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I am a layperson of protestant Christian background interested in buddhist thought and trying to clarify some of the basic concepts for myself. One of the stumbling blocks is understanding the motivation of a person to renounce the temptations of temporary happiness in this life, if the concept of anatta is true. If sacrificing family, children, wealth etc. only leads to another person being born maybe in some heavenly realm or in better circumstances of this world (with a lot of more things to renounce) without your consciousness, your memories, your "soul", what is the point? And do not use the easy explanation that the worldly happines pales in comparison of enlightment. A person not experiencing the enlightment in his/her lifetime would not know.


(Edit to add)

Thank you for the explanation. I just have one comment. I am not saying that I am not interested in enlightment, I am just confused about its attainability. I have understood - to put it bluntly - that the highway to enlightment is meditative life in a monastic community and the best that most laypeople can hope is a better rebirth.

And that brings back my original question. Suppose that you are a layperson struggling with the limitations of everyday life. You resign to the fact that you cannot escape the committments that have been heaped upon you, you cannot invest much of your time to meditation and contemplation, and that at prsent the enlightment is an unreachable ideal. You do, however, your best to to pursue right conduct and hope that your chances are better in the next rebirth.

However, the individual who is then reborn carrying the consequences of your karma, does not identify with you, does not have memories of your life, is not able to make logical conclusions of the consequences of your present actions, you in fact are a total stranger to him. In what sense are you then reborn.

Or, in another way round. Suppose that I am tempted to actions that would ensure my temporary happiness but would load me with negative karma and would lead to a bad rebirth. If the person that is reborn carrying the negative consequences of my actions does not really identify him/herself with me and is for all practical purposes stranger to me, why should I care for a bad rebirth?

Please, be patient. I am not making these questions for being flippant, but these are really difficult points in the buddhist doctrine for me to understand.

(Edit to add)

Thank you again for your answers. However, I think they somewhat miss my point. That is probably due to the fact that English is not my native tongue and expressing rather abstract ideas is a challenge for me. But I try to clarify my problem using myself as an example.

I have had a relatively happy life and was born in good circumstances in an affluent country and got a good education. If the doctrine of rebirth is true, someone in the past accumulated some good karma that I inherited in my birth. I, however, do not have any information of that individual, I do not know his/her life, do not share his/her memories and experiences, and certainly do not have any feeling that I personally have lived his/her life and carry still in my present existence its consequnces. And the same holds true regarding the individual who will be born after my death experiencing the consequences of the karma I have accumulated. I do not have any real connection to that future person. And if after maybe one hundred future rebirths this chain of beings finally ends with an individual, who reaches the enlightment and enters the nirvana, it is certainly not me who finally obtains this achievment. So, it might be my duty to live in a way that some total stranger after my death might fare somewhat better than I. And if I am tempted to behave badly (and escape the temporal punishments) I might feel that there will be a future rebirth and a person suffering from my actions, but he/she does not know me, is not able to pinpoint the guilt to me and certainly does not feel that he/she is actually me and rightly suffering because because thr bad things I have done.

Once again, this problem is related to the concept of the lack of a "soul" or "real self" that journeys through this samsara to enlightment, maybe through a thousand of rebirths. According to my understanding this "anatta" leads to a situation where the consequences of my actions are just heaped to some total stranger that is borne after my death, and it does not sound just. Of course it still might be true, but it sounds to me almost as dismal a doctrin as the Calvinistic predestination.

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Anatta is a difficult and often misunderstood concept. When Buddhists talk about no-self, they mean it in the context of self-conceptualization: a mental object that is identified as the 'self'. In other words, we construct a mental object that we identify as ourself, and fall into the trap of thinking that mental construct is the reality, not a creation. 'Being attached' to some outcome or thing merely means that we have incorporated that outcome or thing into that mental definition of ourself, such that (say) we feel frustration if we don't have it in reality, anger if we're prevented form getting it, joy if we achieve it, sadness if we lose it...

It's an open question what might be left when all attachments are finally stripped away. Some Mahayana sects talk about the difference between 'big mind' and 'little mind', where the latter is the identified self and the former is... that. But the former isn't 'personal' in quite the way we normally think of selves, and it's hard to get a grip on it without experiencing it. At any rate, Buddhism mainly aims at the realization that these cognitive structures (those that make up that mental self-object) aren't exactly true or real. They may be functional and pragmatic within a social context — it would be extremely hard to navigate a social world in which no one had a name or title or role — but such selves should be held lightly, as useful fictions.

The concerns about death and rebirth (and I hope you'll excuse my somewhat mystical perspective) come from a solidified understanding of the self. People believe that some particular aspect of that self-object is 'real', and it's that aspect of themselves that persists on into the next life, (hopefully) learning and advancing over the course of lives. I'll make no judgement on that one way or another, except to note that it can sometimes lead to a personalized notion of karma, in which karma takes on the anthropomorphic role of punishing wrongdoing and rewarding goodness. Karma is not personal; karma is cause and effect. Every step we take in the world — every act, every word, even our mere presence — has an impact on the world and the people around us. It's like dropping a stone in a pool of water: the stone (the act or word) might disappear immediately, but it creates a wave that propagates, and what is a propagating wave but a movement that recreates itself over and over.

One doesn't need to go beyond death to see rebirth. People who suffer cruelty become hard and cruel; people who are given love give love. Not always (because the interactions of karma in the world are more complicated than that), but often enough that we can see how our attitudes — our inner mental constructs — are adopted by others. However, it's perfectly reasonable to assume that someone down the road (past our death) might suffer from the same attachments, attitudes, and fixations that plague us, precisely because we put those attachments, attitudes, and fixations into motion in the world. Is it us, is that reincarnation? Well... it's certainly the reinvention of the fabrication we call ourselves; whether it's more than that is beyond my pay grade.

We can think of Buddhist practice as prophylactic. While it's not wrong to think about prophylaxis is selfish terms — as something that serves and protects the individual — the real goal of prophylaxis is to prevent a disease from spreading to and through others.

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  • This is a very impressive answer. The prophylactic is not an analogy I’ve heard before and it’s a good one. Cheers! – dgo Mar 17 at 2:13
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One of the stumbling blocks is understanding the motivation of a person to renounce the temptations of temporary happiness in this life, if the concept of anatta is true.

Generally, the best of renunciates don't have any significant worldly temptations. For example, you can read the Buddha's experience in AN 3.38. This picture of the Buddha is far more rational and logical than the renunciation found in the New Testment, where Jesus said to give up wife, brother, sisters, children, family, etc, "for His sake"

If sacrificing family, children, wealth etc. only leads to another person being born maybe in some heavenly realm or in better circumstances of this world (with a lot of more things to renounce) without your consciousness, your memories, your "soul", what is the point?

The above is wrong understanding of Buddhism and merely represents later ideas of puthujjana philosophers such as Buddhaghosa, Nagarjuna, etc. The original Buddhists teachings never mix the doctrines of 'anatta' and 'kamma & rebirth' together. In the original Buddhist teachings, it is always the same 'being' that is 'reborn'. As for anatta, the Buddha rarely taught it to laypeople.

And do not use the easy explanation that the worldly happiness pales in comparison of enlightenment. A person not experiencing the enlightenment in his/her lifetime would not know.

The above may be true. However, as originally said, the best renunciates come to Buddhism already disillusioned with the types of happiness the world has to offer them. Thus, they have no choice but to take it on faith enlightenment is better than sexual or reproductive happiness.

Since you say you are interested in Buddhism but not in enlightenment, possibly the teachings at the following link for Buddhist laypeople may interest you and help you with your life: A constitution for living : Buddhist principles for a fruitful and harmonious life.

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I think for a lay-follower, renunciation in the fullest extent of its religious meaning is an unrealistic idea which can often be fraught with what I call orthodoxy-gone-mad. Far too much emphasis is poured into its ancient meaning and moulded into a manual of strict adherence for the lay-follower. This goes contrary to modern-day living. It's not that it isn't a practical approach in and of itself, but it needs to be synergized within a compatible contextual environment for the fruits to be realized. Trying to adopt this kind of renunciation into lay-life can be like chewing rubber: progress is painfully and unnecessarily slow due to its incompatibility. A monastic-type approach cannot accommodate for the dynamism found in real-life situations. It's far too artificial, whereas life is much more real, organic and congruent. If you can think largely outside these religious ideas, and not crystallize them into some definitive goal, you'll go far.

Furthermore, for the lay-follower there is another type of renunciation that is much more suited: it is renunciation through here-and-now living. It's not that we go directly for the renunciation, but that, through practice, the renunciation happens quite of its own tender and over a long period. The Eightfold Path might help you understand this further.

In this respect I guess you might be wondering what it is that is renounced? We simply renounce our beliefs, ideas, reactions, and how we place our identity amongst the myriad of situations we find ourselves in.

Just to be clear: one doesn't need to sacrifice any physical objects or people, although objects and people may dwindle from your life if they are not helpful to you - that happens quite naturally. As a personal example, most of my friends don't speak to me any more because I'm not able to help them uphold their identity. A person only feels like a person through the eyes of someone else. If they cannot identify themselves through you, they tire of you and move on. The friends I do have say they cannot place me anywhere in their mind. I have no category; there's no identifiable theme to my interactions. When my son wants to play, I play with him like a child; when someone needs a listening ear, I listen with openness; if someone wants help with writing a letter, or a DIY job, I attend in that way. If there are none of these things, then there is just that. I give myself to those moments of doing or not doing. In other words, whenever there is a situation, at that moment that situation becomes the enlightenment.

So, for lay-followers renunciation can go quite deep, taking many unintentional forms, and practice can be rich - richer than that of a monastic life. In its raw form this is love and understanding of the highest order because there is no self demanding that conditions should be imposed upon other people and situations.

The journey often has a bitter flavour for which an acquired taste must be developed. I'll be strictly honest with you, it can get very lonely at times. This is later replaced by something much more fulfilling but ordinary and simple.

When you ask "what's the point?" There isn't a point that can be defined in conventional terms. You come to understand this in your own way.

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One of the stumbling blocks is understanding the motivation of a person to renounce the temptations of temporary happiness in this life, if the concept of anatta is true.

For a start maybe note that a majority of Buddhists are not ordained, not renunciates -- they're house-holders, lay-people (though the very first Buddhists or followers of the Buddha were renunciates, like the Apostles).

Most of the suttas (doctrine) and almost all the vinaya (discipline) is addressed to monks.

But the doctrine if not the discipline may be true and helpful to everyone, whether or not they're a renunciate.

To answer the question, I think the traditional hagiography of the Buddha himself portrays him as (originally) a prince married and living in luxury -- not just "tempted" by happiness as already "possessing" all that a house-holder might want. But then he was introduced to the fact of sickness, old age, death -- realised that the possessions really are (only) temporary -- and "went forth" (to live as a renunciate) to discover the solution to the problem (of death and loss and so on).

If sacrificing family, children, wealth etc. only leads to another person being born maybe in some heavenly realm or in better circumstances of this world (with a lot of more things to renounce) without your consciousness, your memories, your "soul", what is the point?

Well, several points:

  • I think that Buddhism is interested in mental, and subjective (as well as physical) phenomena. The Dhammapada starts, something like,

    1. All mental phenomena have mind as their forerunner; they have mind as their chief; they are mind-made. If one speaks or acts with an evil mind, 'dukkha' follows him just as the wheel follows the hoofprint of the ox that draws the cart.
    2. All mental phenomena have mind as their forerunner; they have mind as their chief; they are mind-made. If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness (sukha) follows him like a shadow that never leaves him.

    So more so (or at least as much as) "wealth", what people are invited or recommended to "sacrifice" are unskilful mental states and habits -- avarice, anger, conceit, ignorance.

  • Buddhism recommends good family relationships -- good social relationships in general.

    There are some who live as hermits but that's one option, not the only way.

    Even monks I think may be encouraged to stay on good terms with (to behave correctly towards) their family i.e. their own parents (though I think there's also a sense in which the sangha is their adoptive family).

  • I think that the anatta doctrine implies there's no especial or permanent self even within "this life". There are memories but not "my" memories, and so on. There's a sense in which rebirth is happening, beings are reborn, day-to-day and moment-to-moment.

    And people learn to do things to benefit other people, and to benefit your "future self".

  • Even if you want to be a parent, perhaps it's better for everyone if you're not too self-centred. And if you want wealth, to earn it well and handle it wisely.

  • The idea that what you do "only leads to being reborn in a heavenly realm or better circumstances" seems to me:

    • The doctrine of a specific form of Buddhism -- i.e. "Pure Land" -- not all forms
    • Perhaps inline with the aspirations of lay people in general -- not the Buddha's
    • Difficult to distinguish from a naïve understanding of Christianity (being rewarded in heaven)

    I think another view (or Buddhist doctrine) is that even life in heaven may be only temporary (though a very long time); that it's hard to acquire merit while in heaven, so after your store of merit is spent you're reborn again in a lower realm; and that liberation is when you learn to stop being permanently self-centred and to stop the habits which perpetuate that.

    I think even the Pure Land doctrine is something like that -- the idea isn't to live in heaven forever, it's that it's too difficult to properly practice Buddhism in this life (this realm), so the ambition is to be able to -- in future -- live in a more propitious environment where it will be possible to learn from or practice with the Buddha himself.

And do not use the easy explanation that the worldly happines pales in comparison of enlightment.

Not to be a kill-joy but it might be worth mentioning that so-called worldly happiness isn't a sure thing.

For example, "money doesn't buy happiness" (is partially true), and "store up your treasure in heaven" is plain canonical Christian doctrine (Mathew 6:20).

Marriages (whether happy or otherwise) end, with divorce or with death.

I think I once read some Muslim doctrine, something like: "Some people worship anything -- stones, or gold, or children -- subsequently learn to worship God."

In Buddhist parlance there are "three jewels" -- i.e. the Buddha, the Buddhist doctrine, and the community/[ies] of Buddhists.

And perhaps that isn't wholly unlike the motivation of the Christian Church.

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