In November 2013 I wrote an article called Some Problems with Deciding there is No Rebirth for Shabda, the Triratna Order’s journal. It created quite a bit of discussion. In this second article I explore some of the issues raised by people who responded to the article. (So as not to personalise the debate, I’ve replaced their Order names with initials.)
In the November 2013 Shabda I wrote an article about rebirth – not whether it is true or not, but about how much of the traditional Dharma depends on it, and how diminished Dharma practice is if you decide that there is no rebirth. This article is a follow-up to that, addressing some of the responses I have had to it. D. and V. wrote pieces in December 2013 Shabda’s Threads, and I have also seen an advance copy of something P. has written for this month (Jan. 2014). I’m grateful to all three of them for taking the time to engage with what I wrote. This article explores issues they raised, and adds a few additional thoughts. I could usefully explore what they said in detail, but I’ve confined myself to cherry-picking points.
Incidentally, V. expressed the wish that Subhuti and Sangharakshita might write something about rebirth. That would be great, but I’m sure they have a long list of topics they would like to address, and rebirth may never make it to the top of the list. However, I can assure her that I received a note from Sangharakshita saying he was ‘very pleased’ with my rebirth article. So we can take it that he is certainly in broad agreement, at least, with what I wrote.
Agnosticism and Denial
In his thread, D. underlines the difference between being agnostic about rebirth and denying it. It should be clear from the fact that I called my article Some Problems with Deciding There Is No Rebirth, that what I was talking about was denial. Most of us have no memory of past lives, nor any meditative experience that would show us that experience must continue after death. In that situation, agnosticism is a very understandable position. In his Sheffield 2008 talk, it seems to me, Sangharakshita was gently encouraging people to keep an open mind, to leave open the possibility of rebirth, to maintain at least an agnostic position rather than one of denial.
Some people have raised questions about my statement that if there is no rebirth, the Buddha’s claim to have attained ‘the deathless’ is compromised. Let’s explore this term. ‘Deathless’ (amata) is an epithet of nibbana. Nibbana is the attainment of a fully Awakened person, and one of the qualities of Awakening is that you are no longer subject to birth, sickness, old age and death and their attendant suffering. So a Buddha is no longer reborn, does not arise again after death in any of the 6 realms of conditioned existence.
Pre-Buddhist thought in India envisaged a kind of binary system: there was this world and another one, and you cycled between the two. (Professor Gombrich sees an echo of this in the Dhammapada, where the Buddha talks several times of this world and the next.) The Jains and Buddhists widened out this limited scheme into a much broader range of possible rebirths. Common to much Indian thought in the Buddha’s time was the fear that rebirth would continue indefinitely – ‘the endless round’. It seems to me that it was that existential issue that the Buddha was trying to solve, and his Awakening resolved the whole issue for him. With Awakening, awareness became free of clinging, and therefore free of identification. Without any identification or clinging to reference points, there was no-one to take rebirth, so awareness was liberated, in the deathless state (amatapada) – not that we should take the idea of a ‘state’ too literally.
One extreme view is that a Buddha is somehow reborn after death; the other is that there is no experience of any kind after death. ‘Deathless’ implies that inexpressible ‘state’ or ‘condition’ which is the middle way between those two extremes.
You can argue that ‘deathless’ is just an epithet of a nibbana that is all about this life, a ‘poetic’ image like talking about ‘deathless prose’. However, when much of the Indian spiritual quest was about literally finding a way out of the cycle of rebirth and ‘redeath’, it would be odd and confusing to use ‘deathless’ in this ‘poetic’ way. I don’t believe that the Buddha’s hearers would have taken the Buddha’s claim to have attained something ‘deathless’ as metaphor; they would have understood it as a claim to have freed awareness from being endlessly embroiled in conditioned existence.
Both P. and D. comment on the meaning of ‘deathless’. P. says:
On the ‘deathless’, both of the Buddha’s parinirvana and the symbolism of the nectar in Padmasambhava’s skull cup and Amitayus’s vase, I’ve always interpreted this as a timeless experience rather than an indefinite extension in time (the traditional view of Samsara). There’s no connection between whether a timeless experience is possible and whether one continues
in time after death.
I also interpret the ‘deathless’ as a timeless experience rather than an endless continuation in time. You can have an experience of ‘deathless nirvana’ right here and now, as the Buddha did. However, although there may be no direct connection between whether timeless experience is possible and whether one continues after death, views about continuity of consciousness after death inevitably affect how you see the nature of timeless experience.
Let’s suppose for a minute that the materialists are right, and that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter. I can still have a timeless experience in this life. But what if I have a heart attack and die in the middle of it? Nirvana is a totally liberated state of consciousness. If consciousness is dependent on the physical body, then paradoxically enough, my ‘timeless awareness’ comes to an end, because the necessary conditions for it have disappeared. If materialism is correct, then nirvana is not unconditioned but conditioned, and there is no such thing as parinirvana. At death, everything stops. So nihilism does away not only with the ‘endless round’ of samsara, but also with anything but a temporary (this life) nirvana.
How you view samsara also affects how you see the possibility of attaining nirvana. As most of us are unlikely to attain nirvana – a state of totally liberated consciousness – in this life, it matters whether we continue after death, because if we do then we can continue walking the Path, liberating ourselves step by step. In my article I outlined some of the consequences for Buddhist practice if you only have one life in which to attain Enlightenment.
D.’s comment on Enlightenment as ‘deathless’ is this:
Buddhist doctrine does not entirely depend on belief in rebirth. The Buddha talked about enlightenment in terms of the ‘deathless’ or ‘undying’ but also as the ‘unborn’, ‘unageing’, ‘unmade’, ‘unconditioned’. But these terms all signify the state of enlightenment in this life. They do not imply anything about what happens after death.
I agree that Buddhist doctrine does not entirely depend on belief in rebirth, although in my article I showed how without it Buddhism is diminished in both theory and practice. However, I disagree that the terms D. mentions only apply to this life. They are epithets of nirvana, and according to Abhidharma tradition nirvana has two aspects: with and without remainder. (This is based on canonical passages such as MN 140, verses 23 and 24.) Nirvana ‘with remainder’ is the attainment of Enlightenment whilst alive, with the 5 skandhas still remaining. Nirvana ‘without remainder’ is the experience of Awakening after the physical body (which is a result of previous karma and the only remaining possible cause of suffering once the mind has been completely purified) has dropped away at parinirvana. This teaching of the two aspects of nirvana makes it clear that terms such as ‘deathless’ do not refer just to this life. They apply to nirvana, and nirvana can be experienced in this life and beyond.
The Buddha’s Discourse with the Monk Sati
Both D. and P. mention the Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta (MN 38) which is sometimes held to support a nihilist position. In it, the monk Sati is rebuked by the Buddha for maintaining that ‘it is this same consciousness that runs and wanders through the round of rebirths, not another’. However, it is clear that Sati’s wrong view is to think of there being an unchanging consciousness that passes from life to life. The Buddha points out that if you have experiences one after another through different sense doors, consciousness is arising dependently in each experience. His argument is that there is no entity, consciousness, that continues moment to moment in this life, so the same applies from life to life. This is very different from stating that there is no rebirth.
The Buddha only takes Sati to task for imagining an unchanging consciousness that goes through the round of rebirths, he doesn’t rebuke him for thinking in terms of rebirth in the first place. Indeed at verse 15 of the same sutta, the Buddha outlines ‘four kinds of nutriment for the maintenance of beings that have already come to be and for the support of those seeking a new existence’. So in his teaching in this sutta he explicitly sanctions the idea that there is more than one existence. (Consciousness, incidentally, is the fourth of these ‘nutriments’ that he mentions.)
Understanding the Buddha’s discussion with Sati in this way, naturally I disagree with what D. wrote about it in his thread. As there are some important Dharma points here, I’d like to look at a few of his statements in detail. He says:
From the point of view of empirical science, consciousness depends on physical conditions, namely, the brain. When the brain dies, so consciousness ceases. This in fact is also exactly what the Buddha said. In conversation with a monk called Sati he emphasised how he teaches that consciousness arises on conditions and ceases when those conditions cease. It does not continue the same after death.
Sati was reifying consciousness, turning it into an entity that continued through different experiences, including from one life to the next. However, there is all the difference in the world between the Buddha’s position – that consciousness doesn’t continue the same after death – and the view of many scientists – that it doesn’t continue at all.
D. also says:
So how did the Buddha explain rebirth? The fact is, he did not explain rebirth. He simply stated that karma or craving or formations continue. The later Buddhist tradition attempted to explain this better, with ideas such as the mental continuum or the storehouse consciousness, but these are obviously speculative ideas. So the Buddha and science agree that consciousness does not continue after death, and apart from that, nobody really knows what happens.
The Buddha and science (if we can talk of ‘science’ as a unitary entity in this way) only agree that consciousness is a dependent arising and doesn’t continue the same after death. Apart from that, they profoundly disagree. And when D. says ‘nobody really knows what happens’, that is to discount the testimony of thousands of Buddhist teachers, yogis and yoginis over 2,500 years, who are unanimous in stating that there is rebirth. Many of them would claim that they weren’t talking from theory but from experience – in some cases from memories of past lives, in others because they had deep meditative experiences that made it clear that awareness would continue to arise after the death of the physical body. They would maintain that they did really know what happens.
Another sutta that is sometimes used as support for the idea that there’s no rebirth is MN 63, the Mahamalunkya Sutta. In this one, the Buddha refuses to answer when Malunkyaputta asks him whether a Tathagata exists or does not exist after death (or both or neither) declaring that the inquiry is unhelpful and doesn’t conduce to Enlightenment. As a Tathagata even when alive cannot be said to exist or not exist, it seems entirely reasonable that the Buddha should refuse to answer a question put in those terms. So his refusal isn’t evidence that death is the end. It just shows the inexpressible depth and mystery of experience. In life, he might be beyond definition, but if everything ceases at death then surely the Buddha would simply have said so.
The Buddha repeatedly said that it is impossible to say anything about enlightened beings after the breaking up of their body.
D.’s statement implies that the Buddha never said anything about what happens to him after death, but let’s look at his discussion with the wanderer Vacchagotta (MN 72). Certainly the Buddha refuses to agree to the various suggestions that Vaccha makes to him: that a Tathagata exists, or doesn’t, or both or neither, after death. What else can the Buddha do, when all these categories are based on reifications, on wrong views of existence and non-existence? However, he doesn’t say that nothing can be said. Rather, he asserts that being liberated from reckoning in terms of the five skandhas ‘the Tathagata is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea’. This isn’t any kind of definition, for there is no-one to define, and nothing for them to be defined by, but still as a statement about enlightened beings after death it conveys a tremendous amount.
Ananda’s Teaching to Sandaka and His Followers
While we’re looking at the Pali Canon, let’s explore another sutta from the Majjhima Nikaya called the Sandaka Sutta (MN 76). In this sutta Ananda is invited to give at talk about the Dhamma by a group of non-Buddhist wanderers headed by Sandaka. In response, Ananda starts by outlining four ways that ‘negate the living of the holy life’. The first one is holding the view that ‘Fools and the wise are alike cut off and annihilated with the dissolution of the body; after death they do not exist’.
Ananda says that this negates living the Dharma life because it is pointless to exert yourself in any kind of renunciation or austerity, when both the Buddhist renunciant and someone who lives an easy life without any striving will both ‘reap exactly the same destination, the same future course’. Seeing this, a wise person will not give themselves the trouble of following the Dharma.
This brings up an important point that I didn’t make in my previous article. (Like a good general, I like to keep some troops of argument in reserve.) If we look at the Four Noble Truths from the point of view of someone who believes in rebirth, then suffering will continue as long as there is clinging, which will be for as long as we haven’t arrived at the cessation of suffering by completing the Eightfold Path. This makes following the Eightfold Path worth doing under all circumstances, because although it may be difficult to do at times, the alternative is potentially endless suffering.
However, if death is the end, then the equation looks very different. There is the suffering of this life, still caused by craving. But in this scenario the cessation of suffering is no longer just dependent on following the Eightfold Path. If we want, we can try to end our suffering before death by following the Dharma, but if we don’t then it is bound to happen anyway when we die, when all experience ceases.
You can argue that following the Eightfold Path is still a good thing to do anyway, as it’s beneficial for you and others in this life. However, you may feel that the effort involved isn’t worth it, particularly as you get older. Do you want to put yourself to the trouble of getting up early to meditate, or working on your more deeply embedded negative tendencies, when in a few years’ time, or possibly tomorrow, all your suffering will come to an end anyway? Maybe you do; or maybe not. This is Ananda’s argument to Sandaka and his followers: whether you practise the Dharma or not, everyone ends up in the same situation. It is why he says that belief in annihilationism negates the living of the Dharma life.
Incidentally, another of the ways in which Ananda says you can ‘negate the living of the holy life’ is through the belief that ‘All beings, all living things, all creatures, all souls are without mastery, power, and energy; moulded by destiny, circumstance, and nature, they experience pleasure and pain in the six classes.’ So, whilst acknowledging that beings are the product of their conditioning – societal, biological and so on – I would not want to follow V. too far when she talks about people committing crimes such as rape or murder:
I cannot go along with a concept of rebirth that is connected with judgement for the individual. Surely we know these days that people who do such things are a product of our society; their actions are a result of our collective societal conditions, or biological issues.
Although we’re all part of a field of mutually influencing dependent arising, nonetheless on the relative level individual karma and individual responsibility do mean something, and therefore so does making appropriate judgements about individuals.
What We Can All Agree On
In these two articles I have been emphasising the difference that denying rebirth makes to the Dharma life. At the same time I am happy to acknowledge that there is still much common ground between Buddhists regardless of whether they believe, disbelieve, or are agnostic about rebirth. There are two things in particular that we can agree on that are important to keep in mind when discussing differences over rebirth.
1) We can agree that whether there is rebirth or not, practising ethics is always of benefit.
D. mentioned the Kalama Sutta (AN 3.65), in which the Buddha tells the Kalamas that someone who has purified their mind from ill-will by practising the 4 brahma viharas gains four assurances, of which the first two are:
‘If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.’ This is the first assurance he acquires.
But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease €” free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.’ This is the second assurance he acquires.’
2) We can all accept that there is no-one who dies.
In discussing what happens after death, we are not talking about the death of any real being. As the Pancattaya Sutta (MN 102) points out, most discussion about continuation and annihilation is like a dog circling a pillar to which it is leashed. Whether you uphold rebirth or cessation at death, the debate usually circles around the unexamined assumption that there is someone who will cease or continue. As Buddhist practitioners we know, in theory and maybe in experience, that this just isn’t the case.
If we lose sight of the fact that there is no self, no-one who dies, then we lose the Middle Way. We end up battling over what will happen to us at death – existence or non-existence? – but the terms we are using condemn the whole discussion to failure. P. seems to be concerned about this when he says:
My general point is that Vessantara’s focusing his argument against annihilationism, whereas the Buddha consistently argued against both anihilationism and eternalism in favour of the middle way.
In general terms I felt that my article was upholding the Middle Way, an aspect of which is that there is further experience after death, but no ‘self’ or ‘experiencer’. Everything I wrote was within the context of that view.
More specifically, one strategy for arriving at the Middle Way is to keep questioning the assumptions whenever you start to settle at either extreme view. I’m pleased to see that eternalism is taking rather a pounding in some quarters of the Order at the moment, as more people investigate closely the nature of self, and have experiences (of varying depth) of anatta. I don’t notice nihilism being challenged to the same extent in the Order in the West, so my emphasis was on that extreme.
Incidentally, in my November article I wasn’t focusing my argument on annihilationism per se – I was simply pointing out some of the consequences for your Dharma life if you hold to that view. I leave it to others who are more qualified than me, to argue the actual case against annihilationism.
I’m sure that discussion and debate about rebirth and its importance will continue for some time. Hopefully through mutual exploration and reflection we shall clarify the various issues involved. I’m grateful to people have raised questions, as it helps clarify my understanding. However, so far, I see no reason to modify any of the arguments in my original article: without rebirth, accounts in the Pali Canon of the Buddha’s Awakening and first teaching are compromised; the law of karma is undermined; the bodhisattva ideal is greatly diminished; and the position of someone committed to Enlightenment but unlikely to attain it in this life is an uncomfortable one.
If you are teetering on the cusp between agnosticism and denial of rebirth, then hopefully seeing the consequences for your Dharma life of deciding for annihilationism will encourage you to keep something of an open mind on the issue. If you are uncertain about what view is right but feel you need to take a position, then it makes sense to take one that stays open to rebirth. When you do that, then the great mystery of existence has its full weight, and the Buddha his full significance, as a human being who in life and death is ‘deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea’. For me, Buddhism is a profoundly optimistic teaching, in which life is revealed as holding potentials far more extraordinary and amazing than we ever imagine and, to quote Whitman, ‘to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier’.