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How Do We Make Sense of Rebirth?

Questions round rebirth—from the way it works as to whether it’s even actual—have energized and divided Buddhists for millennia. On this excerpt from his e-book Rebirth, Roger R. Jackson unpacks the complexity of all of it and provides 4 primary approaches to incorporating it (or not) into our personal apply.

Photograph by Philippe Frangiere.

The writings of philosophically inclined students of Buddhism printed previously a number of a long time reveal a outstanding number of positions on rebirth, starting from deliberate silence, to outright rejection, to the doctrine’s acceptance on metaphysical, empirical, or different grounds.

Quite a lot of writers who want to place Buddhism in dialogue with up to date philosophy and science have been content material to go away conventional cosmology and metaphysics—particularly the notion of rebirth—in abeyance. Thus, thinker and neuroscientist Owen Flanagan writes in The Bodhisattva’s Mind of his need to “naturalize” Buddhism inside trendy philosophical discourse, partly by bracketing out such unproven and sure unprovable notions as rebirth, karmic causation, nirvana, magical powers, heavens and hells, and nonphysical states of thoughts. Equally, in his best-selling Why Buddhism Is True, journalist Robert Wright specifies that the Buddhism he claims is “true” is not “the ‘supernatural’ or extra exotically metaphysical elements of Buddhism—reincarnation, for instance—however fairly…the naturalistic elements: concepts that fall squarely inside trendy psychology and philosophy.” Even thinker and Buddhism scholar Jay Garfield specifies on the outset of his Participating Buddhism: Why It Issues to Philosophers that he’ll “not focus on Buddhist theories of rebirth, of karma, or approaches to meditation…not as a result of I take these to be unimportant…[but] as a result of I don’t see them as principal websites of engagement with Western philosophy.” The underlying assumption right here, clearly, is that the majority up to date philosophers and scientists merely is not going to contemplate nonphysicalist accounts of the operations of thoughts, not to mention perception in life after loss of life. Related attitudes are evinced by Western Buddhist scholar–practitioners intent on aligning the custom with trendy tradition. Stephen Batchelor, as an illustration, surveys a variety of Buddhist rational, empirical, and moral justifications for rebirth, finds them inconclusive at greatest, and concludes that

…all the photographs I entertain of heaven and hell, or cycles of rebirth, merely serve to interchange the overwhelming actuality of the unknown with what is thought and acceptable…. To cling to the concept of rebirth, fairly than treating it as a helpful image or speculation, might be spiritually suffocating. If we’re in a position to take Buddhism as an ongoing existential encounter with our life right here and now, then we’ll solely achieve by releasing our grip on such notions.

Equally, and much more pointedly, Richard Hayes asserts that the potential of Buddhism within the West “won’t ever be realized…[until it] is purged of among the Asian habits it has acquired down by the millennia,” and goes on to specify that the primary of the teachings that ought to be discarded “are the obstructive doctrines…of rebirth and karma…[reflection on which] dulls the thoughts and impairs the college of reasoning”—though he does additionally concede that it might be a helpful fiction for Buddhists as they search to search out their means within the trendy world. Batchelor and Hayes know Buddhism nicely sufficient to acknowledge the significance of rebirth for conventional Buddhists, however each are satisfied that it’s potential to be Buddhist with out taking the doctrine actually, and go on to think about what a nonmetaphysical Buddhism could be like.

The usual argument for rebirth within the Indian and Tibetan Buddhist philosophical circles was that of Dharmakirti, which is notoriously complicated. Richard Hayes summarized and partially translated a lot of Dharmakirti’s arguments in opposition to materialism and in favor of rebirth, commenting alongside the way in which that, ingenious as they’re, they don’t absolutely achieve dismantling materialist claims in regards to the bodily foundation of thoughts or in establishing thoughts as finally impartial of bodily causes. In his 2012 examine of the issue of intentionality in Buddhist and up to date philosophies of thoughts, Dan Arnold faulted Dharmakirti for discussing psychological causation in phrases that really are primarily based on the mannequin of bodily causation that we observe on the earth, mentioning that trendy cognitive philosophers continuously eschew such basic causal language when making an attempt to make sense of how the thoughts works—and that doing so would have made a case like Dharmakirti’s simpler fairly than harder to argue.

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama has repeatedly reframed Dharmakirti’s arguments for rebirth in his discourses and printed writings, most notably, maybe, his dialogue of Buddhism vis-à-vis science, The Universe in a Single Atom. He has famously declared that if a Buddhist doctrine is contradicted by irrefutable scientific proof, then the doctrine should be discarded, and within the case of the normal flat-earth principle, he has proposed simply that. On the subject of rebirth, nonetheless, he argues, though not in so many phrases, that as a result of absence of proof doesn’t represent proof of absence, he can’t settle for that the doctrine has been refuted. He continues to current Dharmakirti’s arguments, a minimum of in a normal means, and to insist that though there could also be a stronger connection between neurological occasions and odd psychological states than conventional Buddhists imagine, there stays the likelihood that there are extraordinary psychological states that don’t rely on the neurological system, particularly, the meditative experiences of superior tantric yogis, particularly those that have entered the postmortem focus on the clear-light nature of the thoughts referred to as thukdam. The Dalai Lama has even inspired neuroscientific research of meditators in thukdam, though whether or not these will present proof for both the materialist or Buddhist place on thoughts and physique stays to be seen: the presence of delicate neural exercise in such contemplatives would possibly immediate revisions of present notions of loss of life, however wouldn’t show that the yogi who has handed out of thukdam strikes on to a different realm; whereas the absence of neural exercise wouldn’t guarantee that the meditative state assumed by custom is not occurring, solely that it’s clinically undetectable. And whether it is actual however undetectable, then our present definitions of loss of life—and consciousness—actually would require rethinking.

Different up to date thinkers search to justify rebirth, and Buddhist thoughts–physique metaphysics, not by reframing Dharmakirti’s arguments however by embracing different scientific cosmologies that make the thoughts or consciousness, fairly than matter, the driving drive within the universe, therefore its passage from one life to the subsequent comparatively unproblematic. B. Alan Wallace has argued lengthy and passionately that science’s prejudice in opposition to “first-person” subjective experiences as a supply of data each overestimates the reliability of science’s “third-person,” measurable strategies and underestimates the function and reliability of what’s usually dismissed as “mere subjectivity.” That is very true on the quantum stage, the place it seems that thoughts performs an energetic function in shaping so-called exterior actuality. Certainly, says Wallace, an essential implication of cutting-edge analysis in quantum mechanics is that the universe is correctly conceived not—as classical physics insisted—as a bodily system however as “basically an information- processing system, from which the looks of matter emerges at the next stage of actuality.” He provides:

On the macroscopic scale this suggests a shift from a materiocentric view of the universe to an empiricocentric view of the universe, and on a microcosmic scale, this requires a shift from a neurocentric to an empiricocentric view of human existence…[in which] that means is prime.

On such a view, the independence of thoughts from physique is simpler to take care of, and rebirth simpler to defend. In a considerably comparable style, David Loy proposes a “new evolutionary delusion” impressed by the work of cultural historian Thomas Berry (1914–2009), which sees the universe as an organism and “evolution because the inventive groping of a self-organizing cosmos that’s changing into extra self-aware.” If, as instructed by such a state of affairs, “consciousness is primary—if there could be rudimentary consciousness even on the quantum stage, as some physicists now imagine—then there could also be some plausibility to the notion of sanhkara [karmic formations] persisting after loss of life.” This won’t find yourself entailing particular person survival within the method often described by conventional Buddhists, for within the absence of a self that’s reborn, there may be merely the vacancy/infinity that’s the nature of the cosmos, which endlessly seeks and assumes type after type; on this sense, concludes Loy, “there may be solely rebirth,” however nothing resembling particular person immortality. It’s price remarking briefly that the stances taken by Wallace and Loy, whereas influenced by radical interpretations of latest physics and cosmology, are additionally redolent of Yogacara “idealism,” and suitable in a lot of methods with such Mahayana contemplative traditions as Zen, Tantra, and the Nice Perfection.

Descending from the world of metaphysics, we discover that a lot of up to date Buddhist thinkers are intent on demonstrating rebirth by interesting to empirical proof, whether or not that proof be the results of scientific investigation or meditative expertise. Thus, the French-born Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard finds that “the understanding arising from a lifetime of contemplative apply, or a life lived with a non secular trainer, is simply as highly effective as that arising from the demonstration of a theorem,” therefore have to be granted some epistemic worth. B. Alan Wallace, along with his insistence on the significance of “first-person” proof for information in regards to the world and his confidence within the deliverances of profound meditative focus, argues that the experiences of superior contemplatives give us actual details about the world, and that the recollections of previous lives usually unearthed by such yogis might subsequently be dependable—therefore proof of the potential for rebirth.

Even an “empirical” proof of rebirth—had been there one—wouldn’t essentially affirm the Buddhist principle of rebirth, both in its broad strokes or its high-quality particulars.

Extra not too long ago, Bhikkhu Analayo has examined a lot of trendy grounds for accepting rebirth. He delves deeply into the analysis and case histories recorded by Ian Stevenson (1918–2007), who researched numerous instances “suggestive of reincarnation”—agreeing that there are a small variety of instances that really appear inexplicable with out the notion of rebirth—and investigating specifically element a case with which he’s personally acquainted, that of a Sri Lankan boy whose fashion of reciting Pali texts was utterly unknown early in his life, however seems, on the idea of newer analysis, to have been prevalent in an earlier period, of which the boy claims to have recollections. These instances are, as Stevenson says, suggestive of rebirth, however hardly conclusive. As Evan Thompson notes, Stevenson’s research could also be faulted on a lot of methodological grounds, significantly as pertains to the time lag between a baby’s first report of a past-life reminiscence and the time they had been interviewed by researchers, leaving “a considerable amount of room for false reminiscence and after-the-fact reconstruction.” And Stephen Batchelor observes that even when some such studies are dependable, and sure folks have undergone rebirth, “this in itself wouldn’t furnish any proof in any respect both that they themselves would expertise rebirth once more or that anybody else was reborn previously or can be sooner or later.” In different phrases, even an “empirical” proof of rebirth—had been there one—wouldn’t essentially affirm the Buddhist principle of rebirth, both in its broad strokes or its high-quality particulars.

It ought to be added that any Buddhist claims about metaphysical truths similar to rebirth which are primarily based solely on extrasensory or different particular, “mystical” perceptions should inevitably face comparability with special-experience-based claims in different spiritual traditions, which can level to a really completely different means of “seeing” the cosmos—and within the absence of “third-person,” publicly accessible proof, there isn’t any technique to give precedence to at least one declare or the opposite, besides on purely dogmatic grounds. As William James places it,

Mystics haven’t any proper to assert that we ought to just accept the deliverance of their peculiar experiences…. The utmost that they’ll ask of us on this life is to confess that they set up a presumption…for they type a consensus and have an unequivocal final result.

“However,” provides James, “even this presumption from the unanimity of mystics is much from being sturdy,” for his or her unanimity dissolves upon nearer inspection, for the reason that philosophical positions and methods of life developed by mystics are fairly varied, admitting, as an illustration, of pantheism, monism, dualism, or theism; asceticism, celebration, or self-indulgence; and pictures of darkness or of sunshine. James is discussing mysticism on the whole, however even when we had been to push the doubtful declare that every one completed Buddhist “mystics,” wherever they’ve been, have loved the identical imaginative and prescient of the cosmos and its nature, these mystical claims—together with claims to have seen the fact of karma and rebirth—can’t stand on their very own as proof, for they invite inevitable comparability with conclusions drawn by mystics in different traditions, which level in very completely different metaphysical and cosmological instructions.


Approaches to the Query

Though most Buddhists in premodern Buddhist cultures accepted, and typically defended, the normal Buddhist karmic eschatology, it’s evident that since Asian Buddhists started to take account of modernity and Western Buddhists to take account of Asian traditions, these Buddhists which have bothered to speak about rebirth in any respect (and lots of haven’t), have usually carried out so by adopting one or the opposite of 4 potential approaches to rebirth:

(1) Amongst literalists—who settle for conventional descriptions of the karma–rebirth cosmology and arguments for it both unquestioningly or on the idea of their very own evaluation—the commonest constituency is Asian Buddhists, whether or not in Asia or the West. These would come with many historically educated Theravada monks and Tibetan lamas, with the latter class together with such figures above as Sakya Trizin, Dudjom Rinpoche, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, and Kalu Rinpoche. Many of those academics’ Western disciples have adopted a literalist concept of rebirth as nicely, although they don’t usually write about their views, and what they do write is typically troublesome to search out outdoors of small Buddhist tracts and magazines.

(2) Neo-traditionalists—who search to justify conventional cosmology and metaphysics in additional “up-to-date” phrases—comprise a big and various group. Amongst them, we would depend Robert Thurman, who has argued for the reality and significance of the classical notion of rebirth however reframed it in evolutionary phrases; B. Alan Wallace, who has argued on the idea of quantum physics that the thoughts is a extra outstanding issue within the cosmos than materialist science will permit, and, within the spirit of William James, that first-person expertise is extra dependable as a supply of data than philosophers will admit; Martin Willson, who finds rational arguments for rebirth unpersuasive however regards a number of varieties of empirical or experiential proof as very promising; and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, who accepts lots of the premises and conclusions of Dharmakirti’s arguments on rebirth, however limits their true applicability to the very subtlest stage of the operations of thoughts and physique, conceding that odd consciousness might certainly be unattainable with out neural exercise.

(3) Modernists, who’re unsure in regards to the literal fact of the normal cosmology and metaphysics and customarily unpersuaded by arguments for it, search in varied methods to take care of the language and imagery of karma, rebirth, and the realms of samsara—however recast in symbolic, psychological, or existential phrases which are extra amenable to trendy sensibilities. Stephen Batchelor, along with his “existential” interpretation of Buddhism, is probably the most outstanding Western exponent of such an method, however there are a lot of others. Alan Watts, for instance, understood claims about previous and future lives as a means of describing the a number of social roles we undertake in our current life. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche appears (at occasions, a minimum of) to have favored a largely psychological rationalization of the six realms of rebirth and conventional concepts about loss of life. David Loy recasts notions of rebirth inside a brand new cosmological delusion that successfully removes them from the normal individual-survival framework. Richard Hayes regards rebirth as, at greatest, a helpful fiction.

(4) Like these within the different teams, secularists fluctuate of their motives and arguments, however are in accord that rebirth simply doesn’t matter very a lot. Even when it was taught by the Buddha and his followers over the previous two millennia, it’s really superfluous to the true that means of the dharma, at the moment as in B.C.E. India: a technique to perceive actuality and stay properly, compassionately, and meaningfully inside our current lives and within the frequent world we share. Thus, writers like Owen Flanagan, Robert Wright, and Jay Garfield intentionally put rebirth in abeyance when making an attempt to have interaction Buddhism with trendy philosophy or psychology. Engaged Buddhists both reject the concept outright, as B. R. Ambedkar did, or largely ignore it, like Thich Nhat Hanh and lots of others. And, for the various trendy individuals who don’t establish as Buddhist however want to draw on Buddhist insights and meditation strategies for particular functions of their day by day lives, rebirth is irrelevant at greatest, a distraction at worst, and in any case hardly price worrying about.

In varied contexts, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama could also be learn as a literalist, a neotraditionalist, or a modernist—and he even has propounded an ethics that may align him with the secularist camp.

These classes have to be taken with many grains of salt: the traces between one and the opposite usually are not at all times sharp, such that, as an illustration, the distinction between literalism and neotraditionalism just isn’t at all times clear, nor that between modernism and secularism. By the identical token, lots of the thinkers mentioned listed here are too complicated to assign solely to at least one class. Thus, in varied contexts, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama could also be learn as a literalist, a neotraditionalist, or a modernist—and he even has propounded a secular ethics that may align him with the fourth camp. Batchelor and Hayes could also be labeled as modernists however present sturdy secularist tendencies; certainly, Batchelor, for his half, has most not too long ago described his as a secular Buddhism, despite the fact that he presents Buddhist doctrines, together with rebirth, symbolically and existentially, as a modernist would. And a determine like Thich Nhat Hanh, who largely eschewed dialogue of rebirth and therefore seems “secularist,” clearly had each conventional and trendy components at work in his public ministry—and maybe in his personal convictions as nicely.

It could be argued that the very effort to consider Buddhism vis-à-vis modernity that generates these 4 classes is itself open to criticism. Many of the aforementioned thinkers try in a technique or one other to align conventional Buddhist cosmology and metaphysics with trendy Western concepts and practices, whether or not merely to make it understandable, to defend it, to reject it, or to reinterpret it alongside much less historically “spiritual” traces. One would possibly counsel, although, that such efforts stem from a failure to acknowledge that conventional Buddhism is actually nearly solely incommensurable with trendy science, psychology, and aesthetics. That is the stance taken by Donald Lopez in his evaluation of “the Scientific Buddha”—the Buddha imagined by moderns as completely consonant in his life and teachings with the scientific perspective and procedures developed previously a number of centuries within the West. Lopez finds that such a Buddha by no means existed, and to posit him is to do severe violence to the way in which Buddhists have historically understood and lived on the earth. In line with Lopez, the Buddha and the custom he based are in most methods incompatible with trendy, Western concepts and values, and have to be acknowledged as such:

The Outdated Buddha, not the Scientific Buddha, offered a radical problem to the way in which we see the world, each the world that was seen two millennia in the past and the world that’s seen at the moment. What he taught just isn’t completely different, it’s not another, it’s the reverse. That the trail we expect will lead us to happiness as an alternative results in sorrow. That what we imagine is true is as an alternative false. That what we think about to be actual is unreal. A sure worth lies in remembering that problem infrequently.

Lopez says, in impact: don’t attempt to align Buddhism with science, psychology, or up to date philosophy, don’t attempt to justify it, don’t attempt to reimagine it; fairly, perceive it as a radical critique of modernity and its complacencies. Maybe, then, it is a fifth method: literalism as radical cultural critique. Lopez’s method is a demanding one, for it forces trendy Buddhists to carry in thoughts opposing methods of understanding the world, an train in “adverse functionality” solely sustainable by a number of. The overwhelming majority, I count on, will go for one of many 4 approaches to rebirth outlined above, or some mixture of them. Every of them, I imagine, has a job to play within the ongoing colloquy amongst Buddhists as to how the custom should be imagined and enacted within the trendy world: literalists remind us of the classical Buddhist outlook, so completely different from our personal; neo-traditionalists present methods to argue for the normal cosmology and metaphysics, or one thing akin to it; modernists both droop or reject the classical paradigm, however discover new, nonmetaphysical methods of creating it significant; whereas secularists increase important questions on simply how a lot of custom might be jettisoned within the technique of discovering a spot for Buddhism in our disenchanted world.

My very own view—actually debatable—is that one or one other type of modernism greatest factors the way in which ahead. I’m significantly drawn to the assorted types of “Buddhist agnosticism” which were articulated in latest a long time. The time period was coined by Stephen Batchelor, however might appropriately be utilized to any thinker who finds conventional rational, empirical, or faith-based arguments in favor of rebirth problematic however doesn’t reject the concept outright, admitting that—with our current limitations—we merely have no idea whether or not previous and future lives are actual. One attention-grabbing agnostic argument comes from an surprising supply, the late Tibetan lama Lati Rinpoche, who in a 1986 dialog with Richard Hayes instructed that Westerners unsure about karma and rebirth (which Rinpoche concedes are “past absolute proof ”) ought to stay open to the likelihood that the normal cosmology and metaphysics are true, and in any case behave as in the event that they had been true by dwelling ethically and compassionately. In that means, they are going to generate happiness for themselves and others on this life, and if there are future lives, they are going to be blissful ones; conversely, in the event that they behave negatively, they are going to carry distress to themselves and others on this life and face a sorrowful rebirth, if rebirths there are. As Hayes rightly notes, this argument is akin to Pascal’s well-known “wager” relating to the existence of God and the fact of ultimate judgment. Leaving apart the query whether or not so tentative an acceptance of spiritual claims would possibly itself be problematic within the eyes of God or amidst the subtleties of karma, we might agree with Hayes that Rimpoche

…appears to position these doctrines in a legendary area, versus a historic or scientific framework. Entry to this legendary area might be gained, not by logical proof or by a methodical empirical investigation of the smart world, however by exercising one’s creativeness after which having the braveness of 1’s imaginings.

For Hayes, studying conventional cosmology and metaphysics as delusion—as “fictional”—permits trendy folks to think about methods of dwelling fairly completely different from their very own, not not like a very good novel; to the identical diploma {that a} novel or different murals might widen our perspective and ennoble our lives, partaking with the normal Buddhist imaginary permits trendy Buddhists to enter extra meaningfully into the streams of Buddhist life and supply that means inside their very own.

Free of the phantasm of excellent objectivity, why not suppose and stay as if Buddhism had been true?

Alongside comparable traces, Batchelor opts for a “center means” agnosticism wherein one “doesn’t have both to say [rebirth] dogmatically or deny it; one neither has to undertake the literal variations offered by custom nor fall into the opposite excessive of believing that loss of life is the ultimate annihilation.” This, he asserts, doesn’t mire us in indecision. Fairly, it permits us, as in Zen, to confront with ruthless honesty “the Nice Matter of Life and Dying,” and “is a strong catalyst for motion, since in shifting concern away from a hypothetical future life, to the dilemmas of the current, it calls for…a compassion-centered ethic” that may carry pleasure to our lives and the lives of others. In his writings, Batchelor appears ambivalent about entertaining conventional cosmology and metaphysics even on the symbolic stage; he usually implies that we merely should get past these outmoded conceptions. He has additionally asserted, nonetheless, that if he had been to make the most of the normal Buddhist imaginative and prescient, “I might attempt to behave as if there have been infinite lifetimes wherein I might be dedicated to saving beings.”

I actually would argue with out ambivalence for what I name “As-If Agnosticism.” My stance is agnostic as a result of, like Hayes and Batchelor (and lots of others), I don’t discover conventional descriptions of karma and rebirth actually credible, nor am I absolutely persuaded by arguments of their favor, whether or not rational, empirical, or faith-based; alternatively, I can’t rule out the likelihood that such descriptions (or one thing akin to them) might actually be true. The universe, in any case, is surpassingly unusual.

Within the spirit of Wallace Stevens’s well-known assertion that “we imagine with out perception, past perception,” I suggest that we stay as if such descriptions had been true. I’m not suggesting we merely take up wishful considering: if solely there have been previous and future lives, if solely karma works the methods custom says it does, if solely superb and ideal buddhahood awaited us all on the finish of the rainbow. Perhaps they do, perhaps they don’t. However as Buddhists have argued for millennia, Western humanists have claimed for hundreds of years, and scientists have not too long ago begun to acknowledge, the world is definitely constructed much more on our concepts, aspirations, and speculations—the As-If—than we suppose, and the stable foundations we presume to lie beneath us—the “As-Is”—are rather more troublesome to search out than we assume. It’s not, subsequently, that by dwelling as if sure doctrines had been true we actually are in flight from some bedrock, goal actuality, as a result of that actuality—although it actually imposes limitations on us, most notably on the time of loss of life—seems to be much more a matter of conference and much much less “simply the way in which issues are” than we had thought. Free of the phantasm of excellent objectivity, subsequently, why not suppose and stay as if Buddhism had been true? In doing so, we empower ourselves to enter, as absolutely as is feasible in a skeptical age, into the continued, ever-changing lifetime of the dharma, adopting Buddhist beliefs, telling Buddhist tales, articulating Buddhist doctrines, performing Buddhist rituals, and embodying Buddhist ethics in ways in which make that means for ourselves, present a measure of consolation to others, and maybe contribute in some small technique to the betterment of the imperfect and imperiled world wherein all of us stay.


From Rebirth: A Information to Thoughts, Karma, and Cosmos within the Buddhist World, by Roger R. Jackson (Shambhala Publications, 2022)


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