By Gil Fronsdal
“How does one attend inappropriately: ‘Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I be in the future?’ Or else one is inwardly perplexed about the immediate present: ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?’”
– The Buddha (Middle Length Discourse 2)
In my years of Buddhist training before becoming a Buddhist teacher, none of my teachers have ever asked me to believe in rebirth. In fact, none of my Zen and Theravada teachers in America or Asia gave any prominence to the idea – if they mentioned it at all. Perhaps the one exception was the influential Thai monk Ajahn Buddhadasa who taught rebirth as a metaphor for how we are “reborn” every time we cling to an idea of me, myself, or mine. Based on his talks I heard and his books I read, I suspect he did not believe in literal rebirth, or, if he did, it was not important to him.
In the fifteen years I have been teaching Buddhism in America, very few people have come to me with interest in rebirth. In part, this may because I seldom mention it. However, when someone does ask about rebirth, it is usually a theoretical question, often about what Buddhism teaches about the mechanism for rebirth. I tend to answer these questions by first asking why the person wants to know. Some people who ask about rebirth do so as an indirect way of dealing with their grief over a loved one’s recent death. I have found it more appropriate to attend to their grief than to provide abstract Buddhist teachings on rebirth.
The concept of rebirth has a long association with Buddhism; some say it was there from the beginning. Whole schools of Buddhism are predicated on the concept. Mainstream Theravada traditions have at their heart the goal of liberation from the rounds of birth and death, or, if this is not attainable in this lifetime, the aim for a better rebirth. For Theravada Buddhism, these goals would have little meaning if there were no rebirth. Those Mahayana Buddhist traditions rooted in the classical Bodhisattva path depend on the idea of rebirth; without it, this multi-lifetime path disappears
Given the concept of rebirth is so important in many orthodox Buddhist traditions, how could I have practiced Buddhism so long without deciding whether I believed in it or not? The simplest answer is that I have practiced in particular Buddhist traditions that do not require a belief in rebirth. While the Japanese Zen tradition emphasizes the bodhisattva ideal, it mostly does so without recourse to past and future lives. The Theravada teachers I studied with focused so thoroughly on liberation in this lifetime that rebirth appeared irrelevant. At least they never talked about it while I was listening.
When asked if I believe in rebirth, I prefer to say that I can find no reason to believe in rebirth, and that my Buddhist practice is not dependent on the belief. Because it seems unlikely we will ever have definite proof that it doesn’t happen, I think of myself as an agnostic on the issue of rebirth. At times I have been a sympathetic agnostic, but for the most part I have been highly skeptical.
Perhaps if I grew up with a concept of past and future lives, I would be so deeply conditioned to it that I would take it for granted. Anthropologists of religion have marveled how all religions seem equally capable of shaping the worldview of children so thoroughly that improbable beliefs are “experienced” as real. Of course it could be argued that my disinclination to believe in rebirth is a product of my own upbringing by atheists, albeit ones who showed little interest in being for or against religion.
I know people – even good friends – who say that they have past life memories. It seems disrespectful to not believe them; after all, on what basis can I deny they are true? On the other hand, I am not able to believe what they believe because my own integrity depends on only accepting rebirth if I have adequate verification. I am sure what people perceive as past life memories can be quite convincing to people who experience them. Such perceptions sometimes arise in meditation, especially in the calm of deep meditation where dream-like images easily occur. I have visualized and “experienced” events in meditation that seemed real but turned out to be projections of my imaginative mind. In ordinary waking states my mind has also conjured things that did not exist, such as when the six-foot-long branch I stepped on in the Thai jungles turned out to be a giant snake.
One reason some people are convinced that we somehow continue after death is because when they have been at the bedside of someone who died they felt what they reported was the departed one’s presence. As with past life memories I know no evidence that can either prove or disprove the claim that this sense of presence implies a person’s continuation after death. I do know, that human minds have a great capacity to project a sense of presence. As a partial analogy I can offer my one experience of how people and religious traditions can construct the experience of presence. In the Zendo where I practiced there was a rule that we were not to cross in front of the Buddha statue. If we needed to get to the other side of the Zendo we had to walk around the passageway behind the altar. In my mind, the centerline in front of the Buddha became a charged force field, the intensity of which increased as I approached it. One day I witnessed uninformed visitors to the Zendo casually walk across the centerline. Nothing happened to them! For me the “presence” of the charged line evaporated as I realized it had been a projection of my own mind, strengthened by the other Zen students who shared the same projection. Projecting power, energy or some heightened presence onto objects, events and people is quite common. It is quite easy for me to believe that at least some experiences of sensing or intuiting the presences of the dead are similar projections. For many, being around someone dying and dead is emotional enough to give a large charge to any projections.
Some Buddhist teachers insist that believing in rebirth is necessary for living an ethical life. Their concern is that if there is no fear of karmic repercussions in future lifetimes, what keeps hospice patients, for example, from overcharging their credit cards? I find this argument as sad as the argument that without a belief in God people would likewise be unethical. I know ethical people who believe in neither rebirth nor God. I have known many people, Buddhists and others, who find ethical guidance from their own integrity and empathy. I believe that one of the important functions of developing personal virtue is so that we do not need to rely on fear and on external authority for our ethical behavior. Certainly I would be disappointed in myself if I was ethical only to avoid a bad rebirth or attain a better one.
Another argument I have heard for the necessity of believing in rebirth is that only then will a person have sufficient motivation to follow one of the Buddhist paths to its conclusion. If one’s personal life ends at death, one’s suffering would also end then and so there would not be much reason to do the difficult work of liberation from all suffering. On the other hand, the argument goes, if one believes in rebirth and the unsatisfactoriness of endless birth, life, death, and rebirth, then one could be motivated to do what it takes to attain liberation from it. A Mahayana version of the motivation argument is based on the notion that one cannot attain the spiritual perfection of a Buddha or an advanced Bodhisattva in one lifetime. Only if one believes in multiple lifetimes could one hope to do the practices that would lead to Buddhahood.
The motivation argument for rebirth does not inspire me to even provisionally believe in rebirth. While I may not always have been smart in how I have practiced Buddhism, I have not been troubled by a lack of motivation. In fact, the idea that this lifetime is my only chance to reach some degree of liberation motivates me more than if I knew I had many lifetimes to do the work. If I expected to be reborn, I imagine that I might rest content with the practice I have already done and hope to go further in some future life. I would feel less urgency in my practice.
Still another reason some people say that they believe in rebirth is that they have faith in the Buddha and since he taught rebirth, it must be true. This tendency is often strengthened when people discover for themselves that so much of what the Buddha taught is true and, since he taught rebirth, they are inclined then to give him the benefit of the doubt about it. I have several difficulties with this approach. One is that I know enough about the history and evolution of the Buddhist sacred texts to have serious questions about which words and concepts we can safely attribute to him. Another is that some of the things the sutras attribute to the Buddha I am incapable of believing. Western Buddhists tend not to read some of the more troubling parts of the canon. For example, in the Pali canon the Buddha of the Agañña Sutta claims that human sexual organs originally evolved because people started eating rice. Similarly, I am incapable of believing the Buddha’s descriptions of the dead being seized by the wardens of hell, condemned by Yama, the king of the underworld, and then subject to such painful tortures as – to list just a sampling – being cooked alive in red-hot metal cauldrons and forced to swallow molten metal. The presence of these kinds of teachings reminds me that belief in rebirth is not limited to this belief only, it usually comes along with a series of other beliefs related to rebirth. Upon what authority or evidence are we to accept secondary beliefs dependent on the belief in rebirth?
In addition to not knowing any compelling reason or evidence for believing in rebirth, I have some concern about unfortunate beliefs built on this idea. For example, I have known people who have decided to postpone committing themselves to the liberation practices of Buddhism until some future lifetime, ideally the next one. Rather than motivating people to practice, the belief in rebirth can function as a disincentive. Another derivative of believing in rebirth is the tendency to explain a person’s current situation by ideas of what the person did in past lifetimes. This is unfortunate when it becomes a substitute to serious investigation into causes and conditions at work in this lifetime. If someone’s illness is caused by actions done in a past life, what value is there in understanding current causes? If current causes are what need to be addressed, what value is there in knowing past life causes? One of the saddest applications of rebirth theory is the belief that one’s social caste or position is pre-determined by past-life karma and that one must passively accept this for this lifetime.
Can there be Buddhism without belief in rebirth? Has the concept of past and future lifetimes always been integral to Buddhism? Some evidence exists in the Pali canon suggesting that in the earliest, formative period of Buddhism in India, the Buddha’s path of practice was, at times, taught independent of rebirth.
My favorite example of this is how the Buddha taught his son Rahula. A remarkable trilogy of suttas from the Middle Length Discourses details how the Buddha instructed his son in the three trainings of virtue, samadhi, and wisdom. None of these suttas make any reference to rebirth. Through the three trainings, the Buddha offers a path that leads his son to liberation that is not dependent on ideas of rebirth. It might be argued that the notions of multiple lives and freedom from the cycles of rebirth were assumed in these teachings. If we did not find other examples of the practice offered independent of rebirth this would be a reasonable assumption.
The entire collection of teachings found in the Atthakavagga, on of the anthologies in the Sutta Nipata, contains almost no reference to rebirth except for brief, and non-approving reference to people who do believe in this. The Atthakavagga also lacks any mention that the goal of liberation involved freedom from the cycles of birth and death. Instead, the Buddha in this canonical Theravada text consistently and forcefully champions a goal of peace and liberation attainable in this life. He also eloquently teaches a path of not clinging to any views, including, explicitly, “views about becoming or non-becoming,” i.e., any views of existence or non-existence, past, present, or future.
Many scholars of early Buddhism believe the Atthakavagga is among the oldest Buddhist teachings that survive, older than most of the Pali Suttas. Even if the text is not the earliest Buddhist teachings that survive, the consistent message of the Atthakavagga does suggest that at an early date at least part of the Buddhist tradition presented the practice without recourse to notions of rebirth.
I believe it is also significant that the Buddha’s various pithy summaries of his teachings similarly make no mention of ideas of rebirth. The much-quoted passage from the Dhammapada (183) simply states that the teachings of the Buddha’s consist of “Doing no evil, engaging in what is skillful, and purifying the mind.” When his foster mother asked for the Dharma in brief that she could use for her own practice, the Buddha taught that she could personally know the Dharma through the presence and absence of 16 mental qualities (Numerical Discourses 8.53). In the records we have of the Buddha approving of the teachings of his disciples, none of these teachings make reference to ideas of rebirth. In contrast, one of the Buddha’s strongest denunciations of a disciple’s teachings was of Ven. Sati’s idea that consciousness is reborn (Middle Length Discourse #38).
And finally, when the Buddha encouraged his disciples to memorize specific teachings, none of these teachings mention rebirth. In fact, the teachings of a text called An Auspisious Day so strongly emphasizes this life that it advises against longing for the future (The Bhaddekaratta Sutta, Middle Length Discourse #131).
Not only do the most central teachings and realizations of Buddhism not require belief in rebirth, some seem to raise doubt about it. The prime example is the teaching and insight into not-self. The Buddha quite clearly taught that self cannot be found in the body, feelings, perceptions, mental fabrications, and most significantly for this essay, in consciousness. What is it, then, that persists so that it is possible to speak about someone being reborn? So far in my studies of Buddhism I have not discovered an adequate theory of how rebirth is supposed to occur. Nor does it make sense to talk about personal continuity when everything we customarily use for establishing our sense of self (convincing as it might be), is not really “self.”
So, in considering whether I should believe in rebirth, I have so far not encountered the necessary evidence for the belief. Just as important, I have not found a reason why such a belief would be necessary to motivate my practice. And even if I could think of such a reason, I would still need some evidence. For me to believe without proof goes against the lessons in integrity and careful discernment I have learned from Buddhism itself. In the meantime, I hope to remain unattached to any views that might be for, against, or agnostic about rebirth. I believe that peace is found in not clinging.
 Three reasons are commonly given as evidence the Atthakavagga is early: 1) the language is more archaic than what is found in the suttas, 2) the Atthakavagga is mentioned by name in other parts of the early canon, and so must predate these parts of the canon, and 3) the kind of monastic life depicted in the text seems to pre-date the establishment of monastic community and so refers to the earliest years of the Buddha’s teaching activity.