In Rebirth of the Buddhist Subject (1), I wrote about the social causes and conditions of a ‘rebirth’ of certain types of persons, the social reproduction of life conditions and the social reproduction of the Buddhist subject. There is another way to interpret the Buddhist teachings on karma and rebirth, or at least another way to ask questions about it.
Is it possible that the Buddha retained the teachings on rebirth, giving them new meanings, in order to defeat the caste system? In other words, if you take refuge in the Buddha, and make some progress on the path, the promise is that, though you will be reborn into a next life, but you will not be reborn into the caste system? You would be reborn as a Buddhist subject, not as a subject of the caste system. For those that still believed in rebirth, this teaching meant that you could be reborn into another life, but you would not be reborn into another caste; you would have left the caste system for good.
My argument is that the early Buddhist teachings on karma and rebirth were intended to defeat, not rebirth as a physical reality, but the belief in or fear of rebirth, especially rebirth into the caste system; secondly, to substitute a naturalist motivation for behaving ethically, i.e. the relief of suffering and the prevention of harm to self and others.
I argue that by constructing Buddhism as an end to the belief in rebirth into a caste system, and reconstructing it as rebirth into a Buddhist future existence, Buddhism also constructs the rebirth of the Buddhist subject, that is, the social reproduction of the Buddhist subject.
It seems to me that the Buddhist teachings on karma (we get the results of our intentional actions) and non-self (there is no atman or ‘soul’ that takes another body) are really concerned with defeating the whole notion of rebirth; or at least defeating the belief in rebirth into a caste system that is inevitable, from which there is no escape, wherein the person has no agency about the kind of life she will be forced to live.
Buddha’s teaching was that you could escape the cycle of rebirth. He seems to be among the few religious leaders of his time who taught this, outside of the materialist Charvakas who said you live once and die without any rebirth (which doesn’t require escape from it). Rather than saying that rebirth is irrelevant in the Buddhist scheme, it appears to be absolutely central. I agree with Bhikkhu Bodhi that we should try to understand why the notion of rebirth was so central to the teachings.
We begin with the motivation needed to live an ethical life without harm to self or others. Instead of receiving ‘cosmic justice’ for one’s actions in a future birth, especially a future birth into a caste system. Buddhism substitutes the practice of ethical principles, e.g. adhering to the Five Precepts, for which one is supposedly rewarded or punished in the present life, with greater or lesser suffering. Instead of being reborn into a caste system, one has the intention to live so as to be reborn as a Bodhisattva and eventually a Buddha. This is the ‘higher birth’ that substitutes for the caste system. The emphasis is still on living for a ‘next life’, but it’s not a life in the caste system, and it’s not a life filled with pointless suffering. Neither is one’s rebirth in the ‘next life’ dependent on worshipping the devas, or performing rituals, which Buddhism rejects.
Some Buddhist experts have said that the Buddha taught on rebirth because some were not ready for the notion that there is no rebirth, and that by teaching rebirth, people develop a motivation to live a righteous life, in order that they may have a higher birth in the ‘next life.’
To live ethically without relying on the fear of ‘cosmic justice’, that is, to develop the motivation to live righteously without fear of divine punishment, one must 1) desire to be free of suffering, that is, the kind of self-inflicted suffering caused by one’s intentional actions (karma), e.g., addictive, selfish, maladjusted behavior; 2) understand the root of suffering as craving, that is, the result of intentional acts (karma) of addicted, selfish, maladjusted behavior; 3) understand that self-inflicted suffering can end; and 4) that the path to the end of self-inflicted suffering is practicing the Eight-fold path, which consists of clear understanding and ethical intentions, living an ethical life, and the practice of mindfulness that reduces and heals suffering.
So instead of worshipping gods and performing rituals in order to be born into a better life/caste in the next life, one practices the Eight-fold path so that one is either a) relieved of the belief or fear of being reborn into another life/caste; or b) is reborn into a ‘next life’ as a more realized Bodhisattva or Buddha. Instead of being reborn into a caste system, one lives one’s life ethically now with the hope of attaining rebirth as a Buddhist subject.
So for the fear of divine punishment, Buddhism substitutes the more naturalist desire for an end to self-inflicted suffering, which depends on living an ethical life and healing one’s own confusion and inner pain through meditation. Instead of living ethically so that one avoids rebirth into a lower caste, one lives ethically to a) reduce suffering in this life, and to b) be reborn as a more realized Bodhisattva or Buddha. From a sociological viewpoint, this set of beliefs operates as the social reproduction of the Buddhist subject.
But if one does not believe in rebirth in the first place, what motivation is there to live an ethical life of non-harming? If you only have one life, wouldn’t you rather just live, as the Charvakas say, to obtain as much pleasure as you can get in this life?
So that’s where the desire to end self-inflicted suffering is proposed as a sufficient motivation for living an ethical life in this life, not as a means to a better existence in a next life. Chasing after fleeting craving and pleasures (greed), or avenging one’s anger (hatred), or chasing illusions of wealth and power (delusion) all result in some kind of self-inflicted suffering and harm to others, that is dhukkha, or the dissatisfaction inherent with living a harmful, self-centered life.
So one takes refuge in the Buddha in order to a) avoid rebirth in the caste system or lower births; OR b) to be reborn as a more realized Bodhisattva or Buddha; OR c) realizing that there is no rebirth (e.g. scientifically), to live this life with the least self-inflicted suffering and without being a cause of harm to others. Thus, the teachings on karma and rebirth can be adapted to wherever a person is situated with regard to their belief in an ‘afterlife’ or ‘rebirth.’
The Mahayana adds a strong motivation to practice compassion for others as a way to create a morally relevant world with less suffering and mutually beneficial social relations. If however, you still believe in rebirth, or have your doubts about it, you can still live your life so that you can be reborn as a more realized Bodhisattva or Buddha in the ‘next life.’ This belief effects the social reproduction of the Buddhist subject.
The Bodhisattva path enables you to realize full enlightenment in this life through a series of stages by increasing the practice of the virtues, the Ten Paramitas. This is what Buddhadasa explained as the ‘continuous rebirth’ in this life, either the rebirth of the ‘self’ and its suffering, or the rebirth into more perfect realization in this life. Either way, whether realizing the end of rebirth in this life, or in the next life, you are reborn as a Buddhist subject.
In order to understand Buddhism, we have to understand the fundamental problems that it was trying to solve, which is the problem of rebirth, and how to live an ethical life of non-harming without ‘fear of’ rebirth. That’s why Dr. Ambedkar understood that the Eight-fold path and Mahayana was essentially social, about creating an ethical community and society that was a not predicated on belief in a caste system, a ‘punishing god’ or fear of an afterlife.