Rebirth and radical honesty

wispThis 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

8 thoughts on “Rebirth and radical honesty”

  1. Dear Bodhipaksa,

    I just wanted to offer a few thoughts regarding this post.

    In my understanding, “noble disciple” in the suttas refers to anyone who has reached either the path or fruit of any of the four stages of awakening, even someone who has not yet experienced the fruit of stream entry (i.e., a dhammanusari or saddhanusari). It would not necessarily imply someone who has gone “all the way to enlightenment”, by which I assume you meant arahantship.

    Also, the standard definition of right view in the suttas includes rebirth (“this world and the next world”). Though I agree with you that the Buddha would not have asked someone to blindly believe in rebirth, his definition of right view seems to imply that one should adopt the view of kamma/rebirth as a working hypothesis, at least until this view has served its purpose for bringing one to complete liberation. I realize that he didn’t ask the Kalamas to do this, but then, they weren’t his disciples (at least at the beginning of the discourse), and so would not be expected to develop the entire eightfold path yet (which would include right view).

    It also occurs to me that the resistance most people have towards rebirth is due to approaching it with the assumption of a “being” that is reborn. It can be hard to fathom rebirth without positing a “who” or a “what” that is reborn. Those who have developed some genuine insight might not think in terms of a “being”, but might still assume something more subtle (like a consciousness) that would somehow be reborn.

    Perhaps the arahant understands rebirth differently than we try to, having completely given up the standpoint of self, or being, and having seen it all simply as conditions arising and disappearing. In other words, perhaps, since “a being” is a relative truth, not an absolute truth, “rebirth” is also a relative truth. And when looking from the absolute perspective, the concept of “being” or “me” no longer applies, perhaps the same is true for rebirth. As I’m sure you know as a Dhamma teacher, it can be difficult to explain absolute truths using relative-truth concepts.

    My long-winded point is that perhaps the arahant understands rebirth perfectly. He or she just isn’t looking at it from where we’re standing.

    Not being an arahant, I’m just speculating about all this. But, based on what I’ve seen so far, it seems to be heading in this direction.

    Please take my comments for whatever they’re worth, and accept my admiration for the work you do in sharing the Dhamma with so many people.

    1. Thanks for writing, Chris. As far as I’m aware, “Arya savaka” isn’t defined in the suttas, and I guess I was taking the fast that the noble disciple is described here as “free from hostility, free from ill will, undefiled, and pure” to mean Arahantship rather than just stream entry, where there’s plenty of ill will still to be dealt with. But the purity and freedom from ill will is mentioned in relation to the disciple just having cultivated the brahma viharas, and so this might be a temporary, samatha, purity that’s being referred to, rather than the ultimate purity of full awakening. Anyway, you’re probably right!

      “It also occurs to me that the resistance most people have towards rebirth is due to approaching it with the assumption of a “being” that is reborn.” That’s not my problem with rebirth. I understand on an experiential level there is no substantive self, and yet there’s continuity. Since I have no problem with continuity in this life, I wouldn’t have a problem with continuity from one life to another — except that I can’t imagine a mechanism by which that could possibly work. I’m prepared to overlook not being able to understand how rebirth works if presented with convincing evidence that it works, but so far the evidence I’ve seen hasn’t been very convincing.

  2. Yes, I’ve seen arya savaka translated as “noble disciple” (meaning one who has attained at least the fruit of stream entry) and as “disciple of the noble ones” (which more generally means anyone who follows the Buddha and his awakened disicples). It’s hard to say which meaning is correct in this sutta; perhaps both are meant in this case.

    Trying to prove or disprove rebirth, is, I believe, losing sight of the path and goal. The Buddha was always pragmatic, and his sole purpose in teaching was only to help people understand suffering and bring it to an end for themselves. I think that getting hung up on proof for rebirth tends toward the questions in the simile of the poisoned arrow (MN 63). The Buddha included kamma and rebirth under right view because he saw that adopting this view (as a working hypothesis, not blindly) helps lead one to liberation, and adopting the materialist view (that it all ends with the death of the body) tends to lead one away from it. Right view (in conjunction with the other seven factors of the path) would ultimately lead one to the end of all views. Like the rest of the Dhamma, right view is part of the raft, a pragmatic means to reach the goal. Perhaps it would be correct to say that it’s a relative truth that leads one to an experience of absolute truth.

    I certainly wouldn’t say that anyone should believe in rebirth. Blindly believing in rebirth is as foolish as blindly believing there is no rebirth — the key word being “blind”. But if our purpose is complete liberation, rather than a detailed understanding of how the universe works, it might make sense to adopt what the Buddha considered to be right view as a working hypothesis. Perhaps by practicing as if rebirth were true (without blindly adhering to it), we might eventually arrive at the end of all dukkha and find that our previous questions and doubts about rebirth are now moot.

    1. “Trying to prove or disprove rebirth, is, I believe, losing sight of the path and goal.”

      Precisely. Rebirth isn’t readily provable and it’s not at all disprovable. That’s why I just get on with my practice :)

      “It might make sense to adopt what the Buddha considered to be right view as a working hypothesis.”

      Possibly, but there may be unintended consequences that the Buddha, despite his wisdom, didn’t foresee. For example, there’s the problem of assuming that you’ll get around to deeper practice in a future life, and just be kind of ethical in this life for the meantime. On the other hand, assuming that rebirth is unlikely (although possible) may well spur some people on. That’s certainly been the case for me.

  3. I don’t mean to seem argumentative, but I’d disagree that the Buddha wasn’t aware of the tendency of some people to delay the ultimate goal in favor of just a nicer rebirth. I remember one sutta where a monk was chided by the Buddha (or it may have been by his fellow monks) because he was practicing for a good rebirth (unfortunately, I can’t find the reference). He frequently said that he “did not praise even a trifling amount of existence, even for a mere finger snap” (AN 1.328), in order to dissuade them from being lazy and betting on a good rebirth. And it was precisely because of rebirth, with its rarity of birth into the human realm and likelihood of birth into a lower realm, that he said to practice seriously now (SN 56.102).

    As a side note, a fellow practitioner once told me that, without the possibility of rebirth, if this life was all there is, she probably wouldn’t put forth so much effort in her practice. Similar to your motivation for practicing, but reversed.

    Perhaps it’s not necessary to adopt the Buddha’s teachings on kamma and rebirth as a provisional viewpoint for practice. However, given that one has a limited time to practice the Dhamma, to me it seems a safer bet to wholeheartedly commit oneself to all of the factors of the eightfold path, rather than take a risk by skipping over one or more of the factors.

    1. The idea of the rarity of human rebirth can certainly be a motivating factor for practice, and people may have believed in this in the Buddha’s day, but I’m not sure many contemporary Buddhists actually take this view of rebirth seriously. Most I talk to seem to assume they’ll have many more human lives. And actually, taking the view that you may not come back as a human in the next life is closer to the belief that this is the only life we have (which can bring a sense of urgency) than it is to the view that we have many more opportunities for existence ahead of us (which can promote complacency). I’ve seen Asian Buddhists talk about their practice in this way: “I don’t meditate: maybe I’ll do that next time around.”

      Anyway, your point is that a sense of urgency is valuable, and I agree. Taking as a working assumption that there might only be this one life certainly turns the pursuit of awakening into an urgent quest for me.

      “It seems a safer bet to wholeheartedly commit oneself to all of the factors of the eightfold path, rather than take a risk by skipping over one or more of the factors.” Well, yes. But no one’s suggesting skipping any of the factors of the eightfold path. It’s simply a question of whether right view necessarily has to include a belief in rebirth in order for our practice to be effective — and I think we can take the Kalama Sutta as qualifying the standard list of components of right view (including the belief in a next world) and quite explicitly saying that a belief in rebirth is not a necessary factor for the noble disciple to progress toward awakening.

  4. I agree with you, Bodhipaksa, that the Kalama Sutta makes it clear that one doesn’t have to believe in rebirth, even provisionally, when beginning the practice. I only disagree with the assertion that the Buddha considered it unimportant for a serious practitioner to (provisionally, until personally verified) hold rebirth as part of right view.

    To quote Bhikkhu Bodhi, “The fact that such texts as…the Kalama Sutta do not dwell on the doctrines of kamma and rebirth does not mean, as is sometimes assumed, that such teachings are mere cultural accretions to the Dhamma that can be deleted or explained away without losing anything essential. It means only that, *at the outset*, the Dhamma can be approached in ways that do not require reference to past and future lives. The Buddha’s teaching has many sides, and thus, from certain angles, it can be directly evaluated against our concern for our present well-being and happiness. Once we see that the practice of the teaching does indeed bring peace, joy, and inner security in this very life, this will inspire our trust and confidence in the Dhamma as a whole, including those aspects that lie beyond our present capacity for personal verification.” (In the Buddha’s Words, Wisdom Publications, 2005, p. 85)

    Later in the same book: “It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that for Early Buddhism an understanding and acceptance of this principle of kamma and its fruit is an essential component of right view…For Early Buddhism this world-transcending right view [of the noble truths, dependent origination, and the three marks of existence, leading to liberation] cannot be taken up in isolation from mundane right view [acceptance of the principle of kamma and rebirth]. Rather, it presupposes and depends upon the sound support of mundane right view, which means a firm conviction in the validity of the law of kamma and its unfolding through the process of rebirths. (In the Buddha’s Words, p. 147)

    I’m not arguing that Dhamma practitioners should believe in rebirth, or even that they must believe in rebirth in order to gain full awakening, as I surely don’t know. And I haven’t interviewed enough arahants about their views on the subject.:) Also, I do understand the way that you’re interpreting the sutta and can see how it leads to your conclusion. But there are just so many other suttas, given to both monastic and lay people, disciples and non-disciples, in which right view includes rebirth, that I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling someone that the Buddha didn’t consider rebirth to be a necessary part of a practitioner’s view.

    It seems that we may not come to an agreement about this point, but hopefully it might spur the more curious of your readers to read the suttas and decide for themselves. I appreciate you taking the time to discuss this with me, Bodhipaksa.

    1. Sorry for the delay in approving and replying to your post. In order to keep my email inbox low I disabled the notification emails from my blog, and I sometimes forget to check for comments…

      Anyway, “It means only that, *at the outset*, the Dhamma can be approached in ways that do not require reference to past and future lives.” I’m not sure when or why it would become essential to believe in past or future lives in order to make spiritual progress. I experienced the arising of stream entry several years ago, and have an ongoing realization of non-self. While stream entry is merely what I call “entry level awakening” it is still an experience of the lokuttara, and traditionally it’s said that beyond this point awakening is guaranteed. I can’t know for sure whether that’s the case, but I’ve no reason to doubt it.

      I’d say that being dogmatic about the non-existence or existence of rebirth would be a hindrance at this point in my practice, but my sense is that an open mind combined with a determination to make full use of the time remaining to me in this life is all I need. If for some reason my practice hits a wall and I find that I can’t make progress without embracing rebirth, or I have some kind of insight that reveals rebirth to be a fact, I’ll be sure to let you know :)

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