"We will use all of the tools at our disposal to delay, however briefly, the inevitable collapse of the U.S. economy." -- Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke
On the one hand I have this quite foundational belief that language cannot express truth (with all of the interesting and paradoxical self-reference that that implies); but on the other hand I also greatly love logic-chopping and nit-picking and textual and narrative critique, much of which is couched in terms of the truth and falsehood of bits of text. Which is fine, but kind of funny. *8)
So in Buddhism I love Zen for its playful pointings out of the untruthiness of language, and I love the Diamond Sutra for all of its "that which we call a duck is not really a duck" stuff. On the other hand when Buddhists talk about how important the doctrine of karma and rebirth is and how the student has to have faith in it an' all, I tend to react to it just like I would to any dubious truth-claim, approaching it analytically rather than as just part of wonderful indescribable Thusness.
The issue of Buddhadarma that I'm currently reading (Spring 2007) has an editorial called "The Right View of Rebirth", and that editorial sets off my analytical counterargument-generators in a big way. It's a fundamental Buddhist tenet, the piece says, that everything is void and conditionally arisen due to various causal factors. Therefore any consciousness in the present implies that there must have been consciousness in the past. "For consciousness to arise in the womb must imply a previous existence to activate this causal link; otherwise we would have an arbitrary or random arising, which would violate the dependent origination."
Well, no. I mean, causality doesn't mean that an X now must be caused by a past X, only that an X now must be caused by a past something. So it'd be perfectly consistent with at least the basic story of dependent origination if consciousness were to arise in the womb as the result of prior non-conscious stuff.
What I experience now definitely depends on what I did in the past, what others did in the past, and what happened in the past in general. But that depending almost certainly doesn't have the high-level causal properties that a literal reading of the notion of karma would suggest: there's no convincing evidence at all that if I experience fear now it's because at some time in the past someone that was a previous version of me in some strong sense did something to cause fear in someone else, for instance. The universe could be set up that way, but (except that it makes kind of a cute story) there's no reason to think that in fact it is.
There's no evidence, for that matter, that any particular person in the past was a previous instance of me in any sense that any other person in the past wasn't. Again the universe could have been, but as far as I can tell isn't, set up that way.
The dependent-origination story that I like, and can subscribe to, and like to feel that the Thus Come One actually had in mind, is that everything that happens to me now depends on everything that ever happened and that anyone ever did in the past, and that my consciousness now dependantly originates from every other consciousness that's ever been. So it's not that I have this serial set of past lives snaking through the centuries; it's that I (and everyone else) am the inheritor of the consequences of every past life. And it's not that if I steal this watch now I (some specific future "I") will be stolen from in some future life; it's that if I steal this watch now the future in general will be worse for everyone.
This is all just fine of course, especially considering that I'm not actually a Buddhist or anything (although I have taken the Four Great Vows now and then). As an Ariadnite I can just look up and notice that She is still smiling, and all is well regardless.
Sentient beings are numberless,
I vow to save them all.
Desires are unfulfillable,
I vow to fulfill them all.
The Dharmas are boundless,
I vow to master them all.
The Buddha Way is unattainable,
I vow to attain it an' all.