Self, Not Self, and the Reasonableness of Rebirth

Published: 21.11.2016


The recent work of Jim Tucker of the University of Virginia, building upon that of his illustrious (if controversial) predecessor Ian Stevenson, strongly suggests– even if it can be argued that it does not conclusively prove–that reincarnation is an idea which deserves to be taken seriously.  In addition to this empirical work, a pragmatist case, in the tradition of William James, is also available for affirming the reasonableness of the classical doctrines of rebirth found in the Indic traditions.

An affirmation of rebirth, of course, raises the question, "What is reborn?"  This leads quickly to the question, "What is the self?"  After establishing, I hope, the reasonableness of a belief in rebirth on a pragmatic basis, this I shall move on to a discussion of ideas of self (or non-self) which are affirmed in the Advaita Vedanta and Buddhist traditions, using the Jain tradition and theistic Vedantic traditions as a counterpoint to the tendency of both Advaita and Buddhism to point one toward a dissolution of self as the ultimate soteriological goal.  I shall end up affirming a pragmatist concept of self as a useful–and indeed indispensable–conceptual device at specific points in the spiritual path, but as something finally to be transcended.

The Case for the Reasonableness of Rebirth

What happens after we die?  A vast range of possible answers is available to this question, but in most religious and philosophical systems that address it, these answers tend to cluster around three basic possibilities.  There is the view found in the mainstream Christian and Islamic traditions that a human lifetime is followed either by a state of eternal bliss in heaven or paradise or by a state of eternal torment in hell.  There is the view found, or very often simply presupposed, in much of secular thought that a human lifetime is followed by nothing–or, in the words of a friend of mine who holds this, after life comes "the long dirt nap."  And then there is the view found in most of the traditions of Asia, as well as in ancient European thought–such as that of Pythagoras, Plato, and Plotinus, as well as the Druids–that a human lifetime is but one chapter in the much longer story of a soul that passes from one lifetime to another (and not always a human lifetime) on its journey to awakening to its true, spiritual nature, followed by liberation from rebirth cycle and an eternity of bliss and freedom from suffering.

Which of these views is true?  I think it is fair to say that, in terms of a widely held and agreed upon conclusion, this question remains one of life's great mysteries.  It is also, I think, fair to say that it is reasonable for an educated and right-thinking person to hold any of these views.  In favor of the first view is, of course, centuries of religious tradition, as well as the hope for an eternal salvation that the Christian and Islamic faiths offer.  If there is no afterlife, as the second view claims, then this is, in the words of John Hick, "bad news for the many"–a very grim and bleak conclusion, given the enormous suffering that living beings have endured on this planet for eons.  The idea that one's suffering has led to no greater good that one might oneself enjoy is an idea of a universe lacking in any ultimate justice.

The second view, of course, has going for it the fact that the conclusion that the universe is a bleak and awful place is not necessarily false, simply because many of us find it unpleasant.  And indeed, many secular philosophers have argued that life with a finite end is in some ways more meaningful than the wished-for eternities of the world's religions.  Is it not more noble to give of oneself for the greater good of all without the hope of a posthumous reward than to do so with the expectation of eternal bliss at the end?  Have not such hopes often caused people to do abominable things in the name of that reward?  Finally, there is also the all-important fact that there is no conclusive and widely agreed upon scientific evidence for posthumous existence, with accounts of near-death experiences and past life memories rightly subjected to a great deal of skepticism.

What is the case for rebirth?  Answering this question adequately would take more time than is available here (though I have given a very rough outline of such a case in the paper that I presented for the previous panel on this topic).  The case that I am making here is not so much a strong case for the reality of reincarnation as a case for the reasonableness of believing that this phenomenon is real: a case that, given the other two options, believing in rebirth is a viable option for intelligent, right-thinking persons to entertain.

First, there are elements of the other two views that make them unattractive to some.  The one eternal afterlife model of Christianity and Islam raises concerns about justice.  Can the choices of a single human lifetime–an infinitesimal speck in the vast reaches of cosmic time–be sufficient to warrant either an eternal reward or an eternal punishment?  One can envision eternal bliss perhaps as the result of eons of striving toward and eventually attaining perfection.  Eternal damnation is also conceivable not as something decided at one specific point, with no hope of redemption, but as an effect of simply choosing, over and over again forever, not to avail oneself of one's opportunities for spiritual improvement.  Indeed, such a possibility is given serious consideration in both the Buddhist and Jain traditions.  The icchāntika of Buddhism and the abhavya of Jainism are both terms for persons who simply never entertain the desire for a higher spiritual awakening, being quite content to dwell perpetually in the realm of the senses.  But eternal bliss or eternal damnation after a single lifetime does not seem to cohere with concepts of either justice or mercy found in the religions of the world.

As already mentioned, the secular model of no afterlife carries with it difficult conclusion that one's existence simply ends: that both Gandhi and Hitler entered the same void upon the deaths of their bodies.  Again, the counterargument to this worry is that the fact that our reason carries us to difficult conclusions does not mean that we should turn away from these.

Has it been scientifically established, though, that a robust afterlife of the kind envisioned in the world's religions is impossible?  Are there grounds, in other words, for ruling out this possibility definitively?  There certainly are such grounds if one holds a materialist ontology.  But to say, though, that what is fundamentally real is unconscious matter is a philosophical assertion that goes well beyond what science is capable of proving.

I would argue that giving up the hope of an afterlife is premature.  Indeed, the work of Jim Tucker with children who appear to have memories of past lives suggests that serious scientific investigation of reincarnation may at some point become part of the mainstream reality of science.  In the words of William James, it only takes one white crow to prove that not all crows are black.  If even one of the thousands of cases compiled by Tucker and his predecessor, Ian Stevenson is shown to be valid–that is, if a child can be proven to hold memories containing information which that child could not possibly have encountered through conventional means (hearsay; prompting by an adult; media such as books, television, films, and the internet; and so on), and if that information is confirmed to correspond to the details of the life of a deceased person, this would be sufficient, logically, to undermine the materialist assumption that we are nothing more than 'atoms and the void,' and to suggest that consciousness–or at least information–survives the death of the physical body and is transferred to another, new physical form in a process that can fairly be called rebirth or reincarnation.  Of course, if such a phenomenon were to be reliably documented, it could be interpreted in other ways as well–perhaps as evidence of telepathic communication between the deceased and the living.  But this, too, would undermine the dominant materialist worldview.

As I mentioned in paper for this morning's panel, in his latest book, Return to Life, Tucker documents one case–that of the boy Ryan, from Oklahoma–that seems to fit the criteria I have outlined.  In the final two chapters of that book, Tucker goes into a discussion of the nature of consciousness as suggested by developments in physics, such as quantum theory, and argues that physics itself has already refuted materialism, and has developed a way of thinking about consciousness that is quite consistent with his findings with children like Ryan.  According to this way of thinking, rather than a property emerging from physical causes, such as the neurochemistry of the brain, the phenomenon of consciousness is intrinsic to the nature of physical reality: an inherent property of the universe.  Neurochemistry may be a necessary step the manifestation of consciousness on the plane of material reality where ordinary human experience occurs.  But consciousness is not dependent on it for its existence.

Whether or not one takes the case of Ryan to be a conclusive one–to be one of James's 'white crows'–it does raise sufficient doubt about standard issue materialism, particularly in tandem with quantum theory, to make the idea of rebirth a reasonable one to entertain as a real possibility.

To again invoke James, there is a pragmatist argument for belief in rebirth.  If, as James argues, there is an option that does not contradict–even if it goes far beyond– current scientific knowledge, and moreover, if belief in that option has positive effects upon those who hold it, then one has, in James's words, the "right to believe" in that option.  He is not speaking here, of course, of a legal right.  Under the constitution of the United States, one has the right to believe all kinds of things.  James is speaking of rational justification.  If rebirth, therefore, does not contradict contemporary science (although it does contradict the dominant philosophical view held by many members of the scientific community), and if there may even be contemporary science pointing in its direction, and if, moreover, belief in rebirth is capable of cultivating a sense of hope for ultimate justice in the world, as well as a sense of empathy for living beings, all of whom may at one time or another been closely connected to oneself, if it can serve as a motivator for positive action aimed at the good of all, then, by pragmatist criteria, it is certainly reasonable to hold this belief.

What Is Reborn?  Turning to the Indic Traditions

If one concludes, on the basis of reasoning such as I have presented here, that rebirth is a real phenomenon, or at least a possibility worthy of serious consideration, this then leads to the question, "What, exactly, is it that is reborn?"  It has already been suggested, for example, that it may not be consciousness in the full sense of this term, but rather simply information–memory–that is passed on from life to life.  How does this process work?  What is that is passed on from one life to another, and how?

This, of course, is a question that the dharma traditions have explored in great detail.  The Jain tradition, as well as the theistic traditions of Vedānta, teach that each living being contains–and fundamentally is–a jīva, which can be roughly translated as soul.  The jīvas are numerically distinct, there being at least as many jīvas as there are living entities in the cosmos at any given time.  Their essence, though, is one, all jīvas being characterized, according to the Jain tradition, by the four infinitudes (ananta catuṣṭaya) of infinite knowledge (jñāna), infinite bliss (sukha), infinite energy (vīrya), and infinite perception (darśana).  These infinite qualities are obscured by karma–the collective effects of the previous actions of the living being, both in this life as well as in previous rebirths.  Through the process of spiritual purification, the jīva is capable of freeing itself from karma and realizing its infinite potentials, achieving the state of mokṣa, or liberation from the cycle of rebirth.  Although the Jain model of rebirth has its own distinctive emphases, it in many ways presents us with the basic template for the process of rebirth and of karmic purification that one finds in most of the Indic traditions.  Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists can affirm, from their various perspectives, the basic claim made in the Bhagavad Gītā: "There never was a time when I did not exist, nor you...And there never will be a time when we do not exist.  Just as the embodied one (dehin) experiences childhood, and youth, and old age, in this body, in the same way he enters other bodies.  A wise person is not disturbed by this...Just as one discards worn-out clothes and gets others that are new, so the embodied one discards worn-out bodies and enters others that are new."[1]

In traditions that affirm rebirth, this doctrines functions to de-stabilize, in quite a radical and thorough way, one's conventional sense of self.  By a conventional sense of self, I am referring to our intuitive tendency to identify ourselves with our physical bodies.  Not unlike the āsura in the Chandogya Upaniṣad who believed, upon seeing his reflection in the water, that he had found the self, we all tend to identify with the physical organism that we inhabit.  Our language reflects this identification, such as, upon cutting one's skin while shaving, one says, "I cut myself."  Or upon injuring a body part in some way, we say, "I hurt myself."

If, however, this body is, as the Gītā indicates, akin to clothing, and the more enduring reality of who we are is the embodied one–the dehin or jīva or soul–then we are far more ancient beings than our physical age would suggest.  We are more than our gender or our ethnicity, not to speak of our nationality or our religious affiliation.  And countless beings who may have little or nothing in common with us today may well have been our nearest and dearest ones at some point or another along our varied journeys.  We are not even, at the most fundamental level, human, given that the jīva can inhabit many possible physical forms.  We are not, to paraphrase Arvind Sharma, human beings having a spiritual experience; rather, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.  This destabilizing of our conventional, bodily-based sense of self that belief in rebirth entails is, in all the traditions that affirm this concept, a step in the direction of an even more radical destabilization that is a necessary condition for our attainment of the highest realization.  The egotistical, grasping self is an illusion, an effect of our temporary existence in and as a particular physical organism.  It is not who and what we really are.  It is not our true self.

What, then, is our true self?  According to the Advaita Vedānta tradition, the realization, "I am not this body.  I am the spiritual being who dwells within it," is only the beginning.  I am also, as it turns out, not this spiritual being, this jīva or 'empirical self.'  Just as our physicality veils our nature as spiritual beings, according to Advaita, our distinctiveness as separate spirits or souls veils our even more basic non-duality.  I have already mentioned that while the jīvas are numerically distinct, they nevertheless share the same essential nature.  According to Advaita Vedānta, this essential nature, or Brahman–infinite being, consciousness, and bliss (anantaraṃ sat-chit-ānandam)–is the ultimate reality of our being.  Our numerical distinctness is a function of māyā, the neither real nor unreal appearance that Brahman has assumed which needs to be seen beyond in order for realization to occur.  Indeed, this seeing beyond–this jñāna, this real knowledge is the essence of realization.  The true self–the ātman–is Brahman: not the soul, or jīva, but the essence of the soul, or in the words of Swami Vivekananda, the "soul of our souls."[2]

The Buddhist traditions take a different strategy with regard to this question, "What, then, is our true self?"  According to Buddhism, the question itself is not right.  It is not that we need to put aside a false self for a true self–a supersoul or superself of all beings as found in Vedānta–but that we need to put aside the notion of self, period.

Soteriologically, Advaita Vedānta and the Buddhist traditions follow similar strategies.  Both aim at the radical deconstruction of self in any conventional sense of the word.  And their methods for achieving this deconstruction are strikingly similar as well.  They are, to use an image employed by Richard King, mirror images of one another.  In King's words, "In a sense one might say that [Vedānta and Buddhism] are looking at the same picture from opposite sides of the mirror.  Their presuppositions (and therefore their conclusions) are thus diametrically opposed.  Paradoxical as this may seem, it is because of 'the directly facing nature' of the two systems that the Mahayana and the Advaita traditions are so often confused; in many respects their discussions and conclusions are mirrored in the views of the other.  Mirror images are, of course, reversals of the things which they reflect..."[3]

Leesa Davis, in her comparative study of Advaita Vedānta and Zen, puts the matter in the following way, "Despite the 'all-self' ontology of Advaita and the 'no self' (empty) ontology of Zen, both traditions reject any objectification of their ultimate non-dual expressions: brahman in Advaita and śūnyatā in Zen."[4]  Although Davis is careful not to conflate the two traditions, one may be left wondering whether the contrast between the 'all-self' ontology of Advaita and the 'no self' ontology of Zen is not, itself, an example of the kind of dualistic thinking which both traditions urge their practitioners to overcome, at least if one insists upon the truth of one and the falsehood of the other, rather than viewing them as alternative paths to realizing the ultimate emptiness of the conventional self.

Once, I was walking with my guru along the beach of Cape Cod.  My guru instructed me, in a phrase which I have since come to see as a kind of Vedāntic koan, to "See the ocean without seeing the waves."  I took this to mean, "See the eternal Brahman beyond its appearances, beyond māyā."  Look to the truth beyond mere appearance. I have since wondered, had my guru been a Zen teacher, if he might have said, "See the waves without seeing the ocean."  Look to the concrete moment, to the here and now, and not to some abstract essence of existence.  Might these not simply be parallel paths to the realization of the same infinite mystery?

Both Buddhism–at least Mahāyāna Buddhism–and Advaita Vedānta affirm the 'two truths' doctrine: the idea that one may speak in conventional terms of a self and a world, so long as one bears in mind that, at the ultimate level, these terms really have no referent.  This need to advert, for practical reasons, to the very same conventional understandings which one has been seeking to transcend in one's spiritual path is seen by those dharma traditions which hold a more realist ontology as a weakness of views such as those of Buddhism and Advaita Vedānta.  Māyāvāda or 'illusionism' has been sharply criticized in both the Jain and theistic Vedanta traditions.  For Jains, the fact that each jīva is distinct is essential to affirm its character as a moral agent.  Who is to practice ahiṃsā if there ultimately is no self, or if the distinct jīva has no ontological basis?  For Vaiṣṇava Vedāntic traditions, the distinctness of each jīva, and the divide, metaphysically, between the jīvas and Īśvara, is essential the relationship of bhakti.  How can two entities be related in loving devotion if the distinction between them is ultimately unreal?

Returning to our original question, "What is it that is reborn?", the foregoing conversation–an admittedly all-too-brief summation of major issues discussed among the dharma traditions over the course of many centuries–suggests, from a pragmatic perspective in which the function of the doctrine of rebirth is to have certain specific effects on the practitioner's sense of self, that the reincarnating entity needs to have several basic characteristics.

First, this entity is a moral agent, but with a major twist.  A common critique of reincarnation is that, if one does not remember what one has done in previous lives, one cannot be held morally culpable for the actions of those lives, and the effects of karma in one's present life are, therefore, instances of cosmic justice, but are unjust punishments that are inflicted on someone other than the perpetrator of the crimes that provoked them.

If one, however, removes the sense of moral judgment from the concept of karma and sees it as a process by which character is molded, by which the saṃskāras or habits which the soul bears from life to life–and which, on Buddhist accounts, are the thing that is actually reborn–then one can see the idea of rebirth playing a role in moral formation.  I owe it not only to myself, but to the future beings who will bear my saṃskāras, to perfect and purify them, so that the suffering of those beings–my future 'selves'–will be minimized.

Secondly, this entity is capable of relations.  Loving devotion, compassion, the ability to feel empathy, are affirmed in all dharma traditions to be positive qualities on the spiritual path.  It is very important to point out that, in the words of Anantanand Rambachan, "Not two is not one."  In other words, the non-duality affirmed both in Advaita Vedānta and in Buddhism does not imply a collapse of all beings, and so of all relation, into an undifferentiated oneness, even while it does imply that our distinct character as separate entities, separate jīvas, is also inadequate as an ultimate account of our nature.  We are neither one nor many, just as māyā is neither real nor unreal.

And this is the third point: that the trajectory of the destabilization of our conventional sense of self that begins with the concept of rebirth leads us toward nonduality.  Whether this be seen as a transcendental unity or as solidarity with all beings, it certainly points us beyond the inherent selfishness of 'I' and 'mine' and toward a broader sense of being than a simple identification with a single physical body is able to support.


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  1. Abhavya
  2. Advaita
  3. Advaita Vedanta
  4. Advaita Vedānta
  5. Ahiṃsā
  6. Ananta
  7. Arvind Sharma
  8. Bhagavad Gita
  9. Bhakti
  10. Body
  11. Brahman
  12. Brain
  13. Buddhism
  14. Christianity
  15. Consciousness
  16. Darśana
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  18. Gita
  19. Guru
  20. Islam
  21. Jainism
  22. Jñāna
  23. Jīva
  24. Karma
  25. London
  26. Mokṣa
  27. Plato
  28. Pythagoras
  29. Quantum Theory
  30. Science
  31. Soul
  32. Sukha
  33. Swami
  34. Swami Vivekananda
  35. Vedanta
  36. Vivekananda
  37. Vīrya
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