Batchelor, Bramali, Rebirth, Choices

Disclaimer: I don’t feel confident expressing myself via a keyboard, but I’ll try anyway. :slight_smile:

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?

with metta

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Thanks for the link! As for rebirth, I’m not sure it’s as clear cut as endorsing it equals Buddhism and rejecting it equals non-Buddhism, there are plenty of suttas that mock people who speculate about future lives and encourage worrying about the here and now instead, plenty of us here would reject lots of what’s in various Mahayana sutras as being metaphorical or allegorical, so it seems to me Stephen is free to do the same with the EBT’s and still be recognisably a Buddhist.

I tend to think that most secularists believe in rebirth anyway, like Robert Thurman says, they just write themselves a free ticket, thinking they will be reborn in the realm of nothingness or the realm of non-perception, just without having to practice any meditative attainments!

My own path to rebirth was a slow realisation of the above, that “nothing” or “unconsciousness” are and cannot be other that human conceivings and conceits and that an infinite nothing cannot be the consequence of a finite something.

Looking forward to watching that debate!

Much love.

It’s pretty clear that the definition of right view includes: there’s this world, there’s the next world, there’s beings reborn spontaneously, there are sages who had seen this for themselves directly and declared it to the world.

Those who are just starting out in Buddhism and took refuge in ignorance is more ok. Stephen being very well educated, rejected core doctrine of Buddhism.

As well as he rejected rebirth evidences above. How deeply rooted in delusion he must be to reject facts, empirical evidences?

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I think perhaps we just don’t see Buddhism quite the same way, my understanding is the

“Dhamma is visible in the here-&-now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the wise for themselves.”

It is not required that followers accept rebirth or any other doctrine on the basis of tradition or definition-

"Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.”

I see it as those who took refuge are Buddhists. To be a good Buddhists, one should keep the precepts too.

But in what sense can a person be said to take refuge in the Dhamma if they reject the Dhamma?

The Kalama sutta is commonly used for beginners, outsiders to the Dhamma, for long timers, the Buddha did praise many instances of inducing faith.

For the Dhamma which is directly visible, for rebirth, one has to develop the recollection of past lives then. Before than, indeed, a lot of faith is required, but with the help of rebirth evidences, this faith is not blind, but reasonable, rational.

Ajahn Brahm also has the common saying that for one who sees the mind, without the other 5 aggregates, they can be sure that when the body dies, the mind still is there. There’s no more fear of death. It’s in his meditation retreat instructions, usually what is called nimitta. Deep kind of nimitta, where the body disappears.

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That might be true, but to call oneself a Buddhist one must patiently follow the Buddha’s path in order to see firsthand and accept the essential teachings of the Buddha. Rebirth may take more time and effort to realize, but it’s baked into the Four Noble Truths and is throughout the suttas.

Perhaps as a young monk Batchelor had already completely closed his mind to rebirth and by intentionally rejecting it, he began moving with a boldness to choose which of the Buddha’s teaching he would embrace and which ones he would brush aside. I think that’s one of the dangers of wrong view. In his case, it may have given rise to his philosophy of Secular Buddhism, which isn’t Buddhism.

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I have seen that the Buddha taught as wrong views (mundane wrong view) almost exactly the views of Ajita Kesakambali, who was considered to be a materialist.

IN DN2 Kesakambalin explained his teaching:

*Ajita Kesakambali said: "Your Majesty, there is nothing i given, bestowed, offered in sacrifice, there is no fruit or result of good or bad deeds, there is not this world or the next, there is no mother or father, there are no spontaneously arisen beings,’’’ there are in the world no ascetics or Brahmins who *
have attained, who have perfectly practised, who proclaim this world and the next, having realised them by their own super-knowledge. This human being is composed of the four great elements, and when one dies the earth part reverts to earth, the water part to water, the fire part to fire, the air part
*to air, and the faculties pass away into space. They accompany the dead man with four bearers and the bier as fifth, their footsteps are heard as far as the cremation-ground. There the bones whiten, the sacrifice ends in ashes. It is the idea of a fool to give this gift: the talk of those who preach a doctrine of survival is vain and false. Fools and wise, at the breaking-up of the body, are destroyed and perish, they do not exist after death."

There are lots of past D&D discussions on rebirth and on Secular Buddhism. This topic is more about the obstacles that prevent us from following the Buddha and the danger of wrong view, using Batchelor’s story as an example. In one story he related his crisis and his rejection and justified it by taking the Buddha’s words and saying that it meant something it didn’t. I think it’s important to see thes danger in that.

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Exactly.

The part that always interested me about “secular Buddhism” is everything from the very beginning of its formulation is cherry-picked. Look to the 4NT and this point above is only confirmed.

" Now this is the noble truth of suffering. Rebirth is suffering…" [emphasis added]
- SN 56.11

I have read many books by Stephen, and I do actually like them because I like reading on other’s viewpoints; nonetheless, avoiding rebirth is an absolute detour and only negates the philosophical and soteriological implications of Buddhism itself–relegating it to what is essentially neoliberal capitalist self-help meandering that constantly circles around itself and creates innumerable feedback loops–leaving practitioners confused and lost.

I have met so many practitioners of “modern Buddhism” especially secular, who even after many years are still unsure of many things (and thus blind to Buddhism’s liberating potential) and just sit on cushions for 45 minutes and meditate at these centers, then listen to people conjecturing on and on and on about topics unrelated to Buddhism.

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Why do you think the non-rebirth is not a belief?. If no experience after death, that thought remains in the mind like a belief. It isn´t right?

They are accepting that belief against what the Kalams Sutta says. Rebirth is another belief although it is in agreement with the Buddha (and with logics, btw).

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I guess my feeling is that the secular Buddhist movement and the mindfulness movement are a net positive because they expose people to aspects of Buddhism who might otherwise never have been exposed to it. I myself was first exposed to the ideas of Buddhism by a D.T Suzuki book about zen that in retrospect was far from orthodox but it started me on a journey that over the last 30 years has included reading the 4 Nikayas and other EBTs as well as Mahayana materials and contemporary authors. I think people perhaps don’t realise how difficult it is to get to traditional Buddhism from a culture that is very different to it. Secular Buddhism and the Mindfulness movement open a door that some people can use as a first step to a deeper practice, who otherwise may simply never have been exposed to the cultivation of the mind at all.

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I agree with you on this part. It does expose people, and gets a lot of people on the path. A professor friend of mine talks about “barnes and noble Buddhism” being a gateway for a lot of people as well.

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No disagreement from me. I found Buddhism via Goenka retreats. Yet I also think it’s important to call out what isn’t Buddhism, such as when Venerable Brahmali pointed out multiple times in the video, that Stephen Batchelor’s views might be well and good, but it’s not Buddhism. Then people’s curiosity can be aroused and they can investigate for themselves.

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How does not believing in rebirth change anything about the practice? Secular Buddhists are still pursuing the end of suffering. Do people believe doubts about rebirth amount to an insult to the Buddha? Why is this even an issue?

You are right, they are. But, if there is only one life then you can easily escape suffering by dying.

I don’t know if it is an insult to the Buddha, it is just cherry-picking through and through, and that fact can’t be logically argued since in his very formulation of right view, and also the four noble truths, the Buddha speaks on rebirth as what I would say is an ontological reality in the Buddhist system of thought.

[EDIT] To add a little bit here as well, it isn’t about “believing” in rebirth … but honestly, to really make progress on the path, you have to accept it as a possibility and understand that the Buddha is making a truth claim regarding rebirth. This really cannot be glossed over or put aside as “cultural baggage” or whatever kinda stuff S. Batchelor says about it and many others in the secular world. I would say this is my opinion, but I (and I am a skeptic and critic of a lot of stuff believe me) think it is actually the truth.

This may also be helpeful. I cherry-picked it just for this conversation, LOL.

"The flat denial of the possibility of rebirth would count as an instance of
wrong view and therefore is better avoided. In fact, at the current stage of our
knowledge there is no incontrovertible evidence that either proves or disproves
rebirth. Although the notion that the mind equals the brain is a paradigmatic
assumption in much of modern science, to date this has never been conclusively
proven.

Right view can take two forms. One of these involves an affirmation of
rebirth, the other finds expression in the four noble truths. Someone
uncomfortable with the idea of a continuation beyond death need not feel forced
to accept rebirth as a matter of mere belief but could simply consider it an
element of Buddhist thought presently beyond personal verification. As a guiding
principle for actual practice, the four noble truths could be relied on.

Although the above considerations suggest that there is no need to believe in
rebirth in order to be a practicing Buddhist, for those who wish to understand
early Buddhist thought, there is definitely a need to try to understand the
doctrine of rebirth. This holds in particular for those who wish to teach the
Dharma to others. Given the centrality of rebirth, it is not possible to gain a
proper understanding of early Buddhism without having at least a basic grasp of
what this particular doctrine involves."

-Ven. Analayo
excerpt from “Superiority Conceit in Buddhist Traditions” Wisdom Publications

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Yes, it’s a doorway into Buddhism, but not Buddhism itself. There are other doorways into Buddhism, I believe many in the west stumbled upon Buddhism via psychedelic drugs. Psychedelic drugs are not something I would recommend.

The issue with some secular Buddhists is if they claim that secular Buddhism is a form of Buddhism, or worse, the original Buddhism as the Buddha meant for it to be. Then it becomes a cult. Something which claims the name of Buddhism, but serves the food, with the essential ingredient missing. There are plenty of other cults of Buddhism Controversial ‘Buddhist’ Teachers & Groups (viewonbuddhism.org) which we wouldn’t necessarily recommend people to get into, although, for some cases, it’s good for them to get exposure to Buddhism and come to right view eventually. Best is to come to right view straight away.

It’s still ok to use secular Buddhism as the doorway to ease some people into Buddhism, but basically, we are already doing it by saying: leave rebirth aside for now, let’s focus on meditation/psychological parts of Buddhism. The term secular Buddhism gains a dirty name due to some of them not being willing to see secular Buddhism as merely a step along the journey to Buddhism, but as the endpoint in their understanding of Buddhism, not open to be converted.

It’s an issue for the sake of future generations. Who knows if the current mainstream Buddhism which includes Mahayana initially started as a splinter group which is universally condemned by others, then over time, had to be acknowledged as mainstream for the sake of harmony? I am thinking of Nichiren Buddhism, which looks very different from Early Buddhism, yet is now recognised as one of the mainstream Buddhism in Japan. It has very similar practises to Pure land, which is on an even more solid foundation as mainstream.

Could calling it out as not Buddhism work? Look to the case of Lu Jun Hong, Lu Taizhang of Oriental Radio. I don’t foresee them becoming mainstream Buddhism, perhaps due to so many orthodox Buddhist organization calling it out as not Buddhism, or as a cult. However, secular Buddhism has the potential to become mainstream. I dunno if calling it out would ultimately work, but it’s better than just keeping silent as if we approve of them modifying the teachings of the Buddha to suit materialism philosophy.

For the sake of the practise, kamma and rebirth does form a major part of the morality basis in Buddhism. Secular Buddhists use humanism as their morality due to not believing in kamma and rebirth. There are one or two part which is of the crucial difference between the 2 morality here, which might become relevant.

Say for a depressed, single, secular Buddhist, who’s suicidal and doesn’t have any friends or family or relatives. They might not see anything which would prevent them from killing themselves, since there’s not even anyone who would be sad for their passing. Since they don’t believe in life after death, to them, suffering can end faster by killing themselves, rather than to keep on living without hope, suffering like hell in depression. Whereas, for us Buddhists, we would avoid suicide at all costs due to kamma and rebirth. It might not be that easy to convince a secular Buddhist at that stage about rebirth, but more conventional anti-suicide techniques have to be used.

A second issue is euthanasia. There are plenty of posts by secular Buddhists, or new Buddhists from the west (who most likely doesn’t believe in kamma and rebirth yet, or haven’t internalized it) that says that they are ok with killing animals who are fatally wounded, dying slowly just to quicken the death of those animals. They don’t consider the bad kamma of killing they would incur on themselves. They don’t consider that ending the animal’s life doesn’t necessarily end their suffering (due to samsara).

This becomes even more important when it comes to parents. If for some unfortunate cases, some people’s parents got into a terminal illness, no hope for any quality of life, comatose etc, which at some point might face the decision to be hooked to a life support machine. If later on, due to various reasons, the children has to decide if the life support machine would need to be unplugged, that’s killing parents there. 2 of the 5 heavy evil kammas, resulting in hell for sure next life, and no attainment possible. For those who don’t believe in kamma and rebirth, there’s much less incentive to stop them from that unspeakable evil.

This issue would be multiplied to generations of unfortunate Buddhists if secular Buddhism became mainstream down the generations.

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Yes, I’ve actually heard people saying that - that they like how people like Batchelor are rediscovering “what the Buddha really taught”. It seems to me quite different from people like Robert Wright, or the mindfulness/wellness movement, who are quite clear that they are just picking up the Buddhist concepts and techniques that they find useful for a particular purpose, and feel no need to even engage with other aspects.

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I’m surprised noone has mentioned Bhante Sujato’s conversation with Stephen Batchelor (perhaps I missed it).

I thought there was an interesting contrast between Stephen’s denial of rebirth via logic and Bhante Sujato’s comment that he became intuitively convinced of something bigger than one life in the car park of the leper colony south of Chiang Mai on Christmas day of 1992. You can watch about minutes 38 to 43 if you are in a hurry.

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Why does this matter? A lifetime of suffering and certainty of death is enough to motivate practice. If practice will make me happy in this life, why can’t this be enough? One more thing, if dying were the end of suffering, I would take comfort in that.

If you believe that every word of the canon came from the Buddha’s mouth, you might believe this. Think about why there is so much talk about EBTs here. There is an acknowledgement on the part of many here that some of the canon is secondary.

It is not cherry picking to bracket off parts of the canon that appear incongruent with parts you believe to be primary. There are many parts in the canon where the Buddha will not make declarations about metaphysical questions. Also, the Kalama sutta has him saying that his dharma makes sense even if there is no rebirth.

AN3.65
‘If it turns out there is no other world, and good and bad deeds don’t have a result, then in the present life I’ll keep myself free of enmity and ill will, untroubled and happy.’ This is the second consolation they’ve won.

The vast majority of people in the Buddha’s time believed in rebirth and there were some who did not. Maybe the Buddha’s middle way approach was not to make a declaration about rebirth either way. Maybe the quote above is evidence for this. In any event, I do not see a reason for the animosity toward Secular Buddhists.