[THIS MAY ALSO BE HELPFUL FOR THOSE OF YOU STUDYING IB PHILOSOPHY - THE CORE THEME]
One criticism often directed at Buddhism is a questioning of the relationship between the doctrines of atatman (no soul) and reincarnation. Some question the two teachings compatibility completely where others, more thoughtfully, question why I should seek to accumulate good karma in there is, in reality, no ‘me’.
The answer to this oft-repeated conundrum is, to my limited knowledge, most clearly explained in the conversations of Nagasena and King Milinda. The dialogue begins in the second chapter of Book II. The King jumps in at the deep end by asking it it is the same or another who be reincarnated and is frustrated by the monks answer that it is in fact neither of these suggestions.
To explain further Nagasena establishes that we have some sense that we are the same person as the younger version we remember ‘being’. To explain this idea he give the following example:
‘Suppose a man, O king, were to light a lamp, would it burn the night through?’ ‘Yes, it might do so.’ ‘Now, is it the same flame that burns in the first watch of the night, Sir, and in the second?’ ‘No.’ ‘Or the same that burns in the second watch and in the third?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then is there one lamp in the first watch, and another in the second, and another in the third?’ ‘No. The light comes from the same lamp all the night through.’
‘Just so, O king, is the continuity of a person or thing maintained. One comes into being, another passes away; and the rebirth is, as it were, simultaneous. Thus neither as the same nor as another does a man go on to the last phase of his self-consciousness’
Melinda then requests another example. And it is this one I find most helpful for it explains something of the nature of karma as action (the lit. translation), preserving the notions of cause and effect associated with samsara.
‘It is like milk, which when once taken from the cow, turns, after a lapse of time, first to curds, and then from curds to butter, and then from butter to ghee. Now would it be right to say that the milk was the same thing as the curds, or the butter, or the ghee?’‘Certainly not; but they are produced out of it.’‘Just so, O king, is the continuity of a person or thing maintained. One comes into being, another passes away; and the rebirth is, as it were, simultaneous. Thus neither as the same nor as another does a man go on to the last phase of his self-consciousness.’
In each of these processes the transition is slow; so slow it might not be noticed. That the process happens, however, in undeniable. Like this, we are changing all the time, we are continued from another self but we are not the same as that self. This is true throughout our wanderings of the wheel of life. Once reincarnated the change is identical. No more different, no less.