Recently I managed to discover another book by Carl B. Becker, this one titled Breaking the Circle: Death and the Afterlife in Buddhism (Southern Illinois University Press, 1993). I’d mentioned earlier here (link), Becker’s Paranormal Experience and Survival of Death (State University of New York Press, 1993). Becker is a professor of comparative philosophy and religion at Kyoto University in Japan.
Both of these books are of the highest excellence. The second is, for me, the best ever summation of its subject, human survival of death. The second, it turns out, turns out to be one of the very few coherent accounts of the evolution of Buddhism over time. That development has to be sketched in order to present the development of Buddhist views on the afterlife. The presentation is brief but—Becker is a very clear thinker and a talented writer—wonderfully clear.
Even approaching this pair of subjects—Buddhism and the afterlife—seems harshly daunting. The seeming object of Buddhism is nirvana, a kind of absolute enlightenment. The Buddha himself (he lived 560-477 BC) maintained that nothing whatever could be asserted of it pro or con. The earliest Buddhist school (the Theravada, later renamed by its opponents as the Hinayana*) asserted that nirvana meant annihilation; the Sanskrit meaning of the word is “blown out.” Buddhism itself came to be powerfully linked to the concept of anātman, meaning “no soul” or “no self”—although the Buddha actually denied that. In practice, however, anātman came to mean that, on death, what remain are packets of karma—read residuals of action—not tied to an “owner” or “a carrier”; therefore rebirth is not the reincarnation of a person but that of karmic packets. So how are we to understand an afterlife? But hold for a moment. With the rise of the now dominant form of Buddhism, the Mahayana, coinciding with the first century of our era, the religion came to be transformed into a faith complete with heavens and hells—and beyond them the Realm of Nirvana, a realm that a Catholic, anyway, might be forgiven for thinking of as union with God.
How we get from no-self to saved-self is a major part of Becker’s story told here. I’d been exposed to the transformations within Buddhism earlier through the writings of D.T. Suzuki. particularly his Essays in Zen Buddhism. These volumes, however, concentrate on the history of Zen, and Zen, hews close to the Hinayana throughout time. And while the surprises of history are there in Suzuki as well, much greater light falls on the subject in Becker’s work. I recommend The Closing Circle highly to other amateur scholars—a work written by a gifted professional.
*Theravada means the “teaching of the elders.” Hinayana means “the lesser vehicle,” so labeled by those who thought they were riding in the Mahayana, “the greater vehicle.”