chatra wrote:I'm a new member here, and I'm considering converting to Buddhism. In fact, I might just convert right here and now - if it weren't for one issue.
I'm going to try my best not to rehash a topic I know has been gone over hundreds of times, but I'm having trouble accepting the concept of "rebirth". I cannot seem to find any logical justification for it. Is there any logical and scientific* explanation of exactly how this works?
Is it possible to be a Buddhist, accepting the ethical tenants, view of human nature, etc. etc., while rejecting the cosmology (rebith, the 36 planes, etc. etc.)? Or would this be as dishonest as claiming to be Christian, while rejecting the concepts of Heaven and Hell?
Thanks for any help you might have to offer. I'll keep an open mind, I promise.
*While an enormous compendium of people who explain and seem to have experienced rebirth might be classified as scientific, it still does not give logical justification.
Yes, you can certainly be a Buddhist without believing in rebirth, or you can even take a non-literalist approach to rebirth if you want. While I don't want to enter into a debate about the validity of rebirth, I'd like to at least mention how the process of rebirth is understood. To begin with, the Buddha didn't reject that specific mental events are contingent upon corresponding physical events in the brain, which is the prevailing view of modern science, but he didn't explicitly promote it either. In The Buddha and His Teachings
, for example, Narada Thera notes that:
In the Patthana, the Book of Relations, the Buddha refers to the seat of consciousness, in such indirect terms as 'yam rupam nissaya—depending on that material thing', without positively asserting whether that rupa was either the heart (hadaya) or the brain. But, according to the view of commentators like Venerable Buddhaghosa and Anuruddha, the seat of consciousness is definitely the heart. It should be understood that the Buddha neither accepted nor rejected the popular cardiac theory.
So even though the Buddha detailed the mutual dependency of mental and physical activity and consciousness (DN 15
), he wasn't a strict materialist. In regard to name-and-form (nama-rupa
), for example, he didn't see consciousness as merely the byproduct of matter; he saw mentality and materiality as mutually sustaining immaterial and material phenomena, using the analogy of two sheaves of reeds leaning against one another to illustrate their relationship (SN 12.67
In Theravada, the literal interpretation of rebirth is viewed as an instantaneous process whereby the last consciousness of a being at the time of death immediately conditions the arising of a new consciousness (kind of like "spooky action at a distance
" where two entangled particles communicate with each other instantaneously, even over great distances).
According to the teachings on dependent co-arising (paticcasamupadda
) — a process of conditionality that's understood to occur moment to moment and
over multiple lifetimes (non-literalists simply disregard the "three-life" model, e.g., see Paticcasamuppada: Practical Dependent Origination
) — if there are sufficient conditions present, those conditions with inevitably result in future births (SN 12.35
). Along with consciousness, craving (tahna
) plays a vital role in the renewal of beings and the production of future births.
To illustrate how craving could result in future births, the Buddha used a simile in which he compared the sustenance of a flame to that of a being at the time of death. Essentially, a flame burns in dependence on its fuel, and that fuel sustains it. When a flame burns in dependence on wood, for example, the wood sustains that flame. However, when a flame is swept up and carried away by the wind, the fuel of wind sustains that flame until it lands upon a new source of fuel. In the same way, a being at the time of death has the fuel of craving as its sustenance (SN 44.9
). Hence, the Buddha states, "Wherever there is a basis for consciousness, there is support for the establishing of consciousness. When consciousness is established and has come to growth, there is the production of renewed existence" (SN 12.38
To better illustrate this, I'd like to make an analogy to a theory introduced by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene
. There, he presents his theory that those genes whose phenotypic effects successfully promote their own propagation will be favourably selected in detriment to their competitors, which is essentially a part of what helps species surive and reproduce. He does not mean that the human gene is actulaly selfish, but rather that it acts as if it were. Craving can also be seen to act in a similar way.
If we look at craving as being the cause by which this process happens at the molecular level, we can get an idea of the role that craving plays in realm of rebirth. In this pseudoscientific analogy, the propagation of genes is analogous to becoming and birth in dependent co-arising, and the cause of this process is craving; in the case of genes, it would be craving in regard for the reproductive success of the organism, or of other organisms containing the same gene, while in the case of beings, it would be craving in regard to the production of renewed existence, or the establishment and growth of consciousness.
Unfortunately, there are no suttas that give a detailed explanation of this process, and the detailed workings of this process are to be found in the Abhidhamma and Pali commentaries. While many people reject the Abhidhamma and commentaries as reliable sources of information regarding what the Buddha taught, I don't think the views of the Buddha and the ancient commentators such as Buddhaghosa are necessarily
mutually exclusive. It's true, for example, that the Pali term "patisandhi-citta
" (re-linking consciousness) — which is used to explain the process of rebirth in detail — is only found in the commentarial literature; but one can just as easily argue that such a "re-linking" consciousness is implied in places like SN 44.9
, where the Buddha states that, "... when a being sets this body aside and is not yet reborn in another body, I designate it as craving-sustained, for craving is its sustenance at that time."
Of course, one can just as easily re-interpret such statements, or to be more precise, translations, in a way that supports a single-life presentation of dependent co-arising and non-postmortem rebirth (i.e., keeping solely within the framework of what I'd call psychological processes), which I have no problem with personally. That's why I prefer to leave it up to the individual to decide what interpretation or model they find more useful in their approach to the study and practice of the Dhamma. But in either interpretation, rebirth is the continuation of a process — nothing "remains," nothing "transmigrates," etc. — there are merely phenomena that condition other phenomena in the interdependent process we call life. The only difference I see is that one side believes this process ceases at death, regardless of whether there's still craving present in the mind, and the other doesn't.
As for myself, however, I'm agnostic when it comes to rebirth. I'm open to the possibility, but I don't consider it a fact. That said, I do think that rebirth can be a useful teaching. Being open to teachings on rebirth, for example, has the potential to lead to skillful actions. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains in "Faith in Awakening
...instead of an empirical proof for his teaching on karma, the Buddha offered a pragmatic proof: If you believe in his teachings on causality, karma, rebirth, and the four noble truths, how will you act? What kind of life will you lead? Won't you tend to be more responsible and compassionate?
But luckily you don't have to believe in postmortem rebirth to be a Buddhist. As far as I know, there's no sort of Buddhist excommunication if you don't. You can be a Buddhist without believing in rebirth, or you can even take a non-literalist approach to rebirth if they want. The teachings are open to either interpretation.
For example, on one level, rebirth and kamma
(literally "action") deal with the framework of morality and ethical conduct in general. In this sense, I understand rebirth to signify the Buddha's observation that there's a type of continuity that underlies experience in the form of our actions and their results — one that does not necessarily end at death — and kamma to represent the intentional element of our psyche that goes into experience.
This corresponds to what the Buddha called "right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in the acquisitions [of becoming]" (MN 117
). Here, morality and ethical conduct are associated with intentional actions and their corresponding results — which aren't just limited to those within the present lifetime — and the continuous cycle of birth and death (which can also be taken metaphorically).
On another level, rebirth and kamma deal with the framework of what I'd call psychological processes, which corresponds to what the Buddha called "noble right view, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path" (MN 117
Here, rebirth still signifies the Buddha's observation that there's a type of continuity that underlies experience in the form of our actions and their results, and kamma still represents the intentional element of our psyche that goes into experience, but they are placed within the context of the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path. In this context, the emphasis is on things such as recognizing and understanding the mental processes by which we construct our sense of self, as well as how to utilize those processes in more skillful ways.
Looking at it from a more non-literalist perspective, however, I think that the teachings on dependent co-arising, the aggregates (khandhas
) and not-self (anatta
) are quite insightful in that they are the parts of Buddhism that correspond to parts of modern psychology. For one thing, they basically detail the process by which we construct our sense of self — i.e., our ego or identity — and, ultimately, how to utilize that process in more skillful ways.
The aggregates themselves, for example, aren't simply descriptions of what constitutes a human being as some people mistakenly think—they're one of the many ways of looking at and dividing up experience that we find throughout the Pali Canon (e.g., aggregates, elements, six sense-media, etc.). More importantly, they represent the most discernible aspects of our experience on top of which we construct our sense of self in a process of, as the Buddha called it, "I-making" and "my-making" (e.g., MN 109
). I think that Thanissaro Bhikkhu sums up the relationship between the teachings on not-self and the process of I-making and my-making very well in his essay "The Problem Of Egolessness
Our sense of self is quite fluid — it's always in flux, ever-changing from moment to moment in response to various internal and external stimuli — and it's often hard to observe this process in action. Nevertheless, there are times when our sense of self causes us a great deal of suffering, times when we cling very strongly to that momentary identity and the objects of our sensory experience on which it's based in ways that cause a great deal of mental stress.
But if we can learn to be more aware of these mental processes, we can learn to master them through a combination of mindfulness training and other techniques. I imagine that there are methods found within modern psychology that are comparable and equally as effective, but many people still find Buddhist methods helpful (and even some modern psychologists are finding them useful
). So I can definitely understand the difficulty in accepting concepts such as rebirth, but there are plenty of other things in Buddhism that can potentially have an immediate impact on our mental well-being in the here and now.
However, in the end, I don't think it really matters which view of rebirth one holds because the actual practice is still the same. What truly matters is what you do with the teachings, not what you believe about them. That's why I think the Buddha likened his teachings to a raft in MN 22
...I have taught the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Understanding the Dhamma as taught compared to a raft, you should let go even of Dhammas, to say nothing of non-Dhammas.