From Thought to Destiny: The Pragmatics of Rebirth.

Uposatha Teaching: Last Quarter, October 31, 2010.

Index to Current Series
Thought – Act – HabitCharacterDestiny

“…, to downplay the doctrine of rebirth and explain the entire import of the Dharma as the amelioration of mental suffering through enhanced self-awareness is to deprive the Dhamma of those wider perspectives from which it derives its full breadth and profundity. By doing so one seriously risks reducing it in the end to little more than a sophisticated ancient system of humanistic psychotherapy.” – Bhikkhu Bodhi

Last week we discussed two criteria be which we an evaluate any Buddhist doctrine, (1) whether it makes pragmatic sense and (2) whether it is actually true in an independently verifiable way. The first is most the explicitly articulated the Buddha, for instance,

Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness’, enter on and abide in them.” (AN 3.65)

Consideration of this criterion answers the question, Why did the Buddha feel the need to integrate Rebirth into his teachings? I ask the reader to put aside for the time being any opinions you may have about (2), in particular, doubts about the veracity of Rebirth, so that we can study its pragmatic function on its own terms. Money has a pragmatic function independent of whether it is actually real. Sherlock Holmes was a great inspiration to me when I was a kid, even though he never existed, though I kinda wished he had. Rebirth must have a critical a role on the Path if the Buddha taught it.

Felicitous Rebirth. The function of Rebirth is not the promise of immortality. In the West we find rebirth reassuring as a remedy for death, but this is not an Indian attitude. However given that rebirth will occur, a felicitous rebirth is generally considered desirable, which is to say, a rebirth in:

  • a deva realm, or
  • the human realm.

Similarly an unfortunate rebirth is considered undesirable, that is, rebirth in:

  • the hell realm,
  • the animal realm,
  • the hungry ghost realm, or
  • the realm of the angry titans.

So, an immediate function of Rebirth is to encourage virtuous thought and conduct with the aim of obtaining a felicitous rebirth and avoiding an unfortunate rebirth. On the other hand, one does not have to look to the following life to find this incentive. We have seen in a past post in this series that prominent karmic patterns tend to place people in this life into persistent psychological states and that the six realms of rebirth serve as metaphors for these states. For instance, someone enmeshed in the interplay of both greed and anger will find themselves as if abiding in hell in this very life with no relief. Deep remorse for a single terrible act can thrust one into that same realm in this life.

If someone is so fortunate as to be reborn into the human realm, that the specific circumstances of one’s rebirth will be more or less felicitous depending on:

  • health
  • longevity
  • wealth
  • friendship

… and so on. We have also seen in a past post that prominent habit patterns tend to determine one’s fortune in this life in ways that correspond closely to the circumstances of human rebirth.

The realm and human circumstances of Rebirth are attributed to the Law of Karma, as are abiding psychological states in this life. In both cases there is an incentive from the point of view of one’s own welfare to think and behave skillfully in order to develop skillful habit patterns and a karmically strong character. Rebirth into a particular destination adds color, drama and intensity to the Karmic results predictable in this lifetime, much as one would expect from a good myth. Thereby the Law of Karma and Rebirth promote virtue, that is, Avoiding Evil, Doing Good and Purifying the Mind in this life.

Although Buddhist practice ultimately aims at the perfection of human character, or Nirvana, Rebirth in a felicitous realm tends to define an intermediate goal that can become the dominant consideration. Pure Land Buddhism, a major branch of Buddhism in East Asia, as I understand it, focuses on the rebirth in a heavenly realm, the Pure Land, by the grace of Amitaba Buddha, who dwells there. The intermediate goal of a felicitous rebirth fits awkwardly into Buddhist doctrine because it is based on greed, seeking personal advantage. On the other hand such teachings are common in Buddhism, but generally as provisional teachings or as a skillful means to point those not yet firmly grounded in Buddhist practice toward the Path. In the West heaven and hell, “The Judgment” and an omniscient Santa Clause play similar roles. Self-serving motives can easily evolve into pure intentions with the continuing practice of virtue.

The Tedium of Cyclic Existence. Part of the Buddhist understanding of Rebirth is that we have been at it since beginningless time, and until we attain Nirvana we will be at it for countless lives in the future. The realization that we have been there, done that millions of times already adds color, drama and intensity to what we begin to realize about this life, that we keep repeating the same mistakes, get stuck in the same places, over and over again. This is called having been around the block. This encourages a turning away from the things of this life and toward Buddhist practice, as a way to break this monotonous cycle. The Buddha said,

“Which is greater, the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — or the water in the four great oceans?… This is the greater: the tears you have shed…”

He also talked about the mountains of bones we have left behind. This kind of dispassion for continuing existence has always seemed to me to have been something that must have resonated better with the culture of ancient India more than with the modern West. But again it refers to a condition that we can recognize without looking beyond this life. Again, Rebirth underscores this, like a good myth.

Higher Purpose. The Great Cathedral in Cologne, Germany began construction in 1248 A.D. and was to be magnificent. It was completed in 1880, over six centuries later! This makes me think of the original founders of the Cathedral, and marvel at what their motives were and what inspired them to start a project of this size that would not live to see past the very earliest stages. This undertaking certainly required a great faith that others will be there to continue the work through the generations and centuries to come. It certainly required patience when progress must have seemed so gradual in their lifetime. Along with patience it must have fostered a sense of urgency as the significance of this project dwarfed all other considerations in the lives of these founders; after all every decision they made was for an eager posterity, for untold generations to come, long after the ephemeral gains, losses and fatigue of their small lives had long been forgotten. Their small lives must have acquired huge meaning in the context of this project. I imagine that sicknesses, deaths, births, droughts barely deterred the founders in their determination to see the work continue without interruption.

Can we bring the Cologne founders’ faith, patience, urgency, meaning and determination to our Buddhist practice? If we think that our practice is about making our present lives more comfortable it will be like beginning construction on a village church which we will live to occupy and preach in. We would hire the workers, be upset when delays postpone the time of our occupancy, introduce our own delays as setbacks in our own lives seem for the time being to be more important than getting this darned church finished. The goal of ending dukkha and the means of renunciation will for the most part give way to that of achieving more immediate small pleasures in life. The result might be competent, but hardly magnificent. No matter what choices we make they will be erased on the breakup of our bodies.

The aim of Buddhist practice is about the perfection of the human character, it is about making something magnificent: a BUDDHA. What would your motives have to be and what would inspire you to start a project of this size since if you are like most of us you will not live to see it to completion in this life? This undertaking certainly will require great faith that the work will continue after the failure of your physical body through the generations and centuries to come, as Rebirth allows. It will certainly require patience when progress seems so gradual in this lifetime. Along with patience it will foster a sense of urgency as the significance of this project dwarfs all other considerations in this life; after all every decision you make will be for a world eager to end suffering, long after the ephemeral gains, losses and fatigue of your small present life is long forgotten. This means you will continue to practice virtue, even under the pressure of bad times or of good short-term gains, because it is your virtuous karma that will carry over into future. Your small life will acquire huge meaning in the context of this project. Sicknesses, deaths, births, falling stock prices will barely deter you in your determination to see the work continue without interruption. Aside from the prospect of the actual attainment of Buddhahood in some future life, your attitude, motives, inspiration and relation to practice would be profoundly different and your progress greater in this life than otherwise. Bhikkhu Bodhi, I think, makes the same point:

To take full cognizance of the principle of rebirth will give us that panoramic perspective from which we can survey our lives in their broader context and total network of relationships. This will spur us on in our own pursuit of the path and will reveal the profound significance of the goal toward which our practice points, the end of the cycle of rebirths as mind’s final liberation from suffering.”

Drawbacks of Rebirth. The other side of the Buddha’s pragmatic criterion is stated,

Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.”

Is there a case for abandoning Rebirth on pragmatic grounds?

If it is not factual, might lead to unwarranted consequences outside of practice domain, just as holding Creationism tightly interferes with science education, holding that we are the chosen people or that God hates gays leads to oppression, or defining the world as the stage for a battle of good and evil leads to intolerence. Rebirth has relatively little to say about this life. For the same reason Rebirth is hard to verify or falsify through evidence in this life, its consequences in in this life are rare. It defines a context greater than the current life, which, as we have seen, serves the pragmatic function of orienting the Buddhist toward sincere practice, including virtuous behavior, in this life. But let’s look at a few of the perhaps adverse implications.

Rebirth reinforces a sense of self as something eternal, or at least more eternal. For those of us who fear death this may be reassuring, but for those of us who want to let go of the idea of an eternal self, this may be an impediment. Craving for rebirth in a happy destination is related to this.

We have seen in earlier postings that some misunderstandings of Rebirth and the Law of Karma have some unfortunate consequences. One of these is blaming victims, as in, “It is his own fault that he is poor, he must have done something bad in a previous existence.” We tend toward passivity, if we think bad things are karmic results that need to play themselves out, and toward confidence in the rightness of social order that makes class distinctions. It seems to be the case that the Buddha avoided endorsing the understandings that lead to unfortunate consequences, though these misunderstandings have crept back into much of Buddhism.

Conclusion. Rebirth has a clear pragmatic function in Buddhism in providing a view that the consequences and goals of practice extend far beyond the comfort of the present life. Buddhist practice is about meeting the present moment and acting appropriately, that is, with Karmic purity, over and over. Rebirth puts that in the wider context that helps us recognize why we do that, what the full consequences of our virtue or nonvirtue are. The question that remains is, Do we have to believe Rebirth is factually true in the sense of being independently verifiable in order to receive the benefits, or is it enough that we accept Rebirth as a working hypothesis or useful myth, or is it enough for some of us just to meet the present moment with unflagging virtue? The Buddha suggests that it is enough for those who harbor doubts the reality of Rebirth, to act according to Rebirth anyway, and that thereby because they are ahead in the game if Rebirth turns out to be true, and that they will optimize happiness in this life if it turns out not to be true.

Next week I would like to consider the evidence that Rebirth is real, and independently visible.

3 Responses to “From Thought to Destiny: The Pragmatics of Rebirth.”

  1. Randy Collins Says:



  2. Eileen Says:

    These are wonderful questions that you don’t hear many religious people asking. And I like that you are thinking critically without getting too hung up on the questions because this invites the reader into the discussion without demanding he/she believe one way or another. You make these concepts accessible without “dumbing down” the presentation.

    Also, I think it’s very helpful for people just learning about these concepts to address some of the common misperceptions about rebirth and karma. I know my students will find this very illuminating!


  3. jayne Says:

    This is in regards to the section of Drawbacks of Rebirth with the picture of Jesus: God does not hate gay people. He loves everybody, sinners included (meaning all of us since we all sin). He does not like the actions of sin, therefore wrote the Ten Commandments to deter us from these such doings.


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