issue 24 Autumn/Winter 04
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What happens when we die? Buddhism teaches that we are reborn according to our actions in this life. But in his book Exploring Karma and Rebirth, Nagapriya asks if the traditional account is convincing for a westerner. Dharma Life invited him to discuss his views with Geshe Tashi Tsering, an eminent scholar of Tibetan Buddhism.

Geshe Tashi Tsering was born in Tibet in 1958, and his parents escaped to India in 1959. He entered Sera Mey Monastery in South India aged 13, and graduated with a Lharampa (the highest possible level) Geshe degree 16 years later, followed by a year at the Higher Tantric College. He has taught in monasteries in India, Nepal and France, and in 1994 he became the resident Geshe at Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London - part of a worldwide network of centres called the Foundation for the Preservation of Mahayana Tradition (fpmt) in the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Nagapriya was studying western philosophy when he discovered Buddhism 15 years ago. Since then he has taught in the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, including running Dharmavastu Centre for Buddhist Enquiry. He is currently studying for a Masters degree in religion.

Dharma Life: Let's start with how each of you approach the teachings of rebirth. How do you understand the traditional teachings and what do you personally believe happens after death?

Nagapriya: I have been shaped by my western life and experience, and one consequence is that when I encounter certain Buddhist ideas they do not immediately strike me as convincing. I take my principal inspiration from the early Buddhist scriptures of the Pali Canon, and that forms my main doctrinal base. I also draw on the Mahayana sutras and some Tibetan texts as well. I am fascinated to meet you, Geshe, and to learn how the Tibetan view works. There are certain things I have seen in Tibetan Buddhist texts that I have found difficult to take on.

Geshe Tashi: My upbringing and education was a traditional Tibetan monastic one. For the first four or five years we were trained mostly to memorise important texts for use in later philosophical study and prayer recitation. When I was 16 I joined the debating curriculum, which is the main method for learning Buddhism in the large Tibetan monasteries. In the evening we debated for three to four hours until midnight. My studies mainly focused on Buddhist texts, especially Mahayana scriptures, and within the Mahayana it was especially the tradition that comes from Nalanda monastery in ancient India.

Here in London my job is just to teach to westerners, so I try to understand the western mind and culture. There is no single text that discusses rebirth, so I came gradually to the subject. In the Abhidharma texts, which concern different kinds of mental patterns, there are statements to the effect that minds go on - day by day, year by year, and even after death.

NP: Does it occur to you to wonder if that is the case? Many Buddhist texts talk about rebirth, but is it true, and what is being reborn?

GT: When I was 22 or 23 a thinking process started and of course such questions came up. But at the same time there are many things in our lives which are not particularly clear and therefore rejecting something because we cannot understand it or don't see it, is not wise.

NP: You don't have to reject, you can just say, I'm not sure. I don't know what will happen when I die, but the difficulty I have is the suggestion that unless I accept rebirth I am not a proper Buddhist. I feel I am being asked to take on what is currently an unverifiable, highly metaphysical belief for which there is little evidence.

I am happy to see some significance in the doctrine of rebirth, but I think there is a problem with the way in which it has been presented. If we speak of an individual being reborn it would seem - tulkus [reborn lamas] aside - that people rarely remember anything. So what does it mean to say that person is being reborn? What I find most problematic is the idea of individual continuity and that there will be a future 'me' in a future life.

GT: Traditionally, the teachings do not suggest that 'I' will be reborn as 'Geshe Tashi'. When I die, 'me' as 'Geshe Tashi' will stop, although there will be a continuity, just as the particular experience of 'me' in this discussion will end when I go to have lunch.

NP: So what is it that carries on?

GT: In the Madhyamaka school it is said that consciousness continues, but there are many levels of the mind, and it is not the consciousness that we call 'I' or 'me'. In the Vajrayana texts what continues and makes the connection with the next life is even more subtle still.

NP: So if there is nothing about Geshe Tashi that continues, what is the point of speaking of rebirth?

GT: Let me give an analogy. When I was studying in Sera monastery I asked myself, what is the point of studying if I don't know what is going to happen after my life in Sera? But if I hadn't been educated in Sera I wouldn't be here to have this discussion. All the study I did makes a difference now, even though I had no idea that I would move to London and be speaking about these things.

NP: I don't think they are analogous because there is a radical difference between the kind of discontinuity that occurs at death and what happens on leaving a monastery. I see rebirth as a metaphor. If I take the teaching literally I say that everything I do now will have an effect on me as a being in the future, not just in this life, but also in a future life.

I prefer to think in terms of an analogy like genetics. When a man and a woman make a baby their genes are embedded in it, but they are not the same. Everything I do and say in my life has an effect - even this encounter we are having today will in some way influence my life. We are transforming others and what we do is being embodied in them. People write books or live heroic lives and those books inspire people hundreds of years later. Their memory or their spirit inspires someone who lives later [but they themselves are gone].

GT: That makes sense and is doubtless true. But the Buddhist concept is more than this. The Buddha's third Noble Truth was that true cessation of suffering really can take place in an individual [in other words, human beings are capable of the complete transformation that is Enlightenment]. We need to ask how it is possible to achieve that in one lifetime, having started with all the desires and aversion we experience in the world. That's very difficult without a few further lifetimes to continue the process.

Your analogy suggests that you can make a difference to others, and in that sense be reborn, but you yourself are finished. That's hard to square with the view in Buddhist texts that true cessation is possible.

NP: I have doubts about the idealised vision of Awakening presented in the scriptures as a true possibility. I have met some deeply impressive people, but I suspect that most of them have their weaknesses, too, and I even suspect that the Buddha did.

DL: Geshe, you say it is desirable and beneficial to believe in rebirth, but how can we know? And if we can't know, do we have to make a leap of faith to be convinced by the teaching of rebirth and to engage with the Dharma? Someone who is unconvinced about rebirth might see the virtue of your arguments, but that isn't necessarily sufficient.

GT: I am not claiming to know that there is rebirth after death. On the other hand I don't exclude that belief in my daily thoughts and daily life - and no doubt having that belief makes a big difference to how I live. Another consideration is that many masters who studied and practised Buddhism deeply have taught about rebirth and they did so not to make their name or sell books - at that time there were no books to sell - but because it is what they sincerely believed. We also need to take into account that there are people in many different countries who remember their past life quite clearly. To some extent that may be the effect of their culture, but not entirely.

There again [as regards evidence] if we look closely at our minds, not in a textual context but on an experiential level, we may discover something. Our minds have many different levels and the Buddhist perspective is that certain types of mind can function without the physical body. It is difficult to prove, but if that is the case, when our body stops and death occurs, why does our mind have to cease?

NP: One of the difficulties raised in western philosophy is: if certain kinds of mind are radically different from the body, then how do they become connected to the body? This is something Descartes raised in the 17th century, and people have been debating it ever since. I think that mind/body distinctions raise philosophical problems, and furthermore the Buddha describes body and mind as being mutually dependent.

GT: So far western science and ideas about the mind have mainly been based on material investigations of the brain and changes in the body. We don't have the technology to investigate further than material things, and western thinkers are limited by the materially-oriented technology that is available to them that can detect the brain, body and sensations.

If you are saying that in your view the distinction between mind and body is just conceptual then our discussion has become very reductive. Buddhist philosophy says that what is conceptually constructed is not fact, but the mind and the body are experiences, not concepts.

At this point the scholar and the philosopher entered into an erudite discussion of definitions and meanings. We all took a deep breath and took another tack.

NP: I can see potential value in believing in rebirth - as it will affect your conduct now. You see and you understand that you are responsible to the future, and I agree that thinking in terms of rebirth is a way of waking yourself up.

GT: Yes, there is a big difference between living according to the Buddhist perspective and living a good life that lacks a structured view of one's future spiritual development. Cooking food without any intention of eating it is quite different from cooking food with the intention of eating it at a particular time. The activity is the same, but the intention is different.

Even for Buddhists there are different levels of practice related to different motivations. At the most basic level the motivation is that one will have a fortunate life after death in order to continue what you have started in this lifetime. In the Mahayana approach concern is not just about yourself, and the practice is more advanced because your motivation is to benefit others.

NP: I see [the value of thinking of a future life] as being related to imagination. Many people don't even think about tomorrow, they just grab what they can for today, and that is a significant aspect of western culture at present. There is value in projecting ahead to the future. Whether I can think that it will be me living in that future is another matter, but at the very least I can think of a responsibility or stewardship to those in the future.

DL: Let us move on to the connection between karma and rebirth, which is an important theme in your book, Nagapriya.

NP: I have grave reservations about presentations by some Tibetan teachers of the relation between karma and rebirth. It does seem that karma and rebirth are bracketed together as two aspects of one doctrine. One view is that everything which happens to us is the result of our karma from previous lives.

GT: It is a misinterpretation to say that everything which happens to us is the result of karma. It would suggest that everything is fated. Each moment we do new things, feel new things and plan new things. However, I do believe that in general terms having this kind of body, being born in Tibet and so on is the consequence of my previous karma. Based on that what I experience day-to-day is karma in the sense of action, but not in the sense of the results of previous actions - which we call karmic result ( karma vipaka). Often people blur the distinction between these two meanings of karma.

NP: An academic interviewed Lati Rinpoche and raised the subject of the Jews who were killed at the time of World War II. Lati Rinpoche expressed the view that they must have done something truly bad in a previous life to have ended up in the gas chambers. I found that shocking and I wondered how he could know. I am sure this wasn't the implication for Lati Rinpoche, but for me that implied the Nazis had done nothing wrong because they were simply acting out the Jews' karma. It suggests a dark and unattractive worldview in which everyone is simply passing out rewards and punishments.

GT: A similar case came up a few years ago when the England football manager was dismissed for holding such views about karma. The error is to focus on particulars rather than the bigger picture. You and I enjoy a 21st-century life with modern technologies, and the main foundation of those lives is simply having this life - the fact that we are alive, we have a body and we're here in this given time. To that extent [the Holocaust] was the Jews' past karma because they were born into that world, with all its conditions. But that is not necessarily the whole explanation. Buddhism says that things happen because of a complex set of conditions.

DL: Let's conclude with the key question of what occurs when we die. What difference do your somewhat differing views make to a person wondering what happens at death, and considering how to have a meaningful life?

NP: I would start with the present. This is where we are living and I like to focus on how we are practising today. Conceding that some thoughts about the future may impact on that, I am concerned that the prospect of another life may let people off the hook, allowing them to think, 'Oh, well, I'll have another life and I can make the effort then'. What motivates me is gaining a vivid awareness of the gravity of living, and seeing that everything we do now has an effect. At best, then, the future would show those effects amplified, suggesting the real effect and significance of our present actions.

GT: I have nothing to add to that. It is vital to focus on the importance of action in the present. I also believe one should act according to one's own mental disposition and capability. If one is not ready to believe there is a life after death, then why not work for the sake of this life - in which one's present wholesome deeds and thoughts will bring wholesome results, and unpleasant deeds and thoughts will bring an unwholesome result? For people who can think beyond that, there is further one can go.

I also want to focus on the teaching that the cessation of suffering is possible individually. That is crucial in Buddhist teaching. And that's what makes it unique. Thinking about the possibility of such transformation provides a very big picture indeed.

The Button Moulder

At death it is possible that we will just flow out into a great karmic ocean, our identity lost forever. Clearly this possibility of 'losing ourselves' is very frightening. None of us likes to feel we will just get mixed in with everyone else, but why shouldn't it be so? After all, this is what happens to our bodies: they are re-absorbed into the elements. Why should our minds carry on in a discrete form? Ibsen's Peer Gynt concludes with a sinister myth that entertains this possibility. Peer, who has never really done anything significant in his life, encounters a character called the button moulder who insists that Peer's destiny is to be taken back into the 'great ladle' and melted down, because his life has been of no consequence. His soul will be melted down and used as raw material for the creation of new souls. As the button moulder says to Peer:

'You were designed as a shining button on the coat of the world ... but your loop was missing, which is why you must go in the pile with the throw-outs to be what is known as 'reduced to an ingot'. '

Since Peer has lived such a mediocre life, neither especially good nor evil, he is to be melted down. He is not even worth sending to hell. I find this myth psychologically convincing, though quite frightening. If we make nothing of our lives, if we don't develop any particular qualities, any distinctive individuality, any definite direction, what is there to be carried over? So perhaps this is a lesson for us. Because we have found this precious opportunity - as the Vajrayana would say - we should use it now because who knows whether it will ever come again? We have been given the miraculous vehicle of an individualised consciousness that can make choices, shape its future, and contribute to the welfare or ill of humanity. In the words of a traditional Buddhist image, we have been given a priceless jewel; are we going to cherish it or just throw it away?

We should certainly be wary of falling back on the Buddhist teaching of rebirth as a psychological crutch to alleviate our fear of self-dissolution. The idea that they might one day not exist is an idea that terrifies many people, and it is fruitful to reflect on why this is so. One possible explanation is that deep down they feel their lives are trivial, they have done nothing of any real value. To use an analogy from the Bible, they have buried their talents in the ground rather than adding to them by effort and enterprise. Perhaps there is nothing more tragic than living one's whole life without waking up to its significance.

Extracted from: Exploring Karma and Rebirth, by Nagapriya,