The Myth of Rebirth

A guy named James wrote to me and asked:

“Could you explain rebirth to me like I’m five. I’ve never been able to grasp a knowledge of this.”

I answered him thusly; Rebirth is a myth that some Buddhists believe in. It might be loosely based on fact. But it might just be a fantasy.

I used the word myth to define the Buddhist idea of rebirth. These days a lot of people use the word myth as a synonym for falsehood. But that’s not the proper meaning of the word. A myth is a way of explaining something for which there is no good literal explanation. A myth is not necessarily false. But it doesn’t have to accord with fact.

A myth is not untrue because it fails to accord with fact. It can be true but not in the way scientific explanations or histories are true. A myth can be true without being factual.

But it’s important that we don’t believe in our myths in the same way we believe in science and history. The problem that contemporary Christianity and Islam have is that many of the people who follow those faiths insist that their myths are true in the same way that scientific facts and histories are true.

A lot of Buddhists, particularly but not exclusively in the West, make the same mistake with Buddhist myths. This is especially true when it comes to Buddhist myths about rebirth. We read mythical books, like the Tibetan Book of the Dead for example, and we want to interpret them as being empirically true. But they aren’t.

My personal experience with zazen practice leads me to the conclusion that my previous understanding about what I was and what the world was, was incorrect. Based on some of what I’ve touched firsthand in my real experience, I might be tempted to spin out my own myths about rebirth. But none of those myths would really explain what I’ve seen any better than the myth of Noah’s Ark explains its writer’s understanding of God and the way God rewards virtue. And if you believed my myth about rebirth as a literal truth, you’d be no better off than those people who insist that a long time ago an old man really did put two of every real animal in a real boat and floated on real water for forty real days and forty real nights.

Now I gotta go. We’re trying to make it to the Grand Canyon by this evening.

I will be speaking at Empty Sky Zen Center near Phoenix, Arizona on Friday June 29th at 7pm. The address is 5246 E McDonald Dr., Paradise Valley, AZ 85253. If you’re not a regular there and wish to attend please send an email to Ann Baker at They just need to get a head count. Newcomers are very welcome. This is not an “advanced” sitting.

62 Responses

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  1. hgrevemberg
    hgrevemberg June 27, 2012 at 11:00 am |

    it doesn’t work for me anymore, the whole of a person continuing to a new incarnation. with all the new developments in science, what would make more sense would be a continuous recombination of energy, new iterations that contain many different consciousnesses, an amalgam of instinct/tendencies/preferences defined by random selection. in genetics, regression toward the mean.

  2. tera dactil
    tera dactil June 27, 2012 at 11:42 am |

    I always thought it was karma that was reborn. Not an identity. Since there’s the doctrine of no-soul, how could it be otherwise?

  3. Trance-end
    Trance-end June 27, 2012 at 11:49 am |

    Nicely said in a short space! Hope in literal rebirth is just more clinging.
    Quote from Thomas Merton – “Too much “looking for” something: an answer, a vision, “something other”. And this breeds illusion. Illusion that there is something else.”

  4. Dukkha Earl
    Dukkha Earl June 27, 2012 at 1:07 pm |

    Once, after Chogyam Trungpa had expounded on doctrine of anatman, a student asked what is it that is reborn. His response was “Your bad habits!”

  5. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer June 27, 2012 at 1:53 pm |

    It has seemed to me for a long time that the possibility of rebirth is heavily dependent on knowing what birth and death are.

    It is not obvious to me that there is is some sort of essential Alan that can travel from one body to the next.

    It has certainly not been demonstrated in any absolute way.

    By contrast, a very strange sort of immortality, where there is no Alan at all, seems a bit more plausible.

    After all, if you are never really there in the first place, rebirth, in a weird way, kind of falls out automatically.


  6. Fred
    Fred June 27, 2012 at 2:11 pm |

    Alan said

    “After all, if you are never really there in the first place, rebirth, in a weird way, kind of falls out automatically.”

    And the concept of karma is a hindrance to letting go of the idea of a fixed or
    permanent self.

  7. Senshin
    Senshin June 27, 2012 at 2:34 pm |

    The Buddha himself would not answer the question of what happens to us after death, because the answer would not help one be free from suffering in this lifetime. The answer is irrelevant to practice.

  8. Ted
    Ted June 27, 2012 at 4:06 pm |

    The Buddha spoke at length about his own rebirths in the Jadaka tales. I don’t know if those are accepted by all the lineages, though—probably not, based on what you’ve said, Senshin.

    Alan, there is no essential Alan that is carried from life to life. The simple awareness is, but that itself is simply the projection of causes into future effects. The reason to be careful about one’s karma as it relates to future lives is that if there are future lives projected by your actions in this life, and your actions are negative, then the future life can be expected to be unpleasant. Even if the person experiencing the unpleasantness isn’t “Alan,” it’s awfully inconsiderate to project it. The pain doesn’t stop until someone in the stream of lives says “enough.”

    I think if you don’t believe that there is a raw awareness, there’s a really easy way to evaluate the question: sit. I found that reading Anathem gave me a mythic context for a quantum model of mind.

    1. anon 108
      anon 108 June 27, 2012 at 7:03 pm |

      Ted, are you suggesting this ‘raw awareness’ is something that can exist apart from a functioning brain? I see no evidence that such a thing exists despite almost seven years of pretty much daily sitting. I hope to remain sceptical about ‘truths’ I might be tempted to infer from experiences, odd or not, sitting or not sitting, that I might enjoy in the future.

      As for quantum models of mind/consciousness replacing older notions of soul transmigration/reincarnation…I can see how the notion would be convenient for modern Buddhists and others keen on reconciling science with tradition but, along with Senshin, I don’t see that such speculations are that important. Interesting but not important.

  9. anon 108
    anon 108 June 27, 2012 at 7:11 pm |

    …I do believe that whatever we are is recycled; that no energy can be lost; that there is no ‘birth’ and no ‘death’ – and that none of the constituents we conventionally identify as inherently or temporarily existent persist. I could be wrong.

  10. bravoshark
    bravoshark June 27, 2012 at 7:32 pm |

    Whenever anyone asks me of my faith/religion I respond with this one and only sure certainty: I know of one and only truth, “That I don’t Know~!!!!!”

  11. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 27, 2012 at 9:24 pm |

    Ted, you’re right, the jataka stories belong to the 5th Nikaya, which was composed at a later date than the first four (also in the 5th Nikaya, the bit about the “unborn”).

    The Gautamid does speak about once-returners and never-returners in the first four Nikayas, however. There is the Gautamid’s explanation of the existence of a god, which was that an individual fell from a higher energy form to a lower, and when other beings also fell from the higher energy form after the first, the first declared himself to have created them. I think this story implies that he expected, on the dissolution of the elements, to cease to exist as a being but perhaps not to cease to exist as an energy form.

    I still grapple with his equating sickness, old age, and death with the five groups of grasping, but I think it does make sense in that my consciousness is not my own, not mine. To experience consciousness in connection with sense object/sense organ, to experience the impact of that consciousness and the feeling- when an equanimity is present, a state of waking up/falling asleep exists.

  12. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 28, 2012 at 10:42 am |

    I see that I was clear as mud.

    When consciousness takes place spontaneously with regard to the six senses, that awareness from moment to moment is free, is not conditioned in the place of occurrence by ignorance, desire, or becoming. “That being, this is so”, yet there is no doer, no sense of a do-er in control of that with respect to which consciousness takes place, no sense of a do-er in the placement of consciousness.

    This is just the way I experience consciousness falling asleep, when I attend to my sense of location in space as I fall asleep. Waking up, the breath in the breath out has no length except in the free occurrence of mind.

    Grasping after self, after a do-er in the five groups follows ignorance of the experience of consciousness taking place spontaneously, ignorance of the impact of consciousness, ignorance of the feeling that occurs as consciousness takes place. The sense of self connected with the do-er in the five groups knows old age, illness, and death as suffering, yet that sense of self is identically grasping in the five groups.

  13. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 28, 2012 at 11:15 am |

    When the Chan master Daji of Jiangxi was studying with the Chan master Dahui of Nanyue, after intimately receiving the mind seal, he always practiced seated meditation. Once Nanyue went to Dajii and said, “Worthy one, what are you figuring to do, sitting there in meditation?”

    Jiangxi said, “I’m figuring to make a buddha.”

    At this point, Nanyue took up a tile and began to rub it on a stone. At length, Daji asked, “Master, what are you doing?”

    Nanyue said, “I’m polishing this to make a mirror.”

    Daji said, “How can you produce a mirror by polishing a tile?”

    Nanyue replied, “How can you make a buddha by sitting in meditation (zazen)?”

    Daji asked, “Then, what is right?”

    Nanyue replied, “When someone is driving a cart, if the cart doesn’t go, should he beat the cart or beat the ox?”

    (Dogen’s Zazenshin translated by Carl Bielefeldt)

  14. Ray
    Ray June 28, 2012 at 12:30 pm |

    Brad, Stop wherever you are and go directly to Denver. You need to drive this into LA.

  15. Senjo
    Senjo June 28, 2012 at 6:33 pm |

    Well said Brad. I recently finished Shohaku Okumura’s ‘Realising Genjokoan’ and it is interesting that he comes to similar conclusions re the concept of rebirth.

    What I always find strange about this topic is that people are prepared to accept a link between karma (positive or negative) and rebirth. Even if a person was prepared to accept that rebirth does take place (and that is a big if) why would there be any connection between that and how you behaved? There is simply no connection between those two concepts at all. If a person is prepared to accept that a future rebirth is affceted by how a person behaves now, it automatically requires some sort of external arbiter to be involved (some sort of mystical Buddhist St Peter) ticking off bad actions and counterweighing them against good ones before deciding whether you get reborn as a hungry ghost or as a deva. It’s just too absurd.

    It is also interesting to see how rebirth has been used in many Buddhist countries to discriminate gainst disabled people (must have done something awful in their last life) or just to act in a plainly silly way (Jack Kornfield reporting that Thai monks used to chuck stones at dogs because they believed they were previously monks who had broken their vows in a previous life).

    The Sunday Times here in the UK recently interviewed the Dalai Lama, who has been visiting here. After grilling him on the subject, the journalist reported that she got the real sense (obviously he didn’t say it overtly) that even he doesn’t believe he is the reincarnation off the 13th dalai lama. My respect for him rose even more.

    In the same way that Jesus spoke about the Sabbath because he was brought up in a Jewish culture, I feel Buddha spoke about Samsara and Rebirth and Karma because that was the exisiting Brahmanistic belief in the culture he was brought up in. He was speaking to people on their terms and relating it to the prevailing cultural beliefs at the time.

  16. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi June 28, 2012 at 6:51 pm |

    Yes, there is no essential Alan that carries forth from life to life. But there is no essential Alan that carries forth from moment to moment either. That doesn’t stop Alan from experiencing this moment as “Alan”. And it doesn’t stop him from reincarnating either. It just won’t be as Alan, because the body doesn’t reincarnate, only the mind does.

    Alan dies, in the sense of the bodily identity we know as “Alan”. Each time you incarnate, it’s like being a new man, if you use the metaphor that “the clothes make the man”. Each new body represents a distinct living character, and it’s distinct from the mind that puts on this new set of clothes. Of course, even the brain is a new set of clothes that we put on, and it functions in its own manner, irrespective of the deeper mind that has associated with this brain and mind.

    Think of it as a virtual reality game with extremely impressive sensory graphics. It’s so immersive that you actually can’t help feeling you are “in the game”. And so does everyone else. So you each go around playing the game with this new identity that grows from infancy to old age and then dies. As long as you accept that identity, you think you have incarnated.

    But the truth is, you never actually incarnated. It’s just a virtual reality game. Where is your real body all the while you thought you were incarnating? Where is your real face? You can’t answer that question properly merely by finding out what your identity was in between lives. Who is playing the game? Is that person any more real than “Alan”?

    This is why knowing about reincarnation doesn’t answer any ultimate questions. It does answer some good practical questions about our structural makeup, like knowing about biology and neurology tells us about our physical and brain structure and function. It’s useful in that sense, and it’s not just some flaky mythology. There’s a real technology and psycho-biology to it that’s worth knowing about, and even hard to miss if you become serious about meditation. But it doesn’t lead to the answers to our ultimate or fundamental questions. The deeper sense of mind and identity that goes through reincarnation has no fundamental essence to it either. It’s very much like a subtler version of the body-brain self sense. It’s all contingent on patterns in awareness that repeat and cycle through various locuses of attention.

    But it’s not a myth, unless you also call science a myth. It’s a myth in very much the same way that science is a myth, a way of describing a dream process with some semblance of consistency. The scientific answers are real either, of course. They just describe the physics of the virtual reality we live in, and with only partial success. They don’t describe how this virtual reality comes into being, or how we play it as subtle minds identifying with the game. They pretend it is “mysterious”, when really it’s just that they don’t have the right set of concepts to describe it beyond the more basic levels.

  17. MJGibbs
    MJGibbs June 28, 2012 at 10:21 pm |

    Senjo said:

    “If a person is prepared to accept that a future rebirth is affceted by how a person behaves now, it automatically requires some sort of external arbiter to be involved (some sort of mystical Buddhist St Peter) ticking off bad actions and counterweighing them against good ones before deciding whether you get reborn as a hungry ghost or as a deva. It’s just too absurd.”

    I’m not sure why you believe that accepting the idea of a future rebirth based on current behavior would automatically require the belief in an external arbiter. Based on my my studies, when your mind’s awareness sees you commit an action toward another being (be it positive, negative, or neutral), then a seed is planted in your mind (the alaya or whatever it’s called) which ripens into a result eventually. Say someone was attacked by a ravenous squirrel (ha!) when they were a kid and every time they seen a squirrel gnawing on a nut in a tree they begin to have panic attacks. The panic attacks are the result produced from the past seed that was planted in the kid’s mind. There would be no need for an external arbiter for such karma, or some sort of “rebirth” based on karma, to take place.

    That being said, I’m not sure what to think about rebirth. Pondering such a question is sort of like banging your brain against the wall. I’m sort of agnostic about the whole thing and tilt a little toward some sort of afterlife (and more toward rebirth than some eternal MJGibbs). That is one thing that sort of bugs me about Tibetan practices, they are very wrapped up in the idea of rebirth. I think Matthieu Ricard does a good job of presenting The Four Thoughts and other TB practices in a secular manner in his book “Why Meditate” if I recall correctly from skimming the book (need to add that to my to-read list). I think it would be silly for a Buddhist to claim they believed in rebirth 100%, because Buddhist are not suppose to believe in Buddha’s teachings with blind faith, but through testing the teaching through diligent practice. Now there may be some people that have practiced and have experienced the truth of rebirth directly somehow…I don’t know.

    Btw, Shohaku Okumura’s book “Realizing Genjo Koan” is a fantastic book. I’ve visited Okumura at Sanshinji in Bloomington, IN twice. Once I sat with him and a group of people and eat at a greasy spoon dinner the next day. I asked him this question, “How do you know whether you are following/being caught by thoughts or simply watching thoughts in a state of non-clingy openness (opening the hand of thought) during Zazen? I find the difference hard to distinguish when sitting.” He said something like “This is something very difficult, for contemplating such differences is just another form of thinking. That is why we just keep sitting.” That simple answer was quite profound and very helpful for my practice.

    The second time I saw Okumura was at a large yard sale that Sanshinji had where all the proceeds were going to Japan to aide people after the tsunami. I bought an awesome tea set, cool cup holders, learned origami (made a crane), and tried calligraphy painting. It was good time. I hope to return there in the near future.

    Brad…you should visit Sanshinji the next time you are in the mid-west. The first time I visited Sanshiji, I recall one of the guys staying there telling me he was reading Sex, Sin, and Zen when I mentioned your name.

  18. Ah Heng
    Ah Heng June 29, 2012 at 6:41 am |

    Hello Brad:

    Thanks for posting this! I was inspired to write a short article on my own blog, entitled: “Why I Do Not Believe In Reincarnation”:

  19. Fred
    Fred June 29, 2012 at 8:00 am |

    “. Or one can believe that when life is over, it’s over. Rebirth is also a belief, but its plausibility is based on logic and empirical observation, rather than appeal to a supernatural being”

    You could say that this logic and empirical observation is based in an “I” that
    is an illusion, and hence is an illusion as well.

    That which sees enlightenment is the Universe itself.

    No concept of karma or reincarnation is necessary. They are to be dropped with
    the body-mind.

  20. Ah Heng
    Ah Heng June 29, 2012 at 8:54 am |

    “That which sees enlightenment is the universe itself.”

    This is the kind of flowerly, vacuous slogan. What does it even mean to a person suffering from Dukkha?

    Why not ask the universe to pay your bills? 🙂

  21. Ah Heng
    Ah Heng June 29, 2012 at 8:54 am |

    “That which sees enlightenment is the universe itself.”

    This is a vague mumbo-jumbo slogan. What does it even mean to a person suffering from Dukkha?

    Why not ask the universe to pay your bills? 🙂

  22. Ted
    Ted June 29, 2012 at 9:18 am |

    Wow, great discussion. When I respond just now with a concrete statement, please don’t take this as disagreement with, for instance, what Broken Yogi said.

    Anon 108, to assert that the raw awareness arises in dependence on the brain is just as much a leap of faith as it would be to assert that it does not. The reason for this is that the brain could just as well function as an awarenessless automaton that accomplishes what the body accomplishes: eating, procreation, etc. There’s no necessity for awareness to be there. And yet we experience awareness. Peter Watt explores this in his book, “Blindsight,” although he concludes that awareness is an evolutionary mistake that does exist in the brain.

    So the spontaneous arising of the actions of our body and mind from moment to moment can indeed be attributed to the automaton I speak of, but the awareness cannot. This notion that the awareness is driving the automaton is one of the introductory examples of “self” that is rejected in the Mahamudra teaching.

  23. Fred
    Fred June 29, 2012 at 9:30 am |

    Ah Heng said:

    “This is the kind of flowerly, vacuous slogan. What does it even mean to a person suffering from Dukkha?”

    There is no person suffering from Dukkha.

    A fiction engaged in a play upon the stage identifies too closely with the role.

    Dogen said to study the self to forget the self.

  24. Ted
    Ted June 29, 2012 at 11:19 am |

    Senjo, your words about karma are interesting, but ultimately don’t make sense. Throwing stones at dogs creates negative karma. A person who throws stones at dogs because the dogs represent, to them, monks who committed negative needs in previous lives, utterly fails to understand the implications of cause and effect.

    And as for the question of Saint Peter keeping score, there is no need for a third party to intermediate. When you undertake to harm someone, you are aware that you have undertaken to harm someone. This creates a cause, which later produces a result, much as, when you throw a ball up into the air, it rises until the acceleration of gravity robs it of its upward momentum, and then falls faster and faster as gravity continues to accelerate it toward the center of the earth.

    There is no need for St. Peter to keep tabs on what you have tossed into the air, so that at the right moment it can begin to fall. It falls because of the physical circumstances it is in. The teaching on cause and effect—karma—says the same thing: there is no intermediary who decides to punish you, and indeed negative karmic results are not punishment. They are just what happens when you do negative acts. There’s no need to wrap concepts like guilt and punishment around them: in doing so you rob the teaching of its power to assist you in finding happiness.

  25. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 29, 2012 at 11:23 am |

    “You can’t answer that question properly merely by finding out what your identity was in between lives.” -I like that.

    I guess somebody has theorized that the brain could be just a receiver, like a radio receiver, of awareness. “Tune in again for another thrilling epidsode…”

    On Tao Bums yesterday I read Shaktimama’s account of her experience with “sacramental plant medicine”, in the presence of her teacher. I hope she doesn’t mind that I quote it here:

    “I was with a master shaman and we were using sacramental plant medicine. Much quicker than sitting with a guru. It was ceremonial ritual and we had to enter into that space with intent. My intent was for liberation, to become free.

    All the filters between what we think is and what is were almost instantly destroyed. It is the fast track and brutal. I do not recommend it for the general public or the dilettante. I don’t recommend it for the beginner or even a moderately advanced student.

    It was beyond powerful but not all present had the same experience or paid the price of being brutally savaged by the hard light of Consciousness. There was no escape, no place to hide. The ego crumbled under the constant 3 hour onslaught of the diamond hard Awareness flogging my mind and my body. I will say again, it was brutal, cruel, and savaging of all and any of my beliefs about myself, others, and the Universe. Jai Kali Ma.

    I lay, curled in the dirt and dead leaves almost face down on the forest floor, flies buzzing around my body as my breath slowed to the point of stopping. I could not move and I barely breathed as my mind emptied of any thoughts. My fingernails and toe nails were ragged and torn from my body clawing into the dirt trying to find escape from the presence of Consciousness as the ego died. I even lost the desire for relief and help. Then came the realization there is nothing but That which cannot be named. The only desire I had left was to dissolve and be one with That and to lose all self knowledge and self awareness that was ever accumulated. It was a desire stronger than thirst, stronger than the desire to be alive. If there had been some way to end my life at that moment I would have done it because my life/body/ego was keeping me a prisoner in this false reality created by beliefs. The bald faced need to re unite in Oneness with All That Is was and is beyond description. No words exist to convey that force in that experience to return to where we began, where Consciousness first knew Itself. My teacher held my body as my soul wept to return to That. Nothing mattered. Not family, not friends, not career, the planet, not god, NOTHING.

    With a human teacher there is always the opportunity to hide or ask for mercy. Not with plant medicine.”

    I think I will buy her book too, if she ever writes one.

  26. anon 108
    anon 108 June 29, 2012 at 12:28 pm |


    I was trying to get you to nail what you meant by “raw awareness” in your earlier comment, made in the context of rebirth (June 27 @ 4.06pm: “I think if you don’t believe that there is a raw awareness, there’s a really easy way to evaluate the question: sit”). I supposed you were suggesting the existence of something that exists and might continue to exist independent of a living body/brain.

    This is what I got from your reply –

    There is no necessity, evolutionary or otherwise, for the existence of (what we experience as) awareness.

    OK. Maybe so. But I’m none the wiser about what this “raw awareness” might be and what, if anything, it might have to do with rebirth.

  27. Fred
    Fred June 29, 2012 at 12:31 pm |


    . This phenomenon challenges what we once believed to be true, that perceptions must enter consciousness to affect our behavior. Blindsight proves that our behavior can be guided by sensory information of which we are completely unaware. (Carlson, 2010) It may be thought of as a converse of the form of anosognosia known as Anton–Babinski syndrome, in which there is full cortical blindness along with the confabulation of visual experience.”

  28. anon 108
    anon 108 June 29, 2012 at 12:41 pm |

    “That which sees enlightenment is the universe itself.”

    A near limitless supply of similar woo-woo can be randomly generated here:

    (click “Receive more wisdom”)

  29. Fred
    Fred June 29, 2012 at 12:47 pm |

    The brain can be taught to ” see ” with a device that fits on the tongue and
    sends pulses of stimulation to replicate objects in the environment seen with
    a camera.

    New cortical connections fill in the space in the old visual center(s).

    So what is seeing reality, or unreality? Reality is an opinion.

    Sitting in a hut in the desert for 3 years with no outside input would certainly
    rewire the brain.

  30. Ted
    Ted June 29, 2012 at 1:06 pm |

    Fred, Peter Watts’ Blindsight isn’t the stuff of blitterstaffs and karate, although it’s related. Think of blindsight as spontaneous action in the moment; spontaneous in the sense that it does not come from awareness or the intention that arises out of awareness.

    anon108, if awareness isn’t dependent on the brain, then when the brain ceases to function, temporarily or permanently, awareness does not stop. Think of the brain in one sense as the tablet upon which our self is written, and awareness as the pen that writes upon it. Destroy the tablet, replace it with another, and the new self will be written by the same pen. Or think of the body as a movie, and the awareness as a movie projector. Swap reels, and everything seems to change, but the projector continues. Neither analogy is even approximately correct, of course, but they serve to illustrate the point.

  31. anon 108
    anon 108 June 29, 2012 at 1:19 pm |

    “…if awareness isn’t dependent on the brain, then when the brain ceases to function, temporarily or permanently, awareness does not stop.”

    Is that all you’re saying, Ted? “If…”? That’s not saying much.

  32. Senjo
    Senjo June 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm |

    MJGibbs and Ted, thanks for your comments. I don’t disagree with either of the analogies that you’ve given but because they don’t relate to rebirth (but rather to cause and effect now) they don’t really relate to the point I was trying to address, maybe I explained it badly.

    Traditional Buddhist teaching says that depending on your positive or negative karma depends on what rebirth you get. So good action leads to rebirth as a human or a deva or an asura and bad karma leads to rebirth as an animal or a hungry ghost or in a hell realm etc. I’ve never understood how that concept could exist without some form of arbiter. To take a terribly simplistic example, if during my lifetime, I do a number of positive actions (some big, some small) and a number of negative actions (some big, some small) – when I die there has has to be some form of arbiter to decide what realm I totter off to next and how to weigh my positive actions agaist my negative ones. That’s the part that I’ve always felt is a bit absurd. Even if all my actions are negative, some force has to determine whether those actions are worthy of the animal realm, hungry ghost or hell realm. This requires some form of arbiter, and because such an arbiter is inherently unlikely that’s another strong argument against any form of belief in rebirth. That’s the point I was trying to make.

  33. anon 108
    anon 108 June 29, 2012 at 1:52 pm |

    Further re “…if awareness isn’t dependent on the brain…”

    We construct hypotheses to explain phenomena that are in need of explanation. Rebirth involving the persistence of awareness/consciousness post-mortem is an intriguing hypothesis, but nothing requires it to be true. The Universe works very well without it.

  34. anon 108
    anon 108 June 29, 2012 at 1:58 pm |

    Cool clip, Fred!

  35. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi June 29, 2012 at 3:09 pm |

    Correct me if I am wrong, but I think when Fred refers to “raw awareness”, he is bringing up what is generally called the “hard problem” of consciousness.

    Neurological and scientific approaches to understanding consciousness are generally limited to describing how awareness is functionally related to the brain, the nervous system, the senses, the glands, and the complex interaction of all these. there’s a whole lot of interesting evidence about that to take into account when we talk about the quality and function of awareness and consciousness. But virtually all scientists agree that none of that explains why conscious awareness exists in the first place. That’s the “hard problem”.

    The phrase “raw awareness” seems to be Fred’s way of referring to the problem of explaining how any self-aware experience can exist in the first place, given a strictly materialistic assumption about reality. And it really is a hard problem to get around, since the materialistic assumption of reality must somehow explain consciousness itself not merely as a product of material processes, but as a material of some kind, itself. There’s not even a scientific theory about how consciousness could come about, or what it actually is? How can it be self-aware, even if it were some kind of force, like magnetism, or a particle, or a quantum event of some kind? How can matter of any kind actually produce the non-material phenomena of consciousness?

    The problem is so hard, even on the theoretical level, that it’s rather easy to abandon it for a more simple solution, such as that the world is simply not merely material in nature, and that consciousness is actually derived from a deeper level of reality than matter. Or even, that the foundation of the material world is actually “consciousness” in its most raw form. And, that even asking the question “what is consciousness?” requires putting aside the materialistic viewpoint, and asking this question directly of ourselves, since our own nature seems to be that of “conscious being”.

    This is why the meditative pursuit of the question is perhaps the most productive.

  36. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi June 29, 2012 at 3:36 pm |

    Now, as this relates to reincarnation and traditional views, I think Brad’s basic point that a lot of this information is conveyed by mythic means has real merit. Traditional Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains were not always making literal statements about rebirth, they were often making mythic or metaphorical or didactic statements using the concept of rebirth as a way of advancing certain points. The entire “punishment/reward” concept of rebirth can be easily seen as a mythical way of encouraging good behavior, and discouraging bad behavior, every bit as much as the Christian concept of heaven and hell, or Santa Claus, for that matter. It doesn’t make it entirely untrue, but it doesn’t make it literally true either.

    There’s many assertions about rebirth in the traditions which I don’t think is literally true, but which are ways of entwining the teachings of each tradition into the narrative of rebirth. In the process, a lot of distortions get introduced. And it’s important to be able to extract the basic truths about rebirth from the web of distortions that get embedded in the traditions – as is the case with most everything else the traditions claim to know about.

    In this vein, I think it’s very valuable to look at the modern semi-scientific approach to studying the phenomena, such as Drs. Weiss, Newton, Stevenson, and Tucker, as well as many others. These are people who have no traditional viewpoint to defend, and who have tried to be objective about studying the phenomena. Weiss and Newton in particular were practicing psychiatrists of an agnostic bent who, without intending to do so, uncovered past-life and intra-life memories while using hypnotic regression on their patients. They were at first skeptical, but repeated discoveries slowly convinced them that these memories were not implanted or even mere fantasies. They both ended up using this procedure on thousands of patients, and recorded the results in several books.

    Both of them also recovered significantly detailed memories of “life between lives” that described the subtle worlds people inhabited after death and before rebirth. What’s most interesting about these accounts is that virtually all patients, regardless of their religious beliefs or affiliations, describe almost the same kind of experience and world, even when it completely contradicted their previous religious views. And almost all describe an afterlife that has no particular religious affiliation to it. Christians did not find that “heaven” was a Christian environment, nor did Hindus find a Hindu afterlife. In fact, the overwhelming viewpoint was that earthly life was “unreal”, and that the afterlife was actually the “real world” as far as they were concerned. Likewise, earthly religion was not a terribly good guide to what either the afterlife, or even reincarnation, was actually about.

    One apparently universal sentiment was that there was no punishment/reward system for reincarnation, even if it might sometimes appear to be the case. Instead, the general “model” that one might use is more like a school system, in which one is born again and again for the purpose of learning lessons, and growing spiritually, and that sometimes what is needed for growth and learning is a very difficult life filled with great troubles and strife, even great pain and suffering. So these were lifetimes that were considered highly conducive to spiritual growth, just the way a very hard college course might be difficult, but also a very valuable learning experience, and something given to only the best students, not the worst. Likewise, lifetimes that were very easy and pleasurable were often considered to be like fluff courses that young souls needed because they weren’t capable of enduring the really hard courses.

    In no cases did anyone report some authority dishing out punishments and rewards based on past behavior. In fact, many people recounted numerous past lives in which they committed grievous crimes, for which no retribution was given. Instead, at a certain point in their progress, they came to see that they needed to develop greater sensitivity to others, and to do so it would be useful to endure a life of greater suffering or limitation. This wasn’t a punishment, however, but only a recourse for remedying their own insensitivity.

    I think it’s very useful to use these kinds of accounts as a balancing point in the examination of traditional teachings about rebirth. Sometimes they affirm those teachings, and sometimes they contradict them. Neither are authoritative, but they are good fodder for consideration.

  37. Ted
    Ted June 29, 2012 at 3:51 pm |

    Senjo, I can tell you how the Tibetans explain it. They say this is the teaching of the Buddha, but I’ll let you judge whether you agree with that, and whether you think it’s helpful.

    What they say is that in the moment that you die, you experience a profound moment of attachment as your awareness is forced to let go of your body and your life, and this powerful attachment is what throws you into the next life. And that choice is essentially random: you have just about every possible kind of positive and negative karma in your storehouse of karmic seeds; which one goes off depends on your state of mind as you die.

    So if your state of mind is positive and compassionate, you’ll tend to take a good rebirth. If your state of mind is negative and angry, you’ll tend to take a bad rebirth. Heaven and hell and the various other realms of existence are all just your karmic seeds going off; if you take a rebirth in hell, it’s very expensive in terms of negative karmic seeds, and if you take a rebirth in heaven, it’s very expensive in terms of positive karma.

    There’s nobody running the show: if things fly off the rails for you, it could be eons before you have an experience of consciousness that’s anything like the one you have now. Nobody’s trying to punish you by sending you to hell, or reward you by sending you to heaven. It’s just the filmstrip that lands in the movie projector.

    And the idea that you just keep taking rebirth and learning more in each life until finally you “graduate” is actually not supported by this view of how consciousness works: there is nobody trying to teach you anything except other victims who happen to have had better luck than you in previous lives, and they can’t put you anywhere—the best they can do is give you advice. This is what Buddhas are: beings who have figured out how to game the system to the point where they no longer suffer.

  38. anon 108
    anon 108 June 29, 2012 at 5:08 pm |

    BY – As you say, the “hard problem” of consciousness assumes that there is something inherently inexplicable about consciousness – that subjective awareness is so mysterious as to be a kind of magic. Daniel Dennett’s critique of this view makes a lot of sense to me:

  39. Fred
    Fred June 29, 2012 at 5:36 pm |

    Fred : “that which sees enlightenment is the Universe itself”

    108 : ” chopra delivers similar woo woo ( or doo doo ? ).”

    Someone here posted that Huang Po said this 1000 years ago.

    .” What I behold then is my real Self, which is the true nature of all things; see-er and seen are one and the same, yet there is no seeing, just as the eye cannot behold itself.”

    Ken Wilber wrote something similar in The Spectrum of Consciousness in 1976:

    “The Void is what you can’t see when you are looking for a self that isn’t there.
    Why is that? Because it is looking.”

    The first time I read that I felt like I was on acid and the world was collapsing.

  40. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi June 29, 2012 at 8:37 pm |


    “There’s nobody running the show: if things fly off the rails for you, it could be eons before you have an experience of consciousness that’s anything like the one you have now.”

    Why assume no one is running the show, or shows? The opposite is pretty much the testimony of most religions, that there actually is a conscious order to the universe, including all realms and worlds. There is “continuity” to experience, which is what the word “tantra” means. One can veer off to a degree, but the general law of the universe is one of continuity, that brings you back to the median mode of your awareness. Even if we look at the gross physical world and its material laws, we see immense systems of order. You can say no one is running the show, but how did that immense system of physical laws come into being? Sheer randomness? If so, where are all those other universes?

    “And the idea that you just keep taking rebirth and learning more in each life until finally you “graduate” is actually not supported by this view of how consciousness works: there is nobody trying to teach you anything except other victims who happen to have had better luck than you in previous lives, and they can’t put you anywhere—the best they can do is give you advice. ”

    Yes, of course this is not supported by your view that the universe is purely random. But it is supported by a whole lot of experiential testimony. And how do you know that no one is trying to teach you anything other than other “victims”? What does “victim” even mean in this context? It certainly has no meaning if there is no one in charge. So just by using that word, you seem to be betraying a inner sense that someone is indeed in charge, or there could not be any victims at all.

    Now, I would agree that no one puts you anywhere, and all they can do is give advice. But that doesn’t mean that one isn’t being taught through advice and consent, rather than by forceful authority. In fact, it would tend to support the new ager view.

    And then there’s the more traditional Hindu view of reincarnation, which posits “Ishwara” as “the ordainer”, and states that everything that happens is fore-ordained, even if we experience it all as free will and a series of choices on our part. Ramana Maharshi used to teach this, and when a student dropped a leaf on the ground in front of him, and asked, “Was that fore-0rdained?”, Ramana said, “yes, of course.”. He elaborated that even though all was fore-ordained, one could only know this in enlightenment, and that before that, one should take the opposite view, that all was a matter of free will and choice.

    He also had an amusing point of view about Gods and Goddesses. When asked if these beings were real, he said no, of course not, they are all mythic and imaginary. But then he would point out that we, too, are all mythic and imaginary, the very sense of self we thought was real and true is in reality mythic and imaginary, and that in the same way that we experience ourselves to be real and true, the Gods and Goddesses are also real and true. Even Ishwara, the Ordainer.

  41. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi June 29, 2012 at 9:24 pm |


    Well, that’s 55 minutes of my life I’ll never get back.

    Either Dennett is really smart, or really stupid. He’s really smart if his intention was to convince everyone that he just did the “Indian Rope Trick” by, in effect, simply stating he was going to do answer the “hard problem” of consciousness, then talking about something else for the rest of the lecture, and then announcing that he’d done the trick, and letting everyone go home thinking he’d done the trick. Then at least he’d be a very smart magician.

    He’s really stupid if he thinks he actually did answer the question, rather than just fooled the audience into thinking he did.

    One thing is for certain, he said nothing in that entire lecture that actually addressed the issue of the hard problem, which is “Why does self-aware consciousness exist at all?” Everything he said assumed that self-aware consciousness already exists, and that our consciousness can be manipulated into all kinds of false assumptions about the nature of what we are as conscious beings, but it never went back to describe how that awareness can arise in the brain in the first place. He just engaged in a smoke and mirrors demonstration of how you can fool people into thinking you explained something, when you never even bothered to try.

    I really had no problem with any of the neurological tricks he described or demonstrated. They are all quite true, and certainly quite meaningful in the sense that we can’t trust our subjective experience at face value. But not a single one of those examples in any way helped answer the question of why there is any self-aware consciousness to begin with, or how it could come about. All of those tricks could also be used on a robot-zombie machine with imperfect processing software and hardware, a robot that had no self-aware consciousness at all. So the question remains, why do we actually experience these tricks? We do we experience any of the brain’s computational gymnastics? And how could any of that gymnastics actually produce a subjective experience at all? What is subjective experience at any rate?

    This is very frustrating if one actually expects someone as well spoken as Dennett to actually answer the question at hand. The “hard question” is hard not because it relies on magical notions of difficulty in answering a question that doesn’t exist, it’s hard because it’s really fucking hard. And Dennett proved how hard it is by completely avoiding the question. Even he knows its so hard that if he actually tried to answer it, he simply couldn’t even begin. So he didn’t begin.

    Instead, he tried to answer an entirely different question, which is, “Given that we experience this phenomena of consciousness, why do we feel that we are a subjective observer?” By that is not the hard question. The hard question has to do with that “given”. Why is it that we are given consciousness in the first place? The “trick” Dennett pulled is to answer the second question, and pretend that he was actually answering the first question. That’s how you pull off the Indian Rope Trick before a gullible audience fooled by old philosophers talking slowly and rationally, and using misdirection to convince the audience that he did a trick that he never even tried to do.

  42. anon 108
    anon 108 June 30, 2012 at 3:40 am |

    Without wishing to sound condescending, BY, your initial reaction is very similar to my initial reaction: Dennett avoids the question and explains nothing. But latterly, giving him the benefit of the doubt (he can’t be THAT dumb!) I’ve realised that he does something more interesting; he challenges the assumption behind the question.

    His point as I understand it this: Just because our subjective experience of consciousness seems so mysterious and inexplicable doesn’t mean it is. Like a magic trick or an optical illusion, conscious awareness is only mysterious when you don’t know how it’s done. All sorts of perceptual phenomena ‘mis-represent’ themselves. Dennett is not claiming to be able to explain the nut and bolts nuerology of subjective awareness – yet; he’s suggesting there’s no reason why it should be of a qualitatively different order than any other perceptual phenomenon that misrepresents itself and whose mechanics we do now understand. If that approach to the ‘hard question’ doesn’t float your boat, fair enough, but it does make sense to me.

  43. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi June 30, 2012 at 4:55 am |


    Yes, I get that part of Dennett’s argument, and agree that it’s a good point to make. And it does make sense in relation to the “cartesian-observer-entity” model of consciousness, pointing out that there’s no such entity to be found. It’s even very much akin to the Buddhist notion that the self is merely a contingent collection of ever-changing tendencies of awareness, and not an actual entity. But again, that’s not what the “hard question” is about. And even worse, it’s not what the “transcendent observer” argument is about in Vedanta, say. It only addresses a rather narrow argument among western intellectuals about this contingent self. Even the quote from Bob Wright he addresses doesn’t do justice to Wright’s full criticism of Dennett.

    But let’s be clear, the hard question of consciousness has to do with its very existence, not its particular function or structure, or how the notion of a “self” comes about in the course of conscious existence. And Dennett says absolutely nothing about this. The notion that it’s actually a very easy question to answer is something I would agree with, but that easy answer requires that we recognize consciousness as primary, and not secondary. The self may be a contingent phenomena within consciousness that has not essence or entity at its base, but it does arise in consciousness, and it is therefore consciousness itself which is primary. That of course leaves the question of “what is consciousness?” or “what is the essence of consciousness?” The Buddhist view might be that the answer to this question is “emptiness”. And that, too, is a very simple answer, not truly mysterious. But it’s not Dennett’s answer.

    Dennett doesn’t see material objects as “empty”. He I’m sure thinks they are composed of quarks and other fundamental particles and forces.

    Also, his deconstruction of the “movie projector” analogy only applies to a brain-based notion of that concept, and not the actual Vedantic notion of the “screen of consciousness” for example. In the Vedantic version of that analogy, the “screen” is not in the brain, and it is not the sensory inputs that are assembled upon a screen in the brain to form an image. To the contrary, in that model the entire universe, including the body and brain, exist as projections upon the screen of consciousness, the source of which is transcendental, but only modified by our karmic vasanas and samskaras, which are like the film the light passes through and form the seeming objects in the universe. Or, as Nisargadatta said, the whole universe is merely that part of ourselves we do not recognize as ourself, and thus project outward as objects. Or as Ramana said, science gets perception all backwards. We don’t perceive objects through the senses – instead, we project them outward from the mind, and create the very world that our senses then seemingly perceive.

    Of course, to even begin to grasp that as something other than a concept, one actually has to examine one’s own consciousness directly, and not merely by way of scientific abstraction. And that’s Dennett’s big problem. He’s never even tried to examine consciousness directly. He only examines the outputs of consciousness, not the simple fact of it. And that’s where meditation differs as an approach. It doesn’t try to find out how consciousness functions, it simply examines it as it is, and let’s its simple truth become obvious. In that sense, it is of course an easy question, not a great mystery we have to pinch our brains into knots to try to grasp. But one does actually have to examine it directly and existentially, rather than just think about it.

  44. Ted
    Ted June 30, 2012 at 8:42 am |

    BY, the Buddha sidestepped the question of why the universe exists, saying that it’s not a useful question, and the quest to answer it will distract you from the Path. So maybe there is some unseen controller. But because this controller is unseen, we can’t base our practice on its existence.

    By “we” here of course I mean Buddhists. There are many paths to the top of the mountain. Vedanta philosophy seems to me to be a viable path, but it follows a very different nomenclature than Buddhism, and speaks in very different terms.

    The thing that bothers me about the “lives are a sequence of lessons” philosophy is that I know people who follow it, and use it as an excuse to be completely passive. Life is a lesson, so I’ll just sit here and wait for the good times to come back around. Sooner or later I’ll become an evolved person, and benevolent deities are looking after me and making it happen, so my part is simply to receive what they offer me.

    This may not even be wrong, but it seems unlikely to me. To the extent that it allows the practitioner to avoid having mental afflictions about his or her problems, it’s probably a good thing, but to the extent that it leads the practitioner to take no action to improve the situation, I am skeptical as to its efficacy.

    In Zen, we are told to sit, and we have discourse, and we try to avoid being definite about anything significant, so as to avoid grasping to an intellectualization of something that cannot be intellectualized. In Tibetan Buddhism, we try to keep our vows, and we try to meditate, and we go to teachings and try to think about the jewels with which our Lamas adorn our ears. Neither of these activities is passive, and this is what I prefer about them. I don’t think Vedanta encourages passivity either; I’m reacting specifically to the “lives are a series of lessons” meme, which I don’t think captures the essence of Vedanta at all. To me, the essence of Vedanta is the practice of the eight limbs.

  45. anon 108
    anon 108 June 30, 2012 at 9:52 am |

    BY – As Ted says, the Buddha sidestepped the big ‘why’ questions. I think he did so for sound reasons. Why is there consciousness? Why is there anything at all! I don’t have a burning desire to know, or any expectation that to know is possible.

    And I don’t believe there’s anything about introspection that guarantees – or even tends toward – revelation of any one particular, reliably accurate, model of metaphysical truth. I’ll wager that many people meditate, and for a long time, and yet don’t arrive at any firm conclusions about the ‘obvious simple truth’ of consciousness.

  46. anon 108
    anon 108 June 30, 2012 at 10:04 am |

    …I mean: arriving at some understanding, or experience, of the ultimately true nature of things is not what meditation is necessarily for.

  47. Ted
    Ted June 30, 2012 at 10:44 am |

    The simple truth of consciousness is that we have it. One thing you find if you sit is a sense of its quality—what it is not and, perhaps eventually, what it is.

  48. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi June 30, 2012 at 12:59 pm |

    Dudes, the simple truth of consciousness is that we are it. That’s why the question matters. If you’re not interested in knowing who you are, what’s the point of meditation?

    Buddha wasn’t interested in conceptual explanations for consciousness, but he did strongly advocate knowing ourselves directly. That’s what he did under the Bodhi tree. And his final admonition was “be a refuge unto yourself”. The whole point of Buddhism is inspecting our real nature. You can’t do that without understanding what conscious awareness is all about.

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