Should western Buddhists believe in rebirth? Some thinkers, epitomised by Stephen Batchelor, have come out as not believing in rebirth. For these thinkers, rebirth is part of the traditional Indian belief system that the Buddha inherited, and not essential to the Dharma. Many other western Buddhists argue that a belief in rebirth is a crucial part of being a Buddhist. They make various points in support of this traditional belief, for instance, that the Buddha taught rebirth, that the whole structure of Buddhist thought depends on rebirth, that Buddhist teachers through history have accepted rebirth, and that there is some evidence that rebirth is the case. The position I’ve come to on this matter is a principled agnosticism.
I personally would not say that I believe in rebirth, but this very idea of ‘not believing in rebirth’ is ambiguous. It can mean, to believe there is no rebirth (which is denial of rebirth), or to not be sure that there is rebirth (uncertainty about rebirth). The former equates with annihilationism, which the Buddha always describes as a wrong view, while the latter does not. The problem with annihilationism is that it tends to engender emotional nihilism, since death will be totally the end of you. So although it is unlikely that western Buddhists who have decided that they do not believe in rebirth could be be persuaded to start believing in it, they might be open to thinking about the advantages of agnosticism.
If we are agnostic about rebirth, we can fully engage with Buddhist scriptures as literature. When we read Greek myths like those in the Odyssey, we do not need to believe that Zeus, Hera and Athena are really living on Olympus in order to appreciate the stories. Instead we open ourselves to Homer’s imaginative world and enjoy Odysseus’s journey home to Ithaca. Likewise, we can read about the Buddha remembering his previous abodes, and enjoy for instance how this idea allowed the early Buddhists to come up with the Jatakas, those edifying stories of the Buddha’s past lives.
I think it is important to consider what it means that rebirth was a commonly-held belief in the Buddha’s day. The Buddha clearly accepted the idea of the rebirth and often made it part of his teaching. However, he gave the cultural teaching of rebirth a new twist. He said that rebirth happens in accordance with the ethical quality of one’s actions, not in accordance with one’s sons doing certain rituals, as the Brahmans believed. This ethicisation of karma is the Buddha’s real contribution. We are responsible for our own destinies. That is the important point, in my view, as it infuses our worldview with an ethical orientation.
Buddhist doctrine does not entirely depend on belief in rebirth. The Buddha talked about enlightenment in terms of the ‘deathless’ or ‘undying’ but also as the ‘unborn’, ‘unageing’, ‘unmade’, ‘unconditioned’. But these terms all signify the state of enlightenment in this life. They do not imply anything about what happens after death. The Buddha repeatedly said that it is impossible to say anything about enlightened beings after the breaking up of their body. I think it is possible to over-emphasise the role of karma and rebirth in the Buddha’s teaching. It is certainly present, but in some suttas, such as that to the Kālāmas, the Buddha explains that whether or not the noble disciple believes in rebirth he or she finds reassurance in the practise of ethics. A noble disciple is someone with right view, and the most common way of describing right view is in terms of the four noble truths, which is an expression of conditionality – that there is suffering, that it has a cause, and an ending, and there is a path that leads to its ending. One can make a lot of progress towards enlightenment with such right view, while remaining agnostic about rebirth.
From the point of view of empirical science, consciousness depends on physical conditions, namely, the brain. When the brain dies, so consciousness ceases. This in fact is also exactly what the Buddha said. In conversation with a monk called Sati he emphasised how he teaches that consciousness (viññāṇa) arises on conditions and ceases when those conditions cease. It does not continue the same after death. So how did the Buddha explain rebirth? The fact is, he did not explain rebirth. He simply stated that karma or craving or formations continue. The later Buddhist tradition attempted to explain this better, with ideas such as the ‘mental continuum’ (citta-santāna) or the ‘storehouse consciousness’ (ālaya-vijñāna), but these are obviously speculative ideas. So the Buddha and science agree that consciousness does not continue after death, and apart from that, nobody really knows what happens.
To be agnostic about rebirth is not necessarily ‘Buddhism-lite’ but is part of an authentic western Buddhism. For me as a western Buddhist the problem is not rebirth according to karma, which, if it were literally true, would be logical, ethical and consistent. The problem is our inability to say anything objectively valid about what happens after death. Scientific knowledge is a useful reminder of the limits of our knowledge. Personally I think the real task for western Buddhists is to hold to a genuine agnosticism, avoiding annihilationism on the one hand, and religious metaphysics on the other. Such agnosticism can appreciate everything about traditional teachings of rebirth but relates to them as stories or metaphors about the mystery of existence. Such agnosticism can also engage fully in trying to understand mind and brain, and we can keep reminding annihilationists that scientific materialism is just a belief and is not necessarily the whole truth. For me agnosticism is a positive emotional attitude, connected with wonder as well as dismay, like the way we feel truth in poetry.
In conclusion, I wanted to explain what I mean when I say I do not believe in rebirth. It is not because I believe that there is no rebirth (denial and annihilationism) but because I am not sure that there is rebirth (uncertainty and agnosticism). However, such agnosticism does not mean that I cannot relate to the teachings of the Buddha in the Pali canon. On the contrary, I will be reading it as literature, which will inform my imaginative engagement with the mystery of existence.
 First in Buddhism Without Beliefs, Riverhead, 1997, and more recently in Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, Spiegel & Grau, 2010.
 Richard Gombrich discusses this in What the Buddha Thought, Equinoxe, 2009.
 Discourse to the Kālāmas, Aṅguttara-nikāya 3:65. See my blog on this at https://dhivanthomasjones.wordpress.com/2013/04/25/a-commentary-on-the-kalama-sutta/.
 In the ‘Greater Discourse on the Destruction of Craving’, Majjhima-nikāya 38. Online at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.038.than.html.