There is a wide-ranging discussion on the web and elsewhere these days, regarding the traditional metaphysical views of karma, rebirth, and nirvana. These views are being called into question by numerous western Buddhist scholars and practitioners. A “non-traditional” view is arising, sometimes under the banner of secular Buddhism, but this is only one thread of the inquiry.
What is the non-traditional view? For the purposes of this article, this view is anything that challenges the grand metaphysical posture that most Asian Buddhist faiths are presenting to the modern world. This posture, so integral to the tradition, makes talking about non-traditional views seem almost heretical.
How about Buddhism without a belief in reincarnation? Is that even possible? The non-traditional line of inquiry runs up against a wall that many people don’t want to approach, let alone scale. Also, why scale it if the tradition already has a complete wrap-around metaphysic with an explanation for everything? As westerners, we look at the edifice of a tradition like Tibetan Buddhism, and we quiver at its majesty – all those centuries of scholarship and erudition about the true nature of things! How could we add anything, let alone consider that some assumptions might be partial and misleading?
Fortunately, we come from a highly secularized culture that has a lot of experience in challenging all kinds of beliefs. That’s what we do best. We are the premier deconstructionists. We may be throwing some of the baby away with the bathwater, but hey, we’re good at it. We’ll figure out later what to do with all the pieces scattered around the floor. Maybe we’ll leave it to the next generation to figure out how to make a new puzzle out of the pieces that are left.
Seriously, it’s not a job to leave to later generations. Deconstructing is just the first step. There’s another important step, and that is creating a new synthesis.
You may ask, how can we, as Buddha wanna-be’s, undertake this work? Maybe it’s better to apply our selves as the tradition implores. Then when we get enlightened, we can look back and tweak things. However, this misses the whole point of the journey, one that is all about doubt and questing and trying things on for size. It’s OK to probe, disassemble and reassemble. The Buddha was all about process. He wasn’t preaching absolutes. He never confirmed or denied the existence of reincarnation, never held out a vision of karma as causing or not causing the round of samsara over lifetimes, and he certainly didn’t objectify the existence of nirvana.
So, if the Buddha didn’t teach the doctrine of rebirth, and refused at every turn to answer similar metaphysically postured questions, how did we come to believe that he did? The answer is at the heart of an important inquiry that all spiritual seekers must address. Part of the story is not being told, and this is because many traditions err on the side of promoting social consensus over individual liberation. A system of belief gets put in place that addresses our human need for a comprehensive story of our existence. This is different than what the Buddha emphasized in his teachings.
The gist of it is that all metaphysical constructs and the desire to establish them as absolute truth, is a fool’s errand. This is one of the Buddha’s most important teachings, especially for us moderns who love to establish absolutes such as right and wrong, in addition to all the other hardened dualisms that infect our culture. To avoid clinging to such absolutes, as in a belief, as in a self-cherished truth, or any dogma is one of the more difficult accomplishments in life. Institutional Buddhism as it has come down to us, is similarly challenged. This, I believe, is what we are helping deconstruct or at least bring into the light of day so we can re-discover what the Buddha originally taught.
As humans, we like to embellish and eventually mythologize everything, creating grand and yummy metaphysics for our cultures. However, we don’t have to succumb to this type of mis-knowledge, and this is critical as spiritual seekers able to think for ourselves. In the end analysis, the Buddha deflected any teaching on metaphysics because it didn’t help with the central task of understanding the nature of dukkha (suffering, affliction, unease) and the way out of our predicament.
If we can understand that this is how the Buddha taught, what we often call the traditional metaphysical view of Buddhism is seen as an overlay and something made-up. That is how we get to the “non-traditional” view in being able to doubt some of the absolutist views of rebirth, karma, and the existence of nirvana. Cultural conditions arose in Vedic India after the Buddha’s lifetime, with later generations desiring to create a metaphysic based on underlying cultural needs, not solely on the Buddha’s original teachings. It is ironic that some of these same beliefs were the ones he railed against when he was alive. This is what needs to be addressed and is not in accord with our modern empirical method of understanding.
For an excellent and easily read source of the Buddha’s teaching from the Pali Canon, addressing the specific topic in this article, read Glenn Wallis’ Basic Teachings of the Buddha by Modern Library Classics.