Pura Vida

Life in full circle

Buddhist “Reincarnation” and the Silliness about Souls

Whether suttra-slinging or bible-beating: soul stuff is simply silly

Buddhism comes from Hinduism, in somewhat the same way that Christianity derives from Judaism: the Buddha, before his enlightenment, is said to have been Hindu, just as Jesus was a Jew. And not surprisingly, just as there are similarities between Christianity and Judaism, there are correspondences between Buddhism and Hinduism, one of the best-known being a shared belief in “reincarnation.”

I put the word in quotes because within the Buddhist tradition, reincarnation as such is not strictly recognized, since – unlike Hindus – Buddhists deny the existence of a permanent, persisting “self” independent of the rest of the natural world; hence, in Buddhist thought there is nothing stubbornly, persistently and independently real inside any person that can in any way be “reincarnated.” Instead, the word “reborn” is often used. (I’ll use “reincarnation” nonetheless, since it is so widely employed.)

As it happens, there is a very limited sense in which reincarnation can in fact be interpreted as consistent with modern biological science, but definitely not in the conventional sense in which individuals - as opposed to their constituent molecules - are somehow reconstituted in their characteristic personalities. For those of us interested in reconciling Buddhism with science in general and with biology in particular, traditional reincarnation – and even “rebirth” in any meaningful sense remains a pronounced and irreconcilable outlier.

The idea of reincarnation nonetheless persists in the minds of many people, perhaps especially those who cannot abide the notion of their personal death, but who also resist the standard Western religious imaginings of a literal heaven and hell. It is not uncommon to hear Buddhists and even Western educated Buddhist sympathizers comment approvingly about how it takes “many lifetimes” to achieve full enlightenment … which to me, at least, suggests that they are far from anything that even approaches biologically valid enlightenment themselves!

On the other hand, at the level of basic biogeochemical processes, a kind of bottom-line, bare-bones “reincarnation” – or at least, continuing patterns of use and re-use - occurs in the literal recycling of atoms and molecules, fundamental to the biological (and Buddhist) acknowledgment that “individuals” do not have intrinsic existence, separated and distinct from the rest of the world. This crucial concept – “anatman” – is one of the major aspects in which Buddhism and biology coincide and reinforce each other.

But this is a far cry from the more traditional understanding of reincarnation, East and West, whereby not just atoms and molecules but some – typically unspecified – aspect of an individual is reborn into a different body, yet mystically still constituting an ineffable, nonmaterial component derived from his or her prior life (rather, lives): A soul.

It is unthinkable for traditional Buddhists, and indeed, for most followers of the Abrahamic Big Three, to deny the existence of a soul. But it is equally unthinkable, I assert, for any scientist to accept said existence; i.e., to believe seriously in something that is immaterial, eternal, immeasurable, undetectable by any known means, and also supposed to be complexly and indelibly associated with each of us, distinct from each other.

When I die, my carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and so forth will be recycled into other creatures, other components of this planet and the universe. I accept this eventuality; indeed, I welcome it. (Only, to paraphrase Augustine: not yet!) But I cannot accept the fairy tale that I, like some sparkly Tinkerbelle, will in any meaningful holistic sense be reborn, reincarnated, inserted or in any way incorporated into a new, temporary body, and not only that, but that the outcome – what kind of body “I” will next inhabit – is a direct (karmic) consequence of how well or poorly I have lived my life. Add to this the standard interpretation of karma – not only a guaranteed future comeuppance but also that my current instantiation has itself in some way been generated by the behavior or misbehavior of my immediate antecedents – and the notion becomes even more scientifically and biologically ludicrous.

I have no difficulty describing Mr. Tenzin Gyatso (born Lhamo Dondrub), as the 14th Dalai Lama, so long as this means that he is the 14th person to hold that position, in the same sense that Barack Obama is the 44th president of the United States, with no implication that he is in any way the reincarnation of George Washington!

“Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies,” we are told by a futuristic, grammar-challenged shaman in David Mitchell’s bestselling, time-bending novel, Cloud Atlas, “an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a soul.” I don’t believe this for a moment, nor should you. At the risk of repeating: There is no evidence, none whatever, for the existence of a soul.

We all know many “things” that are immaterial yet are nonetheless real: Love, beauty, hate, suffering, fear, hope, etc. They “exist,” but only as our description of attitudes, possibilities, interpretations, and so forth. But the literal existence of a soul – mine, yours, that of the Buddha or of Charles Darwin - as somehow physically real yet also metaphysically nonphysical, highly complex and coherent, yet invulnerable and eternal: This is an extraordinary and altogether different assertion, inconsistent with everything that we know from science. As Carl Sagan emphasized, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and when it comes to souls, we lack not only extraordinarily powerful evidence, but any evidence whatsoever.

“The” Buddhist attitude toward reincarnation is diverse and – I must add, at the risk of seeming unkind – muddled. As noted, Buddhism typically maintains an account of the soul’s rebirth that differs from the prevailing Hindu view, which posits a pervasive, world-wide, irreversible and permanent atman. In my book, “Buddhist Biology,” I explain at some length that by contrast, the Buddhist perspective involves anatman, the explicit absence of any concrete “self.” And this perspective, moreover, is entirely and marvelously consistent with both neurobiology and ecology.

Consider, as well, the fact that according to both Buddhist and biological thinking, “anitya” (impermanence) is also universal, and the notion of a distinct and unchanging self that is transmitted from a dead or dying body into a new one is, once again, simply not tenable. The Buddha described an alternative process analogous to a sequence in which successive candles are lit by the flame of a preceding one; as a result, the array of flames are causally linked, forming a continuing stream, but they are not identical. Sometimes, the term “transmigration” is therefore used instead of reincarnation.

Nonetheless, it is clear that most Buddhists (and even entire branches of Buddhism, such as the Tibetan) rely heavily on something very much like what most Westerners have come to understand by reincarnation. Many Buddhists claim, for example that especially enlightened practitioners can remember their “past lives.” If, as widely acknowledged, the test of science is whether a given proposition is falsifiable, the allegation of remembering previous incarnations might well take the cake as the least falsifiable of all. (It is also interesting that such claims often involve having been Napoleon, Cleopatra, and so forth, whereas simple probability would suggest that the average reincarnation-recaller was, in previous lives, well, average!)

Call it what you will, such doctrines inevitably assume that souls, although immaterial, are nonetheless somehow “real,” and to my biologic/scientific mind, they are therefore immediately disqualified from serious consideration. When it comes to “proving” the existence of a soul, sutra-citing is no more persuasive than is bible-beating.

Let’s face it: Reincarnation (or transmigration) is a real problem for any effort to reconcile – or even, to point out parallels between – Buddhism and biology. There is, nevertheless, a kind of biological, chemical and physical legitimacy to the Buddhist assertion of reincarnation … if and only if we give up this silliness about souls. Thus, at the subatomic, atomic, molecular and genetic levels, we are composed of the same stuff that previously made up other creatures, and will do so again. And again. (Repeat indefinitely.) This may not be especially meaningful at the lowest levels – molecular, atomic, subatomic – since as far as we know, there is no difference among, say, individual carbon atoms or protons, thereby making “mine” or “yours” distinct from anyone else’s and therefore uniquely associated with those of any of our immediate ancestors, and eventually with our various descendants.

But at the level of genes and indeed, of evolution by natural selection more generally, karmic continuity actually coheres very closely with modern biology. More of this in my next post.

David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist, long-time aspiring Buddhist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, whose most recent book is “Buddhist Biology: ancient Eastern wisdom meets modern Western science,” just published by Oxford University Press.

David P. Barash, Ph.D., is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington.


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