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On the Path

Reincarnation and Afterlife: Or How to get out of this world alive
Buddhism has a split personality when it comes to reincarnation.  From one perspective there is widespread acceptance of the idea of reincarnation, where a given consciousness moves from carnate to incarnate and back again.  This idea is born out in the considerable emphasis placed on karmic credit, and karmic debt that will influence the higher or lower rebirth of the practitioner.  On another level, Buddhists will tell you there is no intact transfer of consciousness.  That there is only an “essence” of the consciousness that is reborn as carnate.  Why would Buddhist practitioners put so much emphasis on karmic credit for use in the next incarnation, if the individuation of the consciousness is no longer intact, with only an essence being transferred?  If it is not “me” that is being reborn, why would I feel the need to build up Karmic credit?  Who am I building it for?  If I come back as a lazy pet dog, who gets my hard earned credits?
This dichotomy is impossible for me to reconcile.  My own view on incarnate consciousness is that we lose our individuation and sense of self as we merge with the ocean of consciousness after death.  I feel there are streams or currents within this ocean of consciousness that are stable patterns of expression and emotion that continue to further merge and evolve over time.  These streams of expression do remain distinctly separate flows, just as ocean currents can be detected and mapped.  Incarnate consciousness sometimes connects with the carnate streams of thought at juncture points between our carnate world and the incarnate ocean of being.  Familiar spaces, personal artifacts, patterns of activity, all can act as juncture points and a catalyst for connection.
From our physical plane, these connections could be taken to indicate access to a consciousness that has passed on from the physical, and there are innumerable examples of these connections.  This does not in any way provide evidence for the reincarnation of a consciousness, even partially, into a new body.
This has profound implications for the acceptance of traditional Tibetan Buddhist beliefs.  According to the Sakyong, it is consciousness that goes forward from lifetime to lifetime, but we know from developmental psychology, that the consciousness we have now is not the consciousness we were born with, and will be different still when we die.  What is the consciousness that continues for those that are reduced to feeble mindedness through stroke or dementia?  If the consciousness is always changing, like everything in our phenomenal world, would it stop changing after death, when it leaves the phenomenal world?  If it continues to change, it could not incarnate as the same consciousness anyway.  If we experience phenomenon through the senses, the body, do we stop experiencing when we drop the body and move on?  Is the only way for discarnate consciousness to experience, through connection with the physical plane at the common junction points?
Experience though psychic connection is rarely included in discussion of the senses.  Often, the psychic sense is hard to describe, as we only have physical senses to relate it to.  Frequently, there is a gestalt impression of simultaneous inputs and a generalized feeling that is different from any physical sense input, but an experience just the same.  If consciousness continues in some form, can it experience psychic connection in a discarnate state?
There are more questions than answers here.  The Sakyong asks us to simply entertain the idea that there could be reincarnation.  This is like entertaining the idea that the earth could only be 5000 years old!  I have rejected the idea of hell as a place of punishment of the tormented soul, wielded as a big stick to keep the faithful in line.  The carrot and stick of the Christian heaven and hell are generally duplicated in the Buddhist path with the celestial realms and the hell realms of Buddhism.  There is also the idea of the endless suffering of rebirth, vs. the liberation of nirvana.  This can be taken on different levels, as a reality to be dealt with in shaping behavior, or as a psychological state manifesting from past deeds and intentions.  This can be seen as an extrinsic reward or punishment or an intrinsic reward or punishment.  These external / internal concepts are not about reflecting the reality of karma, as much as a motivator for right action from those that already believe in them.  There is no intrinsic reality in heaven and hell except what has been created by the myth and traditions of various religious paths to motivate the faithful.
Take for example, the professional assassin (or a soldier) who is so removed from his killing that there is no feeling and no guilt for his actions.  He goes to his grave with no torment haunting his conscience.  He may have no concept of a hereafter, a heaven missed or a hell waiting.  The soldier who justifies his actions in the name of God and the flag expects to go to a heavenly reward, regardless of his past.  My feeling is that his consciousness will merge with the same ocean of being that mine will.  Aspects of his awareness will probably connect with other carnate consciousness in the same way mine will.   So it would seem that these concepts of the afterlife have no reality in themselves, except to serve as ways to conceptualize psychological states or motivate the simpler intellect.



Faith and Dogma - Keep off the Grass!

There seems to me to be all too much faith in the Buddhist path.  Much of this stance is colored by my Catholic upbringing that crammed dogma down my throat until I gagged.  So dogma has a negative connotation to it that it might not for other folks.  It was Buddhism’s reliance on the experiential path that was one of the major aspects I found that fit my spiritual search.

The historical Buddha admonished his disciples for trusting his words, imploring them to experiment for themselves to see if this path worked for them, but many contemporary followers of the path continue to take the teachings on faith.  There are many aspects of the path in different traditions that must be accepted on faith, as there is no empirical evidence otherwise.
I have the feeling that most religions are like this.  Not all promise enlightenment is possible in a lifetime, but the message of the path, whatever path it is, is just as compelling as the practice itself.  If one doesn’t have the time, patience, or discipline to do the practice, then faith is the pseudo practice.  In some religions it is the path.  Indeed the path of faith and devotion has much to be said for it, as a means to dissolve the ego and bring the student in accord with the teacher.

Faith, however, can become a convenience that requires little time and less effort.  In Buddhism, there are many opportunities for faith to amplify the practice of the student and further accelerate his or her progress along the path.  But there is also the tendency for aspects of the structure of Buddhism, in whatever sect you belong to, to create an obstacle to progress.  The mind is no longer self evaluating it’s experience, but accepts the box of dogma as all the experience that is needed to be successful on the path.  Accepting the teachings without the experiential basis for wisdom is a hollow misunderstanding.

I can imagine how a practitioner, completely out of devotion to the path and desire to help others, yet struggling with the practice for years without much result, would out of frustration turn to faith as a foundation to stand on and a justification to continue on the path.

But this was not what the Buddha himself directed.  He said try it.  If it works for you, keep doing it.  If it doesn’t, try something else.  He didn’t say to accept the path on faith if you don’t see it making a difference in your life.  He wanted his students to be reflective and evaluate what this practice was doing for them and others around them.  The path of the Buddha is a foundationless path, more like a vast river with an underlying current that is always there, carving out an evolving channel that continually changes.  After all, that is one of the basic truths, that all things change.

I have devotion to my immediate teachers.  I have devotion to the lineage of teachers and the path that leads to enlightenment of all beings.  But I have difficulty with accepting any static idea as “The Truth”.   All knowledge is limited by our physical capacity to understand the universe we live in.  In the past, as that capacity grew, we tossed out old ideas of the earth being flat and stars revolving around us on a celestial sphere.  So also our ideas of mind will continue to grow.  The Dhali Lama has been quite flexible in this regard, looking hard at some old ideas that science now contradicts with hard data and changing his ideas accordingly. Buddhism says that all things change.  Everything is in a state of flux and can not remain the same for long.  So it is with our minds and bodies, and also with Buddhism itself.

There is a danger in throwing out ideas too quickly without a proper trial.  An experienced teacher is good to rely on, but they come from a position of having made progress along the path, which colors their view of that path a rosy hue.  It’s easy to say, “I did this, and if I can do it, you can do it”.  This is all very positive and uplifting, but we are all different, with different bodies and minds.  What works for me may not work for you, and the one size fits all program of most Buddhist paths has a dismal record of success getting practitioners to enlightenment.  I remember a Zen text from Dogan stating that with great diligence, less than one in fifty would reach enlightenment.  We do not want to become dilettantes, flitting from one path to another, but it also makes little sense to remain stuck in the box of dogma, hoping faith will save us.  The Buddha himself experimented with the traditional methods of the time, until he found an amalgam of methods that worked for him.

I have found in day to day problem solving, what works is to try the solutions that have worked in the past first.  If those do not work, I try something else based on a logical extension of the past.  If that doesn’t work, I go outside the box, working on insight and intuition.  Should our practice on the path be any different?

Posted on Monday, May 7, 2012 at 01:39PM by Registered CommenterStephen Bosbach | CommentsPost a Comment

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