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 afterlife.
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 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 on 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 to 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) the 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 attitudes from previous lives. Geniuses or child prodigies, whose extraordinary accomplishments cannot be accounted for in terms of heredity or environment, would only be special cases of such a “carryover’ 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 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 hold a variety of views on the subject of survival after death without subscribing to the doctrine of rebirth or preexistence, giving alleged accounts of prior lives, and 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.

The Buddhist view on this matter is both relevant and interesting. Our desire influence or condition our belief, to which we tenaciously cling (tapha paccaya dithupadanam) but this does not necessarily mean that, these beliefs are always false for when they happen to be ‘right beliefs’ (samma ditthi), they are factually true.
So although desires affect our beliefs, this fact has no relevance to the truth or falsity of the beliefs. We have, however, because of our emotional involvement with these beliefs to weigh the evidence against their truth or falsity without prejudice. As Buddhists, we have to examine the truth even of the belief in rebirth objectively without being prejudiced for (chanda) or against (dosa) or being affected by fear (bhaya) even if it is the fear of the beyond or being guided by our erroneous beliefs (moha). So the desire to believe or not to believe does not affect the truth or falsity of the belief but we have to guard against the prejudice resulting from the desire in our quest for truth.

Authority And Revelation
Another set of arguments for survival is based on authority. It may be stated that many poets and mystics as well as rational thinkers brought up in a tradition that condemned the belief, but nevertheless, professed it.

The classic case is that of Giordano Bruno, who is said to have stated in his profession of faith before the Inquisition: ‘I have held and hold souls to be immortal speaking as a Catholic, they do not pass from body to body, but go to Paradise, Purgatory or Hell. But I have reasoned deeply, and, speaking as a philosopher, since the soul is not found without body and yet is not the body, it may be in one body or in another, and pass from body to body. This, if it is not (proved) true seems at least, likely.’ (See, REINCARNATION an East-West Anthology, Ed. J. Head & S. L. Cranston, New York, 1961). Over two hundred and fifty well-known poets, philosophers and writers of the Western world have either held or professed some sort of belief in rebirth.

All that this seems to suggest is that the belief is worth examining and it does not in any way imply the truth of the belief.

The argument from revelation is also unacceptable to science and Buddhism. It is true that certain texts in the Vedic tradition, particularly the middle and late Upanishads profess a belief in rebirth but there is a variety of views on the subject of survival in the Vedic tradition, itself. In one of the early Upanishads, rebirth is denied. It is said: ‘there are these three worlds, the world of men, the world of departed spirits and the world of the gods. The world of men is obtained through a son only, not by any other means (Bvhad Aranayaka Upanisad, 1.5, 15). While there are these contradictions within the revelational traditions, the different theistic revelations also contradict each other on the problem of survival. So the doctrine of rebirth cannot be established by an argument from authority or revelation, since authority and revelation are not acceptable means of knowledge.

Metaphysical and Ethical Arguments

The metaphysical (theoretical) arguments are no better. Apart from the fact that they make use of unverifiable concepts like the ‘soul’, the arguments are of doubtful value and are generally discredited today. One of the traditional arguments for survival has been that the ‘soul is a substance, substances are indestructible, therefore the soul is indestructible, ie. Immortal.’ But apart from the difficulty of the concept of a ‘soul’, the notion of an indestructible substance is discredited today.

With regard to rebirth, we have already met with a sample of such a metaphysical argument in that of Giordano Bruno. Such arguments, based on pure reasoning intended to prove the truth of rebirth are to be met with, for example, in a work by Professor John Me Taggart (Philosophy) of Cambridge, called ‘Some Dogmas of Religion’ (Ch. IV). But they have little appeal today since it is recognized that matters of fact cannot be proved by pure reasoning (takka) as the Buddha himself pointed out (Ma takka hetu).
The ethical argument has a greater appeal, but this is so only for those who accept its presuppositions. According to the Buddha, karma was one of the predominant factors responsible for human inequalities. This has often been represented as embodying the following rational ethical argument consisting of an empirical and ethical premise viz people are of unequal status, those of unequal status ought to be such by virtue of their own actions – therefore, since this is not due to their actions in this life, it should be due to their actions in prior lives. This means that both pre-existence and karma are the cases. This is an argument that has appealed to many thinkers down the ages, but most modern thinkers would not accept the second ethical premise namely that ‘those of unequal status ought to be such by virtue of their own actions.’ This is because most people believe today that the universe or nature is moral and there is no ethical reason why anything should or should not be so. On the other hand, many hold that ethical statements are neither true nor false. It is nevertheless a fact that many people brought up in a belief in the inherent justice of nature ask questions of the form, ‘why should so and so be born healthy while I am in a state of ill-health from birth etc.

It is only modern scholars who have made an argument of this since the Buddha merely stated as an observed fact that, the predominant cause of these inequalities was karma. The fact is in principle verifiable but the argument appeals to one’s moral sense and is of value only if such a moral sense is universally present and shared by all mankind.

The Evidence

The above arguments are, therefore, for one reason or another, unsatisfactory and have little force in proving the truth of rebirth or survival. The truth or falsity of rebirth, therefore, rests on the relevant empirical evidence, (ie deriving knowledge from experience alone)
We may classify the main evidence into two sorts, (i) experimental and (ii) spontaneous. The other evidence may be considered separately.

The experimental evidence is based on age regression. Under hypnosis, a subject can recall or relive his past experiences. With regard to this life when regressed to age six, for instance, the subject would behave, write and talk as he or she did at that time and recall past experiences, which it may not be possible to recall by normal means. The handwriting and the memories could be independently checked. Such experiments have convinced psychologists and psychiatrists today that the authentic buried memories of one’s childhood experiences, which cannot be called to mind in normal consciousness, can be unearthed by hypnosis.

It may be asked whether the subject is not just responding to the suggestion of the hypnotist and is merely play-acting or shamming. That this is not so has been proved experimentally. Dr H. J. Eysenck, who was a Professor of Psychology at the University of London and Director of the Psychological Department at the Institute of Psychiatry, Maudsley and Bethlehem Royal Hospitals, states that ‘in one case it was found that when a twenty-year-old girl was regressed to various ages she changed the chalk to her left hand at the six-year level; she had started writing with the left hand, but had been forced to change over at the age of six’.

In another case, a thirty-year-old was hypnotized and regressed to a level of about one year of age on a chair arranged in such a way that with the release of a latch, it would fall back into a horizontal position. When the latch was released the behaviour elicited was not that of an adult but of a child. An adult, it is said, would quite involuntarily extend both arms and legs in an effort to maintain balance. Since the subject made no movement of the limbs but screamed in fright and fell backward with the chair, urinating in the process. Eysenck comments. ‘It is unlikely that such behaviour is simply due to playacting’. Intelligence and achievement tests have been used to assess the nature of the behaviour of regressed subjects and it has been found that ‘people tend to behave on tests of this type in a manner roughly appropriate to the given age.’ Eysenck’s observations with regard to the possibility of faking such behaviour, are as follows: ‘Such reactions, of course, could easily be faked, but it has been shown that when, for instance, the eye movements of subjects are photographed, a considerable lack of ocular co-ordination and stability is found when regression to a relatively young age occurs. Such physiological phenomena are characteristic of young children and are difficult, if not impossible, to produce voluntarily.

A remarkable fact is that the psychological experiences had when the physiological condition of the body was different, are re-enacted.

To quote Eysenck again: Even more impressive is another case of a subject who had a colloid cyst removed from the floor of the third ventricle. Prior to this removal, the subject had been suffering from blindness in the left half of the right eye. After the operation, the vision had become normal, but when the subject regressed to a time shortly before the operation, the visual defect again reappeared during the regression. The expected physiological reaction is not only appropriate to the age but reflects the physiological condition of the body at the time.

In the light of the experimental evidence, Eysenck concludes: ‘Experiments such as those described in some detail above, leave little doubt that there is a substantial amount of truth in the hypothesis that age regression does, in fact, take place, and that memories can be recovered which most people would think had been completely lost’. This is the consensus of opinion among orthodox psychologists today.

So genuine memories not accessible to normal recall are generally evoked or the experiences relived at the suggestion of the hypnotist in age-regression. So at least as far as this life is concerned, to say that the memories recalled under age regression are hallucinatory or delusive is not correct.

Introducing The Writer
The Late Professor K. N. Jayatilleke Ph. D. (Cantab) was born in 1920; educated at Royal College, Colombo. He was learned in Pali, Sanskrit, Indian and Western Philosophy (Classical and Modern) Professor of Philosophy at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, and read papers on Buddhism at Oxford (1961), Havard USA and Princeton University (1966). He passed away at only 49 years of age, in July 1970.

Few are the beings born again among men; more numerous are those born elsewhere than among men – Anguttara Nikaya I.