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Buddhist metaphysics

FosdickFosdick in its eye are mirrored far off mountainsAlaska, USA Veteran

A vaguely disquieting sense of metaphysics as it seems to appear in Buddhism nibbles at my toes from time to time, and I would like to know how others view this issue. I am referring here primarily to the idea of karma and rebirth as understood literally, that is, viewed as extending beyond this present lifetime.

The idea is rather compelling as an extension of what we can see in our present lives, both mental and physical, but that hypothetical extension is pure metaphysics, can neither be proven nor disproven, and is thus - as I understand the Buddha's teaching - an unprofitable topic for discussion. ( Hence I invite you to discuss it - go figure. O.o )

What is your view of karma and rebirth and any other apparently metaphysical propositions that you have encountered in your study of Buddhism?

Comments

  • federicafederica Seeker of the clear blue sky... Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator

    "It should be no matter of surprise to be born twice, as it was to have been born once."

    Voltaire.

    Re-birth happens every day. The 'you' today' is not the 'you' of yesterday, and is not the 'you' of tomorrow.

    lobsterFosdick
  • federicafederica Seeker of the clear blue sky... Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator
    edited April 2016

    This is long, but entirely worth reading.

    4) In discussing rebirth, the Buddha differed from the other schools of the time in that he didn't base his position on a metaphysical view of personal identity — that is, on defining what it is that gets reborn. By placing rebirth in the context of dependent co-arising, he was presenting it in a phenomenological context — i.e., one that focused on phenomena as they can be directly experienced and that refused to take a stand on whether there is a reality of "things" underlying them. His purpose in taking this sort of position was pragmatic and strategic: By focusing on events and processes as they're directly experienced, you can redirect them — through the power of >attention and intention — away from the suffering they normally cause and toward a deathless >happiness. In this way, the Buddha's approach, instead of being metaphysical, bears similarities to modern schools of philosophy — phenomenology and pragmatism — that avoid getting involved in metaphysical assumptions about a reality behind direct experience.

    5) The fact that the Buddha suggested that his contemporaries drop their metaphysical >assumptions about personal identity if they wanted to practice the path suggests that he would >make the same suggestion to people in the modern world. To get the most out of his teachings, it's necessary to recognize that we have metaphysical assumptions about personal identity and the world; and that — unless we put them aside — those assumptions will prevent us from looking deeply enough at immediate experience in the terms described in dependent co-arising.

    personlobsterFosdick
  • JeroenJeroen Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter Netherlands Veteran
    edited April 2016

    I generally find metaphysics unhelpful, but have had personal experience of Near Death which I shared with my father, and thus am unable to dismiss an after life as a flight of fancy or take an agnostic standpoint. I concluded some years ago that there must be more after death, and even that some people can communicate across this boundary in a limited way with the recently deceased.

    Which lead me to read the Tibetans about the bardo and the Buddhist cosmology, and also books such as Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander, and some fragments of Emanuel Swedenborg's work, and books by Michael Newton and Raymond Moody on near death and the inter life. Some of it is more far fetched than the average, and it's not strictly only Buddhist, but once you admit there has to be something you are forced to at least look at the investigations.

    There are also some compelling testimonies about past lives from various sources which indicate that reincarnation at least does happen. Most of these are not Buddhist, but the ones involving children are hard to dismiss.

    And then there is the nature of buddhahood. What I have seen and read has convinced me that the Buddhas do remain in existence in some spiritual realm once they give up on incarnating, and that in some mental states they can communicate with us.

    I suspect that many of these topics are, as you say, unprofitable topics for discussion, and I have been a reluctant student of these areas at best.

    personFosdick
  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the liminal space Veteran
    edited April 2016

    Different schools emphasize the importance of metaphysics in their models differently. In Tibetan and Pureland schools metaphysics is central, while in Zen and Theravada it doesn't factor in that much, though they still acknowledge post mortem rebirth and karma.

    For westerners in general I think an approach that deemphasizes metaphysics is the only way that Buddhism will have a chance to flourish here.

    For myself, I've had experiences that leads me to believe there is more to the world than physical things and have some reasoned speculations on the nature of that something. In the end though reliable knowledge about it seems out of reach at present so my practice focuses on the tangible and experiential.

    BuddhadragonFosdick
  • FosdickFosdick in its eye are mirrored far off mountains Alaska, USA Veteran

    @federica - many thanks for that article, it is excellent. Will take me days to get through it, but I intend to do so.

    It occurs to me that the idea of rebirth can be made more palatable by re-labeling it as "change". Change is not only a pillar of Buddhism, it is a verifiable fact of life. The material body dies, but has it come to an end? Not really - it has become something else. The mind dies with the body - or has it, too, merely changed ? What is the mind - it is not matter, so what's left? Energy perhaps, a pattern of energy only temporarily located in our brains?

    Fruitless speculation, a logical back door into metaphysics, or a lamp flickering in the darkness - you call it.

  • BuddhadragonBuddhadragon Ehipassiko & Carpe Diem Samsara Veteran
    edited April 2016

    In the Potthapada Sutta, DN 9, the Buddha is quoted as listing questions over which he has preferred to express no opinion because they are "calculated to no profit," and don't help with cessation of dukkha.

    " That, Potthapāda, is a matter about which I have expressed no opinion."
    "Is the world not eternal?" ... "Is the world finite?" ... "Is the world infinite?" ...
    [188] "Is the self the same as the body?" ... "Is the self one thing, and the body another?" ... "Does one who has fully realized the truth live again after death?" ... "Does he not live again after death?" ... "Does he both live again, and not live again, after death?" ... "Does he neither live again, nor not live again, after death?"
    "All of those, Potthapāda, are matters about which I have expressed no opinion."
    "But why has the Blessed One expressed no opinion about these?"
    "These questions are not profitable, they are not concerned with the Dhamma, they do not lead to right conduct, nor to disenchantment, nor to dispassion, nor to calm, nor to tranquility, nor to higher knowledge, nor to the insights [of the higher stages of the Path], nor to Nibbana. Therefore I have expressed no opinion about these matters."
    [189] 29. "Then what has Blessed One expressed an opinion about?"
    "Potthapāda, I have taught what dukkha is; I have taught what is the origin of dukkha; I have taught what is the cessation of dukkha; I have taught the method by which one can reach the cessation of dukkha."

    The Parable of the Arrow, MN63, expresses a similar idea.
    Thich Nhat Hanh's explanation of the parable runs:

    'The Buddha always told his disciples not to waste their time and energy in metaphysical speculation. Whenever he was asked a metaphysical question, he remained silent. Instead, he directed his disciples toward practical efforts. Questioned one day about the problem of the infinity of the world, the Buddha said, “Whether the world is finite or infinite, limited or unlimited, the problem of your liberation remains the same.” Another time he said, “Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and the doctor wishes to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the man does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If he were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first.” Life is so short. It must not be spent in endless metaphysical speculation that does not bring us any closer to the truth.'

    So, personally, I prefer to exert myself in what has been described as the core teaching of the Buddha in verse 183 of the Dhammapada, rather than indulge in speculations on an afterlife:

    "Do no evil, engage in what is skillful and purify your mind: this is the Teaching of the Buddhas"

    FosdicklobsterShoshin
  • Yesterday whilst lucid dreaming, I was very much aware of my physical surroundings and body and could hear things confirming that I was awake. This sometimes happens when I eat cheese. It is karma.

    My 'awake body' was facing the wrong way and 'most definitely' did not hear the cheese inspired 'reality'. No cheese, no semi conscious confabulation. No brain, no big cheese delusions ... however that could be the mature cheddar talking. :3

    And now back to the hard evidence for parmesan ...

    Fosdick
  • JeffreyJeffrey Veteran
    edited April 2016

    I've been exposed to the idea that belief in karma and rebirth can be useful even if the metaphysics cannot be proven. Just thinking about it it is similar to believing that harming people is wrong or 'evil'. Can you prove that harming others is evil? What about for people who enjoy harming others? But even if it cannot be proven that harming others is 'evil' one might still benefit from that belief. (and I'm not saying it can or can't be proven that harming is evil rather i am using that as subjunctive/hypothetical to explain the concept that a belief you cannot prove could be beneficial by some standard)

    personFosdickShoshin
  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the liminal space Veteran
    edited April 2016

    @Jeffrey said:
    I've been exposed to the idea that belief in karma and rebirth can be useful even if the metaphysics cannot be proven. Just thinking about it it is similar to believing that harming people is wrong or 'evil'. Can you prove that harming others is evil? What about for people who enjoy harming others? But even if it cannot be proven that harming others is 'evil' one might still benefit from that belief. (and I'm not saying it can or can't be proven that harming is evil rather i am using that as subjunctive/hypothetical to explain the concept that a belief you cannot prove could be beneficial by some standard)

    Good point, regardless of the truth of a metaphysical claim, belief in it or not does have an effect on someone's life.

    Anyone could decide to make a Buddhist Pascal's wager regarding karma and rebirth. The results for behaving as if one's actions have no consequences beyond this life are zero if its not true, but if it is true then the consequences are large. So the better bet is to live as if they are true. It seems kind of hard to force oneself to actually believe without some sort of convincing happening but at least one can do their best to act like they are.

    JeffreyFosdick
  • GuiGui Veteran
    edited April 2016

    But I have always thought the price of salvation is freedom. I would rather live as if they are not true and not ever have to question my motives or be bound to a belief system out of fear of the unknown.
    For freedom, I refuse to believe.

    person
  • Gui for me I never thought of believing in rebirth as having to do with my losing freedom.

  • GuiGui Veteran
    edited April 2016

    What if you had to decide on what action to take in a certain situation. One action you thought was the best but would create bad karma. This is an old question. And many answers relate to what would do this and that to karma. But regardless of how this action affects karma, you give up the freedom to act solely on what you think is best.
    I must admit this is a lifelong passion of mine and my search for a philosophy that accurately defines reality is what brought me to Buddhism. When I was young, I was an Absurdist but now I don't have the strength for it. =)

    personFosdick
  • JeffreyJeffrey Veteran
    edited April 2016

    Hmmm you could believe in karma but act against it in cases when you believe it was the wrong choice. Making good karma in Buddhism is to put you in a position the so called accumulation of merit. But in the end I don't think it is all about following karma. In the end I think there is no self and thus no suffering. But it is true that they talk about accumulation of merit and other accumulations.

    And back to my first sentence that relates to the mahayana idea of someone who kills someone like Hitler or so forth out of goodness even though they don't know what the karmic result will be.

    Fosdick
  • JeffreyJeffrey Veteran
    edited April 2016

    Another thought is that we could have a sort of driven 'chicken with head cut off' mentality of trying to fit in more things. Try to fit in more accumulations of karma. But if we relax and don't do that the trade off of not doing as many things could be that we let our thinking get clearer and we know exactly what we want to do (if the 'samadhi' comes).

    Fosdick
  • BuddhadragonBuddhadragon Ehipassiko & Carpe Diem Samsara Veteran

    ^^^@Shoshin: I wish I could double awesome that one <3

    On some forums some people are so eager to ask and others so eager to respond with multifarious descriptions of deva worlds and layered categories of possible future incarnations depending on how far advanced one is in the path...

    Honestly... why should my whole world revolve around speculations which in the end cannot be rightfully answered, when life is sooo short and the toil soooo hard?

    I'd rather put the handful of neurons I have to good use by figuring out how to carve out a purpose for my present life here and now.
    The 4NT and N8P are already a plateful for a couple more Samsara rounds, as it is...

    lobsterFosdickWalkerShoshin
  • ShoshinShoshin No one in particular Nowhere Special Veteran
    edited April 2016

    "I am but a bundle of karmic energy, just going with the flow-of a sequence of events with no one running the show-I'm constantly being reborn from one moment to the next-thus I've heard, the Buddha did say(and I'll just have to agree) that karma's quite complex!"

    personFosdick
  • DavidDavid A human residing in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Ancestral territory of the Erie, Haudenosaunee, Huron-Wendat, Mississauga and Neutral First Nations Veteran
    edited April 2016

    I am completely agnostic on these issues but I find it fun to mull them over.

    I try not to see karma as anything more than cause and effect and feel rebirth is poly-directional. I feel I can trip over or gain from your karma as much as my own and need no incentive to work for our benefit.

    Fosdick
  • KundoKundo Sydney, Australia Veteran

    @Fosdick said:
    A vaguely disquieting sense of metaphysics as it seems to appear in Buddhism nibbles at my toes from time to time, and I would like to know how others view this issue. I am referring here primarily to the idea of karma and rebirth as understood literally, that is, viewed as extending beyond this present lifetime.

    >

    Why do you find it disquieting? Is it because it may remind you of a theistic path you were raised in and want to get away from? Or because it just doesn't compute? I ask because a LOT of people who deride parts of Buddhism they see as "superstitious" or supernatural do so more because of their past spiritual or religious upbringing than anything else.

    Personally I see it as a bit arrogant or disrespectful to come to another established path and then start criticising it as being silly because of one's own preconditioning. Speaking from my own experience, I really resonated with Tibetan Buddhism. A lot of the mantra chanting and some teachings of Lama Surya Das talk about praying to Tara, Chenresig and others. Immediately when you hear the word prayer, you think of Christian prayer or similar. But it's not the same and applying Western explanations to an Eastern tradition isn't going to work very well. So we have to approach it as cynic-free as possible. Easier said than done, but, IMO, the best way to get a better understanding.

    What is your view of karma and rebirth and any other apparently metaphysical propositions that you have encountered in your study of Buddhism?

    >

    I personally believe that karma and rebirth are normal parts of the scheme of things because everything else I've learned have been correct thus far so it makes sense that they will be as it says too. I think we need to worry less about labels and more on ourselves.

    Just my 0.02

    _ /\ _

    ZenshinFosdick
  • FosdickFosdick in its eye are mirrored far off mountains Alaska, USA Veteran

    @dhammachick : I find it disquieting, I think, because of my natural inclination to question any assertion that cannot be verified. My experience with Christianity has, as you suggest, strengthened this inclination (how could it not? ), as has my experience with modern advertising, and a myriad of other things encountered in the human world. But it did not cause the inclination.

    One of the great attractions of Buddhism is that there is almost nothing in the teaching that cannot be personally verified at some level - but karma, as applied beyond this present lifetime, has to be "taken on faith", as is pointed out in the article provided by @federica

    I largely agree with @David in that I tend to see karma as "nothing more than cause and effect". The more sweeping, basically metaphysical, aspect I have stuffed into a bag, along with God and any number of miscellaneous musings, and tossed it under the bed - where it growls and moans and slithers around from time to time. I still need a good deal of time on the cushion to get it to shut up entirely. "No brain, no big cheese delusions" as @lobster has succinctly put it.

  • FosdickFosdick in its eye are mirrored far off mountains Alaska, USA Veteran

    @David said

    I feel I can trip over or gain from your karma as much as my own

    @dhammachick said

    I personally believe that karma and rebirth are normal parts of the scheme of things

    And @Cinorjer in another thread asks "Who am I"

    Indeed. And who are We? The entire human race collectively has karma. Things that we did thousands of years ago continue to shape our life today. I think we are in danger of missing something if we focus only on our own small, individual lives. This is, of course, explicit in Buddhism, and it is a rational way to extend the idea of karma, if not to eternity, at least back a couple of hundred thousand years.

    Just a little more of that stilton (thanks @lobster) and I'll be done.

    Does a dog have karma?

    Cinorjer
  • Good questions @Fosdick

    B)

    I tend to think of karma, rewards in heaven, re-incarceration as mature rind etc as fairy tale training methods. A bit like personifying abstract principles into practice deities in tantra. It works for the limited human mind raft whilst on the churning. o:)

    Those like the semi mythical Bodhidharma meditating, only distracted by ants and stray limbs are still being milked ...
    http://www.usashaolintemple.org/chanbuddhism-history/

    @DhammaDragon said:
    "Do no evil, engage in what is skillful and purify your mind: this is the Teaching of the Buddhas"

    Simple eh? Direct. Works well. <3

    Fosdick
  • Karma and rebirth are weighty subjects for the discerning mind as well as the open minded. Like biblical concepts of salvation and damnation, they are interesting, frustrating and entertaining notions at once. Human beings greatest fear is the fear of death. Some will deny it because they have formed a "thought" about it or meditated upon it, or had a near death experience, or have experienced undeniable past life regression. However, consciously or unconsciously a human beings prime, limbic directive is survival. So, these concepts of karma and rebirth seem as gifts from an enlightened compassionate teacher/sangha to ease the fear, to "prepare" in a sense to live and die well, to instigate practice, to realize suchness. Oddly, they seem to create more dukkha, but perhaps that is the path to awakening. Believing or disbelieving in either does not make it so. Nothing is as it seems. "The white clouds are of themselves white clouds." Zenrin Kushû (The Way of Zen 134, 222)

    lobsterFosdick
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