Without a proper grasp of rebirth, there can be no end of suffering – so say the EBTs. Rebirth is a foundational aspects of the Buddhist world view, an aspect without which the Buddhist path is emasculated to the point of redundancy. Moreover, there is hardly any point in discussing other aspects of Buddhism unless we can agree on such fundamentals, because so much hinges on what we make of rebirth. Without rebirth, one of the main anchors of Buddhism is lost. The whole teaching begins to drift aimlessly. Radical reinterpretation becomes possible, and often follows as a necessity. Or so it appears to me.
I would like to start this little essay with the sceptics’ request for evidence. In itself this demand is reasonable enough and even a promising starting point for a fruitful discussion. Anyone who believes in rebirth does so for a reason, and articulating this often helps one think more clearly about it. For some this might lead to a rejection of one’s prior belief, for others it may merely be a way of sharing the grounds for one’s deep-seated conviction.
Before I go any further, please allow me to apologise in advance for anything in the following that may seem insensitive or worse. I know I am not always diplomatic enough, and the subject is touchy. All I can say in my defence is that I try.
Let’s start with the science. Buddhism, as presented in the EBTs, claims to be true, in the sense that it reflects reality. This means that it needs to be compatible with scientific truth. Any claims of Buddhists that fail this basic test must be rejected. Among other things, a large part of Buddhist cosmology, most of it found outside the EBTs, must be rejected on this ground alone. Any Buddhist who is a sincere seeker of truth should welcome this, because it helps us focus on those aspects of Buddhism that matter. We should allow science to temper our faith; we should not let our faith decide which scientific facts we will accept.
The same principle applies to rebirth. In so far as rebirth can be proved or disproved by science, we need to be open to scientific findings. @mikenz66 seems to be advocating, here, that science and Buddhism belong to separate and non-overlapping magisteria. Perhaps, but I am far from convinced by this argument. Any aspect, or supposed aspect, of the natural world is at least in principle open to scientific investigation, and surely rebirth is no exception. Even if the Buddhist claim is that rebirth can be discovered through first person investigation, in other words through meditation, this does not discount the possibility that it can also be examined by traditional scientific means. Again, anyone who is a seeker of truth should welcome such scientific investigation. Anything else would be folly.
Of course, quite a bit of research has already been done in this and related areas. Research into past life memories, near death experiences, out of body experiences, and much more has been going on for a long time. The modern era of such research in the West can perhaps be said to have started with the psychic research societies that were established in the 1880s in the UK and the US. Some of the best of this research has been summarised and discussed in “Irreducible Mind” (Edward F. Kelly et. al., 2007), a must read for anyone interested in this field. I am personally unable to ascertain the quality of all this research, especially since it would involve delving into a great amount of detail. But my sense is that the number of fraudsters involved is very small and that the people dedicated to this field are by and large as scrupulous and honest as any upstanding scientist. Many of their findings are at the very least interesting and worthy of open-minded scrutiny and follow-up research.
From the scientific mainstream’s point of view, of course, all of this research is dubious. But this does not necessarily dictate how we should relate to it. Yesterday’s heresy is today’s confirmed fact. We need to be mindful of the history of science, in which knowledge often progresses in leaps and bounds, as argued persuasively by Thomas Kuhn in his “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. The fact that there is any evidence at all that life is not limited to gross material bodies and their supposed derivative minds is in itself interesting. It is at the very least possible that we are seeing pieces of evidence that herald a paradigm shift in the scientific outlook. By looking at this “alternative” research in detail, I believe some will come to the conclusion that there is enough evidence already to justify such a shift, at least on the personal level.
Personally I find the current physicalist understanding of the world baffling: mind is supposed to emerge from physical phenomena and yet our immediate experience of the world is always mental. The material world is really just a set of secondary phenomena deduced from our mental experience. To suppose that mind emerges from phenomena that themselves are derived from our mental experience makes no sense to me. So far as I can see, there is something very odd with the materialist worldview of the scientific mainstream.
Still, many will not be convinced by these “alternative” scientific findings or even potential flaws in scientific philosophy. Many will require that their faith/confidence in rebirth be grounded in something more. That “more”, it seems to me, must start with an appreciation of the EBTs. Having studied these texts in great detail, I have come to the conclusion that rebirth is one of their best attested teachings. In other words, if we cannot agree that the Buddha taught rebirth, there is precious little we can say about his teachings. Anattā? Dependent origination? Mindfulness of breathing? Morality? In my estimation, if we think the Buddha taught any of these, we must by necessity also accept that he taught rebirth. Either that or we have to reject everything.
And it is not just that the Buddha taught rebirth, but that it is absolutely central to his teaching. It pops up in some the most important teaching frameworks: the four noble truths, dependent origination, the gradual training, insight, the culmination of the path, right view. If the Buddha merely accepted rebirth because it was part of the culture he was conditioned by, it is hard to explain why it is so hardwired into the most fundamental doctrines of Buddhism. We would expect rebirth to be a bit of a side show, but actually it is centre stage. Moreover, the Buddha is one of the most radical thinkers in human history and the EBTs present him as someone who regularly challenged what was accepted by the spiritual seekers of his time. Are we to take seriously the idea that he just accepted rebirth without serious consideration, especially when we know that there were other contemporary philosophers who did just that? The whole idea goes against the Buddha we know from the EBTs. In matters of such fundamental importance as rebirth the Buddha spoke from experience, not from mere faith or cultural conditioning.
It is this latter point I believe Bhante @Sujato was referring to in his essay when he said the idea of rebirth is not metaphysical. It is not metaphysical in the sense that it is referred to as a realisation in the EBTs. To say that “the Buddha himself believed in rebirth”, as @DKervick does here, is missing the point. The only evidence we have for what the Buddha thought and taught is found in the EBTs, and nowhere do they say that the Buddha merely believed. To say that “the Buddha himself believed in rebirth”, innocuous as it may seem, distorts the message of the EBTs.
Not only is the idea of rebirth a discovery, it is an extremely important discovery – again according to the EBTs. As is well known, it is part of right view. Why would the Buddha make rebirth part of right view – the first factor of his own path to awakening – if it were merely an artefact of Indian culture? In fact, the EBTs have this to say about rebirth:
… In this way I recollected many past lives with their characteristics and particulars. This was the first true insight (vijjā) attained by me in the first part of the night. Delusion (avijjā) was dispelled and true insight (vijjā) arose, darkness was dispelled and light arose, as happens to one who remains heedful, energetic, and diligent. This, brahmin, was my first breaking out, like a chick from an eggshell. (bhikkhu-pārajika 1)
The Buddha then goes on to say the same thing about kamma and the full experience of awakening.
A little bit of reflection should make it clear how powerful this statement actually is. First, the realisation of rebirth is here presented as (a partial) dispelling of the first factor of dependent origination. As such it is an important component in the undoing of suffering. Second, that avijjā is “dispelled” implies that its opposite, vijjā, arises. Of all the Pali words that might be translated as “insight”, vijjā is perhaps the best candidate: after all, it describes what happens when one becomes an arahant. Realising rebirth is thus presented as an insight. Third, not seeing rebirth is compared to being in the dark. You do not really know what you are doing. You are fumbling around, without any clarity about where you are going. To suppose that believing in rebirth is irrelevant for one’s practice is irreconcilable with this. Fourth, seeing rebirth is like a chick breaking out of a shell. It is hard to imagine a greater difference in outlook from just seeing the inside of a shell to seeing the world outside. Fifth, seeing rebirth is illustrated with exactly the same similes as the experience of full awakening. They are regarded as being roughly on par with each other. That’s how important it is. For most of us it may be difficult – even very difficult – to appreciate this, but that is the message from the EBTs.
None of this means the Buddha must have been right. It does mean, however, that rebirth has an absolutely critical place in his teachings. This is why it is sometimes said that rejecting rebirth is tantamount to saying you are not a Buddhist.
Is this fair? Well, perhaps it is not altogether outlandish. A common argument is that people should be allowed to self-define what they are. I have a lot of sympathy for this, because it is important that we be allowed to feel our way into identities. It should not be a matter of having to take things on-board wholesale from the very beginning or be told we are not proper Buddhists. Moreover, every Buddhist is going to be a little bit different from every other Buddhist, and such diversity is both necessary and useful.
Still, it is reasonable to ask how far such self-identification can go. Words have meaning only in so far as they are defined and have certain limits. To take an example: I happen to be Norwegian by birth, my passport is Norwegian, my mother tongue is Norwegian, and my entire family lives in Norway. Now I might self-identify as a Ghanaian – just to take a random example – but it would not be very meaningful if I went around claiming to be Ghanaian. Communication would start to break down. It is obvious that we rely on certain standards of meaning for communication to be possible. The same must be true for the word Buddhist. If anyone, regardless of their views and practices, can be a Buddhist, then the word becomes meaningless and we might as well discard it altogether.
So what is a reasonable standard for calling oneself a Buddhist? Again, the obvious place to look is the EBTs. I would suggest that the most reasonable and generally accepted standard for a Buddhist is someone who has taken refuge in the triple gem. The implications of this are that one accepts that the Buddha had some sort of fundamental insight into the nature of reality and that one takes the EBTs as a guide for how to live. If one rejects one of the core insights of the Buddha – that is, rebirth – one is actually rejecting his awakening and therefore not really taking refuge. It seems to me that it is at least arguable from this that such a person is not really a Buddhist.
Of course, there are many qualifications to this. It takes time to fully come to grips with the Buddhist teachings, and I cannot see any problem with calling oneself a Buddhist while one is still discovering what it is all about. Also, being a Buddhist does not mean that one is compelled to accept everything on faith. But at a minimum I believe one should have an open mind about the core teachings. So long as one has an open mind, one has not outrightly rejected the Buddha’s awakening. Finally, not all the teachings in the EBTs are equally important. For instance, if one feels the idea of mind-reading is just too much, then rejecting it is not on par with rejecting rebirth. Mind-reading is tangential to the path, and whether one accepts it or not is unlikely to affect one’s practice.
Perhaps the above seems unreasonably harsh and inflexible, but this is certainly not my purpose. In this age when Buddhism is still new to the Western world, it is all too easy to read whatever one wishes into these teachings. Newcomers need some clear guidelines, or they will just go astray. My purpose here is just to discuss my own view of what one of these guidelines might look like.
Let’s get back to the evidence for rebirth. One of the important aspects of the Dhamma is that it is verifiable, ehipassika. If the Buddha discovered rebirth, one would expect this to happen to others too, even in the present day. If one has been a Buddhist monk for over twenty years, as I have, it is almost guaranteed that you will have met people, or at least heard of some, who claim to know that there is rebirth. From personal experience I can say it makes a big impact when someone with strong integrity and credibility tells you to your face that there is rebirth – not that they believe in it, but that they know it as a reality. When this happened to me, I found it impossible to reject it out of hand. It was impossible to reject it because I knew the personal qualities of the people involved. I recognise that this is very personal and that others may find it hard to relate to it. Yet on a personal level such things matter enormously. We are all swayed by authority one way or another; it’s just a matter of who we accept as authorities.
I realise, of course, that none of the above qualifies as incontrovertible evidence. Yet for me personally it is very strong. Each one of us will have to respond to our own experiences.
Rebirth, rebirth, rebirth – I am deliberately echoing the old real estate catch phrase. That is how important it seems to me. We really should avoid using the beautiful Buddhist teachings as brickbats, and indeed the EBT’s themselves warn us against this in the simile of the snake (MN22). At the same time, we need to consider the teachings very carefully. It is all too easy inadvertently to chuck out the proverbial baby. If Buddhism were to lose rebirth, it would be the end of Buddhism as far as I am concerned. Although I have no expectation that this will happen, it would be great to have articulate people like @Ted_Meissner and @DKervick in the rebirth camp. We need all the help we can get. Right now secular Buddhism seems to be in the ascendancy, especially in the West.
To sum up, I cannot see how one can avoid the conclusion that the Buddha discovered and taught rebirth. From an emic sutta point of view, rebirth is not metaphysics. And there are people in the present day – some more reliable than others – who claim the same experience. The idea of rebirth deserves to be treated extremely seriously.