Batchelor v. Thurman
The following debate took place in New York City in January 1997 at the home of Michael Marsh. Stephen Batchelor lives in England and is the Director of Studies at the Sharpham College for Buddhist Studies and Contemporary Inquiry. He is the translator of Shantideva's A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, as well as the author of several books, including the recently published Buddhism Without Beliefs (Riverhead). He is currently leading a Tricycle Retreat.
Robert Thurman is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies at Columbia University, and a cofounder of Tibet House, New York; his translations include The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and works by Vimalikirti and Tsongkapa. Both Batchelor and Thurman are longtime Buddhist practitioners and former monks in the Gelugpa order of Tibetan Buddhism. In the dialogue, "Tricycle" represents questions and comments put forth by those present at the debate—staff members Helen Tworkov, Mary Talbot, and Lorraine Kisly, as well as Michael Marsh, Pico Iyer, and Mark Epstein. The photographs were taken by Sally Boon.
Tricycle: The question that we're here to debate is the role of reincarnation in Buddhism. According to tradition, reincarnation is pivotal to the Buddhist path. Among Westerners, this is under dispute.
Thurman: Anyone has the right to be a Buddhist, no matter what they believe. Still, I would maintain that in order to make the kind of evolutionary progress that the Buddha wanted people to make, you would have to be responsible for the sequence of former and future lives.
Batchelor: I suppose I would say no.
Thurman: That's a relief! Now we have something to talk about! [Laughter]
Batchelor: But does evolutionary progress have to be predicated on personal continuity? Could you not speak of it in terms of, let's say, a communal, cultural, or social continuity that we are part of in terms of the Buddhist tradition as we've inherited it over the last two-and-a-half-thousand years? Why does it have to be isolated within individual persons?
Thurman: Well, it doesn't have to be. But the Buddha's discovery was that it is. If you die without becoming a Buddha, and you have no more opportunity to become a Buddha, how would you share in somebody else's achievement of Buddhahood at some other time?
Batchelor: Wouldn't my contribution be what I can do in this life? And then my legacy to future lives would be what I have managed to achieve now, through my work, through the effect I might have had on others now, or on subsequent generations? There may be past lives in common—I'm not saying that they're not there—I just don't know.
Thurman: Buddhahood is defined as the fulfillment of self-interest as well as other-interest. And if our lives are just within the parameters of being a coarse body and a coarse mind, whose final destiny is nothing, than the restraint from doing negative things is not that great really—which is the problem with ethics in materialist societies.
Batchelor: I did believe very literally in rebirth when I was training as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. But I used to ask myself, if there were no rebirth, would I behave differently? And the answer is no. Rebirth was never actually a driving force. Is it for you?
Thurman: Yeah, I'd act differently. I'd relax a lot I think! Definitely.
Thurman: I would lose my focus as a completely unrepentant workaholic. The fact that there would be nothingness awaiting—that's like negative nirvana.
Batchelor: That's not my position. To believe that there is nothing after death is just as much a view as believing there is something.
Thurman: I agree with you. But isn't that the materialist belief?
Batchelor: I would certainly not take the stance that after death there is nothing. The only honest position I can arrive at is: "I actually don't know." There could be possibilities after death that this current mind/body complex could not ever conceive. Theories of rebirth may actually constrain the mystery and the potentially extraordinary and inconceivable possibilities of what happens after death into the frame of what can be logically conceived of through this very limited human organism. To me death is not just a question of either continuity or nothing. They are two options that the human brain can conceive of because of our either/or logic. So the only position I can adopt is, "I really don't know." Not "don't know" in a skeptical, superficial "don't care" way. Not at all. I would much prefer to believe in rebirth. As you say, it offers a very attractive evolutionary perspective. But in all honesty, I see neither logical proof nor empirical evidence, and after all, the Buddha did suggest that we check these things out for ourselves.
Thurman: Have you never read Professor Ian Stevenson's many accounts? [See Children Who Remember Previous Lives. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1987, a compilation of case studies of children who claim to remember past lives.] The most outstanding is about the boy in Sri Lanka who was born with a birthmark on his neck. As soon as he could speak, he said that he was the brother of his father. The parents tried to shut him up; they had moved to a different county because as the brother of his father he had murdered his fiancée in his previous life and had been hanged. And he had died with an indelible sense of guilt and anguish. But when that boy grew up he went back to the other county and spent his life in voluntary bondage to the family of that fiancée. And in that culture, he doesn't get on the David Letterman Show, he gets nothing out of it, and the family had every reason to suppress the memory. But he knew all the details and it was documented by Stevenson. There are many such stories.
Batchelor: Stevenson investigated something like 1,700 cases in the course of his life, of which I think he says that there are forty-seven that he cannot explain by any other means than by past and future lives, and I agree with you that that's evidence.
Thurman: Then there is the evidence of great figures in Buddhist history who claim to have remembered former lives—concretely. We can say they're all deluded. We can dispute it and discredit it, but we can't say it's not evidence.
Batchelor: I accept that; that's why I would hold an agnostic view—because that to me is persuasive. Nonetheless, it's an unacceptable leap to go from those very small number of cases, to then concluding that rebirth is a fact that will occur to all beings. It's inductive logic to draw general conclusions from specific, isolated instances. We know, for example, that there were schools in ancient India, and some Tibetan texts, that refer to two or three lives, then nothing. One could use that same evidence with these children to say that it demonstrates that there is a possibility of consciousness moving from one life to the other. But you cannot draw any inference about its being a process that goes on until you are a Buddha. It's not proof, in any sense of the word, that therefore that will happen to all other people; or even to that person ever again. But let's imagine that we do come up with a scientific acceptance of reincarnation. It doesn't serve to indicate the more central issue: that of karmic continuity and consequences of one's moral acts. One could hypothesize rebirth without having any further evidence as to a person being born according to the nature of the acts that they committed in the previous life. And that is surely the crucial element. Stevenson's cases don't suggest any kind of moral implication.