Rebirth: A Case for Buddhist Agnosticism

Stephen Batchelor


Tibetans also accept the theory and practice of Tantric Buddhism, which gives detailed instruction on how to control those psychic energies and subtle levels of consciousness that are attained through yogic disciplines. By utilizing energies and consciousness, it is believed that one can direct one's future rebirth to a specific place. In Tibet, this form of Buddhism became the prevailing ideology of the land.

The lamas of Tibet were political as well as spiritual leaders. As celibate monks, the lamas had no natural heirs to assume their mantles after death, but as Tantric Buddhists they could, for the benefit of others, direct their own consciousness to a suitable womb and ensure continuity of authority both within their monastery and over their political domains for many successive lifetimes. The best-known examples are figures such as the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama, and the Karmapa, all of whom wielded considerable political power across the whole country. For the method to work, it presupposes that their disciples have the skills to rediscover them in their new incarnation. This involves divination, oracular consultation, dream analysis, and so on. Only after having thoroughly tested the child and satisfied themselves that the boy (in one case the girl) is in fact the lama, will the child be officially enthroned. He will then be brought up under the finest tutorial care his disciples can offer, until he reaches the age of about twenty, at which time he will be reinvested with his full temporal and spiritual power. When he dies the process is repeated. Some of these lines are now in their twentieth or thirtieth incarnations.

While all religions believe that life continues in some form after death, that does not prove that the claim is true. Until quite recently most religions believed that the earth was flat, but such widespread belief had little effect on the shape of the planet. Even though the Buddha accepted the idea of rebirth, one could argue that he simply reflected the ideologies of his time. Long before the Buddha, India had developed a cosmology which included the ideas of karma, rebirth, and liberation. (A curious twist here is that Westerners often find the idea of rebirth rather attractive, whereas in Buddhist terms, liberation or nirvana means freedom from the endless round of birth and death.) These ideas were taken for granted, just as we take for granted many scientific views, which, if pressed, we would find hard to prove.

Whether he really believed in it or not, the Buddha found the prevailing worldview of his time sufficient as a basis for his ethical system. It also provided an adequate set of metaphors for his doctrine of transcendence. His main concern, however, was not whether there is or is not life after death, but whether it is possible to live in such a way that one could transcend the dilemma of suffering.

Many contemporary forms of Buddhism in the West—especially Zen and vipassana—seem to pay little attention to the doctrine of rebirth, emphasizing instead the importance of living more fully and authentically in the present. Teachers in these traditions often use the idea of rebirth metaphorically to describe the moment-to-moment process of "dying" and being "reborn." However appealing, psychologically astute, and didactically skillful such interpretations may be, they can give rise to the misleading impression that in traditional Zen or Theravadan cultures the doctrine of rebirth is likewise not taken literally. Not only is belief in rebirth firmly adhered to in all Buddhist countries, from Japan to Sri Lanka, but—especially in East Asia—it has become the very basis for the livelihood of the majority of monks and nuns. A typical Zen temple in Korea or Japan spends far more time offering services to assist departed parishioners on their way to a better rebirth than on instructing the living in zazen.

Institutionalized Buddhism throughout Asia not only has a doctrinal commitment to rebirth but also an economic and political one. In contrast to most Tibetan lamas, for whom the belief in the doctrine of rebirth is essential to the continuing authority of their institutions in exile, other Asian Buddhists in the West have felt freer to adapt their teachings to suit the needs of a secular and skeptical audience whose interest in the dharma is as a way of finding meaning here and now rather than after death. One will search in vain for any discussion of rebirth in the numerous writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, for example. Although he comes from a country (Vietnam) in which the belief is deeply rooted, he now seems to be moving toward a view that equates karma with some form of genetic inheritance and transmission.

A concern often voiced by traditional Buddhist teachers is that denial of rebirth undermines the basis of karmic continuity and hence the need for morality. Similar fears were expressed at the time of the European Enlightenment in the seventeenth century by the Christian churches, who believed that loss of faith in the doctrines of heavenly reward and hellish punishment would likewise lead to rampant immorality. One of the most lasting and powerful realizations of the Enlightenment was that an atheistic materialist could be just as moral a person as a believer, and maybe even more so. This insight in the West led to a tremendous liberation from ecclesiastical dogma and was crucial in forming that vital sense of individual liberty which today we take for granted. It also might explain why for so many Western Buddhists the notion of karma as a nontheistic version of punishments and rewards is felt at a gut level to be an inadequate and unconvincing basis for ethical conduct.

I do not believe, as is sometimes claimed, that the teaching of the Buddha stands or falls on the doctrine of rebirth, and that one cannot really be a Buddhist if one does not accept it. Theologically, or "Buddhologically," it is indeed problematic to do away with the doctrine of rebirth, for numerous other basic ideas would then have to be rethought. But if liberation is the "taste" of the dharma, as the Buddha said, then for its sake one should at least be prepared to put up with the unappetizing flavor of doctrinal inconsistency. Another problem, which has also beset traditional Buddhists, is the question of what it is that is reborn. Religions that posit an eternal soul that is essentially distinct from the body/mind complex escape this dilemma—the body may die but the soul continues to exist. One of the central Buddhist doctrines, however, is that of non-self (anatman): the denial of any intrinsic identity or soul or self that can either be found through analysis or mystically realized in meditation. The doctrine teaches that the notion of such a deepseated, independently existing personal identity is a fiction, a tragic habit into which we have become locked since "beginningless time." In order to free oneself from suffering, one needs first and foremost to free oneself from clinging to such a notion of self identity. But how does one square this with the idea of rebirth, of something distinct from that which dies but which is somehow reborn and so passes from life to life?

To answer this question, more or less every Buddhist school has come up with a different explanation—a fact that in itself suggests that their answers are based on speculation. Most schools claim that what is reborn is some kind of consciousness. Some say that this is simply the sixth sense (manovijnana); others propose the existence of a foundation consciousness (alayavijnana); the Tantric traditions talk of a combination of extremely subtle energy and mind. But as soon as one hypothesizes the presence of some kind of subtle stuff, no matter how sophisticated the technical term one invents to denote it, one has already reintroduced the notion of some kind of esoteric self-substance.

For the Prasangika-Madhyamika school of Buddhist philosophy, whose seventh- and eighth-century Indian proponents are often regarded as having taken the deconstructive logic of Nagarjuna as far as it can go, adherence to any kind of reified self or substance, no matter how subtle, is essentially in contradiction to enlightenment and liberation. Having rejected all concepts of some esoteric stuff that sneaks across from one birth to the next, the most one can legitimately say is: "I do." Any further elaboration of this "I" will inevitably lead into reification. In his Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life (VIII: 98), the eighth-century Madhyamika poet Shantideva pushes the idea even further:

It is a misconception to think
That I shall experience (suffering in a future life),
For it is another who will die
And another who will be born.

The sheer momentum of the actions I conventionally consider as "mine" will generate forms of life as different from myself now as you are different from me now. Thus, for Shantideva it is not only of lesser ethical value but actually meaningless to act out of concern for one's own welfare after death. The ethics of karma are thus turned on their head: the only meaningful motive for action can be compassion for others.

Several centuries after the historical Buddha, Buddhist philosophers became involved in all manner of controversies with other schools of Indian thought, some of which had a materialist outlook and denied the idea of rebirth. At this point "proofs" were devised to convince nonbelievers of the truth of rebirth. These are examined with great clarity in Martin Willson's excellent book, Rebirth and the Western Buddhist (Wisdom, 1984), in which he shows that none of the arguments hold (while still insisting that the doctrine of rebirth is essential to Buddhism). The "proofs" rest on the assumption that any moment of consciousness must be preceded by a previous moment of consciousness and that it is impossible for something material (like a brain) to produce something immaterial (like a thought). Thus one classical argument runs: "The mind of a child that has just been conceived must have existed previously, because it is a mind." This may convince a hypothetical Buddhist meditator who has directly experienced how consciousness in its nature arises from consciousness, but it carries little weight with a modern Westerner who is unclear as to whether or not consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain.

But even if such "scientific proof" should appear, it would only lead to further problems. Many Buddhists would doubtless rejoice at this vindication of their beliefs, but the fact of rebirth in itself does not lead to any linkage between one existence and the next. Just to prove that death will be followed by another life in no way indicates that a murderer will be reborn in hell, whereas a saint will go to heaven. The doctrine of rebirth is meaningful in Buddhism only insofar as it provides a basis for the continuity of ethical consequences. Although rebirth and karma are often linked together, it is karma that is of primary importance; rebirth is secondary.

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