Feb 23, 2007
“Exploring Karma and Rebirth,” by Nagapriya
His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, has a great interest in science and believes that both the scientific method and Buddhism are attempts to discover how things really are. He has even gone so far as to say that when science and traditional Buddhist teachings part company, it is Buddhism that has to change.
In some cases these adjustments have already been made: people 2,500 years ago in India may have thought that Mount Meru was the center of the world and that there were four continents, but there are no contemporary Buddhist fundamentalists crying out for school text books to carry disclaimers stating that geography is “only a theory.” We’ve let that one slide.
It’s relatively easy to recognize in the face of modern scientific findings that a cosmological model has outlived its usefulness, but there are a number of trickier areas where science and traditional Buddhist perspectives do not mesh, and an exploration of these areas is perhaps overdue and important.
Two of those areas are the related fields of karma and rebirth, and an examination of these is important because they are – unlike the Ancients’ conception of geography – central to Buddhist teachings, not just as concepts but as the underpinning for Buddhist practice.
Nagapriya‘s book has, I confess, been languishing on my shelf for too long, and deserves to have been reviewed much earlier because it represents an important step forward in examining the relevance and usefulness of the concepts of karma and rebirth to modern, western Buddhists. It is a text I think all practitioners would benefit from reading.
Nagapriya begins by putting the theory of karma into its historical context, showing that the concept existed prior to Buddhism but was reinvented in a Buddhist way. Karma, for example, moved from being seen by the Brahminical tradition as ritual actions aimed at placating the gods to being seen by Buddhism as ethical or unethical actions: the difference between the two kinds of actions being the state of mind underlying them. He shows how non-Buddhist understandings of karma have crept into the Buddhist tradition and caused confusion, and also how the concept has come to be understood differently at different times.
He also places karma in the wider context of the Buddhist teaching of conditioned coexistence, showing that it is a specific instance of a more general teaching about how phenomena come into being.
To be brief, it’s as important to say what karma is not as it is to say what it is, and Nagapriya does both with a convincing clarity and elegance.
Nagapriya goes on to critically examine the teaching of karma. He teases out what is useful in our specific historical context, drawing on the Buddhist scriptures, examples from fiction, and his own experience. In this examination he manages to express the teaching in a way that is easily comprehensible to the modern mind and also profoundly useful. Consider the following admirably clear way of expressing the essence of the teaching, for example:
Karma rests on two important assumptions about human character. The first assumption is that human character is not fixed, and so it may be modified. The second is that willed actions are the means by which character is modified.
He goes on to take a similar approach to the concept of rebirth, looking at what Buddhism says lies beyond the “undiscovered country” that is death, examining what is said to be reborn, looking at the traditional Buddhist teaching of the six realms of rebirth, and taking us on a quick tour of some differing historical perspectives on what (if anything) lies between death and rebirth.
Nagapriya concludes his examination of rebirth by looking critically at some of the evidence for life after life and by speculating that rebirth may be a less tidy affair – one consciousness dying and then coasting into a new body – than is generally understood. His discussion here is highly stimulating but too detailed for me to recount.
Much of the value of this book comes from the fact that Nagapriya’s approach is critical – meaning not that he is hostile to traditional Buddhist teachings (he’s not) but that he bears in mind at all times (or almost all times) Buddhism’s central purpose of addressing the problem of human suffering, and that he constantly attempts to examine whether traditional teachings are useful in that regard.
He is also very rational, in the sense that he does not gloss over contradictions in the tradition but takes those contradictions as an incentive to think more deeply. For example, he rightly questions a Tibetan Rinpoche’s outrageous assertion that those who were exterminated in the Nazi death camps “must have done something very bad in earlier lives.” This kind of teaching is common in certain Buddhist circles, but Nagapriya strongly questions the spiritual usefulness of this kind of “blame the victim” mentality as well as its validity (it’s a pretty absurd belief when you start to really think about it) and its orthodoxy (it directly contradicts the Buddha’s own teachings).
I had the feeling throughout reading this book that I was in a seminar with a highly intelligent, inquisitive, mind, and one that has above all an abundance of intellectual integrity.
The book is not perfect, but then, none of them are. There are a few minor errors of fact (Leonard Shelby in the movie “Memento” had problems making new long-term memories and hadn’t “lost his short-term memory”) and a number of cases where I thought the wrong word had been used (surely he meant to talk about the “culpability” of the Nazis and not their “liability”). There were also a few times when I wished he’d made connections that were absent (he often fails to connect the Buddha’s teachings on karma with the ultimate purpose of Buddhism, which is to address our suffering), and he too glibly dismisses the concept of the dharma-niyama as “not clear” when I think he has the capacity to bring a great deal of clarity to the subject. But often these “flaws” are actually a good sign – Nagapriya’s book has got me thinking and making connections, just as a good seminar should.