Of Rebirth, Karma, and a Cockcroach

 

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A few days ago I saw a post in a facebook group about this article by an ex-catholic-buddhist Paul Williams, who was born a Catholic, converted to Buddhism for 30 years and converted back after 30 years of Buddhist studies, practices and learning in the Tibetan tradition.*

The post drew 100+ comments and quickly went past 200 within a few days.  After reading through some of the comments which escalated to name callings and several links to other articles, including one by Ajahn Sujato, I decided to leave a note.

Below is my comment in the thread.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/sgbuddhists/permalink/10152544592021881/

What a lively discussion! Nothing like an ex-catholic-budhist’s article to get the discussion going. 🙂

Question. What is the difference between having an opinion about a matter vs being judgemental? I digress.

REBIRTH – NO-SELF
Personally, I find Paul’s article interesting and honest, honest to himself that is. While I disagree with his conclusion, I can see how it is ultimately due to his non-acceptance of the teachings of no-self* that he decides to embrace other faiths, in this case, Christianity.

Or at least he seem to have trouble with rebirth to the extent of the statements “Rebirth means the end of me” and “That is it – end of it. There is no more to be said about me.” As much as Buddhists do not subscribe to a belief in a creator God(s), others may not subscribe to the teachings of no-self.

The intriguing thing is that for him, “None of this in itself means the Buddhist position is wrong”.

For some, learning, contemplating and vipassana meditation ultimately leads to such a realisation or direct seeing, but for others, 30 years of scholarly study and career, plus his exposure and practices just didn’t do it for him.

KARMA – ACTION -> FRUIT
His thoughts on Karma is quite interesting as well. It seems to hinge on the inequality of having results on a new person vs the absence of results on the original perpetuator.

In such cases, a typical reply would be to highlight that even within a single life, from childhood till adult and old-age, we are quite different in terms of body-mind, yet we many times have to experience the result of a past “I”.

The thing that strings the sets of “I”s into an identity seem to be our memories. Without our memories, it may be hard to concretely link babies with the adults.

Let’s say a toddler plays with fire and burns himself, his entire house and family, he will still have to live with those consequences when he grow up.

But to protect the child, the foster family may hide this from him. If he should discover the truth when he grows up, it may not be the easiest thing to bear, but it is still the truth. Granted, he may or may not be able to do much about the past as well. And while he cannot remember the past himself, he still has to live with the consequences.

The problem in real life is that not many people remember their past life. For that matter, an abysmally small number of people do. So our experiences with past life memories or the lack thereof, works against most people’s acceptance of rebirth, and perhaps consequently the inequality above.

Similar to accepting that there was Adam and Eve with the original sin and the rest of Christian theology, Buddhist may have to have that initial faith to get started. Call it faith, confidence, sadda, whatever, it is there. However, within Buddhism, this faith serves mainly as a starter, to propel us on the practice to move into insight, which would allow us to verify the teachings.

Again, for some this whole set of teachings makes complete sense, while for others it is just not hope-full enough, or as Paul would put it “hope-less”.

Interestingly, about Adam and Eve, the very idea of the original sin seem to imply that all humanity have no choice in the matter, that we have to face the consequences of something, the original sin, which is not done by us. Seem to be punishing us for something we didn’t do isn’t it? Again, I digress.

Should Everyone Accept the Buddha’s Teachings?

In the long past, I would try very hard to convince people of rebirth, karma, the teachings of the Buddha. But for years now, I’ve stopped trying to shoehorn everyone into Buddhism. I’ve come to accept that people have different values and views about this world, and many hold these views very closely to their heart.

More often than not, I share with Christians, verses of the Bible, and only share with them the Dharma if they really ask for it. Once, I ask a muslim cabby what he does in the mosque. He pray to God and reflect on God’s Goodness, Justness, etc, he said. Instead of trying to convert him, I urge him to extend what he did in the mosque beyond the five prayer times, and to emulate those qualities of God where possible.

I urge him, that he may pray so that he may be free from greed, hatred and delusion, be free from ignorance, craving and attachment. He said, yes, that’s what he would like to do.

As the Buddha would often reposition existing terms with new meanings, he would urge brahmins to be brahmins not be birth, but brahmins by being pure in body, speech and mind, and he would refer to Arahants as True Brahmins.

If “God” or “X” is perfect Compassion and perfect Wisdom, let us strive to be that, to be complete free of suffering, and ignorance*.


Footnote:

*Paul Williams is a professor of Indian and Tibetan philosophy at the University of Bristol, UK.

* Granted, by ignorance, I mean ignorance of how things are, that all compounded things are impermanent, subject to change according to conditions, and not to our whims and fancy, is no-self, and has no inherent characteristics or nature.

References

1. http://whyimcatholic.com/index.php/conversion-stories/buddhist-converts/65-buddhist-convert-paul-williams

2. https://sujato.wordpress.com/2014/10/21/contentment-and-hope-or-why-paul-williams-is-wrong-about-buddhism/