Most intellectuals would agree with my post of yesterday despairing over the unscientific and superstitious thinking that is attempting to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools by the promotion of "Intelligent Design." I wonder why the same intellectual analysis that recognizes evolution over creationism does not also decry the Buddhist concept of reincarnation.
The Buddha, speaking around 500 B.C., said that he say no evidence of atman, a soul, and this principal of anatman has been carried forward in most schools of Buddhist teaching. Further, the Buddha taught that there was no self, that ego-identity was just an effect caused by the coming together of the five aggregates of existence (form, feeling, thought, impulse and consciousness). The ego-self, he taught, was empty of any independent existence and when any one of the five aggregates of existence were removed, the ego-self ceased to exist. There was no eternal, abiding atman (soul) that carried on after the ego-self ceased to exist.
This was considered quite shocking to the Brahmin spiritual leaders of the day, who believed that we all have transmigrating souls which after our death come to abide in other beings. Since the selection of the new host for the transmigrating soul was based on the accumulated karma of the deceased, they protested that the teaching of anatman was amoral - why behave in a moral and responsible fashion if not for the blessing of a happy rebirth?
Further, the concerns went, how does this teaching of anatman reconcile the continuation of life on Earth? Life-force is an energy that cannot be created or destroyed, and surely outlives the ephemeral vessel temporarily containing it. And what about consciousness? After the five aggregates of existence come apart, ending one ego-self, do they not then come together elsewhere giving rise to another? Isn't the consciousness of one ego-self later reconstituted as another ego-self that contains the same consciousness?
The early followers of the Buddha, like the Buddha himself, lived in a Brahmin culture as steeped in the concept and belief in reincarnation as our culture now is accepting of gravity. So, from the earliest Buddhist teachings, a slightly modified version of reincarnation was still carried forward. This modified version held that although there were not transmigrating souls, rebirth still occurred due to our ignorance and clinging to existence, and this cycle of birth and rebirth only ended at nirvana.
It is ironic to note that most modern believers in reincarnation find comfort in the thought that one will be reborn, while the Brahmins and early Buddhists were terrified of the prospect of eternally reliving birth, suffering, old age and death. The cycle of birth and rebirth was something that they wanted to end, and nirvana was seen as the transcending of this situation.
Quick-minded readers will have already noted that the Buddha also taught that there was no difference between nirvana and samsara, implying that we have already transcended birth-and-rebirth, if there was ever such a thing to begin with.
Regardless, as Buddhist thought was canonized, whole systems evolved teaching that some beginning practioners were Sotapannas, or "stream-enters," while others advanced to Sakadagamis, or once-returners (meaning that they only had one more cycle of birth and rebirth before nirvana), Anagamis, or never-returners, and Arhats, enlightened ones.
While it was a skillful way of teaching in the Fifth Century B.C. , the whole concept of reincarnation, as transmigrating souls, as reconstituted aggregates, or as stream-enterers achieving Arhat status, is unscientific, counter-intuitive and archaic, and should be immediately abandoned by modern practioners.
We now know that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and that the first living organisms, simple bacteria without nuclei or other cell organelles (prokaryotes) appeared around 3.9 billion years ago. In fact, it is a judgment call as to what point you begin calling these organisms "life forms" as opposed to "complex, self-replicating organic molecule structures."
Here's a question to think about: assuming that there was a "first" living prokaryote that appeared on Earth some 3.9 b.y. ago, and that there was no life on Earth prior to that, what did this first being reincarnate from? And are all subsequent beings, including you and I, reincarnations of that first prokaryote?
Logically, the concept of reincarnation requires one of two underlying tenets: that either the number of living beings on Earth remains more of less constant, so that there is a receptacle for each life, or that some beings contain more "life" and others "less" life. If the former, then how does reincarnation reconcile the great mass extinctions that the Earth periodically went through, most notably the Permian-Triassic episode when about 95% of all animals were wiped out, and the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction, which killed off the dinosaurs? The latter sounds distinctly egalitarian and egocentric ("my existence is equivalent to that of a hundred million gnats").
Mahayana Buddhism and Zen in particular offer glimpses of a Buddhist cosmology that does not require reincarnation. In their transcendental view, all of existence is one large, formless, nameless but everchanging whole, and we are all part of it but inseparable and indistinguishable from all the rest. We are not part of the whole, since there can be no separation or discrimination of the whole. In this formless, nameless and everchanging whole, conditions are ever changing in a kaleidoscopic manner, and "things" rise from conditions. When these conditions are the five aggregates of existence, an ego-self is manifested, but it is never not a part of the formless, nameless everchanging whole, nor can it ever be distinguished from the same. When the five aggregates that gave rise to the ego-self come apart, the manifestation ceases, and the formless, nameless, everchanging whole continues with no net gain or loss.
A visualization of this formless, nameless, everchanging whole that comes to mind is that of a three-dimensional mandala, a sphere instead of a circle, constantly mutating and morphing from one design to another, like when one rotates the eyepiece of a kaleidoscope.
However, despite this view, Mahayana Buddhism, including Zen, still clings to the outdated and obsolete concept of individual reincarnation. Indeed, His Holiness the 14th Dalai lama claims to be the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai lama and all the lamas before him. Although he claims to be intensely interested in science, and has admirably submitted to studies of the effects of meditation on the human mind, it is hard to take his claims seriously as long as he still proclaims himself to be the reincarnation of prior Tibetan masters.
Recently, a group of scientists, probably led by Chinese scientists with political motivations, refused to allow the Dalai lama to address a conference, fearing that it would besmirch their scientific reputation with "superstition," "mysticism," and "religion." While such reaction is regrettable (especially if politically motivated), it is hard to accept him as a fellow scientist while he claims to be of supernatural origin.
Zen stories and koans are full of tales of monks and masters being reincarnated as foxes, as beings without hands, as gods and as hungry ghosts. While these stories should be considered more as useful parables than as absolute truths (one does not need to believe that an actual tortoise and an actual hare competed in a road race to gain wisdom from Aesop's fables), they are still an unfortunate reinforcement of the acceptance of reincarnation and an embarrassing relic of Buddhism's Brahmin origins.
This can even be taken a step further: since the formless, nameless, everchanging whole is in fact the dharma, teaching that a part of the dharma can be separated from the whole and has an independent abiding existence is actually defaming to the dharma. Renunciation of the teaching of reincarnation is to abide by the dharma.
You, however, are free to disagree.