How is rebirth/reincarnation different in Buddhism vs Hinduism?

Discussion in 'Eastern Religions and Philosophies' started by Enkidu, Feb 1, 2005.

  1. Enkidu

    Enkidu New Member

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    I've been reading a few posts on these boards about rebirth and reincarnation, and am confused.

    What is the difference between the Buddhist view and the Hindu view?

    I've seen it explained as -

    in Hinduism, there is an unchanging mover that transmigrates
    in Buddhism, there is no such mover, and aspects of consciousness are reborn

    What exactly does this mean, particularly the Buddhist view?

    It almost seems like semantics, and I'm sure there is something very fundamental that I'm missing here.

    As a secondary point, I've seen it said that the Buddhist view of nirvana is sort of like a negation of one essence, where Hindu thought might be that there is one essence that all things are. My understanding of this (insofar as this is possible or even meaningful) is that both teachings are essentially wordplay, and the underlying reality is the same*. Is this the wrong way of looking at the differences? I.e. is there a practical difference between the two traditions?

    *[I guess in this, I'm referring specifically to Zen koans such as 'Does a dog have Buddha nature', where either a yes or a no are wrong; the emphasis on negation in the buddhist teaching seems in this context almost a reaction to the vedic teaching, and indicates that you can't rely on logical frameworks to contain the ineffable].

    I guess where I'm coming from on this (and where my misunderstandings are probably arising) is that I have always thought of Buddhist thought as being a refinement/clarification of the essence of the Vedas, which removes many of the 'theological' aspects of Vedic teaching and instead concentrates on human psychology. Again, what am I fundamentally missing here?
     
  2. Vajradhara

    Vajradhara One of Many

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    Namaste Enkidu,

    thank you for the post and the good question.

    the most direct answer to this question is the term Atman vs. Anatman. Sanatana Dharma posits an Atman, an unchanging self or soul whereas Buddha Dharma posits AnAtman, no unchanging self or soul.


    what this really means is an that what we normally imagine as "ourselves" isn't how we imagine it to be. generally speaking, especially for theists, there is an a priori concept of a soul or self, which is the "essence" if you will, of the being. in the Buddhist view, this is a misconception since analysis will reveal that there is nothing which we can rightly call the self. when we analyze our self, we find that the self is not an independenly existing, self sufficient entity, we find, instead, that the self exists due to causes and conditions being right, in dependence on things, not independent of things. we can discuss this further, if there is interest.

    it is a bit of semantics, to be sure, especially in English where some of the terms used aren't understood in the same way. suffice it to say that the essential difference between the two is the concept of a permentant self (Hindu) vs. a non-permenant self (Buddhism).

    Nibbana/Nirvana is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the Buddha Dharma, in my view. a lot of this has to do with the various cultural understandings that different beings have. we have to try to put ourselves in the time of the Buddha to really get a grasp of what he is trying to teach with this idea. the Bramahical notion of fire and what happens to fire is really the essence of the teaching of Nirvana. this may help illustrate what i mean:


    We all know what happens when a fire goes out. The flames die down and the fire is gone for good. So when we first learn that the name for the goal of Buddhist practice, nibbana (nirvana), literally means the extinguishing of a fire, it's hard to imagine a deadlier image for a spiritual goal: utter annihilation. It turns out, though, that this reading of the concept is a mistake in translation, not so much of a word as of an image. What did an extinguished fire represent to the Indians of the Buddha's day? Anything but annihilation.


    According to the ancient Brahmans, when a fire was extinguished it went into a state of latency. Rather than ceasing to exist, it became dormant and in that state -- unbound from any particular fuel -- it became diffused throughout the cosmos. When the Buddha used the image to explain nibbana to the Indian Brahmans of his day, he bypassed the question of whether an extinguished fire continues to exist or not, and focused instead on the impossibility of defining a fire that doesn't burn: thus his statement that the person who has gone totally "out" can't be described.

    However, when teaching his own disciples, the Buddha used nibbana more as an image of freedom. Apparently, all Indians at the time saw burning fire as agitated, dependent, and trapped, both clinging and being stuck to its fuel as it burned. To ignite a fire, one had to "seize" it. When fire let go of its fuel, it was "freed," released from its agitation, dependence, and entrapment -- calm and unconfined. This is why Pali poetry repeatedly uses the image of extinguished fire as a metaphor for freedom. In fact, this metaphor is part of a pattern of fire imagery that involves two other related terms as well. Upadana, or clinging, also refers to the sustenance a fire takes from its fuel. Khandha means not only one of the five "heaps" (form, feeling, perception, thought processes, and consciousness) that define all conditioned experience, but also the trunk of a tree. Just as fire goes out when it stops clinging and taking sustenance from wood, so the mind is freed when it stops clinging to the khandhas.

    Thus the image underlying nibbana is one of freedom. The Pali commentaries support this point by tracing the word nibbana to its verbal root, which means "unbinding." What kind of unbinding? The texts describe two levels. One is the unbinding in this lifetime, symbolized by a fire that has gone out but whose embers are still warm. This stands for the enlightened arahant, who is conscious of sights and sounds, sensitive to pleasure and pain, but freed from passion, aversion, and delusion. The second level of unbinding, symbolized by a fire so totally out that its embers have grown cold, is what the arahant experiences after this life. All input from the senses cools away and he/she is totally freed from even the subtlest stresses and limitations of existence in space and time.

    The Buddha insists that this level is indescribable, even in terms of existence or nonexistence, because words work only for things that have limits. All he really says about it -- apart from images and metaphors -- is that one can have foretastes of the experience in this lifetime, and that it's the ultimate happiness, something truly worth knowing. So the next time you watch a fire going out, see it not as a case of annihilation, but as a lesson in how freedom is to be found in letting go.

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/modern/thanissaro/nibbana.html


    i would say that, given a proper understand of the teachings, that the two traditions have a marked difference.

    now, concerning the essence, this is also a difference between the traditions. as you know, the Sanatana Dharma essentially posits that MahaBrahma is All and that MahaBrahma is our fundamental essence and is, in fact, the fundamental nature of all phenomena. this view is specifically refuted in the Buddhist teachings wherein the Buddha proclaims that no beginning can be found when searched for and no unchanging essence can be found.

    alot of this, of course, is predicated on a proper cognition of the cultural millieu in which the Buddha arose which can make it a bit difficult to penetrate.

    this is often how Buddhism is viewed, especially by adherent of the Sanatana Dharma traditions.

    Vedanta and Buddhism are the highlights of Indian philosophical thought. Since both have grown in the same spiritual soil, they share many basic ideas: both of them assert that the universe shows a periodical succession of arising, existing and vanishing, and that this process is without beginning and end. They believe in the causality which binds the result of an action to its cause (karma), and in rebirth conditioned by that nexus. Both are convinced of the transitory, and therefore sorrowful character, of individual existence in the world; they hope to attain gradually to a redeeming knowledge through renunciation and meditation and they assume the possibility of a blissful and serene state, in which all worldly imperfections have vanished for ever. The original form of these two doctrines shows however strong contrast. The early Vedanta, formulated in most of the older and middle Upanishads, in some passages of the Mahabharata and the Puranas, and still alive today (though greatly changed) as the basis of several Hinduistic systems, teaches an ens realissimum (an entity of highest reality) as the primordial cause of all existence, from which everything has arisen and with which it again merges, either temporarily or for ever.

    With the monistic metaphysics of the Vedanta contrasts the pluralistic Philosophy of Flux of the early Buddhism of the Pali texts. It teaches that in the whole empirical reality there is nowhere anything that persists; neither material nor mental substances exist independently by themselves; there is no original entity or primordial Being in whatsoever form it may be imagined, from which these substances might have developed. On the contrary, the manifold world of mental and material elements arises solely through the causal co-operation of the transitory factors of existence (dharma) which depend functionally upon each other, that is, the material and mental universe arises through the concurrence of forces that, according to the Buddhists, are not reducible to something else. It is therefore obvious that deliverance from the Samsara, i.e., the sorrow-laden round of existence, cannot consist in the re-absorption into an eternal Absolute which is at the root of all manifoldness, but can only be achieved by a complete extinguishing of all factors which condition the processes constituting life and world. The Buddhist Nirvana is, therefore, not the primordial ground, the eternal essence, which is at the basis of everything and form which the whole world has arisen (the Brahman of the Upanishads) but the reverse of all that we know, something altogether different which must be characterized as a nothing in relation to the world, but which is experienced as highest bliss by those who have attained to it (Anguttara Nikaya, Navaka-nipata 34).

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/bps/wheels/wheel002.html
     
  3. Enkidu

    Enkidu New Member

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    Thank you for the detailed response to my post Vajradhara - its going to take me a bit of time to go through the links you've included and absorb what you've written.

    As a quick response though, I'm still having a lot of trouble with the concept of a difference between Atman and Anatman.

    Based on much of what I've read about Buddhism (generally more the writings around Zen), there is a very definite idea that intellectual concepts are potential traps for the unwary, and that premature fixation on an idea can stunt or even retard spiritual growth.

    This applies, for instance, when you read things like the Sutra on Catching a Snake (I forget what the correct title of this is, but I recall in it the Buddha explains at length the dangers of using his teachings without discernment).

    Now, I guess where my big problem with this discussion comes in, is that the vedic concept of Brahman is not really intended to be an unchanging, eternal, everpresent 'ground', but rather this is a pointer to the underlying reality. From my quick reading of the links you provided, the idea seems to be that in the vedic tradition you have a positive conception of the ground, whereas in the buddhist tradition you have a negation of this, and the ultimate is essentially ineffable.

    But the thing is, the vedic concept of Brahman is also ineffable, isn't it? That is, its not really a positive thing, or a negative thing. The Brahman is explained as being 'Not this, Not this' if I recall correctly in one of the upanishads?

    Now in truth, when I look at the differences as posited, I can't see them as being prima facie fundamental- my gut feeling would be that the Buddha is being extremely careful in his use of metaphor, and is saying that the vedic teaching is 'wrong' if you fixate on the idea of a positive underlying reality.

    I will of course go through the links you've provided in detail, but I don't know if theres a quick response to the above which can show me what I'm missing (it wouldn't surprise me if I've misunderstood both the vedic and the buddhist positions to be honest! :p )

    Just as a slight aside, my understanding of the vedic/buddhist position when the Buddha was alive was that there was a lot of 'rivalry' and 'oneupmanship', and I suppose I have taken this to mean that there is often an extra perspective on a given statement, i.e. sometimes one party is taking a swipe at the other in whats being said. I just want to make sure in this case that the difference represents one of substance, and not of sophistry.
     
  4. Enkidu

    Enkidu New Member

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    Couldn't find a way to edit my post above, so had to create a new one.

    Ok, I read through the links in your post, Vajradhara - they made for very interesting reading; there was also another article on the site which expounded the idea of no-self vs. not-self and how the Buddha approached this.

    So, a couple of questions:

    - don't take this the wrong way, I am just quite cautious of taking things for granted; the site linked to seems very much much a buddhist site, and I'm curious as to how accurate the explanations of the vedic/vedantic lore are. As I'm not an expert in either the vedic or buddhist tradition, I'd just like a view from someone who seems far more knowledgable than me in both these fields

    - my understanding of vedantic lore is that atman is not actually as positive a concept as described in this thread, or in the site linked to. The vedas can be quite 'intellectual' in nature, with multiple layers of hidden meaning, and I always thought that brahman was not something that could be encapsulated within rational (i.e. thought driven) processes. In fact, the explanation of the teaching on anatman seemed to me to be pretty much how the vedas would be interpreted as well. However, on this one, I may well be strongly influenced by my early reading of various zen writings, which may have set the way I consider 'the ground' as a concept.


    On a sidenote, (and possibly this is a non-sequitur) I have seen posts stating that in the buddhist tradition, rebirth means that certain elements of consciousness are retained, rather than an 'immortal soul'. What exactly is this distinction?

    In particular, I can see that if one holds a conceptualised view of Brahman/Atman and an ineffable view of Anatman, then sure, I can see the two things as being different. However, if (as I intuitively feel) the vedic Atman/Brahman idea is actually ineffable just as Anatman is, then I really can't see anything but a difference in the choice of terms used to describe reincarnation and rebirth.


    One final thing - I have seen a number of websites that posit different timescales for vedic lore (in particular, those that challenge the prevalent Aryan Invasion Theory). Suppose that vedic lore was created much earlier than currently accepted; say around 3000BC, rather than 1000BC.

    How, if at all, would this affect the interpretation of buddhist teachings? In other words, rather than saying that buddhist (and jaina) teachings are dependent on only the oldest vedas, suppose they were dependent on all the vedas, the vedanta and the gita. Would this make a difference in the interpretation of any of the buddhist teachings?

    [tbh, not sure if the final thought is a new thread, but it seems to fit the basic purpose of this one, which is to try to clarify how buddhist thinking differs/builds on/refines 'hindu' thinking]
     
  5. Vajradhara

    Vajradhara One of Many

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    Namaste Enkidu,


    i'll have to respond to your post a bit later... however, just a quick one.

    yes, the Access to Insight site is a Buddhist site that has the most extensive translations of the Pali canon available online.

    we need to be a bit more specific in the sense that there isn't a single Buddhist philosophical school, there are 4 specific main schools, and two sub schools. these schools, whilst all upholding the fundamentals of the praxis, differ in their metaphysical understandings.

    this is even more so in the Sanatana Dharma schools, of which there are quite a few divergent philsophical models that one may adhere to.

    the Atman conception in the Sanatana Dharma is of an unchanging self that continually undergoes reincarnation until such a time as it reaches liberation, which is a re-absorbtion, into MahaBrahma. the essential bit of this is the Atman.

    Buddhism teaches An - Atman, meaning "without" a self or soul. in essence, it breaks along the lines of how the two broad views understand phenomena. for the majority of the Sanatana Dharma philosophical schools, objects exist in their own right, within the basis of designation. for the Buddhist, objects do not exist in the own right, it is only the correct causes and conditions which give rise to a phenomena. when those conditions are removed, the phenoman ceases to arise.

    so... when we get to what is being reincarnation or reborn, we are talking Atman or Anatman. since there is no self or soul in Buddhism, there is nothing that can re - incarnate. the Buddhist view can be understood in the tradition sense or a more modern psychological view. either would be ok, i feel. traditionally, what we designate as the self or soul cannot be found to exist, yet, something does exist which is ineffable. we call this consciousness.

    in the Buddhist understanding of how consciousness works, there are levels or layers of consciousness which vary in subtlety. generally speaking, what we normally consider as our consciousness would correspond with only the first, most gross, level of consciousness. in the Buddhist Mahayana formlate of consciousness, there are (depending on the school) 10 levels of progressively subtle consciousness. the 8th level is called the Alaya Consciousness, or Storehouse Consciousness. the storehouse is where our karmic seeds are stored, and, technically, it is these levels (8, 9 and 10) which undergo rebirth.

    alot of this has to do with our ontologies. the Buddhist ontological view is one of a continually arising process without beginning or end, whereas, by contrast, the Sanatana Dharma view is one of monistic deity which has a definite beginning and a definite end. not the deity, the universe... if that is clear :)

    of course, we are being a bit loose with some terms and understandings....
    but... i'm pressed for time so i must run for now.
     
  6. Enkidu

    Enkidu New Member

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    No problem Vajradhara, I really appreciate your replies as they are helping me to see these teachings in a new light - in the meantime, I've been thinking about your comments so far. I think I have a slightly better understanding now on the atman/anatman point; I guess that I am having a bit of trouble with this, because intuitively I think the anatman view is marginally better, from a pedagogical perspective if nothing else. I.e. my gut feeling is that if the vedic doctrine really does say atman, then I can't see how this fits (but more on that later down)

    I'd like to skip onto a couple of things, because I suspect I have not really understood these. Some of the points are just as much questions on the vedic philosophy as on the buddhist one.

    Taken as read. My feeling is that the current discussion is not deep enough so as to make subtle differences in the metaphysics become apparent; however, please say if this is an incorrect assumption.

    This is a point where I have deep philosophical misgivings. I simply don't see the first cause here - if this teaching is accepted, then why is there any differentiation whatsoever? In other words, why didn't the universe start with everything as 'MahaBrahma' as you've called it, and just remain there. I think this is a big problem with the concept of an unchanging, timeless, concept of the eternal, hence my belief that a true understanding really would require you to get beyond this kind of conceptual thinking. I guess thats what I understand the anatman process as, and why I can't believe that the vedic scriptures would stop at the concept of atman.

    Maybe the wording, maybe something else, but when you put this concept in those words, I immediately think of of the quantum mechanical idea of particles arising out of the vacuum and destroying themselves within a very short timeframe (I forget the technical term for this right now).

    However, in the QM view, although this process happens in a vacuum, the uncertainty principle basically states that the energy field cannot be zero (otherwise you would have no uncertainty). I.e. in QM, this appears to something from nothing, but in this case nothing is not quite nothing [I have no idea if that sentence is understandable, but I'm hoping the gist comes across]

    Ok, the warning bells are going off in my head again. If I'm reading this right, then 'consciousness' is looking very much like the atman over the course of a buddha's entire set of past lives. Once the buddha attains nirvana, the consciousness is extinguished, but until then how is it functionally different to the atman?

    In truth, phrased like this, the buddhist view seems very much like modern physics. Do the teachings ever say why processes continually arise, or is this completely out of context? [From my reading of Buddhism to date, I'm certain that its considered a meaningless question, but these days I try not to assume things]
     
  7. losangel27

    losangel27 New Member

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    that is a great question!
     
  8. Vajradhara

    Vajradhara One of Many

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    Namaste Enkidu,

    thank you for the post. i apologize for being tardy with my reply.

    from the Buddhist point of view, this would be exactly what you'd expect. there is a method of analysis that is engaged in the Buddhist praxis that, in our view, usually has to be done before a being comes to the realizations that what they habitually impute as the "self" is just that, an imputation that does not really exist in that way.

    sure thing. fyi, i adhere to a specific philosophical school within the Buddha Dharma, as such, i can't really speak too much for Vedantic philosophies or even other Buddhist schools to any great degree. none of which may impact our conversation, though i thought i should state it. my particular philosophical school is called Madyamika and i adhere to the Prasangika interepetation of Madyamika, which is fairly typically for Vajrayana Buddhists of the Tibetan lineages.

    perhaps it is for some beings though i would tend to agree that these fine distcintions aren't going to add much to our conversation.

    ah, i see what you are saying. well... from the Buddhist view, the reason for this is given that MahaBrahma observed the universe and found Himself alone and his fear of being alone created the ontological universe that we see around us. in quite technical terms, the Creator Deity in Buddhas day was not MahaBrahma, though that was the underlying substance of universe, per se. the Deity that brought creation into being is called Ishvara who would be an "avatar" of MahaBrahma. generally speaking, these aspects of cosmology are found within the Abidharma section of the Tipitaka in the Pali canon and you can find more of it in the Kalachakra Tantras. unfortunately, most of the Abidharma has not been translated into English yet.

    recall that within the Sanatana Dharma and thus Vedic philosophical formulations, creation, and all things therein, are actually MahaBrahma. it is not that MahaBrahma is *in* everything, rather, MahaBrahma *is* everything. it is only our deluded consciousness that thinks that we are seperate from MahaBrahma thus, our fundamental nature is identical with MahaBrahma and thus, the development of Yoga which is a re-joining of the mundane consciousness with the supramundane principle.

    virtual particles, is what i think you are describing.

    i suppose that i have a different understanding of the HUP. i understand the HUP to be referring to how one measures. in other words, the more precisely that i can determine a particles position, the less certain it's momentum becomes. the more precisely i determine the momentum of the particle, the less certain i am of it's position. if i can determine exactly the momentum of the particle, i have no idea of it's position and vice versa. for those interested: http://zebu.uoregon.edu/~imamura/208/jan27/hup.html

    the essential bit that i need to communicate is the idea that Atman is unchanging and Anatman is changing. this is the difference. the Buddhas rejection of Atman is not a religious objection, quite far from it actually, it is rather, a philosophical objection being that the notion of Atman is grounded in a radically different ontology than the Buddha presents.

    to a certain exent, you are correct... these questions may not be all that important in one path of liberation. nevertheless, for some beings, it will be important to understand these things, hence the variety of the teachings. nevertheless, the answer to the question is "yes". it's actually, without getting into the metaphysics of the thing, a straightforward answer. processes continually arise due to karma and delusion concerning the fundamental nature of being.

    now, i should say that these are my understandings of the teachings and as such, subject to my own biases and ingnorance. other Buddhists may agree or disagree with my view.
     
  9. sangam

    sangam New Member

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    greetings
    It was a very informative discussion between u and vajradhar, thanks to both of u for the time and effort. as vj concludes, the objective is liberation. It would be interesting to find out the differences in the practical aspects of the meditative practices between the two schools. Though explanations of phylosophy abound, there are few details available of the methods of meditation. I would greatly appreciate if you could point me in the right direction( i am presuming that vj would be reading this as well)
    thanks and regards
     
  10. Vajradhara

    Vajradhara One of Many

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    Namaste Sangam,


    thank you for the post and the kind words.

    i can point you to some online resources that can give you some direction with regards to the Buddhist meditational praxis of Vipassana and Samatha, if you'd like.
     

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