Can rebirth occur in the current percieved future?

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Can rebirth occur in the current percieved future?

Postby conor » Sat May 14, 2011 10:41 am

Hello,

I'm a high school student currently studying Buddhism, so please forgive me for any inaccuracies in my question.

My question relates to the concept of time in rebirth - specifically, can a consciousness be reborn in the past, or will rebirth only occur in what the current birth perceives as the 'future'?

My reasoning for question is as the alaya consciousness can 'affect' individuals and 'itself' vertically i.e. into the past and future (as according to the Consciousness-Only Doctrine), and as the alaya consciousness is what undergoes the cycle of samsara, I proposed to myself that the cycle of rebirth may also be flexible in terms of contextual destination.... after all, what is time when the cycle of samsara transcends any concept of what it means to be in existence for a particular period of time?

Siddhartha said, using the river as a symbol of time, that 'the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past, nor the shadow of the future.' He then goes on to talk of his own life in relation to time, saying that his 'previous lives were also not in the past, and his death and his return to Brahma are not in the future. Nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and presence.'
Similarly, the Dalai Lama states "As for consciousness, it has neither past nor future and knows only present moments; it is the continuum of a present moment being transformed into another present moment… I do not think we can talk about the continuity of consciousness solely in terms of chronology."
For me, this illustrates that in Buddhism there is no definition of ‘past’ or ‘future’ – so how can we say that rebirth cannot occur in the past? If common karma can affect the environment vertically into the past and future, as can the alaya consciousness/individual karmic seeds affect an individual metatemporally, and with the above statements in mind, is there reason to suggest that samsara could not occur in what we understand as 'the past'?

However, it would not surprise me if I have missed a vital point here - thus, I have come to this forum for a little assistance in my learning!

Thank you for any time you are able to give in response.

Conor.
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Re: Can rebirth occur in the current percieved future?

Postby Anders » Sat May 14, 2011 10:58 am

Hi conor

conor wrote:Siddhartha said, using the river as a symbol of time, that 'the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past, nor the shadow of the future


Did you get a source for this? at a glance, it sounds like a bogus quote.

As for your question, I find myself musing at where you have picked up your ideas about time in Buddhism. Unless there are some radical notions hidden in the Yogacara corpus I've missed, the only place I can see where time is explained as having the kind of elasticity you describe is in the Avatamsaka Sutra. And this has not really been picked up on and elaborated very much by any of the various schools. And to be honest, I think delving into that would be heavy duty stuff for a skilled buddhologist, nevermind high school level.

Basically, most Mahayana schools tend to perceive time as fundamentally illusory and largely a mental construct super-imposed on our experience. The quote from the Dalai Lama reflects this kind of view imo. As such, I reckon they would say rebirth can not occur in 'the past', because 'the past' does not actually exist. What we perceive as the past is just a present memory or interpreting present phenomena as containing traces or residue of 'past' phenomena. But in fact, it is nowhere to be found.
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Re: Can rebirth occur in the current percieved future?

Postby conor » Sat May 14, 2011 11:30 am

Hi Anders,

Thanks for your quick response.

Unfortunately at my level access to the vast majority of texts is limited - many of my ideas that I use originate from second, third, or forth hand - someone who has read and quoted a text and placed this quote at another location, and thus it becomes difficult to discern the accuracy of these quotes.

However, in response to your question about the river analogy, I admit and apologize it was partly paraphrased from my source, but it was taken from Herma Hesse's 'Siddhartha', where he describes Siddhartha and Vasudeva on the river crossing. Also, as I did not have the full text when quoting, after further investigating I realise that it was Siddhartha, who according to the text, agreed with Vasudeva in the analogy of the river. I do acknowledge that this information of Siddhartha's teachings has been passed through many hands, through Hesse's interpretation, to the translation of Hesse's text, to the quoting of the translation of Hesse; however, at the present time, these are the kind of quotes I have access to. As of yet I have not been able to find where Hesse found this analogy of the river with Siddhartha and Vasudeva.

More in depth quote from Hesse's text here:

" Once he asked him: "Have you also learned from the river the secret that there is no time?"

A bright smile came over Vasudeva's face. "Yes, Siddhartha," he said. "This is probably what you mean: that the river is everywhere at once - at its source, at its mouth, by the waterfall, by the ferry crossing, in the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains - everywhere at the same time. And that for it there is only the present, not the shadow called the future."

"That's it," said Siddhartha. "And when I learned that, I looked at my life, and it too was a river; and the boy Siddhartha and the man Siddhartha and the old man Siddhartha were only separated by shadows, not by anything real. Siddhartha's previous births were also not a past, and his death and return to Brahma were not a future. Nothing was, nothing will be; everything is, everything has its being and is present."

My ideas about time, as you put it, were originally created through my own reflection on how time may be interpreted by a Buddhist adherent after what I have read of Buddhist teaching. Rather than any structured teaching on 'time' from a text, it was more a question put to my teacher, who could not answer. My question to this forum was simply one to inquire about the true nature of time according to Buddhist teaching, rather than relying on my own assumptions formed from a very basic and limited understanding of what I have read on the subject.

Is the concept that time, as you put it, "largely a mental construct super-imposed on our experience" restricted to the Mahayana strand of Buddhism, or does it extend further into other schools?

Thank you for your time Anders.
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Re: Can rebirth occur in the current percieved future?

Postby Pema Rigdzin » Sat May 14, 2011 12:03 pm

Conor,

It's important to understand that Hesse's "Siddharta" is just a novel and is merely inspired by the Buddha's life story. It's not a source of the Buddha's actual teachings. If you'd like to know more about the Buddha's actual teachings and the internet is currently your only real resource, I can recommend two excellent sites containing the Buddha's actual teachings. For Mahayana/Vajrayana Buddhism: www.berzinarchives.com, and for the Buddha's fundamental teachings, as passed down to us by the Theravada lineage: www.accesstoinsight.org.

Neither of those sites will lead you astray. Oh, also, depending on where you live, your local library may be a good source of proper Buddhist books, or you may be able to get certain books through your library on interlibrary loan from other, bigger libraries. Hope this helps.

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Re: Can rebirth occur in the current percieved future?

Postby Anders » Sat May 14, 2011 12:08 pm

ah ok. Well, as much as I enjoyed Hesse's book, you have to bear in mind it is a work of fiction. The Buddha in this work has similarities to the historical Buddha when it suits the author's intentions and just as often deviates where it does not. In fairness, I don't think Hesse represented it as being anything else. So, though it is an inspirational work, it really has to be disregarded when it comes to assessing what Buddhism is and is not.

Is the concept that time, as you put it, "largely a mental construct super-imposed on our experience" restricted to the Mahayana strand of Buddhism, or does it extend further into other schools?


Well, seeing as the only living strand of Buddhism that is not Mahayana is Theravada Buddhism, itself a rather homogeneous entity (compared to the Mahayana anyway), it is a bit more simple to answer. Or ought to be, I don't actually recall what their abidhamma says on this (retro? Someone else?). :emb: :D But as I recall it, they don't really take time to be illusory. They are not really into the whole 'illusory and empty' thing with quite the same fervour as the Mahayana is.

But there have been some curious takes on this in the history of Buddhism. Such as the Sarvastivada (literally the "all exists theory/school"), one of the most dominant (non-mahayana) schools in ancient India. Here's a summation of them from Vasubandhu: "He who affirms the existence of the dharmas of the three time periods [past, present and future] is held to be a Sarvastivadin." Basically, they tried to explain how something like karma can transit across the three times by asserting that the past really exists as a separate entity and flows into an existent present, which flows into a genuinely existent future.

Actually, perhaps the two most prominent thinkers in Indian Mahayana, Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu, both made their names by debunking the theories of the Sarvastivadins. For that reason, many believe that in order to really appreciate their teachings, one has to understand the teachings of the ones they were largely reacting against.
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Re: Can rebirth occur in the current percieved future?

Postby retrofuturist » Sat May 14, 2011 12:44 pm

Greetings,

Anders Honore wrote:
Is the concept that time, as you put it, "largely a mental construct super-imposed on our experience" restricted to the Mahayana strand of Buddhism, or does it extend further into other schools?


Well, seeing as the only living strand of Buddhism that is not Mahayana is Theravada Buddhism, itself a rather homogeneous entity (compared to the Mahayana anyway), it is a bit more simple to answer. Or ought to be, I don't actually recall what their abidhamma says on this (retro? Someone else?). :emb: :D But as I recall it, they don't really take time to be illusory. They are not really into the whole 'illusory and empty' thing with quite the same fervour as the Mahayana is.

To the best of my knowledge, time itself isn't really analysed in depth in Theravada (including Abhidhamma).

Time is mentioned, either as past, present, future.... and it is said the mind changes quicker than any simile could hope to describe etc..... or that life in certain realms have certain life expectancies.... so on and so forth etc., but none of that is an analysis of time itself. I think it's fair to say that in Theravada, time is only deemed relevant as it pertains to experience, and if it is experienced as a mental construct, that would likely be either perception (sanna) or volitional formation (sankhara), and such a formation would necessarily be not-self (anatta), impermament (anicca) and unsatisfactory, as it can act as the basis for suffering (dukkha) if cling to.

For example, where's that work experience kid with my coffee - he's been gone 20 minutes! :x

:D

Maitri,
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Re: Can rebirth occur in the current percieved future?

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Sat May 14, 2011 2:00 pm

I love this question. You are really smart. Sounds like a good plot for Star Trek.
First of all, what is time? It is a conceptual method of chopping up reality into a linear string of events. What I mean by that is, we talk about, for example, the history of the universe. It is so many billions and billions years since the big bang. But what is a year? It is the time it takes the Earth to orbit the Sun. The Earth is a relatively new thing in the universe. Before the Earth there were no years at all. They did not exist.

So, it can be said that the Big Bang only happened one second ago. Granted, we are talking about a really long second! Or, we can say that the Big bang is actually still happening, because we know that the Universe is still coming into existence. New planets are forming all the time, old stars are burning out and so forth.

In the midst of all this, is our perception. And our perception of events does not even last one second, even though we imagine a feeling of time duration. It is strictly right now. The only thing we experience is this very instant, what I have heard called, rather poetically, as "the continuously transforming, endless unfolding of NOW". --because "now" is in fact the only show that is on at the moment.

So, my point is that past, future, and any duration of present time are merely things we have made up. just concepts based on limited perceptions. A Buddha's perceptions are unlimited, so he or she perceives all "three times" because they are not really three different times at all.

Thus, to be reborn in the past means to be reborn into a condition (of time) that we just make up. It's like saying "I want to put my ideas down on paper". You can write something out, or draw a picture, but you cannot actually put ideas on paper.
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Re: Can rebirth occur in the current percieved future?

Postby conor » Sat May 14, 2011 2:26 pm

Hello again everyone.

Firstly I would just like to emphasize that I am merely trying to understand some concepts which are evidently quite complex, and I make it clear that I have no experience nor understanding in this field. Nor do I mean to make something I asked through ignorance to sound like something from Star Trek, PadmaVonSamba. How else am I going to learn without asking?

Thank you all for the replies.

I apologize for the use of the quotes from Hesse's novel - I did not know that it was a work of fiction, but then, I suppose that is what I get for trusting the validity of quotes from unknown sites.

Brian, thanks for those links - they will be put to good use in the future. As you stated, at this present stage my only source is the internet, and I guess that's the very reason for some of my misconstrued ideas.

To both Retro and Anders, thanks for your explanation of the differing understandings of time within some of the strands of Buddhism; its a huge help. However I'm still slightly confused about one point; and I'm worried that it may be because of another source of information. Anders, you said that "rebirth can not occur in 'the past', because 'the past' does not actually exist" for Mahayana strands. But, the article on "Mahayana Buddhism and Environmental Ethics: From the Perspective of the Consciousness-Only Doctrine" by Shuichi Yamamoto quotes that "‘Common karma’ also extends vertically, affecting both our ancestors and future generations." How can something like common karma affect ancestry if the past for Mahayana strands does not exist? I think I'm missing a concept here. Or, is this a valid source to be using? I understand that this is simply an individuals' interpretation, but it would be good to know your thoughts on Yamamoto's work.

I'm not looking to try question anyone's belief, all I'm trying to do is understand it. Apologies go to anyone who feels that I'm just talking about irrelevant ideas, but its the only way I can learn.
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Re: Can rebirth occur in the current percieved future?

Postby LastLegend » Sat May 14, 2011 2:45 pm

^ Let's talk about dimensions. There exists many realms such as human, hungry ghost, animal, hell, and god. So in each realm there exists the past, present, and future. In human realm, the past is what has happened before us. The present is now-what we are doing and such. And the future is what to come. When you have enlightened past, present, and future is one.
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Re: Can rebirth occur in the current percieved future?

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Sat May 14, 2011 3:15 pm

I meant the Star Trek reference as a compliment. Also, it is good to question this stuff. If your question is not being answered, maybe people don't exactly understand it. I thought I understood what you were asking, but maybe not. I will re-read your original post, and lets see if we can get this worked out.

Using your river analogy (despite its source), the water which is downstream is what it is because of the events that occurred upstream. So,how your consciousness is now is the result of events in the past (basic Buddhist premise). Although today you can recall events from "past", and cherish them or regret them or learn from mistakes or whatever, I don't think a present consciousness could take rebirth in the past, because in the past some of those things which constitute what that present consciousness is may not have occurred yet.

It's like, if you took a set of rubber tires, got into a time machine and went back 200 years, you couldn't put those tires (they could not 'take rebirth' , so to speak) on the axles of a car because the car wouldn't exist yet. So, very little of what constitutes a present day consciousness would be able to take rebirth in the past, because the situations which cause that present consciousness to arise would not have occurred yet.
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Re: Can rebirth occur in the current percieved future?

Postby LastLegend » Sat May 14, 2011 3:40 pm

I don't remember exact Buddha's words but something like evil and good follows you like a shadow. So if I do something evil to you such as killing you, our karma is tied together. There is a story about a monk who practiced well and followed precepts and vows well, but one day he had a thought of arrogance because the king gave him a very special gift, immediately his enemy from many past lives possessed him in a form of ulcer like human face on his skin. As you can see, we all are intricately linked together by karma (actions and consequences/results). Our ancestors too even if they died a long time ago from many past lives, but if our karma is still linked together, what we do can affect our ancestors. So if you have become Buddha, your ancestors are also saved for example if they are in the realm of hells, they will now go to gods' realms. Yes, since we all intricately linked together, we all are one, and one out of many. This is also the idea of Buddha Nature/Mind, one out of many as our Buddha Natures are not separable.

You can say karma is beyond time. Without karma, you cannot become Buddha. So cultivating the path to become Buddha, you will become Buddha-this is karma.
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Re: Can rebirth occur in the current percieved future?

Postby Sherab Dorje » Sat May 14, 2011 6:37 pm

conor wrote: But, the article on "Mahayana Buddhism and Environmental Ethics: From the Perspective of the Consciousness-Only Doctrine" by Shuichi Yamamoto quotes that "‘Common karma’ also extends vertically, affecting both our ancestors and future generations." How can something like common karma affect ancestry if the past for Mahayana strands does not exist? I think I'm missing a concept here. Or, is this a valid source to be using? I understand that this is simply an individuals' interpretation, but it would be good to know your thoughts on Yamamoto's work.
There are no scriptural references to back up the concept of common or collective karma and the mind-only (cittamatrin) school has fallen into disrepute (well pushed is more correct, by madhyamaka). So...
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Re: Can rebirth occur in the current percieved future?

Postby conor » Sat May 14, 2011 10:54 pm

Thanks again for your replies.

PadmaVonSamba and LastLegend, thank you for giving your explanations; I appreciate your use of analogies to make it a little easier for me to understand.

gregkavarnos, thanks for that bit of information regarding the cittamatrin school of thought. However I just wanted to clarify, even though as you say the school has fallen into 'disrepute', would it be fair to say that some of its teachings from the Consciousness-Only doctrine have been picked up by other schools? Also, if there are no scriptural references to common karma, where did it originate? And if it did not originate in scripture, but it has been adapted into some other smaller schools of thought, is it not still a valid Buddhist concept to reference?

Thanks all for your amazing help.
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Re: Can rebirth occur in the current percieved future?

Postby Anders » Sun May 15, 2011 12:04 am

Yogacara/consciousness-only is a funny beast.

In India, Tibet and China alike, it is everyone's favourite choice for beating down and explaining how it is ultimately flawed with both glee and zeal.

And yet, just about all schools have stolen just about all they can with fervour from the school. A large part of what we consider 'mature' mahayana doctrine originated in yogacara. So while there is no shortage of Buddhist happy to poo-poo yogacara, it's worth taking with a grain of salt. A lot of their own central tenets are likely to be borrowed wholesale from it.

conor wrote:To both Retro and Anders, thanks for your explanation of the differing understandings of time within some of the strands of Buddhism; its a huge help. However I'm still slightly confused about one point; and I'm worried that it may be because of another source of information. Anders, you said that "rebirth can not occur in 'the past', because 'the past' does not actually exist" for Mahayana strands. But, the article on "Mahayana Buddhism and Environmental Ethics: From the Perspective of the Consciousness-Only Doctrine" by Shuichi Yamamoto quotes that "‘Common karma’ also extends vertically, affecting both our ancestors and future generations." How can something like common karma affect ancestry if the past for Mahayana strands does not exist? I think I'm missing a concept here. Or, is this a valid source to be using? I understand that this is simply an individuals' interpretation, but it would be good to know your thoughts on Yamamoto's work.


Looking at the article, I see he references Xuanzang for this. Xuanzang was perhaps the most brilliant Chinese Buddhist scholar in the history of Chinese Buddhism and trained for decades in India at Nalanda (the finest Buddhist university at the time) as well. He was well known for his meticulous precision (to the point of being considered rather terse and boring) and attention to orthodoxy. If he said this, it almost certainly had some solid scriptural basis.

That said, it's not clear to me from that article if Xuanzang claimed such karma affects our ancestors in the present (ie, in the stations of rebirth they have subsequently taking rebirth in) or if he actually means back through time, so to speak. I have come across a few suggestions of the latter here and there, but only ever in germinal form.

It is worth noting in all this that Xuanzang was Chinese. There is a very obvious reason for him to want to emphasise such a thing if he can and I suspect an exploration of time was not the aim of his writing here. He'd have been writing for an audience strongly influenced by Confucianism and ancestor veneration is a central theme in this. A theme that Chinese Buddhism played along with insofar as it could within the boundaries of its model of rebirth and karma. Dedication of merit to one's ancestors was a part of that and if Xuanzang saw a way to explain such a mechanism through classical Buddhist methodology, it is not surprising that he would do so.
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Re: Can rebirth occur in the current percieved future?

Postby conor » Sun May 15, 2011 1:40 am

Anders, thanks for your info on Xuanzang and his origins. It would be interesting to know where he picked up his ideas on common karma from originally, but I assume that that level of detail may be a little difficult to ascertain.

It's certainly not a 'black and white' concept!
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Re: Can rebirth occur in the current percieved future?

Postby LastLegend » Sun May 15, 2011 3:41 am

I do not know anything about scholarship and such.

But in reference to collective karma, somewhere in some Sutra mentioned that Saky Clan (Buddha's clan) was murdered because in some previous life they were fishermen who caught fish and Buddha (before becoming Buddha) was rejoicing when he saw that they caught the fish.

Another example is Buddha said all the females are our mothers and all the males are our fathers.So from this, we can see that we are intricately linked together by karma. That's why we should have compassion for all beings.

If people happened to be at the same place and time and die due to disaster, this is collective karma. In Buddhism there is no accident, things happen because of karma. And really we don't understand how karma works. But if you doing something bad as a group, you will endure the consequences when the conditions arise.

Again karma is beyond time, if we are still deeply linked by karma, inevitably we will meet due to arising conditions.
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Re: Can rebirth occur in the current percieved future?

Postby Sherab Dorje » Sun May 15, 2011 6:45 am

Anders Honore wrote:...If he said this, it almost certainly had some solid scriptural basis...
Or it is some Confucianism creeping into his Buddhism?
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Re: Can rebirth occur in the current percieved future?

Postby dakini_boi » Sun May 15, 2011 7:35 am

conor wrote:My question relates to the concept of time in rebirth - specifically, can a consciousness be reborn in the past, or will rebirth only occur in what the current birth perceives as the 'future'?


I agree, this is a great question. And something we cannot expect to understand unless we are buddhas! Nevertheless, I will attempt a response.

Yes, our linear perception of time is illusory, and simply a function of samsara-bound consciousness. And, given that the whole phenomenon of cause and effect (karma - which implies linear time) is a defining feature of samsara - I would propose that rebirth for samsaric beings will always happen according to the scheme of linear time, precisely because this type of rebirth is a phenomenon of samsara. Therefore, it doesn't make sense to suggest that you might take your next rebirth in the past, any more than it would make sense to say that the result of any action will take place in the past. e.g. I got a stomach ache in the morning because of something I ate for dinner!

Bear in mind the idea of "two truths" - the ultimate truth, which transcends any notion of past, present or future, as Conor has alluded to in his original question; and the relative truth, which is the observable phenomenon that causes produce results (karma).

In the realms were karma manifests (samsara), a defining feature of sentient beings is we perceive in terms of cause and result. Samsaric perception is automatically bound by past and future - therefore there is no escaping that results happen at a later time than causes. Now, here's the exception: if you're a Buddha, you perceive the two truths as equivalent to one another. That is why a Buddha should be able to manifest all kinds of miracles, because the Buddha is not bound by conventional (samsaric) limitations of cause and effect. So therefore, I would propose that yes - it's possible to take rebirth in the past - but only for a Buddha, who has gone beyond conventional limits of cause and effect (i.e. unbound by karma, i.e. unbound by linear time).
Last edited by dakini_boi on Sun May 15, 2011 9:00 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Can rebirth occur in the current percieved future?

Postby LastLegend » Sun May 15, 2011 7:59 am

^I think the sentence you quoted belongs to conor
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Re: Can rebirth occur in the current percieved future?

Postby dakini_boi » Sun May 15, 2011 9:01 am

yes, thank you, corrected!
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