This paper was written primarily as a response to the widely expressed view that those who do not believe in rebirth cannot fully appreciate the Buddhadhamma. As a non-believer who has been thinking a lot about this matter over many decades I wanted to reflect on a few questions and clarify the issues for myself. This article is not an argument for or against rebirth but as the title says it is the reflections of a non-believer. It might be of interest to others.
For those who do not believe in what I will define as literal rebirth I suggest that the Buddha’s teaching on rebirth can be related to as a myth – something rather more than metaphor but less than the literal truth.
There have been various contributions to this discussion before, by such people as Nagapriya, Dhivan, Vidyadasi, Prajnamati, Jayarava, Dhammaloka and others, and I’d like to acknowledge that I have touched on some of the same issues, but without their eloquence.
Why it matters
In India at the time of the Buddha the idea of rebirth was, it seems, commonly although not universally accepted. The suttas are permeated by the idea of rebirth but many Buddhist traditions through the ages have struggled to come to terms with what rebirth actually means. In some traditions rebirth has decayed into a subtle, or not so subtle, form of reincarnation0. In Tibet it has even provided a ground of legitimacy for political succession which it seems was at least as effective as the ‘divine right of kings’ or the ‘mandate of heaven’
In the Far East however, where it was not an indigenous belief, several schools of Buddhism, although never denying rebirth, did not emphasize it. They put their emphasis on Liberation in this life.
In modern Western cultures, many people find the idea of rebirth hard to accept. Some say that those who do not ‘believe in rebirth’ cannot fully appreciate the Buddhadhamma, they cannot really be Buddhists. This is a problem for those non-believers who are otherwise deeply inspired by the Buddha’s teachings. So how can we understand those teachings which are given in the context of the idea of rebirth. This article touches on a possible approach to some of these questions and inevitably points to other related issues like the relationship between body and mind; rebirth and the cosmological perspective; kamma and rebirth; and Samsara and Nirvana; Time and Eternity.
First of all we need a definition of ‘not believing in rebirth’. I’d like to suggest: On the dissolution of the body, there will not be a specific individual in the future who is a direct, unique, exclusive heir of the actions performed in this life. In other words there is no direct, person to person continuity from one physical existence to another, from one set of skhandas to another. For the sake of argument I’d like to call this not believing in literal rebirth.
Is someone who holds this view harbouring a wrong view that puts them outside the Buddhist community?
What exactly is rebirth?
There is no word for ‘rebirth’ in the pali canon. In the suttas, the terms for rebirth are chiefly punabbhava or ‘renewed existence’, and abhinibbatti or ‘arising’.
For example, in answer to the question ‘How is the renewal of being in the future generated‘ Sariputta says ‘Friend, renewal of being in the future is generated through the delighting in this and that on the part of beings who are hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving.’ To the next question ‘How is the renewal of being in the future not generated?‘ Sariputta replies ‘Friend, with the fading away of ignorance, with the arising of true knowledge, and with the cessation of craving, renewal of being in the future is not generated.’
Although such comments as these are normally taken to refer to future lives, what they communicate can still be understood fully without this interpretation.
The Buddha frequently declares that the view ‘There is no this world and no other world‘ negates the living of the holy life. This could be interpreted as a denial of future births, but in fact the expression is ‘natthi ayam loko paraloko’ where loko refers to the three spheres of existence, and paraloko refers to the highest or ultimate world – i.e. the Other Shore, Nirvana, the Deathless. In these cases therefore it is not a denial of rebirth that the Buddha is criticizing but a denial of realms of experience beyond the senses, and of Nirvana – a denial of liberation. I think all Buddhists can agree that such a belief would certainly negate the living of the holy life!
What is reborn?
One of the difficulties with rebirth for many people is the question of what ‘links’ the connected lives. It is clearly not a fixed self, a personality, or any unchanging entity. The Buddha rejected the views of both Eternalists and Annihilationists because they are united in their belief in a self.
Eternalists believe that, based either on their memories of previous births, or on rational speculation, they have a permanent self that remains firm from life to life1. Thus all such statements like ‘I shall be reborn’ or ‘in my previous birth’, are expressions of an eternalist view.
Annihilationists – are of seven types. They believe they have a self compounded of either the four elements, or a divine body, or a mind made body associated with the fourth dhyana, or a body assoicated with one of the four arupadhyanas. This self they believe is annihilated with the break-up of the corresponding body. So any statement like ‘I shall not be reborn’ or ‘my life ends at death’ is the opinion of an annihilationist. It is worth noting that other than the first type of annihilationist none of the others could be called a materialist.
However the denial of literal rebirth as I have defined it does not fall into either of these categories.
Rebirth is often described as a continuity (bhavanga-sota). However this is not without its problems. A individualized process is as much a ‘self’ as a permanent object. A vision of beings as so many strings of consciousness (or any other quality), even if made up of linked moments, is a vision of an individualized and isolated existence.
Many people say that it is consciousness, or awareness that flows continuously from life to life. But in the Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta, (MN 38) we meet the monk Sati who held the view that: ‘As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, it is this same consciousness that runs and wanders through the round of rebirths, not another.’ When the Buddha asked him what he means by consciousness he says: ‘..it is that which speaks and feels, and experiences here and there the result of good and bad actions.‘
Sati does not say that he identifies with consciousness, it is not suggested that this is a matter of personality view, but it is apparently a misguided understanding of the medium of continuity. The Buddha goes on to declare “Misguided man have I not stated in many ways consciousness to be dependently arisen, since without a condition there is no origination of consciousness.” Sati is further heartily rebuked for not having kindled even a spark of wisdom.
This teaching is supported in various places in the suttas. For example in the Samannaphala Sutta (DN 2:83) one of the fruits of the holy life is described as knowing ‘This my body is material, made up of the four great elements, born of mother and father, fed on rice and gruel, impermanent, liable to be injured and abraded, broken and destroyed, and this is my consciousness which is bound to it and dependent on it‘
Thus the Buddha taught that consciousness is bound to the body and dissolves with it. Although this is not to say that the body and the mind are the same, and certainly it does not indicate a materialist view. The mind is not an epiphenomenon of the body.
So if it is not a stream of disembodied consciousness or awareness (or any skandha) that flows from life to life what could it be? Fortunately Vacchagotta (SN 44.9) asks the Buddha this question. He says ‘When a being has laid down this body but has not yet been reborn in another body, what does Master Gotama declare to be its fuel on that occasion?‘ The Buddha replies ‘When, Vaccha, a being has laid down this body but has not yet been reborn in another body, I declare that it is fuelled by craving.‘
This is more than a little strange because the Buddha seems to be suggesting that contrary to his teaching there is a being that leaves this body and goes on into another – but perhaps he was not speaking very precisely. The important point here is not that the Buddha is putting the case for rebirth but that he is emphasizing that it is craving that fuels the flame of continued existence. The Buddha makes this point again and again – that it is craving that feeds the fire of existence and that the goal of the holy life is to extinguish this flame.
In the Samyutta Nikaya (Salayatanavagga, 44.9) good old Vacchagotta, is again asking the awkward questions. He names several famous teachers who declare the rebirth of their disciples, by saying ‘That one was reborn here and that one was reborn there’ and he points out that the Buddha also declares the rebirth of some of his disciples in similar terms. However he also notes that when the Buddha refers to the best of his disciples he declares ‘He cut off craving, severed the fetters, and, by completely breaking through conceit, he has made and end to suffering‘ Vaccha is confused by this and the Buddha agrees that it is a perplexing matter, but then he adds ‘I declare Vaccha, rebirth for one with fuel, not for one without fuel. Just as a fire burns with fuel, but not without fuel, so Vaccha, I declare rebirth for one with fuel, not for one without fuel.’ The Buddha goes on to say that the fuel is craving.
So we may summarize by saying that the Buddha teaches rebirth where there is craving, but no rebirth for the liberated mind. It seems that rebirth is a characteristic of the karma niyama but not the dharma niyama. Since we regard the latter as the higher perspective doesn’t it seem reasonable to say that in Reality there is no rebirth. It seems that rebirth – renewed existence – is something associated with the karma niyama order of conditionality in which the mind is permeated by attachment to ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’.
The Context of Rebirth
Rebirth is encountered in the suttas in several contexts: the rebirth of disciples; the Buddhas’s own memories; and when connected with ethical principles.
Rebirth of disciples
On various occasions, famously in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, Ananda asks where various people will be reborn, and the Buddha tells him2. So, why does the Buddha do this – is he trying to promote the idea of rebirth?
There is fortunately an answer to this question in the Nalakapana Sutta (MN 68) where the Buddha is at Palasa Grove with some of his most senior disciples. First of all he takes great care to establish that they are all firm in their faith in him. Having established this, he asks what is presumably a rather radical question: ‘What do you think Anuruddha? What purpose does the Thathagata see that when a disciple has died, he declares his reappearance thus: ‘So-and-so has reappeared in such-and-such a place; so- and-so has reappeared in such-and-such a place?‘ Anuruddha is eager to hear the answer and assures him that they will remember it. The Buddha then goes on to answer his question: ‘Anuruddha, it is not for the purpose of scheming to deceive people, or for the purpose of flattering people, or for the purpose of gaining honour, or renown, or with the thought. ‘Let people know me to be thus’ that when a disciple has died, the Thathagata declares his reappearance thus: ‘So-and-so……in such-and -such a place.’ Rather it is because there are faithful clansmen inspired and gladdened by what is lofty, who when they hear that, direct their minds to such a state, and that leads to their welfare and happiness for a long time.’
It seems that the Buddha was content to use the familiar language of rebirth when it suited his purpose as a skilful means. It is quite possible that the idea of rebirth, which was held by many people at the time of the Buddha, had influenced his upaya. I do not find it surprising that the Buddha would have talked in terms of commonly (even if not universally) held views – especially when they were so much part of the mainstream culture and could be used skilfully. (My own teacher used the idea of the ‘True Individual’ – which is relevant to our own culture but may seem very strange out of cultural context)
So it is clear that in this context the Buddha is not talking about the rebirth of his deceased disciples so as to promote the idea rebirth, but as a means of encouraging others to pursue the holy life.
Unfortunately the belief in literal rebirth could well undermine the efforts of someone who reflects on the possibility that in this life they are be labouring under the results of millions upon millions of lifetimes of questionable kamma. What would be the point of making an effort in this puny, inconsequential, single life. What is the chance of this particular life being the one in billions that will be any different? What an horrific – truly horrific – prospect this presents! A pessimist faced with the doctrine of rebirth taken literally may well despair beyond all hope of redemption, even a realistic optimist would quake at the thought.
The Buddha’s memories
But even if we could say that the Buddha’s use of the idea of rebirth was a skilful means to encourage his disciples, what about the Buddha’s own memories on the night of his Awakening. Do they not clearly indicate his belief that he had lived millions of time before? It is what he says!! His memories were of course stimulated before his awakening and such memories are by no means unique to the Buddha. They could therefore be seen as an experience of his, albeit very highly refined, conditioned consciousness and not an insight of his awakened mind; but this might be just splitting hairs. However, that his attention to his previous lives was before his awakening is supported by the fact that in the Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta (MN 38:23 – see below) he says that those who have seen this pratityasamutpada will not concern themselves with their previous lives.
But, even so, how can we understand his memories. Of course we could take them quite literally, as many people do. In which case a rejection of the idea of rebirth would seem to be a rejection of one of the important events leading up to the Buddha’s Awakening.
But can we to take his experiences literally? Are the details of a human life common in 6th century BCE India, like name, clan, food, etc. likely to have pertained literally over a couple of million years of human existence, or over several aeons of expansion and contraction of the universe. We know that for much of the 13.8 billion years of the evolution of our own universe it was unable to support any kind of life at all. As I have mentioned, in the Brahmajala sutta the Buddha himself actually warns against interpreting memories of previous lives as indicative of the rebirth of any form of personality.
There are also occasions where the Buddha talks about the context of one of his previous births in the distant past in which the lifestyle of people and the cities are exactly like the ones of his own time. We know this to be unlikely. These stories are much more likely to be lively parables, than literal memories.
But it is important to take his words and experiences very seriously – as communicating spiritual truths – as being the best or most effective way of describing a genuine experience. However it is still not necessary to take them literally to appreciate their importance. We could, as a crude example, see the Buddha’s memories of his and others’ infinite previous rebirths as a way of grasping, using the contemporary idea of reincarnation, his vision of the infinite process of conditioning factors on the mind of an individual, and the realization that this process is at work for everyone. This kind of vision could quite plausibly set the ground for the Buddha’s realization of the centrality of conditioned co-production.
In the Anguttara Nikaya (5, 23) the Buddha says that, if he wishes, anyone with a concentrated mind is capable of experiencing the series of previous births (using a stock phrase3) because there is a suitable basis for this. But in the same sutta he says that one with a concentrated mind can also wield the various kinds of psychic potency, again using a stock phrase4, because there is a suitable basis for this. Because I doubt that someone can literally appear and vanish at will, walk though a mountain, walk on water, fly through the air, stroke the sun and moon and so on, do I reject the word of the Buddha?
I’m sure there are meanings to these things and the other standard, pre-Buddhist, siddhis which are mentioned, but I doubt that they are literally true. In the same way the Buddha’s miracles, his meetings with Mara or with various other deities, or any number of other mythic or symbolic elements in the Pali suttas are of profound spiritual significance, but do we need to take them literally to understand their meaning. We readily accept other Buddhist scriptures as containing mythic rather than literal or historic truth so why not these visions.
And of course there are the Jatakas. No one would be tempted to take these stories as literally true but none the less they contain important teachings, especially since they communicate the importance of self-sacrifice and altruism in the spiritual life.
Rebirth is mentioned far more frequently in connection with ethical issues than in these other contexts.
In the Anguttara Nikaya 6:63(9) the Buddha gave a ‘penetrative exposition of the Dhamma‘ in which he says that Kamma is (i) volition that (ii) originates in contact; it is (iii) experienced in one of the six realms of existence on one of (iv) three occasions, and it (v) ceases when contact ceases by (vi) following the noble eight-fold path.
The six realms are of course the six types of ‘becoming’. The three occasions are ‘in this very life, or in a renewed existence, or on some subsequent occasion.‘ This could of course be interpreted as this life, the next life, or a subsequent one, but it does not actually say so. It could be read as now, in the future (since existence is renewed moment by moment), or on some future occasion perhaps even in the mind of another person. For example, an act of kindness may have a positive result for the actor right now, or it may contribute to his or her well being in the future, or it may have an unknown range of positive effects, even on other minds.
In answer to the student Subha the Buddha gives very extensive details of where one who performs certain actions will be reborn. For example a violent/non-violent person will be reborn in hell/heaven or, if as a human, he or she will be short-lived/long-lived; an angry/non-angry person will be reborn in hell/heaven or, if born as a human, will be ugly/beautiful; a person who doesn’t/does give all sorts of things to recluses and brahmins will be reborn in hell/heaven or, if born as a human, will be poor/wealthy; and so on. The Buddha starts and ends his explanation with the verse: ‘Beings are owners of their actions, student, heirs of their actions; they originate from their actions, are bound to their actions, have their actions as their refuge. It is action that distinguishes beings as inferior and superior.’ (Culakammavibhanga Sutta MN 135)
In this and many other similar expositions the Buddha is obviously using the myth of rebirth as a vehicle to explain his insight into Kamma-vipaka. There is no need to believe in the literal truth of what he says to understand what is being said. In fact a literal interpretation could lead to dangerous inferences of the type that poor/wealthy people are poor/wealthy because they haven’t/have given gifts to recluses, brahmins (and monks?) in past lives.
In the series of short suttas in the Samyutta Nikaya (Salayatanavagga, 42.2 – 42.5) various leaders come to the Buddha to ask him to confirm that followers of their profession go to a certain deva realm after death. The Buddha typically refuses to answer until pushed, when he reluctantly says that rather than the expected deva realm they will in fact go to a hell realm. For example, the actor says he expects to be reborn with the Laughing Devas – the Buddha informs him that because his acting evokes craving in people his reward will not be the Heaven of Laughter but the Hell of Laughter, or at best an animal realm. This is surely irony. The actor starts crying – not because he thinks he is going to Hell but because he was foolishly tricked, cheated and deceived for a long time by his lineage of teachers. The Buddha’s teaching has shone light on a silly idea and the actor is relieved – he goes for Refuge to the Three Jewels. This form of conversation is repeated a number of times with leaders of different unskilful professions – a mercenary, an elephant warrior, and a cavalry warrior. Again it seems that the Buddha was engaging with the views of his auditor as a skillful means not because he thought what he was saying was literally true. I wonder what the Buddha would say to a young jihadi suicide bomber who had been taught that when he died he would go to heaven and be attended by 40 beautiful virgins? (or possibly 72 – I understand there is some controversy about the actual number!). I suspect that the Buddha might say that on the contrary he would be reborn in hell attended by 40 (or 72) vicious demons.
The Buddha uses the imagery of the six realms frequently. Again one has to ask if these are to be taken as literal geographical locations? This is most unlikely. But surely they are much more than mere metaphors for normal psychological states. The denizen of hell actually experiences his world as hell, it is not just a poetic description. Actions structure our minds, and through our minds we interpret raw sense data into a ‘world’.
Going to the forest, setting mindfulness before him he enters upon a deva realm. This is an experience that is real and yet not literally true. Buddhism has never been concerned with the nature of ‘objective’ reality but only with the nature of experience. The nature of experience can best be explored by use of both literal and mythic languages. Much of Buddhism is mythic in nature but this does not mean it is not true. Many truths – as we know – are best expressed and communicated through the use of parable, or myth and symbol. And many truths are made false by a literal interpretation of myth. The myths of the virgin birth and the resurrection for example are of spiritual significance, but as literal truths they do nothing but generate confusion, cause division, and require intellectual somersaults to try to explain what they mean. In the same way many Buddhist teachings use the language of myth and we can perhaps suggest that the six realms and the idea of rebirth fall into this category.
When the Buddha met with the five ascetics after his Awakening he told them ‘Lend ear, friends: the Deathless has been attained. I will instruct you. I will teach you the Dhamma. Practising as instructed, you will in no long time reach and remain in the supreme goal of the holy life for which clansmen rightly go forth from home into homelessness, knowing and realizing it for yourselves in the here and now.‘ He also says ‘being myself subject to death, having understood the danger in what is subject to death, seeking the deathless supreme security from bondage, Nibbana, I attained the deathless supreme security from bondage, Nibbana.’ (Ariyapariyesana Sutta MN 26)
It has been suggested by some writers that realizing the Deathless refers to a direct knowledge that life continues beyond death. However the Buddha seems to be saying much, much more, than this. He is talking about the supreme goal of the holy life, Nibbana, and he says that this goal can be realized here and now. He is saying that he has discovered security beyond the realm of death which is much more than saying that there is continuous rebirth in any of the six realms. He also says that the ascetics will ‘reach and remain in the supreme goal.’ It is not something from which they will return. The Deathless is the supreme goal of the spiritual life. The Deathless refers to something beyond Death’s Realm, we could equally say beyond Birth’s Realm, it refers to an altogether different dimension – something beyond time.
In the Anenjasappaya Sutta (MN 106:13) the Buddha says that having taught ‘personality’ as far as it extends, he also taught the Deathless thus: ‘This is the Deathless (Amata), namely, the liberation of the mind through not clinging’ In other places the Deathless is used synonymously with Nirvana . In the Samyutta Nikaya (45:7) the Buddha defines the Deathless as ‘The destruction of lust, the destruction of hatred, the destruction of delusion: this is called the Deathless‘ Since, as we have seen, the Buddha taught that for one with no craving there is no rebirth, it is clear that for one who has attained the Deathless there is no rebirth.
When Mara challenges the Buddha on the eve of his Awakening: ‘If you have discovered the path, The secure way to the Deathless, Be off and walk that path alone: What’s the point of instructing others‘ The Buddha replies: ‘Those people going to the far shore Ask what lies beyond Death’s realm. When asked, I explain to the them The Truth without acquisitions.’ (SN 4.24)
The Deathless is beyond Death’s realm and it is a Truth without acquisition – without possession. The liberation is, so to speak, a completely new order, beyond space and time, ‘the Tathagata is deep boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea‘ The experience, or whatever it is, of this whatever we want to call it, even if only a glimpse, is Complete in itself, it is an End, it is Perfect. It is not something that we can think of possessing in time, it is not an asset that can be owned in time, like some sort of achievement.
I once had a taste of liberation, a realization that the absence of desire was the greatest bliss, and at that time I would have been quite happy to die. I lost that glimpse of course, but the taste lingered and had the effect of loosening up my fear of dying, but not because I thought I was going to be reborn. At about the same time I was wondering about the ‘selfishness’ of the happy life I was living at Guhyaloka. I reflected that I could have spent my life in a much more helpful way, in a way that would have been much more directly useful to other people. I could have perhaps devoted my life to, let’s say, finding a cure for cancer. This would have been an admirable achievement, no one would argue about that, but…….the people I saved would just have gone ahead and died of something else! No prolongation of life, or amelioration of the suffering of life would solve the biggest problem of all – that of the pain of death. However by teaching and promoting the Dharma I was offering the solution to the problem of death itself – not by offering extension of life, but by offering the opportunity to see that death was a non-problem – it had no sting. This seemed an admirable way to spend my life, and my commitment to living and promoting a renunciant life was greatly confirmed.
Several of the Buddha’s disciples were killed soon after they gained a degree of insight – often after being gored by cows – and it has been said that such a death is a tragedy unless there is rebirth – for what was the value of their insight if it could not be experienced in a future life. However it is not a tragedy, because having gained stream entry, dying is not an issue. The lives of these people is rounded off with, if not the highest but, at least, a supreme achievement, so it is an occasion of joy, admiration and rejoicing. Who could wish for more? A glimpse of liberation is surely not something that has no value unless it can be enjoyed in future lives. It is it’s own complete immediate full reward, it’s own complete perfection, nothing more is required.
We may also say the same, but even more so, about the Parinirvana of the Buddha. At the Capala Shrine three months before his Parinirvana the Buddha told Mara that he would finally renounce the life principle – the very last thing to be renounced. He was then in a position to renounce absolutely everything, to hold to nothing whatever, and reach clearest Parinirvana (in this case). There is no need for the Buddha to enjoy his Liberation in time for it to be of value. It is eternal – which is not to say indefinitely extended in time. And this is the moment of greatest achievement possible, an occasion of great profound joy. And, as the Buddha has made clear, for one who has renounced everything there is no rebirth, suffering is at an end.
Did the Buddha teach rebirth?
Although the Buddha taught within the context of rebirth did he actually teach rebirth? Did he encourage his disciples to reflect on and engage with their past or future lives?
In the Brahmajala Sutta (DN 1) the Buddha explicitly warned against taking memories of previous births as an indication that there is a self that is reborn. This warning should perhaps also make us careful when evaluating the evidence of memories as proof of previous lives.
In the Anguttara Nikaya (AN 3:65) the Buddha says ‘Now, Kalamas, one who is a disciple of the noble ones — his mind thus free from hostility, free from ill will, undefiled, & pure — acquires four assurances in the here-&-now‘ The first of these assurances is: ‘If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.’ The second assurance he acquires is: ‘But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.’
The Buddha seems to accept that he may have disciples who do not accept rebirth and yet they are equally able to benefit from his teachings.
On some occasions the Buddha actively discouraged his disciples thinking in terms of rebirth. In the Sabbasava Sutta (MN 2) he says that the destruction of taints is for one who knows and sees, one who attends wisely and not unwisely. One of the several ways in which he attends unwisely is described as: ‘This is how he attends unwisely: ‘Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I be in the future?’ Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the immediate present: ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?’ If he attends in this way a thicket of views centred around the existence of a self comes into being and causes all manner of suffering.
This teaching is given again in the Mahatanhasankaya Sutta (MN 38) which I have mentioned before. After the Buddha made his point about the interconnectedness of the mind and the body he give a very extensive discourse on pratityasamutpada and then says that whosoever understands this as it really is does not think in terms of their past or future births, nor even about who they are in this life5.
‘When, Bikkhus, a noble disciple has clearly seen with correct wisdom as it really is this dependent origination and these dependently arisen phenomena, it is impossible that he will run back into the past thinking: ‘Did I exist in the past? Did I not exist in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what did I become in the past?’ Or that he will run forward into the future thinking: ‘Will I exist in the future? Will I not exist in the future? What will I be in the future? How will I be in the future? Having been what, what will I become in the future?’ Or that he will now be inwardly confused about the present thus: ‘Do I exist? Do I not exist? What am I? How am I? This being – where has it come from, and where will it go?‘ (verse 23)
The Buddha is recorded as giving this same teaching in many other places in the Suttas variously using the nidanas, the elements, the ayatanas, or the khandhas to de-construct the self – with the same conclusion that for anyone who understands this as it really is, it is impossible to entertain thoughts of future, past, or present lives. Instead of concern about their own rebirth his disciples are encouraged to focus on pratityasamutpada as view, and the Noble Eightfold Path as practice. The main issue is to live the holy life for liberation – not for a happy rebirth.
The Buddha’s critique of the denial of rebirth.
The Buddha criticized the views of other teachers who denied rebirth. But why did he criticize them? And do these criticisms apply to someone who does not believe in rebirth as long as he or she accepts the central teaching of pratityasamutpada.
We have already mentioned the Buddha’s critique of the belief in annihilation (uccheda- ditthi): the belief in the existence of an ego-entity or personality as being more or less identical with a physical body or a mental body, which will, with the dissolution of the corresponding body, come to an end. The critique here is based primarily on the identification of the person with a body – it is often opposed to the eternalist’s view which identifies the person as being something permanently other than a body or any of the khandhas.
Holding the view of pratityasamutpada means that one cannot be either an eternalist or an annihilationist, even if one does not hold a belief in literal rebirth.
At the time of the Buddha many teachers who denied rebirth also held nihilist views (natthika ditthi.) That is to say they held one of a variety of views that denied that actions had consequences. Several expressions of such views are given in the Samannaphala Sutta (DN 2) which includes colourful opinions like: ‘If one were to go along the south bank of the Ganges killing, slaying, cutting or causing to be cut, burning or causing to be burnt, there would be no evil as a result of that, no evil would accrue. Or if one were to go along the north bank of the Ganges giving and causing to be given, sacrificing and causing to be sacrificed, there would be no merit as a result of that, no merit would accrue. In giving, self-control, abstinence and telling the truth, there is no merit, and no merit accrues‘. It seems that the Buddha’s main objection to these teachers’ views was not that they denied rebirth as such, but that they denied that actions had consequences.
Some of these nihilist teachers taught rebirth (Makkahali Gosala) others did not (Ajita Kesakambali) but they are equally criticized by the Buddha. I have not yet been able to discover a teacher who taught that actions have consequences but who denied rebirth. If there were such a teacher, did the Buddha criticize him? I guess some modern Western Buddhists, like myself, might claim to hold this view.
According to K.N. Jayatilleke (The Wheel Publication No. 141/142/143) all the schools of materialists were characterized by the fact that they did not hold that mind and body were two different entities but were one and the same entity, either denying the reality of mental phenomena altogether or asserting that they were epiphenomena or accompaniments of the state of body.
Ajita Kesakambali held this view and he was also a nihilist. We have already seen that the Buddha himself held that although mind and body are different they arise together (Samannaphala Sutta (DN 2:83)).
Very few serious modern scientists hold materialist views – even Richard Dawkins fully admits that ‘Evolutionary biologists have learned the basis of a variety of human activities, yet when it comes to understanding human consciousness, the field is as helpless as any other.‘ It is a gross misunderstanding to assume that those who pay serious attention to the insights of science are materialists. In fact how can one think of a physicist as being a materialist when he does not even think that material is material!!
(In a future article I want to explore how each of the different levels of conditionality arise from and require those below them, but since they are strongly emergent systems they cannot be reduced to the elements of the lower level. They have an independent but connected being.)
How is a ‘non-believer’ to relate to teachings involving rebirth?
As pointed out the the Kalama Sutta the importance of the Buddha’s ethical teaching can be understood, fully appreciated, and acted upon without believing in literal rebirth.
The model of rebirth and the realms is indeed a very useful explication of the processes of kamma-vipaka. It communicates the message vividly, effectively, in detail and memorably. It engages the mind and provides a wealth of examples. So as a context for discussion it is invaluable. But it is not necessary to believe in literal rebirth to fully engage with the training in ethics. In fact, many people who believe in rebirth do not train in ethics. There are also teachings like interconnectedness and other developments of pratitysamutpada that are perhaps a more effective philosophical basis for the realization that actions have wide reaching consequences on many levels.
The articulation of spiritual experience
Spiritual experiences are not amenable to literal explanation. They are by their very nature only revealed to the refined imagination. This is why Urgyen Sangharakshita, my teacher, and others have stressed the importance of developing the imaginal faculty for living the spiritual life. The imagination is not just the imagination it is the source of all creative acts, even in the sciences, and especially in mathematics. In our culture we have placed too much faith in sense experience and on literal and historic fact. Only by opening the divine eye of the imagination will we be able to penetrate spiritual experience.
Parable and metaphor
On the lowest level this means that we need to be receptive to parable and metaphor. Stories have always been used to communicate truths and the Buddha’s extensive use of them is already well known. It only requires a little imagination to understand the truth of what is being said in passages that are obviously not to be taken literally. In fact some passages in the suttas, if taken literally, are rendered false and loose their full significance.
Rebirth as Myth
We are used to relating to elements of the Buddhasasana such as devas, maras, magical powers and traditional cosmology as mythic and symbolic. They speak directly to the imagination and are eminently effective as teachings. I suggest that it is quite valid to approach rebirth in the same way. Rebirth is not just a metaphor, it means much more than that, but for many people it is too much to take it quite literally. I do not believe that the teaching of the Buddha is in any way reduced in effectiveness if one takes rebirth in this way, especially if the truths communicated by the teaching on karma and rebirth are further supported by other doctrines and practices such as the brahmaviharas, Bodhicitta, and the interconnectedness of all life and consciousness.
We need to remember that at the time of the Buddha the distinction between literal and mythic was not so strong as it is for us. Lama Govinda wrote that Tibetans happily talked about the gods who lived on mountain tops without expecting to find a ‘person’ in residence in the unlikely event that they should go there. I got some sense of this perspective in the late 1970’s when I spent a day at 12,000 feet on the Aiguille du Midi looking out over Mont Blanc, the Mer de Glace and dozens of other giant granite peaks rising from the ice fields. That gods lived on those peaks I had no doubt. They were immaculate, imperturbable, beautiful, awe inspiring, and they made me feel totally ecstatically insignificant.
An idea need not be literally true to be fully effective. Newton’s laws of motion are not accurate but they work quite well enough for most practical purposes; the Earth is neither flat nor stationary but acting as if it were is fine for every day use; talking about rebirth as if it were true is effective enough to communicate the truths of kamma-vipaka, even though it may not be literally true. So I think that as long as one does not fall into annihilationism, materialism or nihilism as defined in the suttas I think one can fully appreciate the Buddha’s teaching and fully engage with the holy life for liberation.
What happens after our own death cannot be known. We know that liberation from attachment to the delusions of ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘mine’ is at the core of Buddhist practice. So the ideas that ‘I cease to exist after my physical death’, or that ‘I am reborn after the dissolution of the body’ are similarly delusional. However, it is clear that our actions do have an effect, not only on ourselves in this life but also on beings born in the future. Perhaps the idea of rebirth is trying to point to the mystery of death without adopting the extremes of annihilationism or eternalism, and also at the truth of the future consequences of our actions?
It seems to be very difficult to avoid letting the idea of rebirth slide into an idea of reincarnation – albeit a subtle interpretation – or of saying that nothing continues after death. It is a natural tendency for those of us who have a sense of a self to ask what happens to it when we die – and broadly speaking there are two possible answers to this question – we cease to exist or we continue to exist. The Buddha rejected both these options and the idea of rebirth is one that, while rejecting both these opposites, points to something of a higher order, i.e. the Deathless, while at the same time maintaining the relative truth that our actions have consequences that go way beyond our present life.
Someone who rejects the idea of a literal rebirth cannot live the holy life for a good rebirth, so he or she has no alternative but to live the Holy Life for the Deathless, for Liberation, for Nirvana. This goal, one supposes, would not disappoint the Buddha.
Several Buddhist writers suggest that there is a danger of a watered down form of Buddhism developing in the West unless the teaching of rebirth is strongly affirmed. I share their fears that that there is a danger of a watered down form of Buddhist developing in the West, but I do not think it is a lack of belief in rebirth that will undermine Buddhist practice. I see the widespread adaptation of the Buddhadharma to suit the needs of those living comfortable, middle-class, domestic lifestyles who do not want to renounce the things that must be renounced to find Liberation. For them, perhaps the promise of a future life is comforting because they can put off Liberation until later, and in the meantime enjoy a comfortable home, a pleasant partner and family, a decent career, and a secured old age.
It has been said that if one doesn’t believe in rebirth one’s only option is to make every effort to gain Enlightenment in this life. I believe this to be a good thing. I don’t see many people with their turbans on fire, taking Liberation as their goal. (Incidentally having one’s turban on fire does not mean engaging overly willfully in one’s practice – it simply means uncompromising and immediate application.) Many people prefer to focus on psychological health and ameliorating this life, rather than responding to the call to go forth from the world and renounce those things to which they are attached. Many of my brothers and sisters seem to be adopting lifestyles that, by their very nature, add to the baggage. I for one would appreciate a bit more of the intensity of practice that comes when a community is focused on ‘living the holy life for liberation’.