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November 1, 2011 / sujato

Can rebirth be reconciled with population growth?

The Guardian today featured on its home page an article about Buddhism. It looks at the question as to whether the growth of population – highlighted by the birth of the ’7 billionth person’ in the Philippines – can be reconciled with rebirth. Where are all the extra people coming from???

I’ve always though this was such a simple question, but I have heard it asked many times, so it apparently not as obvious as all that. Anyway, the article is quite good and the discussion is robust and entertaining – if somewhat alarming for someone who spends much of his life trying to improve education about Buddhism.

The author, Ed Halliwell, does a good job, apart from the inaccurate invocation of the simile of the arrow, which he says suggests the Buddha said we should care about rebirth. On the contrary, the idea of that simile is that one shouldn’t waste time with the 10 unanswerable metaphysical questions. It has nothing to do with rebirth in general, which the Buddha always accepted and treated as a central part of his teachings.

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  1. Kleshas and Tanhas / Nov 1 2011 8:50 am

    I find your point of view incredibly similar to mine. I am currently taking a moral foundations course in which we are discussing metaphysics. I am also taking an Asian spiritualities course. It’s good to see someone else is out there synthesizing the two. I’m new to WordPress so it’s nice to know there’s a community out there focusing on both aspects (Western philosophy and Eastern spirituality.)

    • sujato / Nov 1 2011 9:59 am

      Hi Kleshas and Tanhas,

      Thanks for the support.

      I’ve checked out your blog article about Facebook – not being a user of Facebook myself, I’m not in a position to judge. Is the amount of time people waste there really worse than the time wasted in other ways? It seems to me that we have a fragmented society, with a dissolution of real relationships – families, friends, neighbors – and FB fills the gap, sorta. Not the real thing, and maybe a false copy of the real thing. But what about ‘all the lonely people’ – they have nothing; for them, is a copy better than nothing at all?

      • Kleshas and Tanhas / Nov 1 2011 11:28 am

        Being a FB user, I thought that would lighten the fire/brimstone tone I employed. As to where the time is wasted the most…I would have to say it’s subjective to the user. But I would argue that the time spent on FB alone is more detrimental than most “other ways.” And as to the ‘all the lonely people,’ I think there’s discretion to be used to determine how much aimless scrolling of the page becomes harmful to a user!
        That being said, I would objectively state and agree with you on the comment of a fragmented society. Instead of pointing out the “dissolution of real relationships”-and solely that-I was hoping to put some sort of analysis to the origin of that problem. Not just rephrase it. The difference I was trying to draw out between innovation and invention is that invention would be a “false copy of the real thing.” Ergo, I would conclude that a copy could not possibly exist without an original.
        Glad to see someone in that similar mind frame! I look forward to following your posts!

  2. menghaw / Nov 2 2011 2:10 am

    “Or 3. “Human” consciousness could manifest as a greater number of people than it did before. It’s a bit like waves in the sea – different numbers and types of wave arise and dissolve depending on the weather conditions and the flow of water.”

    Hi Bhante,

    Is Ed suggesting that human consciousness can multiple and divide? I’ve not come across that concept from reading the suttas.

    with metta,

    • sujato / Nov 2 2011 8:05 am

      Yes, you’re right. The Suttas assume that each ‘stream of consciousness’ is undivided. They can influence each other, but can’t ‘spill their banks’.

  3. Krish Alahakoon / Nov 2 2011 10:48 pm

    Many merits for posting this Bhanthe. The sutta link clarified the questions I had few weeks back. More than anything, it reassured that I’m not ‘that delusional’ :)

  4. Alexander / Nov 6 2011 7:53 am

    So where do those extra people come from? Could they have been animals? Aliens from other planets? Or is it possible to be reborn in the past, so they might come from the future? What about the beginnings of our planet, when it was an incandescent ball with no life on it at all? Beginnings of the universe? Am I wasting my time with such questions?

    • Karuna / Nov 7 2011 12:23 pm

      Not sure if I should share such a dark perspective, but it seems to me human kileshas are getting the better of us and turning human realm into hell realm. If we look at the sufferings of the majority of th 7 billion, it seems as though the mass of human consciousness is getting pulled under. Look at how the majority of the world’s women are treated, as just an example, and how knowledge, science, ideologies, systems have become vehicles to destroy the human realm and plunge the race ever deeper into the kileshas. Animal and Deva realms interare with human realm, why wouldn’t hell realm? I am not saying there isn’t cause for hope and there hasn’t been movement of small smatterings of human consciousness towards higher sila samadhi and panna – but set against the massive swath of humanity – it’s pretty small. There are countless beings in all realms and realms interare. OK now I’ll go read the article. :-)

      • Karuna / Nov 7 2011 12:36 pm

        (The above being said, it’s not necessarily hopeless or something we need to worry about, but this certainly makes it worth engaging with Viriya towards cessation and to engage with our world systems and fellow humans to try to turn things around, according to our means. If we believe this is “the” precious realm it is said to be.)

  5. Ven. Nandiya / Nov 15 2011 7:31 am

    The funny thing is that the Buddha marks some very firm statements about the nature of rebirth, but these rarely come up in discussion on rebirth, even Buddhist rebirth.

    For example in both the Samyutta (At the very end) and Anguttara (in the 1′s), there is a long repetition series of suttas which state things such as:
    Among humans who pass away, most go to the lower realms, few go to the human state or deva state.
    Among devas who pass away, most go to the lower realms, few go to the human state or deva state.
    Among hell-bengs who pass away, most go to the lower realms, few go to the human state or deva state.

    The inescapable conclusion from this, is that human to human birth is rare, and that most birth will be non-human to human, and human to non-human. This also explains why it’s difficult to find proof of rebirth – most humans are simply not reborn into the human realm, so those who are will be few and far between.

    • DK / Nov 16 2011 6:31 am

      These points do come up frequently in the Tibetan presentation of rebirth, especially the very many passages dedicated to explaining the rarity of the so-called “precious human rebirth.” The most-used analogy is that of the blind turtle who lives on the bottom of the vast ocean who only surfaces once in a century. The likelihood of human birth, it is said, is as probable as this turtle randomly popping his head through a yoke that is floating around on the surface.

  6. Peter Durham / Nov 15 2011 7:07 pm

    “The inescapable conclusion from this, is that human to human birth is rare,” No it isn’t

    “This also explains why it’s difficult to find proof of rebirth” No it doesn’t

    I see the the above passage as an exaltation to seize the moment.

    Best wishes

    • Ven. Nandiya / Nov 16 2011 10:47 am

      It’s a good way to look at it.

      Of course the rarity of human rebirth, is always in a cosmic time scale. The rarity of human rebirth, on average, is not the same as the rarity of human rebirth when the human realm actually exists, and when one has actually been reborn as a human. The chances then of being reborn as a human, would be somewhat better. And somewhere the Buddha says that birth in the animal realm is a bitter fate, because once one has gone there, it’s VERY hard to get out, implying that it’s relatively easier to maintain human existence than get it in the first place.

      Nevertheless:

      SN 56.102: Passing away as humans:

      “Then the Blessed One took up a little bit of soil on his fingernail and addressed the bhikkhus:
      “What do you think, bhikkhus, which is more: the little bit of soil on my fingernail or the great earth?”
      “Venerable sir, the great earth is more. The little bit of soil that the Blessed One has taken up on his fingernail is not calculable, does not bear comparison, does not amount to even a fraction.”
      “So too bhikkhus, those beings are few who, when they pass away as human beings, are reborn among human beings. But those beings are more numerous who, when they pass away as human beings, are reborn in hell. For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, they have not seen the four noble truths…”

      The inescapable conclusion – well, actually, it’s spelled out plain as day with vivid simile – is that human to human rebirth is rare.

      Of course, those who have seen the four noble truths, those who do understand the nature of reality and the rules it operates by, do not face such long odds. In fact they are guaranteed a happy rebirth (if any). It stands to reason that those who haven’t seen the four noble truths, but nevertheless are reasonable virtuous, will also fare well. And it’s spelled out in the suttas often enough, that not following the five precepts leads quite inevitably to lower realms, while following the five precepts leads quite inevitably to human/deva rebirth.
      But, those who follow the five precepts are rare in this world. Those who kill, steal, cheat, lie and get intoxicated are far, far more numerous. I doubt anyone could seriously argue against this, I’m sure even in most Buddhist countries, those who are willing to kill greatly outnumber those who aren’t.

      So even though at an individual level we aren’t subject to the statistics, I’m sure they are borne out over humanity as a whole.

      • Peter Durham / Nov 16 2011 7:24 pm

        When you talk about an “inescapable conclusion” it’s like saying that the inescapable conclusion of “Cinderella” is that the glass slipper was Cinderella’s. That’s right but only within the context of the story. My example is extreme as in no way do I compare the profound teachings of the Buddha with a fairy tale but hopefully you can see the point I’m trying to get at.

        I personally feel that the key function of the teachings is to use them for wise reflection and for insight/development in the here and now rather than to construct a world view/philosophy.

        Would knowledge of rebirth not always be personal and not something that could be transmitted from person to person? If we do not have that personal knowledge are we not just taking part in moor speculation?

        What happens when we die is a question that we all have and which I imagine remains somewhere in the recesses of our mind in spite of whether we have developed a rebirth view or an “it all over” view.

  7. Peter Durham / Nov 16 2011 7:25 pm

    Ven. Nandiya but you conclusions are based on ancient scripture and there really is not very much to support your conclusions outside of those ancient scripture.

    When you talk about an “inescapable conclusion” it’s like saying that the inescapable conclusion of “Cinderella” is that the glass slipper was Cinderella’s. That’s right but only within the context of the story. My example is extreme as in no way do I compare the profound teachings of the Buddha with a fairy tale but hopefully you can see the point I’m trying to get at.

    I personally feel that the key function of the teachings is to use them for wise reflection and for insight/development in the here and now rather than to construct a world view/philosophy.

    Would knowledge of rebirth not always be personal and not something that could be transmitted from person to person? If we do not have that personal knowledge are we not just taking part in moor speculation?

    What happens when we die is a question that we all have and which I imagine remains somewhere in the recesses of our mind in spite of whether we have developed a rebirth view or an “it all over” view.

    Best wishes

    ps oops I missed the first line when first posting.

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