Agnosticism About Rebirth

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Should western Buddhists believe in rebirth? Some thinkers, epitomised by Stephen Batchelor,[1] 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.[2] 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,[3] 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.[4] 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.


[1] First in Buddhism Without Beliefs, Riverhead, 1997, and more recently in Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, Spiegel & Grau, 2010.

[2] Richard Gombrich discusses this in What the Buddha Thought, Equinoxe, 2009.

[3] 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/.

[4] In the ‘Greater Discourse on the Destruction of Craving’, Majjhima-nikāya 38. Online at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.038.than.html

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14 thoughts on “Agnosticism About Rebirth

  1. Hi Dhivan,
    This is good stuff, and I think you’re generally heading in a helpful direction here, that I would largely agree with. However, I have two questions for you.
    1. Would you recognise a distinction between hard and soft forms of agnosticism? It seems to me that it is soft agnosticism that gives agnosticism a bad name by associating it unjustly with indecisiveness – soft agnosticism involving a suspension of judgement about metaphysical claims in the expectation of further evidence. If we take the Middle Way seriously, metaphysical claims are not the sort of thing about which we can ever expect any evidence. An acknowledgement of this point thus implies hard agnosticism about rebirth – that is, a confident acknowledgement that we should suspend judgement because of the irrelevance of ‘evidence’ to the kind of thing we’re talking about.

    What I often find incoherent about some Western Buddhist claims to be ‘agnostic about rebirth’, is that they seem to mean soft agnosticism, because they are still looking for ‘evidence’ of rebirth, and seem to think that such evidence would make a difference to our judgement if they could find it.

    2. When you write “The problem with annihilationism is that it tends to engender emotional nihilism”, do you have any other evidence than traditional assertion to go on? You’re asserting a link between a type of philosophical belief (annihilationism) and a type of psychological state. Firstly it depends what kinds of beliefs you would consider ‘annihilationist’ – but lets take the relatively uncontroversial case of scientific materialism. Are you asserting that all scientific materialists will get depressed or not be motivated to act ethically because they do not believe in rewards after death? This does not stand up to any examination, since there are multiple reasons for being ethical, and what you think happens after death is unlikely to play much of a part in the vast majority of cases today. What are you actually asserting here?

    My own researches into such links suggest that the connection is far more complex than this. I do think that there is a link between metaphysical beliefs and rigid, maladaptive psychological states, but I have never come across a Buddhist source that explains the nature of this link in a fully convincing way. All that Buddhists commonly seem to do when they discuss the Middle Way is to repeat this traditional assertion despite its inadequacy, and (I’d suggest) because most secularists have no real interest in the Middle Way, Buddhists who use it don’t get challenged about it and don’t focus on refining and updating this area of Buddhist teaching.

    • Hello Robert, thanks a lot for your reply, as thoughtful as ever. Yes, I would say that you and I are on common ground here. I would definitely agree with you that what I had in mind was not ‘soft agnosticism’ about rebirth, but ‘hard agnosticism’. I used the phrase ‘principled agnosticism’ with a similar distinction implicitly in mind, although you explained it better. I very much agree that there is something suspect about the quest for ‘evidence’ for rebirth. The whole idea of ‘evidence’ for rebirth is philosophically unsatisfactory, unless one could distinguish this ‘evidence’ from ‘evidence’ for UFOs, poltergeists, apparitions of Our Lady, etc., etc., which I think unlikely. As for your second point, I think you are completely correct and that I was being intellectually lazy in asserting the traditional view that there is a connection between a wrong view (annihilationism) and an unhelpful emotional attitude (nihilism). In the background is my intuition that the emotional attitude behind consumerism – with its rubbish consequences for the planet and future living beings – might be connected with the annihilationism implied by scientific materialism. However, I know that many scientific materialists are highly principled people, and have developed a compassionate worldview based on what a Buddhist might call an annihilationist view. So I would like to revise what I wrote in my blog to say that an annihilationist view can feel very bleak and generate unhelpful states for some people; I’m one of those people – I used to be quite naturally an eternalist. So for me a ‘hard agnosticism’ is something like an intellectual discipline – another reason I think of it as ‘principled’.

  2. One of the difficulties with this type of debate is that it seems stuck at the level of the consideration of post-mortem personal survival and poses a rigid distinction between a personalised eternalism and a personalised annihilantionism without considering any other options. For example there was a tendency among some medieval Muslim philosophers to think in terms of the intellect as being in some senses shared with the whole of humanity. Now if this is the case then, post-death, clearly that part of your intellect that is shared with everyone else will survive as the others that you are sharing it with will still be alive. Thus in some sense there is a part of “you” that survives death, but not quite in the sense of a personal survival that is understood in the terms of the traditional Buddhist re-birth debate: as that part of your intellect that is exclusive to you would die with the body. But on the other hand such a view could clearly be considered as a “Middle Way” as it is proposing neither annihilationism (you completely end as a result of your death) nor is it proposing eternalism (that there is some inherent personal everlasting life principle) that survives death.

  3. Hello Padmadipa. It was not clear what you meant by ‘this type of debate’ in the first sentence. I think you must be referring to the ‘debate’ about whether or not a western Buddhist should believe in rebirth. What you then go on to write about gives us, I think, good examples of why a principled agnosticism is a good approach – how could we ever decide even in principle what kinds of thing happen to the intellect after death, whether one is a muslim or anything else? Though it is certainly interesting to speculate and to come up with a consistent and satisfying theory about we suppose should happen and why…

  4. What I mean by “this type of debate” is a any type of debate about some sort of personal post-mortem surival whether of a Christian, Muslim or Athiest orientation. Of course it might be of interest to us, and in everyday language it makes sense to talk in those terms, but from a philosophical point of view I find it a inappropriate question – a kind of non-question. The issue is over the notion of a “person” if one sees that as philosophically problematic then the issue of personal post-mortem survival is also therefore going to be problematic, no matter what position one holds. Even from a straightfoward Buddhist point of view this can be shown: enlightenment involves a trancendence of the ego, and the ego is bound up with what we understand as the personality, therefore enlightenment involves a trancendence of what we normally understand as a “person”. This trancendence is achieved by a kind of knowledge or wisdom (jnana, prajna etc) which shows our former understanding of the ego to be false, an illusion. The idea of a person then, as a seperate isolated individual is also false; and does not therefore exist in reality (from a Buddhist wisdom point of view). Therefore there can be no such thing as personal post -mortem survival (Buddhist/Christian) or for that matter non-survival (AAthiestic). By introducing the idea of some sort of trans-personal (or supra-personal) aspect of the intellect the Muslim Philosophers took the debate out of the area of the personal. Aquinas utterly condemend Averoes for holding such a view precicely on the grounds that it meant that there was no place for a personal soul. Just to invert that whole paradigm of Aquinus: that is exactly what makes Averroes, Avercenna, Al-Farabi and Al-Kindi so interesting!

    • Hello Padmadipa. Just to press the point, though, does it really make any difference if some Moslem philosophers introduced the idea of a non-personal intellect? What if someone else introduced the idea of a semi-personal semi-conscious post-mortem survival? Or the idea that everyone’s personality joins up with our unique power animal in a post-mortem shamanic theriomorphic survival state? Every position of this sort suffers the grave disadvantage of being entirely without any grounds for our saying that we know such a position to be true, except as an interesting kind of idea about something, i.e. what happens at death, that in principle we don’t know anything about.

  5. A fascinating article though I found the discussion a bit frustrating as it seems mainly to revolve around the assumption that “belief in rebirth” equals belief in post mortem survival. Surely they are two different things.

    For the past few years my formal practice has mainly been with teachers from the “Insight” tradition (in the lineage of IMS, Gaia House etc.). In my experience most teachers in this tradition will, following Stephen B, claim to be “agnostic about rebirth” in the sense of not being convinced there is any personal survival after death. In fact when you listen to some of them they seem to have pretty well made up their mind there can be no such thing, which I find a bit dogmatic.

    However the same teachers will generally place a lot of emphasis on paticca samuppada as foundational in the Buddha’s teaching. And in this context they will quite happily affirm “rebirth” as the repetitive reinforcement (within a single lifetime) of the deluded view of an enduring and unchanging core of self, which the Buddha clearly saw as the root of ignorance and suffering. This basically relates to the bhava/ jati links of the nidana chain which are sometimes styled as a pattern of “selfing” moment-to-moment. In fact I have heard it argued that not only did the Buddha never teach post-mortem survival but that it’s a misreading of his teaching to interpret the nidana model as applying over three lifetimes. (ven Buddhadasa argued this view)

    I personally find this a bit unconvincing – for a start why is jara-marana (old age and death) included in the chain in that case? (Of course there are various formulations of the chain with different numbers of links so it is possible that this step was a later interpolation by “eternalists”).

    In the end of none of us can know what the Buddha “really” taught. It does seem most helpful to focus on “becoming” as the continual and unhelpful reinforcement of self-view moment-to-moment because you can easily see it happening. It’s maybe not a good idea to take a firm view on what happens after death but we cannot ignore the fact that many many people, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, have an intuitive sense of some kind of personal continuity between lifetimes and the Buddha does sometimes seem to have talked in these terms.

    So to me it’s fine to be “agnostic” about what happens when we die but to “believe” in the principle of rebirth.

    We all know that the Buddha didn’t teach metaphysics but we can’t help speculating and there are some fascinating theories of the after-life, not least in theistic religions like Islam. But as soon as we speculate we run into problems. Many Buddhists (especially Tibetan) seem to end up believing in a form of reincarnation in which some kind of entity transmigrates between bodies – this is a reversion to Hinduism. The Theravada tradition seems to have got it most right in maintaining a middle way between eternalism and annihilationism which does allow for the continuity of what is perceived as “personal” experience within and between lifetimes. However as soon as they tried to elaborate how this might work they had to invent a “re-linking consciousness” which wasn’t taught by the Buddha. (I’m treading on thin ice here as I’m no scholar but thus have I heard).

    So as a “believer in rebirth” I share your (Dhivan’s) agnosticism about post mortem survival. But we are maybe on dodgy ground if we are so wowed by secular materialism that we end up rejecting a “traditional” view which may not have been taught by the Buddha.

    • Hi Michael good to hear from you again! You are right with regard to the “three life” interpretation of the chain of nidanas. It comes from the commentarial tradition (I think I am right in saying from Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga). And yes you are also right in suggesting that we cannot know exactly what the Buddha taught, as the Pali Canon appears to show evidence of layering – i.e. some sections being older than others. So we always have the possibility that material was added to it after the Buddha’s death. All we can say is what is in the Pali Canon and what is not. And it is clear that according to the Pali Canon the Buddha taught re-birth.No doubt different westerners also have a mass of different interpretations on how to concieve of “rebirth”. But I think that the point is that in Buddhist countries the ordinary laity (and many monks too) quite literally believe in it as a form of personal post-mortem survival. And as such, the belief opperates pretty much the same way as the traditional go-to-heaven-when-you-die belief of Christianity in the west. That is as a superstition that holds people back personally, and has a deadening regressive effect socially. And for those reasons alone, no matter what personal agnostacisms we might hold in private, it is worth criticising in the strongest terms.

      • Hello Padmadipa. Just for your information, the three-life interpretation of dependent-arising goes back to the Abhidharma traditions, some centuries before Buddhaghosa. He is definitely not the originator of it. What you write about the ‘deadening regressive effect socially’ of belief in rebirth – it would be interesting to hear more.

    • Hi Michael, I think there may be a bit more in the Pali Canon itself than is usually realised, to suggest that the nidana chain was meant to be understood in the general context of the rebirth theory. (Dhivan, thanks for your very stimulating piece that helpfully raised the whole topic of agnosticism on rebirth, I may have more to say on that some other time.)
      To my unscholarly eye, there seem to be at least references to the rebirth theory in the Pali Canon as part of the explanation the nidana chain. I am thinking of the Maha-Nidana Sutta of the Digha Nikaya. Here as I expect you are aware the nidana chain is listed with nine links, the last two of which ‘name and form’ and ‘consciousness’ go round in an endless loop:#

      Thus, Ananda, from name-and-form as a requisite condition comes consciousness. From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-and-form (Thanissaro’s translation, AccesstoInsight.org)

      So it is the usual twelve minus ‘ignorance’ and ‘formations’, at the beginning, and minus the six sense bases, between ‘name and form’ and ‘contact’ later on. But it is clearly the same process that is being explored in these nine links, in a somewhat abbreviated way.
      In the section on ‘name and form’ in the same sutta, we have this:

      Name-and-form
      “‘From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-and-form.’ Thus it has been said. And this is the way to understand how from consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-and-form. If consciousness were not to descend into the mother’s womb, would name-and-form take shape in the womb?”
      “No, lord.”
      “If, after descending into the womb, consciousness were to depart, would name-and-form be produced for this world?”
      “No, lord.”
      “If the consciousness of the young boy or girl were to be cut off, would name-and-form ripen, grow, and reach maturity?”
      “No, lord.” (Thanissaro’s translation, AccesstoInsight.org)

      This seems to me to be a clear reference to the theory of the gandhabba, found elsewhere in the suttas, (Eg MN 38) the intermediate or in between consciousness, arising from a previous being, which must be present ‘standing by’ the mother and father during conception, then ‘descending’, for a new being to arise in the womb. (And, by the way, this does seem to me like a kind of primitive explanation of the process of rebirth, or at least a gesture in that direction.) Now, one could I suppose argue that the sutta is merely saying that consciousness of some primitive sort must arise in the embryo as it develops, or the new being will not come to fruition and be born. But the reference to ‘descent of consciousness’ assuming the translation is correct, (and I would be interested in Dhivan’s comments on this) seems to be a clear reference to some factor of consciousness coming from outside and conditioning the development in the womb. So this is not the full three-life theory, but it seems to me to be an explanation of the nidana chain, in the Pali Canon, which definitely implies the general theory of rebirth found elsewhere in the suttas. Which is what one would expect really, that the Buddha would draw on this important aspect of his dharma, in his most thorough going explanation of how the human mind works.
      Ratnagarbha

      • Hi Ratnagarbha, just a few comments from me. I don’t see how the Mahānidāna sutta helps support the idea of the nidānas being about rebirth. The gandhabba theory that you mention is part of a pre-scientific Indian biology, but there is no discussion of such things in relation to a so-called intermediate state or in relation to rebirth in the Pali canon. When it is said that the gandhabba ‘descends’ into the mother’s womb, the verb used, okkamati, just means ‘enters’. The spatial metaphor in English of ‘descend’ is misleading. The usual way in which the twelve nidānas are taken to connect with rebirth is that on condition of becoming arises birth (i.e. one’s next birth). This is a straightforward reading of the twelve nidānas, applicable to all versions, not just the nine-link version in the Mahānidāna sutta. But of course this is far from implying the three-lifetime intepretation of the twelve nidānas, which was what Michael (and Padmadipa) were questioning.

  6. Thanks Michael for your thoughtful reply. It is interesting to hear that, in the IMS circle, teachers are often agnostic in principle but not in practice – I think in the Triratna tradition, Order members are often believers in principle but not in practice! These are sort of cultural differences. Anyway – I particularly enjoyed and was intrigued by your idea of being an agnostic about what happens after death but a believer in the principle of rebirth. I had not thought of this but I find it an attractive way of putting things. Especially when we consider that ‘rebirth’ is really a (bad) translation of the Pāli punabbhāva or ‘re-becoming’, which suggests not so much a belief in another physical birth but a belief in the relentless cyclic continuation of dukkha while the conditions for it endure.

  7. Thanks, Padmadipa and Dhivsn.

    I agree with all your comments! Yes we can get very attached to our beliefs though we often act in contradiction of them.

    Recently I was on a satipathanna retreat at Gaia House and I questioned the dogmatism of one of the teachers in being apparently rigid in his rejection of “future lives”, continuity of experience after death etc. By way of illustration I said that as I was getting on in life the question of what happens at death was not just academic for me and that it was not ignoble to want a better future life (or at least some life) after death even though I am well aware of anatta. To which a teacher replied “yes but it wont be YOU in a future life”. To which I replied “yes but it wasn’t ME this morning”!

    Peace and joy

    Michael

  8. Pingback: Rebirth and Consciousness | Dhivan Thomas Jones

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