Planescape: Torment ending questions (MASSIVE SPOILERS)
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March 31st, 2013, 17:03
Neither and both. Or, perhaps, that's the wrong question.
In traditional Buddhism, there's nothing particularly special about death. The thing you call "you" has no intrinsic existence; it's just a stream of moments of consciousness which gives the illusion of continuity, much like a movie consisting of still frames projected in quick succession gives the illusion of motion. This stream is constantly transforming, and can also stop. A hard blow to the head will do that, for example. If it's not hard enough to kill you, it will eventually resume, and because it's drawing from a pool of memories and habits it gives the illusion of being the "same" stream that was interrupted before you got hit on the head.
OTOH if the blow is strong enough to kill you, traditional Buddhists would tell you that the stream just resumes in another body, or bodies, with a bit of a bigger disruption than temporary unconsciousness, old age, or drugs that can also screw up your memories, personality, and stuff. One guy I read, called Vasubandhu, makes a distinction between "cessation through contemplation" and "cessation not through contemplation;" he sees the former as qualitatively different as it's conducive to awakening to your true self, whereas the latter is just business as usual. So sleep, unconsciousness, and death are simply "cessation not through contemplation."
A somewhat extreme Zen take is that you're reborn all the time, moment to moment.
Point being, which body you are reborn in is sort of beside the point. PS:T riffs on this all the time actually. The Nameless One is in the strange condition is that even if his stream of consciousness is disrupted by death, it resumes in the same body — even if all conscious memories of the previous incarnation have been erased, the way it happens with everybody else. This makes his karma catch up with him a lot more quickly than with other people.
On the other hand, in Buddhism awakening to your true self is kind of the point of the exercise; far more significant than the mundane treadmill of dying and being born. Awakening is something that's pretty pointless to describe; just about anything you could say about it would be wrong, or right, neither, or both, or all at the same time. In one sense it is rebirth — a human being reborn as a buddha. In another, it's not, because the human being doesn't change into something other than human, gain anything it didn't have before, nor lose anything it did have before. I don't know if I'd even call it a "drastic change in mindset," although perhaps it is in a way.
So I thought TNO's ending was just that. Awakening to his true self. Until then, through all his lifetimes, he had been attempting to either escape or overcome his karma. He made an about-face and embraced it instead. And at that instant he was liberated.
I don't think he physically ceased to exist at that moment; we did see him still alive and kicking, in a manner of speaking, in the final cinematic. But in Buddhist terms, that would be his final lifetime, and when the clock would eventually run out on him — and it would, whether it would take a day, a year, a century, or an aeon — he would be free from the wheel of rebirth.
(Some Buddhists believe that after awakening you stop creating new karma, but you still have to work off the karma you had accumulated before awakening. That's another way of seeing why TNO had to do as he did at the ending.)
So that's my Buddhist interpretation of the ending. I don't know Hindu philosophy all that well, but from the little I do know, I think it would be a little bit more difficult to fit into that framework. Hindu views on the nature of the self, of rebirth/reincarnation, and of the way to liberation are a bit different. I'm sure you could if you tried though.
Re opposing views on karma specifically, I don't think that's really all that relevant to PS:T. All of the dharmic religions — the various flavors of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism — agree about how karma works to a great extent. In fact one of the things about PS:T is how it plays on this; it doesn't really tell you how things are, just how the different factions believe they are. The factions don't map 1:1 to real-world religions either. The Dusties are like a Hindu caricature of Buddhists, the Godsmen like a Buddhist caricature of Hindus, and the Sensates are a play on a core claim by both Zen and Theravada Buddhists (at least).
Sin, however, is IMO the wrong lens with which to look at the game. The crucial difference between sin and karma is that sin involves transgression against universal or divine laws, and imply a judge and punishment (or forgiveness, in the case of Christianity). Something external to you that sees, judges, and punishes or forgives IOW. You can't really have sin without a judge and/or a redeemer.
Karma, however, is entirely impersonal. Suppose you take a really heavy rock, aim carefully, and drop it on your big toe. The result will be intense pain. You do not need a judge sentencing you to that pain, nor an executioner to inflict that pain, nor can any external redeemer free you from that pain. Pain is simply the consequence of dropping a heavy rock on your toe. All the dharmic religions see karma more or less this way. Anything you do will come back to you, as implacably and impersonally as a rock dropped on your toe will cause pain, and a drink of cool water when you're thirsty on a hot day will cause relief.
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