In a talk he gave in Sheffield in 2008 entitled Dreams and Rebirth, Sangharakshita said that he was ‘reasonably well persuaded’ of rebirth. He gave various considerations including: his own overwhelming desire to practise the Dharma despite being born in unpropitious circumstances for it; non-ordinary dreams he had had that seemed connected with a previous life; the testimony of young children who claimed to remember past lives, collected by people such as Francis Storey; and his friendships with Lama Govinda and Dhardo Rinpoche, both of whom claimed to remember a previous existence. He ended the talk by encouraging us to reflect on the question of rebirth.
Maybe the talk did encourage some people in Triratna to consider the matter, because when I returned from my long retreat in late 2011, some of my friends had decided that they definitely didn’t believe in rebirth. In order to preserve a view of karma without rebirth, some of them were exploring arguments for how their actions would continue to have consequences in the world after their death. However, these ‘ripple effect’ arguments, while interesting, do nothing to uphold the Buddhist doctrine of karma. The traditional Buddhist understanding is that karma vipaka is always experienced by the person who created the original karma – in the same mental continuum (citta santana) – either in this life or a future one. This is why the suttas talk of us being ‘heirs’ or ‘inheritors’ (Skt: dayada) of our actions.
I feel concerned about this issue, because I find that people often come down on the side of ‘no rebirth’ without reflecting on how much of their other Buddhist belief and practice this decision calls into question. So my purpose in this article isn’t to rehearse arguments for or against rebirth. Instead I want to look at how much of traditional Buddhism falls away or becomes problematic, and how different the Buddhist life becomes, once you decide that there is no rebirth.
The Buddha’s Awakening
Let’s start with some traditional accounts of the Buddha’s Awakening. The Bhayabherava Sutta (MN 4) and the Mahasaccaka Sutta (MN 36) are two of the classic Pali accounts of the Buddha’s Awakening experience. They both describe how the Buddha-to-be, having given up austerities, attains the fourth dhyana. With that concentration as a basis, in the first watch of the night he remembers in detail many of his previous lives. He describes this as the ‘first true knowledge’ that he attained. In the second watch of the night, with supernormal vision based on deep dhyana, he sees how other beings arise and pass away according to their karma. This is his ‘second true knowledge’. On the basis of those two, he overcomes the asavas, attains liberation, and knows that ‘birth is destroyed’. This is his ‘third true knowledge’.
In these accounts, the Buddha’s Awakening comes from realizing the truth of dependent arising on the basis of directly seeing conditionality in action on the karmic level over many lifetimes, both his own and those of others. If there is no rebirth, we have to conclude that either the Pali accounts are wrong, or that the Buddha’s Awakening was a complete fluke. He was deluded about the visions that he had in the first two watches of the night – they weren’t really ‘true knowledges’ at all. But on the basis of them he somehow managed to arrive at something that was true – conditionality. It’s a bit like doing a mathematics problem, getting your working completely muddled, but then arriving at the right answer by pure chance.
A Death Blow to the Deathless
Let’s move on from the Buddha’s Awakening to the next great event in his life: his meeting in the Deer Park at Sarnath with his five old comrades in asceticism, when he first proclaims the Dharma. As he strives to convince them of his Awakening he repeatedly says ‘The Deathless has been attained’. But if there is nothing beyond death, then he was completely wrong about that, just as he was wrong about two of his three ‘true knowledges’.
This issue of ‘the Deathless’ is central to Buddhism. It is clear from the Ariyapariyesana Sutta that the Buddha’s quest for Awakening came from the desire to go beyond death. In talking about his attainment of Awakening he says: ‘.being myself subject to death, having understood the danger in what is subject to death, seeking the deathless supreme security from bondage, Nibbana, I attained the deathless supreme security from bondage, Nibbana.’ However, if death is the end of the line, then the Awakening, the freedom, that the Buddha thought he had achieved is a complete delusion. All that striving, all those years of austerities, and all that walking the dusty roads of India to help others to attain Awakening were useless – at least in terms of solving the existential issue with which he, and many others of his time, were primarily concerned.
Incidentally, this means that we need to dispense with all the symbolism based on the Buddha’s attainment of deathless nibbana that we find in later Buddhism. Padmasambhava might as well pour away the contents of his skullcup, and Amitayus can ditch that vase. Their amrita, that ‘deathless nectar’, is just so much snake-oil.
Of course, we can always fall back on saying that these passages from the suttas are later additions, and that the Buddha himself never gave this account of his Awakening, never spoke in terms of the Deathless. However, although historical criticism is valuable in helping us come closer to what the Buddha may actually have taught, it needs to be used objectively. As Professor Gombrich puts it, a text should be innocent until proved guilty. If we’re going to say that these suttas from the Majjhima Nikaya are unreliable, then we need reasons beyond the fact that we don’t like what they teach.
Another argument that is sometimes put forward is that the Buddha used the language of rebirth because it was a commonly-held belief at the time. This is highly unlikely. Certainly, as a teaching method the Buddha often engaged people on their own ground, reinterpreting things in a way that was in line with the Dharma. For instance, in talking to Brahmins he could talk the language of Brahminism, by redefining what a ‘true brahmin’ was. However, it is hard to imagine him teaching so extensively and literally about rebirth while knowing full well that there was no such thing. Was he just humouring people when they asked him about what had become of someone after death, telling them he could see what had happened to them? It seems inauthentic and dishonest in an Enlightened teacher to act in that way. And presumably if he had felt the need of it he could have reinterpreted rebirth in some way – perhaps as an influence rippling out into the world after your demise, as some of my friends are doing – just as he reinterpreted other popular beliefs of his time.
It isn’t as if everyone in Ancient India believed in rebirth anyway. Ajita of the Hair Blanket (Ajita Kesakambali) was a well-known spiritual figure. He is represented in the Buddhist scriptures as teaching ucchedavada, the doctrine of annihilation at death. So if the Buddha believed that there was nothing after death, he could simply have sided with Ajita on this matter. Instead he specifically renounced Ajita’s views as wrong in the teaching contained in the Brahmajala Sutta. In it he outlines seven ways in which one might identify with a self and imagine that it is annihilated at death. He then claims to have seen the truth of the matter, and interestingly enough, he also claims to have seen the kind of realm in which people who hold such views will be reborn.Of course the Brahmajala Sutta might be a later falsification of the Buddha’s teaching – in which case perhaps we should throw the Digha Nikaya in the bin on top of the Majjhima Nikaya.
Even if we assume that the Buddha only taught rebirth as a kind of skilful means, what are we to make of the fact that virtually no realized Buddhist practitioner down through the centuries has contradicted him? There are no figures on our Refuge Tree, neither teachers of the past nor present, who seem to have believed that death is the end. Assuming that they had some deep insight into the nature of things, did none of them speak out to contradict the Buddha out of respect for him? Did they all talk about rebirth, often at great length, while keeping their fingers crossed behind their backs? Isn’t it more likely that, seeing clearly the nature of things, their insight coincided with that of Shakyamuni, and they saw that his teaching on rebirth was true?
Changing the Significance of the Buddhist Story
If you deny rebirth, then not only are the Buddha’s Awakening and his first teaching at Sarnath compromised, so too is his Parinirvana. From being the Buddha’s final victory over suffering and limitation, it becomes just another old person being snuffed out. A noble and inspiring human death, yes, but rather than consciousness going beyond all limits, finding its boundless freedom, as brain activity stops and the Buddha flatlines, there is no freedom, no awareness, nothing.
In the same way, the significance of many of the stories involving death in the Pali Canon also changes. Take the case of Suppabuddha, in the Kutthi Sutta. He is a leper, who only approaches the assembly where the Buddha is teaching because he hopes that where a large crowd has gathered there may be some food to be had. The Buddha sees that he is ready for the Dharma and directs his teaching to him. As a result he gains stream-entry on the spot. Having paid delighted homage to the Buddha and gone for refuge, he departs. However, the sutta continues: ‘Not long after his departure he was attacked and killed by a cow with a young calf’.
Then the sutta says: a large number of monks went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As they were sitting there, they said to the Blessed One, ‘Lord, the leper named Suppabuddha, whom the Blessed One instructed, urged, roused, and encouraged with a Dhamma talk, has died. What is his destination? What is his future state?’
‘Monks, Suppabuddha the leper was wise. He practised the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma and did not pester me with issues related to the Dhamma. With the destruction of the first three fetters, he is a stream-winner, not subject to states of deprivation, headed for self-awakening for sure.’
If you hold the idea of rebirth, as the Buddha is represented as doing, then this entire story is a triumph. If you don’t then it becomes a cruelly ironic tragedy. Suppabuddha, described in the sutta as ‘a poor miserable wretch’, finds the Dharma and becomes a stream-entrant, but only has the opportunity to enjoy his new-found freedom for a brief period before a cow tramples him into the dust of non-existence.
The monks go on to ask the Buddha to explain why Suppabuddha was such a poor wretch in this life, and the Buddha does, telling them about something he had done in a previous life, and saying that now: ‘on the break-up of the body, after death – he has reappeared in a good destination, the heavenly world, in company with the devas of the heaven of the thirty-three’.
If there is no rebirth, either the Buddha is experiencing those deluded visions again, or he is making up these stories in order to encourage his monks to practise the path of virtue. An ‘Awakened One’ who is either deluded about the nature of his own experience or fundamentally dishonest (even if it is in order to encourage others to practise ethics) isn’t a true refuge. So we have to fall back on saying that the sutta is some kind of later invention. However, it is worth bearing in mind that this sutta comes from the Udana, generally considered to be an early collection of Buddhist texts. Perhaps they all have to go in the recycling as well.
Actions Don’t Have Consequences
Perhaps the biggest difficulty with deciding that there is no rebirth is that it undermines the whole doctrine of karma itself. If you believe death is the end, then to remain a Buddhist you have to argue that at least karma holds true for the individual in this life. If you go further and deny that individuals are subject to karma at all, then you don’t have a Dharma refuge. You have to go and sit over there, with Ajita of the Hair Blanket and his followers.
One of the important aspects of karma according to the Abhidharma tradition is death-proximate karma. Dependent on the last thought-moment of this life arises the first thought-moment of the next life (if you believe that rebirth is instantaneous) or of the intermediate state. But if there is no next life, no intermediate state, then your death-proximate karma has no vipaka.
In itself, that isn’t a huge problem. Death-proximate karma is clearly ineffectual in a universe in which there is no rebirth, but after all the Abhidharma recognises that there are some karmas that never come to fruition. However, let’s go back a few hours. Suppose I have just inadvertently exposed myself to a deadly pathogen which leaves me two hours to live. I have choices about how to spend my time. Hopefully, as a good Buddhist, I shall spend it meditating, or leaving messages for my teachers and friends expressing my gratitude for all they have given me over the years, or updating my will to leave everything to good causes. But what if, in a fit of complete rage at my ill fortune in inadvertently cutting myself off in my prime, I decide to get hold of a shotgun and go out to settle some old scores? Perhaps in the course of a couple of hours I manage to kill 15 people before the virus or poison takes hold, or a police sniper catches up with me.
In those couple of hours I have created some very weighty positive or negative karmas. But if death is the end where is the fruit of them? You can argue that the hour I spent in dhyana before I died was a much deeper level of happiness than the feelings of triumph and self-justification that I had on mowing down those 15 people who had done me wrong. Maybe so, but that seems completely inadequate as a fruit of such weighty karma.
If weighty actions don’t have time to produce weighty effects in my last couple of hours, what if we imagine the same scenario unfolding over my last couple of days, couple of weeks, couple of months? And what of all those serial swindlers, rapists, and murderers who are never discovered, who get away scot-free? Our sense of natural justice causes us to feel that they should receive their karmic comeuppance. Unless you want to argue that they are suffering inwardly, and that is an adequate vipaka of their karmas, it seems that the universe is fundamentally unjust, amoral. In a world where there is rebirth, extreme actions, whether positive or negative, can all cause appropriate consequences, if not in this life then later. However we treat the universe, sooner or later it can feed back to us the effects of what we have done, and we have a chance to learn lessons from it. A universe with both karma and rebirth can be fundamentally ethical. It is very hard to see how that can be the case if all karmas have to ripen in this very life.
One Order, Different Projects
As we’ve seen, deciding against rebirth has consequences for our understanding of the Dharma, and undermines the teaching of karma itself, which is a fundamental corollary of the principle of conditionality. Not only that, this decision also affects our understanding of what it is we are trying to do, in practical terms, as Buddhists. Within the same sangha, whilst all being Buddhists, we may see ourselves as engaged in quite different projects. Let’s see what this means.
I’ll take myself as an example of one extreme. Somehow, over my years in the Dharma, almost imperceptibly, I have acquired a strong confidence that there is rebirth. This has consequences, for better and worse, for how I practise the Dharma. Mainly, it gives me a long-term perspective. I regularly practise dying, because I regard death as a crucial juncture that I need to prepare for. If I approach it in the right way, then I will set up the best conditions I can for my next rebirth. Over the years, as well as practising dying, I have had periods when I have worked at developing devotion to representations of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, in hopes that early on in my next life seeing a statue or picture will reawaken a dormant connection with the Dharma. In the same way, I make fervent wishes for future lives: that I may be of service to the Dharma and be able to help beings in the best possible way.
This long-term perspective can of course have its downsides. I don’t feel that my going for refuge has to be fulfilled in this life; there will be other opportunities to make spiritual progress. This can at times lead to prevarication and lack of effort. I can see why Sangharakshita describes laziness (along with indifference) as the besetting sins of organised Buddhism.
What if I held the opposite view, and was firmly convinced that there is only this life? I would then be living in a very different existential landscape, with a much shorter timescale. Rather than being sure of a succession of lifetimes, I would only be certain of this next breath, and the likelihood of a decade or three. The project of preparing for death would be very different – just a psychological matter of coming to terms with my impending non-existence. Rather than seeing the bodhisattva path in the traditional way: as working to embody the bodhicitta, which continues over lifetimes, I would have this life, these coming years, to become receptive to it and express it. The bodhisattva vow, traditionally regarded as transcending death, in fact as enduring ‘as long as the existence of time’, would be a matter of being ‘devoted to the world’s sorrows’ for just a few months, years or decades.
The Changed Perspective of Going for Refuge
The complete change of time-span if you don’t believe in rebirth also has consequences for your going for refuge to the Three Jewels. Sangharakshita explored this issue at the end of his Sheffield talk. He said that over the years he had often been asked if it was possible to be a Buddhist and not believe in rebirth. He says:
And of course for many years my standard answer was that ‘Yes, you can be a Buddhist and not believe in rebirth, but as a Buddhist of course you accept full Enlightenment as the goal of the Buddhist life. So if you don’t believe in rebirth, if you don’t believe you have another chance later on, you have to go all-out, today, for Enlightenment in this very life. You have to sacrifice everything, give up everything. That’s the only thing you can do consistent with your belief in the Buddha as Enlightened One and your lack of belief in rebirth.’ That suggestion of mine often didn’t go down very well. (Laughter.)
He goes on to say:
…if as a Western Buddhist you don’t believe in rebirth, well there’s a tremendous strain and tension that you’ve got to do it all now. And no doubt if you were sufficiently determined, you could do it all now. But I think in the case of those who don’t believe in rebirth, the fact that they’re brought up against, the fact that they have to do it all in this life, now or not at all, gives rise to a great deal of tension, even a great deal of anxiety, and is I think rather counter-productive.
Sangharakshita is suggesting that lack of belief in rebirth tends to produce unbalanced effort. Knowing that this is your only opportunity, you have to strain every sinew to fulfil your going for refuge. However, I have to say that some of my Buddhist friends who have decided against rebirth do not appear, to my untrained eye, to be making a flat-out effort to gain Awakening in the only life they have. Perhaps they have decided to practise at a steady pace, accepting that they may not get very far with the Dharma in one life. That decision brings its own problems. If you only have this life but you want to practise as if you had endless time, what becomes of your commitment to attain what the Buddha attained? You are then in the position of going for refuge and committing yourself to something knowing full well that it is highly unlikely you will realize it. If not actually dishonest, that strikes me as an ambiguous and uncomfortable position to be in.
As Sangharakshita points out, having some openness to the possibility of rebirth avoids these problems, and helps find a Middle Way which is the best basis for balanced effort in practice:
So I think perhaps the best way is to follow a sort of Middle Way: that we do our best to progress spiritually as much as we can in this life of ours, but we’re not too tense, not too much under strain, believing that we’ve either got to do it now or never – just die as it were unfulfilled. Just keep at the back of our minds the possibility of rebirth, but not, like some Eastern Buddhists, attach so much importance to the idea of rebirth and of future possibilities of treading the path to Enlightenment that we forget, or neglect, to do so in this life itself.
I want to make it clear that I haven’t written this to produce arguments as a stick to beat those people who have decided they don’t believe in rebirth. I’m not at all trying to drive ‘unbelievers’ out of the temple of the sangha. I respect the integrity of those who have wrestled with this difficult issue and arrived at an honest conclusion. I simply want to point out how hard it is to hold that conclusion without undermining a large part of the edifice of the Buddhadharma, and entering a much more limited world of Dharma practice. The Dharma is a very complex, sensitive mechanism – in some ways as complex and sensitive as life itself – and it is very difficult to extract an important element from it without that having widespread effects on the whole.
I’m also concerned that in the West we shall end up with Buddhism Lite – a sanitised version of the Dharma that includes everything that fits in with current scientific belief and discards all those inconvenient aspects, such as rebirth, that aren’t subject to measurement or are difficult to verify objectively. Actually, I regard it as inevitable that this will happen to some extent – I heard that something like 20% of those attending a large gathering of Buddhist teachers in upstate New York last year claimed not to believe in rebirth. I expect they are just the vanguard of many more hybrid followers of Gautama the Buddha and Ajita of the Hair Blanket who will appear in the West over the coming decades.
I hope though that within Triratna we will not succumb to ‘Buddhism Lite’. To prevent this we do need to follow Sangharakshita’s ‘little exhortation’ in his Sheffield talk to think through carefully the whole issue of rebirth. In doing so, it is vital that we don’t focus narrowly on what we think the likelihood is of future lives. We need to look much more broadly, to consider how the teaching of rebirth is connected to so many fundamental suttas and teachings, and how much it diminishes the Buddha, his Awakening, the Dharma, the bodhisattva ideal and going for refuge to the Three Jewels, if we take it away.