@Owl posted an essay by the well-known American Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal on why he doesn’t believe in rebirth.
He’s framing the argument right out of the gate as a “belief”, just like climate denialists talk about “belief” in science. This is a tell, a way to know that an author is wanting to subjectivize their take on truth, to frame it as just one way of seeing among others. When you see arguments framed in this way, you can be quite sure that soon the author will be talking about attachment to views and their own virtue of skepticism, implicitly framing their opponents as dogmatists. That’s why real scientists don’t use this kind of argument.
But let’s leave aside the rhetoric and focus on the substance. Fronsdal starts with the passage from MN 2 on attending inappropriately (ayoniso manasikāra) in the past, present, and future. Here’s my translation:
This is how they attend improperly: ‘Did I exist in the past? Did I not exist in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? After being what, what did I become in the past? Will I exist in the future? Will I not exist in the future? What will I be in the future? How will I be in the future? After being what, what will I become in the future?’ Or they are undecided about the present thus: ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? This sentient being—where did it come from? And where will it go?’
Fronsdal doesn’t give any context or really explain why he chose this quote, but the idea seems to be that this points out that we shouldn’t be worried about the past and the future. But the point of the quote is that our existential problems with the present are of a piece with those about the past and future: which is exactly the teaching of dependent origination. That this passage is about dependent origination is made clear by its appearance in SN 12.20.
The text goes on to make the critique of eternalism explicit:
When they attend improperly in this way, one of the following six views arises in them and is taken as a genuine fact. The view: ‘My self exists in an absolute sense.’ The view: ‘My self does not exist in an absolute sense.’ The view: ‘I perceive the self with the self.’ The view: ‘I perceive what is not-self with the self.’ The view: ‘I perceive the self with what is not-self.’ Or they have such a view: ‘This self of mine is he who speaks and feels and experiences the results of good and bad deeds in all the different realms. This self is permanent, everlasting, eternal, and imperishable, and will last forever and ever.’ This is called a misconception, the thicket of views, the desert of views, the trick of views, the evasiveness of views, the fetter of views. An uneducated ordinary person who is fettered by views is not freed from rebirth, old age, and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress. They’re not freed from suffering, I say.
So the problem with thinking this way, stated explicitly in the text that Fronsdal omits, is that it traps you in rebirth.
This passage is not against dependent origination, which is the Buddha’s explanation of how rebirth happens without a soul. It is against the twin extremes of eternalism—the idea that this same self exists in the past and the future—and annihilationism—the idea that this life is the only one. This is the view espoused by those who reject rebirth such as Fronsdal.
Literally, the phrase ayoniso manasikāra means “applying the mind by way of what is not the cause”. It’s commonly used in the context of dependent origination. Against it is posited the yoniso manasikāra of dependent origination: that rebirth is a process of change and evolution driven by choices.
Fronsdal goes on.
The concept of rebirth has a long association with Buddhism; some say it was there from the beginning.
“Some” is doing a lot of work here. Obviously rebirth is fundamental to the Suttas.
none of my Zen and Theravada teachers in America or Asia gave any prominence to the idea
Neither do I when I’m talking to a skeptical Westerner. Much of his article is of that ilk, “No-one around me seems that concerned about rebirth”. This is confirmation bias, not rational argument.
Ajahn Buddhadasa who taught rebirth as a metaphor for how we are “reborn” every time we cling to an idea of me, myself, or mine
He did indeed. The suttas don’t, though. Nevertheless, while I disagree with Buddhadasa’s approach on this point, I understand that what he did was a very specific medicine for his cultural milieu. Many people in Thailand have been acculturated to see Buddhism purely as a way of doing merit to get a good rebirth. He wanted to refocus their attention on practicing for realization in this life.
Giving the same medicine to people with the opposite set of beliefs is like giving amphetamines to an insomniac.
particular Buddhist traditions that do not require a belief in rebirth
He phrases this as if anyone in Buddhism would “require” a belief in anything. This is annoying. We’re not the inquisition. Believe what you like. Just don’t pretend it’s what the Buddha taught.
While the Japanese Zen tradition emphasizes the bodhisattva ideal, it mostly does so without recourse to past and future lives.
I’ve heard this before, and while I know little of Zen, I don’t believe that this is an accurate characterization. Traditionally Zen studied closely and followed the teachings of important Mahayana Sutras. They were distinguished, not by a different philosophy, but by a different approach to practice. What modern Americans call Zen is largely a creation of the 20th century, and is highly filtered and selective.
Perhaps if I grew up with a concept of past and future lives, I would be so deeply conditioned to it that I would take it for granted. … Of course it could be argued that my disinclination to believe in rebirth is a product of my own upbringing by atheists
When I taught a retreat in Germany some years ago, the question of rebirth was raised. There were 30+ people there, almost all white people from all over Europe, and mostly highly educated: a physics professor, doctors, students, and so on. And there was one Thai lady. I asked for a show of hands: “Who thinks there is probably something to the idea of rebirth?” Every single person put up their hand—except for the Thai lady.
People are conditioned. Part of the spiritual path is questioning your conditioning and opening yourself up to the possibility of radical change. It’s not impossible: I did it. When I started practicing Buddhism I read Buddhadasa and thought, “Hey great, he says there’s no such thing as rebirth, just like me! The real Buddhist teaching is that there’s no rebirth. How cool, I’m right and all those other Buddhists are wrong! How dumb are they that they don’t even understand their own teaching?”
Then I read some suttas and realized pretty quickly that I was not, in fact, right. Lesson learned!
I know enough about the history and evolution of the Buddhist sacred texts to have serious questions about which words and concepts we can safely attribute to him.
This is the kind of argument that sounds convincing to those who are unfamiliar with the methods and findings of comparative text-critical study. The problem is that it is using skepticism to cast a generic doubt over things, rather than looking at the details of what text-critical method actually does. It’s like someone who says, “Well scientists disagree about effective treatment of COVID. So I’ll just follow my horoscope.”
What text-critical method does is apply multiple independent criteria in examining texts. We ask questions such as:
- Is there a parallel?
- How does this relate to the historical context?
- What are the linguistic features?
- Is the text coherent and clear?
And so on. Each of these methods is uncertain and limited. However, when multiple independent methods point to the same conclusion, we can be quite confident in the results within the scope of the questions we ask.
The good thing about this method is that it is neutral in the assumptions it makes about content. So it helps us to read out of the results, rather than reading in our assumptions. This makes it especially effective at detecting all kinds of biassed readings. This happens just as much with readers from a traditional background, who might tend to read assumptions into a text in one way, and from a secularist background, who might tend to read in another set of assumptions.
This kind of reading is difficult and it takes time. It requires us to learn to distance ourselves from the conclusions. Just as one recent example, see the question I raised about the translation of ācariyabhariyā.
Personally, I would love if it referred to “respected teacher”. Yet I went against the consensus of the experts, and against my own ideological preferences, because I couldn’t see how it was justified by the text. Others chimed in with ideas, parallel passages and the like, giving us more information and perspectives, although still not settling the matter 100%.
This is how text criticism is done. We take time and care to examine even the smallest details, remaining alive to the degrees of likelihood and confidence at every stage. Handwaving at our discipline in order to create a generic aura of skepticism is reductive and anti-rational.
Western Buddhists tend not to read some of the more troubling parts of the canon.
He goes on to discuss DN 27 Agaññasutta, which I have centered and talked about repeatedly for many years. I wrote a whole book, Beginnings on the topic. (It’s awesome, cool pictures and everything!) And I’m far from alone, there’s a large academic literature on this topic.
What’s the problem here, actually? That people tend to focus on the things they find most interesting? That 2,500 year old sacred texts include some things that, when read in a naively literal way, would conflict with science?
May I gently suggest that a bigger problem is when respected teachers are happy to reduce dependent origination to a metaphor although it very clearly is no such thing. Yet when confronted with what is obviously a mythic narrative, they insist on reading it literally.
Let’s bring in some context here. Here’s what Fronsdal says:
the Buddha of the Agañña Sutta claims that human sexual organs originally evolved because people started eating rice.
The story is obviously intended as a moral rather than a history. Yet as is the way of mythology, it encodes a lot of surprisingly accurate scientific information alongside the morality fable. Reading mythology is complex and nuanced; everything has multiple layers.
The Agaññasutta deals with how beings evolve together with their food in the environment. They start as non-organic and non-human beings and gradually evolve into something recognizably human. So it’s not entirely accurate to say that “human” sexual organs appeared at that point. Rather, they were evolving towards modern humanity. If we look at biological evolution, clearly there are strong parallels. Simpler organisms are not sex-differentiated, then sexes emerge in various ways during the course of evolution, and this is related to changes in environment and food.
As Richard Gombrich pointed out some years ago, there is a lot of humor in the narrative. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a serious purpose, for this is part of the way of mythology. It engages with the creative and imaginative parts of the mind that are left hungry by pure rational discourse. So when we say that things in the text can be read metaphorically or creatively, we are not being arbitrary: that is the kind of text it is.
If you want to understand it sympathetically, you’ll find little nourishment from either the literalist readings favored by traditions or the reductive readings favored by secularists. I immersed myself in mythology for years, drawn in and fascinated by the play of light on the surface and the dark depths within.
Fronsdal goes on to mention some of the texts that describe the punishments of hell. Again, some context is helpful. There are hundreds, probably thousands of cases where the Buddha refers unambiguously and clearly to rebirth as a reality. Then there are four or five cases where the punishments of hell are depicted in a lurid way. It is possible to accept the reality of rebirth while also understanding that the details of how the Suttas speak about it are colored by the cultural understandings of the time—just as our way of talking is shaped by our context.
He goes on to argue that:
the Buddha’s various pithy summaries of his teachings similarly make no mention of ideas of rebirth
There’s a million words in the Pali Suttas. It comes as no surprise that you can cherry-pick passages that don’t talk about rebirth. That’s why, if we want to understand the Buddha’s teaching, we don’t start with minor or incidental teachings. We start with the Four Noble Truths, which explictly place rebirth front and center.
- “Rebirth is suffering …”
- the cause of suffering is “that craving that produces future rebirth”
- the end of suffering is the end of “that very same craving”
- the path is what leads to the end of that same suffering.
When it comes to specific texts, Fronsdal’s citations are misleading, and frequently a closer look shows the opposite of what he wants to say.
He cites Dhp 183, which doesn’t mention rebirth. But the same passage also appears in DN 14, where it is said to be the saying of a previous Buddha. Even in the Dhammapada, the very previous verse refers to rebirth.
It’s hard to gain a human birth;
the life of mortals is hard;
it’s hard to hear the true teaching;
the arising of Buddhas is hard.
He goes on:
In the records we have of the Buddha approving of the teachings of his disciples, none of these teachings make reference to ideas of rebirth.
What kind of argument is this? Choose an entirely arbitrary criterion and provide no evidence for it or reason why it should matter at all?
A little research shows that it isn’t true. DN 13 has the Buddha praising Vāseṭṭha for his criticism of the brahmins, who teach a path to rebirth with Brahmā without any experience of what they are talking about. In AN 4.186, a student asks a question which the Buddha praises and answers with the four noble truths. In SN 56.16 he praises a mendicant for understand the four noble truths “as I have taught them”, i.e. as being about rebirth. The great qualities of the householder Ugga praised by the Buddha at AN 8.21 include the fact that he converses with deities. This is just from a quick search, I’m sure there is more.
The reality is, of course, that all of the Buddha’s teachings to his disciples, no matter what form, are informed and shaped by the Buddha’s own experience of rebirth and the ending of rebirth. All of them fit within the four noble truths, like the footprints of all animals fit in the elephant’s footprint.
It’s like if you go to work for a big corporation for the first time. You’ve heard that such organizations are all about making money: profit is all that matters to them. But when you get there, people greet you kindly. They say, “Have a nice day!” “Let me know if I can help you out with anything.” “Take your time and get settled in.” “Hmm, odd,” you think. “So far, not a single person has said to me, ‘Ensure maximization of profit’. Obviously profit is not important to corporations. I must have got it all wrong.” Profit is why the corporation exists: they don’t have to keep reminding themselves every sentence. It’s a shared understanding.
The overwhelming reality of the process of transmigration is the stream in which the teachings are swimming; it is the ocean that they plumb and the air they breathe. It is what makes all of it matter.
one of the Buddha’s strongest denunciations of a disciple’s teachings was of Ven. Sati’s idea that consciousness is reborn
This is a serious misrepresentation of the text. What the Buddha actually criticizes is Sāti’s idea that “this very same consciousness” (tadevidaṁ viññāṇaṁ) proceeds through transmigration, “not another” (anaññan). This is the brahmanical idea of consciousness as the actor and experiencer, the ātman. Sāti, in fact, describes it in ways very similar to the eternalist views of MN 2 that we have seen earlier.
The Buddha does not oppose this by saying, “There’s no such thing as rebirth.” He teaches dependent origination: that consciousness is an evolving and conditioned process, which proceeds from life to life like a stream, always changing, propelled by the force of our choices.
That the text deals with rebirth in a literal way is made clear by the later discussion of the process of organic conception and birth. This requires not just the physical presence of the parents, but the being to be reborn. When born, they react to their surroundings, and if unwise, they propel a whole new rebirth into new suffering in the future. If they are wise, however, they can undo the round:
When their relishing ceases, grasping ceases. When grasping ceases, continued existence ceases. When continued existence ceases, rebirth ceases. When rebirth ceases, old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress cease.
Fronsdal invokes the Aṭṭhakavagga as a text that “presented the practice without recourse to notions of rebirth”. The Aṭṭhakavagga is another of those litmus tests for students of early Buddhism. Because it is short, eccentric, and focussed, it leaves out a lot of things. That makes it easy to read in your own ideas rather than the Buddha’s.
But it doesn’t make sense outside of the larger context. This is not an imposition on the text: it says so itself. Snp 4.14, for example, says “a mendicant would not be negligent in Gotama’s teachings … diligent in the teaching of the Buddha.” It is explicitly intended to be read in the wider context of the teachings.
Anyway, here’s the Aṭṭhakavagga on rebirth:
Snp 4.2: I see in this world a generation floundering, bound by craving to states of existence. Base men wail in the jaws of death, not rid of craving for different states of existence.
Snp 4.11: The wise one does not proceed from life to life.
Fronsdal ends with the old misunderstanding that the idea of not-self precludes rebirth. What not-self means is that, here and now, you can see that everything you are is changing. When you die, it’s just another change. A more drastic one, to be sure, but different only in degree, not in kind.
The secularist argument dispenses with the Buddha’s teachings on dependent origination as mere metaphor, then wonders, why is there no explanation for how rebirth happens without a self? There is such an explanation: it’s called dependent origination. It’s so important the Buddha made it a central part of his teaching and talked about it again and again.
Believe in rebirth, don’t believe in rebirth, whatever. But don’t try to pretend that it’s not what the Buddha taught.