Rebirth? No. Rebecoming? Yes.

Wednesday December 3, 2008

Wheel of Existence

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:

  1. rebirth – the most favoured outcome for Buddhist readers, no doubt.
  2. the mind’s tendency to see order and pattern where there is none
  3. the suppleness and subtlety of our ability to weave stories
  4. delusion
  5. fraudulent behaviour
  6. 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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#1 · PeterAtLarge

4 December 2008

THANK YOU for this beautifully-argued piece, which puts into words many of my own hitherto incoherent thoughts about re-birth, and my own reluctance to embrace Buddhism fully for this reason. I plan to post a link to it on The Buddha Diaries tomorrow, so that others may be able to understand better what I have often struggled to explain in less eloquent words. Again, my thanks!

#2 · fw

4 December 2008

An excellent article in which you have presented the case for your views eloquently and quite incisively, I think. I find myself in agreement with you and this is very issue is one of the reasons why I choose not to wear the Buddhist label (or as Peter at Large so eloquently put it “embrace fully”) even though my practice and otherwise world-view is essentially Buddhist.

#3 · Loden Jinpa

4 December 2008

Will,

Sounds like someone needs a hug…just kidding…your British, and I’m Australian so there wont be any of that.

Seriously though, before I respond I’d like some clarification around your usage of the term “rebecoming”.

Are you saying there is “something” whatever that “thing” that moves from one life to the next?

#4 · Will

4 December 2008

I should think not, Loden! Anyway, it’s always nice to see you over here at thinkBuddha. My use of “rebecoming” is characteristically sloppy and loose. I mean by “rebecoming” something like the whole mass of processes of conditionality of which we (or “we”) are a part. So I am not talking about a thing (or a no-thing, or a nothing…) that passes from life to life, but talking about life as itself a series of somewhat loosely-bound processes that are always in motion.
All the best,
Will

#5 · Loden Jinpa

4 December 2008

the hug thing was a joke, you got that right?

So there is a continuum of conventional cognitive processes that moves through time, is contingent on this body and brain and by mere convention we call can say “I” or “me” and this process ceases at death? Is that what you are saying?

This sounds to me like a Madhyamaka view…well almost :)

So, the point of contention is really whether it is possible for the process to continue beyond the support of this body and brain. The fact that there are competing views in Buddhist thought, in my opinion, is a red herring. Moreover, we only need to look at science to see multiple conflicting views all competing for millions of funding dollars, M-theory for instance.

#6 · Andy

4 December 2008

In my humble opinion, all Buddhists should be agnostic about rebirth by default. The Buddha was, in William James’ phrase, a ‘radical empiricist’. He spoke about things which he claimed could be experienced, if you made the effort. But it makes little sense to start discussing the things he spoke of without having sought out the experience.

Let’s take an example which is a bit more down to earth than rebirth. I know, from my own painful experience, that desire, aversion, restlessness, sleepiness and doubt (and by doubt I don’t mean clear headed scepticism but rather skittish anxiety) are obstacles to decent meditation practice. When I read what the Buddha said about these things, I think ‘Ah yes, I know what he’s talking about from my own experience.’

But when it comes to rebirth, I have absolutely no experience of this. So I should, as Buddhist scholar and meditation teacher Glenn Wallis says, forget about the whole issue. Put it aside. It isn’t that important. Perhaps one day I will experience some knowledge of rebirth. I doubt it, somehow – being both sceptical about the doctrine and a lousy meditator – but I’m open to the possibility.

The other thing to bear in mind is how the Buddha was – like a good rabbi – performing a midrash-like misreading of the religious culture of his time. Appropriating doctrines and vocabulary that his audience would have been familiar with and reworking it to fit his purposes. There was an excellent interview with John Peacock on this subject in last month’s Tricycle Magazine. For some reason I can’t find it on the net. Anyway, he points out that rebirth is a hard doctrine to test, and that it might have been a cultural axiom that the Buddha wanted to use, rather than a doctrine he wanted set in stone. To fret about rebirth while ignoring or marginalising the other very important things which the Buddha talked about is akin to asking who made the arrow we’ve just been shot with, instead of (as Gotama suggested) pulling the damn thing out.

The other issue is that of anatman. As Owen Flanagan points out in his excellent book The Really Hard Problem, Buddhists must – by their own lights – reject a simplistic reincarnation theory such as that of Ian Stevenson. There is, after all, no self to be reincarnated.

I remain interested in the problem of consciousness and the possibility that it may have more to do with the fabric of the universe than we first thought. But I don’t worry too much about rebirth. I’m too busy working with my aversions, desires, ill-will, restlessness, you name it.

#7 · fw

4 December 2008

Andy, that was very well put.

#8 · Will

4 December 2008

Working backwards… Thanks for the thoughts, Andy, which are indeed well-put (I love the expression “skittish anxiety”). And Owen Flanagan’s book is excellent, I think. But I’m not sure about the idea that we should be agnostic about rebirth, in the same way that I’m not sure that we should be agnostic about God’s existence, about my cat’s telepathic abilities, and about whether there is a dragon in my garage. All of these things seem so unlikely that I’d rather go further and say, in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, there is no such thing as rebirth, there almost certainly is no God, my cat is more limited in his powers than I have credited him, and my garage (if I had one, which I don’t) is empty of dragons. But I fully agree that the more important thing is getting to grips with all of those hindrances to meditation (and life) that you list.

And hello again, Loden. Fear not, I did get that you were joking. As you say, I’m not 100 miles from the Madhyamaka. Madhyamakish, if you like. But alongside the subtleties of the philosophers (bless them), there co-exist other views of rebirth which seem much more clearly like the kind of thing that Ian Stevenson talked about – I’m thinking, for example, of the kinds of stories there are about selecting tulkus. Madhyamaka non-foundationalism I’m happy with, but stories of wunderkinds who relate their previous existences seem less convincing.

Nor am I convinced that the competing views in Buddhism and the competing views in science are similar kinds of thing – there are not many conferences that I know of at which Pure Land Buddhists, Zen Buddhists and Theravada Buddhists, for example, get together, put their cards on the table, and say, “Right, guys. We’ve all got rather different ideas here. Let’s try and work out together which ones are right and which ones need ditching…”

All the best,

Will

#9 · a.k.satsangi

4 December 2008

Rebirth is also YES. I know it.

#10 · Tom Armstrong

5 December 2008

I “subscribe” to the mystical idea that Ken Wilber presents in his piece “A Ticket to Athens”. [click link, below.]

wilber.shambhala.com…

Whether the ideas in “Ticket…” support or reject reincarnation is questionable. IF we are All the One in this “Game of Life,” then there is reincarnation, but it is all of one thread, not many — since our many-ness is a delusion.

Where you “go wrong” from my POV, Will, is that you suppose that you are your body-self rather than Will-&-your-body-self being a manifestation of the nameless Godlike whatever who you (and me and the guy behind the tree) really are.

#11 · Jayarava

5 December 2008

I found it sad to hear that you’ve formally ceasing to identify yourself as a Buddhist. Seems like your response to the doctrine was intellectually honest and your integrity was intact. And you let lesser beings make you feel bad about that.

Personally although an ordained Buddhist I think that to take rebirth, or even re-becoming, literally can only be an article of blind faith – it is not verifiable. The idea only makes sense to me as a motivation for practice, and not at all as a truth statement. It is best to act as if it were true because one is more likely to behave positively.

I suspect that the only reason we have a Buddhist doctrine of rebirth is that it was ubiquitous in the Buddha’s time and he had to talk in those terms to be taken seriously. He used it pragmatically. He criticised both the Vedic and Jain versions of karma and rebirth and re-presented them in ethical terms. But he did this with a lot of contemporary doctrines: like the concepts of dharma (as in duty), dharmata/dharmaniyamata (as in the orderliness of the universe), ritual purity, companionship with God (Brahmavihara), and going for refuge.

I say we should not give in to superstition and/or fundamentalism in Buddhism.

#12 · fw

5 December 2008

Jayarava wrote: “The idea only makes sense to me as a motivation for practice, and not at all as a truth statement. It is best to act as if it were true because one is more likely to behave positively.”

That’s an interesting statement to me. The idea that something that I cannot embrace as a “truth statement” could in some way motivate my practice…I find that incomprehensible. Why would ut motivate me to anything unless I believed it to be true? Or am I misunderstanding you?

And as to your last sentence above, I cannot imagine how anything that is not in fact true could ultimately make me behave positively.

I guess I don’t get it.

#13 · Trepe

5 December 2008

I remember choosing this life path. Some of what I remember is cloudy and at times certain elements become more clear. Maybe, I am delusional and I am ok with that possibility. I choose to believe that my consciousness exists on the Spiritual Plane. The Prime Material, that we believe so strongly in is merely a mental construct of the Spiritual Plane.

Everything is energy, and that includes ourself. Ourself is our soul. Einstein said that the past and future is an illusion. Thus all that exists is now. So in the now there is a photon we call our soul that is us. Everything that makes us who we are is our soul. Science says that a wave exists for eternity. Any particular wave may increase, or decrease, in magnitude, but the wave itself exists forever. Therefore it is reasonable to believe that some form of ourself exists forever.

Faith and belief are a choice. Even believing in the lack of a soul or spiritual plane is still faith in a belief. An athiest believes that there is no Divine and yet simply choosing that, is a belief. I would suggest asking yourself why you wish to deny the spiritual plane. What part of you has the faith to believe that there is no divine? The only person who can really answer this is you.

#14 · Ted Bagley

5 December 2008

Realizing a new perspective pertaining to suffering and acting in a different way in accord with the new perspective is said to be a rebirth of consciousness in the Buddhist sense.
The Buddha didn’t care if people believed in reincarnation (which was around long before him) as long as it helped them to do only good and avoid all evil.
In the Buddhist sense we go through countless rebirths. This doesn’t mean we change from one self to another, but the one self is continually changing in relation to the practice of no-suffering. Whenever I leave a certain idea of not-suffering behind, (the idea dies) I see with a new perspective and can naturally talk and act differently (embody) in relation with no-suffering until the “no” and the “I” are one in the same.
The Buddha went through a few rebirths between his leave the kingdom walls and sitting under the bodhi tree.

#15 · Rob

5 December 2008

Thank you for this excellent post! Your description of the ‘self’ reminds me of Hofstadter’s book, I am a Strange Loop. Hofstadter, a brilliant mathematician, comes to approximately the same conclusions regarding the self after years of anguished mental experimentation.

Quite frankly, I’d take decades of zazen over his approach, but he does have some wonderful analogies.

I’m okay with the hugs. ;-)

Hugs,

Rob

#16 · TW

6 December 2008

Your scepticism about reincarnation chimed with my feelings about the Christian afterlife, (and yes, I share your doubts as to whether belief can be an act of will) a doctrine which has always left me bemused. But your thoughts about us all being in the flux of our own and others’ stories, and how these all contribute to the whole, somehow reinforced my ‘belief’ that, supposing for a moment that we are all individual stones, the ripples that these cause when chucked into the lake of life, are our responsibility. For me, that requires me to tread perhaps a little more carefully on this earth than I would if I believed that, given a modicum of good behaviour, I would rest among the angels.

#17 · Trepe

6 December 2008

Belief is an act of will; And, sometimes that act of will is unconscious. I feel that most of what we do is already decided by our subconscious and our past actions. Yet, we are still responsible even in ignorance. It is good to be wrong sometimes. A person who fails often learns far more than a person who succeeds. I think we should celebrate when we are wrong. So maybe we can be filled with joy if we find our beliefs changing.

#18 · blinkwax

6 December 2008

Sort of like soluable asprin. We spend years rattleing around like an asprin pill, until one day we are disolved into a cup of water. The physical shape of the round pill is now gone, but the active properties remain (karma), which can continue influence the physical world.
Do these active properties influence new sentient beings? Unquestionably.
Are they passed onto another individual with specifity?
Perhaps just as Asprin acts on specific receptors within the body that have a predisposition to bind with its active ingredients,a new being is born with certain predispositions to interact with another persons karma.
Im just speculating here of course.

#19 · James

7 December 2008

Just wanted to say that there is a difference between reincarnation and rebirth. It seems that some here are confusing the two to be one and the same.

Most Buddhists do not believe in a soul—the Buddha did not teach in an everlasting soul. That teaching is rebirth. An everlasting soul would be reincarnation.

#20 · myla

7 December 2008

yeah, i think pretty much the same.

greetings from Brazil and Prague.

thanks for this thoughtfull post.

take care,

myla
#21 · Will

7 December 2008

Thanks for all the comments on what is, admittedly, a rather long post (and an increasingly long comment thread). Certainly, Jayarava, the Buddha seems to have worked with what he actually had to hand (as we all must); and sometimes in the texts it seems that the Buddha’s use of the idea of rebirth is more in the mode of storytelling than in the mode of handing down doctrine. “Let me tell you, endless aeons ago, in this very spot, I was born as a King…” As for the “nameless Godlike whatever”, Tom, I really have no idea what this means, nor what it might add to talk in these terms.
All the best,
Will

#22 · zensquared

8 December 2008

The hardest thing to make sense of, for me, in this rebirth idea is that there is no soul in Buddhist belief. I’ve read several texts that go to some length to emphasize this. Of course, no soul fits pretty tidily with no self. So once I get past my Western Christian upbringing (and mental wiring), I can get past the idea of each being having a soul. No soul, no self — I’m good.

But from that vantage point, how the heck can we wrap our minds around this idea of rebirth? What is reborn, if there is no soul and no self?

That being far too difficult for me, I looked longer at “that which is not born can never die.” No birth and no death.

I can’t begin to pretend I have this figured out. But I feel very comfortable in the 12 Links of Dependent Origination as the road map for origination and stopping of all suffering.

Birth and death are in there, in the 12 links.

So RE-birth, in a literal sense, is perhaps not so important by itself (even though some Buddhists will emphasize it, as you said). When we look at the 12 links, we can’t very well say, “Oh, well, I was born already, and I don’t believe in rebirth, so this whole list is irrelevant to me.”

The cycle of being born, suffering, aging, and dying goes on and on. It doesn’t matter if YOU (and really, there is no YOU) are reborn or not.

#23 · Sandals

8 December 2008

I’m still pretty limited in my study of Buddhism; one of the (regrettably) few books on the subject I’ve spent much time with is “The Monk and the Philosopher” by Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard. The reincarnation thing has also been one of my big hang-ups, but Ricard’s theory made the idea a little more palatable for me: that if we accept that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, there’s no reason to think that the essence enabling life and consciousness would not also be subject to the same law. I think some of the other comments alluded to this idea; I particularly liked blinkwax’s Aspirin analogy. I’m not sure how to square that with the idea of karma — how energy would retain and transmit traces of the nervous systems it had powered in the past — but I like the basic premise as a starting point for tackling the whole issue.

#24 · Richard

8 December 2008

What a great piece of writing! For me it is partly about how one holds ‘opinions’. This is another area to investigate in meditation.

Yes, I believe in rebirth both as a present psychological process and a ‘one birth to the next process’. This is a belief and part of the training in meditation is to recognize a belief as just that and not hold on to it to tightly, or too loosely, for that matter.

Thanks again for the stimulating writing.

best wishes,

Richard
www.lifechoicemedita…

#25 · Elee

9 December 2008

I’m concerned with the idea of an essence or energy of life brought up by Sandals. I’m not massively up on this subject, but I’m pretty sure that the Victorians were all into the idea of a life-essence (e.g. in Mary Shelley’s Frankinstein), and that no such thing has ever been found to exist. This isn’t at all the same as energy that is talked about in physics.

The idea of a life force is something that people have really wanted throughout history, but it bears much more relation to the belief in a soul than to anything that has been proven (and, I suspect, ever will be proven) by science.

The idea of an essence of consciousness reminds me of the ‘dust’ in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Again, this is a work of literature, and not something that any scientist working on the subject will come across in their work.

If we are to think about what we ‘become’ it makes much more sense to think about what we know happens around us. We are constantly extending beyond ourselves into the world. I put my ideas in other people’s heads, I give them things that have some large or small impact on their lives, I eat food that they are paid to grow, I do my job more or less well, and this has an impact on other people. All these things can be seen as a form of rebecomming. Knowing that this is the way the world works, I can then try my best to ensure that this rebecomming is a positive one rather than a negative one.

It doesn’t require any mechanisms that we don’t already know exist. No special energy, no souls floating round waiting for a new life, no heaven.

I think it’s that simple.

#26 · Ed Knight

10 December 2008

To me and i think Shakyamuni, enlightenment is about practice, not belief. Belief to me is essentially the application of a rather modern “christian” concept to a way of living that is quite different than the modern west. Before Constantine,and the Nicene creed, belief was also not the essential ingredient of Christianity but rather gnosis or direct experience. This is also not really the kind of limited substituted mathematical intelligibility of western “science” but rather basing life on direct experience.

#27 · Elee

10 December 2008

Ah Ed,
You do science a disservice! The best type of science makes an awful lot of sense when it is used in conjunction with direct life experience. That’s what’s so great about it!

#28 · John Haley

15 December 2008

Ah, yes. This too.
I find it interesting – and somewhat amusing – that your experience has led you to abandon the label of “Buddhist” for pretty much the same reasons I have come to abandon the label of “Christian.” I was raised Christian, have struggled most of my life with my discomfort with many Christian doctrines (such as an eternal afterlife in heaven or hell, and the concept that “accepting Jesus,” which simply means agreeing with someone else’s belief, is the only “true way”), and finally gave up the struggle and declared myself “not a Christian.”
Interestingly, it was when I read “Buddhism without Beliefs” by Stephen Batchelor that I began using the “label” of “Buddhist.” I really feel no need for such labels, but I find the Buddha’s teachings palatable. Jesus’ teachings, as well. Christian doctrine? Buddhist doctrine? Not so much. The institutions that have grown up around certain people’s interpretations of these “enlightened” individuals’ words have much more to to with siezing and keeping temporal power than with their words or their intentions. As Ed Knight said, enlightenment is about practice, not belief. This is Batchelor’s premise, as well. As for the “doctrine” of rebirth, or reincarnation, or “rebecoming” — it really doesn’t matter much except as it motivates our actions (as Ted Bagley said above).
John Haley

#29 · David Chapman

19 December 2008

I am on board with your account of rebirth, but I found what you said about re-becoming more interesting.

One aspect of anatman is a denial of transtemporal identity. We are not the same people “we were” twenty years ago — or twenty minutes or nanoseconds ago. There is no “fact of the matter” concerning continued physical existence “within a life”; this is to some degree an arbitrary (albeit useful) human construct.

Some Tibetan presentations emphasize this continuous discontinuity of existence. The person who wrote the first sentence of this paragraph is gone — dead. Someone else is writing this sentence.

If this is taken seriously, as a practice, it is possible to experience oneself as dying and being reborn in every moment. That is an experience of emptiness and form, death and life, unbecoming and rebecoming, self and selflessness, entwined in perfect intimacy.

#30 · DarkDream

28 January 2009

Thanks for this post.

In a strict literal sense, the Buddha never taught “rebirth.” In Pali, punnabhava means “rebecoming” or “again-becoming.” The Buddha was emphasizing the notion of a process and not a “thing” (which rebirth is about).

I have written in my blog at www.dreamwhitehorses…
what I believe to be convincing arguments that refute rebirth.

I am also exploring the general thesis that the metaphysical notions of rebirth and karma are later additions to the texts in the Pali Canon. I personally believe the Buddha did not bother himself much about rebirth; I think he simply saw it as another metaphysical question to not dwell on.

#31 · Kesara Goonawardena

2 March 2009

Let’s first separate Belief and Knowledge. We do not know of a link between the Buddha and the Dhamma. We understand that the Buddha himself asked us not to consider him other than as a human. The wisest human who ever lived, perhaps, but still a human. We must separate Belief and Knowledge

Concentrating then on the Dhamma, we find that nearly all of it can be followed using scientific method – nearly all of it is rational. We do not have to adjust our minds to accept irrational thought processes to work with those parts.

The primary – possibly the only – parts of the Dhamma requiring acceptance of irrational ways of thinking are Kamma and Rebirth. What is the effect on the rest of the Dhamma of removing these two? None, as I see it, actually improvement.

Following the admonishments attributed to the Buddha, we are obliged to discard these two concepts of Kamma and Rebirth, on the basis of their being irrational.

Teaching these to children of impressionable age is to teach them that their parents think in strange ways, to which the children must get accustomed. Teaching children Kamma and Rebirth is cruelty to children.

#32 · a.k.satsangi

20 March 2009

Rebirth is ‘YES’. I know about my previous birth. My most Revered Guru of my previous life His Holiness Maharaj Sahab, 3rd Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith had revealed this secret to me during trance like state. According to that I was one of His most beloved and blessed disciple (I want to keep the name secret).

Since I don’t have any direct realization of it so I can not claim the extent of its correctness. But it seems to be correct. During my previous birth I wanted to sing the song of ‘Infinite’ but I could not do so then since I have to leave the mortal frame at a very early age. But through the unbounded Grace and Mercy of my most Revered Guru that desire of my past birth is being fulfilled now. Hence not only Rebecoming but Rebirth is also ‘YES’.

#33 · Mauler

28 April 2009

I like your argument, as it shows that you are willing to open yourself to the infinite possibilities.

I am not a buddhist, lets get that out of the way from the start. I approach this from an existential viewpoint, which happens to have (at a very cursory level) many similarities with buddhism.

Existentialist thought shows that death is inevitable, but that there is nothing beyond that. However, that says nothing of the idea of the mind. If the body is the great sensing organ of the mind, then its death obviously ends all sense that the mind could receive. That leaves in question what happens to the mind once the body is gone. If you don’t like the term mind, then interchange it with spirit/soul/essence…any term will work.

Lets say that reicarnation is a possibility, wherein the mind floats about for a while before finding a new body to “move into”, and then it goes on with its existence. Sort of. Once again come back to the great sensing organ, the body. No two are alike, and it follows that each will sense things in its own particular fashion. Thus the mind will percieve 2 identical events differently from two distinct bodies. Thus the mind rebecomes. There may be vestiges of previous existances there, but they are seperate and individual from the existance the mind currently finds itself in. And so its not that a person is reborn; the person (body and mind in combination) from before is gone. This is an entirely NEW person (new body, same mind, thereby different perception of reality). The two existances are distinct, and so cannot be said to be reborn. Reborn would imply that the same combination of body and mind was reunited. Rebecoming shows that it is a mind having to become itself again, under different circumstances.

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