All we can say, then, is that what establishes “me” as the individual “me” is merely the fact that the label “me” refers to the individual “me,” based on its being validly imputable on an individual orderly sequence of moments of subjectively experiencing things. This is the case, despite the fact that there is nothing findable on the side of the continuum of moments or on the side of the orderly sequence that makes “me” “me.” In other words, other than “me” being what a validly imputable mental label refers to, there is nothing findable that we can say establishes our individual identity as “me.” It’s just like there is nothing findable on the side of the continuum of moments of a movie or on the side of a plot that establishes the movie as “Star Wars.” What establishes the movie as “Star Wars” is merely the fact that the label “Star Wars” refers to the movie “Star Wars,” based on its being validly imputable on an individual orderly sequence of movie scenes.
[For more detail about karma, see: The Mechanism of Karma: The Mahayana Presentation, Except for Gelug Prasangika.]
All of this is, admittedly, extremely difficult to understand. But it is really very profound, because, even if we understand it a little, we can start to look at individual beings in terms of both what they conventionally are at the moment and as mental continuums. We don’t look at someone as simply “human” or “insect,” or as “my uncle Fred” or “Fifi the poodle,” or as “male” or “female,” or this or that age. We also see them as an individual “me” validly imputable on an individual mental continuum that, because of its karma, is associated at present with this bunch of atoms in this bodily form. Understanding this is central to understanding the Buddhist explanation of rebirth.
With rebirth, we’re not talking about a solid “me” with a fixed solid identity that is taking rebirth. It is not that “Alex” is now reborn as “Fifi the poodle.” Rather, we’re talking about a succession of moments of experiencing things, which follows a story line based on karma and which extends over countless lifetimes. For this number of scenes, it’s continuing by being supported on the physical continuum of this particular human body. And this physical continuum is, of course, maintained by the individual physical continuums of all the atoms and energies that come in and out of it.
The conventional “me” is labeled temporarily with the name “Alex,” and “Alex” validly refers to the conventional “me” while it is validly imputable on the continuum of this physical basis. Buddhism is never denying this. But, after a while, the mental continuum may be supported on the basis of the physical continuum of a dog’s body. During that phase of this individual mental continuum, the conventional “me” could be validly labeled as “Fifi.” And “Fifi” will now be the conventionally correct label that refers to this individual conventional “me” labeled on this individual mental continuum.
Even deeper than that, regardless of any particular rebirth and what name it can be temporarily labeled with, the individual mental continuum can be validly labeled as an individual “me,” with no beginning and no end.
That’s what Buddhism is talking about with rebirth: nothing solid running through from lifetime to lifetime. Nevertheless, despite that fact, individual continuums of the subjective experiencing of things do conventionally exist. My experiencing of something is not your experiencing of it; and “I” am not “you.”
So, there is a very important distinction here between having a permanent identity and being individual. I am not you. My experiencing of things is not my parents’ experiencing of things. A mental continuum of experiencing things is individual and subjective, and it extends over zillions of lifetimes, with no beginning and no end. Moreover, a continuum of experiencing of things is not fixed as being a human one, or a female one, or a cockroach one. Nevertheless, the mental continuum is individual, and the physical continuum of the particular type of body that supports it in any particular lifetime is the result of karma -- the result of what we do in response to what we experience.
So, when we talk about rebirth in this way of explaining it, what is it that continues from lifetime to lifetime? It is the individual subjective experiencing of things, with an individual conventional “me” as what can be labeled onto it to organize and refer to it – and not the label “me” itself, but rather what the label “me” refers to.
If we look at the explanation in the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga, it speaks about different levels of experiencing things. And, in this context, it speaks about the subtlest level of experiencing things. This subtlest level of mind is usually called the “clear light mind.” Also, there is the subtlest life-supporting energy, which is the subtlest physical continuum that supports the experiencing of things. The subtlest mind and subtlest energy are inseparable and are actually two ways of describing the same phenomenon – but that is perhaps a bit too complicated to go into now.
So, ultimately, this is what continues with no beginning and no end: an individual continuum of the subtlest level of experiencing things, inseparably with an individual continuum of subtlest life-supporting energy and an individual continuum of a conventional “me” imputable on their succession of moments.
Although the continuum of these three goes on with no beginning and no end, the continuums of some other things also come along with no beginning. But these can have an end. They are an individual continuum of unawareness or confusion about reality and an individual continuum of karmic aftermath from committing actions motivated by the disturbing emotions and attitudes that derive from that confusion. A continuum of confusion is a continuum of a way of experiencing things; while a continuum of karmic aftermath – namely, karmic potentials, tendencies, and constant habits – is a continuum of something imputable on a mental continuum, as is the case with the continuum of a conventional “me.”
The continuums of confusion and karmic aftermath can come to an end because it is possible for the experiencing of things to be continuously accompanied by correct understanding of reality. Correct understanding and incorrect understanding of reality are mutually exclusive. They cannot occur simultaneously in one moment of a mental continuum. And since correct understanding has the backing of logic, an unbroken continuum of correct understanding can displace a beginningless continuum of confusion in such a way that confusion never recurs.
Because uncontrollably recurring rebirth – or samsara – occurs when a mental continuum is tainted with a continuum of confusion and karmic aftermath, then when these two tainting continuums come to an end, so does the samsaric phase of the continuum. Within the nirvanic phase, once the continuum of karmic constant habits comes to an end, the enlightened period begins and continues with no end. What endures, then, through the samsaric and nirvanic phases is the package of continuums of an individual clear light mind, individual subtlest life-supporting energy, and an individual conventional “me” imputable on them.
If we can start to think of ourselves in terms of a beginningless and endless continuum of individual, subjective experiencing of things, then if we don’t rid our mental continuum of confusion in this particular short lifetime, we will naturally want to continue in our future lifetimes. This is because we realize that our individual mental continuum will definitely go on with further lifetimes. So we would naturally want those next lives to be with the best circumstances so that we can continue working to rid our continuum of confusion.
Also, if we are able to conceptualize our entire continuum over beginningless lifetimes, then all the teachings on karma start to make much more sense. We understand that the rebirth state we now have and all the things we are subjectively experiencing during it are based on our previous karmic actions from many, many lifetimes and the continuous ripening of the continuum of their karmic aftermath imputable on our mental continuum.
And, if we understand that continuums of individual, subjective experiencing of things – whether our own or anyone else’s – lack any solid, unchanging identity as a human, a cockroach, or whatever; then when we see a cockroach, we realize that, as an individual being, it has taken rebirth in many, many different life forms. We realize that we, too, have taken innumerable life forms in previous lives. So, obviously, at some time, this being crawling on the bathroom floor must have been my mother. Because of the ripening of its individual karma, this individual being, in this lifetime, happens to be supported by the physical continuum of a cockroach body. But our mental continuum undoubtedly has also been supported at some time by a physical continuum of a cockroach body. This insight allows us to empathize with the suffering of a cockroach and not to be frightened by it or to kill it. We can relate to it as one individual being to another and, because of that, we can develop compassion for it instead. We might not keep it as a pet, but at least we won’t step on it!
So, we can see that when we begin to understand what rebirth actually means in Buddhism, our understanding becomes one of the basic keys for developing many of the further insights. Almost everything in Buddhism is built on this understanding of rebirth. So, first we need to acknowledge the importance of rebirth and then we need to be open to understanding it and want to understand it. Next, after listening to or reading a correct explanation and thinking carefully about it, we get an intellectual understanding of rebirth and conviction in it. But we don’t want to leave it at that; we want to get a visceral understanding and conviction in rebirth.
What is the difference between the intellectual and the visceral or gut level? These are Western categories and Buddhism doesn’t speak in terms of them. I think that this is because Western thought makes a great dichotomy between mind and heart, between intellect and emotions. Buddhism just speaks about different ways of experiencing things, which includes both Western categories. But, if we come from a background influenced by this type of Western thought, then we certainly believe that there is this dichotomy between mind and emotions, and thus between an intellectual and a visceral level of understanding and conviction. And because we believe that this dichotomy is real, we experience things that way. We actually do experience a difference between an intellectual and an emotional or visceral understanding of something and conviction in it. But, how does Buddhism, then, analyze the process of gaining deeper levels of understanding and conviction? That analysis may perhaps shed light on how to go from the intellectual to the gut level.
First of all, the Western distinction between an intellectual and a gut level understanding is not the same as the Buddhist distinction between a conceptual and a nonconceptual understanding. Conceptual cognition is always mental, not sensory. It entails cognizing something through a category in which we place it, such as seeing a wooden object with four legs and a flat top and then cognizing it as a table. Although we may understand some object to be a table, by associating with it a concept or idea of what a table is, conceptual thought does not need to be verbal – it does not necessarily entail saying the word table in our heads. By contrast, nonconceptual cognition of something does not mix the object with a fixed category. Nevertheless, nonconceptual cognition of something may also have an understanding of the conventional truth of what the object is.
I must admit that it’s really difficult to know what nonconceptual cognition and understanding of something actually means. But, in any case, the Buddhist distinction between a conceptual and a nonconceptual understanding certainly has nothing to do with the Western distinction between an intellectual and a visceral understanding. Obviously, we can have a visceral understanding of rebirth while thinking of it through the medium of the category rebirth or through an idea of what the category rebirth means.
Buddhism makes other distinctions that I think come closer to the distinction Western thought makes. This is the distinction between a labored and an unlabored understanding and conviction in something, and then, based on that distinction, further distinctions in the way that things appear to us. Let’s explore these points.
When we cognize something with a labored understanding and conviction about it, we need to build up to that cognition by going through a line of reasoning. For instance, we may look at our computer and then go through the line of reasoning that this is an object that arose dependently on causes and conditions and is affected by other causes and conditions. Therefore, it changes from moment to moment and is impermanent: it will inevitably break and, in each moment, it is drawing closer to its end. When we then focus on the impermanence of our computer, with understanding and conviction in it, our cognition of the computer as impermanent is a labored one. It is also a conceptual cognition, mixing the actual impermanence of the computer with the category impermanent phenomenon.
When we have familiarized ourselves thoroughly, over a long period of time, with the line of reasoning that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent, we will eventually be able to cognize the impermanence of our computer automatically whenever we see our computer or think about it, without needing to go through the line of reasoning. Our unlabored cognition of its impermanence will be with understanding and conviction in it, but will nevertheless still be a conceptual cognition that mixes the actual impermanence with the category impermanent. I think that this distinction between a labored and unlabored understanding and conviction is an important one, but still not exactly equivalent to the distinction between an intellectual and a visceral understanding and conviction.
Still it is important to progress from a labored to an unlabored cognition in order eventually to have a visceral understanding and conviction about something. To do this with regard to rebirth, we need to build up a lot of familiarity with the Buddhist explanation of rebirth, by repeatedly going through the lines of reasoning and points we’ve been discussing here. This is something we do mostly during meditation sessions. Then, we need to practice, over and again, viewing ourselves and others through this category rebirth, based on a labored understanding and conviction in it. We can do this in meditation, while thinking of ourselves and others we know, but we can also do this in daily life when we encounter others – even if we need to take a few moments to remind ourselves of the reasons supporting rebirth. When we are thoroughly familiar with rebirth by having repeatedly gone through the lines of reasoning and practiced seeing ourselves and others in that way; then eventually this way of viewing people and animals will automatically and spontaneously arise. It will be unlabored, although still conceptual, of course.
Automatically, then, we’ll see all beings in terms of each of them being an individual, subjective continuum of experiencing things, validly imputable as an individual “me,” and not just as a woman or a man, or as a dog or a cockroach. We’ll automatically see ourselves, our loved ones and our enemies in that way as well, because we have become so familiar with this understanding and conviction. But, if this is to be a proper understanding, we would not lose sight of who each one conventionally is now.
And eventually, not only will we see everyone like that, but after a great deal of familiarity with this insight regarding rebirth, everyone will automatically appear like that and seem like that to us. Everyone will appear to us like an individual “me” imputable on an individual beginningless and endless mental continuum, rather than appearing to us as being solidly and permanently just what a photo of them in the moment would reveal. It’s not that others are now appearing from their sides in terms of rebirth. Nor is it that the mind is some sort of “thing” that makes others appear in that way. But rather, automatically that kind of appearance is going to arise as part of our experiencing of seeing anyone.
What does that mean? What are we describing? We are describing a “feeling” of rebirth, which means an understanding and conviction in rebirth, as well as an appearance that it is so – all three of which are automatically arising as part of our experiencing someone in terms of their being an individual subjective continuum of experiencing things. That’s a lot of words, but the main point is that our understanding and conviction, as well as the appearance, will automatically arise as part of our experiencing of encountering others, and it will feel like what appears, what we understand, and what we believe to be true actually are true.
If we and others are not automatically appearing this way to us, then although we might have an unlabored understanding and conviction in rebirth, I think we would still call what we experience an “intellectual understanding.” And when, in addition to an unlabored understanding and conviction in rebirth, we and others automatically appear in terms of rebirth in our experiencing of them; then I think we would call this a “visceral understanding” or a “gut feeling” of rebirth. That’s because it feels like this is really the way it is. Whether or not we call this feeling an “emotion” depends on how we define “emotion,” doesn’t it? That’s why it’s difficult to say that the difference between an intellectual and a visceral understanding is an emotional one.
In any case, going from an intellectual understanding to a visceral understanding and from an intellectual conviction to a gut conviction are not things that just happen magically. It’s also not a matter of going from a conceptual understanding to a nonconceptual one, since that is unbelievably difficult to do. And it certainly is not a matter of going from thinking something to not thinking anything, as if thinking were only verbal and as if what people in the West call “being intuitive” means to stop thinking and just intuitively “feel” something. I think that going from an intellectual level to a gut level is simply the product of familiarity with viewing things, in a certain way, with understanding and conviction. And this starts with labored meditation and practice of viewing ourselves and others in that way.
So don’t worry if you only have an intellectual understanding and conviction in rebirth. That’s great that you have them, so no need to feel uneasy about it. A lot of people complain about their understanding and conviction being only intellectual, but I think it’s a great accomplishment to have an intellectual understanding and conviction about rebirth. The point is to meditate, to familiarize ourselves to seeing ourselves and others in that way, over and over again. And don’t just do this while sitting on your meditation cushion, but practice seeing people on the street, seeing the people in your house, seeing the cockroaches in your bathroom or in the garden, or seeing yourself in the mirror in that way. Through that type of repeated familiarization, eventually everyone will automatically appear to us as existing in terms of rebirth and it will feel like that is so.
Obviously, we really need to take the proper time to digest all these points concerning the Buddhist explanation of rebirth and, obviously, it will take years to digest them fully. The whole purpose of this lecture is to indicate the way in which we analyze and think about rebirth in Buddhism, how we try to understand it, and what the arguments for it are. The whole discussion hinges on understanding continuums, the different types of continuums, and how continuums perpetuate their succession of moments.
If, as a result of this presentation, we take the topic of rebirth much more seriously and think, “This is really important; I don’t understand it just based on this lecture, but this is something that I really need to work on,” then we have gained a great deal. We start to see, if even a little bit, how profound the topic really is – especially these points concerning our body. How does the continuum of this body maintain its individuality if every atom of it is constantly being replaced, coming from something that is not part of this body and going elsewhere to become part of something else? That is really extraordinary.
Next, we start to consider how an individual mental continuum of experiencing things and the physical continuum of the body that supports it maintain their continuities in very different ways. Then we have to put that together with the Buddhist presentation of karma and the voidness of cause and effect, and then the whole topic starts to become really very profound. We start to see, a little more, how this topic of rebirth is really very central for the understanding of how things actually exist.
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