No rebirth - what happens next?

Hi Alex,

I came to conclusion that rebirth could not be real after an extensive investigation of the various Buddhist beliefs on this score (recorded in my book Karma and Rebirth Reconsidered). I found Thomas Metzinger very influential. As I finished his book, The Ego Tunnel, I realised that my lingering doubts about the supernatural had simply evaporated. And I felt liberated from a burden. I no longer believe any explanation of anything that invokes the supernatural. The supernatural is not real. Meaning that I no longer find karma and rebirth interesting.

This was partly because I found so many different and conflicting Buddhist explanations of rebirth, and also because I didn’t find any of them compelling. No existing Buddhist explanation of rebirth, for example, successfully explains how there can be continuity in the absence of any persistent entities.

I also no longer buy into the fantasy of a just world. Karma is not materially different from or better than any other religious just world theory. I don’t like that justice in all these theories is a post-mortem affair. Justice has to be timely and it has to be seen to be done. Karma negates both of these criteria.

Moreover, an account of the evolution of morality, such as outlined by Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist, seems much more compelling that any of the many Buddhist and non-Buddhist theories of karma.

The whole idea of an afterlife is predicated on notions that we know must be wrong: like ontological dualism. There’s just no way of accounting for life after death given what we know about how the universe works. Ergo, there is no life after death. Or if there is, no one has yet come up with any evidence of it. It would help if all the religions talked about the same afterlife, but even Buddhists cannot agree on one story! And it was only worse in the past when Buddhism

I would say, for example, that minds are always embodied. And that the death of the body wipes out the mind, memories, and personality.

What happens next?

Your body is gradually broken up and recycled. And that’s it. There is no “life after death” because this would contradict too many other things that we know must be true about the universe. Every death is effectively a parinirvāṇa.

I’m quite aware that religious Buddhists find this view objectionable (as they find many of my views objectionable). And I’m sensitive to their concerns. I have no intention of downplaying the traditional importance of karma and rebirth to Buddhism. To the extent that we know anything at all about “early Buddhism” (which is minimal in my view), karma and rebirth are central and inseparable.

I’m fully aware that without karma and rebirth, traditional Buddhism, doesn’t really make sense.
But facts are facts. Iron Age people were not best-placed to describe reality. I think this is especially true of people whose principal search for knowledge of reality involves completely cutting yourself off from reality.

That said, my research on the Heart Sutra alerted me to some real phenomena that people experience, notably the cessation of sensory experience. I may have over-emphasised this, but only because I’m working on source texts that can only be understood by privileging cessation. My goal is to get some insight into the minds of the authors. To do that I have to internalise their belief, while retaining my sanity. Conversations with meditators indicate some other things are definitely going on and important, but you don’t find those in a Prajñāpāramitā text. Funnily enough, I relied almost entirely on my knowledge of Pāli, particularly how Sue Hamilton saw the Pāli texts, in explaining Prajñāpāramitā. I think Prajñāpāramitā is more closely related to certain strands of Pāli Buddhism than it is to any version of Madhyamaka.

I have no doubt that some people are able to achieve cessation and that this changes them in very positive ways. So while I don’t believe in karma and rebirth, I do believe in bodhi. So I figure I’m still some kind of Buddhist. McMahan would probably call me a “Buddhist Modernist”. Which is fair enough.

But I’ve also come to see the knowledge gained by Buddhists as unrelated to “reality” or the “nature of reality”. I still can’t tell you when Buddhists started talking in such terms, but I feel quite strongly that this is a wrong view. Reality is described to 12 decimal places by science. What Buddhists learn in meditation is far more limited and related to sensory experience and the nature of sensory experience.

Most of the metaphysical conclusions that Buddhists promote (like karma and rebirth) are simply not supported by a coherent epistemology. No one has ever been able to explain why or how meditation—withdrawing attention from sensory experience—would give anyone access to “reality”. Worse, it’s clear that many Buddhists see the absence of sensory experience as reality. This explains the basis of Madhyamaka metaphysics for example. But none of it has anything to do with reality.

After I die, I will rapidly be forgotten, my body with be recycled by bacteria and fungi, and… that’s it. I find this thought galvanizes me to work on my writing on a good day. My best shot at “life after death” is publishing something that makes people think and talk. My latest article on the Heart Sutra was published yesterday in Buddhist Studies Review. I hope people find it stimulating.

I’m not proselytizing. I don’t expect anyone to agree. I’m just answering the question as asked (and because almost no one ever asks).