How much of Buddha’s teaching is a local phenomenon, tied to India’s culture and beliefs during Buddha’s time, and how much of it is universal and transcultural, applicable to all of us?
Buddha taught that nothing has an independent existence. The central tenet of Buddhism is Dependent Origination (Pratītyasamutpāda), which means everything arises (or disappears) together with other things. Note that this is very different from our common-sense notion of origination. We often think of causation as single-factored. But the Buddhist notion of causation is multi-factored and mutual causality. Instead of thinking in the simplistic term of single-factor and single-effect, what we have is an intricate web of causation. In this sense, all things are linked.
Buddhism (or Buddhist teaching) itself is no exception to this rule of Dependent Origination. If we study the history and sociology of religions, we will understand that none of the world religions arises all by itself. Each of these major religions receives influences from the other neighboring religions, and, in turn, it influences the other religions. Thus, Buddhism is a product of Buddha’s time and cultural environment. In particular, Buddhism can be viewed as an offshoot of its predecessor, which is Brahmanism, although there are also significant differences between the two.
In early Buddhism and in Theravada Buddhism, the notion of Nirvana is that of leaving the world of Samsara. The ending of the Fire Sermon, for example, describes the nature of liberation as follows:
“Being dispassionate, he becomes detached; through detachment he is liberated. When liberated there is knowledge that he is liberated. And he knows: Birth is exhausted, the holy life has been lived, what has to be done is done, there is no more left to be done on this account.”(Samyutta-nikaya, XXXV, 28)
Thus, the Theravada notion of liberation and of Nirvana is that of escaping the cycles of Samsara, ending rebirth or reincarnation altogether. This is viewed as the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice. It is also considered as the ultimate achievement of an arhat (a self-realized Buddhist saint).
But where is the evidence that there is reincarnation or rebirth exists? The whole notion of rebirth is a particularly thorny one, given that Buddha also taught a doctrine of no-soul (Anatta). If there is neither a self nor a soul, then what is the entity that is undergoing reincarnation or rebirth? And if the notion of reincarnation/rebirth can be contested, then the notions of Samsara, Nirvana, and liberation can all be contested. There is clearly a fundamental contradiction within this body of Buddhist teaching. In addition, if we are disputing the existence of Nirvana, then we can also dispute the Four Noble Truths because the primary objective of Buddha’s teaching is the liberation from dukkha (suffering). Walpola Rahula writes in his book, What the Buddha Taught: “The third Noble Truth is that there is emancipation, liberation, freedom from suffering, from the continuity of dukkha. This is called the Noble Truth of the Cessation of dukkha (Dukkhanirodha-ariyasacca), which is Nibbāna, more popularly known in its Sanskrit form of Nirvāṇa.”
The aforementioned has to do with the theoretical and doctrinal issues within Buddhism — there is an inner contradiction. Another major problem is that of empirical verification. Many books have been published in the West that purport to provide evidence for reincarnation. Still, there is no conclusive scientific evidence for reincarnation. Various critiques have been published which challenge the methodologies used in these reincarnation studies. Ultimately, in order to verify that reincarnation is a fact, someone has to die and then come back to report it. Obviously, this is something that cannot be done.
Thus, the concept of Nirvana has both a theoretical issue and an empirical verification issue. Could Nirvana be a myth that Buddha borrowed from the religions of his time? It is quite possible. Notions of Samsara, Nirvana, and reincarnation predate the Buddha. Just as Bible scholars discovered that many of the stories in the book of Genesis are stories that Jewish writers borrowed from the neighboring religions, it is quite possible that “reincarnation” is an old idea that had been circulating during Buddha’s time. It is probably ill-advised for us to take reincarnation and Nirvana literally. It may very well be just a metaphor of how a practitioner of spirituality may overcome suffering by letting go of his attachments. It is indeed true that much of the suffering in life is self-created — it is due to our insistence on what things should be, rather than simply accepting what they are. Why is death a problem? Why is aging a problem? These are natural phenomena, and everybody experiences it at some point in life. To reject the facts of life and to defy nature is a recipe for unnecessary suffering.
A unique contribution of Buddhism to the world of philosophy is its teaching of Two Truths. There are two types of truths: “conventional”(or provisional) truth and ultimate truth. Perhaps we can view the teaching about reincarnation and Nirvana as conventional truths since they were popular ideas during Buddha’s time. As science makes new discoveries and we learn more about the nature of consciousness, ideas such as reincarnation and Nirvana may be revised, modified, or dropped altogether. If there is anything that transcends time and space in Buddha’s teaching, it is the notion that we can at least reduce our suffering by loosening our grasp of various worldly things, emotions, and ideas. It is the understanding that we can improve our well-being by changing our attitude to life from an inflexible one to an agile, flexible, and adaptive one. Deliverance has much to do with accepting the things we cannot change, changing the things we can change, and having the wisdom to see the difference.
Looking at the matter from the modern perspective, the idea that liberation is a matter of leaving the world (the world of Samsara) is a pessimistic and life-negating one. On the other hand, if we interpret Buddha’s teaching of liberation metaphorically and not literally, then we may understand it as the message that we can actively do something to improve our own well-being. This is a very positive and life-affirming message.