Rebirth Revisited

This is my third article about rebirth, following on from Some Problems With Deciding There Is No Rebirth (November 2013) and More on Rebirth (February 2014). I’m very pleased to see discussion about this important issue continuing in Shabda, with the refinement of views and understanding that come with it. Unfortunately I am now in the middle of another very full period of leading retreats and other events (I see from my diary that I have 2 free weeks in the next 12), and cannot keep responding to the various interesting points being made. In any case, if and when I do have some free time, there are other issues that I’d like to write about. So I’m going to have to bow out of the debating hall, and leave the continued exploration of this subtle and difficult topic to others. Before I go, I want to add a few points that I haven’t made before, and then summarise a little.

Near Enemies of the Middle Way

As we know, the unexamined view of the average person is that they have a self, an ego-identity. They will pose the question of what happens at death in a way that hopefully all Buddhists would agree was ill-founded: ‘Do I continue to exist after death or not?’ Depending on their answer to this ill-conceived question they will be either an eternalist or an annihilationist from the Buddhist point of view. These views of existence or non-existence in relation to a supposedly real ‘self’ or ‘person’ are what we could call the ‘far enemies’ of the Middle Way. Buddhists are unlikely to espouse these far enemies in theory, although in practice we may still be strongly emotionally attached to a sense of self. However, there are also ‘near enemies’ subtler beliefs that are easy to confuse with the Middle Way but are still off track which some of us may fall into.

A subtler eternalist position is that there is no self or person, all aspects of personality are impermanent, but there is an entity, consciousness, that continues from life to life. Idealist philosophies, including some Yogacharins, sometimes fall prey to this. It’s the view that I understand the Buddha to be rebuking Sati for in the Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta (MN 38), which I discussed in my second article.

A subtler annihilationist position is that there is no self or person, all aspects of the psycho-physical organism are impermanent, but in addition to this, there is no further awareness or experience that arises after death in dependence upon the five skandhas of this life. Some contemporary Buddhist teachers take this view: ‘Death is the end of the five skandhas, but that’s OK because there’s no-one who dies’. It’s a kind of partially-enlightened version of annihilationism, correct in terms of anatta, but wrong about karma.

The reason why I started writing about rebirth was that I’m concerned that in the West we may end up with a diminished Dharma, a ‘Dharma Lite’, which retains the parts of Buddhism that seem to be supported by current scientific theory and discards or de-emphasises those that don’t. I’m particularly concerned that this view of ‘partially-enlightened annihilationism’ is gaining ground in the West, and I’m trying to forestall it taking hold within the Triratna Order.

This way of thinking is usually based on a materialist view that consciousness requires the support of physical and organic processes for it to arise. If that is the case, then after death there is no patisandhi vinnana (‘relinking consciousness’ as the third link in the nidana chain) for an unenlightened being, and no further experience of jnana (‘timeless awareness’) for a Buddha. At death, ‘both fools and the wise are cut off’, a stock phrase used in the Pali Canon to characterise the position of a leading proponent of annihilationism, Ajita of the Hair Garment. This view is denied by implication in the many suttas in which the Buddha talks in terms of rebirth, and explicitly and unambiguously in texts such as the Sandaka Sutta and the Apannaka Sutta (both in the Majjhima Nikaya).

Incidentally, we need to judge annihilationism by the view that someone holds, not by the reasons why it is held. For me, annihilationism is ‘both fools and the wise are cut off at death’. People these days may have different reasons for that belief from those in the Buddha’s time. For instance, we may not believe in the four elements in the way that Ajita and his followers did, but if we come to the same conclusion, that’s the touchstone.

Further Implications of Denying Rebirth

In my first article I mentioned a conference of Buddhist teachers at which someone estimated that a fifth of those attending didn’t believe in rebirth or in complete Enlightenment. These two issues are linked. If there is rebirth and thus previous lives, then you can be born with a consciousness that is already imbued with many good qualities and previous Dharma connections. If there is no rebirth and no previous lives then the fullness of Enlightenment, both vision and transformation, has to be achieved in one life from a standing start. So it isn’t surprising that those who deny rebirth often have a much more limited horizon, a diminished sense of what a human being can become. If you believe that no-one arrives in this life with a consciousness already greatly prepared by previous practice, it makes full Enlightenment seem unattainable, so you tend to lower your view of what a Buddha is. (This tendency is probably exacerbated if you have a materialist view. If consciousness is just a spin-off of matter, a product of brain chemicals, it may be harder emotionally to believe that it could produce anything as extraordinary as full Enlightenment.)

Another implication of there being no rebirth is that there would be trillions of beings who never gain Awakening at all. On this planet now, billions of human beings have not had any effective opportunity to hear the Dharma, let alone practise it. They will all die with their potential for wisdom and compassion unfulfilled. That is tragic enough, but if there is rebirth then there is still the possibility that eventually all those beings will find the path to Awakening and practise it. If there is no rebirth, there are no second chances.

That being the case, if the Buddha didn’t believe in rebirth why wasn’t his message even more urgent? Why didn’t he encourage far more people to leave the ‘cramped and dusty’ life at home? Why didn’t he make it clear to everyone that they needed to make a flat-out effort in the only life they would ever have? In his teaching he showed himself perfectly capable of challenging orthodoxies and presenting views that were very radical. Why would he go along with the idea of rebirth in his teaching, just because it was popular in his day, knowing that it would lull people into a false sense of security? And why have all the realized Buddhist teachers down the centuries gone along with it too, rather than hammering home the true existential situation?

Rebirth and this Planet

An argument that M. and others have put forward is that the Buddha’s descriptions of his past lives cannot be literally true because the history of the human species simply isn’t long enough to allow the possibility of a sufficiently large number of lives. Also, the Buddha sometimes talks in anachronistic terms about times in his past lives where the social conditions are the same as they are in his current life. All this shows that rebirth isn’t to be taken literally.

However, Buddhism generally allows for vast possibilities of consciousness, and talks in terms of many different worlds and realms of experience. Indeed it’s strange that those who argue against rebirth using arguments based on western science don’t apply scientific theory when it might explain aspects of rebirth. Many scientists postulate a multiverse, consisting of many infinite or finite universes. These various universes within the multiverse are sometimes termed parallel universes. So we have no reason to believe that all the Buddha’s previous existences were on this planet in this particular version of the universe. This understanding also does away with supposed problems that people raise about where all the human consciousnesses are coming from as the human population of the Earth increases.

Rebirth and Pessimism

M. also argues that believing in rebirth may make you prone to a gloomy view, that if there are endless previous lives, you may well have spent them piling up negative karma that you will never be able to purify. Here Buddhist teachers usually reassure you by pointing out that to be born as a human being when the Dharma is available you must have accumulated some very skilful karma. So this may well be the life in which you finally break the mind’s tendency to self-clinging. It is, after all, only a deluded way of seeing things that has become habitual. And thankfully, as Sangharakshita makes clear in his discussion of the Vajrasattva practice, you don’t have to purify all your karma since beginningless time. You just have to step out of the pattern of identification with a self and live in the flow of the Dharma niyama way of functioning.

Past-Life Memories 

Since I wrote my initial article last November, several Order members have told me about their own experiences of what felt like previous lives. In some cases these experiences have been crucial to their Dharma practice. Of course, none of them can categorically state that the strong and deeply-felt apparent memories that they have are actually the recall of past lives, but it is hard for them to explain them in other terms.

There is also the testimony of some young children, which again is hard to account for in other ways. For an example of this you could watch The Boy Who Lived Before on YouTube, a documentary about a young boy who, from the time he could speak, claimed to remember a past life on the Scottish island of Barra.

Rebirth – Denial and Agnosticism

Apart from being concerned for the Order as a whole if denying rebirth becomes commonplace within it, I’m also concerned for individuals who hold this view. As I argued in my first article, if there is no rebirth then the law of karma fails in this life as well. (And although people have raised objections to various points in my articles, no-one has yet challenged that assertion, which is perhaps the most important of all.) In addition, I believe that to deny rebirth is to fall into nihilism. Someone whose view of karma and its effects is inadequate and who hasn’t found the Middle Way doesn’t have an effective Dharma refuge, and that is bound to impact on their Dharma practice.

Again, I want to underline that I’m talking here about someone with a fixed or settled view that there is no rebirth. I completely understand those who genuinely don’t feel able to come to a decision either way, and thus are still open to the possibility that rebirth may be true. I have no problem with genuine agnosticism.

However, agnosticism also has its near enemies. One is saying ‘I’m convinced there is no rebirth, but I might be wrong’. The people I hear making this statement don’t really seem to have open minds. They have a fixed and settled view, but like all intelligent people with a hypothesis about something they haven’t directly experienced, they admit the very slim possibility of further evidence refuting their position. However they don’t see any real likelihood that it will happen. To all intents and purposes they have made up their minds.

Another near enemy is to deny any actual possibility of rebirth but to value or uphold it as a helpful myth or story. This is better than nothing, but it doesn’t have the same force as belief in actual rebirth. To take a different example, suppose that someone only thinks of Enlightenment as a helpful myth rather than a potential experience. Seeing Enlightenment in that way may influence them to lead a good life, but it won’t motivate them to commit themselves to attain it. Enlightenment as myth doesn’t have the same weight as the belief that human beings like ourselves have actually attained it. I don’t believe that the Buddha saw rebirth as a helpful story to tell; I believe he saw a real potential for further suffering after this life. And we surely have to credit the Buddha with the ability to distinguish stories from actual experience, when the ability to do so is fundamental to the practice of insight.

One Small Clarification

I deliberately wrote my first article in quite a loose style, as I wanted to make it an engaging read rather than something that sounded like a legal document. However, that way of writing has its drawbacks, and in the discussion of it over these months people have occasionally misunderstood what I was driving at. One particularly loosely expressed passage was: However we treat the universe, sooner or later it feeds back to us the results of what we have done. By that I didn’t mean to suggest that the external world somehow punishes us for our unskilful actions. (I don’t actually believe in a separate ‘external world’ in any case.) It was simply a rhetorical and badly expressed way of saying that our unskilful actions tend to lead us into realms of suffering.


Six months on from writing my first article, I continue to feel that rebirth is a fruitful topic for us to explore and discuss in Triratna. Some people who studied my first article who didn’t feel they had any problems with rebirth told me that, to their surprise, they had still found it useful. It took them into fundamental issues, such as: ‘On my deathbed, what do I really believe will happen next?’ Also, exploring the question of rebirth often reveals interesting internal dialogues in ourselves: our heads, hearts and intuition all want to have their say on the topic, and they’re often in disagreement. Sometimes too there is a creative tension between how much weight to give to our own judgement and how much to that of others, especially the ‘counsel of the wise’.

So I hope the process of personal reflection and sharing of views and experience about this issue will continue in Triratna. And I hope we shall all feel able to follow Sangharakshita’s gentle encouragement to us: to at least keep open to the possibility of rebirth.