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Rebirth, rebirth, rebirth

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.

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Not just ordinary claps…the type accompanied by a loud standing ovation: :clap:t6: :clap:t6: :clap:t6: :clap:t6: :clap:t6: :clap:t6: !!!

Well said Ajahn Brahmali! :pray:t6: :pray:t6: :pray:t6: Well said indeed!!

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From a philosophy of science perspective some of this reasoning is anticipated in the thread: Science, Scientism & Dharma

That something “needs to be compatible with scientific truth” makes sense only to the degree that what is called “scientific truth” is true. I think some caution is called for here.

  • Scientific truth is generally held provisionally and/or probabilistically. The word truth is to be use advisably.
  • The idea endorsed by Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore to Take seriously but hold loosely applies equally strongly to notions of “scientific truth”.

I would advise something less emphatic even for the cosmology found inside the EBTs. I might suggest this revision:
"The student should be advised that it is permissible and perhaps wise or skillful to put aside aspects of Buddhist cosmology when they contradict the more certain aspects of scientific cosmology."
Q Do you agree?

Q Can you source the proposition that “Buddhism, as presented in the EBTs , needs to be compatible with scientific truth” in passages from the EBT?
I’m thinking that cannot be done.

Buddhism, as presented in the EBTs, claims to be true, in the sense that it reflects reality.

I would say that reflecting reality is not the same as a literal, one-to-one correspondence with reality. In similar fashion a map is a map, not the territory. A reflection is a reflection of an image of a thing and not the thing itself.
Q Would you care to revise the proposition or did I capture your intended meaning?

Any aspect, or supposed aspect, of the natural world is at least in principle open to scientific investigation, and surely rebirth is no exception.

Spot on! That proposition has more of the flavor of respect for uncertainty that is appropriate to the subject.

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Hi Bhante,
Thank you for the careful and interesting topic-starter.

I’m sorry if I implied that they were non-overlapping. I am merely cautioning that there are different knowledge systems, and trying to reduce them all to science can risk trivialising some aspects of them.

I share @Feynman’s caution that science, by definition, is, on the boundaries, tentative. It progresses by disproving theories, and, tentatively, proposing new ones. Newton’s laws we can be rather certain of (at speeds much smaller than the speed of light), and we can feel confident about taking trips on airplanes. I’d be willing to bet that aspects of modern theories of the universe, such as dark energy and dark matter will be abandoned, or significantly modified in the next decade. Furthermore, it’s difficult to imagine how to even begin to frame the most interesting aspects of Dhamma in terms of science. What would a scientific investigation of nibbana look like? As far as I can tell, science has mostly investigated mundane side-effects of Dhamma practice, such as physiological benefits of meditation. That’s not worthless, of course, but not of particular interest to seekers of Nibbana.

Of course, I’m going a little off topic here, since I’m not specifically addressing rebirth. To bring it back a little, I’d like to mention Bhikku @Cintita’s essay that encourages us to examine the EBTs from a practice perspective: Take Seriously but Hold Loosely, which has been discussed in some other threads:

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That topic was addressed in the thread Science, Scientism & Dharma
The non-overlapping magisteria is but one way of conceiving of the relationship between science and Buddhism and IMO not the best or most complete. I commend @mikenz66 for his reformation above.


P.S. :grinning:
“non-overlapping magisteria” – but I do love how the words rolls off the lips, the teeth, and the tip of the tongue.

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There’s really no point in making a response, since in this forum the essay preaches to the converted, but what the hell, I’ve had some coffee.

Brilliant. If this was said more often, rather than the average Buddhist worldwide stomping the soapbox and preaching about the ‘solid fact!’, the ‘you can’t disprove it!’ of psychic powers, we might have some common ground.

Brilliant. It requires an open mind, as you say, rather than one closed via pseudo-certainty… from any side…

What do those with the appropriate expertise tend to say?

Hmm. I’m thinking that “In so far as rebirth can be proved or disproved by science, we need to be open to scientific findings” in this respect.

You seem to be claiming that science, since it’s never certain, can be ignored based on personal preference, or at least that one has imprimatur to make claims that “ought to be taken seriously” even if they amount to fantasy.

Science is indeed always growing into realms of new information and refining its claims, and this requires ongoing shifts in any given contemporary systematization of available facts.

Possibilities admit of degrees; the current weight of the evidence does not lean towards rebirth. Two more things:

  1. “Rebirth or Materialism” is a very, very tired false dichotomy.
  2. The Buddha taught rebirth. Yes. This is affirmed.

To have to keep dealing with these is ludicrous. Let it go; more & more, these are straw men.

The Buddha did believe in rebirth the way other religious folk assess their own beliefs as factual realizations, as discoveries. But Buddhism has not been able to objectively differentiate itself from this morass of disagreement - thus, the need for faith.

Just fine; this is expected from religious people. I wonder, though, how many of them would agree that “we should allow science to temper our faith; we should not let our faith decide which scientific facts we will accept.” Continually shoving personally cherished yet undemonstrated claims to the edges of the scientific map with a “here there actually be dragons” is illegitimate.

Secular Buddhists can therefore call themselves Buddhist, which would be really nice to hear more often (…at all?). Their general approach of withholding belief due to a lack of evidence is so often mischaracterized by orthodox faith-holders as a simple rejection. This is completely wrongheaded, and is something very important for all y’all to address on your own side of the street.

Replace “rebirth” with any sort of numinous claim, and you see the role of confirmation bias, wishful thinking, preemptive conclusions, groupthink…

…argumentum ex cathedra, ipse dixit, appeal to authority…

…despite being vastly outnumbered by Mahayana. I’m not kidding about this, SC forum-goers:

What if Buddhism lost the historical Buddha? Mahayana lost him, and I hear… nothing…

Yes, he taught it (how many times must this tired trope rear its ugly head?), but the word “discovery” is completely premature.

The fact of inevitable death deserves to be treated extremely seriously; preemptive conclusions that barely rise to the level of presumption do not.

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Granted.

All the same, when Ajahn Brahm recently visited the UK a question came up at one of his mini-retreats. To paraphrase: when we still don’t directly see the Dhamma for ourselves how are how are we meant to work with the supermundane aspects of the teachings? Ajahn Brahm replied, to paraphrase: the Buddha taught the eightfold path, that means jhana; you can’t be liberated without jhana. I can’t quite see how the proper grasp you mention can come about through any other means than deep meditation and direct seeing. This in turn makes me wonder,

What exactly is it that you’re trying to do by not being diplomatic over a subject that is obviously difficult for many (for the record, I personally subscribe to the ‘belief’ of the reality of rebirth and also agree that the Buddha’s teachings is logically impotent without it)?

Quite right, but from where I stand, belief, while not exactly being irrelevant in so far as it may direct what is seeable, is just changeable mind fluff when put in relation to actual knowledge which returns me to my first point.

Is this just to mean that if we can’t say the Buddha taught rebirth we can’t reliably say he taught anything, or do you mean to say these are completely useless teachings to engage with unless one buys into rebirth?

Today I attended an event at a Tibetan Buddhist centre and heard some comments the I feel about as confident as I can be are not supported by the EBTs. I felt a bit apprehensive at the time, because the commenter (a nun of several decades) was asked for ‘the’ Buddhist view on a matter and I really wished she could have explained that she gave the view of her particular lineage. I definitely felt a ‘protective clench’ on behalf of the questioner (and, of course I see, in defence of what my particular understanding of the Buddha’s teaching is) who I felt had been misguided a little, but it didn’t occur to me to question the nun’s claim to being Buddhist and I can’t see who it would have helped if it did occur to me.

Most definitely so, I guess there are various styles and techniques for doing so that reach and connect with different ears of various configurations, but while I have the deepest respect for your intention (not to mention the beautiful teaching you offer) I can’t help but feel that harshness and inflexibility (to use your words) while it may ‘convert’ some also carries the danger of putting off others. I think it is sufficient to, without bashing anyone’s head in the process, just be very clear about what the Buddha taught (rebirth) and let people work their own way through things.

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I’d also like to have this unpacked.

FYI, Analayo will be publishing a book titled “Rebirth in Early Buddhism and Current Research” next year.

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Let me address two of the main issues raised by Bhante Brahmali’s interesting and well-conceived post: the issue of the relationship of physicalism and related views of the mind-body problem to the issue of rebirth, and the issue about the existential motivations for, and relevance of, the Buddha’s path to those who do not believe in literal rebirth.

Physicalism and Rebirth

Whether physicalism is true or not is not especially germane to the question of rebirth. It could well be that mental phenomena and physical phenomena are separate ontological categories or realities, and that mental phenomena are neither identical to physical events, nor emergent phenomena that in some way necessarily arise out of, and ontologically supervene on, the occurrence of physical phenomena. But accepting this metaphysical hypothesis – and it is only a hypothesis - does nothing to establish the occurrence of rebirth.

Similarly, even physicalists could believe in rebirth, so long as they can defend or at least articulate some hypothesis about how future physical organisms might inherit enough of the identity and kamma of a currently living organism to count as a case in which the latter organism has been reborn.

One thing we do know, from both abundant everyday experience and more careful clinical observation, is that mental and physical phenomena are causally interdependent. We know that various diseases and injuries of the brain can cause people to lose large quantities of their memories; so much so, in some cases, that most of their personal identity seems lost and destroyed. We know that other such diseases and injuries can cause people’s thoughts to become extremely disordered. In some cases, they might lose consciousness entirely. Or they might lose their visual sense, or their sense of hearing. Or they might experience phantom limbs, or auditory and visual hallucinations. And we now know that during brain surgery, surgeons can stimulate the occurrence of memories, sensations, tingles or other kinds of conscious experiences merely by stimulating certain areas of the brain.

To recognize these basic and familiar everyday realities is not to take a stance on either materialism or physicalism, or against some variety of dualism. It is only to be aware of the myriad kinds of very evident causal connections between mental and physical phenomena, including brain phenomena. People have been abundantly aware of the apparent causal dependency on their minds on their bodies since there have been people, which leads to the common human anxiety about, and dread of, death.

Even if one insists that there is some rudimentary level of “consciousness” or bare sentience remaining following catastrophic brain injury, that level of minimal sentience does not seem to involve almost any of the properties that go into making an individual person the person they are. Very few people would be inclined to think they will have mentally survived such a catastrophic mishap in any meaningful way, even if there were some continuity in the basal stream of “bare sentience”, if all of their memories and individual characteristics were gone.

One also cannot conclude anything significant about the possibility of rebirth from phenomena like near-death experiences and out of body experiences. One thing reports of those kinds of experiences have in common is that they are all reports given by people who, though very sick, injured or near death, were all resuscitated and brought back to normal functioning so that they could report their experiences. So clearly their brains were still intact, and none of the reported experiences occurred after “the breakup of the body”. What some of those reported experiences might require are reassessments of some current definitions of “brain death”, and improvements in tools for measuring brain activity.

The mere fact that these experiences include unusual representational content – blue hallways of light, burning lakes, ethereal choral music, sensations of floating, or external visual perspectives on one’s own body - is no more mysterious than the fact that dreams and imaginative experiences of many kinds include such unusual content. If you close your eyes rights now, and make a determined effort to imagine a blue hallway, or imagine yourself from a perspective situated five feet above and behind you, you can probably do it with some success. You possess a great deal of information about your own visual appearance and your immediate physical surroundings, and that information can be utilized to manufacture a different perspectival view of your current situation. Out of body experiences are often said to be more vivid than such deliberate imaginative efforts, but by the same token, dreams are often much more vivid than daydreams. When ordinary sensory inputs are shut down, imaginative fabrications become more prominent and vivid in consciousness. (I personally experience chronic tinnitus, and when I drift off to sleep, the tinnitus sometimes amplifies into something like thundering church organ music. Sometimes it is so loud, it wakes me up again.)

Also, some people attempt to ground a belief in rebirth in observations about unusual characteristics of their lives that they cannot explain. But these seem circular or question-begging. Suppose you are obsessed with washing your hands. You say to yourself, “Why in the world would have such a weird obsession? I must have been reborn from a person who had a hand-washing obsession!” But clearly that is not a very helpful explanation, since it just pushes the origin of the hand-washing obsession back one life, but does nothing to explain where it came from in the first place. It seems just as plausible to assume the obsession comes from some combination of biological nature and experiential nurturing that generated all of your other traits. But even if one can never explain satisfactorily where it came from, wheeling in another life with its own unexplained obsessions doesn’t help.

The earlier observations about the observable everyday causal dependency of mental phenomena on physical phenomena also show that popular appeals to the possibility of some kind of panpsychism are not enough to establish rebirth, or even the plausibility of rebirth. Some people believe that mental phenomena are modifications of, or excitations of, or perturbations in, some all-embracing background “psychic” field. Perhaps that is the case. But, even accepting that hypothesis provisionally, for the sake of argument, it is abundantly evident that in the life of human beings these modifications of the psychic field correlate powerfully with, and are altered by, modifications in an enduring, organized physical organism – and that this happens in a very regular, comprehensive and empirically predictable way. So, there is every reason to suspect that once that physical organism ceases to function, and then decays and breaks up, the correlated psychic phenomena will cease to occur, and the “regions” of the psychic field that were previously undergoing such dramatic and organized modifications will return to something closer to a quiescent equilibrium state, lacking anything one would be inclined to recognize as a personal identity. To get a defense of rebirth out of panpsychism, one needs to add some far more detailed conjectures about how a whole new set of physical phenomena, occurring elsewhere and in the future, manage to become associated with an organized pattern of mental phenomena that amount to a new arising of the same person, the one who had existed earlier. This is a tall order.

We all recognize that after we die there will be many other conscious beings in existence, probably far into the future. What the defender of rebirth is committed to believing is that, among those beings, some of them will be us; that is, that the same person will in some way re-merge, or re-occur, or be reconstituted out of whatever it is from which mental lives are constituted. It is not enough to conjecture that some fragmentary traces of an entire human life will in some way survive or be re-stimulated to occur elsewhere. Suppose, for example, the experience I had when I was looking out of the window as my train entered the Stockholm station survived, embedded somehow in the “code” of the “psychic universe”, and that as a result of some unusual event in the future, that code was “called” and the memory event was somehow replayed, whether as part of the ongoing mental life of some other being, or as a brief and free floating mental event. None of this would be sufficient to imply that I had been reborn.

Note that the discussion in the previous paragraphs has gradually moved further and further away from what we know into realms of increasing speculation. Much of the flocculent lore, conjecture and fantasy in the area of “spiritual” discussion trades on an easy substitution of loose “sciencey” imaginings for the more well-established models and confirmed hypotheses of actual scientific research. For example, in the film AI, the android-hero’s long-sought mother is psychologically reconstituted at some time far in the future by a race of advanced artificial beings. They tell the hero that they have learned that the traces of a person’s existence are all stored “in the fabric of the spacetime manifold itself” – or something like that. Of course, that sounds wonderfully scientific since it uses terminology from mathematical physics like “spacetime” and “manifold”. But there is no actual science behind this statement. The writers and director were just conjuring up a needed plot device out of some vague sciencey-sounding lingo in order to give the film an emotionally satisfying resolution. Most panpsychic and spiritualist speculation belongs to the same realm of loose imaginative conjecture.

Given the urgency of our spiritual and existential dilemmas as human beings, it seems to me that one would is wise not to make one’s spiritual practice depend on the outcomes of empirical investigations into these kinds of speculations and conjectures. The track record of fruitful investigation of such speculations in these areas is not good. For example, in the era when photography was still a relatively unknown and mysterious technology, many reputable scientists and intellectuals were taken in by the simple trick of double exposure. They were later embarrassed to discover just how easily they had been deceived by the always potent combination of ignorance and wishful thinking. It seems best not to let one’s imagination run wild here – or if one does let it run wild from time to time, to reign it in and not let it have much of an impact when important practical life decisions, for oneself and for other people, are being made.

The Meaning of the Path

Why did the Buddha go forth from the household life in pursuit of the holy life? We don’t know a lot, but we know something. We have the account of the Ariyapariyesana Sutta, for one thing. In that sutta, the Buddha tells us that the ordinary pursuits of worldly life of his time – spouses and children, slaves, pigs, cattle, elephants, gold, silver, and all sensory pleasures – are all subject to birth, aging, death, defilement and sorrow. They are all mortal and corruptible. And the mortal person who seeks them is also mortal and corruptible. The mortal’s life is made up out of the search by a transient and corruptible being for futile and transient satisfactions. Dismayed and disenchanted by this sorry and futile spectacle of mortal life, he decided to go forth “to seek the unborn, unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding.”

So, at a later time, while still young, a black-haired young man endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life — and while my parents, unwilling, were crying with tears streaming down their faces — I shaved off my hair & beard, put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness.

At no point here has the Buddha said that his dismay was based on the idea that all of this miserable and futile striving was being undertaken by beings whose lives were interminable and everlasting. Whether he believed that or not, he reports only that he finds the strivings of ordinary, worldly mortal life to be absurd and futile.

Nor does he say, “I thought about just killing myself, but realized I would only be reborn again, and so that wouldn’t help.” If that was his thinking pattern, he might easily have said so. But he doesn’t. It is clear here that the Buddha was not a would-be suicide, seeking mere personal extinction or nothingness, an extinction he was pathetically prevented from attaining by the wheel of rebirth. He went forth because he was aiming at something greater or higher than mortal futility, not its mere termination. That greater something he dimly conceives, even at that earlier stage, as “the unborn” and “unbinding”. He also uses the phrase “rest from the yoke”. But clearly a beast of labor who is simply killed is only given “rest” in a euphemistic sense. If the beast has the yoke removed, however, and then experiences the peace and liberation that comes from no longer having to labor, he has truly achieved rest. That’s what the Buddha appears to have been looking for when he went forth.

We also have the similar, and possibly earlier, testimony of the Attadanda Sutta:

I will tell of how I experienced dismay.
Seeing people floundering like fish in small puddles,
competing with one another —
as I saw this, fear came into me.
The world was entirely without substance.
All the directions were knocked out of line.
Wanting a haven for myself, I saw nothing that wasn’t laid claim to.
Seeing nothing in the end but competition, I felt discontent.
And then I saw an arrow here,
so very hard to see, embedded in the heart.
Overcome by this arrow, you run in all directions.
But simply on pulling it out
you don’t run, you don’t sink.

Once again, we see a dismay or despair over the miseries of worldly life, and the realization that though a transformation of the heart, one can end these miseries, and experience peace and liberation. He then says one should set one’s heart on Unbinding. Having achieved that unbinding, by going over & beyond sensual passions, one will completely transcend sorrow and be free from bonds. The liberated person then “goes about”, calmed.

All of this makes complete sense to any person who is disenchanted by the futile strivings and sufferings of worldly life, and who seeks the bliss and pure, perfect happiness of complete liberation, no matter how long they think their mortal life is. It even appears to have made sense to the Buddha, at the beginning and throughout his strivings, before he is thought to have realized the truth of rebirth in his culminating insights. So, I don’t think there is any basis for the idea that the Buddha’s path only “makes sense” for the person who already believes in rebirth. It makes sense for any person who is sick of the scramble of worldly life, and strongly suspects there is something higher and purer that constitutes an escape from it, and that the Buddha found a way to that escape that can be imitated.

There is a kind of dramatic grandiosity in the view of the person who think “Oh, my suffering is so much worse than yours, because I think I have been suffering for aeons, and will continue to suffer for aeons, whereas you think you are just suffering for a few decades. Your puny suffering can’t possibly be as great as mine!”

But no matter how long one thinks one’s existence is, we are all more or less trapped in the present. My wife and I were talking about my son the other day, who is now 27. We were trying to remember what his and our life were like when he was 11. We realized that although we could deduce various things about what he and we must have been doing then, and look up various records, there was almost nothing we could remember. All of those days driving him back and forth to school, the lacrosse and soccer games, the dinners and conversations, the joking around, the arguments – mostly all gone now. Just a few flickering, static mental images are left.

So, when people talk in a convinced way about the existence of their manifold previous lives, and their manifold lives to come, but, as is usually the case, they make no claims to remember much or anything of these previous lives, or clearly foresee anything of the lives to come, then I conclude that their existential situation is no different than mine, and these convictions can’t really be playing much of a role in whatever spiritual motivation they possess right here and now.

The Buddha attempted to steer people away from both the craving for future existences and the craving for future non-existence. Both of these goals are actually worldly goals based on ordinary, temporal craving and desires. Taking the spiritual life of the path to consist in the aspiration for a nice house or car a few years from now, or a whole nice new life many years from now, is a worldly perversion of the path. But it seems to me that the idea that the goal consists not just in the extinguishment of the sensual passions and the fires of greed, hatred, delusion, but in the total extinguishment of the candle of one’s entire mental life, is also a perversion of the spiritual life that sees it as an attempt to act out the self-destructive goals of suicidal depression in a world which is deludedly believed to be frustrating those suicidal goals by tying one to a wheel of rebirth.

I agree that if the belief in literal rebirth were dropped by most Buddhists everywhere, that would have a pronounced effect on the spiritual practices and aspirations of traditional Buddhism. Fewer people would procrastinate and decide that they should be content with living an ordinary, worldly moral life now, and getting a good rebirth, so that they could do some serious spiritual striving later. If one only has one life in which to attain the Deathless, and one is intent on attaining it, then it is best to get on with it. So, there would probably be a lot of serious rethinking about the institutions and practices of everyday Buddhist life. And there would no doubt be less emphasis on the making of “offerings”, where these are conceived as mechanisms for securing worldly attainments. These are the kinds of offerings the Buddha gently disparaged in his conversation with Punnaka in the Parayanavagga (Sn 5.3): like the Brahmanical sacrifices, they are offered “because of aging” and in hope of “more of this state of being.”

But without a conviction in literal rebirth, people might also appreciate more of the mythic and figurative meaning embodied in the Buddhist conception of samsaric wandering, put less mental emphasis on their personal desperate wandering, and more emphasis on the universal wandering of humanity as a whole. Once one realizes how little of even our own futures and pasts we are in vivid mental contact with, it seems to matter much less whether the mass of suffering that will occur 1000 years from now, or occurred 1000 years ago, was or will be in part my suffering, or is entirely the suffering of others. The distinction between self and other in relation to the vastness of time doesn’t seem very important.

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I have this experience all the time. As a philosopher, I am constantly running across work on such topics as “the Buddhist view on population ethics” or “Buddhist axiology” or “the Buddhist view of the self” or the Buddhist view on interdependence" or “Buddhist metaphysics” or “the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness” or “Buddhist epistemology.” Almost without exception, these works discuss either medieval Mahayana philosophy, especially Madhyamaka, or else some aspect of the very contemporary, engaged, “consensus Buddhism” popular in western glossy Buddhist magazines - most likely derived in some way from the combined thinking of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Chogyam Trungpa and Pema Chodron.

A lot of this is wonderful stuff, but I wish people would be a bit more circumspect about assuming that 2500 years of thinking on any topic X, encompassing an extremely diverse intellectual, moral and religious culture, all springing in manifold forms from an ancient oral tradition, can be encapsulated by “the Buddhist view of X.”

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Thank you for your interesting piece Bhante. While this is not a topic I find particularly fruitful in my own practice, I have a few short points to make.

It may be that as we reach a state of awakening the awareness of rebirth comes upon us. If that is so, it is not necessarily strange that those of us who are not yet awakened are without such awareness and indeed uncertain about it. Was the Bodhisattva convinced of rebirth? Need we be? The point, I think, is to reach an awareness of the unsatisfactory nature of all conditioned phenomena and so realize complete nonattachment and non identification with them. This includes nonattachment to views and opinions, be they true or false.

If, as the Buddha said to the Kālāmas, rebirth is true, then this stance may well get us beyond it. If however rebirth is not true, then at least we are living lives of ease, free from trouble and strife.

Indeed. Of course, many practicing Buddhists of different traditions do not really look to the EBTs. So what is to be said of them? Are they not really Buddhists?

In the final analysis, words such as “Buddhist” are mere labels anyhow. What matters is our practice. I mentioned this point in a prior piece for the SBA on the debate between yourself and Steven Batchelor.

As I see it, one of the main problems with the rebirth hypothesis is our contemporary understanding of how memory works, and in particular how humans typically confabulate false memories given particular circumstances of recall. I wrote a piece back in 2013 for the SBA on the topic of the problems with rebirth, for any who are interested: A Secular Evaluation of Rebirth.

With metta. :anjal:

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Hi Doug,

Just curious, do you believe in any psychic phenomena? Telepathy etc…?

Best,

Brad

Dear Ajahn @brahmali

Thank you for your essay.

I think it will always be like that because we see only what our conditioning allows us to see. I never really understood why for so many people the teaching of rebirth is hard to accept. But then again, that’s my conditioning to see teaching of rebirth as something perfectly logical.

When I was reading your essay I remembered SN 16.13 where the Buddha talks about the decay and disappearence of the true Dhamma. Sometimes I feel there isn’t much hope for the Buddhist world as it is now but on the other hand we still have the Buddha’s teachings. And my gratitude to monks like Ajahn Brahm, you, Bhante Sujato for not being silent on many so-called controversial topics, including rebirth.

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Re MN26

I’m a bit confused by this point because the teaching the Buddha offers is not rooted in his wisdom pre-awakening, but rather from what he directly saw through meditative practice after he renounced regular life and practised to full awakening. In the description of the final steps of that process the tevijja report pops up over and again.

The sutta part you quoted belongs to his “while I was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta” (eg. MN4, MN19 etc.) period of life, and while, sure, it sort of shows that he didn’t necessarily have a pre-existing belief in rebirth (as much as it shows that he didn’t necessarily reject the doctrine of rebirth) that drove him to practice it doesn’t negate the fact that a core aspect of what he taught was rebirth.

Could you perhaps re-explain why it is significant that he mightn’t have had rebirth as the primary drive for renouncing?

ADDED:

I should have been a bit clearer. With reference to:

The Bodhisatta found life challenging. Loads of people do. This is a commonality, but doesn’t really strike me as anything more than that and is quite apart from the actual path the Buddha set out. The bodhisatta’s per-awakened agitation is one thing, the Buddha’s path is another. It is understandable how someone who says the path “makes sense” to them while at the same time rejecting a key aspect could be a bit puzzling.

That said, I think there’s a very pragmatic approach to the issue that is available and that much of the teaching is beneficial without a belief in rebirth. I think the Buddha himself advocated it in at least MN60.

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I used to be fascinated by them, but having learned about fruitless investigations over the years, I find them unlikely at best. That said, as Bhante Brahmali put it, these iddhis are tangential to the path anyhow so should not concern us one way or the other.

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I bet (not literally, because I don’t gamble) that this thread exceeds the 450 some posts of the previous thread on why secular Buddhism is not true. I’m guessing at least 500!

:upside_down_face:

So much for the doctrine of non quarreling.

:disappointed_relieved:

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I bet you’re wrong because one of those dastardly mods might lock it well before then! :smiling_imp:

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I like the cut of your jib, @Aminah!

:anjal:

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Hi Timothy,

I don’t see any quarrelling on this thread. I, and obviously others, are interested in unpacking some of the more “difficult” aspects of the Dhamma, and how we should hold it.

As someone with Science as a day job, I’m particularly interested in what Science does or doesn’t offer to such issues. As I said above, I worry that trying to frame our thinking in terms of a Science paradigm risks trivialising some aspects of Dhamma. However, since some aspects of Science are uncertain and tentative I may well be wrong… :laughing:

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