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Additional Reflections on Core Buddhist Teachings


A number of elements in the Buddha's teachings need some additional comments.

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 enlightenment.

Karma

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.

Nirvana

The Buddha had little to say about Nirvana.  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.


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