Question: How is the remembrance of past lives compatible with anatta? Rebirth makes sense in the context of dependent arising and conditionality. We humans exist dependent on conditions. Everything had to come together to shape us. But Buddha remembered past lives instead of the conditions that made us born human (water, sun, soil, food, …). Does this make sense?
Response: My opinion is that remembering past lives doesn’t make sense.
Memory is a function of the brain. The brain stores data and synthesizes consciousness in remarkably complex and rich ways. As we accumulate experience over a lifetime, we move from the helplessness of infancy to being fully developed adults capable of abstract thought that is clearly beyond our experience.
Our minds can envision life without gravity or a universe whose operations are governed by a consistent system of arithmetic with only 3 digits. We’ve developed sophisticated models describing the formation of the universe and can detect and treat diseases based on cellular and molecular markers.
My point is that we are capable of conceiving and manipulating impossible ideas even though we don’t have direct experience of them. The human brain is extremely adept at operating within the imaginary.
Nothing More Than…
But when we talk about the memory of our personal experiences, we must be bound to actual stored data. If I make a claim that at birth, I stood up, took ten steps, pointed my finger towards a teenager, and declared my desire for a kiddie sized mint Oreo cookie ice cream cone, I would be stepping beyond the boundaries of my experience, not to mention the truth. First, because I have no such memory. Second, because other people who were with me at birth would contradict that memory.
Another salient point here is that while I may share memories of shared experiences with others, at no time do I directly experience the memories of others. An overwhelming amount of evidence tells us that humans have no access to the memories, thoughts, or emotions of another person. Our only link is through the medium of language (verbal and body language). If you were to claim an exception and I would be justifiably skeptical.
So with this as background, I read the mythology of the Buddha’s enlightenment experiences with a grain of salt. The Buddha rejected the title of God, demi-god, or super human. He was operating with the same hardware that we have. To me, that’s enough information to reject the idea of past life remembrance.
Let’s break down what a remembering a past life experience really means and why I think it’s inconsistent with what we know about the world.
- A past life is one that was lived in a body which has ceased to function and is in some state of decomposition.
- Most of the human bodies have disappeared without a trace.
- All memories accrued during that past life were stored in the body
- With the decomposition of the body, those memories have dissipated into entropy.
- If we were to claim to directly experience those memories, we would have to
- Overcome the fact that we cannot directly experience the memories of others
- Overcome the fact that we would have to directly experience the memories of someone who is no longer alive
- Overcome the fact that we would have to directly experience the memories that were stored in a brain that is either in some state of decomposition or entirely non-existent
Given all these observations, I would conclude that the mythology of the Buddha’s past life remembrance is hyperbole. Further, if someone were to approach me today with claims that they’ve experience past life remembrance, I would be doubtful. I find it a much more plausible to characterize these mental formations as a complex synthesis of memories, concepts, and theories – in other words imaginary. That hypothesis is consistent with our understanding of memory and how the brain works.
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