Do Buddhist teachings of selflessness contradict the doctrine of reincarnation?
In the years that I’ve been involved with various Buddhist communities, I’ve heard versions of this question many times. The Buddha taught that all things are without a permanent, abiding self. But many Buddhists also believe in reincarnation. How can both be true? Does reincarnation not imply the existence of something like a soul, or an eternally-abiding essence of the person?
I do not subscribe to the doctrine of reincarnation. However, from the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, I don’t believe this is an actual contradiction, because the self that reincarnates is a phenomenon like any other, persisting for as long as the causes and conditions that keep it going continue.
Most Buddhist schools teach that everything lacks a self. There is no permanently-abiding table any more than there is an eternally-abiding blogger writing these words. But that does not mean there is no table there – it simply means that the table doesn’t have the kind of persistence that it appears to have, at first glance.
We don’t need to appeal to metaphysical speculation to establish the selflessness of the table, we simply have to look closely at it and try to find its essence. By a process of reasoning and analysis, we can determine that it has none.
There is no invisible line around the table that separates it from the floor and the air, there is only a semi-stable lattice of particles interacting with its environment. If you crank up the electron microscope and really look hard at the thing, you’ll find that what we think of as the bits that make it up are themselves almost entirely empty space – atoms are simply tiny flashes of energy orbiting an equally-tiny nucleus in a vast gulf. If an average atom’s nucleus were the size of a basketball, an orbiting electron would be nearly 8 miles away.
So where is the solid table that we imagine? The table that we experience is a collection of perceptions and ideas all mixed together, and by the time we have an image of it in our consciousness, the concept of what things are like has gotten so mixed up with the perception of the table that there’s no disentangling them. In the language of one epistemological tradition within Buddhism, the conceptual image, or meaning-generality, of the table, is fused with the sense impression of the table itself.
The table exists from one moment to the next as long as the causes and conditions that go into arranging that particular configuration of matter and energy into something we can call a table persist. Once the causes and conditions cease, the table will cease. If, for example, we turn the heat up a few thousand degrees, poof! No more table.
From the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, the self that reincarnates is like the table. The fact that it continues after the time of death is immaterial (no pun intended). Minds continue to exist in basically the same sense that tables still exist. They are conventional phenomena that abide for as long as the causes and conditions that sustain them abide.
One can ask other questions of reincarnation, though, and I think they should be asked. Let’s take the issue of mind/body dualism.
The term “dualism” in philosophy is used in different ways, but it frequently refers to the mind/body distinction posited by René Descartes. Descartes believed that the mind and the body are two different kinds of things, which fundamentally distinct in their character. I think his model basically affirmed what most people assumed to be true, based largely on the Christian belief in the persistence of a personal soul after the time of death.
You will often hear it claimed that Buddhism is a nondualistic tradition that rejects the mind/body split. It seems to me that nothing could be further from the truth. Buddhist philosophy traditionally makes a sharp distinction between the mind and physical matter. In the language of early Buddhist ontology, for example, the world is divided into different constituent elements, called aggregates, which include mind, perceptions, and perceptible objects or forms. These aggregates are of different ontological types, much as in Descartes’ distinction between res cogitans and res extensa.
One contemporary Tibetan scholar-yogi put it thusly:
Mind and body, though associated, are not inseparably linked; they have different substantial causes. That this is so means that the increase and development of the mind is not limited to that of the body; though the continuum of the body ceases at death, that of the mind does not. This difference stems from the fact that whereas the body is composed of matter and as such is anatomically established, mind is not. It is an impermanent phenomenon … changing in each moment, and having the nature of clear light. (1)
One could not ask for a clearer statement of mind/body dualism.
From the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, generally speaking, the mind does not have intrinsic existence, and so it has no eternally-abiding self. However, it does have a different substantial basis from material phenomena, and as such, it does not depend on the body for its continued existence. In the Gelukpa tradition, represented in the quote above, the substantial cause of each moment of the mind’s existence is the preceding moment of the mind’s existence, and nothing further is needed to sustain it.
I do not have a problem reconciling an eternally-abiding mind with the doctrine of emptiness, but I do have a problem with mind/body dualism, and with the idea that the mind is constituted of a mysterious, self-perpetuating stream of some sort. After all, we have learned a little about the mind in the last 2500 years, and I do not see how the existence of the mind can be differentiated from the behavior of the brain at this late date.
1) Lati Rinbochay and Napper E. Mind in Tibetan Buddhism. Snow Lion Press. 1980. pg. 11.