Reincarnation, Heaven & the Bogeyman

BogeymanLast night my kids wanted to talk about death. Both of them consider themselves atheists. But my son has been hinting over the last several months that he wants to keep an open mind about “God”. [I always remind them that I do not care what they believe and that I expect them to keep changing their minds for many, many years while I just keep on loving them].

My son (10 years-old) wanted to talk about heaven. He said:

Sometimes I like to think there is a heaven because it means I don’t  have to worry so much about dying, or about you and Mommy.  I know I am just using heaven to help myself  but I think that is OK. [*I nodded in strong agreement].

But my daughter (8 years-old) jumped right in and told us her view of death:

“Well, I believe when people die they just become someone else — they go into a new baby”.

We had never discussed reincarnation, though it wouldn’t be surprising that she has seen the idea in some Japanese anime we have watched.  She then continued to describe reincarnation perfectly, though she did not know the word. And she was insistent that she did not like my son’s model but preferred her own view.

I then said,

“We all know there are no such things as monsters or the bogeyman, right? [*heads hesitantly nodded]  But sometimes we feel if we keep the lights on it can keep them away. [*heads enthusiastically nod]  So, true or not, if heaven and reincarnation can help you keep away fear of death, keep you happy and help you love each other more, they can be just like popping on a light to keep the bogeyman away even if you don’t believe in him. And that is OK !” [*Big smiles, nods and laughs followed!]


Filed under Personal

36 responses to “Reincarnation, Heaven & the Bogeyman

  1. Consolatory belief is perfectly fine for children, but for adults… it can be a little embarrassing, if not outright scary!

    A great critique of consolatory belief is given here by Stephen Batchelor:

    (the complete talk by Stephen Batchelor for Australian TV show ABC Fora is linked under the Youtube clip)

  2. I should add that it was interesting what your daughter said.
    I suppose you’ve heard of Psychiatrist Ian Stevenson’s investigations of childhood memories of past lives? (It’s pretty much the only evidence Buddhists cite to prove rebirth is fact. I’m mightily skeptical, but it is interesting none-the-less.)

  3. Ed

    @Sabo… you are a very good dad. I single parented 2 daughters who are now adults. One is an in your face atheist and the other is an atheist-christian by convenience.

    @ Shantivadin… My take on this idea is that all of existence is a hologram, where all information is shared by all parts. So, using the Ocean/Wave analogy every drop of water, every wave, contains all characteristics (memories) of the entire ocean.

  4. soe

    Thanks for this warm fuzzy post! Brightened up my now.)

  5. @ Shantivadin :
    Good Batchelor talk — I totally agree.
    Keep in mind, my daughter probably got that from Anime we watch. But what is interesting is that she clung to that, but my son clung to heaven.

    @ Ed :
    Thank Ed. You sound like your daughters are very lucky — then and now.

    @ soe :
    Thank you for your kind words. It was meant like that.

  6. SpringChicken

    Great post, great kids and a great dad! The story brought me chills and tears. To think all this heavy conversation was going on while I washed the dishes!

  7. @Ed
    Your Ocean/Wave hypothesis is very neat, but it sounds (at least to me) very similar to the Hindu idea of Brahman/Atman hypothesis, which is something the Buddha did not approve of.

    According to Stephen Batchelor, when the Buddha said there was anatta (Skr: anatma), no self, he meant ‘no Self’ as in ‘no Atman’. i.e, no eternal soul. Many Buddhists now take anatta to mean ‘no self’, i.e, no me, no you.

    Stephen Batchelor also mentions that the Buddha spoke against the belief that it is consciousness that is reborn (to Bhikkhu Saati in the Majjhima Nikaya 38*) , which is something (from my own experience at least) that is wrongly taught by many Buddhists still.

    *Unfortunately the Majjhima Nikaya 38 isn’t on the Access to Insight website. I would like to read it myself.

  8. Ed

    @ Shantivadin… Yes, I can see where the wave/ocean thing could be construed as Brahman/Atman. But in my personal usage it is not. It is always the unspeakable (BAW) Ocean. The waves are the ocean… it is a temporary form. There is completely nothing but Totality… the Ocean. There is no individual soul… ever.

    I agree that the Buddha taught no eternal soul. He did not teach specifically that there is no self. On one level it is obvious, to attend to social conventions that there is some sort of self. If you punch me in the nose, I will feel it… not you. :-}

    Agree again, that the Buddha spoke against the “rebirth” of consciousness. I think we might want to guard against any teaching that gives a place for us to hang our “eternal me” hat.

    I have met S.B. a few times and find him to be a breath of fresh air. I fear he does not view me the same way, as I always ask him the same annoying question: “… then why do anything at all?”

  9. Ed

    @ Sabio… thanks for the compliment. As you know parenting is a bit like walking a minefield barefoot in the dark. I like to think my kids came out of the box they way they are now….

  10. @Ed
    I suppose when we speak of the ineffable, not much can be said… But I agree with what you have said previously – it’s fun to try!

    I’ve never met S.B. He’s coming to Sydney in October, so I hope to be able to make it to one of his talks. If you haven’t noticed already, I’m somewhat a fan.

  11. @Sabio
    I like the pic you used for the bogeyman (as a kid I used to call him the boogieman… sounds quite funny now that I think about it).
    It reminds me a bit of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn art. A bit.

  12. @ Readers :
    “Spring Chicken” above is my wife. She actually reads my dribble sometimes, bless her heart.

    @ Shantivadin :
    Is this the Sutta you were looking for. #38 does not seem right — it is full of gods and reincarnation (but I only read it quickly — off to work.)
    Glad you liked the pic. As you know, in blogging, some of us spend a huge amount of time on the visuals. (but, embarrassingly, I am not sure of its source)

  13. @Sabio
    Nope, that’s definitely not it. But as far as I can tell from references it is MN 38. Very odd.

    In his latest book Stephen Batchelor mentions a sutta where the Bhikkhu Sati is chastised by the Buddha for his “misguided” view that consciousness is reborn.
    I’ve also found it referenced in Nyanaponika Thera’s notes on the Alagaddupama Sutta, MN 22 (he calls him Saati) on Access to Insight. Both S.B and N.T say MN 38, but according to your link, that ain’t it!
    It would help if I knew the dang sutta’s name!

  14. Aha! I figured it out!

    The problem is that the suttas on that website you linked to are a bit muddled. MN 38 is in the spot of MN 37 and vice versa!
    But now it’s definitely my bedtime so I’ll read it tomorrow.

  15. Oh the question of death, humans greatest fear…I like that interaction you had with your kids, very honest and very endearing. We could use 1000’s of more parents as open minded as you.

    As for me, I think there is something after death, what that is I could not say with any certainty. I prefer to think death as something attached to hope, and not something that just ends it all…which for some has been a wonderful life.

  16. Glad you liked my interaction, Society. And I can understand your “hope”.

  17. “Comfort taken from an imaginary source is still real comfort.” (not sure of the source for this)

    “But the literal mind does not often understand the ironic mind, and sees it always as a source of danger.” – Christopher Hitchens

    Sabio, will there be any literal minds under your roof?

  18. @ Andrew
    Sorry, I don’t follow the question.

  19. I’ve started to think that believing in the supernatural is more normal than not believing. For some reason, we humans need to believe in magic after death.

  20. Andrew

    I’m stretching things a little too thin (again), but I just got thinking that by showing them a simple way to move beyond a literal mindset, you have given them the opportunity to live without any fear of the dangers of untruth. To see a thing as it is, true or not, mystery or not, and still understand its nature.

    And any opportunity to live without fear, well that’s an amazing gift from a father.

  21. @ Lorena,
    I have to beg to differ.
    But then again, if you’re right, I think that says more about humans than it does about the supernatural.

  22. paradoxes

    @Lorena, @Shantivadin

    Maybe such a discussion is a natural followup post for Sabio talking about his kids clinging to various notions of an afterlife? I must say his kid’s have some sophisticated thinking going on for their age. My brother’s kids are around this age and its almost impossible to imagine them talking like this, but they live far away and I don’t get to be around them too much.

    When you talk about whether beliefs in the afterlife are natural or not I’m reminded of various bits and pieces on the subject matter of the afterlife I have picked up over the years. I’m no expert on these matters, but have always found the thinking around this interesting so the ideas stick:

    1) From historical anthropological type studies we know that ancient humans at one point just left their dead to rot. It is more recently in time (maybe 40,000 years back or so) that they begin to see evidence of human burial and leaving possessions.

    2) I heard a podcast a few months ago with a woman (Lisa Miller I believe) who wrote a book about our fascination with the afterlife. She had some interesting bits and pieces in there reminding me of how the Old Testament paints a very different afterlife (hardly any at all) than the New Testament. She talked about how Muslims historically have had an afterlife that is filled with rivers and flowing water everywhere. Quite appealing to a people than live in arid places. So she gets into how various cultures\religions\regions have their ideas of an afterlife shaped by wish fulfillment.

    3) Bart Ehrman has a hypothesis regarding the early Christians and Jesus as being apocalyptist. So in this view of early Christianity the early Christian saw Jesus raising from the dead as a sign of a new times. There was no other place that was heaven, there was this world and Jesus was coming back to life as king to overthrow the worldly powers and the righteous would thus inhabit the earth that would be heaven. And Jesus was the first sign of the faithful being rewarded and brought back to life in their old bodies after they died. This is radically different than modern day Christian visions of spirit realms. Although Domionist types of Christians do have beliefs like this with what the Rapture is supposed to accomplish.

    4) Joseph Campbell had a saying one time describing what the experience of death must have meant to the earliest people who had some concept of self-awareness. One minute their fellow human being is sitting there talking and lively and in good “spirits” and the next thing maybe they fall down accidentally and are bleeding and are dead. Yet most of the body is still there. It mostly looks the same except for the wound and it just no longer has any spirit or life to it. What is missing. The mind then infers that maybe there is some other intangible component that is separate from the body that left it. Now the human mind can start imagining a whole bunch of things about where it went and for how long and so on.

    5) A friend of mine once mentioned that rebirth\reincarnation has a certain appeal as an afterlife system because we observe nature, at least in the parts of the world we live, go through its seasons of summer – fall – winter – spring. The trees and plants clearly wither away for the most part, but then come back again.

    6) There is a strong tendency for people to want to believe that the world and life is somehow just. That bad people get punished eventually and people who suffer in life will somehow be rewarded. Its clearly obvious at this level of the world, for the more rational minded, that life doesn’t work that way. So there is a bit of dissonance there. I believe this need for justice is so strong and the dissonance of not seeing it so unpleasant that human beings invent entire systems of afterlife to try to ease that dissonance. Underlying all this in a lot of cases, is the belief that if I just behave and follow the rules and be good, then bad things won’t happen to me. It gives one a sense of control in an unpredictable world. It also allows some to pump up their ego thinking they must be morally good since their life is going well. In the case of the India caste system it allows political injustice to continue by claiming that the people who made out better must have done something in a past life to justify. No need for the Brahmin class to feel guilty about their privilege – they must have earned it.

  23. paradoxes

    Sorry, just thought of something to add to my already long post after reading another post of Sabio’s. I’m indirectly reminded of probably the most obvious thing that should have been on my list.

    7) Our concept of individual “I” and “me” that tends to disassociate from the body and see it as separate. Think of how easy it is to imagine the hypothetical old person say – “this body has really broken down on ME over the years”. Its like the cartesian dualist view just operates automatically (naturally?). One could call this a cognitive error along the same lines as thinking ourselves as a single “I” period. Sabio’s “Images of the Self” where he talks about “Many Selves” is a great point in all this and shows that when we think about these matters we can see the cognitive error of the concept of “I”. There is some work in psychology along these lines. One is what I think is called situational personality theories. The general idea here is that situations play more of a role in our behavior and thoughts than some inner\set trait. Another theory, that applies in a therapy setting, is called Inner Family Therapy. I may be off on the official name for this, but the therapist who thinks in this way sees your mind not as an “I” but as a family of personalities with different needs and wants that emerge more strongly at different times.

  24. @ Andrew:
    In Buddhism, this a Skillful Means (upana). Something that makes the mind stronger. They understand the convenience. And if they decide to buy into it totally in years to come, that is cool too.

    @ Lorena & Shantivadin :
    I agree with Lorena. It is scientifically clear, I am afraid.

  25. soe

    @paradoxes Thanks for sharing all that! Interesting points.

    @Sabio & SpringChicken Delighted at meeting your inspirational halves.

    When I was a little younger, I had a strong belief that if you were ready and had a strong enough resolution, I could just pass away from this body and ensure that I could be reborn to into a life where I would seek the Buddha’s teachings again. I was romanticizing on the legends of bodhisattvas passing away from one existence to another more favorable while training in the ten perfections. Also I had been pondering on the plausible repercussions on the future rebirth after suicide. I was also interested in the subject of how a Buddhist might ensure he/she continues on the path in the hereafter because if rebirth existed, death would be a great obstacle on the journey every time.

    @all Bless our hearts.)

  26. @ soe
    Christians worry about the repercussions of suicide on the next life, just like Buddhist do. The various afterlife schemes are equal opportunity conundrum supporters.

    In the monastic rules sutras, the Buddha is reported to have said,

    “Whatever monk should … deliberately and purposefully in various ways praise the beauty of death of should incite (anyone to death: he is also one who is defeated [permanent expulsion] , he is not in communion.
    –(Vinaya Pitaka III.73)

  27. Ed

    @ SABIO!!! Great post and comments…. But I am a bit miffed that you passed by the opportunity you had to sell Paradox one of my patented “Writer’s Bark Collars”. He is a perfect potential customer… intelligent, articulate and verbose. Come on… help out a new business! :-}}

  28. CRL

    Quick question: Is your wife an atheist as well?
    And it’s great how you give your kids the freedom to experiment with their religious beliefs.

  29. Joel Wheeler

    Dude: be MY dad! lol

  30. @ Sabio
    In regards to Lorena’s comment (many comments back):
    Yes, we humans seem to have a tendency to believe in the supernatural (like life after death), but is this tendency really a ‘need’ as Lorena states?

  31. @ Shantivadin
    I think supernatural beliefs are natural and some actually are cheap, quick fixes for some psychological needs — not the best for all people, of course. But they can work for a whole lifetime is someone is fortunate.

  32. @ CRL

    (hope you are still following) I just did a whole post (actually, two) answering your question which asked: “Is your wife an atheist as well?”

    Hope that helps. Thanks for the compliment.

  33. That was a lovely story, excellent response.

  34. @ star
    Thank you. Hope to see you more. Thanks for putting me on your blogroll.

  35. My youngest daughter has said some strange things in the past, mostly when she was a bit younger. She used to talk about when we “get born again” (we were attending church at the time) but she meant it literally. One day she said something about when she was a grown up. I just figured she was being silly. It stuck with me, though.

  36. @ Alice,
    Odd, isn’t it, all the stuff we can’t explain. Kids are great!

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