Disclaimer: I don’t feel confident expressing myself via a keyboard, but I’ll try anyway.
This post addresses some comments I’ve read by members of D&D who have found it a challenge to accept rebirth (or perhaps other Buddhist essential doctrines).
When it first came to the issue of rebirth for me, I think I had a similar experience that many others have described: that it felt like too much of a stretch to embrace it. It was an experience I’ve had in other times of my life where I’ve come to a fork in the road, but the decision I make has long term consequences.
For example, when I was 18 years old I had a very distinct moment where I knew I had to decide between my established way of thinking and behaving (rather juvenile) and a very different way of thinking and behaving (more adult). My decision to opt for change proved to be a positive monumental pivotal moment in my life. Two decades later I was faced with either continuing my established addictive thinking and behaving that had led to unfavorable consequences and a new, unfamiliar path which promised a better way. The latter seemed impossible, but once I made the conscious choice to be open to another way, life dramatically opened up and changed for the better for me. There have been other other times of decision when I’ve taken the wrong fork and paid dearly for those choices! But the story here is about the process I encountered around the issue of rebirth in Buddhism.
Upon encountering Buddhism and Buddhist practice for the first time I instantly knew with certainty that this path was the answer. And time and again, the word of the Buddha has proven to turn out to be right to me. However, when I first heard rebirth being part of Buddhism, that didn’t sit well for me. It was way too similar to other religions and their beliefs on heaven and hell, the afterlife and woo-woo reincarnation, concepts that I had previously believed on faith and later patently dismissed. Honestly, I couldn’t understand how Buddhism could contain the notion of rebirth and I didn’t even want to think about it. At some point I heard a teacher advise that, if one has a problem with rebirth, just set it aside and don’t dwell on it. So I did that, but the issue still rubbed me the wrong way whenever it came up. Fortunately, I didn’t just make up my mind, take a stance and then mold the dhamma to fit my view. I’ve heard it said that sometimes a person makes an emotional decision and then justifies it with logic. The Buddha didn’t do that!
So when Venerable Brahmali and Stephen Batchelor debated in 2014 (see link below), I watched the video a few times and wasn’t sure about the parts where they discussed rebirth but something nagged at my mind and felt unsettled. Later, I finally came to a point in my Buddhist path where my trust in the Buddha was so strong that I could see that my pre-conceived views on afterlife and rebirth were obstacles to being open to putting said views aside and actually seriously considering rebirth on its own merits and what the Buddha taught and why. Once I made that choice, it didn’t seem as threatening or as compromising as I thought it would. In fact, it was surprisingly liberating to let go of something so deeply held and to let the way things really are to be revealed to me.
I became open and curious about rebirth and it began to make much more sense once I wasn’t attached to a view. Sometime after reading Analayo’s book “Rebirth in Early Buddhism and Current Research” and diving deeply on Dependent Origination, I realized just how essential rebirth is in the Buddha’s path to ultimate liberation. I found that without rebirth, Buddhism becomes something like a self-improvement program so that life might be more enjoyable for myself and others before we die. Now, for me, Buddhism only makes sense with rebirth.
So I’ve gone back a few times and watched the debate. At a point, Venerable Brahmali kindly calls Batchelor out on his dismissal of rebirth and points out that for a person to call themselves a Buddhist, one has an obligation to not deviate too far from what the Buddha taught. Stephen Batchelor immediately responds with a firsthand account of how he came to his fork in the road, when and how he made his deviation.
He describes being a young Tibetan monk greatly struggling with the issue of rebirth and "waking up in a cold sweat” because he simply could not accept rebirth. He says that his Tibetan teachers insisted that he must have a conviction about rebirth and believe it or he couldn’t be a disciple of the Buddha. His refusal or inablility to do this led to what he calls his "crisis” or the fork in the road, and his decision to reject it.
He then goes on to explain that he believes that the Buddha wanted his disciples to be autonomous, independent and liberated from authority, and that after ordaining, to go forth on ones “own” path. Batchelor then defines the Sanga as a group of people with broad values and beliefs and he takes umbrage when people say he can’t be a a Buddhist because he disagrees with essential doctrines of the Buddha.
I can’t speak for Stephen Batchelor, I can only consider his own words at face value and try and decipher what was behind his story. It sounds to me like he may have come to that pivotal fork in the road, his crisis to decide to either double down on his rejection of rebirth or to consider the possibility that his “cold sweat" could be a hinderance to seeing what the Buddha saw. Since he decided to reject rebirth, perhaps he justified it with his logic. This might possibly have given rise to the necessity of developing his "Secular Buddhism” philosophy and him becoming autonomous, independent, liberated from authority, going forth on his own path, defining his own truth, free to disregard essential teachings of the Buddha and mold the Dhamma to fit the “seculum” and his logic.
There are several past discussions on D&D about Secular Buddhism and I’m not sure we could say any more than has already been said about what it is. This post isn’t really about Batchelor or Secular Buddhism, it’s more about what can get in the way of being open to rebirth. The Seven Factors of Awakening spring to mind; investigation, finding right view, developing right view, and not digging in one’s heels of established beliefs. If I sail my ship across the ocean with a slight compass error, I’ll never reach my destination, such is wrong view.
Here’s the link to the debate and the clip of Batchelor as I described is from 1:09:38 to 1:13:28
Stephen Batchelor and Ven Brahmali debate in Melbourne 2014
Any thoughts about all of this?