I’d like to start a thought experiment that brings together interdependent origination, karma and rebirth in a new way. This will be a fast sketch that will hopefully be developed more fully later.
I have often reflected on ‘what is rebirth?’ Or ‘what is it that is reborn’? Buddhadasa’s thesis is that what is reborn is the ‘self’ at every moment, but that through Buddhist practice we can curtail the continuous rebirth of the self. By ‘self’ he meant both the Vedic notion of the divine, eternal Self or Atman, and the Western notion of the Ego, with all its self-centered instincts and drives. My thinking is something along those lines, but I see it as developmental rather than instantaneous and continuous.
I think of it as the birth of a separate self. The birth of a ‘separate self begins, in the physical sense, at one’s physical birth. The infant is pushed out of the womb, the umbilical cord is cut, and the infant must breath on its own for the first time. However, medical scientists have said that the infant, at this stage, is not much more than a fetus outside the womb, and continues its fetal development outside the womb for at least the first three months. The infant must complete that fetal development under the protection of the mother’s constant care. At this stage, the infant does not have a sense of a separate self. Psychologically, the baby’s sense of its own being is completely conjoined with the mother’s being. That sense of separateness develops over time as the mother periodically leaves the baby to do other things, and then returns to care for the baby at prescribed times, or when the baby is distressed. It is in this process of separation and return that the baby gradually develops a sense of a separateness, which continues to develop until the age of two or three. By that age, the child knows its own name and recognizes its likeness in a mirror. The child is walking, talking and relating to others on its own initiative, looking for attention and to have its needs met. This is the first sense of a separate self. This development continues through early schooling, as the child leaves the family and must sit in a classroom with other children and compete for attention. This kind of socialization further develops the sense of a separate self, separate not only from mother and family, but from other children and adults as well. The sense of a separate self continues to develop throughout adolescence and reaches its most complete form in adult development.
Living and working within the Capitalist system, with its exaltation of the Individual, pushes one to develop the sense of a separate self to its limits. It is at this stage that the adult encounters a philosophy like Buddhism and there is a challenge to this idea that one is a separate self; or that insisting on being a separate self is immoral or makes one deeply unhappy (Christianity); or that the separate self is constantly threatened and must be strengthened (ego psychology); or that the aim of the spiritual life is for the ‘small self’ to rejoin the cosmic Self or Atman (Advaita Vedanta, Yoga). Throughout adult life, one is then faced with the choice of continuing to assert and develop a sense of a separate self, especially within Capitalist cultures, or choosing to let go of the sense of separateness and perceive the interdependence of one’s being with the rest of the world and the cosmos. Finally, at the end of life we face Death, which is the involuntary and total dissolution of a separate self.
The doctrine of interdependent origination says that all phenomena arise interdependently, that all things exist because of and within deeply connected relationships. This is very congruent with the idea of systems theory, that all phenomena exist interdependently in a very physical sense. What struck me about the doctrine of interdependence, when I encountered it in Joanna Macy’s systems theory*, is that I felt a deep sense of responsibility for all living things on this planet. I had this deep and abiding sense that every action I took had profound consequences on all other forms of life, on the whole biosphere that supports life.
This sense of responsibility resonated with the idea of karma, that one’s actions have consequences beyond one’s own small personal life, beyond one’s physical existence into distant lives and future lives and future states of the world. Karma means that one’s actions, particularly intentional acts, have consequences that affect many other beings, their habitats and societies near and far, now and well into the future.
So putting together this idea of the birth of a separate self, or ‘separateness’, with interdependence and karma, I propose that what the Buddhist doctrine has to offer is a world view in which we perceive that all things, especially all living beings, are deeply interconnected, and where every being’s existence and actions have karmic consequences for all other living beings throughout the biosphere, now and into the future.
The great delusion or fault is when we insist on a ‘rebirthing’ of separateness, when we use scientific and critical concepts that ‘rebirth’ this separateness, when we employ Capitalism and other ideologies that ‘rebirth’ separateness, such as racism, caste or classism and misogyny, when we occlude or even destroy the sense of interconnectedness.
This does not mean that I am insisting that everything is the same, or that I am proposing the eradication of difference. Rather, I argue that difference is a complexity that arises from the interdependence of all beings. Very simply, systems theory teaches that beings become differentiated because they are interconnected in an evolutionary process that provokes the development of different capacities and forms as they adapt to different environments, including as they adapt to the presence of other species. It is because we are interconnected that we are different, but we are not separate.
The sense of separateness that comes about through critical analysis can be resolved through a rational reconnection into systemic interconnectedness. Indeed, unless we understand how parts connect in a whole, how species relate and are interdependent with each other and the whole of the biosphere and the cosmos, we are missing a vast amount of information and knowledge about the world. All the knowledge and wisdom about the connections and interdependencies of phenomena become available to us when we take the further step of overcoming separateness and understand the totality, the whole.
I see the interweaving of these three Buddhist doctrines— interdependence, karma and the rebirth of separateness—as having far-reaching ethical consequences for human societies and the survival of life on this planet.
In future posts, I will explore these three doctrines—interdependence, karma and rebirth—in terms of the social reproduction of the Subject. I will relate these concepts to the social reproduction of ways of life, the social ‘rebirth’ or reproduction of types of individuals that have similar social capacities and disadvantages. This social ‘rebirth’ or reproduction has karmic consequences on the quality of life, or types of lives, that persons can lead in particular cultures and societies.
*see Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory, by Joanna Macy.