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Buddha Dhamma -
The Case For The Buddhist Theory Of Survival And Kamma

By Late Professor K. N. Jayatilleke Ph. D. (Cantab) - Courtesy Vesak Lipi

The Buddhist doctrine of re-becoming (punabbhava) was a novel theory in so far as it spoke of survival without a self-identical soul or substance. There was continuity (santali) of personality after death and rebirth or the return to an earth-life was only a special case of such continuity. The doctrine was propounded after taking into account all the possible theories that could be advanced with regard to the problem of an after life.

The Buddhist doctrine of karma merely taught that there was a correlation between moral acts and their consequences without implying any sort of fatalism. In fact, its implications were the very opposite of fatalism in that man by his understanding of his own nature could control his present and determine his own future.When we examine some of the objections that could be levelled against this doctrine of re-becoming, we investigated the objection against any theory of survival from the alleged state of or relationship that exists between the brain and the mind. The evidence against the possibility of survival was by no means crucial. Survival is neither proved nor disproved in the light of the modern findings regarding the brain-mind. Any theory of survival therefore, stands or falls on the basis of independent evidence.

When we also examined some of the objections raised specifically against rebirth, we found that the objection that rebirth was a self-contradictory concept was not valid since we can speak significantly of a single individual having many lives where there is a continuity of memory and mental dispositions. The argument from the increase in the human population could not be levelled against the Buddhist theory of rebirth since Buddha entertained the possibility of prior lives among animal, human or non-human ancestors in this or other planets. The objection from biogenesis was also not valid since rebirth took place at a higher level of animal evolution.

The objection from the lack of memory of prior lives was far from true. Memory may be used in one of two senses, (i) the recalled genuine experiences of one's past, and (ii) presence of capacities and skills acquired in past. In the second scene we found that there was some evidence for the existence of such 'memories'.

Identical twins when joined together called 'Siamese twins' have a common heredity and a common environment. Yet psychologists have observed that they differ in character and temperament. It is likely, therefore, that the difference is due to a third factor (other than heredity and environment), namely the 'cast over' of past skills and attitude from previous lives. Geniuses or child prodigies, whose extra ordinary accomplishments cannot be accounted for in terms of heredity or environment, would only be special cases of such a "carry over' of skills from one life to another.

In the former sense of memory, namely of the recall of genuine in one's past, it is claimed that there is evidence of the recall of genuine experiences from prior lives. Such claims have to be carefully examined.

Unsatisfactory Arguments
Yet, before we proceed to do so, it is necessary to dispose of some unsatisfactory arguments that are sometimes adduced in support of the doctrine of rebirth. They may take many forms. There is a tendency to urge that some belief is true because almost everybody holds it. Yet the universality belief does not entail its truth. Nor at the same time does it entail its truth. It is sometimes maintained that many primitive peoples of the ancient world believed in the survival or the doctrine of rebirth. But this does not imply that the belief is either true or false. Its truth or falsity has to be established independently.

The relevance of the universality of the belief as evidence of its truth becomes more interesting when it is realized that everyone in a state of deep hypnosis gives an account of experiences in alleged prior lives, lived on earth, whatever their conscious beliefs may be. There is evidence that Materialists and Theists holding a variety of views on the subject of survival after death without subscribing to the doctrine of rebirth or preexistence, give alleged accounts of prior lives, recounting details of their experience. Does this imply the truth of the belief? Not necessarily. For it is possible that all their beliefs could be illusory, though the universality of such an illusion has to be accounted for. But the experiences they recount certainly constitute evidence for the truth or falsity of the belief in rebirth. We shall carefully examine this evidence later on.

Another form in which an argument for survival is presented, is that a human need or want, implies the existence of what is needed or wanted. We need or want food. Therefore, it is suggested, there must be such immortality or survival. However, this is an argument that cuts both ways. For others may argue that, we believe in rebirth or survival because we need to believe or desire to entertain such a belief. But what we like to believe is not necessarily true and, therefore, this is no evidence of the truth of the belief.

Freud in his work called The Future of an Illusion tries to show that people entertain certain religious beliefs like the belief in the existence of God, for instance, because there is a deep-seated craving in us for security amidst the insecurity of life and the uncertainty of the beyond. According to him, people believe in God dogmatically, because of such a deep-seated craving. It is an object of wish-fulfilment and in this specialized sense, an 'illusion'.

This does not, however, necessarily mean that the belief is false. As Freud himself pointed out, a girl may believe in the existence of a Prince Charming who may one day come and propose to her, because she likes to believe this does not necessarily mean that, such a person does not exist. So the desire to believe in rebirth or survival does not necessarily show that the belief is false just as much as the desire to disbelieve in rebirth does not imply that the contrary belief is false. >

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