edwhys211 wrote:I am an agnostic who is interested in Buddhism. I like meditation, the teachings of The Buddha and Asian culture, but I cannot accept rebirth without skepticism. As an agnostic I cannot be sure or unsure about anything, but I really do not fully believe in rebirth and the realms of rebirth. I view it more as a story, not a truth. Does Zen, or any other minor school just view Buddhism as a philosophical religion without rebirth?
you're in luck with theravada, since we use the pali canon there is a sutta which will help you with your question: the oft quoted "kalama sutta" AN 3.65 http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.soma.html
this sutta generally promotes skepticism in a functional way. as i read it, we should test out the buddhas teachings. so you don't believe in rebirth? okay that's fine, test out the buddha's teachings and see what happens. i for one am up in the air about rebirth and the realms. i leave it open. i have always approached the dahmma with a testing attitude and have found every aspect to be legitimate and functional EXCEPT rebirth and the realms. now does this mean they do not exist? certainly not. does this mean i'll never find out and i should just forget it? no, it means that further testing is required. according to the suttas we can literally see rebirth by delving into knowledge already in our minds. this requires mastering of the jhanas, a heady task to say the least. i am on jhana one and have been for three years. however jhana one is utter bliss and allows me to see not self much easier, so it's fine with me if progress is slow!
that being said, it really doesn't matter. the dhamma is not about rebirth or realms or any of that stuff. the buddha taught again and again that that speculation on that stuff is pointless and that we should simply practice practice practice, tame the mind and use it to see through reality itself. one can reach nibbana without any knowledge of rebirth/realms! in the suttas that knowledge is actually called "mundane", meaning it falls in with knowledge of books or outer space, what's in the deep trenches of the oceans, and so on. only nibbana is "supramundane" and one can seek it while leaving everything else aside.
trying to work out rebirth/realms is chasing your own tail, only nibbana is going in the right direction.
EDIT: also, zen has this weird thing going on in modern times where people are pretending it's it's own thing and even that it is not buddhism some times (how they get around the fact that it wouldn't exist without buddhism is beyond me!). however this is a fad, if you actually walk into a zen temple and speak with a monk they will know a lot about rebirth and the realms, there will be dharma talks that mention them and sutra readings that mention them. of course there are exceptions, this is my experience in temples and in reading, i can say for certain i have never heard or read of a zen master flat out denying the existence of these things, undoubtedly this has happened but i believe it's a very small minority. a zen master may not teach about them in their writings as writings frequently are supposed to be utterly functional and leading a person in the right direction with no side tracks, because as i said above rebirth/realms is mundane it is a huge side track and many teachers simply try to stay on track and just teach a person in the direction of liberation.
further, some teachers likely are enlightened or have at least tasted nibbana but have not mastered the jhanas and extracted their previous lives and all that. this being so they don't teach that these things are false, they simply don't mention them much. having reached the goal as prescribed by the buddha one likely has much deeper belief in the reliability of his teachings even if one has not experienced certain ones directly. and even the teachers that have experienced their past lives still may not teach about them. zen or theravada (vajrayana teaches about them ALL the time and so does pure land) are both schools where teachers may not mention these things much. zen has a particularly austere approach to the dhamma in some circles. particularly soto and rinzai. they get to the point at the same time as nearly not giving enough information in the first place (i say this with love, i have always had a great interest in zen and it's wily ways). that attitude doesn't leave much room for lengthy talks on otherworldly exploits. also as far as i know zen does not teach jhana, so it's possible that zen masters do not remember their past lives as a rule (with exceptions of course). perhaps they reach nibbana using meditation methods that simply do not serve that function? nonetheless they still teach that these things exist according to the dhamma.