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Hundreds of lifetimes before enlightenment?

vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran

Today I asked the question of the 2 Theravada monks whom I am tutoring in English: What is the likelihood that a lay person can become enlightened in their current lifetime? Their answer -- very unlikely; that lay people may live well over 500 lifetimes before enlightenment. That even Siddhartha Buddha underwent hundreds of lives before nibbana. And that they (the monks) are unlikely to reach Buddhahood in this lifetime.

Are they right? I don't know. But it is what they teach.

Also, beliefs on this may vary by which school of Buddhism one is practicing.

Comments

  • personperson Where is my mind? 'Merica! Veteran

    @vinlyn said:
    Are they right? I don't know. But it is what they teach.

    Honestly I don't think they know either. But it's what the tradition teaches and in my experience Buddhists brought up in a traditional Buddhist culture usually have an unquestioning faith in the truth of the tradition.

    So really you're asking if the tradition is right. There is a definition of myth that I came across not too long ago that defines it as something that is more or less true even if not scientifically accurate. So maybe it can truthfully be said that achieving enlightenment is much harder as a lay person, but it might not be fully accurate to say that it would take 500 lifetimes.

    Or not, just throwing out a thought on the matter.

  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran

    @person said:

    ...but it might not be fully accurate to say that it would take 500 lifetimes.

    I appreciate the post. But keep in mind I said "may" take 500 lifetimes, not "would".

  • ShoshinShoshin No one in particular Nowhere Special Veteran

    Hundreds of lifetimes before enlightenment?

    Do any of us know "How Many" life times (a version of this so called "I") has "already" lived ?

    Whose counting ??? :winky:

  • BunksBunks Australia Veteran

    The aim should be for stream entry in this life. Then one will be enlightened within seven lifetimes.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sotāpanna

  • JeffreyJeffrey Veteran

    Some places in the diamond sutra it says that the words used are relative and used to express. In that text Buddha asks again and again or rather says that the merit of teaching a single line of the diamond sutra is worth giving a number of precious gems equal to thousands of 'chiliocosms' (something like that) which are like galaxies or something. And so there is like a lot of rhetoric you could think of it. I read a commentator who said that just giving a boring discussion of the diamond sutra wasn't really worth that much merit and that you really had to have an exciting understanding or something like that. And then I've also read that some texts where they say how many years you will be in hell for various offenses like hitting someone or whatever that the actual years are relative to how hard it is to endure those hells and not like literal same time as how time passes in our universe. So the number of years is 'exaggerated' to put the point across how hard it is to endure the hells and so forth.

  • karastikarasti Breathing Minnesota Veteran

    If it takes a lay person 500 lifetimes, how many does it take a monk? And isn't it safe to say that a monk probably isn't a monk all those lifetimes, just as a layperson isn't solely a layperson for 500 lifetimes? What if this lay person is on lifetime 500 right now? (just generally speaking of course, I assume they didn't mean exactly 500 or any other set number). Surely they don't mean that a lay person in this life has 500 more lifetimes to go. They may only have 1. It seems to me that is it highly unlikely/extremely rare for anyone to reach nirvana in their current life time.

    personyagr
  • personperson Where is my mind? 'Merica! Veteran

    @vinlyn said:

    @person said:

    ...but it might not be fully accurate to say that it would take 500 lifetimes.

    I appreciate the post. But keep in mind I said "may" take 500 lifetimes, not "would".

    Fair enough. I'm just trying to say that the biggest area of contention I've had with traditional Buddhists isn't so much ontological (what kind of stuff there is) but epistemic (what is knowledge, how we come to know what we know). Are the teachings of Buddha and the way they've been passed down 100%... 99% true? Or should we apply scientific skepticism to the teachings (especially cosmological teachings) and say that they are untested hypotheses?

    I do feel like the subjective, experiential teachings (universal love, peace, etc.) can and has been individually tested many times and found valid.

  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran

    @karasti said:
    If it takes a lay person 500 lifetimes, how many does it take a monk? And isn't it safe to say that a monk probably isn't a monk all those lifetimes, just as a layperson isn't solely a layperson for 500 lifetimes? What if this lay person is on lifetime 500 right now? (just generally speaking of course, I assume they didn't mean exactly 500 or any other set number). Surely they don't mean that a lay person in this life has 500 more lifetimes to go. They may only have 1. It seems to me that is it highly unlikely/extremely rare for anyone to reach nirvana in their current life time.

    And this is my point. I think when people -- in general -- think about Buddhism, they often confuse real Buddhist teachings with "pop Buddhism". To be honest, I see Buddhism as a righteous struggle.

    karasti
  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran

    @person said:

    Fair enough. I'm just trying to say that the biggest area of contention I've had with traditional Buddhists isn't so much ontological (what kind of stuff there is) but epistemic (what is knowledge, how we come to know what we know). Are the teachings of Buddha and the way they've been passed down 100%... 99% true? Or should we apply scientific skepticism to the teachings (especially cosmological teachings) and say that they are untested hypotheses?

    I do feel like the subjective, experiential teachings (universal love, peace, etc.) can and has been individually tested many times and found valid.

    I think you make two good points. I am always skeptical of the standard teachings of any religion. But I'm even more skeptical of some guy who steps forward and basically says, "Hey, the Tipitaka is wrong. I have discovered the way it really works." And that's what I refer to as "pop Buddhism".

    Yes, universal love and peace are valid principles, but just because you practice them does not mean you are or will soon be enlightened.

    person
  • techietechie India Veteran
    edited July 15

    Normally when people use a certain number (such as 100 times or 500 times), they mean the path is extremely long and arduous. They are not talking math or probability. They're implying that enlightenment is not an overnight process. It is not a matter of will. You don't snap your fingers and say I am going to become enlightened today. It could happen today or after 100 lifetimes or 500. No one knows when; therefore, patience is the key.

    Fosdickupekka
  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran

    @techie said:
    Normally when people use a certain number (such as 100 times or 500 times), they mean the path is extremely long and arduous. They are not talking math or probability. They're implying that enlightenment is not an overnight process. It is not a matter of will. You don't snap your fingers and say I am going to become enlightened today. It could happen today or after 100 lifetimes or 500. No one knows when; therefore, patience is the key.

    That may be what people say, but it is not what those monks were saying. They were saying "many lifetimes".

  • karastikarasti Breathing Minnesota Veteran

    See, and I'm not so sure we can't simply be enlightened here and now. I'm not saying it's something most of us could do, as our blockages don't just disappear usually. But apparently it is possible, per several teachers. Including people who are on the verge at the end of a lifetime and are born only to be liberated very shortly after. If stories are to be believed. It's hard to look at a path as long and arduous when you don't know where you are on the path. Obviously, that is the case. But things in our lives block us from seeing where we are.

    upekka
  • yagryagr Veteran

    @karasti said:
    If it takes a lay person 500 lifetimes, how many does it take a monk? And isn't it safe >to say that a monk probably isn't a monk all those lifetimes, just as a layperson isn't >solely a layperson for 500 lifetimes? What if this lay person is on lifetime 500 right >now? (just generally speaking of course, I assume they didn't mean exactly 500 or any other set number). Surely they don't mean that a lay person in this life has 500 more lifetimes to go. They may only have 1. It seems to me that is it highly unlikely/extremely rare for anyone to reach nirvana in their current life time.

    Further, this assumes that time, and lifetimes, are linear.

    karastiBunksDavidupekka
  • yagryagr Veteran

    @person said:

    **Are the teachings of Buddha and the way they've been passed down 100%... 99% true? **Or should we apply scientific skepticism to the teachings (especially cosmological teachings) and say that they are untested hypotheses?

    I do feel like the subjective, experiential teachings (universal love, peace, etc.) can and has been individually tested many times and found valid.

    Do I remember correctly that the Buddha said that enough of his teachings would last that a person could be enlightened by following the path for the next ten thousand years? Because, if this is true, it implies that there would be a significant deterioration in the accuracy of the teachings over time. We might be closer to 75% true at this point.

    karasti
  • karastikarasti Breathing Minnesota Veteran

    @vinlyn Indeed, and I suspect they are not. But I have nothing to base that on :lol: But what might be 500 linear years in recorded human history very well might have nothing to do with our rebirths and where we are on any path. Perhaps in my next live I will be born a peasant in China in the year 500AD. Or in Africa 200,000 "years ago" yet it would be a progression on my path despite going "backwards" in time. It's a strange thing to think about.

    @yagr that's really interesting, and a good point. Religious teachings operate just like a game of telephone, and I don't doubt that that is true.

  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran

    @karasti said:
    See, and I'm not so sure we can't simply be enlightened here and now. I'm not saying it's something most of us could do, as our blockages don't just disappear usually. But apparently it is possible, per several teachers. Including people who are on the verge at the end of a lifetime and are born only to be liberated very shortly after. If stories are to be believed. It's hard to look at a path as long and arduous when you don't know where you are on the path. Obviously, that is the case. But things in our lives block us from seeing where we are.

    Some of this difference is in which school of Buddhism one follows.

  • federicafederica seeker of the clear blue sky Moderator

    I think two things: Extensive periods of time with definite set figures are - figurative. Rather like Christ's 40 days and 40 nights. Metaphorical figure implying it took a while.

    Secondly, who was it said it's the journey, not the destination?
    I think we all experience moments of enlightenment, now and then; instances when everything we have learnt falls into place, and we see; we understand. Then, we go back to being dullards.

    The secret may not be to 'reach Enlightenment'. The secret may lie in reducing those 'in-between' periods....

    Fosdickkarastiupekka
  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran

    @federica said:
    I think two things: Extensive periods of time with definite set figures are - figurative. Rather like Christ's 40 days and 40 nights. Metaphorical figure implying it took a while.

    Secondly, who was it said it's the journey, not the destination?
    I think we all experience moments of enlightenment, now and then; instances when everything we have learnt falls into place, and we see; we understand. Then, we go back to being dullards.

    The secret may not be to 'reach Enlightenment'. The secret may lie in reducing those 'in-between' periods....

    And that may be. None of us knows. Including monks.

    But if I challenged you to show me where it says that in the Buddhist scriptures, I doubt that you could.

    And so, what I am suggesting is that we must be careful that we are not CLINGING to a desire for nibbana to be easily achieved when, indeed, it may not be easy at all. Some folks here always condemn "cherry-picking", and yet, when it's convenient, most of us cherry pick. It's sort of like all of my Christian friends...I'm going to guess that all of them expect to go to heaven when they die. I have no doubt that at least a few of them will not.

    federicakarasti
  • federicafederica seeker of the clear blue sky Moderator
    edited July 15

    I don't think this has as much to do with 'cherry-picking' as personal interpretation; but I get your point about finding such hypotheses within the scriptures, though.

    I would refer us back to the book were currently digesting.... seems sound and sensible. Maybe theorising about Enlightenment is one of the 4 unconjecturables. Or could be....

    K.I.S.S.

    karasti
  • lobsterlobster Veteran

    Whilst some Christians, reincarnated Hindu chickens and born again Buddhist monks may have all the wrong answers ...
    ... some of us prefer the right questions. For example, how best to avoid the ignorance and dukkha in our lives ... o:)

    The primary difference is that Secular Buddhism has no dependency on assertions not in evidence, it is based solely on that which can be verified in the natural world. It does not rule out such claims, but merely recognizes that such assertions (like literal rebirth) have not been able to provide any externally verifiable or convincing evidence. And, like the claims of other religions which cannot be verified by any known means, can be set aside.
    http://secularbuddhism.org/faq/

    yagr
  • ShoshinShoshin No one in particular Nowhere Special Veteran

    Are they right?

    Who really knows ????

    The thing that "I" find interesting when it comes to the concept of "rebirth", is for the most part not many people remember past lives, and according to certain Buddhist teachings, we (this karmic bundle of energy flux) have already lived many life times... in one form or other...

    So if one can't remember past lives (as many of us can't) who really knows how many life times one has already lived...one hundred, two hundred five hundred ?
    (In other words this life time "could" be the one in which enlightenment happens) ...

    "Don't practice to become Enlightened-Let your practice be the natural expression of your Enlightenment !"

    ~Dogen~

    Or as an Hindu sage (whose name has slipped my mind) once said ...

    "If you don't feel that you're Enlightened...You can always 'try' to be !"

    upekka
  • personperson Where is my mind? 'Merica! Veteran

    I take the examples of Gil Fronsdale and the book we're discussing and Stephen Batchelor and his writings. They are similar in how they interpret Buddhism but I think they get there in different ways.

    To my mind Gil looks to these earliest teachings and finds something that is absent of cosmological references. Stephen seems to often take the path of reinterpreting things to better fit his worldview, or like you say cherry picking.

  • DavidDavid some guy The Hammer in Ontario, Canada, eh Veteran

    The only memories I have of past lives come in the form of dreams so I don't put a lot of stock in them.

    I won't be the same person as I am in this life and it's not the same as not being the same person as yesterday because I remember yesterday.

    If my next life won't be lived by this "me" then how is it different than seeing myself in somebody passing by on the street?

    If separation is convention then at what point (or is there a point) where all our lives converge? Heck, in a past life I may have been my daughter.

    These questions lead me to more questions and so I take them to be lessons on not trying too hard.

    "Just relax, it likely won't even happen in this lifetime anyways. Baby steps, baby steps."

  • KeromeKerome Did I fall in the forest? Europe Veteran

    @david wrote:
    If my next life won't be lived by this "me" then how is it different than seeing myself in somebody passing by on the street?

    That's a key point... in a way the best thing you can do is leave your pile of 5 aggregates in the best possible shape for your next "me".

    But honestly I feel one has to shoot for enlightenment, or at least inner peace, in this life. One has this precious birth, where with the help of the dharma diluted or not, things may be achieved.

    The Buddha himself says test the teachings, and rebirth, cosmology and karma cannot easily be tested. Therefore their truth is uncertain. When I put this to a monk, the best he could do was ask for trust based on the track record of the dharma.

    But for me this question divides the dharma into two clear groups of teachings, one group that can be tested and deserves immediate focus, and another group that can't be tested and can be left for later.

    There is no guarantee there will be a rebirth, as I see it, though I think the near-death experience evidence is convincing that there is an existence after death. Whether there will be dharma is anyone's guess.

    person
  • DavidDavid some guy The Hammer in Ontario, Canada, eh Veteran
    edited July 15

    @Kerome said:

    @david wrote:
    If my next life won't be lived by this "me" then how is it different than seeing myself in somebody passing by on the street?

    That's a key point... in a way the best thing you can do is leave your pile of 5 aggregates in the best possible shape for your next "me".

    And all the current mes as well but I see your point.

    But honestly I feel one has to shoot for enlightenment, or at least inner peace, in this life. One has this precious birth, where with the help of the dharma diluted or not, things may be achieved.

    Agreed. This is why I do not practice for some distant point that may or may not happen. I practice for right now and won't beat myself up if I am not perfect.

    The Buddha himself says test the teachings, and rebirth, cosmology and karma cannot easily be tested. Therefore their truth is uncertain. When I put this to a monk, the best he could do was ask for trust based on the track record of the dharma.

    But for me this question divides the dharma into two clear groups of teachings, one group that can be tested and deserves immediate focus, and another group that can't be tested and can be left for later.

    As well as differing ideas within those that can't be tested, many of which seem a bit dogmatic.

    There is no guarantee there will be a rebirth, as I see it, though I think the near-death experience evidence is convincing that there is an existence after death. Whether there will be dharma is anyone's guess.

    I don't believe in nothing but whether or not there is something to be experienced remains to be seen.

  • karastikarasti Breathing Minnesota Veteran
    edited July 15

    For me, Nirvana is never really on my mind. When I meditate, when I try to improve my interactions and reactions, when I help people or practice metta and compassion, my goals is to make those things the norm in my life rather than something I have to consciously go to. I want the moments I am not living in compassion and peace to be the exceptions. Not the other way around, which is mostly where I am now. That is why I study and practice, so in time my foundation is solidly in place to allow me to live more from that place of peace and compassion. It really has nothing to do with rebirth or liberation for me. So I don't practice/live with it in mind.

    I read this story the other day, and found it a bit fitting for this discussion. Perhaps it is true, in the end, that we have to live the gamut of the human experience to really and truly let go of it all and be liberated. As the saying goes, we can't truly understand something we haven't experienced. Maybe we have to experience it all. That is what I suspect. With no basis at all in Buddhist teachings, but they are my guide, not my rule.
    http://www.galactanet.com/oneoff/theegg_mod.html

    Davidupekka
  • vinlynvinlyn Colorado...for now Veteran

    Nicely expressed, Karasti!

  • GuiGui Veteran
    edited July 15

    I have two things to offer about enlightenment that I have noticed which I find rather odd. The first is that a general belief regarding enlightenment, and the Buddha's in particular, is that it is a permanent state. This goes against our belief that nothing is permanent. The second is that nirvana is beyond comprehension so how is it possible to even wish for it? And desire is a whole other matter.
    I personally think enlightenment happens to all of us from time to time. It's not something of the mind or something the mind can understand. So why even consider it? I would rather dream of sitting on a beach discussing fish with a blue heron anyway.

  • CedarTreeCedarTree Private Island Explorer

    One thing I have found when I have personal retreat practices or in a monastery setting like Ajahn Chah lineages or Gyobutsuji Zen Monastery is that one begins to understand how deep and almost unfathomable the practice truly is.

    This is one of the benefits of intensive and a life oriented solely around practice. Humbleness is usually one of the first character traits that arises. It is very pronounced.

    vinlynperson
  • federicafederica seeker of the clear blue sky Moderator

    @Gui said:
    I have two things to offer about enlightenment that I have noticed which I find rather odd. The first is that a general belief regarding enlightenment, and the Buddha's in particular, is that it is a permanent state.

    It IS a permanent state. It's a state of being,not a 'thing'. It's a transformed Mind-set.

    How can you become unenlightened? It's a bit like being heterosexual. You can't change and become homosexual. You are what you are. Enlightenment is a condition of Being, that once achieved, is unchangeable. It has nothing to do with impermanence. Impermanence is Dukkha. Life. Suffering. Once you are Enlightened, that Dukkha ceases.

    This goes against our belief that nothing is permanent.

    It's not a belief. It's a fact.

    The second is that nirvana is beyond comprehension so how is it possible to even wish for it? >And desire is a whole other matter.

    We don't 'wish' for it, or even desire it. We achieve it. But as is evident by the preceding posts, nobody has said that that's their aim. Who has said it is?

    I personally think enlightenment happens to all of us from time to time. It's not something of the mind or something the mind can understand. So why even consider it? I would rather dream of sitting on a beach discussing fish with a blue heron anyway.

    The blue heron - like Enlightenment - is a Mind Factor.
    Discuss Fish all you wish. As long as it is a discourse which does not distract you from your Practice, chat away.

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