In Western thinking – based on the historical experiences – religion is carefully separated from philosophy. Religious belief is dogmatic and “faithful”, while philosophical reflection is logic, rational and should be based on empirically acquired knowledge. Christian worldview and Aristotelian or Kantian worldview might overlap in parts but are fundamentally different in their derivation and character. Religious people are believers and worshippers, while philosophers are thinkers and doubtful skeptics. When I started being interested in Buddhist worldview, I found that it is not so much a religion, as often propagated, but much more a philosophy. The Western term “buddhism” describes two ideas of Buddha’s influence, which in Chinese are 佛教 (fojiao), used to describe the religious practices, rituals and beliefs of buddhists, and 佛家 (fojia), understood as the intellectual philosophical content of Buddha’s teachings. Am I a “Buddhist” when I agree to Buddha’s worldview and practice some of its essences like mindfulness, compassion, inner peace and meditative contemplation, without supporting the belief in some of its historical dogmatic elements like rebirth or the Japanese idea of a “pure land”? A friend said “You can’t just select what you like and ignore the rest!”. Well, I can, but then I am just not “a Buddhist”.
The most intriguing religious idea of Buddhism is rebirth. However, there are many misunderstandings about it, especially when communicating it in a Western language like English or German, and especially when talking about it with someone having a “Western” cultural and educational background. Let me try to clarify a few important aspects of rebirth and Karma, which is closely connected to this topic.
The Chinese term used in the context of rebirth is 輪迴 (lunhui) which is often translated as “reincarnation” or “transmigration”. This is very unlucky, because reincarnation and rebirth must be carefully distinguished. Christians believe in a “soul” that migrates to a new body after the death of the old one.
Souls are eternal and the core of a person. The reincarnation of someone is still that someone. The mortal body is merely a container of the soul. Sounds like typical Western thinking to me. We also find it in Hinduism, serving as the justification for the Indian caste system (that someone is “born into” by reincarnation). The whole concept of personhood and personality is different in Buddhist worldview. Nothing is permanent, so there can’t be this kind of “soul”. Also, there is no isolated, individual being that makes any sense regardless of its surrounding (let’s call it “world”). What determines a human being’s condition is the embedment within an environment and the interaction with it. By having a consciousness and a strong action potential, humans create causes and effects with what they choose to do. This is called Karma. We constitute the further course of our surrounding and, by that, our own path through our karmic actions and decisions. The ancient Theravada school of Buddhism, still closer related to Hinduism, interpreted this in a way that karmic conditions and tendencies are carried on into the next life cycle. It is karmic forces that “migrate” to the next life, not someone’s personality.
Karma, then, also determines the conditions of the next life cycle: The surrounding as well as the form of being itself. This has often been exploited for educational purposes: “If you misbehave and do bad deeds in this life, you will be reborn as an amoeba!”. So you better do well!
Now, the literal understanding of rebirth has never been and can never be proven. That makes it a religious belief. However, there is another way to give it a down-to-earth daily life meaning, as found in the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, especially in Chan (Japanese: Zen) Buddhism. Mahayana philosophy follows a much stricter monism (“all is one”) and rejects the idea of “Nirvana” as a particular moment occuring “someday” in one of an entity’s life cycles, as such separated from the profane life within the Samsara. Instead, Nirvana is always present, intrinsically interwoven into life in form of karmic potential. Moreover, there is no self that sustains itself independently over long periods of time (only our illusion of it does). From moment to moment a being’s constitution changes, because it is dependent on all the karmic factors of its surrounding (which, obviously, is also constantly changing). With this understanding, “rebirth” doesn’t necessarily mean to be “born again” after death. Every new moment is a rebirth of the previous moment. Making a “moment” infinitely small ends up at the continuum that we perceive as “time”. Therefore, time is always “now”. What I choose to do in this Now determines my condition when “reborn” in the next Now. I am nice to you now, and in the next moment I might have a new friend. I steal an apple from my neighbour now, and I will be one step further down the spiral of crime with all its consequences in the next moment. Many of our choices and actual actions are somehow (ethically, normatively) “neutral”, but they impact our path and further course (call it “fate”). This matches perfectly with the understanding of Karma as “the law of cause and effect” rather than as a kind of punishment and retributive justice system. It also rejects determinism and destiny, because human consciousness enables the creation of new karmic tendencies. If not, the entire Buddhist endeavour of “enlightenment” would be useless. I think, this can be a reason for many Christians feeling uncomfortable with Buddhism: It would put them in charge of their lives, it would make them have responsibility for it, rather than blaming all on God. They feel good trusting in the benevolence and mercy of a loving God who takes good care of their lives. History has proven that this trust is too often disappointed. It is on us to take good care of our lives, to find “the right way” and make “the right choices”. Then Karma will increase the chance that in each and every “next moment” we find ourselves reborn in a “better world” with “better conditions”. This totally makes sense to me!
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