Image via Wikipedia
Philosophy is all well and good. But, thinking too much can really screw you up. Take it from one who's had about 45 years of experience with the problems involved in thinking about things too much and too deeply. You start to question things like the ultimate nature of reality and whether or not you really exist.
I've been into Buddhism for several years now. Buddhism is more of a philosophy than a religion. I haven't taken the vows or joined a sangha. So, I don't call myself a Buddhist. But, I would say I am a quasi-Buddhist. I can accept most of the teachings of Buddhism. But one I struggle with is the idea of non-self. Like Christianity, there are many different schools of Buddhism. But, generally Buddhists accept the idea of non-self and also the idea of reincarnation. Non-self is a useful concept to a certain extent. As I understand it, it basically it says we are not the solid, permanent thing we think we are. Everything in existence rises from something else and therefore is a dependent condition making everything and everyone "interdependent". I am not my body (easy for a Christian to accept). I am not my mind. My mind changes. I am not my brain. I am not even my thoughts. Meditation really reveals this as we learn to observe our thoughts and observe our minds. If we're sitting outside of our thoughts observing them and learning to control them, we cannot be them. This is really useful when it comes to accepting the fact that we grow old, we get sick and we die. It's really useful when it comes to learning to discipline our minds and our emotions. I am eternally grateful for having found Buddhist philosophy. But, I think after pretty much deconstructing everything the Buddha came to the conclusion that there is no real solid, permanent core to call "me" and this is what Buddhists call non-self and that just doesn't work for me.
On the other hand, Buddhists for the most part believe in reincarnation. From the Christian perspective this would be my "soul" or spirit making many trips to Earth in different bodies. Since Buddhists don't believe in souls or a permanent self, I have a lot of trouble reconciling these two teachings. I asked a teacher I greatly respect to help me out with this and this was his reply:
It is unclear, in Buddhism, as well as different buddhist cultures, exactly what reincarnates. Technically, from the Mind-Only School (one of the main Buddhist philosophical systems), the only thing that carries forward is the mind stream, which is like a river composed of habitual tendencies (bijas or "seeds"). This is more a continuity of habit than a self (emphasis mine), a potentiality for perception.
However, in the Tibetan system, for example, the mind changes with and interacts with so much that there isn't much sense of "direct" effect of one lifetime to the next. I take the sum total of teachings on reincarnation to mean that actions and habit all will have some effect on the future - it doesn't just end with death, which is a more materialistic view of cause and effect.
No disrepect intended to this teacher. He's helped me a great deal over the years. But, huh? My habits and/or actions having some cosmic ripple effect in the future isn't what I would think of as reincarnation. Maybe that is what Buddhism teaches. But I don't understand how they can teach people can become enlightened over the course of lifetimes if all that remains is habitual energy. Still more confusion for me.
This morning I woke up this morning contemplating this again and thought about the fact that the universe is made up mostly of empty space. What we perceive as a solid object is not really solid. In fact at one time all of the material in the universe fit into a lump the size of a pea. Talk about mind-blowing. Yet, the universe is real. I know it's real and I don't doubt it. Coincidentally (or serendipitously) a Facebook friend had posted this:
"For nearly a hundred years, we have known that the material world is an illusion. Everything that seems solid - a rock, a tree, your body - is actually 99.999% empty space." - Deepak Chopra
One thing that I've learned is that I don't have to accept every tenet of a philosophical system to accept some of it. Christians try to tell me I have to accept everything the church teaches or everything the Bible teaches or reject all of it. Nonsense! I try not to just reject the parts I don't like . That is why I have wrestled with the concept of non-self for as long as I have. But, the conclusion I've come to, for now, for me is that it just doesn't work. I am a spirit, a soul, a whatever you want to call it. There is something "real", something permanent, something non-changing about me. I can't put my finger on it. I can't see it. But, I can sense it.