I don’t really understand that process called reincarnation but if there is such a thing I would like to come back as my daughter’s dog.

~ Leonard Cohen

His Holiness The Dalai Lama (hereafter: the DL) is a celebrity. He commands respect, even adoration, and his message of compassion transcends the boundaries of religion. Yet, the DL is also the leader of a religious community, and in that capacity, he seeks to explain and preserve core tenets of his tradition. This is not an easy task because some of the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism conflict with what is expected of the DL as a célébrité mondiale. Many admire the DL for his interest in science, as described by him in an 2005 Op-ed piece in the New York Times. This interest is understandable and noteworthy, but it is bounded by the demands of religious orthodoxy. Supporting neuropsychology only inasmuch as it produces support for religious doctrine would not mean much (as the DL knows). As it is difficult to derive specific hypotheses from Buddhist teaching, the risk seems small.

There are, however, issues on which science and (his) religion do not see eye to eye. Take reincarnation. The prevalent scientific view is that the distinction between body and mind is not an essential one, but a practical one. The two are inseparable; we can only talk as if they were separate. The essential unity of body and mind does not allow the mind to survive a deceased body to be reincarnated in another body. Beyond the realm of quanta – it is also impossible for things to exist, cease to exist, and then re-enter existence. If this were possible, the DL could argue that body and soul (mind) die together and reincarnate [or reinmentate, in the case of mind] together. But the DL does not endorse this view. He believes that the mind/soul does not die. The prevalent scientific view of death being final for the body/mind unit is not only justified by the lack of evidence for its falseness. The absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. The prevalent view is also justified by the lack of a compelling story of how the mind might survive without a body. A story attempting to make this believable would have to make contact with at least one other property of nature that is known to work as advertised. Such a connection would provide testable hypotheses. There is, however, nothing of the sort. The doctrine of reincarnation, along with the idea that the dead can see light, hear sound, and knock things over at night, remains in the domain of fanciful parapsychology.

On September 24, 2011, the DL explained his views on reincarnation to his fellow Tibetans and the rest of us. The final section of his essay makes it clear that his objective is political. The DL’s goal is to keep the government of the People’s Republic of China out of the selection of the next DL. Lacking political muscle, the DL uses the tools of communication, tradition, and shared spiritual beliefs. By explaining how reincarnation really works, he can – or so he hopes – keep the Chinese out of the process. The success of the DL’s maneuver vis-à-vis the Chinese is doubtful; its success with fellow Tibetans is more likely – after all, he is preaching to the choir. My interest lies in what his essay says about the DL’s stance toward psychology and neuroscience.

For the DL to “draw up clear guidelines to recognize the next Dalai Lama, so that there is no room for doubt or deception,” he needs to establish that reincarnation is a fact in the first place; otherwise, he would be begging the question. As he puts it, “In order to accept reincarnation [. . .] we need to accept the existence of past and future lives.” This may sound like a call for blind acceptance, but the DL says he takes a more empirical view. “We need to use evidence-based logic to prove past and future rebirths.” [How one proves future rebirths empirically, he does not say.] According to him, the fact that many people “can recall incidents and experiences from their past lives” is face-valid evidence for reincarnation, an inference any experimental psychologist would regard hasty. The DL suggests, however, that “denying this is not an honest and impartial way of doing research, because it runs counter to this evidence.” Here we have a fine example of question-begging. You cannot question the evidence, because if you did, you would be questioning the evidence.

The DL goes on to suggest that “The Tibetan system of recognizing reincarnations is an authentic mode of investigation based on people’s recollection of their past lives.” Over 6 centuries, “a series of unmistaken reincarnations has been recognized.” Sure of this evidence, the DL raises his conclusions regarding the reality of reincarnation to the level of creed. “As long as you are a Buddhist, it is necessary to accept past and future lives.”

There are two ways to reincarnate: one for the “superior Bodhisattvas, who have attained the path of seeing [and who therefore] are able to choose their place and time of birth as well as their future parents,” and another for the rest of us due to our “karma and destructive emotions.”

A DL – whom I take to belong to the former category of men – still needs to be found after he reincarnated. That’s where the Chinese [are not supposed to] come in. How is it done? The DL explains that it depends on “the predecessor’s predictive letter and other instructions and indications that might occur; the reincarnation’s reliably recounting his previous life and speaking about it; identifying possessions belonging to the predecessor and recognizing people who had been close to him. Apart from these, additional methods include asking reliable spiritual masters for their divination as well as seeking the predictions of mundane oracles, who appear through mediums in trance, and observing the visions that manifest in sacred lakes of protectors like Lhamoi Latso, a sacred lake south of Lhasa.” To the science minded, this sounds like a single-event-multi-method approach, and one would want to know the decision rule. Is it a weighted average, lexicographic, tallying? We do not know.

But there is more. There is a “practice of making the final decision by divination employing the dough-ball method (zen tak) before a sacred image while calling upon the power of truth.” Oy. Divination. In Judaism, divination went out of fashion with the destruction of the Second Temple. Now we have probability theory. He who champions science and divination in one breath is either a man of chutzpah or a man unaware of his own contradictions.

Now that the DL has thrown off the shackles of rational thought, he can also claim that “ordinary sentient beings generally cannot manifest an emanation before death (ma-dhey tulku), but superior Bodhisattvas, who can manifest themselves in hundreds or thousands of bodies simultaneously, can manifest an emanation before death.” With preincarnation now on the table, good old reincarnation seems like small potatoes. Besides, with the Bodhisattvas being superior, what happened to the ethic of compassion and the notion that we are all the same?

In all fairness, I recognize that His Holiness understands illogic, at least when the Chinese are concerned. He writes that “it is particularly inappropriate for Chinese communists, who explicitly reject even the idea of past and future lives, let alone the concept of reincarnate Tulkus, to meddle in the system of reincarnation and especially the reincarnations of the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas. Such brazen meddling contradicts their own political ideology and reveals their double standards.”

His Holiness and I agree. 

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