Nevertheless it is indubitable that the Buddhist understanding (and Indian tradition generally) takes the cycle of birth and death for granted. In all of the accounts of the Buddha's awakening, it is explicitly stated that he recalled his previous existences, down to the last detail, and for many thousands of lifetimes, immediately prior to his enlightenment. The absence of the substantial self is understood by the analogy of 'passing the torch'. It is also understood in terms of the difference between relative and ultimate truth. The interpretation of 'anatta', no-self, is actually a pretty subtle matter.
I have studied these past life stories. I find it interesting that the Buddha would first say that pondering the past is not fruitful but then turn around and tell these stories? It begs the question then. If you are not suppose to ponder your past, these stories actually promote doing so. Because inevitably people will start to wonder once they hear these stories, what they did in their past. So I am led to believe that these tales were added later as a way to promote karmic retribution and were not original teachings from the Buddha.
It is true that to practice Buddhism, a belief in an afterlife is not required, in that the results are visible 'here and now'. In that sense, it is perfectly applicable as a secular philosophy with no such beliefs. On the other hand, in the traditional view, the denial of the afterlife is regarded as nihilism. The theory of karma does not make sense without re-birth (for where are the fruits of one's deeds to be realised?)
But think about it for a second. We don't have any knowledge right now that we have had previously lives. So all those lives are basically useless for us. We can't access those memories or lessons so they do us absolutely no good. But if upon nearing enlightenment or awakening you get to glimpse these past lives, it is practically just as worthless because if you are already that close to awakening before you gain access then you never even needed to know these past life things. It would be far more beneficial to a person who is the farthest away from enlightenment, not someone right next to it. So past lives don't help you in any way so you can't use a term like "fruits of one's deeds to be realized." You can't draw the connections. You can't see in any way that the experiences you are having are the result of some past life. It becomes meaningless.
I would think most Asian Buddhists would take re-birth for granted. It is very difficult for modern people to accept. I personally have an open mind about it. I also don't kid myself that it is something easy to understand either so I am not coming to any firm conclusions one way or the other.
I honestly think that the concept of rebirth is actually a cushion to soften the blow for those just entering into Buddhism. What I mean by this is, that Buddhism tends to go against the grain of what people want to do. So if Buddhism just came right out and handed you all the truths at the same time, people would out right reject it without even giving it a chance. So certain things were allowed to soften the person up mentally so they wont be so off put by the truths that will ultimately come if you pursue the teachings. I see this a lot in many Buddhist teachers. They to open the door as wide as possible and not leave anyone out. They don't necessarily lie, they just don't honestly reveal the absolute until far later. This is so no one turns away before they have heard what they need to hear.
The things that most people do not want to hear is that once they are dead, they are dead and they will never do anything ever again. It frightens them, they simply refuse to accept it. So to soften the blow they teach the dharma of rebirth as a way to ease the thoughts of those who can't yet accept the truth.
Very important point. Why is it a contradiction in terms? According to the teaching, the Buddha is one 'for whom the burden is ended, done is what has to be done, there is no further re-birth'. That part is perfectly clear and not at all equivocal. You may choose not to believe it, but that is what it says. As to whether the Buddha exists or does not exist past his 'pari-nirvana', that is exactly the kind of 'speculation' that the teaching warns against.
It is a contradiction because the statement of being the master of both life and death. Could the Buddha decide to take another birth? According to how I understand he, he could. But if that is the case, what prevents the Buddha from falling back into the trap of Samara? It would seem that if you can decide to be born or not born, then by all means you could ultimately end right back up in samsara.
One name for the Buddha is 'tathagata', 'Gone thus'. Gone, gone, gone beyond.
Are you sure this is correct? I thought Tathagata was the "thus come one" and "gone" is actually "gate"
Gate gate para gate para sum gate bodhi svaha is;
gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, awaken.
You might be thinking of the Mahayana view that Nirvana and Samsara are not ultimately different?
The way I see it, samsara is
nirvana but viewed incorrectly. Nirvana is
samsara viewed correctly.
I don't think that is the teaching of impermanence, I think it is nihilism. The traditional belief is that there are six realms of being. Modern Westerners often choose not to accept that which is of course their perogative.
Well you could go back to the water in the river analogy. If what continues is the water in the river, then by all means that water never remains in any one place for any length of time. It returns to the ocean, evaporates, becomes clouds, flies through the sky, falls back to the ground in the form of rain or snow. Makes it's way down the sides of mountains and hills and ultimately ends up, back in the ocean again. Is the water ever the same? No, in many cases it is completely new thing. Does it remember being in it's previous state? No, but if it doesn't remember than it is completely pointless and canceled out then.
If you can't have access to your past lives, then they are as if you never had them. Useless.