June 23, 2010

Stephen Batchelor in Insight Journal: You don't have to believe in rebirth to be a Buddhist

insight journal, andrew olendzki, stephen batchelor, barre center for buddhist studiesNot many things in life are free, but there are exceptions. One of them is Insight Journal, the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies publication edited by the center's co-director Andrew Olendzki. You can either order the hard copy or, if you're eco-conscious, download it. Of course, it's always a great help to offer dana—a donation—when you do. The organization supports itself through its paid courses and the generosity of its members and friends.

This issue features a piece by Stephen Batchelor on his doubts about (or nowadays, his outright rejection of) rebirth—and he finds what he feels is support in Pali Canon. Years ago we featured a debate between Stephen and Bob Thurman on the topic—Stephen played skeptic, of course, and Bob the true believer. But nowadays Stephen isn't particularly interested in arguing the point and is more likely to reflect on how he came to his beliefs and his ever-evolving understanding of the Buddha's teachings. Here's an interesting excerpt from the Insight article:

I am not in any way suggesting that the Buddha rejected the idea of rebirth, or did not believe in it..there is just too much in the Canon to say the Buddha was even agnostic about this.

But there is another strand of text that seems to not quite fit that very well. I think the Pali Canon actually has multiple voices within it, not a single, monolithic voice. You get contradictory perspectives introduced all the time, which is part of the very richness of that literature.

In the Kālāma Sutta the Buddha says, don’t just accept what I say because I am your teacher, because the tradition says it, or because it seems to be reasonable. At the end of that text, he speaks about the four solaces, or rewards, that come from the practice of the Dhamma. One solace says, if there is indeed another life, if there is, indeed, a law of karmic cause and effect, then, after death, you will be reborn in a happy realm and benefit from the results of your present karma. The second solace says, if there is no future life, if there is no law of karma, then, too, by practicing the Dhamma you will live happy and content, here and now, in this world. That is very striking: the Buddha seems to be saying what really matters is not what may or may not follow after death, but the quality of your experience, here and now in this very life.

Admittedly, this passage occurs once, whereas rebirth and karma occur everywhere. Nonetheless, it looks oddly out of place. For that very reason, it is probably original: It would have been in no orthodox tradition’s interest to have added it later. Even more to the point is “the declared and the undeclared” in the Mālunkyovāda Sutta, Majjhima 63:

Suppose, Mālunkyaputta, a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends brought a surgeon to treat him. The man would say, “I will not let the surgeon pull out this arrow until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me, until I know whether that man who wounded me was tall or short, or of medium height, ...lives in such-and-such a village or town or city, whether the bow ... was a long bow or a crossbow, the bow string of that bow was fiber or reed or sinew ...”

All this would still not be known to that man, and meanwhile he would die. So too, Mālunkyaputta, if anyone should say, “I will not lead the spiritual life under the Buddha until the Buddha declares to me the world is eternal, the world is not eternal, ... the soul is the same as the body, the soul is one thing and the body another, after death, a Tathāgata exists, or after death, a Tathāgata does not exist, or both exists and does not exist, or neither exists nor does not exist.” All that would still be unknown to that person, would still remain undeclared by me, the Buddha, and meanwhile that person would die.

It is very clear that the Buddha sees his teaching not as the presentation or belief in certain theological doctrines, but rather as a methodology to remove what is causing us suffering and pain. The teaching is primarily pragmatic and therapeutic. In fact, all this business about the long bow and the crossbow is a parody of the how-many-angels-can-you- fit-on-the-head-of-a-needle type theology. He is teasing those who get preoccupied with fine details of doctrine and dogma, and saying that really does not matter. What matters is the removal of the poison arrow that is killing you, which is craving, or grasping. Metaphysics is not the crucial issue; suffering is.

The questions the Buddha refuses to make declarations about are rather significant—they address rebirth, although it is somewhat obscured. The third pair of questions is “Are the body and the soul the same, or are the body and the soul two different things.” The words he uses are jiva and sarira. Sarira is the word often used for relics, but it means basic matter, such as our bodies. The word for soul, jiva, is probably taken from the Jain tradition; it means the animating principle, which we could clearly understand as the mind, spirit, or soul.
He is saying don’t bother about whether these two are the same or different. If you do, you will spend a lot of time getting, as they say in England, your knickers in a twist. It is striking that these questions are the same ones we still argue about. The Buddha was quite prescient. Two and a half thousand years of philosophy, metaphysics and theology and we still struggle with the mind-body problem.

That the Buddha does not take a position on this undermines the entire metaphysics of rebirth. Because if it is not soul, or mind, or some such thing, that survives bodily death, it is very difficult to know what rebirth can actually mean. Despite this very explicit warning, most Buddhist traditions have adopted a mind- body dualism as dogma. That seems to fly in the face of a very central part of the Buddha’s teaching. He is basically saying these things are not conducive to pursuing the way of life I am teaching and encouraging, through which one can address and hopefully resolve the question of suffering. Maybe he does know the answer to these questions; it is simply not an issue.

You can download the PDF of the full article here. For an interview with Stephen Batchelor, click here.

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Joseph Bengivenni's picture

What this brings to mind, for me, is how the Buddha was willing to mold his responses to fit the person he was speaking to. For example, he may have taught anatman, but was willing to speak of atman to one who was not ready to accept anatman. It's these things that give the seeming contradictions in the Pali Canon perspective.

One of the great Korean Zen teachers, Zen Master Seung Sahn, used to use a similar quote about if there is no rebirth, than at least he lived a peaceful life, when questioned by people with a different belief. Perhaps, in the end, the question isn't what answer is true or not true, but which one is most harmonious to the situation.

Tom's picture

I wish to make an addition that focuses on the consequences - either intended or unintended - of the cited teachings.

Rebirth is a concept which we can't define or proof. Which makes it a matter of believe.
Or to be even more precise, it is a matter of definition. I personally like to define life as an ever changing state, identified by properties. I define that the consequences of what we do in life influence the life of others, just like waves in a pond. If life is a certain pattern of waves in a pond as I defined it, then I decide that rebirth is a fact. Because a pattern does not cease to exist, if it is just not present right now. The pattern was formed before and will be formed again someday in the future. Let's call it "equal forms of life".

If you instead define that rebirth means that the patterns must be formed in such a way that it must have knowledge of the former states it went through - even if they are physically unrelated with it's current state. Well, then I personally would doubt that rebirth exists. Let's call it "identical continuation of life".

Clearly the idea of equal forms of life requires no soul or anything like it at all, while the idea of identical continuation does. If you believe in some sort of soul, even the second idea may be pretty reasonable.

No doubt you will have an own idea of what rebirth is or should be and thus will come to some other conclusion. But this doesn't matter.

The fact that there may be different definitions and understandings and that neither are wrong or right may help to see the wisdom behind this teaching. It is not questioning rebirth - the whole concept of rebirth is empty by itself. It thus unbinds teachings of Buddhism which are targeting different concepts. Thus they do not interfere with each other.

This is indeed a very wise choice, as it decouples concepts of believe and understanding. We see a different approach in other religions, for example: Christianity. For Christians all wisdom must be based on the premise of a certain definition of god, angles, arch-angels, devils, demons and tons of other religious believes, which can't be proofed. As a result, "wisdom" based on these believes often enough also could not be proofed and was not to be questioned, as questioning it would also shake the concepts it was built upon to the very ground. As church made it a "wisdom" that earth is in the middle of the universe and everything else, including the sun, circles around it, it was not to be questioned. Facts had to follow fiction. Thus they forced Galileo Galilei, who proofed the facts to be otherwise, to revoke his findings while threatening his life in case he didn't.

Buddhism doesn't have this problem and it's all thanks to this harmless looking decoupling of the concepts of believe and logic. I'm very grateful for this wise decision.

As a result, Buddhism itself and it's teachings do not depend on your decisions of believe and may not be threatened by facts discovered in science. These teachings will always be helpful. A simple lesson - that has great consequences.

I hope this comment may help.

Morning Star Dhamma's picture

Thank you for this. Mr. Batchelor (a contributing editor for Tricycle) has some very relevant things to say. Here, however, he seems to blend two unrelated issues:

1) Whether the Buddha taught that one benefits from holding a belief in rebirth; and
2) Whether post-mortem rebirth actually occurs.

Mr. Batchelor writes: "That the Buddha does not take a position on this undermines the entire metaphysics of rebirth. Because if it is not soul, or mind, or some such thing, that survives bodily death, it is very difficult to know what rebirth can actually mean." Here Mr. Batchelor argues against belief in rebirth. One wonders: Why does Mr. Batchelor continue to dispute the concept of rebirth if he is advocating for a practice-based approach to the Dhamma? While Mr. Batchelor appears to advocate for an emphasis on practice, he speaks and writes in a manner that emphasizes concepts.

With regard to question (1) noted above, some might argue that a belief in rebirth derives from the type of "right view that is affected by taints, partaking of merit, ripening in the acquisitions" as described in MN 117, namely: "There is what is given and what is offered and what is sacrificed; there is fruit and result of good and bad actions; there is this world and the other world; there is mother and father; there are beings who are reborn spontaneously; there are in the world good and virtuous recluses and brahmins who have realised for themselves by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world." (Ven. Nanamoli and Ven. Bodhi translation.)

Nevertheless, Mr. Batchelor undoubtedly is correct when he writes: "It is very clear that the Buddha sees his teaching not as the presentation or belief in certain theological doctrines, but rather as a methodology to remove what is causing us suffering and pain. The teaching is primarily pragmatic and therapeutic." As it happens, some mental formations may be more conducive than others when it comes to propelling us toward liberation. But in the end, this is a path of liberation through not clinging, including not clinging to our mental formations. Our beliefs, like all mental formations, are impermanent, and also not-self, and ultimately their nature is suffering. When we look closely, we may find that we do not have the control over our convictions that we like to think we have.

With regard to question (2) noted above, MN 2 details the difference between wise attention and unwise attention. Among questions associated with unwise attention: Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound? Question (2) is a matter related to self-identity view, as Ven. Isidatta explains to the householder Citta in the Isidatta Sutta (SN 41.3).

With metta.