Wednesday December 3, 2008
If there is one thing that, above all else, eventually led to me ceasing to formally identify myself as being Buddhist it was the idea of rebirth. For many of my fellow Buddhists, this seemed to be either an axial belief, or else it seemed to be an unspoken assumption – of course there is such a thing as rebirth; but for me, the idea has never made any sense. And it felt decidedly odd to find myself in a community of folks for whom the idea that there was not such a thing as rebirth was considered a weird minority view. “You have to believe in rebirth to be a Buddhist,” some of my Buddhist friends used to assert, shaking their heads incredulously. Sometimes, the more zealous would try to convince me of the error of my ways through vigorous debate, debate in which I engaged only reluctantly before making my excuses and sloping off to get myself a cup of coffee. Sometimes they would try to convince me that I did, actually, believe in rebirth, but I just didn’t believe that I believed. At other times, they would simply shrug and move on.
In the end, I became weary with the fact that not believing in rebirth was even an issue. And I came to the not unhappy conclusion that perhaps many of my Buddhist friends were right: that perhaps (and I only say perhaps) one did have to believe in rebirth to be a Buddhist, and that rather than assuming a belief that seemed to me to be profoundly implausible, I should simply drop the Buddhist label, and with it give up on the argument.
Since then, rebirth is not something that I have mentioned here on thinkBuddha. Put it down to a weariness with years of arguing the case against. But more than three years after starting up this blog perhaps it is time at last to say a little about where I stand on the issue.
I have several problems with the idea of rebirth. The first is that that the Buddhist traditions have not managed to produced a coherent picture of what it actually involves. The views in Tibet are different from the views in Sri Lanka, and these are different from the views in Japan and China and so on. This wouldn’t be a problem were it not that rebirth is considered to be a fact and, not only this, that it is frequently claimed to be open to empirical investigation, at least by those who have enough meditative clout. Let us say – to follow one particular line of argument – that meditators are (to use Robert Thurman’s slightly flaky expression) psychonauts who are skilled with exploring the skeins that make up the self, and can trace these skeins back not just to childhood but beyond to previous lives, as the Buddha himself is said to have remembered previous lives. If this is the case (and leaving on one side the problems associated with this view), then two and a half thousand years of meditative practice should have led to an increasingly strong body of empirical evidence that could provide clear and unambiguous picture of the precise mechanisms of rebirth; but this is simply not the case. The various schools all hold to their various mechanisms and there has been no move towards a resolution of these discrepancies.
So the first problem is that of the disagreements and incoherencies in the Buddhist tradition. The second problem, at least for me, is one that I stumbled across in Ernest Becker’s book The Denial of Death in which he says in passing that the peculiar cunning of the Buddhists is to claim on the one hand to want to get off the wheel of existence, whilst on the other hand evading the thought of death by dreams of staying on the wheel of existence. One can resolve this paradox by subtle philosophical argumentation, no doubt, but it still seems, psychologically speaking, to be a rather unseemly sleight-of-hand.
The third problem, however, is that of the absence of any plausible mechanism by means of which rebirth could come about. What exactly is the thing that is reborn? And how? And, crucially, is it the kind of thing that could matter to us? The Indian Dalit leader and Buddhist convert, Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, set out a rigorously materialist view of rebirth in which the various elements of the body break down and become a part of other bodies; but this idea of rebirth (the “regeneration of matter”, Ambedkar says, and not the “rebirth of the soul”), although it is entirely consistent with a naturalistic view of the world, is not, I think, what my Buddhist friends were urging me to believe. (As an aside, I am not sure that belief is an act of will in this way, but I’ll let that pass…) Until we have a clear idea of what is reborn, an idea of how it might happen, and some supporting evidence, then there is no reason to accept rebirth.
So what of evidence? What evidence there is, alas, is slight. The most famous research is that of Ian Stevenson who published his book Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation in 1966. The book is long, somewhat tedious, and has every appearance of scientific rigour. It is often cited by Buddhists as a text that demonstrates that there is some good, scientific evidence for rebirth. But a closer look shows that this is not the case. Firstly, one should note the title: cases suggestive of reincarnation. This “suggestive” is itself suggestive. Stevenson himself, though a passionate advocate of the possibility of rebirth, admitted that although there was suggestive evidence, there was no compelling evidence, hence the careful title of the book. The trouble with suggestive evidence is that it can be suggestive of many things. If you have a body of evidence E, this may be suggestive of A, B, C and D: and there is no reason, at the outset, to privilege one of these over another. Apparent evidence for rebirth, for example, may be suggestive of the following:
- rebirth – the most favoured outcome for Buddhist readers, no doubt.
- the mind’s tendency to see order and pattern where there is none
- the suppleness and subtlety of our ability to weave stories
- fraudulent behaviour
- the agency of my cat who is telepathically sending false beliefs to my brain in the hope that, once my brain becomes accustomed to accepting false beliefs at face value, I will be able to be induced to feed him at any time of day under the misapprehension that it is, in fact, his dinner time.
Suggestive evidence is that it depends very much upon the particular suggestibility of the one who confronts it. To start to draw up extravagant metaphysical conclusions (whether this is the conclusion that there is such a thing as rebirth, or the equally but no more implausible conclusion that my cat is beaming messages to me telepathically), we need more than suggestive evidence. We need compelling evidence, and are a long way from such evidence. Not only this, but as the idea of rebirth is so sketchily drawn, it is not even clear what it is that we are looking for evidence of.
It is no. 2 and no. 3 of the above that interest me the most: our mind’s ability to see order and pattern where there is none, and the suppleness and subtlety of our ability to weave stories. For the kind of evidence collected by Stevenson, coupled with the clear intention of finding evidence that supported the idea of rebirth, is strongly amenable to these kinds of inbuilt tendencies of the human mind. We are spinners of tales, weavers of plausible stories. The weaving of plausible stories is a literary skill – the forensic examination of a more recent rebirth-story on Skeptico gives an example of the kinds of processes that can make up such story-weaving. But the weaving of tales is not the same as the setting out of testable evidence. (For those who are interested in exploring the problems with Stevenson’s actual evidence, and looking at how his stories may have come to be woven, then I suggest having a look at the article on SkepDic.)
As a result of all of this, the idea of rebirth seems to me to be one that is not particularly worth holding on to. It is incoherently described in the various Buddhist contexts, there is no clear mechanism for it, and even the man who has argued for it most passionately has confessed that the evidence is not compelling.
But, having said all this, I’d still want to hold out for the usefulness of the idea of re- becoming as a naturalistic process. Here we are not talking about some entity “me” who is reborn again and again until I eventually get my act together and become enlightened (some hope!); instead we are talking about moving away from the idea of the self as a inward, separate thing, towards seeing that we are made up of multiple strands that stretch back and forward in time, that this exquisitely ordered jumble of genes and jostling memes is a slice carved out of the world, for convenience’s sake, and called, “me”, but that this “me” is a useful fiction, not to be taken too seriously. Not only this, but the processes predate “me” and will continue long after “I” am gone. Such a perspective is one that, I think, has the power to broaden our circle of concern, to remind us that it is not just a matter of “my” life, but that “I” am part of a bigger set of intertwined stories. The words we write and speak resonate long after we have gone, our actions have consequences, and those lead to further consequences, which in turn lead to further consequences. Our thoughts are not our own. They have a history. They have taken roost in our brains because they have found the roosting-place hospitable. Our characters, our personalities and our appetites are conditioned by those who went before us. And in recognising all of this, we can start to see that our own life is not the sole locus of value, but that there will be future beings after us, in the same way that there are other beings alongside us, and that we should bear in mind their welfare also.
Such a perspective is one that I find profoundly uplifting, if not a little disturbing. it is also one that requires little in the way of metaphysical extravagance. It does not offer us the personal comfort of immortality, but it reminds us that other things matter – some of them a great deal more – than our own brief lives. And it does not isolate us from the world as a self who needs eventual liberation (or a no-self who needs eventual liberation…), but instead brings us back to a realisation of how deeply and profoundly bound up we are within the world, a part of the world, and that we have never been separate.
Rebirth? No. Rebcoming? Yes.
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