Buddhists, atheists, and most scientists agree that most of what we associate with personal identity, perceptions, memories, and so on, does not survive death. As we discussed the other day, Christians want to believe these aspects do survive death and continue in heaven. This opens up the question as to what exactly does survive death, if anything.
Scientists who aren’t religious say that nothing survives death. There is no mechanism for information exchange in the physical world. Scientists have discovered every physical particle capable of interacting with other physical particles, and they see no evidence of a parallel, non-physical realm where the information regarding your personal identity could exist once your body is dead and your brain no longer functions.
.Buddhists agree with scientists up to a point. Buddhists agree that none of our memories or the things we cling to as our personal identity survive death. Buddhists posit a Very Subtle Mind that keeps a record of all your actions (Karma) that transmits the sum of your actions from one life to another.
The best analogies to the Very Subtle Mind are Santa Claus’s list, computer punch cards, or blockchain. Let me take these one at a time.
Santa Claus keeps a list of who is naughty and nice and he awards gifts based on whether a child has been good or bad. Karma works somewhat like this.
A computer punch card is how computers used to be programmed back in the 1950s and 1960s. it’s a physical piece of paper with holes in it. The computer can read the patterns in these holes and use this to perform calculations. The pattern of holes in a punch card is similar to the Very Subtle Mind in that it records good and bad actions (Karma) and provides a mechanism to transfer this information between computers (death and rebirth).
The modern blockchain is probably the best analogy.
Bitcoin is based on blockchain technology. Blockchain is simply a running record of every transaction in a currency ledger. All transactions, good and bad, are recorded. Some transactions negate earlier ones, and everyone has an up-to-date balance. Karma works this way.
The Very Subtle Mind records everything you think, say, or do. Each action is either virtuous or non-virtuous, and the results are either positive or negative. Past non-virtue can be purified, and past virtue can be destroyed by non-virtuous acts. The running total of your virtuous and non-virtuous actions is your current ledger balance of Merit. The more merit you have, the better your circumstances in your next rebirth.
So does the Very Subtle Mind exist? Who knows? However, believing it exists strongly motivates you to behave in virtuous was and eliminate non-virtue. I suspend judgment on whether or not the phenomenon is real and instead I focus on acting as if it’s real because I appreciate the benefits this has to my life.
How does this differ from Heaven and Hell in Christianity? The problem with how Heaven and Hell are conceived by Christians is that it really doesn’t motivate good behavior very well. Judaism first came up with the idea to scare people into obeying the 10 commandments. Christianity came along as said that deeds don’t matter and the only criteria was accepting Christ as your savior. In order to promote good behavior, Paul came up with the idea that people should obey God’s rules out of love for the way he sacrificed his only son for our sins. Paul’s idea was a huge improvement over the Jewish idea because the motivation was one of love rather than fear.
Unfortunately, neither idea works particularly well. Fear never works well as a long-term motivation, and while Love is a better motivation, most Christians believe they really don’t have to do anything in order to obtain Love. They ignore the rules of the Church and believe that no matter what they do, they will be saved. So while Paul’s idea was good, it wasn’t nearly good enough to be effective. This was forcefully pointed out by Søren Kierkegaard who thought the Church made being saved far too easy. He was one of many Christian critics who lament that there is no real demands put on Christians for good behavior.
So why do we need a Very Subtle Mind and reincarnation at all?
This points to one of the fundamental mysteries of life. Why do we all have different life circumstances, different propensities, different capabilities, different everything? Why are some people blessed with so much and others with so little?
Scientists would tell us that it’s just random chance. While this is possible, it isn’t a particularly satisfying answer. Scientists are very good at gritting their teeth and bearing bad news. I think this is a terrible way to view existence, but scientists readily embrace it because it fits within the rest of their world view.
Christians would tell us that it’s a choice made by God. While this may be a satisfying answer to those with many blessings, it probably isn’t very satisfying to those who have great difficulties in life.
Buddhists would tell us that it’s a direct result of your previous Karma passed from your previous lifetimes by the imprints on your Very Subtle Mind. This puts the responsibility for all that’s good and bad in life on us. I find this empowering.
For a long time, I resisted this idea. After all, why is my son autistic? What terrible thing could he have done in a previous life that made him suffer such an impairment? When I reflected on this, I realized that first, it was not appropriate for me to make the assumption that he must have done something bad. Yes, he must deal with the limitations of his impairments, but he has a remarkably good life. Sometimes, I feel he is the fortunate one, not me.
I find the idea of a Very Subtle Mind motivates me to purify my Karma and send on the cleanest and best Very Subtle Mind I can to the next life. If I believe this life is good, my next life should be even better. While I won’t remember this life, I will still feel thankful that I was so diligent in preparing for it. In fact, last week while I was meditating on my precious human life, I found myself thanking the previous “me” because “I/he” did such a good job preparing me for this life. It was a wonderful feeling.