I have been a practicing Buddhist for about seven years, which is less time than I have spent studying and tutoring Western analytic philosophy at University. Unlike Buddhists without this background, I feel I have been able to come to an understanding of Dharma without the cultural and historical accoutrements of Buddhism that have augmented the Dharmic System system over the millennium, often in ways incongruous with the initial teachings of The Buddha.
In a very concise nutshell this is what I believe:
Foundational Dharmic Truths
There is no God
There is no soul
There is no self
There is no heaven
All is impermanent
Decay is inevitable
Dukka: suffering and strain, are intrinsic to the human condition and experience
There are definite reasons why this Dukka is the case (Thirst, Attachment, Ignorance..)
The Noble Eightfold Path is the path away from Dukka and towards happiness and enlightenment.
This might not look very interesting or satisfactory as an account of Buddhism. But that's because people in the main come into Dharma from the top down, from the abstractions of Kama, mental formations and - in many schools of Buddhism - speculations about the endless cycles of rebirth what they entail for one's life.
But as I have written elsewhere, I have found it impossible to meaningfully link the core truths of Dharma with the idea of rebirth and its corollaries: that there is more after this life.
But today I had a revelation which for me at least removes the problem of rebirth and closes Dharma off to be specifically what the Buddha Intended, not how it has been variously interpreted.
The Problem with Rebirth
1) Rebirth doesn't fit architectonically with the Dharmic System.
2) Rebirth doesn't fit with the natural observable world whereas the core Dharma does perfectly.
3) Buddhists, even very leaned scholars, cannot answer the question of where Rebirth fits in with Dharma with the same clarity that the rest of Dharma fits together.
The Problem with Buddhist Enlightenment
1) We know that the Buddha was born a normal man who reached enlightenment in his thirties and lived for fifty more years as an enlightened being.
2) We know that whatever enlightenment is, it was a change of state in the Buddha's understanding.
3) We know that enlightenment, at the time, was communicable by the Buddha. Many people became enlightened just by spending a short amount of time talking to the Buddha.
4) In modern times, the idea of Enlightenment is shrouded in so many layers of mystery and profound inaccessibility that to even ask, "what could this state change (enlightenment) in the Buddha have been?" is met with something close to ridicule. This has always troubled me.
So I have been in this situation where I feel I deeply understand the Core Dharma from a ground-up perspective but have been unable to answer what enlightenment could possibly be or why the Buddha even mentions rebirth at all.
Until yesterday I was unable to answer the enlightenment question. My answer to the problem of Rebirth went something like this:
Rebirth has become entwined in Buddhism because the Buddha used it as a metaphor for the change in our lives as they pass by, with each moment a new life, a new birth. This kind of made historical sense because we know the Buddha used many metaphors and we know that all of the people of the time were familiar with the idea of Rebirth because of the Hindu/Brahmin culture.
And thus the metaphor of rebirth became entwined in Buddhism (in various ways and schools) until now people assume it's part of Core Dharma when in fact it seems totally incongruous. It kind of made sense, but I wasn't pleased with it.
The Penny Drops
But yesterday it clicked. It made sense. I had an epiphany. This is what I now think:
The Buddha wasn't using Rebirth as a metaphor, he was using it quite literally, he was referring directly to the doctrine of rebirth/reincarnation that had been the dominant cultural doctrine for over a thousand years before his birth. He was saying, this endless idea that there is more to life than this life is a fundamental part of the problem of Human Suffering.
He was saying, to be happy one must extinguish the Hindu idea of Rebirth because he realised by philosophy and meditation that it was false; in fact the idea itself constituted part of the problem.
The Buddha found the path to enlightenment. This path required the removal of attachment to many various and related notions, such as self, immutable things and discrete things. But also, the Buddha realised, that to be enlightened one must extinguish completely the idea that there is anything supernatural, anything beyond this single short life and world of ours.
You cannot be truly enlightened in this life if you place yourself within the possibility space of some life after this. There is none.
To extinguish that last flickering candle of hope, that there is something more than this life of Dukka, is to reach the final stage in extinguishing this Dukka.
I am a Buddhist. I am an Antitheist. This is my only life. There is no rebirth.