Brief candles

Focusing your mind on the eternal candle flame…I am feeling giddy at the moment.

I commented in a previous post that “The only school of “alternative” thought which I have not yet found to be intellectually undermined is the Buddhist approach to re-incarnation” and Anticant obligingly provided me with an antidote. I’ve been reading “Reincarnation: A Critical Examination” by Paul Edwards on and off since it arrived.

I’ve always thought a Hereafter was at least possible, and for a lot of my adult life I’ve considered it to be probable. There’s internal coherence to the Hindu and Buddhist world views, but they fall down when you test some of their underlying assumptions using nasty practical empirical science. (The one world-view that has never made any sense to me whatsoever is paradise, judgement day, heaven and hell). So during my adult life, my position on life after death veered from the conclusion that reincarnation made absolute sense to dragging it along like a comfort blankie while I got on with my real life. I think I even put Buddhist down on the 2001 census. I certainly wasn’t going to put Jedi.

Buddha with View by Sean DugganI like Buddhism. I like its practicality. The techniques it teaches, such as meditation, produce real quantifiable changes in the people who practice them. I like the idea of the soul taking several lifetimes to explore different things. I like the idea of karma, that every action has a consequence and that you cannot escape the consequences of your acts. (This is very different from the judgement / punishment view of Christianity, where there is an external deity keeping score. Karma as consequences is more mechanistic and simpler, like a law of nature rather than the whim of a petulant despot). I look around me and I can see karma working on a small scale, and I was comforted by the idea that it worked across lifetimes too. I like the idea that I chose my own parents, that I might get a second chance with lost loves, that I might yet be a mother, that I can catch up next time with what I don’t do this time. I’ll miss Buddhism, but oddly enough I am more interested in it now, not less.

Buddhism, or a Buddhisty theory of reincarnation, provided answers to the questions that I asked, and the aforementioned comfort blankie of course.

Edwards argues simply and fairly clearly that:

  1. there is no credible evidence for reincarnation and even the best cases evaporate into delusion, wishful thinking or fraud under close examination
  2. the mind requires the brain to exist, and consciousness does not survive the death of the brain

Comfort blankies - do not forget to boil them to keep them sterile, otherwise they can harbour germsEdwards also deals with things like Near Death Experiences, (feelings of warmth, love and total understanding, culturally specific spiritual figure at the end of a tunnel of light, etc); Astral Travel (which he debunks as bunk); remembered past lives, (which never produce information not available in this one), and so on.

Ultimately, of course, it comes down to a matter of belief, but religion is essentially a ritualised version of “here be dragons” and as science maps out more and more of the unknown, the remaining dragons are left balancing on smaller and smaller islands. Edwards argues that the dragon of reincarnation no longer has a foot to stand on. Being an Oriental Dragon, it has no wings and cannot fly. Or that’s my metaphor, and I’m sticking to it.

I am trying to absorb various truths. When I die, I’ll go out like a candle. There are no second chances, if I don’t do it this time then I won’t get to do it at all. The people who I know who’ve died have stopped. And the big one: life really is a bitch and then you really do die.

The Dalai Lama and Desmond TutuAs well as the truths, I now have all sorts of other questions swirling in my mind. How can morality have merit if it is merely a human artefact? What practical meaning remains to the word “spirituality”? What merit is left in Buddhism if you take out reincarnation? Does this mean the Dalai Lama isn’t cool any more?

Oddly there is one question I am pretty clear on which is why are there no pre-20th century cultures which are entirely irreligious?

It seems clear to me:

  1. that religions provided creation myths and an explanation for why stuff happened and
  2. that religious belief provides just enough of an advantage to individuals and societies in times of crisis for there to have been a very slight selective advantage in a strong religious faith.

Dawkins is such an evangelist for atheism that I rather like the idea of religion providing an evolutionary benefit. It seems highly likely to me that dogs have gods.

At the moment I veer between two contradictory feelings. Sometimes I am shocked by how dramatically the stakes have been raised: as the the saying goes, “there ain’t no justice, just us”. We cannot rely on any external checks and balances to iron out the world’s problems. If we don’t sort it out here and now, then it won’t be sorted out, and that’s not all right. And then I veer towards nihilism: in the long run we are all dead and nothing is remembered. How can justice matter if the victims can neither know nor care?

It is this spinning around which is making me giddy.


Edwards’ book, incidentally, is irritating in a number of ways. It is printed on very odd paper and the whole thing turns into two parallel tubes when you are reading it. It is appallingly badly proof-read, which is unforgivable in a second edition. He promises to discuss various subjects such as childhood prodigies and extremes of talent, but doesn’t, and he fails to discuss Out of Body experiences at all, refering the reader in toto to Susan Blackmore. It is however also fun, witty and sarcastic. I just wish it had been better edited. Or edited at all, really.

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11 responses to “Brief candles

  1. I’m with you on heaven, hell and all that — never made sense to me. While I find reincarnation an appealing idea, I don’t believe it, at least not in a literal sense. But since becoming a mother, I can see it metaphorically in my children. I am getting another chance — and my parents and grandparents are getting another chance — in them. The more I work on myself, the more of a head start I give my children. They build on what I have learned, what I am, and eventually surpass me (and their grandparents)…

  2. I loathe any religion’s idea that they all get to Heaven and the rest will languish in hellfire, the idea that they and only they have got it right. That’s why Buddhist principles of inclusivity appeal to me. I think the idea of reincarnation as a comfort blanket is brilliant, because knowing that you can come back and try again is comforting, whereas the notion that everything is totally random is pretty frightening.

  3. You ask: “How can morality have merit if it is merely a human artefact?” and “How can justice matter if the victims can neither know nor care?”

    I’ve never understood the ‘difficulty’ posed by these and similar questions. Morality and justice can and should matter to those of us who are alive in the here-and-now. They are indeed innately human concepts [the product of evolution?], but none the less real because there is no Sky Pixie handing out celestial brownie points in a future life.

    Far from finding this daunting, I experience it as a great comfort as my own end [extermination?] approaches. I can think of nothing better after death than a dreamless sleep instead of some celestial airport terminal. Meanwhile, it’s up to me – and you – to do our best while we’re still here to make the world a better place according to our inner lights. That’s what individual responsibility – which the religious duck so neatly – is about.

    You must have a different edition of Edwards’ book to mine, which is a well-produced hardback.

  4. Reincarnation twinned with karma can only be a comfort blanket to those who have quite a good lot in this life, thank you very much. It sucks for the disadvantaged and poor, and damaged people who, it argues, must deserve what they’ve got.

    I was listening to something on Raido 4 (how many times can one person type this? I should use the acronym IWLTSORF…) a while ago about Cambodia and the dreadful things that happened there. The put-upon had an awful tendency to believe they somehow deserved all the murder etc whilst at the same time not doing anything to the perpetrators who they believed would get what was coming in the next life.

    I believe this is it, my one go at living.

    Just a shame I am ballsing it up 🙂

  5. “Reincarnation twinned with karma can only be a comfort blanket to those who have quite a good lot in this life, thank you very much. It sucks for the disadvantaged and poor, and damaged people who, it argues, must deserve what they’ve got.”

    To a certain extent perhaps, but not entirely.
    ‘They must deserve what they’ve got’ implies a simple punishment/reward structure for reincarnation which is not my understanding of how the Buddhist system at least works (granted it’s a while since I studied Buddhism in any depth). Also, you’re equating a good lot with a materialistically ‘rich’ lot, which again is not my understanding of how Buddhism works – it’s not a case of ‘be a good boy in one life and get a better one next time’ – that’s closer to the Western Pure life = Heaven model.

    Since Buddhism strives for a lack of attachment to this world and acceptance of pain as the very nature of life a life full of riches would make it harder to ‘step off the wheel’ – we’re not supposed to be looking for linear procession from slug to king here.

    I suspect you and Aphra are looking at reincarnation from opposite ends anyway (not that I want to put words into her mouth) – you’re looking back. ‘This life’s crap, must’ve been a bastard last time’. She’s looking forward ‘This life’s crap, have to do a better job next time’

    I admit I know bugger all about Hinduism mind, so I’m not sure how their reincarnation system works at all.

    Personally, I lean towards a

    “First I wasn’t
    Then I was
    Now I ain’t again”

    World view.

  6. I have never been able to understand the point of reincarnation – if I don’t remember my past life and in a future one I don’t remember this one, there seems little difference between being reincarnated and stopping existing altogether. And yet it would seem a waste of the life you have to spend time trying to get hold of memories from earlier ones, even if it was possible. And they might as well have happened to someone else.

    I hate the view that misfortune is deserved for any reason other than what you actually did – errors is past lives or lack of faith (as I think some of the branches of American Evangelism claim) just gives everyone an excuse not to do anything about it.

  7. I am happy to have a chance to read thoughts of some very deep thinkers on this subject. I discarded the concept of Heaven and Hell a long time ago, I tend towads belief in reincarnation. I have read various “debunkings” of it, but I still can’t forget two things: 1. I remembered how to read when I was 3. I did not learn it, I was sitting next to my mother as she read to me and I said to myself “I know how to do this!” I did, too, much to her astonishment. 2. I “Knew” my present husband and soulmate the second I saw him walking up the stairs to my apartment. I have met other people I “know” as well.

    Despite all the rational and logical arguments of the debunkers, I still believe I have lived before, and probably will again.

  8. Kerr, it was more the discussion on that program I heard that was influencing me, particularly the fact that sufferers were reluctant to seek any kind of justice for the perpetrators of terrible crimes because they would get what was coming to them, and that they were so accepting of the awfulness of their lives as they must have had it coming.

    I didn’t mention material things so not sure where that came from? I was actually thinking of the disabled, tortured, murdered and damaged in terms of those that don’t have a good lot in life.

  9. Very thought-provoking post. I always look on religion, life after death, the soul etc like this: If you had managed to transport a television to medieval times, no matter how clearly you tried to explain it, it would be so far outside people’s everyday experience that the only way they could make any sense of it would be to label it “supernatural”. What we call God, Allah, Buddha, whatever, may have a logical, physical (metaphysical?) explanation that will become clear in future centuries.
    As Shakespeare said: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
    Am I talking garbage? Probably!

  10. Thank you all for posting on such a tricksy subject.

    MPJ, I am sure you are right, we see reincarnation from the outside when we look up and down family lines.

    Charlotte, it’s the frightning thought of the randomness that I am dealing with at the moment, and also the wierd idea that I am just a function of my biology. I am really struggling with that one. And then there’s the twins thing where people have the same DNA. It’s actually harder to get my head around no reincarnation than it is to get my head around reincarnation.

    Anticant, I’m not going to lose my morality, I was just recording my reactions while they were still jiggling around. I was amused by Mark Thomas’s desire to retain consciousness for two or three minutes after his death, so that he could turn round to christians and say “Look – there isn’t a god and you do die when you die” which I heard the other day on Radio 4 (how right you are Kelli!) And thank you once again for recommending the book. The edition I had was a paperback edition, it’s possible that the errors were introduced in the second edition.

    Kelli, I always saw karma and reincarnation as cause and effect, not crime and punishment. I also picked up the view somewhere that “bad” lives were about experiencing all of human life, and that all souls had a requirement to experience the good and the bad in order to transcend them both. In other words, that “bad” lives were just part of every soul’s journey. One of the things I dislike is what happens when people impose christian ideas of sin and punishment onto the buddhist idea of karma. Though the point’s pretty moot for me now.

    Kerr, you’re right, I always looked at reincarnation in terms of from here to eternity. One of the things that irritated me about the whole past life regression stuff, (apart from the obvious scope for fakery and deception, innocent or otherwise), was the voyeurism of delving into past lives. I took the view that if we needed to know, then we’d know.

    Sarah, as I said in my post, I just found the idea comforting. I’m still working through my response to the idea of the whole of the infinite universe existing without me ever being a part of it ever again. It’s like it’ll be happening in another room. It’s an idea I am now struggling with.

    Hmh, I think I have arrived where I am through an increasing distrust of the validity of my own subjective experiences. I no longer believe myself, if you like. I’d never seek to persuade someone else that they were wrong about their own experiences though – how could I do that. And how wonderful to have found your soulmate, however many lifetimes you know each other in.

    Kelli, it is just that sort of letting-off-the-hook that I now find I am missing because I don’t have the back-up of there being another time and another.

    Kit, you are right, we do not know it all now. I do still wonder if there is a parallel metaphysical universe unfolding in increasing complexity just as our physical universe and living universe unfolds. However, I am certain I’ll never know the answer to that. I am aware though that empirically discovered explanations are steadily chipping away at the territory which used to be covered by religion. We no longer need creation myths, for example. But I am now even more interested in how consciousness works, because I now know that the explanations can be uncovered empirically.

    Thanks all for reading and commenting.

    Aphra.

  11. Having once existed, you will always be part of the universe – even if you aren’t aware of it. We all live in the eternal Now: ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ are merely human thought-constructs attempting to make sense of the way we experience our lives. Time is an even bigger mystery than life before and after death, and after looking at some of the theories about it I’ve rather given up on trying to understand it. Possibly it’s a never-ending circle, like the universe, without beginning or end. If so, that gets rid of the ‘Big Bang’ riddle. Does the notion that before there was anything there was once nothing really make any sense? [Nice juicy topic for another blog!]

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