Rebirth and radical honesty
This morning I had an email from Sheila, one of our newsletter subscribers. She’d shared the article called “The Buddha’s Wager” with a Buddhist friend, and wasn’t sure how to address the points her friend had raised. So here’s what her friend had written:
i find it fascinating that ‘sceptics’ want to know how consciousness can survive the death of the brain – when we have no inkling of how consciousness arises in a living brain – to me it’s as much of a leap of faith to believe that other people are conscious as it is to believe that ‘my’ consciousness can survive the death of my body. we are all profoundly agnostic about almost everything…. i find a belief in rebirth gives a me a sense of meaning – of possible progress – i still don’t understand how anyone can profess to be seeking Enlightenment – in the Buddha’s sense of a release from suffering – and not believe in rebirth. if death is the end of suffering then what’s all the fuss about? let’s just die….
And here’s what I wrote to Sheila:
Thanks for writing with these interesting questions. It’s always interesting for me to meet, even indirectly, someone like your friend who sees life and Dharma practice in very different ways.
To take things out of order, with regard to the whole idea that life is pointless unless you believe in rebirth, I’d quote the Kalama Sutta, and gently point out that the Buddha seems to have disagreed with your friend’s position. If he taught the Kalama sutta, then he clearly thought that Dharma practice made sense even if you don’t have a belief in rebirth.
[To quote from the Buddha's wager, in that sutta the Buddha tells the Kalamas that his "noble disciples" acquire four assurances in the here and now. The first two of these assurances are:
- If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly and 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.
- But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly and wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.
So the Buddha is saying here that his disciples can practice the Dharma and benefit from that practice without believing in rebirth. What's more, these disciples have mind "free from hostility, free from ill will, undefiled, and pure." In other words, these are enlightened disciples of the Buddha, who have the assurance that their practice is worthwhile, even if they don't know whether rebirth happens. You can go all the way to enlightenment and still not be convinced that rebirth is true!]*
Your friend gets her source of meaning from rebirth, but those of us who are skeptical about rebirth get our meaning elsewhere. Life to me doesn’t need any justification, so “let’s just die” would strike me as being a weird position to take, or even to imagine that people might take (unless, say, they were profoundly depressed). I don’t think it takes much empathy to recognize that people with differing views find life, and dharma practice, meaningful without the conviction that there is rebirth.
I hear similar arguments from Christians, who say that God is what gives life meaning, and if you don’t believe in God then you have no reason for living and might as well kill yourself. If your friend doesn’t believe in God then perhaps she might recognize that she’s adopting the same attitude in thinking that her source of meaning is the only possible source of meaning.
I wonder what she means by “let’s just die?” That without a belief in rebirth we should just kill ourselves? That’s absurd, since I don’t need a belief in rebirth to feel that my life is meaningful. That we should cease practice and just hang on until we die and then our suffering will all be over? That’s also absurd, since she’s suggesting that we should stop doing the things we find meaningful because we don’t get our sense of purpose and meaning in precisely the same way she does.
We all have different ways of finding purpose in life, and to me life is meaningful in and of itself. To be alive and conscious is a constant wonder and miracle. But in addition, seeing suffering in myself and others, and recognizing that most of that suffering is unnecessary, I find meaning in wanting to free myself and others from suffering. Now I can see how a Christian can think that serving god is a source of meaning or how the idea of pursuing enlightenment over many lives can give meaning, so I wonder why your friend can’t recognize that other things give my life meaning? I mean, hasn’t she ever *asked* someone with different beliefs what their source of meaning is? To just assume that they have none suggests some kind of lack of empathy or imagination.
To take your friend’s first point, I don’t think it takes much of a leap of faith to accept that other people are conscious. I am a human, and I am conscious. Other humans show the external signs, though facial expressions, words, etc., that they are experiencing the world in a similar way to me. So it would be bizarre, in my opinion, to assume that other people are not conscious. Assuming that consciousness survives death is an assumption of a completely different order from assuming that others are conscious.
As for agnosticism, I am profoundly agnostic when it comes to the teaching of rebirth. I have no evidence either way. It seems unlikely to me that consciousness can somehow function separate from a body (if I don’t need a body to be conscious, why does brain damage affect our ability to think?) and transfer itself to another body. There are on the other hand accounts of past-life memories, but few of us have had the opportunity to check those out first hand, and even if we did there’s no way we can rule out the possibility of the supposed memories having been acquired through some other route. I was advised to watch a video about a Scottish boy who apparently remembered a part life. I didn’t find it very convincing, and when much was made of his knowing that on the island of Barra, planes use the beach as a landing strip, it seemed quite possible to me that he’d seen this on TV. I try to keep a reasonably close eye on what my kids see on TV, but they’re always coming up with surprising things that they’ve picked up, and that I’d no idea they’d been exposed to. So most of the evidence that I’ve seen is rather shaky (plus there are some well-known instances of supposed memories having come from books people have read). On the other hand, we live in a very strange and wonderful universe, where there’s quantum entanglement. We don’t even know what 95% of the matter in the universe is made up of! So I’m not ruling anything out.
For me, being agnostic about rebirth is actually an ethical position. The Buddha promoted a sort of radical honesty (although of course we’re to be kind as well as honesty). The suttas describe truthful speech like this:
“There is the case where a certain person, abandoning false speech, abstains from false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty, if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come & tell, good man, what you know’: If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ Thus he doesn’t consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward. Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world.”
If you don’t know, say that you don’t know. Otherwise you’re practicing a form of untruthful speech. Now I don’t know that there is such a thing as rebirth, so no matter how many references there are to rebirth in the Pali canon, I’m not going to say that rebirth happens. Unless someone has some extraordinarily convincing and even irrefutable evidence for the existence of rebirth, I think the only honest answer is “I don’t know,” [along with, "Of course what the Buddhist scriptures say is..."]*
Also, practically speaking, not being convinced in the reality of rebirth gives me a sense of urgency. I want to gain full awakening in this very life, and not have the feeling that I can always get around to it later. Sangharakshita has, if I remember correctly, described laziness as the besetting sin of traditional Buddhism, and I believe that this is due to people thinking that they have all the time in the universe to get enlightened.
*This wasn’t in my original reply, but it’s something I meant to say and I added it here for completeness.