One of the other claims is that rebirth talk of any sort is at best figurative. In these three discourses from the Pali which describe the Buddha’s awakening, rebirth plays an important role, which are not easily explained away as some sort of figurative speech.
I think you wrote a great post, Tilt. It would have been nice to share those ideas at ZFI. Reading your post got me thinking further about what I see as an unexamined assumption underlying such debates about rebirth--the assumption about 'figurativeness' (<-- This is an awkward word but I'll use since it has been raised.)
On the one hand, it seems to me that the argument that rebirth must be understood literally
turns on an assumption about 'figurativeness'. This is the assumption that figurativeness somehow compromises the 'truth' of rebirth (and by implications the 'truth' of the Buddha's teaching). It is assumed that the doctrine of rebirth is somehow rendered less 'efficacious', less 'real', when people attempt to understand it figuratively.
On the other hand, it seems to me that the argument that rebirth is merely
a rhetorical strategy also turns on the same assumption about 'figurativeness'. This is the assumption that figurativeness somehow allows us to sidestep (and even debunk) rebirth. It is assumed that the doctrine of rebirth is somehow rendered less 'challenging', less 'real', when it is construed as merely a clever play with words.
But as I have suggested in my previous post, what if figurativeness is in fact a fundamental part of our perceptual process? What if figurativeness is what makes it possible for us to make sense of anything at all? I have suggested that we cannot step outside the workings of language--not until we attain some level of awakening anyway (and IMO I don't think Awakening obliterates language but rather allows us to have a new, non-grasping relationship with language). If figurativeness is how language works, then thought and understanding also works through figurativeness.
To give an example, if you were to ask a number of people to note down the first impressions that come to them when you mention the words 'dog', 'car', or 'tree', I'm sure you will get a variety of responses. I've done this exercise with students many times and the responses to a word like 'tree' include: wood, green, leaves, bark, oxygen, fuel, nature, mother earth, recycling, life, peace, etc. Or with a word like 'dog' the responses were: woof, tail, fur, Spot the family dog, German Shepard (or some other breed), happiness, man's best friend, fear (because of a bad experience), warm fuzzy feelings, loyalty, poop, stinky, walk in the park, etc.
What becomes evident in this simple example is that language functions figuratively. Meaning or 'truth' isn't established through direct correspondence but through figurativeness. Without this ever-present figurativeness, language wouldn't be possible, and hence, thought and understanding wouldn't be possible. If meaning and truth were established through direct correspondence, then everyone would have the same impressions when they hear or read the words 'tree' or 'dog'. But what we see is that for some people the words 'tree' or 'dog' didn't even remind them of an actual plant or a canine but of various concepts or emotions. Even though such concepts and emotions do not directly correspond to the words 'tree' or 'dog', they are 'truths' about 'trees' and 'dogs', and these 'truths' would shape and influence the way those people behave (i.e. a person who understands 'trees' only as so much raw material would behave in a different way from another who understands 'tree' as life or mother earth). Which is to say that to accept the figurativeness of language is not to slide in relativism for the question of ethics is ever-present.
In light of this, maybe we can re-evaluate the terms of the debate around rebirth. If figurativeness is a fundamental characteristic of our perceptual process, if 'truth' is always to some degree or another established through figurativeness--indeed, made possible by figurativeness--should we still assume that the 'truth' of rebirth is always compromised when people attempt to understand it figuratively? By the same token, when people dismiss rebirth as just a kind of figurative speech, should they assume that is any less 'truthful' and 'real'? Either position fails to be mindful of how figurativeness conditions consciousness. And shouldn't we be mindful of how our minds work in figurative ways? For after all, figurativeness is that which deludes us and also that which might awaken us.
Please excuse the long post. It's kinda long-winded but I wanted to be as clear as I can. I'm not directing this at anyone in particular, whether you are for a literal understanding or rebirth or not. I'm writing this because Tilt's post presented a good opportunity for me to stick my nose in and raise questions about the assumptions upon which such debates have left unexamined. Perhaps a more productive way forward is to sometimes take a step backwards to re-examine hidden assumptions underlying the debate before attempting to move forward again.
I could very well be wrong but I think this is precisely what exploring
the path entails.