September 27, 2011

Guest Post: The Buddha didn't just believe in rebirth, he argued for it

Thai forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a frequent contributor to Tricycle, sends the following:

It never ceases to amaze me that scholars—who should know better—keep repeating the idea that the Buddha lived in a time when everyone took for granted two principles: (1) that rebirth happened, and (2) that karma had an effect on how rebirth happened.

You wonder why this idea gets repeated so often, because the Pali Canon provides clear evidence to the contrary, evidence that has been available in Western languages for more than a century.

The Buddha frequently referred to two extremes of wrong view that blocked progress on the path: eternalism and annihilationism. “Annihilationism” is the term he used to describe those who denied rebirth. Apparently he didn’t invent the term himself, as MN 22 reports that other teachers sometimes accused him of being an annihilationist as well.

The Canon mentions two people who, in the Buddha’s times, were famous for their annihilationist views. One was Ajita Kesakambalin, the leader of a materialist sect. DN 2 reports his views as follows:

“‘There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed. There is no fruit or result of good or bad actions. There is no this world, no next world, no mother, no father, no spontaneously reborn beings; no contemplatives or brahmans who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next after having directly known and realized it for themselves. A person is a composite of four primary elements. At death, the earth (in the body) returns to and merges with the (external) earth-substance. The fire returns to and merges with the external fire-substance. The liquid returns to and merges with the external liquid-substance. The wind returns to and merges with the external wind-substance. The sense-faculties scatter into space. Four men, with the bier as the fifth, carry the corpse. Its eulogies are sounded only as far as the charnel ground. The bones turn pigeon-colored. The offerings end in ashes. Generosity is taught by idiots. The words of those who speak of existence after death are false, empty chatter. With the break-up of the body, the wise and the foolish alike are annihilated, destroyed. They do not exist after death.’” — DN 2

DN 23 tells of a Prince Payasi who held a similar materialist view and who had used his power to execute criminals as an opportunity to conduct gruesome, quasi-scientific experiments to test whether any part of a human being survived death. Two of the experiments were these:

“There is the case, Master Kassapa, where my men—having caught a thief, a wrong-doer—present him to me, (saying,) ‘Here is a thief, a wrong-doer for you, lord. Decree for him whatever punishment you want.’ And I say, ‘Very well, then, masters, having placed this man while still alive in a clay jar, having sealed the mouth, having covered it with a damp skin, having plastered it with a thick layer of damp clay, having set it in a furnace, light the fire.’

“They—responding, ‘Very well,’ to me—having placed the man while still alive in a clay jar, having sealed the mouth, having covered it with a damp skin, having plastered it with a thick layer of damp clay, having set it in a furnace, light the fire. When we know, ‘The man has died,’ then—removing the jar, breaking through the seal, opening the mouth—we look carefully, (thinking,) ‘Maybe we’ll see his soul escaping.’ But we don’t see his soul escaping….’

“There is the case, Master Kassapa, where my men—having caught a thief, a wrong-doer—present him to me, (saying,) ‘Here is a thief, a wrong-doer for you, lord. Decree for him whatever punishment you want.’ And I say, ‘Very well, then, masters, having weighed this man with a scale while still alive, having strangled him to death with a bowstring, weigh him with the scale again.’

“They—responding, ‘Very well,’ to me—having weighed the man with a scale while still alive, having strangled him to death with a bowstring, weigh him with the scale again. When he is alive, he is lighter, more flexible, and more malleable. But when he has died, he is heavier, stiffer, and less malleable.

“This is the reason, Master Kassapa, for which I believe, ‘There is no other world, there are no spontaneously reborn beings, there is no fruit or result of good or bad actions.’” — DN 23

DN 1 gives a more comprehensive picture of annihilationist views current at the time, classifying them by how they define the self annihilated at death. There were seven types in all. Three of them defined the self in terms of a body: either as a physical body composed of the four material elements, as a divine physical body, or as an astral body. The view espoused by Ajita Kesakambalin and Prince Payasi would fall under the first of the three. Four other annihilationist views, however, defined the self as formless: experiencing the dimension of infinite space, of infinite consciousness, of nothingness, or of neither perception nor non-perception. In each of the seven cases, these doctrines state that the self, however defined, perishes and is annihilated at death.

As for the non-Buddhist schools that affirmed the idea of rebirth, the Pali Canon explicitly names at least four: Brahmans (SN 42:6; AN 10:177), Jains (MN 101), and two contemplative (samana) schools: one led by Makkhali Gosala, and the other by Pakudha Kaccayana. We know from other sources that the Jains and some Brahmans affirmed that action played a role in shaping rebirth; the Canon shows, however, that the other two teachers denied that action played any role in rebirth at all.

“[Makkhali Gosala:] ‘Though one might think, “Through this morality, this practice, this austerity, or this holy life I will ripen unripened kamma and eliminate ripened kamma whenever touched by it”—that is impossible. Pleasure and pain are measured out, the wandering-on is fixed in its limits. There is no shortening or lengthening, no accelerating or decelerating. Just as a ball of string, when thrown, comes to its end simply by unwinding, in the same way, having transmigrated and wandered on, the wise and the foolish alike will put an end to pain.’” — DN 2

“[Pakudha Kaccayana:] ‘There are these seven substances—unmade, irreducible, uncreated, without a creator, barren, stable as a mountain-peak, standing firm like a pillar—that do not alter, do not change, do not interfere with one another, are incapable of causing one another pleasure, pain, or both pleasure and pain. Which seven? The earth-substance, the liquid-substance, the fire-substance, the wind-substance, pleasure, pain, and the soul as the seventh. These are the seven substances—unmade, irreducible, uncreated, without a creator, barren, stable as a mountain-peak, standing firm like a pillar—that do not alter, do not change, do not interfere with one another, and are incapable of causing one another pleasure, pain, or both pleasure and pain.’” — DN 2

So the issues of whether there is rebirth and—if there is—whether karma has an effect on rebirth were hotly debated in the Buddha’s time. And the debate didn’t extend just to philosophers. Ordinary people were also affected by the debate, as is clear in the Buddha’s instructions to the Kalamas, a group of skeptical householders. Knowing that he can’t prove the principle of karmic results to them—proof of that comes only with the first stage of awakening—he says that if you assume that karma has results, you will act skillfully. And when you act skillfully, you gain four assurances in the here and now.

“‘If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.’ This is the first assurance one acquires.

“‘But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease—free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.’ This is the second assurance one acquires.

“‘If evil is done through acting, still I have willed no evil for anyone. Having done no evil action, from where will suffering touch me?’ This is the third assurance one acquires.

“‘But if no evil is done through acting, then I can assume myself pure in both respects.’ This is the fourth assurance one acquires.” — AN 3:65

If everyone in his time believed in karma and rebirth, the Buddha wouldn’t have had to state these assurances.

So it’s obvious that that the idea of rebirth and its connection with karma was not an unexamined assumption in Indian culture. It was one of the most controversial issues of the Buddha’s time—which means that we can’t write off his teachings on karma and rebirth simply as an undigested relic from his culture. In teaching these principles, he was consciously taking a stand on an issue that was hotly debated, in a culture that expected him to articulate clearly his explanation for how and why rebirth did or didn’t happen. We know that he didn’t take on all the hot issues of his day—remember the story of the man shot by the arrow (MN 63)—so the Buddha must have had his reasons for taking this issue on.

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LaceyR's picture

I haven't read all of these posts, but most of them, so If I repeat anything, sorry.

I don't have any teachers around to make sure I have the understanding correct, but I think everyone's right.
Karma exists, and it doesn't exist. (So let me know if I'm wrong! )

There was an article in the summer issue of Tricycle that stated because form is void, and void is form all the information in the world is available at any time, which is how two people in different parts of the world came up with the same answers, winning the noble prize together, even though they did not know each other. This would answer how people can remember past lives. The information is already there.

Now, the way I understand Karma is that the mind creates everything, the mind of worldly people create the happiness and misery of their lives through their concepts of right and wrong, through cause and effect this creates their perceived good and bad karma.
However the Bodhisattva who realizes that they are just creations of the mind, and only concepts no longer creates the good or bad karma, because there is nothing inherently good or bad, what is karma to follow? He/She causes no effect. something like "This allows the Bodhisattva to walk freely in the world, free from the entanglement of karma, saying gate gate paragate parasamgate, bodhi svaha."

due to the persons' cause and effect, they can create the existence of karma.

rebirth could be thought of in the actual sense that energy cannot be increased or decreased, we are all the same molecules that have ever been, all the information is already there, continually being reborn in different forms.

Do I have this right?

sanghadass's picture

"Two women were each baking a cake.

The first woman had miserable ingredients. The old white flour had to have the green mouldy bits removed first. The cholesterol enriched butter was almost going rancid. She had to pick the brown lumps out of the white sugar (because someone had put in a spoon wet with coffee) and the only fruit she had were ancient raisins, as hard as depleted uranium. And her kitchen was of the style called "Pre World War" which World War was a matter of debate.

The second woman had the very best ingredients. The organically grown whole wheat flour was guaranteed GM free. She had trans fat free canola oil spread, raw sugar, and succulent fruit grown in her own garden. And her kitchen was "state of the art" with every modern gadget.

Which woman baked the more delicious cake ?

It is often not the person with the best ingredients who bakes the better cake - there is more to baking a cake than just the ingredients. Sometimes the person with miserable ingredients puts so much effort, care, and love into their baking that their cake comes out the most delicious of all. It is what we do with the ingredients that counts.

I have some friends who have had miserable ingredients to work with in this life; they were born into poverty, possible abused as children, not clever at school, maybe disabled and unable to play sports. But the few qualities they did have they put together so well that they baked a mightily impressive cake. I admire them greatly. Do you recognize such people ?

I have other friends who have had wonderful ingredients to work with in this life. Their families were wealthy and loving, they were successful at school, talented athletes, good looking and popular and yet they wasted their youthful lives with drugs and alcohol.
Do you recognized such a one ?

Half of karma is the ingredients we have got to work with. The other half, the most crucial part, is what we make of them in this life." - Ajahn Brahm

Dominic Gomez's picture

Hi Lacey. In the realm of science, whether or not karma exists is uprovable using current methods of research. In the realm of religion, though, according to some belief systems there is karma, or some form of it.
Your mind (i.e. your life) is the source of all your thoughts, words and actions. Karma is Sanskrit for action. Therefore, human behavior is karma. Buddhism teaches that the law of causality underlies karma. In short, do to others as you would have them do to you.
Buddhism also teaches that life is eternal. In that case, the repository of one's accumulated causes and effects is also manifested in each succeeding lifetime.
As long as humans are able to be born into this real world, they will always possess thoughts, words and actions...karma. According to some belief systems, there is only one earthly life and then you die and go on to some heavenly paradise or hell and that's the end of it. I personally have not been to heaven or hell, so I cannot vouch for the existence of either.
Einstein's law of the conservation of energy seems to address your last concern, that "energy cannot be increased or decreased, we are all the same molecules that have ever been, all the information is already there, continually being reborn in different forms." Hope these help!

Sara Isayama's picture

"In the realm of science, whether or not karma exists is uprovable using current methods of research."

That's actually a really silly thing to say. Karma is proven by science all the time. The law of Karma, or cause and effect, is divided up into Five Laws of the Universe, in Buddhism, or Five Niyama's. Two of them, are Physical Cause and Effect (Utu Niyama) and Biological Cause and Effect (Bija Niyama).

Science not only confirms karma, but in large part is wholly devoted to the study of it. The physical and biological sciences, are studying nothing but physical and biological cause and effect.

LaceyR's picture

What a beautiful metaphor.

john.parker3rd's picture

The question I have always wondered about, is if re-birth is real, what happens when more humans are born that there are qualified souls/beings to inhabit them?

Sara Isayama's picture

Because we believe in rebirth, not reincarnation. Reincarnation, is the view that one being dies, one being is reincarnated. A 1for1 ratio. That's not how it works in Buddhism. It's not a "whole being" that is reborn, but rather; the karma.

Imagine a human being's personality. What we tend to think of as "our" personality, the ways of thinking, prejudices, strong likes, dislikes, fears, angers, etc, etc... we tend to think of these things when they come up as "our" views.

But the interesting thing, is as we sit deeper and deeper in meditation, and especially after having a kensho, what we find is increasingly this states of mind, are not "ours" at all. Not only do they change and evaporate, they can also have memories associated with them, memories of the dead.

One way to think of a human being from a Buddhist perspective, is like a walking bag of marbles. The "bag" representing what we think of as "us" and each marble representing some aspect of our personality or behavioral traits.

What happens is each marble is actually associated with a memory of the dead. Some being from long ago, (or even not to long ago) who died; and usually the memory is a traumatic one.

As these memories start to come up in training, we get to look at them, and our meditation dissolves them. The "marble" melts as it were and disappears. Well what happens to the whole bag then, once it has one less marble? Well it now has one less marble.

You see these marbles are what we refer to in Buddhism as our "ignorance". They obscure, as it were, our view of our Buddha Nature. And as we clean each one up, the bag becomes less heavy and lighter and easier to carry. We exhibit harmful behaviors less, because we act on ignorance less often.

This is also how Buddhism is also said to "cure" psychological conditions. Because some of those 'conditions' are actually just past life memories, that when cleaned up, no longer appear in our lives. Lets say this took the form of hydrophobia for example, and someone was afraid of water. In the course of training, they have a memory of someone drowning come up in a war on a ship that was sinking, and after this memory, that "marble" clears, and they are no longer afraid of water, and thus no longer hydrophobic.

What is "reborn" from life to life, is not an individual person, or being; but rather the karma. The karmic memory of those traumatic events is reborn, (or of harmful acts) but not "all" of who a person was. The "nice" memories; the ones of watching a beautiful sunset with a loved one, etc, etc... -those are hardly ever reborn at all, because they were usually clean acts. There was no "disturbance in the force" as it were, that required action. They were just perfectly enlightened action. And because of that, there was nothing in those actions to be reborn. However this is not true for harmful acts.

Thus, when in Buddhism, we say that a person is reborn, or rather, that karma is reborn, we say so in perfect truth. The karmic memories are reborn, and these are what obscure our perception of the Eternal in this life, but it is not *all* of a being that is reborn, and hence not reincarnation.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Your question is similar to how all those folks without sin can fit into Heaven. Or how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. Given some thought, it's simply an excercise in rhetoric, or mental gymnastics. It really doesn't have much to do with reality. Buddhism teaches that all forms of life (including people) are simply physical manifestations of the life of the universe, albeit in so many different shapes, types and sizes. Think of the countless waves that momentarily form on the ocean's surface and eventually merge back into it. You and I and everyone else are such waves, and the universe is the ocean from which we arise and to which we remerge in a never-ending cycle of birth, aging, illness and death. And as you can see, the ocean never gets so full of waves that it can't make any more.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Regarding just such an eternal cycle of life and death, there's a reason why Shakyamuni, et al. are referred to as "buddhas", i.e. enlightened persons. Enlightenment is not limited to just an understanding of "the common origins of all life", or scientific knowledge about evolution, biology, social life, certain characteristics in personal and social life, etc. The itself is apparently much deeper than we would like to "think" it is.

matthias.steingass's picture

Hi Dominic,
I am sure you are right when you say "life itself is apparently much deeper than we would like to "think" it is". But what is "enlightment" in relation to "the common origins of all life"? Don't we know a lot of those origins nowadys? And what knowledge "enlightment" would provide?
Thanks, Matthias

Dominic Gomez's picture

I was responding to Richard Fidler's comment above that he "didn't hear (Shakyamuni Buddha) talking about the common origins of all life...a fact we now know to be true." I read this as scientific information that was not yet available over 2,500 years ago and was naturally not taken into account by philosophers and religious leaders at the time. "Enlightenment" for them was of a different variety than that understood during the the Age of Enlightenment (or Reason) in 18th Century Europe. The latter was primarily concerned with experience of the external, material world. The former with experience of the human being's inner (or "spiritual") dimension. And in that area, even today we are still only scratching the surface despite the vast amount of scientific knowledge gained over the past 300 some years.

matthias.steingass's picture

The Dalai Lama recently gave a statement where he declares, „as long as you are a Buddhist, it is necessary to accept past and future rebirth.“ So this is buddhist dogma now – for every buddhist.

But I find it refreshing that there are people like Richard who step in and take a stand. Mr. Gotama, whose words, by the way, where recorded some 400 years after his death, simply did not have the knowledge we have today about evolution, biology, social life etc. There are far better explanations today for how certain characteristics in personal and social life develop then karma and reincarnation your 2500 lightyears ago.

But of course, for a lot of people it is easier to ,believe‘. Let them stray, trailing their broken raft.

The Dalai Lama-statement and a coment:

lleach's picture

Hi, Folks

Interesting discussion.

I know the Dali Lama believes in rebirth as many here seem to...something that somehow allows recalling past lives. I don't know how non-selfs do that, but it doesn't matter to me.

I heard the Dali Lama speak in person a few years ago in Sun Valley, Idaho. Perhaps in that or perhaps in my other readings from him it is crystal clear that he does not wish his beliefs to be used declare heretics or infidels.

I like several ideas around rebirth and karma that are certainly real and have nothing to do with mystical beliefs. We know that we will die and our atoms will eventually exist in other living things. We know that our minds only work in the present so in a real sense we are reborn every instant. We know that what we do influences what we are and what goes around comes around. Science finds more and more evidence for such things; e.g. brain plasticity. We know that rebirth and karma are very real in these senses.

That's enough for me.

It is also OK with me if someone wants to believe in the mystical stuff. I consider it like belief in astrology. As long as you don't seek to impose your beliefs on me or use them to do harm you are welcome to them.

The Buddha also said something like, "If you see The Buddha, kill him!" What I am told he meant by that is don't take anything anyone wrote as "gospel". You need to figure it out for yourself. I find the teachings of the Dali Lama and other high Buddhist teachers follows this model.

Larry Leach

matthias.steingass's picture

Hallo Larry

Perhaps it would be good to define two Dalai Lamas. One who is the real person, with all it's human qualities and also it's uncertainties and one who is the media image and, foremost, the political figure.

The person, I am quite sure, doesn't want one to declare heretic if one doesn't believe in something he believes in. The declaration of the Dalai Lama about his own reincarnation, or to put it in exactly the right way, of the next incarnation of Chenrezi, the tibetan tutelary deity, has in it's background a fierce political discussion between certain factions of the tibetan exile community. Seen in this context the statement of the Dalai Lama begins to look a bit different. It is not so much about the person but about the politician and it's mission.

The political discussion in the background, of which the western tibetan buddhist society seems to be total oblivious, is about total independence versus autonomy within the People's Republic of China. The latter is the DL's position. The movement for real independence accuse the DL of succumbing to the chinese. And they also accuse him of being more interested in jetting around the world then really looking into political matters at 'home' in Daramsala. But of course the DL just declared not to be a politician any more. So at last, with his thrust to celebrate his Kalachakra-thing all around the world, his statement about "personal rebirth" is again something defining for western tibetan buddhists... it is as murky as this.

A certain famous Lama Surya Das here on tricyle is engaging right now in an advertising campaign for his new book. Why not demand a statement from him about this case? I think these people should be tested if they realy think or just obey.

My best wishes, Matthias

wtompepper's picture

Hi Matthias,

I'm always perfectly willing to be critical of Buddhist "dogma" (many have said I'm too critical), but I'm not so sure that knowledge of evolution, biology, and social formations contradicts karma, properly understood. In fact, on my understanding of karma, these things simply make it more likely that us ordinary folk without much enlightenment will be able to understand karma.

I never pay much attention to the Dalai Lama anymore--he's one of those people it's taboo to criticize, and I disagree with him so very often it isn't worth listening to him. There are many teachers from other schools of Buddhism who do not have his bizarre political agenda. Do you remember where exactly he made this statement? Is there a print version of it around somewhere?

matthias.steingass's picture

Hi Tom,
I don't know what "properly understood" karma should be. I know there are definitions but the term is, for me, much too fuzzy. I think we don't need it anymore. Let me give an example. The problem at Vasubandhus time was that one could not explain, with the doctrine of momentariness, how consciousness remerges after sleep. So he introduced the notion of the alaya vijnana and the concept of the seed which is stored from an experience. This was the explanation how continuity works from momentariness. With this there was also explained how karmic retribution works, that one action produces its result at another time.
Today with our knowledge we can explain awakening after sleep far more elegant and robust: There are no seeds. There is a nervous system which works in such a way, that it shuts off the consciousness in certain intervals for regeneration. Of course with this we also don‘t need any rebirth any longer. With death we are simply obliterated. Via genetics, personal development and cultural background the persona of a human is very well explainable. This is really very short, but it is, for me, about the most simply and elegant explanation - not about the most sacrosanct.
The statement of the Dalai Lama you find here: .

wtompepper's picture

Remember that Vasubandhu and the Yogacarins used the technology and experience of their times to produce conceptual models to help them "think" these things. Our own "knowledge" of atoms, sub-atomic "particles" and even genetics are also models--we try to get better understandings of the world (and, I would argue, we sometime succeed), but we still need conceptual models to think. Does the "nervous system" really explain any better why we "remember" who we are when we wake up? It is a somewhat better model, perhaps, but it doesn't really account for personal identity and all the activities of the "mind" quite yet?

As for "starting from scratch," if you think the term Karma has too much baggage, well, maybe it isn't useful. But can you accept, as a bare beginning, that the "cultural background" you mention is a structure of meaning which produces the "self"? If so, isn't it possible that the actions we take continue to have effects in this structure, and these effects are not "obliterated" with death?

Oh, and thanks for the link.

matthias.steingass's picture

Hi Tom

All I wanted to say is "there are far better explanations". With that I mean Occam's razor. Maybe "karma" and "reincarnation" could be used as metaphors in a more modern sense. No problem. But this requires always that on thinks about how to use a term in a certain situation. That means one has to be aware of the fact that the meaning of a term versus it's referent can change, that the referent altogether can change or that the referent might just be an imagination, a wishful thinking, an apparition – what is the case with a lot of buddhist terms.

I think we touched parts of this before. I am totally with you. Of course it is right "that the 'cultural background' is a structure of meaning which produces the 'self'". We just need terms which aren't so emotionally charged and we need models which work in a scientific way. The word karma, I not even wouldn't name it a term, is mostly used just as an empty signifier. In buddhist conversations one can drop it and it is not more then a certain form of noise which evokes a vague feeling of something holy people talk about – holy people who, after years of 'meditation' (just another such a term), get to now the 'real reality'. Look around here at trocycle, lot's of them.

If you say "action" I am with you, or "responsibility", perfect. Karma? Not for me.

It is the same with "rebirth". Of what use is this word? The concept was used, and righteously so, as a moral enhancer which worked in it's time thousends of years ago. But it works only if one thinks of rebirth as a personal reincarnation. If there is no remembrance for what one is punished when one got to life in the most fucked up place it can not work. It is just the same as when you get annihilated in dying. It is much better to talk about certain qualities being transported through media like social structures. With this human beings with their individual consciousness grow up from literally (nearly) nothing. Genetics, personal remembrance build up through live and and the social structure, these are the three spheres which can explain the human far better then any 2500-year-old clumsy term.

We had this before. Hermeneutics. If buddhists would have just a basic understanding of how language works, they would begin to really think about what they talk and if there might not be better ways to explain their basic tenets. But they don't know about language. They even look for something like the "most original teaching" of buddhism – oh Lord please help – this is such a futile undertaking.

The generalized form in which buddhist conversation is held is a form in which no personal experience can come through. If one tries to talk about personal experience they don't understand because if you talk in a personal way you have to declare what you mean and you have to get into a REAL CONVERSATION. This is always a special case – immanence. If the holy guru or the peer group insists about using the general term with it's general meaning this is the transcendent side of the equation which defines what one should experience. That's something like brainwashing. My experience HAS TO BE like this and that. The abidhrama says it is like this and so on. That is buddhist bullshit. Like any other believe system.

Just a last word. I talk about "buddhists" generalized. What I mean with this term are people who have no clue about how language works, what historicity is and so on, just in one word: people who have not the least clue about dependent origination. Everybody else should not call a buddhist oneself. Let's just get rid of the term.

CU, Matthias

Dominic Gomez's picture

As a phenomenon, "dependent origination" also has to be taken on a basis of faith, belief, trust, etc. FWIW, it all seems to come down to this: Now that we've got life all figgered out, what are we gonna do about it?
I, personally, am not ready to let (my) life just go to hell in a handbasket.

Anatolia's picture

Mathias, I must be slow trailing along on my broken taft, so can you tell us what biology, evolution and social life have to do with rebirth or karma? What do we know now that negates karma or rebirth?
Science is just a zygote in the vast inmensity of true knowledge, it seems. It is like science tells us some new things and we hold on to them like shiny glass bubbles and are mesmerized by their supposed worth. It is just shiny! The real jewels are hidden somewhere else.

matthias.steingass's picture

Hello Anatolia,
regarding your question please see my answer to Tom. ...but what do you mean with "the vast inmensity of true knowledge"? What is this true knowledge? And "the real jewels are hidden somewhere else"? Where are they hidden those jewels and what are they.
Thanks for any help, Matthias

Anatolia's picture

Hello Matthias:

Bu "the vast inmensity of true knowledge" , I mean that... the vast/huge/endless inmensity/enormity of true/natural/cosmic/undeniable knowledge/God/Thing/That That Is. The "real jewels are there". But I correct myself, they are not "hidden" there. They are pretty obvious, to be seen. But I just don't have the eyes (yet?) to see.

Richard Fidler's picture

So, what if Buddha was wrong about rebirth? I know most people posting here believe Buddha was the supremely enlightened one and that his words reflected absolute Truth, but I don't. He had insights to share concerning our basic nature and how to live a good life, but he didn't understand everything. I didn't hear him talking about the common origins of all life, for example, a fact we now know to be true. We should take from the teachings those things that help us become better people and leave the rest alone. Rebirth and karma are two concepts we do not need to keep in our modern way of thinking. Let go of them.

Sara Isayama's picture

Well he was not wrong. Other people have re-lived their past lives as well. It wasn't just Him. In fact, anyone who's an experienced practitioner, (and even many who aren't) can experience such things. Even children commonly remember past lives. There was a 13 year study done involving hundreds of children who did. There's nothing unusual, or even Buddhist about this, it's just the natural part of how karma is reborn.

Anatolia's picture

Maybe hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions around the world, are served quite well by those two concepts. I know, I am quite a modern woman, and when I was barely 15 years old, I accepted Karma and Rebirth as "true and valid" and "felt it in my bones and cells". I am now almost 40 years old and no where in my intense and full life, has anything proven to me that I was wrong in accepting those concepts back then. Many millions of people remember past lives, and there are too many unexplainable knowledge of other languages and details to just sweep it under the rug. Maybe it is okay to let go of them, but a lot of us can't, mainly wouldn't be very honest of us to do so.

wtompepper's picture

I don't think the number of people who are "served quite well" by a belief is the best defense here. Most people throughout human history were served very well by the belief that the sun revolved around the earth, and they were wrong.

I, also, am fully convinced of the reality of karma and rebirth. Many people dismiss karma based on a simplistic misunderstanding of what it is--and this isn't necessarily bad. It is better to reject a false idea of karma than to accept it on authority, or because of delusory beliefs. Personally, I believe that anyone interested in seeing reality correctly has a better chance of accepting the belief in karma, and getting it right, if they start from scratch than if they start from "faith" in an incorrect understanding. The memories of past lives thing is not very convincing either, because there has never been a case that hasn't been adequately explained, or debunked, in completely empirical terms.

With those who reject karma, it may be better to give them a correct explanation, instead of pointing out how many others have come to accept it. On that strategy of argument, the one nit-wit down the street who believes in the "My Name Is Earl" idea of karma is bound to carry more weight than millions of Buddhists they've never met.

As you said, once you see that karma is true, you simply cannot reject it. It would be like deciding not to believe the earth revolves around the sun.

Richard Fidler's picture

Karma and rebirth belong to a large class of concepts which aren't (even) wrong. They can not be proved, they cannot be disproved. There are some arguments against rebirth which emerge from a secular way of looking at the world: there is no mechanism by which the accumulated experience of one dead person can be transferred to a baby. You can posit a "spiritual essence" or something like that, but there is no way to prove such a thing exists.

Karma--seen here in the traditional Asian way of accumulating merit--is similarly flawed; nobody can prove such a thing. In fact, the immense population growth over the past several centuries implies too many bodies for too few "souls." Buddhism can get along very well without karma and rebirth and some schools like Zen play them down to the point where they are barely acknowledged. That is the way it should be. Let's retain what cooks and throw out the rest.

Sara Isayama's picture

Well, actually they can be proved, and often are.
Rebirth can be directly remembered by recalling one's past lives, which is something that is not unusual for people who have had a kensho, and continued to do both their mediation, and training for many years afterwards. Even children commonly remember some of their past lives, there was a study done on this.

Karma itself is proved all the time. People tend to think of karma as only the moral aspects, but what they don't understand, is "karma" simply means cause and effect in Buddhism. The law of cause and effect, is broken into five different Laws of the Universe, or Five Niyama's in Buddhism. Two of them, are Physical Cause and Effect (Utu Niyama) and Biological Cause and Effect (Bija Niyama). Science not only proves these true all the time; it is wholly devoted to the study of them. The physical and biological sciences do nothing but study Physical and Biological cause and effect. That's exactly what they do.

Ethical cause and effect, is quite simple to prove. If you don't think that using wrong speech (such as lying, angry speech, harsh speech, divisive speech, etc) has ethical consequences, try using wrong speech on your boss, and see what happens. : )

wtompepper's picture


There are certainly many "mechanisms" by which the experience of dead people can be transfered to a baby. Wouldn't you accept that a baby absorbs past experience through language and culture?

If you are so dead set against accepting karma and rebirth, why are you interested in Buddhism at all? Do you see it as somehow essential to "convert" Buddhists to your more "modern" view? Or is there something else in Buddhism, some other insight or practice, that can't be found in any other philosophical tradition? If so, what is it? I'm not asking this to be dismissive, but to try to find some common ground for discussion of Buddhism.


Richard Fidler's picture

Rebirth demands that "something"--if not a soul, then influences--is transferred from the dead person to the baby. Language and culture are transmitted by known mechanisms from living people to babies. It's not the same.

There is nothing in the Four Noble Truths that requires acceptance of karma and rebirth. To me, that says it is possible to be Buddhist and not accept those ideas.

No, I do not wish to convert anyone to any point of view, but I would like to say it is OK if you don't accept karma and rebirth and wish to call yourself Buddhist. Stephen Batchelor agrees with me on that point.

Sara Isayama's picture

"There is nothing in the Four Noble Truths that requires acceptance of karma and rebirth."
Well actually there is. It's a part of Right View.

Not only is it a part of the Four Noble Truths, it's an essential part.

The Buddha, in the Apannaka Sutra:

On rebirth:

"Because there actually is the next world, the view of one who thinks, 'There is no next world' is his wrong view. Because there actually is the next world, when he is resolved that 'There is no next world,' that is his wrong resolve. Because there actually is the next world, when he speaks the statement, 'There is no next world,' that is his wrong speech. Because there actually is the next world, when he is says that 'There is no next world,' he makes himself an opponent to those arahants who know the next world. Because there actually is the next world, when he persuades another that 'There is no next world,' that is persuasion in what is not true Dhamma. And in that persuasion in what is not true Dhamma, he exalts himself and disparages others. Whatever good habituation he previously had is abandoned, while bad habituation is manifested. And this wrong view, wrong resolve, wrong speech, opposition to the arahants, persuasion in what is not true Dhamma, exaltation of self, & disparagement of others: These many evil, unskillful activities come into play, in dependence on wrong view."

Sara Isayama's picture

(I had to split this post up)

On karma:

"Because there actually is causality, the view of one who thinks, 'There is no causality' is his wrong view. Because there actually is causality, when he is resolved that 'There is no causality,' that is his wrong resolve. Because there actually is causality, when he speaks the statement, 'There is no causality,' that is his wrong speech. Because there actually is causality, when he says that 'There is no causality,' he makes himself an opponent to those arahants who teach causality. Because there actually is causality, when he persuades another that 'There is no causality,' that is persuasion in what is not true Dhamma. And in that persuasion in what is not true Dhamma, he exalts himself and disparages others. Whatever good habituation he previously had is abandoned, while bad habituation is manifested. And this wrong view, wrong resolve, wrong speech, opposition to the arahants, persuasion in what is not true Dhamma, exaltation of self, & disparagement of others: These many evil, unskillful activities come into play, in dependence on wrong view."

-The Buddha, in the Apannaka Sutra

Karma and rebirth are not only part of the Four Noble Truths, they are an essential part.

wtompepper's picture

So your understanding is that it only counts as rebirth if the mechanism is magical, and cannot be known? On this understanding, I would also have to reject rebirth. However, I don't think that there is anything that "demands" that we define rebirth in this way--this is just a straw-man definition.

It may be ok with Stephen Batchelor to call yourself a Buddhist, but what I'm asking is why would you bother? If the eightfold path, for you, does not include belief in karma (as part of right understanding), then what is the importance you attach to calling yourself a Buddhist at all? I guess that's what I'm unsure of. What value does Buddhism have, without these fundamental teachings? Lots of other philosophies would suggest we have no abiding self, and Buddhists didn't invent meditation. What is it that being a Buddhist means? Is it the meditation practice? The ritual? Metta? I'm just not sure I can see what the label adds, without the teachings. Why not just be a Taoist, if you only accept the part of Zen that agrees with Taoism? Is there some kind of ideological cache that the term Buddhism has?

Richard Fidler's picture

Thought provoking reply. I would say that the Four Noble Truths provide the essence of Buddhist teaching. The idea of anatta, no-self, is another indispensable doctrine. You say that other philosophies/religions have the idea of no abiding self but I can't think of a single one. Hinduism says, contrary to Buddhism, that we all have an eternal Atman which joins with Brahman in enlightenment. Buddhism doesn't say that at all. It says the notion of self is a construct. The only parallel would be modern neuroscience and it is only a few decades old.

Every perspective on Buddhism reflects the culture that absorbs it. For example, the religious imagery and magic of the Tibetans provided a fertile field for the development of several schools of Buddhism within that tradition. The Taoist tradition of China provided a spare, non-philosophical ground for Zen to spring up. And the secularism of the West makes it possible for a Buddhism that avoids superstition and emphasizes the self-correcting nature of science. Buddhism is the framework of an edifice that has been decorated variously by the different cultures that supported it. It is the framework that counts, not the decorations.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Regarding such a framework, depending on the building codes required by your analysis of Buddhism, it may be composed of such ubiquitous and enduring components as the Buddha, the Law, and the Sangha (community of believers), or the sutras themselves, the universality of enlightenment, and the eternity of life, or any of a number of concepts that comprise the core of Buddhism regardless of where or when it is practiced.

wtompepper's picture

Certainly most existentialists have no idea of an abiding self, right? And rationalists, in the vein of one common interpretation of Spinoza's thought. Most socialists. These are just the ones that come immediately to mind.

Existentialists would also likely agree that life is suffering, that the cause of our suffering is attachment to an incorrect idea of an eternal self, and that there is a way to be free of suffering. Spinoza would agree with this also--in fact, he said pretty much this at great length a few hundred years ago.

What exactly is uniquely "Buddhist" in the "framework," as you understand it? Becoming a Spinozist rationalist would not require you reject any part of a "tradition." It just seems to me that there must be something more to Buddhism than the barest philosophical outlines that attracts the secular Buddhists that want to "naturalize" Buddhism. I'm reading Flanagan's book "The Bodhisattva's Brain," and he seems to want to recover a kind of empiricist pragmatism which he sees as the "core" of Buddhism--but I can't see why he would bother, since it requires him to reject everything uniquely Buddhist. (It isn't very convincing, since his idea of Buddhist philosophy seems to be limited to the Dali Lama).

I agree that the idea that Lamas can control the weather and read minds is just arrant nonsense, and for that reason I steer well clear of Tibetan Buddhism. But we don't need to go overboard and assume every Buddhist teaching that is difficult to grasp must be magical and silly.

Richard Fidler's picture

I see you are coming from a background in philosophy, a subject of which I am ignorant (as are, I suspect, most people on this Earth). Philosophy is academic, intellectual--it has nothing to do with PRACTICE, a feature, by the way, that is emphasized within the Buddhist framework. No, I do not think existentialists, socialists, or any other school of philosophy in the West sees the self as a construct. Descartes' "I think, therefore I am," shows the dead end futility of Western thinking about this subject. I believe I have answered the question of what constitutes the framework of Buddhism in previous posts.

Your assertion that we don't need to go overboard and assume every Buddhist teaching that is difficult to grasp must be magical and silly must be countered with the assertion that not every Buddhist teaching that appears to be magical and silly has validity. Most aren't valid or else are incapable of being proved--another example illustrating that many Buddhist doctrines aren't right or wrong--because they can't be falsified.

wtompepper's picture

If philosophy has nothing to do with practice, why is there a two-thousand year tradition of very sophisticated philosophical work in Buddhism? It is clear enough that Vausbandhu, Nagarjuna, Candrakirti, Dharmakirti, and a host of others, thought that philosophy had everything to do with practice. It is interesting that western Buddhists think they know, after 50 years, what Buddhism "really" is, and all those thousands of years of tradition were just mistaken.

Of course, this is the same kind of arrogance that allows American to both admit they are totally ignorant of philosophy, and yet feel fully confidant to pronounce on what "existentialists" really think--you've never read them, but you know that they do not see the self as a construct? You don't know about philosophy, but you know that all western thinkers accept Descartes's "cogito ergo sum" as the guiding premise?

Too many westerners have attached to a strange version of "Buddhism" as a way to avoid thought, and pretend that it is wisdom to do so. The label Buddhism has become simply an excuse to avoid thinking at all, or else to assert that whatever one thinks is correct and anything else is just "views" or "dry academic intellectualism." And when Buddhist thought clashes with cherished beliefs, those teachings can simply be dismissed as accretions and old superstitions. Then, these same people are dismayed when this custom-made Buddhism, with its mindless mindfulness, doesn't seem to help with their suffering, anger, depression, irritability.

You hadn't really answered, but only dodged, my question in earlier posts. From this post, though, it seems that you are attached to the idea of Buddhism as "wise" avoidance of rigorous thought. That's a shame, because rigorous thought, Buddhist or western, has a lot to offer. And there really is not a lot of point to Buddhist meditation without it. Without the philosophy, you're better off just doing stress-reduction meditation.

Richard Fidler's picture

Western philosophy does not shape the lives of very many people. It has taken on the appearance of a game: If concept X is defined in this manner, and if concept Y is defined thus, then under what circumstances is concept X equivalent to concept Y? Who cares? The fact that Buddhism has had such fruitless discussions over the years does not recommend it to anyone nowadays. Why waste time with constructs?

Science also deals with constructs, but of a special kind. The concept that water consists (mostly) of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen reflects structural order that exists in the universe. It is not simply about arbitrarily drawing lines and making differences. People of all cultures, given the methods of scientific proof available to us, will agree on the composition of water. Such scientific investigations have value, then, unlike the endless verbiage thrown out by philosophers.

Scientists approach (but never reach) absolute truth. Far be it from me to discard Western traditions of analysis and logical thinking within a scientific context. I would argue that the Western philosophical tradition (and the Buddhist one, for that matter) has gotten us exactly nowhere when it comes to understanding ourselves and the universe. Science has already answered many important questions about our origins and is at the point of revealing the nature of how our brains work.

Anatolia's picture

I think the millions of people who are served well by Karma and rebirth are quite a great defense. Wherever Jupiterm the sun, the stars are, as long as we are still living, doesnt really matter, does it? To live well and kindly, compassionately and purposefully Just because Karma and the concept of , with its pretty obvious repercussions are a pretty powerful argument for it. Our wordly daily laboratory.
Take care,

matthias.steingass's picture

That's interesting. Could you perhaps say somethng about what you mean with "seeing reality correctly" and what you would suggest to "start from scratch" to get it right with karma? Thanks.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The philosophical zeitgeist of Shakyamuni's time and place may have been more developed compared with what was upheld in cultures west of the Indus River valley. In the "Life Span" chapter of the Lotus Sutra, the eternity of life is expressed by the passage, "There is no ebb and flow of life and death, and there is no existing in this world and later entering extinction."
To the naked eye, birth is a beginning and death is an end. But apparently this is an incomplete perspective. Buddhism teaches that human beings (in fact, all phenomena) repeat the cycle of birth and death continuously. But the notion of individual souls transmigrating from body to body is jettisoned in favor of the oneness of human life (the microcosm) and the universe itself (the macrocosm).

Joseph Rogers's picture

I don't see anything here in this article that indicates the Buddha argued in favor of rebirth, as stated in the title. Although he may have done so, the point of this article, as stated by the author, is that the time of the Buddha rebirth was controversial, and not everyone agreed that action influenced rebirth. The point of the teaching to the Kalamas seems to circumvent the arguments surrounding rebirth, as the ordinary person cannot validate their correctness through their direct experience. The teaching states the value of morality, even if rebirth doesn't exist, even if our karma in the next life isn't affected by our actions. This is something valuable that can be taught and learned today, without being caught in the same endless arguments about karma and rebirth; morality is valuable and skillful here and now. I find that the title of this article doesn't do this teaching justice, as it seems to lean toward a view that the author is not purporting here, and that the Buddha wasn't teaching to the Kalamas in the quoted text.

Philip Ryan's picture

Hi Joseph, The last paragraph of this guest post states pretty clearly that the Buddha didn't need to argue for rebirth, but he did. That may very well contradict how we understand the teaching to the Kalamas, which states that one need not accept anything that can't be proven or demonstrated here and now, but the point here is that the author, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, is saying that scholars who say that ideas about karma and rebirth were widely accepted in the Buddha's time and therefore may have been adopted unexamined by the Buddha, are false.

Joseph Rogers's picture

oh, and I forgot, Hi Philip!

Philip Ryan's picture

Hi Joseph, thanks for joining in this conversation here! I read the following last night that lends more support toward your position here than mine, I think. It's from Thanissaro Bhikkhu's new essay "Selves & Not-Self: The Buddhist Teaching on Anatta."

To begin with, it's important to understand that, in teaching rebirth, the Buddha was not just adopting a cultural assumption from his time. Rebirth was a hot topic in ancient India. Some people argued that it did happen, others argued very strongly that it didn't, with the argument centering around what a person was, and then showing how what you were could or couldn't take birth.

So when the Buddha was teaching rebirth, he was consciously taking sides on the issue. But he did it in a novel way. Instead of trying to define what does or doesn't take rebirth—things you can't even see—he talked about rebirth as a process that happens through clinging and craving: mental actions you can observe and can exert some control over.

Now, the Buddha never said he could prove rebirth, but he did say that it's a useful working hypothesis—and for two reasons. One is that the practice will ultimately confirm that it is true; and, second, that it's useful for fostering skillful attitudes that help in developing the path.

And perhaps the title could be phrased a bit more precisely. Thanks again to Joseph and everyone reading this!

Joseph Rogers's picture

Thank you for Philip for sharing a portion of this essay from T.B., very interesting!

Joseph Rogers's picture

He only needed to make an argument ABOUT rebirth because it was a topic of the day that influenced people's views and thus their actions , i.e. absolutism or materialism. This would fall within the Buddha's teaching as he taught how our actions lead to suffering or not suffering. However it isn't argued here in favor of one side of the argument or another, and I agree that Thanissaro Bhikku's point is that these views about karma and rebirth from the Buddha's time are inaccurately portrayed by scholars and teachers. As such, I just think that the title should reflect his main point more accurately.