REBIRTH AS EMPIRICAL BASIS FOR THE BUDDHA‟S FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS By Prof. Suwanda H.J. Sugunasiri, PhD
Posted on July 18th, 2010

PRESS RELEASE Richmond Hill, June 6, 2010

 Sumeru announces publication of: REBIRTH AS EMPIRICAL BASIS FOR THE BUDDHA”ƒ…‚¸S FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS By Prof. Suwanda H.J. Sugunasiri, PhD

ISBN 978-896559-02-5
PDF e-book, 28 pages, 8″ x 8″, 1 MB
Free download at www.sumeru.ca
© Suwanda Sugunasiri, 2010
Published under a Creative Commons license.
This book may be freely distributed with attribution.
No commercial applications or modifications are allowed.

Drawing upon the Pali Canon, this exploration reconstructs the series of events that culminated in Samana Gotama cutting off all defilements, becoming an Arhant and the Buddha. Detailing the experience that took place while Gotama was sitting under the Bodhi Tree some 2500 years ago, in the three watches of that critical night (6 “”…” 10 pm; 10 pm “”…” 2 am; 2 “”…” 6 am), the author shows how Gotama”ƒ…‚¸s seeing his own past lives as well as those of his kith and kin, friends and enemies, and so on, in a continuing life-cycle, served as the very empirical basis for arriving at the first Noble Truth of dukkha, when we can almost hear him inwardly say to himself, “Oh man, what suffering!” It was this initial discovery that prompted him to explore its natural concomitants of Arising (of dukkha), Cessation and the Path, giving us the Four Noble Truths.

The crux of the argument is this: had it not been for Gotama”ƒ…‚¸s experience of seeing his past lives under the sharpest mindfulness and concentration, through a cessation of ordinary perception, we would have to take the Four Noble Truths as not being experientially discovered, as claimed by the Buddha himself, but as a philosophical, or logical, construct, which they are not.

While the book is not intended as proof of Rebirth (or more accurately Re-becoming, as distinct from the Hindu concept of Reincarnation), it is intended to challenge western scholars who contend that Rebirth is a mere cultural construct the Buddha just borrowed.

The book is intended for the average, non-specialist reader. It outlines the characteristics of each of the Four Noble Truths as in the Canon in detail, making difficult concepts come alive through a simple and engaging style. For the more curious, footnotes and explanations are added, along with Pali terms.

The contribution of “Rebirth “¦” is that this piece brings together all the key concepts underpinning the Buddha”ƒ…‚¸s Enlightenment experience, while Canonical texts merely provide extensive details of the events. It also carefully makes the distinction, rarely found in popular literature at least, between attaining Buddhahood (gaining wisdom, in the cognitive domain) and attaining Nibbana (purifying the mind, in the affective domain). A chart at the end of the book provides a neat graphic summary of the three chronological phases, showing the process of what happened during each of them. Where relevant, the author digs into science as well to make his point.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Professor Sugunasiri was founder of the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies, Toronto, Canada, and is founding editor of the Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies, His seminal research paper in Philosophy East and West (vol. 45, Number 3, 1995) provides evidence that the “ƒ…‚¾seat of consciousness”ƒ…‚¸ in Buddha”ƒ…‚¸s view is the whole body, and not the heart, as held by every school of Buddhism. Sugunasiri served as president of the Buddhist Council of Canada, taught at the University of Toronto, and is featured in Canadian Who’s Who. His most recent initiative was presenting series of seminars on Buddhism delivered at the University of Havana, Cuba, in 2010. For a brief treatment of his work in the Canadian Buddhist community over more than 30 years, see Wild Geese (Eds: Harding, Hori & Soucy).

ABOUT SUMERU

The Sumeru Press Inc. is a Canadian publisher of Buddhist books and art. Sumeru also maintains a blog on Canadian Buddhism and offers publishing consulting services to Buddhist organizations and initiatives.

Recent Sumeru projects include a redesign of the Buddhism in Canada website (www.buddhismcanada.com) last year. Earlier this year, Sumeru completed a year-long research and development project for the University of Toronto and the Buddhist Education Foundation for Canada, the goal of which was to lay the groundwork for an online scholarly journal dealing with Buddhism and Psychology.

For more information about Sumeru and Canadian Buddhism, please visit www.sumeru-books.com or www.sumeru.ca

7 Responses to “REBIRTH AS EMPIRICAL BASIS FOR THE BUDDHA‟S FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS By Prof. Suwanda H.J. Sugunasiri, PhD”

  1. Nanda Says:

    Sugunasisir is wrong because any human being is able to understand dukkha. In fact why should prince Siddharta leave palace, young wife and a new born baby if he did not undersatand dukkha ?
    Could these professors do not give their foolish ideas to broader community and simply explain Buddhism as it is ?

  2. Priyantha Abeywickrama Says:

    Do these so-called scholars claim to know everything just because they have a Ph.D.? Does this qualification relate to Buddhism? Was it offered by a Canadian Institution? Interestingly, a Sri Lankan got a Ph.D. for Sinhala language from an English institution. I am asking these questions as the notion “REBIRTH AS EMPIRICAL BASIS…” carries the word “empirical” that has a totally alien meaning. I wish these people stick to what they are good at, if any. Instead of playing with words and trying to westernize the ancient oriental knowledge which amounts to a serious case of defiling, they should work out what really all these meant during those days. It was not Buddha who created all the words used to preach Buddhism and there is a very serious reversal of thoughts if final words of Buddha are introduced to the argument. I am not sure why people try to find things inside a bag by poking fingers than opening it. We all know what Birth is. Why not start from there to find out whatever it is. That could be more interesting. Unfortunately, those seeking sanctuary in the west have done more damage than any good to their native heritage.

  3. Nanda Says:

    Priyantha,
    Yes. Ph D or even Dr seems to be well regarded in Lanka Web. This is pure foolishness. The truth is once you are in a western country any idiot can get a Ph D because most westerners are not interested in it and since they cannot find a job there , might as well do a PhD to spend time and collect government help to make a living.
    After the Ph D they run amok distroying all our heritage.
    To this Sugunasiri it seems there is no Buddhism without Buddha’s ability to see the past lives. What a fool he is ?

  4. dollarability Says:

    “Rebirth as Empirical Basis for The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths”
    by Suwanda H.J. Sugunasiri
    Reviewed by Alexander Duncan

    In his essay, “Rebirth as Empirical Basis for The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths,” Professor Sugunasiri makes five fundamental assertions:

    That the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth is not grounded in Indic tradition
    That the Buddhist Four Noble Truths emerged during the Buddha’s enlightenment experience
    That the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth is empirical and therefore, by implication, “scientific”
    That the Buddha’s enlightenment is not grounded in an altered state of consciousness
    That no detail of the Buddha’s realization (as recounted in the Pali Canon) has ever been proved to be wrong

    Professor Sugunasiri is factually and objectively wrong in every one of these five assertions.

    I shall discuss each of these assertions in turn.

    1. That the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth is not grounded in Indic tradition

    Professior Sugunasiri asserts that the Buddha’s doctrine of rebirth is not grounded in “ancient Indian metaphysical theories” or “the worldview of his time.” He bases this on three grounds:

    That the Buddha went “against the current” of traditional Indian thinking
    That the Buddhist doctrine of the nature of the self differs from the traditional Indian belief in an essential indwelling principle or “soul”
    That the Buddha’s enlightenment was experiential, in Professor Sugunasiri’s pseudo-scientific jargon, “empirical”

    Later on in his essay, Professor Sugunasiri steps back from this position to some extent, now acknowledging that “the two inter-related phenomena of Rebirth and Kamma were undoubtedly part of the Indian Brahmanic culture. So to that extent the two concepts may be justifiably seen as a vestige of Indic culture” (italics added). He then denies however that this is the basis upon which the Buddha taught these concepts, which rather came to him as an original discovery based on pure experience without any kind of historical conditioning. Professor Sugunasiri also compares the Buddha’s insight to that of Einstein in relation to the world view of Newton.

    In summarizing this argument one rather suspects that Professor Sugunasiri, a Sri Lankan by birth and heritage firmly rooted in the Theravadin tradition of the Pali Canon, is rather overreaching himself in his wish to differentiate the Buddha from the latter’s Brahmanic heritage. If we are to follow Professor Sugunasiri’s thinking, we are to believe that the Buddha existed in an historical void, that he was not influenced in any way by his historical cultural origins, that the Buddha’s insights were all empirical realizations written upon an ahistorical and acultural tabula rasa, but of course the Indian Brahmanic culture is based upon beliefs, not experiences, which, in Professor Sugunasiri’s words, “makes you want to grit your teeth.” His understanding of the relationship between Einstein and Newton is, moreover, based on complete ignorance of the indebtedness of Einstein to Newton. While it is true that Einstein’s world view completely overturned that of Newton, to assert that Einstein has no indebtedness to Newton is ignorant and absurd. We can certainly accept that the Buddha contributed an original and profound realization to the “ancient Indian metaphysical theories” without the need to assert that the Buddha’s realizations were not grounded in them, or that they also were not also the result of a profound yogic tradition of experiential self-realization.

    There is no point in arguing with Professor Sugunasiri that the Pali Canon itself – his own authority – is deeply imbued with Brahmanic influences. Professor Sugunasiri, as a rationalist reductionst, will simply assert that these are corrupt additions to the Canon, having no relation at all to the historical Buddha. We find a similar strain in some Christian theological traditions that are at pains to deny that Jesus was a Jew. However, we may cite no less an authority than Hajime Nakamura, a far greater Buddhist scholar than either Professor Sugunasiri or myself, who writes,

    The idea that enlightenment is concomitant with a total recall of past existences is also found in the Upanishads: ‘Whoever among the devas realized that [I am Brahma], he became that. It is the same in the case of the seers, and the same in the case of human beings. Indeed, observing this, the seer Vamadeva realized: ‘I was Manu, and I was the Sun.’ It is the same today. Those who thus know ‘I am Brahman’ become this entire Universe.’ In Jainism, too, the awakened Jaina is able to ‘know and see all conditions of the world, of gods, men, and demons: whence they came, whither they go.’ The legends of the attainment of enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition reflect these earlier Indian traditions.”[1]
    Finally, Professor Sugunasiri’s implication that the historical Buddha was not conditioned in any way by his historical and cultural antecedents fundamentally contradicts the Buddhist doctrine of karma, and is therefore self-contradictory and adharmic its its essence.

    2. That the Buddhist Four Noble Truths emerged during the Buddha’s enlightenment experience

    In fact, Professor Sugunasiri’s identification of the exposition of the Four Noble Truths with the enlightenment is completely fallacious. A close study of the texts shows that the exposition of the Four Noble Truths came after the enlightenment and were introduced by the Buddha as a further elucidiation of the enlightenment experience in his First Discourse at the earliest, the so-called Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma, delivered in Deer Park, some time after the enlightenment. According to Hajime Nakamura, “This [i.e., the recollection of past births] is followed by a description of the Four Noble Truths, which, because it does not appear in Chinese translation, must be a later addition.”[2] Professor Nakamura adds, “The addition of the Four Noble Truths to the discourse came considerably later. Similarly, none of the ancient verses (gatha) link the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, or the Middle Way to the discouse.”[3]

    In fact, the original description of the Buddha’s enlightenment during the watches of the night explain the enlightenment as consisting of three elements:

    The blissfulness of the realization of nirvana itself
    The state of mental concentration identified with nirvana itself
    The realization of the principle of coproduction or codetermination (pratityasamutpada), often translated as “dependent origination” in both forward and reverse order. This is further associated with the Buddha’s memory or recollection of past lives.

    3. That the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth is empirical and therefore, by implication, “scientific”

    Professor Sugunasiri wishes to put Buddhism on a scientific basis by asserting that because the Buddha’s realizations were based on the memory of his past lives (rebirths), and are therefore experiential, that they are somehow scientific in the modern sense. He goes so far as to compare the Buddha’s experiential realization of past lives to Darwin’s theory of evolution and Einstein’s reformation of the world view of Newton in his theory of relativity. Based on this conflation Sugunasiri asserts that the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth is a theory. In this Professor Sugunasiri simply misunderstands the nature of scientific empiricism. While it may be true that there is some actual empirical evidence for reincarnation or rebirth – science certainly cannot distinguish between the two – as discussed for example by Robert Almeder[4] – the conflation of experiential and empirical is a logical fallacy of such obviousness that it requires no further elucidation here.

    4. That the Buddha’s enlightenment experience is not grounded in an altered state of consciousness

    Professor Sugunasiri in his wish to establish the empirical origin of the Buddha’s realization in a state of pure and uncontaminated psychological perception, albeit one “far beyond any ordinary consciousness Psych 101 will teach you about,” amounting to actual knowledge, seeks to differentiate the enlightenment experience of the Buddha from “a ‘belief’ arrived at in hallucination, or in some airy-fairy ecstasy” (italics added). This description clearly demonstates that Professor Sugunasiri has no real understanding of the nature of altered or ecstatic states of consciousness, conflating them with belief first of all and with “airy-fairy ecstasy” secondly. If Professor Sugunasiri would study the literature of psychedelic experience in for example the works of Aldous Huxley, Robert Masters, or Stanislov Grof, he would discover his conflation. Moreover, the more fundamental assertion that the enlightenment experience of the Buddha did not originate in an ecstatic or altered state of consciousness is simply incompatible and inconsistent with the actual accounts. For example, in the Udana we read:

    At one time the Lord was staying at Uruvela, beside the river Neranjara at the foot of the Bodhi Tree, having just realized full enlightenment. At that time the Lord sat cross-legged for seven days experiencing the bliss of liberation. Then, at the end of those seven days, the Lord emerged from that concentration and gave well-reasoned attention during the first watch of the night,” etc.[5]

    Anyone who is at all familiar with the scientific literature concerning psychedelic or ecstatic experience will recognize at once that the state described, characterized by immobility and ecstasy for a prolonged period, as an altered state of consciousness. Such states are not unknown amongst Indian yogis even today.[6]

    5. That no detail of the Buddha’s realization (as recounted in the Pali Canon) has ever been proved to be wrong

    After making various suggestive comparisons between some Buddhist ideas and apparently similar conclusions of modern science, Professor Sugunasiri makes the rather sweeping generalization that “NO Teaching of the Buddha has thus far been proved to be wrong in its 2500 year history. That surely is a better record than science itself!” Once again Professor Sugunasiri exhibits his total ignorance of logical empiricism, in particular, the impossibility of proving a negative. Doubtless there are many things that science cannot disprove, including, e.g., the salvation of man by the precious blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Does this inability prove anything at all or give any credence at all to anything? Certainly not. It is an utterly meaningless statement. If anything, it proves that Professor Sugunasiri knows nothing at all about that which he purports to speak.

    That said, and in conclusion, I will show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the Four Noble Truths, an exposition of which constitute the bulk of Professor Sugunasiri’s essay, are in fact false, as exoterically understood. In so doing it is not my intention to refute or undermine the Buddhadharma, which contains noble and profound truths, but merely to show the Four Noble Truths are in fact relative or mediate truths, through which absolute truth – i.e., the truth of dharma – is to be understood in its essence. The Buddha himself instructed us to engage in a rational analysis of dharma in this way, and only to accept those truths which are irrefragable.

    With respect to the First Noble Truth, that life is suffering, it is doubtless true that life includes suffering, but it is also true that life includes joy. As against the fundamentalist Buddhist objection to this observation that all such joys devolve inevitably into suffering, we posit the primary fact, alluded to in the texts over and over again, that nirvana is itself not a neutral state but rather a state of absolute and undying bliss. The Buddha himself experienced nirvana at the age of 35 or 36, and for another 45 years or so persisted in this state, immune to the suffering of life. Yet the Buddha himself was doubtless alive.

    With respect to the Second Noble Truth, that the cause of suffering is desire, in fact upon further analysis we discover that the desire of which the Buddha spoke is not simply desire, but rather a state of what might be called desirous attachment, craving, or clinging. From this we conclude that the true meaning of the Third Noble Truth, that the annihilation or transcendence of suffering is achieved through the cessation of desire really means the annihilation or transcendence of attachment. This leaves open the possibility of a pure expansive, joyful exuberance of life that might appear superficially as desire but is in fact not subject to suffering because it is not based on attachment. In fact I would suggest that this is quite similar to the compassion that the Buddha himself experienced in his dealings with others. It is clear that the Buddha was not indifferent to others, but in fact sought to positively engage them for their benefit. One might also call this state love.

    Finally, with respect to the Fourth Noble Truth, the so-called Noble Eightfold Path, this is commonly understood that by severing one’s bonds to life one will inevitably achieve emancipation. This interpretation is based on the naive notion that samsara or phenomenological experience is like a machine, and that we can achieve nirvana simply by “turning off” the machine. Thus the whole focus of Buddhist practice is on renunciation, typically identified with the practice of the Five Precepts, consisting of abstinence from the so-called taints of killing, taking what is not given, lying, sensory pleasure, and intoxication. The fundamental idea here is that by severing the bonds of karma one can achieve emancipation. However, such a regime is impossible in practice, even for the Buddha. Therefore, if simple abstinence were the precondition of emancipation, then even the Buddha would have failed to achieve emancipation, for such a procedure is, objectively considered, impossible. In every moment of his existence the Buddha killed countless beings, for as we now know, the human immune system, yea, even the act of breathing itself, kills countless infinitesimal living beings (viruses, bacteria, etc.). Again, with every breath and with every item of food that he ingested, the Buddha took from countless beings, not all of which could possibly have given their permission, as every object is the resultant of a network of intermediate steps essentially infinite in extent. The Buddha lied with every word he spoke, for language inevitably distorts the underlying truth to which it attests: in the words of Alfred Korzybski, the map is not the territory. With respect to sensory pleasure, the Buddha existed in a body, the essential nature of which is sensation, and sensation is inherently pleasurable (as well as painful). Finally, with respect to intoxication, sensation also deludes the mind with respect to the essential nature of reality. Therefore, again, as a sensory being, the Buddha existed in a state of intoxication, simply by virtue of interacting with the sensory world, in addition to his realization of the true nature of reality.

    Far from disproving Buddhism, the foregoing meditation leads us inevitably on to the profound dharmas of the essential unity of nirvana and samsara and the truth of Tantra, wherein we find the highest exposition of the Buddhadharma, but such considerations lead us far beyond the scope of this review of the nonsense of Professor Sugunasiri’s essay.

    [1]Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based on the Most Reliable Texts (2000), Vol. 1, p. 208.
    [2]Op cit., p. 211.
    [3]Op. cit., p. 248.
    [4]See Death and Personal Survival: The Evidence for Life After Death (1992). Almeder, who holds a doctorate in logic and the philosophy of science, concludes that the evidence for the post-mortem survival of the human personality is at least as good as the evidence for the past existence of dinosaurs.
    [5]The Udana and the Itivuttaka: Two Classics from the Pali Canon, trans. John D. Ireland (1997), p. 13. Also cited in Nakamura, op. Cit., p. 198 et al.
    [6]See, for example, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, who remained in a state of ecstatic self-absorption for a period of months. But of course this is Hinduism, and therefore beneath Professor Sugunasiri’s notice.

  5. dollarability Says:

    A critical response to this essay has now been published online by Chroniker Press as a free e-book: http://www.lulu.com/product/ebook/review-of-rebirth-as-empirical-basis-for-the-buddhas-four-noble-truths/12667487

  6. dollarability Says:

    Correction: http://www.lulu.com/product/ebook/review-of-rebirth-as-empirical-basis-for-the-buddhas-four-noble-truths/12667587?productTrackingContext=search_results/search_shelf/center/1

  7. dollarability Says:

    The critical response above is now permanently available on Google Archive:

    http://www.archive.org/details/rebirthAsEmpiricalBasisForTheBuddhasFourNobleTruthsbySuwanda

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