Filed in Theravada, Tibetan

Reincarnation: A Debate

Batchelor v. Thurman

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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.

Thurman: What does "moral" mean? A man murdered somebody in that case; he had a birthmark from the hangman's noose, and he was completely driven and gripped with guilt for it.

Batchelor: But then, according to Buddhist theory, it's unlikely that he would have been born as a human being.

Thurman: Not necessarily. In this case, he somehow hung on to his good karma of being a human—you can rationalize anything in Buddhist theory! All this stuff we've heard about evidence and science is all a bunch of rationalizations anyway. Nobody ever took hold of an atom, or a quark, or a neuron or a neutron or solar big bangs.

Batchelor: Well, I'm not so sure that science is just rationalization. It's being able to produce hypotheses that are testable under repeated circumstances anywhere in the world.

Thurman: Stephen, if everything after death is inconceivable to our human senses, then you are presumably discounting the Buddhist claim that a Buddha has senses that are adequate to comprehending the nature of reality utterly, beyond the human capacity. And also discounting the claim that Buddha has omniscience. Since Buddhists trust that, they also consider the Buddha's report about the nature of former and future lives to be highly reliable.

I'm not discrediting those claims. I'm questioning them.

Thurman: As you know, the only definitive teaching in the canon is Buddha's teaching of shunyata, voidness. But the texts say that the Buddha is a credible witness of former and future lives because he has already proven to you the state of shunyata, which you can actually experience, and which can actually be proven. Because the only thing rigorously provable is voidness, the teaching of former and future lives is open to interpretation. That doesn't mean it's untrue, only that it's not as absolute as the teaching of shunyata. So, are you disappointed in shunyata? I don't think so.

Batchelor: I have no trouble with that at all.

Thurman: Since that was proved to you, and since Buddha was the only one who taught that in history, then he has a more credible claim to understanding the nature of reality more accurately than anybody else.

Again I find that a difficult inference to draw. Just because a person is able to demonstrate one thing with absolute clarity—

Thurman: But that's the fundamental thing. The nature of reality isn't just one thing, it's the main thing.

I agree. And for that very reason, the other issues are not so important to me.

Thurman: Well, that's true. They aren't. That's why I conceded when we started this debate that you can be a Buddhist without believing in this.

Tricycle: But you said that you couldn't attain realization with believing in it.

© Sally BoonThurman: Yes. Evolutionary progress.

Tricycle: So you're still locating a belief in rebirth as a central tenet on which the Buddhist view rests?

Thurman: That's how it's traditionally defined in Buddhism: belief in the existence of enlightenment and belief in the cause and effect of karma.

Batchelor: Not rebirth.

Thurman: C'mon now! They mean rebirth. That means that causality is coherent and cohesive and you're hooked into it; you can't be disconnected.

Tricycle: So, Bob, you can't have cause and effect and karma without rebirth?

Thurman: No, because you're not in it.

Tricycle: And Stephen, what would you say?

Batchelor: I think you can. For me one of the most striking passages in Shantideva is the verse in which Shantideva says that the person who dies, and the person who is reborn, are other. And, therefore, the only valid motive that one can have for acting has to be compassion. There is no "you" who continues into a future life. "You" finish at death, and something else, another being is then born, like a parent giving birth to a child. That position takes the subject—me, the ego—out of the equation. The process of evolutionary change is not about me, Stephen Batchelor, but about what I can now do to improve the spiritual evolutionary advantage of those who come after my death. If you take the idea of otherness in this way, you no longer need to posit some personal consciousness that goes from one life to the next.

Thurman: You don't consider that verse to be a denial of that, do you ?

Batchelor: It's not a denial, but Shantideva is seriously questioning what it is that continues.

Tricycle: Stephen, how do you explain so many of the Buddhist masters, starting with Shakyamuni, talking about their past lives?

Batchelor: My own sense is that the Buddha took on board the cosmology and the cycle of rebirth that was already in place—at least in principal—in India at this time. That was the cultural paradigm that he inhabited.

So rather than attribute to him supernormal human capacities, you, Stephen, are attributing to him limited cultural parameters.

Batchelor: I have difficulty with the idea of seeing the Buddha as a kind of superman.

Tricycle: Bob?

Thurman: I'm sure Buddha was superman! Beyond superman! [Laughter] Stephen is correct that the Buddha accepted his cultural paradigm. Yet many of Stevenson's cases are drawn from cultures other than India where they don't have formal rebirth theories. The vast majority of people in this country, when they're polled, believe in heaven and hell. What we have in our culture is an elite group controlling materialist science. Their views make it impossible for people to make progress, because it inculcates a nihilistic attitude about life. "Existential" is a nicer term, but it's really nihilistic. It gives you a weird kind of freedom. And it gives you a tremendous helplessness. There's is nothing you can really do because you don't think that this piece of meditation, this piece of training, this piece of reasoning, will really accomplish any transformation. The idea that you will become nothing at death, which subliminally makes you feel like nothing even now, is the major obstacle to people's emotional life, and their sense of connectedness with nature, with other people, and the environment. And that's where the cause and effect of karma and former and future lives, can push at those self-imposed boundaries.

Tricycle: So the "story" of rebirth can be a positive motivating force.

Thurman: And that's good. The key boundary that we have to cross is the white, Protestant mentality in order to rediscover the sense of reconnectedness to life and the planet. But don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that the Buddha was just telling stories in some sense of making it up. Of course, from the Buddhist radical scientific point of view, the story of us sitting in this room on the eighteenth floor of a building in New York City is a story.

Batchelor: You seem to hold the view that if one believes that there is nothing after death one cannot believe in causal or moral or transformative processes.

Well, no, I didn't say that.

Batchelor: It was implied, no?

Thurman: That would be the extreme case. That would be like Raskolnikov, the absolute nihilist.

Or Jean Paul Sartre. But a lot of what you just argued was premised on a link between a materialist/nihilist view thereby undermining people's sense that there is anything they can really do. I don't think that follows.

Thurman: I didn't mean that it followed on a conscious level. What I've noticed is that the seed of a little picture that someone holds, even subliminally, in their minds, planted by their materialistic education, that at death, Boom! Finished! That little seed, subliminally, erodes the sense of connectedness. It corresponds to an ingrained sense of disconnectedness and an atomistic individualism that has been cooked up over the last three centuries in the West. It doesn't mean that people can't simultaneously hold theories of causality. But I have come perceive that seed to be intimately connected with this almost psychotic dimension in the Western personality.

Batchelor: I certainly agree with you that it is essential for people to have a world-view that establishes their deeper sense of connectedness with the environment, the world, with other people and society. And I agree that many of the disasters that the world is currently experiencing is because of either that nihilistic or that absolutistic view. And I agree that for many people it is very liberating to have a view of individual continuity without lapsing into either absolutistic or nihilistic extremes. But I don't feel that view is necessarily true. I feel that one can account for transformation, responsibility and causality quite adequately without having to ascribe to a metaphysics of personal continuity.

Thurman: Let me ask you then: we cannot perceive or conceive of anything that lacks continuity in nature. Why should we then take the subtlest level of consciousness and say particularly that that has no continuity?

Batchelor: I don't dispute continuity at all. Of course there's continuity. The question is how does continuity continue? A tree continues, but that tree in Central Park will disappear, and some seed, acorn, will carry on the genetic information.

Thurman: So you agree with the continuity of consciousness then. It's just that you think that it may not be subjectively apprehendable by anybody.

I don't necessarily agree with the continuity of consciousness. I believe in the continuity of actions.

Thurman: The consequences of actions; to the recipients of the actions, not to the actor.

Batchelor: Not necessarily to the actor, no.

Thurman: So something gets excluded. That's what I'm trying to say: why should one thing be excluded from this vast sea of continuity?

Batchelor: Because consciousness is contingent upon this physical organism. What we are saying when we posit no future life for the individual is that that particular piece of process of continuity of me remembering myself as I go along—with the gaps that come from sleep, from meditative states, from momentary amnesiacs, and other things—that particular continuity is one that stops.

Thurman: In classical Mahayana and Tantric accounts when someone attains Buddhahood they go through a kind of mega-death which results in a kind of mega-life where they can be alive in fifty different beings or a million different beings. That's very different from a person who as a compulsive self-centered, self-enclosed individual grasps for another self-enclosed individual's existence in whatever form of embodiment, which is the way they would describe an unenlightened person's involuntary samsaric rebirth—driven by lust and hate and so forth. So there are different kinds of rebirth within that picture. But no one can absolutely prove rebirth; even the Buddhists say that; only a Buddha's mind can know it for sure. But still, the fact of accepting it has profound and important consequences.

Tricycle: From a pragmatic view?

Thurman: All Buddhism is pragmatic.

Tricycle: It's useful to help people?

Thurman: That's in keeping with the tradition.

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celticpassage's picture

Basically, we only have statements written down and ascribed to the Buddha by later generations and interpreted to mean by even later generations that the Buddha said that reincarnation is true. That is, that we are reincarnated. So, this is an interpretation of statements (written down long long after his death) supposedly made by Buddha about reincarnation. And of course, reincarnation was a cultural belief in Buddha's time and at the times the "statements of the Buddha" were recorded. Reincarnation, then, is not a reality, but a statement of faith about what some people think of reality.

Sara Isayama's picture

The term is rebirth.
And, no we have far more than just statements. I've experienced past lives myself. Yes, you heard right, I've had them come up as part of my practice, as has my teacher, as have many people both laypeople and monks that I know. In Soto Zen Keizan talked in great detail about his own past lives (he wrote these down in the Tokokuki), and many Masters in many different branches of Buddhism have documented such experiences themselves.
It is not just the Buddha. We can, (and Buddhists do) directly experience these things. They are not simply a matter of belief. We can prove the existence of these things true for ourselves.

awalts's picture

A quote from a very useful piece Alan Wallace wrote about agnostic and atheistic interpretations of Buddhism (including Batchelor's), called "Distorted Visions of Buddhism": "Perhaps the most important issue secularists ignore regarding the teachings attributed to the Buddha is that there are contemplative methods—practiced by many generations of ardent seekers of truth—for putting many, if not all, these teachings to the test of experience. Specifically, Buddhist assertions concerning the continuity of individual consciousness after death and rebirth can be explored through the practice of samadhi, probing beyond the coarse dimension of consciousness that is contingent upon the brain to a subtler continuum of awareness that allegedly carries on from one lifetime to the next."

What I would add: if you don't like taking the Buddha's insights into reality on faith, instead of trying to explain why they don't mean anything (and in the process discarding centuries of serious scholarship and experience because they don't make sense to you), why not devote that mental energy to developing your own insight? Not that I claim to have direct experiential knowledge of rebirth - but the Buddha declared (over and over, and explicitly based on his own direct experience) that karmic rebirth exists, and I have found it very valuable to accept and work with this as a truth (albeit hypothetical for me and therefore very incompletely grasped by me), given the direct experience of karma that I do have.

If Batchelor's approach works for you, fine - I've read his books too, and the parts of Dharma he personally deems worth preserving are certainly very valuable in themselves and can be a good starting point for a modern secularist (or refugee from theism) who is new to Buddhism. But I see secularized Buddhism as wandering around fearfully in shallow waters, and prefer to dive into the ocean of Dharma. A secularist feels the sand drop off, and warns everyone: watch out! Stay here! Nothing to stand on out there! A Buddhist swims. The Buddhist is no less empirical and rational than the secularist - just bolder and more trusting, and with a greater destination in mind.

maximohudson's picture

I've been thinking about the topic of reincarnation quite a bit recently and it seems to me, that if one has a basic understanding of impermanence, that once can observe that a form of reincarnation is constantly manifesting itself before our very eyes. This all gets back to Heraclitus and the idea that as a result of change one can never enter the same river twice. This, of course, is also a Buddhist understanding and one of our arguments/proofs against an inherently-existent self. Now then, if we observe that the body is in a constant state of change (which we do) and we have reasoned that as a result of this change that there is no such thing as an inherently-existing self, we must then certainly ponder the nature of this process whereby we continuously imbue a continuously changing state with the concept of "I." From a Buddhist POV we are misinterpreting what is going on, like seeing the sun transversing the sky and then believing that it is traveling around the earth. The perception that the sun is traveling around the earth, however, is an illusion as is, we are told, an inherently-existing self. Now, all this being said, we are still left with something, some sort of (mis)perception, that there is an I that transcends all this change. I would like to put forward that the same mechanism (call it delusion, ignorance, karma, karmic conditioning, cause and effect, etc.) that manifests itself to our sense organs as a contiguous inherently-existent "I" is the same process by which reincarnation takes place. What we constantly observe is a perceived movement of our consciousness from place to place, from moment to moment, amidst a constant change not only of the world around us, but indeed in our own physical form and mind stream. This, I say, is a form of reincarnation which we can readily observe. It is based upon delusion, ignorance and misperception. And this is why when delusion, ignorance and misperception are overcome and the enlightenment state obtained the delusional cycle of rebirth ends.

hollyg's picture

I've read some of the articles in the Berzin Archives website. One of the articles talked about how a healthy debate can be beneficial to understanding and cognition. But before the debate starts, it is crucial to have a set of assumptions, definitions of terms that you can agree on before you can even have a productive discussion with each other. As I read through the debate, I found myself getting lost in the whole thing. In the end, what I got out of it is this: Batchelor seemed to be following the path of a person of Initial Scope according to the Graded Stages of Lam-rim. Thurman on the other hand, speaks more from the views of a person who follows the path of middle to advanced scope of the Lamrim. According to the Buddha's teachings, this is ok, but I think Thurman pointed out that with this limited understanding, one's mental continuum may be going through the cycle of rebirth indefinitely, and without even knowing it (i.e. not developing any insight to past or future lives because one doesn't have that indiscriminate awareness). I personally think without rebirth and continuity of consciousness, it lessens one's accountability of the karmic actions. As one gets to the advanced scope, the understanding of voidness is the most important. Once you have reached enlightenment the only thing left is voidness. Karma, nirvana, and rebirth will eventually be abandoned and therefore not needed.

wonderwheel's picture

Lastly, I note that the discussion about the Bodhisattva vow to save all beings is particularly dreadful considering that these two gentlemen were considered luminaries of Western Buddhism. From their discussion, it appears that neither has read, or neither could remember reading, either the Diamond Cutter Sutra or the Platform Sutra of Huineng. Thurman seems to entertain a litgeralist or materialist view of saving all beings by living an infinity of lives while Batchelor seems to hold an "it's only symbolic" view so we don't really need to worry about it. Neither addresses the essential point of "dreaming the impossible dream."

The Diamond Cutter Sutra says that even though all beings are saved not even one being is saved. The Platform Sutra says that all the beings that must be saved are all the beings in our own mind. This is not merely a symbolic metaphore, but is pointing directly to the fact that the very existence of all beings is their existence as beings discriminated in mind. Huineng's teaching that the vow is to save all the beings of our own mind directly indicates that there are no beings outside of our own mind and this is the same teaching of the Diamond Cutter Sutra in regards to saving beings.

wonderwheel's picture

As another example of cherry-picking the ego issue, Batchelor says, “There is no ‘you’ who continues into a future life. ‘You’ finish at death, and something else, another being is then born, like a parent giving birth to a child. That position takes the subject—me, the ego—out of the equation. The process of evolutionary change is not about me, Stephen Batchelor, but about what I can now do to improve the spiritual evolutionary advantage of those who come after my death. If you take the idea of otherness in this way, you no longer need to posit some personal consciousness that goes from one life to the next.”

Here, Batchelor is presenting a completely jumbled up version of Buddha Dharma. If there is no “you” who continues in a future life, then likewise there is no “you” who continues in this life, and therefore no “you” that finishes at death. In other words, you can’t be a Buddhist and still cherry pick when “you” begin and when “you” are finished.

Also, the Buddha Dharma view of karma does not “posit some personal consciousness that goes from one life to the next.” The revolutionary discovery related to karma within Buddha Dharma does not even posit a “personal consciousness” in this life. Indian karma posited a person consciousness and Buddha discovered the radical truth that even though karma functions as an activity of Dharma, there is no personal consciousness needed to make the activity of karma functional. This is the basic meaning of “anatman” or non-self. Consciousness takes definition by flowing along a “stream” or “river bed” but this flowing is not “personal” except to the extent that the stream of consciousness creates a self-image to represent itself in its own imagination. The self-image, being imaginary, is not “personal” except in the imaginary sense. So Batchelor is correct to point out there is no personal consciousness needed to go “from one life to the next,” but that just means that the consciousness that manifests in the life stream from one life to the next is an impersonal consciousness that dreams of itself from time to time as a personal consciousness.

wtompepper's picture


I find your comments very interesting and helpful. I love reading Batchelor's books--I read "Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist" twice--but I often disagree with him, and his arguments sometimes seem a bit sophistical. I'm not clear, though, what you mean by "cherry-picking the ego issue."

Would you argue that we should not make the distinction between non-self and the existence of a "conventional" self? Don't we need to accept that the self really does exist conventionally, just not ultimately?

Is your position a kind of "consciousness-only" version of Buddhism?

Thanks for taking the time to comment on these matters--vigorous discussion is essential to good Buddhist practice.


justone's picture

"So Batchelor is correct to point out there is no personal consciousness needed to go “from one life to the next,” but that just means that the consciousness that manifests in the life stream from one life to the next is an impersonal consciousness that dreams of itself from time to time as a personal consciousness."

Alan Watts would concur I think.

wonderwheel's picture

The problem with most “debates” about reincarnation (or its synonym rebirth) is that the discussion takes off without questioning the assumptions. For example, in this classic debate between Robert Thurman (pro) and Stephen Batchelor (con), Thurman begins by positing reincarnation as “evolutionary progress” and Batchelor responds by asking “does evolutionary progress have to be predicated on personal continuity?" Now, Batchelor’s question appears to challenge the usual assumption of individual continuity in the reincarnation scheme, but in fact Batchelor is resting that challenge squarely on the assumption of individual continuity in one life when he follows up by musing, “Wouldn't my contribution be what I can do in this life?”

Batchelor is on to something important when he asks about “a communal, cultural, or social continuity” in relation to karma and reincarnation , but his historical framework, in which a real “I” with historical individual continuity exists in only one life, gets in the way of realizing the meaning of his implied question. Batchelor can only accept an historical reality in which the only transmigration of karma between individual lives occurs by the medium of the historical reality of communal, social, or cultural continuity. The unchallenged assumptions are built into the historical framework itself in which the individual is taken for granted as the individual life continuity and the cultural is taken for granted as the transmigratory continuity. But this very idea of history as the medium of what connects individuals across lifetimes is the antithesis of reincarnation, not just a metaphorical reinterpretation of reincarnation.

Batchelor’s line of questioning goes, “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?” When this is examined closely, we can see that the “my” and “I” are taken for granted and unexamined, yet the very efficacy of reincarnation is in the examination of the “my” and “I.” When Batchelor speaks about “my legacy” he shows that his is holding onto the self-image of an egoistic individuality. This is not what the legacy of karma is about. Most people, and apparently Batchelor as well, take reincarnation as stating the past lives are “my” past lives as if they are to be measured only in accordance with the self-image of today. However, the very notion of a past life, if taken seriously in all its implications, completely deconstructs the self-image of today. the reincarnation framework holds that there is no one lifetime that is any more or less determinative of our essential self-identity than another, only that one or another life time has more or less influence on this life time. There is no such thing as “my legacy”, to use Batchelor’s construction, except in the context of the deluded self-imagery in which ownership over the karmic stream is asserted.

Thurman does not fare any better. When Batchelor asks why does evolutionary progress have to be isolated within individual persons, Thurman answers, “Well, it doesn't have to be. But the Buddha's discovery was that it is.” Thurman’s response accepts too easily the framework of the concept of “isolation within individual persons” because that is not what Buddha’s discovery was. The cultural conception of karma and reincarnation into which Buddha was born already had “discovered” the concept of karma and reincarnation as “evolutionary progress isolated within individual persons.” It was the core fallacy of this idea of “individual persons” that Buddha discovered. Buddha discovered that karma and reincarnation are the actual functioning of reality, i.e., the activity of Dharma, but that karma and reincarnation are not “isolated within individual persons,” and on the contrary, it is the delusion of being isolated within an individual person that is the foundation of our activity that is our karma that results in reincarnation.

yourneighbor57's picture

P.S. Mr. Thurman says that a scientific paradigm makes people nihilistic - and feel helpless to make transformation. That has not been my experience. Over time my meditation practice has given me an experiential understanding of the interconnectedness of - well - everything. I also feel more and more the sense of my consciousness being created by mental processes. I find this strangely comforting. It gives me courage and helps me feel more compassion - and let go more and more of my psychology. Sometimes I can imagine what I think of as "me" just drifting apart into its component elements and moving out into the universe. This will happen to all beings and to everything...what a great motivator for compassionate action. It puts the day to day annoyances in perspective! We are not just interconnected - we are really one. One what? Don't know.

yourneighbor57's picture

For myself I don't care if reincarnation is real or not - and I would not live differently if I found out for sure (though I really don't get how no-self is consistent with reincarnation - what is it that gets reborn?). Cause and effect in this life is enough to show me that what I think about and do now affects outcomes for me and those around me in the future. Some of those outcomes even survive my own death - like my use of the world's resources or how I raise my children.

There are many people around the world who face extremes of suffering. This suffering is often a result of greed and aggression by OTHER people. Sometimes it is caused by acts of nature. It seems that the response by those who are able to respond needs to be to try and relieve that suffering, karma or no karma. What it looks like to me is that sentient beings ALL suffer from the actions/karma of some.

I like the Buddha's story - something like: "If someone is struck by a poisoned arrow, the task at hand is to remove the arrow and neutralize the poison. A discussion of the composition and origin of the arrow is irrelevant." On the other hand, if some people are motivated and energized to practice and to compassionate engagement in the world by belief in reincarnation and karma - great!

Dominic Gomez's picture

Closely related to this discussion is "Do You Believe in Karma?" in the Blog section. Both bring up for investigation and analysis notions that presently are very difficult to prove one way or the other. Brings to mind the firestorm that once existed over how many angels could fit on the head of a pin. As in the case in Western society regarding the existence of God, an eternal cycle of life and death as well as a law of causality underpin Eastern (read "Buddhist") thought and colors human behavior. In both, it all comes down to a matter of faith or belief concerning non-empirical matters.

Kenneth Daly's picture

In her recent retreat, Rita Gross defined karma very succinctly: "... where we find ourselves is not the result of fate, it's not the result of an accident, and it's not the result of the will of God. It's the result of our own actions, fueled by our intentions. That, in other words, we determine our own position in samsara, we determine whether or not we find the deathless by our own actions, fueled by our intentions.
Thus, this is in a nutshell, but his teachings about karma ...." Too many people use "karma" in another sense that implies or outright asserts fate as operative in our lives. In this context, the word "reincarnation" tends to be used in a way that contradicts the principle of no-self. However, in answer to a question about reincarnation (1996 Tricycle interview) , the Dalai Lama spoke in the same practical terms as the quote from Rita Gross: "Of course, even if you see only one lifetime, it's the same as if you see many births, many lives. If there are many unfortunate things in your life, or if you have had a much happier life with many good opportunities, you still want one hundred years of life. You see, the past is past, and the future is yet to come. That means the future is in your hands—the future entirely depends on the present. That realization gives you a great responsibility." Debates in the realm of conventional truth about reincarnation, rebirth, past-present-future, even with all their invocations of moral consequence, can serve as distractions from the practice of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

zhaozhouzhi's picture

''...where we find ourselves is not the result of fate, it's not the result of an accident, and it's not the result of the will of God. It's the result of our own actions, fueled by our intentions.''

 Try saying that to victims of an earthquake or tsunami or drought. Or people suffering from leprosy or some other dreadful disease.
The fact that you are starving due to a drought ''is not the result of fate, it's not the result of an accident, and it's not the result of the will of God. It's the result of Your own actions, fueled by Your intentions.''
Clearly that definition of karma does not work.

wonderwheel's picture

"... where we find ourselves is not the result of fate, it's not the result of an accident, and it's not the result of the will of God. It's the result of our own actions, fueled by our intentions. That, in other words, we determine our own position in samsara, we determine whether or not we find the deathless by our own actions, fueled by our intentions.
Thus, this is in a nutshell, but his teachings about karma ...."

The most important nuance of karma is in the connection between "where we find ourselves" and "our own actions" and "our intentions." These primary concepts all share the notion of "our" or "I" or "my, me, mine." In fact it is the self-imagery of "I, me, mine" that defines "our intention" and creates the identity in "where we find ourselves." The karma activity is the activity of creating an identity which then identifies intention as "mine" and "not mine" and then constructs a world-view of reality that reinforces the construction of "me" and "not me" and becomes how we incarnate (manifest) in the present moment. That we keep reinventing ourselves through the karma of identification with a self-image is how we reincarnate from moment to moment, from life to life.

feralyung's picture

As a person deeply educated in mathematics and the sciences, I have felt this debate within myself for many years. In 1995 I deliberately forced myself to meditate on the emotional acceptance of the very possibly real materialistic/mechanistic view of reality as perhaps expressed in QFT(quantum field theory). In a very popular version of applying this perspective to consciousness/mind, such sentient existence is an emergent phenomenon of biochemical processes in the brain/body with QFT as its causal roots. As such, once the physical process that instantiates the emergent phemenon of mind/consciousness ceases to exist, so do all of its entailments, such as consciousness/mind. My experience of freeing myself of the poison of aversion to this view of reality was a lot like Kubla-Ross's five stages of grief. A little like a self induced NDE(near death experience). Freeing myself from the emotional attachment (aversion) of perceiving death as a final snuffing out of the candle of life was a very liberating experience for me and allowed me to much more easily accept the view of Stephen Batchelor that rebirth was not essential to Buddhist practice. I believe that many people are drawn to rebirth because of unresolved fears about a final extinguishing.
On the other hand, since I have had many experiences of the reality of shunyata, I am loath to cling to any one particular view and to see all statements as one of a multitudinous variety of myths. Joseph Campbell influenced me initially to the reality that reality is a myth(i.e. all is myth). As a scientist and a pragmatist I do put a priority on experience and bayesian statistics. The idea that someone like Gautama Buddha just miraculously appeared in the midst of the axial age with a philosophy that is so advanced that western science and philosophy are only beginning to come to terms with it through Derrida and other deconstructionists not to mention the measurement problem in quantum mechanics or the problem of inertial frames in relativity it seems to beg credulity to believe that the existence of Gautama Buddha is some kind of historical quirk. I believe the best argument for the reality of rebirth is the fact that Gautama Buddha actually existed and taught the incredibly profound teachings for which he is credited.
I still side with Batchelor that rebirth is not essentially necessary to Buddhist ethics but am also deeply sympathetic to Thurman's assertion that materialism is a seed of nihilism and can sap the vitality of the spiritual quest.

wonderwheel's picture

"I still side with Batchelor that rebirth is not essentially necessary to Buddhist ethics but am also deeply sympathetic to Thurman's assertion that materialism is a seed of nihilism and can sap the vitality of the spiritual quest."

The question of "Buddhist ethics" is integral in importance. Ethics in the Western context is "the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation " But Buddhism looks as "what is good and bad" in a context different than Deity-revealed religions do that place "what is good and bad" within the context of authoritative imperatives devinely dictated. In Buddhism, the moral imperative does not arise from an external authority, but from within our own mind that is the One Mind of Suchness, also known as emptiness or sunyata. Since, notihing can arise in mind outside the context of the discrimination that relies on polarity, the morality of Buddha Dharma is usually explained in terms of beneficial and unbeneficial rather than in terms of good and bad. To ask how is this beneficial forces us to be aware of the context within which any beneficial effect can be determined, as compared to the concept of "good" that is measured against an artificial external measurment as if there is no subjectivity involved.

Basically, karma is inherently amoral because there is no external standard of good and bad by which it can be measured but karma is light, dark or neutral (i.e., beneficial, detrimental, or neutral) depending on the context of the intention within the volitional identity that is associated with the karmic action.

Understanding karma as a morally ethical system according to an external measurement of good and bad is a misunderstanding. There is the hilarious sutra in which two ascetics ask Buddha to tell them about their future births. One ascetic is a "dog-duty" ascetic who mimics the behavior of dogs and the other is an "ox-duty" asetic who mimics the behavior of oxen. They are like the Abbot and Costello or Laural and Hardy of Indian ascetics. Each believes his own form of animal mimicing is the true way to liberation and will bring them to nirvana. When they meet the Buddha they each ask the Buddha to tell them the future birth of the other so that they can prove to the other that he is practicing the wrong ascetic duty. The Buddha initially declines to answer the question, but when asked three times sincerely he relents and informs them that the dog-duty ascetic will be reborn as a dog among dogs and the od-duty ascetic will be revorn as an ox among oxen. The point is not that it is good or bad to be reborn as a dog or an ox, but that we will simply be reborn in accord to our conduct. We can't magically transform intention and divorce it from its context of identiy. Thus, even if our intention is to be liberated, if our identity is that of a dog, it is the actual actions based on that identity which reveal our true intention and result in our true rebirth, not on the imagined "intentions" we have about our actions based on our delusional self-image of ourselves.

wonderwheel's picture

"sentient existence is an emergent phenomenon of biochemical processes in the brain/body with QFT as its causal roots."

To understand consciousness we must be able to discern that the above sentence already assumes its conclusion. If we can see the truth aspcet of the above sentence AND at the same time see the equal truth aspect of the corrollary that "biochemical processess are the emergent phenomenon of sentient existence with QFT as its resulting leaves", then we are close to the Middle Way.

dharmatraveller's picture

Such an interesting discussion. I would love to hear more about how how "biochemical processes in the brain/body" have QFT as their causal roots.

I disagree with your perspective that people are drawn to rebirth because of "unresolved fears about a final extinguishing". I feel that we Western nihilists are all too happy about such a nihilistic ending. That means all we have to do is bear a few moments of pain and soon it with "all be over". That's the easy escapist way. If we are clear about "shunyata" we know that we are experiencing appearance after appearance. Only by gaining a full realization of emptiness will we stop grasping at these appearances as truly existing and see that they are dependent arisings. So after the appearance of dying in this life, our mindstream will emerge in a new circumstance--dependent upon our own previous actions, our karma. To my mind, that's a dash of cold water on complacency.

It seems to me that Batchelor hasn't delved far enough into Shunyata, even though he avows it as his spiritual baseline. There are clear implications if you follow Buddhas teachings, which lead to an airtight case for the continuity of consciousness. He's a very thoughtful explorer though, and I really appreciate his books, experiences, etc.

Mike Nielsen's picture

When you try in the last paragraph to see both sides of the argument to a certain extent, that touched a chord in me. My long-time adherence to a materialist orientation towards my life and the world around me has been undermined by my slowly developing awareness of the many ways in which I was led back to meditation (after a 35 year dry spell) through a series of contingencies. "Miracle" is too strong a word for the process but at least synchronicity has to be at play. The more I open up, the more people I seem to come in contact with who act as "gurus" to me. I assume they were always there but I shielded myself from seeing our shared dilemma because of my hard-line materialist orientation. Pema Chodron uses the term "softening" quite a bit in her writing and talks. I think this is what I am experiencing. I don't think I need to buy into reincarnation to experience this gradual softening. Would it accelerate the process if I did believe in reincarnation? That is a subject worthy of contemplation but I am pretty busy right now just trying to just simply open up to life around me without so much craving and aversion.

mitaky's picture

Buddha spoke about rebirth which is different than prevailing paradigm of reincarnation, which presupposes eternal immortal soul. Just as all matter is compound of elements, we human and sentient beings are made of ever-changing compound of five skandhas, My understanding is, Consciousness binds/attaches to and identifies with form, feeling. perception and habitual actions/reactions (Sankharas, volitional actions, karma) conditioned by views/beliefs (just came to know there are 62 wrong views, delusions that keeps samsara going), thinking and intention.

Following the Middle way of understanding, what is reborn is neither the same person, nor a totally different personality (mind-body stream) as the stream of consciousness/ mindstream continues after death of physical body/brain. We know attention, concentration, thinking, emotion all are mental energy. Consciousness is inseparable from energy and not bound to physical organism. Materialistic Science have a problem seeing consciousness as energy. So we are trying to change and control our external enviroment with lot of action and building structures, systems and technology in the world. We know how confused, defiled and entangled we have become in our mind and thinking. After death with shutting down of physical apparatus and brain consciousness temporarily detaches from form, feeling, perception etc and depending on one's level of mindful-awareness, clarity at the moment of passing away and karmic volition one can choose the circumstances, realms and timing of their rebirth. That is my sense anyway. Nibbana or deathless is the unbinding of conditioned/compounded/attached consciousness, Incidentally the Indian word vijnana (consciousness) is the same word used for 'Science'.

Dharma Sanctuary's picture

I like where you are leading:

"what is reborn is neither the same person, nor a totally different personality (mind-body stream) as the stream of consciousness/ mindstream continues after death of physical body/brain."

Can't we accept that whatever karmic stream we have created in our life can continue, but not be so personalized, as most people want to see it? If consciousness is energy, then it is likely diffuse and not bound to an indentity. My problem is our need for personal soul continuity. Perhaps we could see that what we create gets expressed in lots of diffuse ways, but doesn't have to stay packaged as influencing only our soul journey. We are all in this together. I think there's a lot more flow in this process than many of us are willing to imagine.

bendorje's picture

I don't follow "Western Buddhism", or the way we tend to remake Buddhism to suit our lives instead of taking it as it has been for thousands of years now. It is the only path to follow to gain enlightenment, and Americans can't remake it in our image, or to suit our life styles. It just doesn't work that way.
I am a very strict follower of Tibetan Buddhism which after 15 years of study has proven to me to be completely different from all other forms of Buddhism. It is also the only path I have found that eased my personal suffering, caused by pain that almost cost me my life.
The Buddha says that I will be reborn, and I take it as the truth. So I live my very simple life helping others to find their path toward enlightenment. I am in constant thought of how to achieve that goal, and to keep my karma in a state that I look froward to my death, and will welcome it with open arms.
Buddhism without rebirth to guide your life is akin to Christianity without Jesus. One must always think of what rebirth they will have, and what level they will be reborn in. I don't own anything except the clothing on my back. Over the past 50+ years I have given everything I once owned to those that needed it more. And I have never been happier. To be reborn and given another chance to continue my path toward enlightenment is all I have in this life, and it's all I will ever need.
Everything else is just greed, wanting what your neighbor has, or wanting more money then one could spend in a lifetime. And the poor, needy and infirm suffer while the greed is passed down from one rebirth to another. These are the people that I pray for most. They are the ones that will be reborn in the Hell Realms.

dharmatraveller's picture

What about the notion of a substantial cause? All things can be observed to follow their own continuum. Body comes from body (or the body of our parents, their parents, so on). There are many other causes of body like food and water, but the substantial cause is a previous moment of body. The same with mind. Mind is caused by previous moments of mind, and therefore is beginningless. The brain and body are important contributing causes of mind, like soil and light are important causes of plant. Plant still comes from plant (seed, etc.). So this is the "proof" Buddha gave, that we know from Nagarjuna, Dharmakirti and others. In turn, we can directly find the "empirical" evidence ourselves through meditation, by observing that mind comes from previous moments of its own continuum. Karma follows along these lines.
If you look, science has a problem solidly supporting the claim that something as unfathomable as consciousness is just caused by the brain (see Dualist Problem, Hard Problem, etc). Why should we be so troubled by "hard" evidence for hidden objects like past and future lives? "Soft" evidence abounds if we listen openly to our teachers, to Buddha. We know clearly that whatever is there (after death) is unavailable to our senses now. Then why not go with the best explanation and strongest evidence which Buddha amply provides. Add to that a little faith. (-:

Smith8's picture

Wow! That was kind of a long, tedious, wordy discussion. I prefer the simple way many famous Zen and Taoist masters advised; to just quiet your mind, connect with the universal mind and receive the information you seek through your intuition, instead of trying to work it out analytically like these two men seem to be doing. Then you'll just know, and you won't feel the need for endless words and labels, or to justify and argue about endless technicalities. But, to each his own.

matthewoconnell's picture

As you said, each to his own. I would actually argue that we need more such conversations between Buddhist VIPS. Challenging Buddhist beliefs and myths is essential in establishing a more robust Western Buddhism. Perhaps you would have been happier with a CliffNotes summary :)

Jakela's picture

Couldn't agree more. Conseversations like this are what lead people to think that meditation is too hard, too spiritual (whatever that is) or too complicated.
Only Don't Know.