Additional Reflections on Core Buddhist
|A number of elements in the Buddha's teachings need some
The Self and Reincarnation
One of the difficult concepts of the Buddha's teachings is the
idea that there is not a permanent self or soul. According to the
Buddha's teachings, what we think of as the self or soul is actually
a composite made up of numerous parts. It is only as these
constituent parts temporarily come together that the self is formed.
At death, the parts separate and the "self" no longer exists.
Yet Buddhism accepts the doctrine of reincarnation. So, if there
is no permanent self, what is reborn? This is a very difficult concept that has not
easy answer. Some have suggested that the "soul" that is reborn is more
like a flame that is passed from one candle to the next. There is a
direct connection between the two flames, but the second flame is not
identical to the first. Others have suggested that what is passed from
one life to the next a "stream of consciousness" or a "karma laden structure" - sort of a blue print
by which the next impermanent self is built. In any case,
something is passed from one life to the next, although it is difficult
to say just what it is! It should be noted that this dilemma is more of
a problem in theory than in practice in Buddhism.
It should be noted that Buddhism also accepts the notion that one
may be born into a different realm of existence as something other
than a human being. In all, there are six different types of beings
and 31 planes of existence. Notice that one can be reborn as a god
or "superhuman being" (Titans), but may also be reborn as animals,
hell beings or ghosts. Rebirth as a human is both rare and highly
desirable. Only humans have the opportunity to obtain
While Buddhism always accepted the notion of
karma as the cosmic law of cause and effect, its understanding of
karma differed slightly from that of Hinduism. In particular, the
Buddha seemed to accept a somewhat less fatalistic notion of karma.
Rather than being absolutely determinative of a person's life, karma
is more like a predisposition
created by one's previous actions. The Buddha believed that
one could overcome that predisposition. In other words, as one
overcomes ignorance and understand the nature or reality, then one
can perceive one's dispositions and overcome them. The power of the
predisposition is based not simply on the act itself, but on one's
intention, the frequency of the act and the nature of the act. Deeds
against holy people carry extremely negative consequences.
The Buddha had little to say about
In his teachings, Nirvana is an extinguishing of desire,
“getting rid of craving.” Ultimately,
however, Nirvana is beyond all conception and description.
It is completely off the spectrum of our existence and
understanding. “A deathless,
peaceful, unchanging state that cannot be described.” When the illusion of permanence is ended, ultimate
reality/nirvana is revealed.
It should be noted that while we naturally want to
speculate about Nirvana and find a clear description of it, the Buddha
discouraged such speculations. If it can't be known, why speculate
about it? At one point, the Buddha likened such a demand for answers to
a man who is wounded by a poison arrow, but won't let the arrow be
removed until he knows the identity of the person who shot the arrow.
The Buddha was more interested in the practical ways to end suffering
that in metaphysical speculation.