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Possible difficulties in Buddhism

by Ernest Valea


This and other similar articles address potential inconsistencies encountered by a certain religious view. While I see them as inconsistencies, for others they may pose no problem at all. For this reason, the articles are entitled "Possible difficulties in [this or that religion]" and not "Contradictions in [this or that religion]". Each of these articles is a list of possible difficulties with short comments aimed at encouraging critical thinking on each issue.


Rebirth without a self


One of the key elements in Buddhism is the denial of a self (atman). The illusion of an existing self is generated by a mere heap of five aggregates (skandha), which suffer from constant becoming and have a functional cause-effect relationship. Human existence is characterized by impermanence (anitya), a constant process of transformation devoid of any abiding principle. But if there is no self, what reincarnates from one existence to another? Buddha stated that only karma passes from one life to the next, determining a new configuration of the five aggregates in a new existence. Therefore samsara works without the need of a self, relying only on a causal chain of determination.

However, such a view of rebirth raises potential problems. Some passages in Buddhist scriptures seem to indicate the continuity of personal existence, or at least of an impersonal self, in the rebirth process. For instance it is stated that the dead will be judged by Yama, the god of death, and afterwards sent into hell and tormented for their sins (Khuddaka-nikaya 10,1,59). There are also many verses in the Dhammapada that suggest personal post-mortem existence:

Some people are born again; evil-doers go to hell; righteous people go to heaven; those who are free from all worldly desires attain Nirvana (Dhammapada 9,126; see also 10,140; 22,306-311).

On the other hand, if there is no self, on what basis could the Buddha have said, "This is my last birth, I will have no further existence" (Majjhima-nikaya 3)? Whose last birth is it, if there is no self to be reborn? There are also the texts in Khuddaka-nikaya 10 and the Jataka tales, referring to the previous lives of Buddha and his friends, in which each one's identity is always known. Also, the very existence of the supernatural power of recollecting past lives attained in concentration (Digha Nikaya 12) suggests that a certain core of personal identity must exist and be reincarnated from one life to the next. The text in the Digha Nikaya says:
He recollects his manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two births, three births, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, one hundred, one thousand, one hundred thousand, many aeons of cosmic contraction, many aeons of cosmic expansion, many aeons of cosmic contraction and expansion, [recollecting], 'There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.' Thus he recollects his manifold past lives in their modes and details.


The liberation of no self


The Buddhist term for liberation (nirvana) derives from the verbal root va (lit. "to blow") and the negation nir; hence the best picture to illustrate it is the blowing out of a candle. Once someone attains nirvana, the five aggregates are scattered forever at death without entering a new combination. This corresponds to a total extinction of any ontological element that could define human existence. The scriptures state:

When a man is free from all sense pleasures and depends on nothingness he is free in the supreme freedom from perception. He will stay there and not return again. It is like a flame struck by a sudden gust of wind. In a flash it has gone out and nothing more can be known about it. It is the same with a wise man freed from mental existence: in a flash he has gone out and nothing more can be known about him. When a person has gone out, then there is nothing by which you can measure him. That by which he can be talked about is no longer there for him; you cannot say that he does not exist. When all ways of being, all phenomena are removed, then all ways of description have also been removed (Sutta Nipata 1072-76).

Therefore, nirvana is not just the cessation of hatred, birth, old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, despair, etc. It is not just the cooling off and extinguishing of these things, and as a result, the ultimate peace one experiences when all conflicts are gone, but rather the extinction of any element that could define human existence. Unfortunately, nirvana also implies the extinction of the agent who experiences "hatred, birth, old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, despair, etc."

From a Buddhist point of view, this perspective isn't horrifying at all, because it represents the cessation of an illusion. When human existence is blown out, nothing real disappears because life itself is an illusion. Nirvana is neither a re-absorption into an eternal Ultimate Reality, nor the annihilation of a self, because there is no self to annihilate. It is rather an annihilation of the illusion of an existing self. Nirvana is a state of supreme bliss and freedom without any subject left to experience it.


The boddhisattvas and grace


Instead of seeking nirvana just for oneself and becoming an arhat, as Theravada Buddhism demands, the disciple of Mahayana Buddhism aims to become a bodhisattva, a being that postpones his or her own entrance into parinirvana (final extinction) in order to help other humans also attain it. However, we meet here a contradiction between one's karma and the grace that can be provided by a bodhisattva. For instance, according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, although the bodhisattvas offer their help after death in order that one may attain a better new birth or even final liberation, it is said that the deceased is unable to accept it because of the projection of his or her bad karma and the attraction of "samsaric impurities," which make him or her fall deeper and deeper into the intermediary state (bardo). For this reason it is wrong to think that the bodhisattvas save the dead through their grace, as only the merits one has accumulated during lifetime make him or her able to accept the "rays of grace." Therefore, it is either karma that rules one's existence and journey toward liberation, or the grace of the bodhisattvas. The two elements are hard to reconcile.

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Copyright Ernest Valea. No part of this work will be used or reproduced by any means without prior permission from the author.