The Myth of Rebirth


In my recent paper ‘Reflections of a non-believer’ I said that I understood the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth as a myth rather than a literal truth; in this article I want to expand a little on this theme. To clear up a possible misunderstanding at the beginning by myth I do not mean something that is untrue. I mean something which, when reflected upon, communicates spiritual truths.

A First Existential Question

A good friend of mine recently told me how his four year old daughter began to realize that people died. She asked him what happened to granny, and mummy and daddy when they died. It was a question with strong emotional overtones, so my friend had to provide a good answer for her. Being a Buddhist he told her that granny, and everyone else, would be reborn as other people. This satisfied her and gave her something by which she could come to terms with her disturbing concern. My friend could have told her that granny would go to heaven, but that nasty people go to hell; or, as my cousin told her daughter, that granny would become a butterfly. Some more materialist parents may say that granny would become grass, flowers and trees. I doubt that any parents would have the heart to say that granny is gone, she is no more, she is an ex-granny, even if they thought so. My guess is that, when we were children, many of us asked the same question as my friend’s daughter, and the answer that we were given could have had a strong influence on our future views. Even as adults we wonder what happens to us when we die. The self feels so strongly present in this life that it seems inconceivable that it could be annihilated – ergo, it must continue. But, in the absence of knowing for certain what happens, we build models that provide satisfactory solutions which, in the case of traditional myths, incorporate additional moral and spiritual insights. All cultures have their own traditional answers to this great question.

Understanding experience

A characteristic of self consciousness, of the karma niyama, is that it tries to understand experience, to grasp it, to give it form. We produce images of our experiences of the outer world of the senses, and also our inner world of feelings, and emotions. We need ideas to identify sensations and we use our imaginations to create complex models of our experiences. From simple ideas and the relationships between them, we build complex models like histories, scientific theories, and religious doctrines. We construct a complex mix of all of these to generate a ‘world’ which we come to believe is how things really are. But which of these ideas are true or false, and anyway what is true or false?

The Scientific Method

Science provides us with a very powerful way of determining whether something is fact or fiction. It provides methods that can be repeated by anyone with the technical ability, and it accepts as true what has been verified and widely accepted. (Incidentally in my first physics lecture at college I had it impressed on me that no physical models can be proved – they can only be verified). Building models always requires imagination, but scientific models specifically require empirical data, systematic observation, measurement, and experiment. Science has provided us all with unimagined advantages as well as unleashing great horrors on the world. It is so incredibly powerful that there is a tendency to think that only scientifically verifiable truths are really true. But science is severely limited in it’s scope. The scientific method is not equally applicable to all realms of human experience. It requires empirical data, and accurate measurement, but certain things cannot be observed objectively, nor can they be measured. It seems that the scientific method is limited to orders of conditionality that we could loosely identify with the Buddhist categories of utu, bija and citta niyamas1.

Buddhism is not Scientific.

In Buddhist Thought in India (p. 181-2) Edward Conze says: “Buddhists show no interest at all in these physical elements (rupa), and are not particularly concerned about what they actually are and do. They never felt any curiosity about the physical world, not even to the extent of the Pre-Socratics who in their own ways tried to explain thunder, the tides, and so on. J. Needham, who has studied the influence which Buddhism exerted on Chinese science and scientific thought, is of the opinion that ‘there can be little doubt that on the whole its action was powerfully inhibitory’. He speaks of the remarkable failure of Buddhist ideas of law to give rise to natural science.”
Conze goes on to say: “There were presumably two reasons for this. First there was no incentive to do any serious thinking about the non-human, non-moral universe, ………. Secondly, though the operation of the “law” of cause and effect, as such, may seem to modern minds quite obviously morally neutral, the moral functions attributed to it were really the only part which interested the Buddhists at all.”
Buddhism is concerned only with the karma and dharma niyamas. It is concerned with matters of morality, meditation and wisdom, and none of these fall into conveniently neat categories of fact or fiction. It is not surprising that the tradition can’t, and indeed shouldn’t, appeal to scientific methodology to verify it’s models. How then does it explore it’s realm of experience?

The Mythic Dimension

How do we explore those areas of human experience that cannot be observed and measured; experience that does not fall into neat categories of fact or fiction; experience that is not based on the senses? To identify and understand these areas of human experience we rely on the language of myth and symbol. Myth does not deal in neat categories. It can come to terms with matters that have no clear answers, or that cannot be answered at all, even in principle. Myth communicates experiences that cannot be verified objectively but which are nonetheless intuited as real.
Over forty years ago, in meditation, I saw Tara, I felt her presence, and I heard her chanting her mantra. Do I believe that she exists as a physical being; that she literally exists? No. Do I believe that she exists? Yes. Is this a contradiction? I don’t believe so. Where and how she exists will always be a mystery, but the archetype of Tara, Tara as a mythic being, certainly seems to me to correspond to something real. I can’t prove it, but I believe this to be true.
When in the early 1970’s I told Sangharakshita that I had trouble believing in devas, he told me to keep an ‘open mind’. I had trouble with devas because I was thinking of them as material beings, as entities that somehow existed in the realm of the senses. I don’t think Bhante meant that I should keep an ‘open mind’ about whether or not they were material beings, I think he meant I should keep an ‘open mind’ so that I could perhaps learn to ‘see’ them with a different kind of eye. A year or so later I got a glimpse into that world. I have since ‘seen’ devas of various orders, but although I do not think they exist literally, I know that they exist on a level of human experience that is as real, perhaps more real than the realm of the senses.
The mythic realm is appreciated with the eye of the imagination. Thus the crucial importance of the imagination in the spiritual life. Without confidence in the imagination there can be no spiritual experience, and without myth and symbol this experience cannot take form. Myth is the language of art and religion.  But how do we determine the truth or falsity of myths? The Buddha has provided us with a much quoted answer to this question in the Kalama Sutta2 which is to rely on a combination of personal experience and judgement, and intuition about the judgement of the wise.

Morality, Rebirth and Myth

Buddhism is concerned with spiritual experiences, which I have touched on, but even more fundamentally the Buddha’s teaching is concerned with the moral life. The dynamics of good and evil are neither strictly empirical nor measurable, so they are not accessible to the scientific method. And in addition, on a deeper level, the moral order, the karma niyama, is founded upon belief in a permanent identity which the Buddha teaches is a phantom. So questions that arise about what happens to this self after death are problematic questions. They are questions that have no answer – the self neither continues to exist nor does it cease to exist. So for beings who hold onto a self, what happens to it after death is inevitably a mystery. Moral questions, and for most religions, the closely related questions about continuity of identity after death, are clearly, outside the realm of scientific enquiry. They are questions that do not have clearly defined answers in the realm of fact or fiction. They are questions with solutions that can only be modelled by myths.

The Myth of Rebirth

I suggest that the Doctrine of Rebirth is not an insight or a model that applies to the material world of the senses. My understanding is that it is not intended to be grasped as a scientific fact (what I have defined as ‘literal rebirth’) but as a myth that when reflected on by the imagination gradually reveals the mysterious workings of karma-vipaka, while at the same time carefully avoiding the literalistic views of the survival of identity3, or of it’s annihilation.
Some Buddhists may believe in literal rebirth, others may not, but the crucial point seems to me to be that the myth of rebirth should be reflected upon and deeply contemplated so that the workings of the karma niyama can be fully appreciated and realized. The doctrine of rebirth communicates profound truths of an ethical and spiritual nature, but these are issues related to the karma niyama and not truths that are manifest on the lower orders of conditionality.
A difficulty with a literal interpretation of the doctrine of rebirth is that it is possible to rest assured with the simple rule that if I do good I’ll get a happy rebirth, but if I do bad I will suffer in a future life. I think the mystery indicated by the Buddha’s teaching of renewed existence is worthy of much deeper reflection. His warning about the dangers of slipping into views of reincarnation or annihilation are perhaps warnings about the dangers of literalism.

Beyond Rebirth

And, of course, any reflection on rebirth should appreciate the wider context of the Buddha’s teaching – when craving for this self is abandoned, the Deathless opens up an entirely new dimension of ‘experience’ beyond self centred consciousness, beyond birth and death, beyond all forms, entirely liberated from rebirth in any of the six realms.

Anagarika Manjuvjara
1. I’d also like to suggest a ‘sixth’ niyama, the primordial order of conditionality – quantum fields – about which early Buddhists had no knowledge. The scientific method also applies to this order.
2. ‘Now Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, “This contemplative is our teacher.” When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities are skillful/unskillful; these qualities are blameless/blameworthy; these qualities are praised/criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare/harm & to happiness/suffering” — then you should enter and remain in them/abandon them.’ Thus was it said. (AN 3.65)
3. It has been suggested that personal identity can be transmitted between lives in two ways: by means of a static entity, a soul or atman that goes from life to life, or by means of a dynamic process of conditionality that has no fixed core but nonetheless has a continuity – perhaps like a jet-stream. The former is clearly rejected by Buddhism but the latter is often used to explain the process of rebirth

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