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Evolving Buddha

Universal Compassion, Yes. Reincarnation, Not So Much.


We find ourselves alive. And struggling to make sense of why we are alive, how to live, and where we go when this life comes to an end, if anywhere.

These are the big questions that spirituality and religion seek to address; they’ll never be answered definitively, this much we know to be true. There are, however, many answers available and it is up to each of us to figure out which answers are the most satisfying.

Tam Hunt

This essay will focus primarily on Buddhism’s answers to these questions largely because I have had the good fortune to be a member of an informal group of academics convening at UC Santa Barbara (where I teach part-time) each month for the last two years to discuss the interaction of Buddhism and modern science. I will also present some thoughts on how Buddhism could, and should, evolve to become more relevant and widespread in the modern world.

I am not a Buddhist, but I have read widely in Buddhism for some time. I have also dabbled in meditation, the key praxis (practice) of Buddhism, though I am very much a baby when it comes to realizing the benefits of a regular meditation practice. I feel much less a baby when it comes to the philosophy and intellectual coherence of Buddhism – and how Buddhist views mesh (or not) with modern science.

Buddhism is appealing to many people today because of its emphasis on practical spirituality, on living a better life through insight and regular meditation practice, and the compassion that these activities naturally engender. Buddhism is also appealing to many trained in Western science because Buddhism is far less about metaphysics, heaven or hell, spirits, God, than it is about how to live a better life in the present moment.

The key features of Buddhism, from my perspective, are the emphases on compassion and meditation. Compassion arises naturally from the understanding that all people and all things are mutually interdependent (the doctrine of “dependent origination”) and that all people are struggling with the same set of basic problems: the pains of birth, illness, death, relationships, and an ongoing search for meaning.

Alan Watts, a bubbling brook of wisdom through his books and audio recordings, described meditation as “the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment.” Meditation is the path to realizing the essential truths of Buddhism, though meditation is of course not exclusive to Buddhism. The essential truths of Buddhism relate to the impermanence of all things (the doctrine of “emptiness,” the flip-side of dependent origination), including our own selves, and the cessation of suffering that arises from this realization. Meditation is practice. It is through consistent practice, not only through seated meditation, but through every action we pursue, that we can realize the essential truths.

An emphasis on compassion is also not exclusive to Buddhism – most religions urge compassion toward others. Buddhism goes further, however, at least in its Mahayana form, in stressing compassion for all creatures and the Boddhisattva ideal, in which realized persons – Boddhisattvas – refuse to exit the wheel of life and death until all other beings are also liberated.

Another appealing feature: Buddhism generally lacks the more savage aspects we find in the Abrahamic religions. There are no rules regarding who gets stoned, or who gets burned to death, for adultery or wearing two types of cloth (read the Book of Leviticus to get a sense of how extreme the Old Testament view of the world was). There were no conquests by Buddhist rulers wielding swords to convert people to Buddhism. Rather, Buddhism’s success has come almost entirely through the power of its ideas.

A final feature of Buddhism that I’ll mention is its non-exclusiveness. To my knowledge, no strand of Buddhism has ever claimed to be the sole path to enlightenment. To the contrary, many schools of Christian thought do indeed claim that Jesus is the only path to salvation. This is a big turnoff to a lot of people who take a more modern view of spirituality, recognizing that no one religion/spiritual system/person has a lock on the truth.

It is for these reasons that I am personally sympathetic with much that Buddhists teach, even though I do not call myself a Buddhist. My views, sketched in two in-progress books (one draft of my book Mind, World, God is here), appropriate some ideas from Buddhism, but also from Vedanta Hinduism, and much from the process philosophy school of Alfred North Whitehead and David Ray Griffin. I would, however, expect the world to become a much better place if Buddhism’s key teachings, compassion and meditation, were adopted more widely.

Buddhism today: Only 0.7 percent of Americans self-identify as Buddhists, a little more than Muslims or Hindus, and much less than the 78% of Americans who identify as Christians. The fastest-growing “religion,” however, is no religion. That is, people are increasingly rejecting organized religion in favor of the “spiritual but not religious” approach to the big questions. Fully one-third of Americans under thirty are non-religious (“unaffiliated), compared to only one-tenth of those over 65. Clearly, transformation is afoot.

The key teachings of Buddhism are well-suited to the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd. But my feeling is that these ideas could be a lot more appealing – and this is the key point of this essay – if modern Buddhism is willing to evolve further to reflect more scientifically-sound ideas about the nature of reality. There is clearly a large opening for Buddhism’s key teachings to find a wider audience as the radical generational shift away from organized religion continues.

Buddha changing: As is the case with all religions, Buddhism has evolved steadily since the Buddha first taught his insights. For example, I friended the Dalai Lama a few months ago on Facebook. I appreciate his regular status updates and posts, such as:

By implementing the practice of love and compassion, we will naturally live a non-violent way of life. Helping others and not harming them is the work of non-violence. We need to develop love, compassion and forgiveness to develop inner peace and that naturally gives rise to non-violent conduct.

Who could imagine even a few years ago that Tibetan Buddhism’s leader would be using social media to spread his message? Change has, however, been a constant in Buddhism, and with all religions or social movements more generally.

Buddhism’s oldest sect is known as Theravada and is today found primarily in Sri Lanka and southern India. Many found Theravada’s focus on personal liberation too narrow and urged a broader focus on the liberation (awakening) of all beings. This led to what is known now as the Mahayana (“great vehicle”) schools of Buddhism, which stress the Boddhisattva ideal of universal liberation. Tibetan Buddhism is generally viewed as a type of Mahayana. Zen Buddhism is also Mahayana but is the product of many centuries of Chinese and Japanese Buddhist thinkers. There are hundreds of other schools of thought in Buddhism, resulting from changing views, personality conflicts, changing times, etc.

I think it’s time for Buddhism to be further modernized, specifically by re-interpreting the doctrines of karma and reincarnation. Karma is generally framed as a system of moral accounting where individual actions have repercussions that have both short and long-term reach. Wrong actions may lead, in some schools of thought, to reincarnation in a lower plane of being or as a lesser type of creature – a fly, for example. Conversely, right living will lead to reincarnation in a higher plane or better personal situation (or caste, which is the historical milieu of Buddhism in India, still extant today). Karma is thought to operate independently of the Western notion of physical cause and effect, as a parallel system of spiritual cause and effect.

This notion of karma is problematic for the obvious reason that modern science finds no support for this idea of a parallel system of cause and effect. Modern science seeks to explain all things through four fundamental interactions: gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. This may not be a complete list, particularly because quantum entanglement seems to operate outside of these four interactions. But even if we add quantum entanglement as a new force there is still no room for karma as a parallel system of cause and effect in the Western scientific tradition.

Moreover, there is a fundamental tension between the idea of karma and the far more compelling Buddhist idea of “no self.” No self, or anatman, refers to the fact that if no things have any permanent existence, the self also has no permanent existence. It’s always changing and much of our unhappiness comes from grasping at a notion of a permanent self. Yet the idea of karma as attaching to individuals, even to the point where actions may affect how each of us is re-born, seems to go the opposite direction from the teaching of no self.

One reconciliation of this apparent tension rests on the idea that karma can attach to a non-permanent self, what one Buddhist scholar, Matthew Kapstein, has called a “continuant,” in distinction to a “soul,” which is thought to have some kind of permanent existence. Just as a candle’s flame is constantly changing, there is some continuity between the flame of one candle and flames on other candles that are lit from the first flame. The pattern of the flame remains somewhat stable and certainly recognizable as a flame. This is what a person is: a pattern that remains somewhat stable and recognizable.

This is also a rationale for reincarnation, a concept common to almost all Buddhist and Hindu schools of thought. The doctrine of reincarnation holds that at least some aspects of personality will continue between each incarnation, and the way in which this continuation occurs is guided by the karma of each individual. However, this concept again bumps up against modern science because the evidence for reincarnation is not very strong. Ian Stevenson, a now-deceased scholar at Duke University, and his successor at Duke, Jim Tucker, gathered data on reincarnation for decades. Stevenson’s book, Children Who Remember Previous Lives, is probably the best summary of this data.

I didn’t find this evidence convincing with respect to the reality of reincarnation, if reincarnation is viewed strictly as the recycling of a personality into a new body. There is, however, good data, including Stevenson’s and Tucker’s data, suggesting that some kinds of information may somehow be passed from the dead to the living, or between one person to another person. This itself is a very strange anomaly from the perspective of modern science, which may require profound changes to modern science. However, suggesting that some types of information may be recycled between lives, or between individuals more generally, independent of the known physical forces, is a far more parsimonious suggestion than the traditional Buddhist view that personalities may pass wholesale from body to body.

I am personally open to the idea that modern science needs to evolve, and possibly radically, as well as Buddhism – more than open, as I’m actually a strong advocate that science needs to evolve. The process-philosophy views of Alfred North Whitehead and his followers are a richer and more comprehensive basis for an accurate and satisfying worldview than the overly-materialist views of mainstream science today. I’ve described various ways in which I think modern science should be re-thought in a serious of ten columns here (beginning with “Absent-minded Science”), as well as in my in-progress books.

That said, I don’t see any compelling reason why modern science should evolve to accommodate traditionalist views of karma and reincarnation. Rather, I think that Buddhism should evolve and re-interpret the doctrines of karma and reincarnation. Who “gives” in the face of irreconcilable differences? In this case, I think it is Buddhism that should give, though modern science may also need to give some back.

Karma is just a name for the truism that actions have consequences. We can stick to a pretty traditional scientific view of reality and accept that any actions you or I take will have personal repercussions and repercussions on others. The difference between this notion of karma and traditional notions of karma is that there is no parallel system of cause and effect based on a hidden spiritual reality. There is, in the view I’m advocating here, one reality and it operates seamlessly through a single set of laws of cause and effect. Western science clearly doesn’t have these laws all figured out yet (see my above comments about quantum entanglement), but we’ve made a good start. And they aren’t really “laws of nature” per se, but, instead, habits of nature, to use Whitehead’s phrase.

As we learn more about the physical world, we also learn more about the spiritual world because they are the same world. There is no parallel reality. A single “deep science” should include physical and spiritual understandings, to use Ken Wilber’s apt phrase.

Reconciling reincarnation is trickier than karma because of the evidence I’ve already mentioned regarding the apparent transmission of some kinds of information in ways that our current scientific notions say simply can’t happen. For example: Stevenson writes in Children Who Remember Previous Lives about 14 cases selected from hundreds he’d collected, including those from nine different cultures (in order to counter the view that cases of reincarnation only happen in Hindu or Buddhist cultures): “In every case, the subject made statements about the life he claimed to remember while he was still a young child; in every case one or several adults corroborated that he had made such statements at that age.”

Stevenson and Tucker are clearly convinced that their evidence supports a traditional view of reincarnation as the passage of personalities between physical vessels. I was not convinced, as already mentioned, that this is necessarily the case. The accounts are always partial and problematic in various ways. And the idea of an incorporeal entity of some sort literally passing between bodies is riddled with logical problems that I’ve addressed here.

I’m always open to new evidence and I can’t say personally that the idea of reincarnation is clearly wrong. But I haven’t found the evidence so far convincing for the recycling of personality. It seems that the best reconciliation of reincarnation with modern science may be to reject the traditional view of reincarnation and continue to examine the evidence for transmission of some kind of information between minds and bodies that is not an entire personality.

A fine balance: Some modern Buddhists have suggested going much further than I am advocating here. Stephen Batchelor, for example, in Buddhism Without Beliefs, states “Buddha was not a mystic.” Batchelor generally rejects suggestions that the Buddha had anything to say about a deeper reality. Batchelor advocates an agnostic approach to karma and reincarnation: We simply don’t know if these doctrines are accurate or not, and they’re not crucial anyway. I agree with Batchelor with respect to karma and reincarnation, but I disagree that Buddha rejected all types of mysticism.

Entire sutras have been written on the Buddha’s enlightenment experience, which was profoundly mystical, if we are to accept the teachings of the sutras at all. The Avatamsaka Sutra, for example, goes into great and exhaustive (and repetitive) detail about this experience.

Moreover, we have little good information about what Buddha “really” taught because it was an oral tradition only for centuries after the Buddha’s death. The idea that early texts accurately captured all of what the historical Buddha taught is not very credible.

The Pew surveys indicate that about two-thirds of the “unaffiliated” believe in some kind of God. Buddhism is traditionally viewed as being atheistic or agnostic on the issue of God. My views on this important matter have changed much over the years, as I’ve described here. I am now comfortable labeling myself a theist, but my God is not a traditional god. It’s certainly not an angry dude on a cloud hurling lightning bolts at naughty humans. Rather, my process-philosophy view of God is summed up well by the American physicist Freeman Dyson: “God is what mind becomes when it passes beyond the scale of human comprehension.” Being a theist, atheist, or agnostic is not, however, key to living a better life today, through compassion and meditation; so debates over the existence or nature of God aren’t essential to the key points of this essay.

More generally, understanding mind is the key to reconciling science and spirituality, as well as achieving a fine balance between the teachings of Buddhism and the understandings of modern science. We are now undergoing a renaissance in our understanding of mind and the brain, and our philosophies, religions, and cultures will surely change as a new understanding of the mind emerges from the current tumult. I’m an advocate of the panpsychist school of thought, in which all material things have some mind associated and vice versa. Where there is mind there is matter, and where there is matter there is mind. I’m very encouraged by some recent high-profile “coming out” statements on panpsychism, including in particular, Christof Koch’s recent book, Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist.

I’ll close with a quote from Batchelor, with which I wholeheartedly agree:

An agnostic Buddhist vision of a culture of awakening will inevitably challenge many of the time-honored roles of religious Buddhism. No longer will it see the role of Buddhism as providing pseudoscientific authority on subjects such as cosmology, biology, and consciousness as it did in prescientific Asian cultures. Nor will it see its role as offering consoling assurances of a better afterlife by living in accord with the worldview of karma and rebirth. Rather than the pessimistic Indian doctrine of temporal degeneration, it will emphasize the freedom and responsibility to create a more awakened and compassionate society on this earth.

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This column was amended on December 31 to state that a greater number of Americans identify as Buddhists than as Muslims or Hindus.

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