Buddhism and anatman — a personal view

Last time I was sick (I’m better now), I realized how quickly ideas about functional immortality (reincarnation or other continuance of a phenomenal spirit past the cessation of bodily function) fade due to having an unexplained fever which will not break, and weight that is dropping at a rate of a pound a day.  The reader may recall that I’ve had an interest in Buddhism from my undergraduate years…accordingly, I’m aware that at least some (if not many or most or all) school(s) of Buddhist thought hold to rebirth, but not reincarnation.

The distinction is fine, but the implications are vast, either from a general paradigm-shift back towards materialism or from a lack of hope or worry about immortality.

In a Buddhist theory of rebirth, the effects of past actions (karma) go on to seed a new birth after the death of a sentient being; however, death for the person who has died is seen as final.  That is, the new life which arises after the death of the being who seeded it, is not the same being as the one who existed before, even though this new being may maintain a sense of continuity with the past being (or a plurality of past beings) through inherited karmic effects (and/or the problem of identification with that which made one).

In reincarnation, as I understand it, there may be a personal essence apart from the body which is transplanted and reborn into a different body.  However, keep in mind here two things:

One is that I have not studied advaita (non-dualist) schools of Hindu thought (like advaita vedanta) heavily, which seem monist from here (monist = the philosophy that everything is one); and I get my ideals of having a soul from various cultural points:  including Hinduism, as referenced by Buddhism.

That is, I get my ideas on the metaphysical validity or necessity of a “soul” (atman) concept through the lessons of people who do not believe in souls; and I believe the latter were referencing dvaita (dualist) Hindu thought, in which mind and matter coexist to create life.  I also know that it’s not uncommon to see distortions; at times, outright falsehoods; and torquing of what I as a Westerner percieve as ethics; promoted by Buddhist writers, in the name of pragmatism.

I also have not studied theories of reincarnation — in specific, reincarnation (not rebirth) — heavily, although any explanation of how I came to be which was not “reincarnation” was foreign to me when I was a child; and for much of my life the question of whether or not I have a soul (atman) has weighed on me.  This has particularly been the case after having been introduced to the Buddhist doctrines of anatman (no-self) and shunyata (emptiness).

The latter seems to fit well with a behaviorist and constructivist view of the self; the former is something that appears to be unique to Buddhism and philosophies which would likely fall under the heading of “atheism” — although “atheism” seems to be a misleading term, to me.

There are religions without deities (Buddhism, at times, being one of them), and religions with plural deities likely (in my experience) don’t grant those deities the same power and status as the big three monotheistic religions do.  That is:  the presence or absence of belief in a deity is irrelevant in determining whether someone holds religious ideals; or maintains a mode of thought closer to that of a religious person, than to someone who has divorced themselves from all religion wholeheartedly.

In any case…didn’t mean to get into that, but.

The following is based mostly upon unrecorded thought which I seem to intuitively understand but not be able to commit to words, easily.  I’ve come to the place where I’m getting to be okay with knowing that I don’t understand what happens after death, and in which I’m getting to be more okay with the concept that this is the only life I’ll have.

After all, if it’s so, being upset about it isn’t going to change it.

This has just been based on the threat of more war, on the peril to human civilization which is coming at us from at least two fronts, now.  I’ve been worrying myself in thinking about the metaphysical/energetic impact of 21st-century weapons (yes I know it’s silly), and about the future, should the belief in reincarnation be valid and we all are reborn as cockroaches on an irradiated planet, or one which is turning into a twin Venus.  Is that what we want our legacy to be?

In this point, I can actually understand the question as to how someone can lead a moral life if they don’t believe they will be judged for that life, later.  Because if you don’t believe that you will have to deal with repercussions for your actions, it’s hard to imagine some people — not all, but some, and they’re in the middle of exemplifying it — will take that as an excuse to behave in a way harms others, and harms themselves, and may cut off all of our futures.

Of course, what you and I take as “harm” are likely to be different things, at least slightly, if not radically.  But it’s obvious that people who don’t care about climate change, or who are welcoming it as the end of the world (like the death of life as we know it is something to celebrate) don’t believe they’re going to have to live later on with the mess we are all making.  That’s in violation of a direct action-reaction principle, because we collectively don’t want to be told we’re doing something wrong and that we need to change.  Because change is scary, and people are creatures of habit.

And we don’t like to be told we’re behaving out of fear, either.

But I’m getting better with the idea that perhaps I don’t have to take all of this on.  I’m getting better with the idea that this is temporary; that whatever this life is, it only exists on this side of the veil.  And that at the end of this stint, I may not have to deal with this at all, again — or at least until such time as the motions of the universe or multiverse see fit to bring together again the conditions that allowed this me to come into being.  For however long that lasts.

I know I won’t be the same person, at least figuratively speaking, and in that I can see the idea of anatman showing up, fairly clearly.  (Consciousness may be regained; identity may not be.)  But that doesn’t mean this will be the end of it.  (I should investigate ancient ideas of atman more thoroughly, I think…)

Maybe, in this philosophical position, the best I can hope for is either having gained enough advancement so that I don’t have to remain stuck in lower levels of learning for too long, the next time; or to…I don’t know what…savor what time I have, because it’s finite.

Of course, this “time” thing…I can still be punctual, but I’ve never understood it…

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Brainstorming this, because I need to work on it:

I’m really tired, but I don’t feel like going to bed or taking medication…and I have work tomorrow.  I have also been bouncing around an idea of a story about someone who believes they’re functionally immortal, but on a dying planet.  (or otherwise, a planet going through one of its near-death experiences/mass extinctions.)

This then calls in tension between the desire for unending life and the idea of not clinging to temporary things (as clinging causes suffering and rebirth — not seen as a good thing).  The former, I’ve read as Daoist; the latter is classically Buddhist.  The former brings conflict and life; the latter brings peace and a lack of life as we know it.

I am not sure I would be able to work this into my previous story:  if I did, the character in question would be about the fifth main character (I have traditionally had characters I can shorthand as psychic, lover, demented, parental, all interacting:  yes, I can make them more complex; at the time I first conceived them, though, I was a teen)…but I guess that keeps things…interesting?  I’d like to keep at least two of these characters female, meaning the one who feels immortal (in a mortal world) would likely be such, in addition to the main (though the latter is complicated…though now that I look at this, there are only two clearly male characters here).

Also, I keep having flashes of concern about worldwide famine, which ties into the story I’m thinking about, but which I don’t want to write about in a serious manner (talk about scary and depressing).  On top of this, I’m dealing with multiple generations…though what I mean by that is hard to explain.

What I have found is that I’ve entered the story about 2/3 of the way in, as I thought of it at the time.  But I don’t know how I’ll resolve it…in fact, I don’t know what the central conflict is, yet, to resolve (or maybe I knew at one time, and forgot).  Making peace with death?  Growing tough in order to survive?  Growing together in order to survive?  Dealing with mental illness?  Accepting non-quotidian brain functioning?  Maybe I should just write and see what shows up.

The famine kicks in at a very late (potential) point in the game, and at this point I don’t know if I’m dealing with echoes of past lives, or telepathic beings, or if any of the psychic phenomena are key to solving any of this (more than key to ending and surviving it).

They aren’t “ghosts;” at least in a Western sense, I know what ghosts are, and they aren’t the same things as spirits; rather, they’re interdimensional echoes caused by powerful trauma.  Thus, when you hear coughing at the ruins in Pompeii, it’s possible you’re actually hearing the psychic (traumatic) imprint of coughing reaching you from the past, in the moment in which it happened.  It just has to cross (I need a new word for this) the time barrier, not time and space.

If we’re looking at remnants of the workings of past lives in present entities, such as beings who appear to be outside spirits but are actually personifications of who “you” used to be (given that we don’t remain the same between lives), that’s different.  And if we’re dealing with beings who reside on Earth (apparently) but who only give evidence of their existence in the thoughts of those whose minds function in an abnormal manner, that’s something else.

I should really get to reading some of my material on Daoism, here — I’m sure it would help, though I know I can only learn so much from books.  At one time I was directed toward an elder teaching ba gua about 30 minutes’ drive away (a Chinese internal martial art); I have not met her yet, and to be honest, I’m kind of scared to.  I don’t even know if she’s still alive.

I did find another author who caught my attention the other day at work:  Kenzaburo Oe.

It has been an extremely long time since I have read any fiction (which makes it hard to translate this out into fiction), but one of this author’s books literally found its way into my hand recently…and I have wanted to read more material from Japanese authors, aside from Yukio Mishima (I believe I have read at least one or more of his works, but I can’t recall which — or if what I read was poetry or prose; it had to have been a lifetime ago), and Haruki Murakami (who I just don’t jive with).

Why Japanese?  It’s the East Asian culture I have most familiarity with; not a nationalistic thing.  I figure it’s as good a place as anywhere to gain some solid footing, and then from that place, branch out.  Although I’m fairly certain my main character is not Japanese.  It’s just been so long since I’ve read any good fiction, that I need to start with something I can grasp and which has some semblance of cultural relevance or utility for me on a larger scale.

And…I’m being told to get to bed…