During a recent dinner with some friends, the topic of conversation turned to souls, rebirth, and past lives. A skeptic in the group was wondering how this all worked; given that there are more people living now than there ever have been in the past, he asked, how can everyone be reborn from someone who has died? The believers in the group said that he was thinking too logically, saying that if he dropped the logic, it would all make sense. Another logical thinker in the group then chimed in, saying that some people present find the “being too logical” statement offensive. I never managed to add my perspective to any of the issues of the conversation. But it got me wondering about a bigger question: what is the role of logic in spiritual understanding?
Applying logic to the big questions of religion and spirituality questions is nothing new, and can be found in nearly every tradition. In Judaism and Christianity, logic is ultimately applied to the issue of theodicy. If God is good and cares about us, and God is all-powerful, then why does God allow terrible tragedies to befall good and innocent people? Why doesn't God prevent the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by natural disasters or the millions of deaths caused by genocide? And why does God allow hundreds of millions of people to suffer from hunger and poverty?
Rabbi Harold Kushner addresses this question in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He explains that the traditional view—that the people who suffer miserable fates and death must have done something to deserve it—is not only damaging and unsatisfying, but doesn't make logical sense. Babies who could not have possibly done anything wrong, for example, suffer and die all the time. Rabbi Kushner shows what we all know—that bad things do in fact happen to people who don't deserve suffering or punishment. He takes it as a given that God is good and caring. Since bad things happen to people who are also good, he resolves the logical conundrum by concluding that God is not all-powerful. His view is that there are many things that God simply cannot do, as much as God might like to. He deduces, for example, that God can't act agains the laws of nature, explaining the problems it would cause if things like mass and gravity were magically altered for “good” people so they wouldn't be hurt by a fall or car accident.
On of my meditation teachers, Rabbi David Cooper (author of God Is a Verb), looks at the same question, and comes to a much more radical conclusion. As he has explained during talks delivered on many meditation retreats, the idea of a dualistic God simply doesn't work. “Dualistic” in this sense means a God who is a separate being, one who creates and judges and makes decisions and chooses to act in a manner similar to a human. Such a God is a logical impossibility because its existence1 inevitably leads to an unresolvable theodicy problem. Rather than changing the qualities that we ascribe to God, such as goodness and power, Rabbi Cooper redefines what God is. He says that God is Awareness itself—the sense of knowing that we all have access to because it is always present everywhere, and it is not separate from us—the universe is made of Awareness (or made of God, to use traditional religious language). To understand what Awareness is, we need to experience it directly. So Rabbi Cooper teaches meditation and encourages practices that lead to a recognition of Awareness, which is behind the thoughts and feelings of our dualistic minds.
Perhaps the ultimate use of logic in Buddhism is found in the writings of Nagarjuna, who lived in India around the first or second century C.E. He played a major role in the development of the Mahayana, the branch of Buddhism that gave rise to the Zen traditions. By Nagarjuna's time, some 500-600 years after the death of the Buddha, there were great debates among Buddhist teachers and scholars about the meaning of the Buddha's teachings, including the goal of meditation practice; the meaning of awakening or enlightenment; and what is illusory and what is ultimately real. In his most famous work, “Treatise on the Middle Way,” Nagarjuna used logic to break down the arguments of all of the competing schools of Buddhist thought. He addressed all of the categories of phenomena that were discussed and argued about at the time, including matter, motion, time, cause and effect, and the Buddha nature (or the nature of the mind). Rather than resolving any of the debates by determining a correct view, he showed that under logical analysis, all of the arguments fall apart. It is therefore impossible to make a definitive statement either way about any of the debated issues. We can't say that matter exists or does not exist; that motion occurs or does not occur; that a cause precedes an effect, follows an effect, or neither precedes nor follows an effect2. We can't define the nature of reality. Like Rabbi Cooper, Nagarjuna's conclusions suggest that trying to mentally resolve spiritual questions doesn't work. Only through direct experience can we know the nature of reality.
My skeptical friend was in good company and following a long tradition when he questioned the logic of rebirth. My believer friends rightly pointed out the many documented cases of people who have knowledge of people and events from the past that they could not have possibly known or learned about during their lifetimes. But if we take a logical view of the evidence, we see that it is a huge leap from “knowledge of a past life” to “rebirth of a deceased person.” The evidence is that in some instances, knowledge and memories are somehow transferred from one life to another. We don't know how or when or why this occurs. But what happened is that my believer friends took the little bits of information, combined them with other ideas and feelings and beliefs that they had, and they created a story. This particular story is about the existence of souls and how they leave a being at death, exist in another realm, and choose to be reborn in another being.
My friends provided one example of the process of creating a story about spiritual matters, but they are not at all unique in their beliefs or their story-making. What we need to realize is that we make stories in this way all the time. We take a few “dots” of information or experience, and draw “lines” to connect them as a way of making sense of the world. We see a dozen points of light from stars in the sky, and make up stories about a dipper and a crab and a hunter. We recall events and experiences from several points in our lives, identify and focus on common themes among them, and create a story about how we are confident or timid, happy or depressed, successful or a failure. We look at others in our lives, be they friends, family, or celebrities, and do the same thing, using a few actions and words to define them, and making up a story to fill in the rest. In my own life, for example, I spent many years in a state of depression, sometimes a very severe one. I felt as though I were always stuck in a negative mood, tormented by feelings of sadness and hopelessness, and trapped in a life of misery as a person who wasn't liked or loved. But if I look back on my years of depression, I can see that the story was not true. There were many moments in which I was in a bad mood, but I had focused only on these and disregarded the many moments when a bad mood was not present. There were many moments of sadness, but the feeling was not nearly continuous; I ignored all of the moments in which I felt calm or peaceful or happy, dismissing them as anomalies in the story of my miserable life. Through story-making, I had created an identity as an unhappy, depressed person. Because I held so tightly to this story, I was not able to see things as they truly are. I missed the reality of the great variety of feelings and experiences that I was having. The confines of my story limited me to seeing a tortured past and a bleak view of the future. Story kept me from being open to everything that was happening in the present; it prevented me from a direct experience of Awareness, of reality.
It is not logic per-se that gets in the way of spiritual understanding. What interferes with our understanding of reality is the stories that we create about reality. Logic is a useful tool that can show us where and how our stories don't work. But logic can only take us to the point of showing us what is not true. Understanding of what is real and true can only come from directly experiencing Awareness, and Awareness is only known in the present moment. Believing a story interferes with direct experience because stories are not present-moment things. They are created by stringing together events over time, and time itself is a mental construct that does not inherently exist.
This is a challenging view, and I can imagine the objections you might have, as we all believe that our stories are true. “I had a dream that told me of my past life.” “I know that I have felt the presence of my deceased grandmother (or a being from a spirit realm or God or Jesus), so I know that she/he is real and with me.” “There is empirical and mathematical proof that the speed of light in a vacuum is identical regardless of one's vantage point, so I know that it is objectively true.” “There is irrefutable evidence that living things evolved by natural selection.” But no matter how true any such statements may be, no matter what present-moment experience they may be based on, as soon as we start thinking about them, we create a story. And the story removes us from the reality of what exists and puts us into a world of imagination and mental constructs.
What makes it so difficult to let go of and see past our stories is that making stories is a very natural thing for our minds to do. Our story-making is driven by an insatiable desire to create meaning in the world and identify our place in it. The story of my depression came about as a way to make sense of the sadness and unhappiness that I often felt. Once my depression lifted as the result of meditation practice, a new story formed about myself as a practitioner seeking enlightenment, along with a story of what enlightenment would be like. As I have continued to practice and experience the openness of Awareness more fully and more frequently, I have seen the lack of solidity (or outright absurdity) of many of the stories. My mind still creates them, but I don't identify with them very much—I no longer use the stories to create an identity or explain how the universe works. I see that meaning is ascribed by the mind; it is not inherent in anything that exists. I still hope that we someday discover the mechanism by which memories are transferred across death. I hope that science comes up with a unified theory of the universe and discovers how it came to be and what will happen to it. But I recognize that these hopes are born out of desires of the grasping mind—a desire to make sense of the world, and a belief that this sort of understanding will bring ultimate contentment and happiness.
Your stories are not true. No matter what “dots” you have connected to make the stories, no matter how deep the evidence or proof or feeling or intuition behind them seems to be, the stories create layers that obscure direct experience of the presence of Awareness. So exactly what is Awareness, and how can you tell if you've found it? What is it like to live without a story, without grasping onto a sense of identity? What is the nature of the mind, the self, and the universe? I used to believe that came to a better understanding of these things, I would be able to describe every aspect of the experience of Awareness, and convey the meaning of emptiness, openness, and being present. But as I discover and realize reality more deeply, I find that the subtleties and nuances cannot be put into words. So it seems best not to try. Instead, like my teachers, I will encourage practice, and offer teachings and guidance on how to directly experience reality for yourself.
1 Rabbi Cooper uses the pronoun “it” to refer to God to emphasize that God is not a person and therefore has no gender.
2 It's important to understand that Nagarjuna is not saying that nothing actually exists. A view that was developed later by Asanga, the “Mind Only” school, denied the existence of external objects, saying that they are only projections of the mind. Nagarjuna's Middle Way approach states that things do exist, but their nature is emptiness, which means that they are empty of “self”--there is nothing that can be shown to exist autonomously or independently. Everything arises (comes into existence) in dependence on something else. Nagarjuna responded to the criticism that he promoted nihilism by explaining that rather than denying existence, emptiness makes existence possible. If things were autonomous and independent, as we believe them to be, existence would be static and unchanging. Emptiness allows for the possibility of creation and transformation, including the possibility of awakening to the true nature of things. The bottom line is that things exist, but not as we believe them to exist. For a good discussion of Nagarjuna's work, and an excellent treatment of the history of Buddhist thought and practice, I recommend The Story of Buddhism, by Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Nagarjuna is discussed in Chapter 1.