You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. This chapter deals with the question, Why did the Buddha teach rebirth? This is a bit different aspect of what falls under Buddhist religiosity than the social concerns of the rest of the book, but is included for completeness. In short, this chapter, serialized in two parts, is really an independent essay.
Chapter 4. Transcendence (1/2)
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, marvel at what their motives might have been and try to imagine what it was like to start a project of this size such that they would not live to see past its earliest stages. This undertaking certainly required a great trust that others would be there to continue the work through the generations and centuries to come. It certainly required patience when progress must have seemed so snail-like 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, after the ephemeral gains, losses and fatigue of their small lives would have been long forgotten. The small lives of the founders would have acquired huge significance as instruments of this project. I imagine that sicknesses, deaths, births, droughts would have barely deterred the founders in their determination to see the work continue without interruption. This is a meaning that transcends this fathom-long body and these few decades of life.
This particular sample of selfless urgency and determination, of meaningfulness and zeal, comes out of a religious context, but similar examples are easily found in secular realms as well, for instance, in science or in art or among explorers, in which agents characteristically give themselves over completely to a project perceived as somehow dwarfing their own selves in magnificence. That greater context is often ill-defined: the glory of God, the march of human knowledge, lasting beauty, going down in history. Others die for their country, and still others dedicate themselves tirelessly so that others will not have to die for theirs. Even in secular contexts this kind of zeal is often recognized as “religious.” The alternative to this religious zeal is to think of science, art, or whatever, as a job, one that pays the bills until one retires after which one can devote oneself full-time to fly fishing. I speculate that only at the higher transcendent level of meaning will genius arise.
Without careful deliberation, our human life is tossed by the sea, blown by the wind, a plaything of circumstance. This is presumably how most animals live, simply responding to changing conditions one by one with predictable needs and fears. When this life presents the human with mere sensual pleasures it is still formless, arbitrary, directionless and existentially empty, until boredom, depression or despair catches up to its indulgences.1 With deliberation giving rise to determination and vow, the human life is quite different. The highest meaning however is not something the human adds to his life, but that into which he embeds his life, as if his life were a single scene, or maybe a cameo appearance, in a larger play. A life devoted to service of God, a life devoted to beauty, a life devoted to developing the conditions for Awakening, these exemplify one’s relationship to a higher meaning that transcends this present life, and at the same time adds satisfaction to this present life.
The aim of our practice is no less than the perfection of the human character, it is about making something no less magnificent than the Cologne Cathedral: a Buddha. If we fail to find that higher meaning in our practice we can instead easily see no further than making our present lives temporarily more comfortable until we die, at which point any progress along the path will disappear anyway, along with the entire human predicament that evoked it. Our practice will be like beginning construction on a village church, rather than a Cathedral, which we expect to occupy and preach in in this very life. The result might indeed be competent, but hardly magnificent, something more like common psychotherapy than the Path to Awakening. We will have failed to transcend a petty fathom-long body and few decades of life and thereby squandered the opportunity for an Awakening that might otherwise have been possible, even in this very life and body. I speculate that only at this higher level of meaning will Awakening arise.
Buddhism is about salvation, it’s even about, uh, being born again. The soteriological aim of Buddhism is Nirvana, the Buddhist form of salvation. Rebirth is an integral component of the Buddha’s thought about this. Nirvana is achieved as the escape from Samsara, from the beginningless and heading-toward-endless round of birth and death.
The Buddha described the second of two knowledges realized prior to his Awakening:
“When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the passing away and reappearance of beings. … I discerned how they are inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate in accordance with their kamma: ‘These beings — who were endowed with bad conduct of body, speech, and mind, who reviled the noble ones, held wrong views and undertook actions under the influence of wrong views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell. But these beings — who were endowed with good conduct of body, speech and mind, … have re-appeared in the good destinations, in the heavenly world.”2
As before, I suggest that the most important question with respect to Buddhist authenticity here is not “Is rebirth really true?” but rather the more functional “Why did the Buddha think it was important to teach rebirth?” In general he scrupulously avoided any kind of metaphysical speculation. For instance, in a famous passage he picks up a handful of leaves:
“‘What do you think, monks? Which are the more numerous, the few leaves I have here in my hand, or those up in the trees of the grove?’
“‘Lord, the Blessed One is holding only a few leaves: those up in the trees are far more numerous.’
“‘In the same way, monks, there are many more things that I have found out, but not revealed to you. What I have revealed to you is only a little. And why, monks, have I not revealed it? Because, monks, it is not related to the goal, it is not fundamental to the holy life, does not conduce to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, tranquility, higher knowledge, enlightenment or Nibbana. That is why I have not revealed it.’”3
The teaching of rebirth therefore must function to help attain the goal of the holy life. How can it do this?
Rebirth turns a narrowly circumscribed attempt at happiness and comfort within this single life into an epic struggle for salvation from a beginningless history of suffering with endless consequences for the future. Unless that struggle succeeds history will repeat itself ceaselessly into the future. This realization enhances the urgency of saṃvega, horror at the predicament in which we all find ourselves. As the Buddha spoke,
“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…”4
He also talked about the blood spilled, the mountains of bones we have left behind, the cemeteries swelled. We need not succeed fully within this life in this struggle, but we can make great strides then continue in the next life and the next. This is the source of hope, pasāda, the calm trust that through diligent practice we are well on our way to winning the struggle to replace step by step the lot of the common being with something magnificent, with a Buddha. What’s at stake in 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 are long forgotten. This means you will continue to practice virtue, even under the pressure of bad times or of immediate gain, because it is your virtuous karma that will carry over into future. The fruits of the practice of this 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. Even if rebirth should fail and bring our project to a halt at our deaths, we will have lived a life of great meaning.
The main alternative to rebirth is annihilationism (Pali, ucchedavāda), the view that all our efforts and progress, everything, comes to naught with the breakup of the body. At our death it will matter not one twittle whether we’ve practiced assiduously or just goofed off. The hapless annihilationist lacks the urgency that might otherwise propel him toward Awakening, even in this life, and the Buddha repeatedly reproved his viewpoint.
This former, deeper perspective is the function of rebirth in early Buddhism, and explains why the Buddha, otherwise so wary of philosophical speculation, took a clear and firm stand in this one case. What is really at stake, as with Refuge, is the attitude behind our practice. Bhikkhu Bodhi states more succinctly than I have:
“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 spurus on in our own pursuit of the path and will reveal the profound significanceof the goal toward which our practice points …”
So, the primary function of rebirth is the perspective it lends to the pursuit of Nirvana, the final end of tears, blood, bones and cemeteries. A secondary is simply to provide intermediate resting places on the way that mark our progress or regression on the Path. Generally six kinds of realms are envisioned into which one might be reborn, Hell, Ghost, Asura, Animal, Human and Deva, depending on one’s practice. And within the human realm one might be born sickly, long-lived, ugly, beautiful, rich or poor. There are frequent references to this system in the early suttas, for instance,
“Just as rust, iron’s impurity, eats the very iron from which it is born, so the deeds of one who lives slovenly lead him on to a bad destination.”5
By the same token, through one’s meritorious practice one accrues benefit, life becomes less of a problem. This happens within this very life, but all the more when one’s practice trajectory extends over many lives. In this way rebirth frames even the more immediate goal of practice in a way that inspires urgency.
This seems to be the function of rebirth, to frame our practice in greater-than-life terms and thereby to inspire urgency and meaningfulness. I am aware that rebirth raises skeptical eyebrows in much of the expectedly astute readership of this book because many of us tend to demand independent verification for religious (or religious-sounding) truths.6 However, if we assume the annihilationist position and reject rebirth outright we lose this function and we have therefore stepped beyond the scope of authentic or core Buddhism. Therefore it behooves us to ask, for the benefit of those who balk, and for the enrichment of understanding of those who do not, “How much wiggle room do we have for upholding these functions?” I certainly do not want this issue to become a deal breaker for anyone intent on the Path.
The secondary issue of realms of rebirth is easily put to rest. Assuming for the moment rebirth as a linear process that lines lives up front to back, realms of rebirth function to express that our practice or malpractice can save us from, or get us into, a heap of future trouble. Hell and deva realms in particular add vivid imagery to our success or failure. On the other hand, we hardly need to leave the human realm to experience heaven or hell; we already manage to do it right here! We might well be reborn over and over in the human realm into various circumstances of bliss or woe and we sacrifice no functionality and therefore no authenticity in our understanding. We can then just as well regard these realms as colorful and perhaps effective mythology, and leave it at that … or take them as real.
We have three optional views that define the wiggle room to retains the functionality of rebirth:
Rebirth is literally true as described in early Buddhism. Probably this is the dominant view historically.
Rebirth is an approximation for something more subtle, potentially verifiable, yet largely equivalent with regards to the functionality that authenticity demands. This is a view seldom considered.
Rebirth as literally understood is a beneficial working assumption even if it is a pretense. This is the Buddha’s own recommendation, as we will see, for the skeptical.
The view that the Buddha never taught rebirth at all requires great imagination, that a ring of monks tainted with brahmanic views slipped heretical changes systematically into sutta after sutta shortly after the time of the Buddha and then managed to popularize these changes to such a degree that no contradictory suttas survived. It requires dismissing the drive for transcendent meaning in Buddhist practice that I have argued here is essential for the Path of Awakening. Let’s look at each of these three optional takes on rebirth.
Literal Truth of Rebirth
Consider this: If you know that water is flowing into one end of a pipe with only one inlet and only one outlet, you know that it must be flowing out the other end. The pipe in this metaphor is our present life and the water is (old) karma (Pali, kamma).7 Our old karma at any point in time is the content of our character, our impure habit patterns of body, speech and mind, our tainted views, our identities, our pleasures and our anguish, our skills, our strengths and faults. Karma is conditioned continually throughout our lives through our intentional actions (new karma), and also corresponds to the well-being we experience directly as the quality of our life. Let’s let the degree of purity of the water represent the quality of life or character (good or bad karma). A strong Buddhist practice should serve to turn scuzzy water flowing into the pipe into pure flowing out.
The crucial point is that there is water flowing into our pipe and that therefore it should not surprise us that there is water flowing out.8 Think, for example, about your habit patterns, your tendency to anger, for instance, or to indulgences, the way jealousy manifests, or envy, the way judgments arise. Where did all that come from? Why does it always seem that we are playing out an ancient script that we did not write, at least in this life? I know I am not smart enough to have come up with more than a few of the things that have arisen in my mind in my years (most of which are premonastic). And I was coming up with twisted actions almost from infancy. How about you? A chant of repentance used in a Zen tradition runs like this,
“All my ancient twisted karma,
From beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
Born of body, speech and mind,
I now fully avow.”
There is something that rings true about the obscure antediluvian origins of our habits. We are each engaged in an epic struggle with karmic forces from the ancient past. And therefore, it follows, with outcomes that will reach endlessly into the future. For if water is flowing into the pipe of our life, water must be flowing out! It is hard to conceive that this ancient flow of water through many lives is capped with you. Why not with the life before?9 We are therefore largely conduits for karma with some opportunity for purifying it, scuzzifying it or eliminating it altogether in our lifetimes. For karmic water to have someplace to flow, there must be rebirth!
Before poking holes in this argument, let’s consider some verification. Rebirth and reincarnation are recognized in divergent cultures and religions throughout the world. Maybe many find consolation in this belief, though that is not its function in Buddhism, where ending rebirth is rather preferable to extending it. Second, the modern objection to the conventional model of rebirth is hardly decisive. It is that there is no material coupling known to science by which the water flowing at the outlet of one pipe would find its way to the inlet of the next pipe where physical death intervenes. That is, the answer to the question, how one’s karmic dispositions at one’s death could possibly find a home in a new life, requires a greater independence of mind and matter than many modernists and most scientists would be willing to concede. However the results of extensive recent research involving the memory by very young children of events and circumstances of previous lives10 that make a compelling case that such an elusive mechanism must exist, even if it has yet to be identified. Even so, this is far from verification of the entire model of rebirth nor of its ubiquity.
Even if one finds this literal model of rebirth compelling, it concerns me that people might stake their entire Buddhist practice on a model that they might potentially be dissuaded from, should additional scientific evidence turn against it. A well-known Western monk recently stated that if he were to learn there is no rebirth he would disrobe. Can this be unshakable trust in the Dharma? This alone makes it worthwhile how far an understanding that retains the functionality of rebirth might bend to the evidence.
1Victor Frankl (2006) attributes much of what is diagnosed as neurosis in fact to no more than the experience of meaninglessness. He describes how inmates of Nazi concentration camps pretty predictably gave up hope when they felt they had nothing to live for. For him personally, thoughts of reuniting with his family and reconstructing and publishing his research kept him going, even though he estimated at the time that his chances of survival were no better than 1 in 20. Yet as he attributes to Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
3Simsapa Sutta, SN 56.31.
4Assu Sutta, SN 15.3.
6For some reason our criteria seem often much less demanding when we feel we are safely beyond the scope of the religious.
7Actually if Awakening occurs in this present life then miraculously water flows in but not out, but this is the rare exception.
8Note that what enters into the pipe is not “you.” You are too chubby. But paradoxically it is the delusion of you that enables “your” pipe to empty into the next.
9This would actually be a kind of conceit. A similar mindset was satirically expressed in a series of ads for a local men’s clothing store, “You are the product of billions of years of evolution. Your suit is ready!”
10This compelling research is particularly due to Dr. Ian Stevenson (2000, etc.) and his colleagues at the University of Virginia. Frankly, I find it quite solid and astonishing.