Can you have faith, but disbelieve the Buddha?


Women bowing to a Buddhist shrine

Facebook’s a funny place. You’ll post a link to a really brilliant, informative, insightful, and useful article on meditation and get no response, and then post a picture of a dog meditating and get swamped with thousands of “likes” and comments.

Recently when I idly shared a cartoon on reincarnation from In it, a young boy says to his grandfather, “Yeah, well, I didn’t believe in reincarnation when I was your age either.”

It’s funny. I liked it so much I bought a signed print from the artist.

Anyway, back to Facebook. Someone asked me what my own view on rebirth was, and I replied to the effect that on balance I’m not a believer. I made clear it’s not that I deny the possibility of rebirth — it just seems vanishingly unlikely that any kind of consciousness can exist outside of a brain, or be transferred from one brain to another. I guess you could say I’m an agnostic, and a skeptical one at that.

But this admission suddenly created a discussion in which it was suggested that I was lacking and downplaying faith, and had “modern rationalist prejudice” against the idea of rebirth.

I don’t really want to write too much about rebirth here — I’ll save that for another post — but I would like to say something about the nature of faith (saddha in Pali, or shraddha in Sanskrit) in Buddhism, and how having it doesn’t mean that you have to believe everything the Buddha said.

I’d also like to point out that saddha (faith) has very little to do, in the Buddhist tradition, with belief in things that you can’t verify in your experience.

Early Buddhist texts tell us that when you attain the first level of spiritual awakening (stream entry) you have have unshakable faith in three things: the Buddha, his teaching (the Dhamma), and the spiritual community (the Sangha). But it’s important to examine how each of these things is described.

First, faith in the Buddha.

The disciple of the noble ones is endowed with verified confidence in the Awakened One: ‘Indeed, the Blessed One is worthy and rightly self-awakened, consummate in knowledge & conduct, well-gone, an expert with regard to the world, unexcelled as a trainer for those people fit to be tamed, the Teacher of divine & human beings, awakened, blessed.’

The faith being advocated here is confidence that the Buddha is a realized teacher: that he has attained spiritual awakening and that he’s able to guide us to that same awakening.

Now, we can’t directly verify for ourselves that the Buddha was awakened. But we can read his words, and see the effects of Buddhist practice in others, and in our own lives, and on that basis develop confidence that there was something special about him — that he had some extraordinary insight. And we can have confidence that his teaching, in principle, can led to us having the same insight. This isn’t blind faith. It’s faith rooted in experience.

Second, faith in the Dhamma (teachings, path):

He is endowed with verified confidence in the Dhamma: ‘The Dhamma is well-expounded by the Blessed One, to be seen here & now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the wise for themselves.’

I’m not going to parse this entire passage, but here, faith is confidence that the Buddha’s teaching is something that can be verified (“inviting verification … to be seen here and now … to be realized”).

The core of this confidence is recognition of the Dhamma as a verifiable process. We can’t — and this is important — verify the Dharma in its entirety right now. It has to be verified in our experience, and that takes time. Again, there’s no blind faith involved.

Third, faith in the Sangha, or spiritual community:

He is endowed with verified confidence in the Sangha: ‘The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples who have practiced well…who have practiced straight-forwardly…who have practiced methodically…who have practiced masterfully — [the various types of awakened individuals] — they are the Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples: worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect, the incomparable field of merit for the world.’

This seems a straightforward kind of confidence: confidence that it’s a good thing to master the teachings and become spiritually awakened, that it’s a good thing to respect and honor people who have done so. This is an aspirational attitude, and also a devotional attitude, which is very important in Buddhist practice. It’s why you’ll see Buddhists bowing in front of Buddha statues (and to each other!). We need to respect and honor goodness and wisdom when we see it. But again, there’s no blind faith involved.

So this is the kind of faith that someone who is a stream entrant has, that someone who has reached the first level of awakening has. These types of faith are called “factors of stream entry” and they’re not only seen as characteristics of the stream entrant, but as means to gain stream entry itself. It has very little — nothing, really — to do with belief in things that you can’t verify in your experience. It’s all “provisional trust” in something that you intend to, and can, verify.

I’d like to come back and talk a little about the teaching of rebirth. The scriptures are full of references to rebirth and to afterlives in heaven or hell. Although some have argued that the Buddha only taught rebirth as an accommodation to the culture he lived in, I see that in itself as a leap of faith! We know something of what the Buddha said, but we can never know what he was thinking if it was different from what he is recorded as having said. It seems reasonable to accept that the Buddha believed in rebirth.

Does that mean that I should, out of faith, believe in rebirth? I don’t think it does. For one thing, I can’t verify the existence of rebirth in my own experience. I don’t remember any previous lives, and there are always going to be questions hovering over the accounts of people who say they do. I can’t 100% verify their accounts. In fact I can’t verify their accounts at all, since all I’ve ever had to go on are other people’s accounts of their accounts.

For another thing, the Buddha said other things that we know to be incorrect — or at least he’s recorded as having said those things. There is no mountain hundreds of thousands of miles high, around which four continents are arranged. Those continents do not float on water, which in turn does not rest on air. Earthquakes therefore are not caused by the air which lies under the water which lies under the continents.

The Buddha’s area of expertise was spiritual psychology. Evidently, he didn’t know any more about geography, geology, and cosmology than any other educated Indian of his time. Although I recognize the Buddha as a sure guide to overcoming greed, hatred, and spiritual delusion, I’ve no reason to believe that he had any special insight into what happens after death.

Most importantly, though, it makes no difference to my practice to be skeptical of the reality of rebirth. I’m going to make the most of this life, whether or not I’ll be reborn. In fact, I’d argue that thinking it’s probable that this is the only life I’ll have gives me more of a sense of urgency about practicing. In fact the Buddha’s recorded as saying that his disciples can have the assurance that “if there is no fruit [in future lives] of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.”

If that was good enough for the Buddha, then that’s good enough for me.

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66 Comments. Leave new

  • Well written and gives me much to think about. Thank you.

  • Great piece. It was my question in the cartoon thread concerning the afterlife that sparked the discussion and I appreciate you taking the time to elaborate further on the matter of faith as practiced (or not) among Buddhists.

    Above you write: “Now, we can’t directly verify for ourselves that the Buddha was awakened. But we can read his words, and see the effects of Buddhist practice in others, and in our own lives, and on that basis develop confidence that there was something special about him — that he had some extraordinary insight. And we can have confidence that his teaching, in principle, can led to us having the same insight. This isn’t blind faith. It’s faith rooted in experience.”

    Substitute Christ and Christianity (or any other religion for that matter) for Buddha and Buddhist and I imagine most adherents would draw the same conclusion — that is, faith isn’t blind, it’s rooted in experience. The behavior among the fervent religious suggests otherwise. As an atheist I would most certainly not draw that conclusion. Perhaps your argument here is eluding me or needs even greater elaboration.

    I’m not nearly familiar enough with contemporary Western Buddhist writings to know if there are others like yourself who do not hold out the Buddha to be the supreme expert in every subject area he expounded upon. It’s deeply refreshing and encouraging to hear suggest that his authority in matters of spiritual psychology did not automatically bestow him with equal mastery in other matters. That, in fact, in the forever unknowable answer to the question of the existence of an afterlife, the Buddha’s conjectures were no more informed than anyone else’s. And more likely than not, there is none. Buddha the open-minded scientist, would be pleased to be contradicted.

    • Thanks, Stephen.

      What a floodgate you opened! I think we got to a place of relative agreement, or at least an agreement to differ. I’m glad you asked, though.

      I’m sure I need to elaborate endlessly! To me the difference is that Christianity makes claims about unverifiable matters, such as the virgin birth, which, according to some accounts at least, you need to assent to in order to be able to go to heaven, and thus verify, postmortem, other otherwise unverifiable matters such as the existence of heaven, God, etc. While you’ll find some very silly stuff in the Buddhist scriptures about the Buddha having been born from his mother’s side, etc, it’s absolutely unimportant to one’s practice whether these are taken literally, dismissed as myth-building, or at taken as figurative (perhaps he was delivered by cesarian section, which would explain why his mother died shortly after childbirth).

      The Buddha laid out a path to the kind of spiritual awakening (bodhi) that he attained. There are many stages to that path, and all can (it’s said) be realized in this life. So there’s no need to wait until you’re dead! And it’s a progressive path, or at least a map of one. The nature of any map is that you can’t verify the whole thing in one go, but you can verify the validity of the map compared to the territory you’re currently in. And if the path says “go left and you’ll see such-and-such a building” and you go left and see that building, then you have the basis of faith in the map. Over time, while still not 100% convinced that every detail of the map is correct (heck, even my GPS is wrong, sometimes) you get a sense that it’s a trustworthy document.

      Things like the jhanas (meditative states) are verifiable. I’ve experienced for myself the insight into non-self that characterizes stream entry. When that happened there was one of those “holy crap, this is really real” moments.

      As for other contemporary Buddhists, Stephen Batchelor (“Buddhism Without Beliefs,” “Confession of an Atheist Buddhist”) goes a bit further than I do. He’s convinced that the Buddha did not in fact believe in rebirth. But I’m happy to accept that the Buddha could be wrong about something as seemingly major as that, especially since it doesn’t affect my actual practice except, perhaps, in a good sense.

      [Some typos corrected!]

  • Excellent post and personally very helpful for me. Thanks.

  • Belief that Siddhartha Gautama was a real person is blind faith. It can’t be verified. It was probably a local legend adapted by whoever originated the Dhamma. I’m guessing it was a group of aesthetic monks who were wise enough to know that their message wouldn’t spread without a central rallying figure and an interesting story.

    • You’d have to explain, then, James, why it is that the Buddha figures in the teachings of a rival religious tradition — the Jains — who were around at the same time the Buddha began teaching. Perhaps they had a need for an arch-rival, just as your mysterious committee of monks needed a hero, and they just happened to hit on the same figure? Or perhaps not. Given the scriptural and epigraphic evidence, it seems more likely that there was a person who we now call the Buddha. This isn’t blind faith, it’s common-sense based on evidence.

  • Well written and I agree with the content to boot!
    Have you connected with The Secular Buddhist on Facebook? Good critical thinking in a similar vein to this piece.

  • It’s good enough for me, too! Thanks for that. My supervisor told me today about something the Dalai Lama had said about how if he could imagine the colour of his chakras then how oculd they not be real (I’m slightly misrepresenting him for the sake of brevity) and I was surprised. I can have a tendency to forget that cognitive psychology is not his area of expertise (as my supervisor pointed out) and I think I ascribe a certain omniscience to the Buddha, too. I found your article helpful in reminding me of that point.

  • The Jains heard the same story. Their opinions were simply a response to the story and the system of thought centered around the mythology. There’s a hundred year discrepancy between the the time periods that he supposedly existed and the story of his life wasn’t committed to writing until almost four hundred years later. You seriously call that verifiable evidence? I think that if the Buddha was a real person, he wouldn’t want you to accept such a thing just because people say it’s true. To me, the Buddha is just an idealized embodiment of the perfectly enlightened individual. I don’t need to believe he was an actual person to have faith in the Dhamma.

    • So, the Jains and the “imaginary” Buddha’s followers are around at the same time, in the same places, engaged in debates and in a sense competing for patronage, and the Jains never figure out that this Gotama guy is just a story? Wouldn’t they be, like, just a tiny bit curious about where he actually was? And wouldn’t they, after a few decades of never seeing the guy, get really, really suspicious that no one had ever seen this invisible teacher? And wouldn’t they then spread the word that this “Buddha” guy was actually a story put about by a committee of ascetics? I mean, that would be a pretty darn good piece of propaganda, and one you’d want to record in your scriptures.

  • The problem with this article is that it assumes a specific definition of rebirth. I don’t recall rebirth being defined as “consciousness can exist outside of a brain, or be transferred from one brain to another” anywhere in the Pāli Canon. I’m pretty sure the Buddha declined to comment on the specifics of such matters. My understanding is that’s it’s more like an accumulation of karmic energy or a spiritual energy-force that gets passed to the next life-form. To imply that a consciousness gets passed from one brain to another seems to go against the actual teaching of anattā.

    • So what I’ve called “consciousness,” you’ve called “an accumulation of karmic energy or a spiritual energy-force” and what I’ve called “being transferred from one brain to another” you’ve called “getting passed to the next life-form.” I’m afraid I don’t think that changing the names makes the process any more likely.

      Technically, of course, there is no “thing” said to be passed across. Rather, the last moment of consciousness of the previous life “ignites” the first moment of consciousness in the next life, much as one candle can light another. (This is why there’s no conflict with anatta.) Quite how this is meant to happen is a mystery to me. According to the Theravada, the transfer is instantaneous, while for the Tibetans there are many days (49, I think) of consciousness existing free of the body. Either way, something to do with consciousness has to get from one body to another. That doesn’t strike me as very plausible.

      One of the most common claims for evidence for rebirth is past life memories, which suggests that much more than “karmic energy” is passed along. Memories appear to be encoded through connections in the brain, and the amount of data stored in one brain is considerable. How this can all be “moved” from one body to another is again a mystery to me.

      If you want to believe in rebirth, that’s fine by me. I just have to warn you that convincing me of something without evidence is going to be exceedingly hard. It’ll take more than changing the terminology.

      Maybe one day science will show that consciousness is entangled with dark matter stored in the brain, and that after death this dark matter migrates off and binds to a new brain. Who knows? We do live in a very weird universe, of which we understand little. But right now I’m just getting on with my practice, and rebirth is of no relevance to that project.

  • Hello Bodhipaksha,

    At risk of sounding as if I am finding fault in your reasoning, which I do not, I want to take issue with a few of your comments.

    1) “I can’t verify the existence of rebirth in my own experience.”

    I have not verified this either but I would not go so far as to say that it is something I “cant” do. It simply has not been done by me and It is not something I feel I want to put effort into.

    2) “It seems reasonable to accept that the Buddha believed in rebirth.”

    If we go by scriptural accounts I think we would have to say that the Buddha claimed to have directly verified rebirth through his own recollection of past lives and their relation to each successive life.

    3)”Most importantly, though, it makes no difference to my practice to be skeptical of the reality of rebirth. I’m going to make the most of this life, whether or not I’ll be reborn.”

    This sounds like a speculative leap to me. Have you tried not being skeptical so that you can verify its effect? Are you sure that you are going to make the most of this life and that your skepticism with regards to rebirth will have no effect on this outcome? I think some caution is warranted with regard to the affective aspect of our views. Im not saying we can just turn our views on and off at will like a light bulb. Im just saying that it might help to consider them from a relatively less rational perspective with the understanding that all rational is ultimately more ambiguous than we tend to think based as it is on how we feel.

    Take care

    Your Brother in the Triratna Buddhist Order


    • Hi, Prasadachitta.

      Thanks for you comment.

      1. The “can’t” comment is valid, to a point. I generally encourage people to avoid the contraints of “can’t” language. I should have said that I know of no way to verify the existence of rebirth in this life. If you can offer any means to do so, I’ll give it my best shot. I know it’s traditionally one of the knowledges one gains at arahantship, and I’m already working on that :)

      2. The scriptures do indeed say that the Buddha recollected his part lives. Of course he could have imagined this (although I’d hope that’s not the case!) or those words may have been put into his mouth, or maybe it was part of his master-narrative that accommodated a view that was popular among his followers. Or maybe it happened, but the supposed past-life tales seem unrealistic and stereotypical, and I don’t think those are meant to be taken literally. So if those are not meant to be taken literally, is the claim that he could remember past lives?

      If the Buddha told stories that are not meant to be taken as literal truth, does that not suggest a teacher who tried to communicate with spiritual fiction, not meaning us to be fooled into thinking those things were literally true, but expecting us to appreciate the metaphor?

      To the best of my recollection the number of mentions of the recollection of past lives is much smaller than the number of mentions of rebirth in general, so it’s feasible in this case that there was tampering, although I find it hard to believe that the mentions of rebirth per se were all sneaked in to the canon. There are just so many of those! We do know that the scriptures were moulded and altered, however, so it’s also conceivable to me that the remembering past life stuff was slipped in later. I’m wary of that interpretation though — it’s too convenient when we just dismiss anything we disagree with as being spurious.

      3. I have actually tried not being skeptical. It’s called “youth” :)

      I used to accept that stuff, in other words. So far I’ve found an attitude of questioning and skepticism to be much more beneficial to my practice. So there’s no speculative leap involved. I do stress that I’m not, absolutely not, saying definitively that there is no such thing as rebirth — just that it doesn’t make sense to me and that it’s not relevant to my practice.

      All the best,

  • Hi Bodhipaksa,

    If recollection of past lives does occur and I have the habitual tendency to discount rebirth I would expect to perceive that recollection as one of the many non sequitur thoughts that arise out of the aether. I suppose the way to reccollect past lives form that perspective would be to practice not dwelling on its lack of plausibility. Memories tend to reinforce rather than conflict with the way we currently see things.

    I think recollection of past lives is not neccesarily gained at arahantship. I think its a power which is traditionally separate from and unnecessary to the whole knowledge and vision thing.

    I tend to think that belief in the ordinary sense is not really something the Buddha “did”. Whether he actually recalled specific lives or not is not really my point. My point was that he is recorded as having verified them thru experience and this point is not so important to me. I understand that we can’t really take the record as fact. My faith is in the Buddhas lack of speculative Bias so that whatever he communicated, whether he was being relatively literal or not, was for the sake of clarity.

    Its interesting to me that you equate youth with not being skeptical. In my experience its the other way around. I myself am less skeptical all the time. I tend to see skeptisism with regard to rebirth as an activity. One that increasingly has less interest to me. Whatever the quality or attitude of this shift is it certainly does seem to effect my practice and in a manner which I perceive to be positive. At any rate, I tend to see the teaching of rebirth as something less than literal but much more than metaphorical.

    I enjoy the discourse.

    Take care


  • I’ll leave aside when recollection of past lives is supposed to occur. In the Samaññaphala Sutta it seems to follow from insight, but some suttas are so “organized” you have to suspect they’re literary confections.

    Now I think about it, I just don’t know whether the Buddha did or didn’t “do” belief. But maybe it depends on what you mean. He seemed to accept contemporary accounts of physiology, geography, etc, so in a sense I suppose he believed them. Perhaps he wasn’t attached to those views, but he seemed to employ them. In terms of his insights, I’m sure he didn’t have beliefs. He simply saw.

    What the Buddha’s mind was like is a source of endless fascination to me!

    I don’t really equate youth with not being skeptical; I was being autographical rather than offering a model of psychological development. That’s just the way it’s worked in my case, and it’s not at all a surprise to me that it’s different for other people.

    I don’t see skepticism as being an activity — or at least it’s only initially an activity. Questioning anything is an activity, but if you’ve questioned whether something exists, and you come to the conclusion it doesn’t, then you just don’t invest any more mental effort to the problem, unless prompted. I struggled when i was young with whether on not there was a Santa Claus, but it’s no longer something I have to devote any mental resources to.

  • Hopefully, people will click on the link to the actual Sutta and read the whole story concerning the comment of the Buddha. Thank you for supplying it.

    This discourse of the Buddha was not to his disciples or followers, it was to the Kalamas, citizens of a town who came to him to discuss teachers who were big on promoting their own ideas and tearing down any others. These people had heard of the reputation of the Buddha and on this first encounter they asked who should we believe.

    The Buddha’s answers on the afterlife or lack thereof show this was a topic of concern. He was not addressing his followers, a new audience who was already confused by competing beliefs.

    He did explain what you stated that is good enough for you. He also stated before that the exact opposite, a vital piece of information for any informed thought on the subject.

    “If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.’ This is the first assurance he acquires.” The Buddha

    You did pick the one that you preferred according to your knowledge and let the other slide a bit, not to the point of competing views as the Sutta in question gives detail to.

    However, the disciples of the Buddha were taught differently, the Noble Eightfold Path to begin with. The Kalamas were at no point ready to place their Faith in the Buddha, they were already confused. He did provide them with a framework to sort out the questions they had about the competing teachings they were confronted with and it is a sound view that could be verified. If there is a life after death and you live “his mind thus free from hostility, free from ill will, undefiled, & pure” then you can be reborn in a heavenly realm.

    If no after life, then you are still covered, you have lived a good life just the same. At no point was this meant as a measure against the Buddha’s other teachings, in particular to those who are his followers. It also wasn’t what was good enough for the Buddha, it was what was good enough for the audience who was listening to the Buddha for the first time. That is fairly self-evident when taking the whole Sutta in account.



    • I also hope that people will click on the link. But if they do so, they’ll find that you’ve misrepresented the sutta. I’ll repeat my quotation from the Kalama sutta, but with more of the preceding text.

      One who is a disciple of the noble ones — his mind thus free from hostility, free from ill will, undefiled, & pure — acquires four assurances in the here-&-now:

      “‘If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.’ This is the first assurance he acquires.

      “‘But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.’ This is the second assurance he acquires….

      Note the part I’ve put in bold: One who is a disciple of the noble ones — his mind thus free from hostility, free from ill will, undefiled, & pure — acquires four assurances in the here-&-now.”

      Those assurances include that there are benefits from practicing the Dhamma whether or not there is no further becoming after this life.

      So to be absolutely clear, this teaching was explicitly directed at those who were disciples of the noble ones. Agreed?

  • If you come to the conclusion that a thing does not exist then obviously the activity of being skeptical with regard to it is redundant like swimming when there is no water. However you have stated yourself that you have not come to this conclusion about rebirth. You have merely come to the conclusion that it is irrelevant which is fair enough. I personally feel that such a conclusion should be treated with caution. I would not call for caution with regard to your stance on Santa Clause. :)

    • I meant to add to my previous comment that the energy used in skeptical enquiry is probably the most valuable use of energy — assuming that the skepticism is intelligently done, and the object of enquiry is appropriately chosen. After all, are we not caught up in the cognitive distortions of the four vipallasas? And should we not be constantly skeptical about the stories our minds are telling us? The mind constantly assumes that this is permanent and that that is a source of happiness, and we need to keep questioning those assumptions.

      Anyway, with regard to rebirth…

      I’ve got to the point with rebirth that I think it’s very unlikely to be true, and unless some new data comes along it’s not something I’m inclined to turn my mind to. The only exception is a time like now, when someone asks me my view, I state my view, and then am immediately bombarded by people concerned about the fate of my immortal soul asking me to clarify. If you can offer me a reason why rebirth is not irrelevant to my daily practice I’ll give it my consideration!

      Honestly, I used to sweat over the existence of Santa Claus. When I was a child I was worried that if I had my own children, they might not get presents because I’d be waiting for Santa to deliver when in fact he didn’t exist.

  • I do not agree and there was no misrepresentation in my comment. This was directed to the Buddha’s audience, he was bringing them to a point of understanding of their question. Putting text in Bold does not change this was for the Kalamas. Perhaps reading the commentary by Bhikkhu Bodhi would be helpful as he is an expert on the Scriptural texts and I have went over this Sutta many times with people trying to support their view on rebirth.

    I do not see anywhere in the Scriptures where the Buddha disagreed with himself. I am a religious Monk of the Nyingma tradition so while I do not say that the Buddha was an expert on certain sciences, I do find the doctrine of rebirth to be one of the spiritual nature the Buddha was most knowledgeable of.

    It is very fashionable these days especially in the West to pull Faith out of Buddhism and unfortunately many are doing just that. There is a certain degree of believing the Buddha that is inherent in the Faith itself.

    Take care,


    • I’m sorry, Caine Das, but which part of “disciple of the noble ones” is ambiguous? The talk is given to the Kalamas, but at the conclusion of the sutta the Buddha is expounding to the Kalamas about the four assurances that his disciples find — including the assurance that even if there is no next life they (i.e. his disciples) will still benefit in this life.

  • While this is all very interesting (and I am not being sarcastic when I say that), I prefer the suggestion put forth in the Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta, that “these positions [are] undeclared, set aside, discarded” because they are not connected with the goal. I think that stance is wisely taken on any topic like this that can be debated endlessly because nobody knows.

  • The conclusion of the Sutta was after the Kalamas originally came to the Buddha to clear up their questions about differing views, he presented a great series of questions back and forth and then came to the part of ‘disciple of the noble ones’.

    His whole conversation to them was setting up a moral basis for them to understand what it even was, they were confused to that point from the competing teachers they had been exposed to. The Buddha was bringing them to the point of their own verifiable experience as non-believers in him. He never said to his disciples this type of statement. Again, I do not see where the Buddha contradicts himself.

    Perhaps if you read the commentary link you will see more from an established authority. I do not think so, not because you would not respect it but you have made up your mind on rebirth.

    Honestly, my post was not so much for you, the author, as it was for the audience. I wanted to stress the quote so readers would go to the Sutta and read it for themselves so their own minds, like the Kalamas, could be brought to a fertile place for the Buddha’s instruction.

    You follow the Buddha, if you choose not to believe in rebirth from one Sutta versus all the others that the Buddha does speak of rebirth, it would take a lifetime for me to try to persuade you otherwise and even then, it would prove impossible.

    I follow the Buddha as well, albeit differently, in the religious context. My hopes are for those readers who will inquire further as I pray they do find the Faith in the Buddha and do not take either of our words as the final say so. They will find it for themselves and not listen to doctrines or words we have written down but the actual realization of trust in the Buddha and the Dharma presented to his disciples.



    • I’m still having trouble getting my head around the contention that “disciple of the noble ones” here means, somehow, something other than “disciple of the noble ones.” Some things are just mysteries, perhaps.

      “I do not see where the Buddha contradicts himself.”

      I’ve never said that the Buddha contradicts himself. I don’t argue that the Buddha did not believe in rebirth. I think he did believe in rebirth, and was wrong, just as he was wrong on the existence of a mountain millions of miles high. I don’t hold it against him :) He was an unparalleled teacher of the way to awakening. On matters of spiritual psychology, I trust him completely.

      “If you choose not to believe in rebirth from one Sutta versus all the others…”

      That’s missing the point. I do not choose not to believe in rebirth as a result of reading a sutta. Rebirth makes no sense to me. I think it is pretty much impossible, although I leave open the possibility that the universe may be weird enough to facilitate such a thing. Thus, I have not made my mind up. I am open to new evidence, but I’m afraid reliable evidence is hard to come by on this topic. (“The Buddha says..” does not count as evidence!)

      “I pray they do find the Faith in the Buddha and do not take either of our words as the final say so.”

      Amen to that, brother!

  • “I think it is pretty much impossible, although I leave open the possibility that the universe may be weird enough to facilitate such a thing.”

    Hi Bodhipaksa,

    I completely respect that you genuinely feel that rebirth is pretty much impossible. I do not think your faith in the Buddha is contradicted by your view of rebirth. However, you dont make much of a case for the disqualification of rebirth as a plausible theory. Essentially I am on the same page as you except that I don’t doubt the “weirdness” of the universe.

    • Well, it would be helpful if you pointed to weaknesses in my argument, but I think the burden of proof lies with those who believe highly improbable things.

  • You havnt made an argument. I dont think it is highly improbable and I dont think I can prove it nor do I wish to try. The only thing which you have used to point to rebirth’s improbability is your opinion.

    • There is no way for consciousness to exist without the physical substrate of a brain, and no means of transfer between separate brains, therefore elements of a personality, whether something as complex as memories, or as “simple” as behavioral dispositions or habits, cannot move directly from one body to another at the time of death. I believe thats an argument, although I’m no logician.

  • I am no scholar but have enjoyed reading this excellent thread. I have been a Buddhist for around 28 years and for 20 of them, found the concept of re-birth difficult to accept although but was slowly working my way towards an understanding. Then I came across the work of Professor Ian Stevenson, Head of Psychiatry at at the University of Virginia and his detailed research convinced me that there was something going on. I also had some childhood experiences that, although far removed from those studies undertaken by Dr Stephenson, now made more sense. Perhaps the fact that I am now 71 and in ‘God’s Waiting Room’ I am emotionally inclined to be less sceptical. However, there’s no way of knowing for sure and no matter how learned you may be, you have to choose to go with your heart or your head.

  • Nice post. you helped me bring the matter into focus.

  • I do not question the brains involvement in consciousness but certainly there is much more involved than merely the brain. Memories in my experience are no more stored in my body than they are stored the environment. There is no reason not to think that there could be a mode of transmission which is subtle, indirect and emergent over time, perhaps a very long time indeed.

    • Memories are no more stored in your body than they are stored in the environment? That’s an interesting statement. Damage to the brain can cause me to lose my memories. Damage to the environment seems to have little effect on my memories. Changing my environment seems to have little effect on my memories; when I travelled from Scotland to Montana I did not leave my memories behind in the environment. Certainly, my environment can trigger access to memories, but it seems pretty obvious that my brain and body are far more involved in memories than my environment is.

      So far that’s the only rebuttal you’ve made to my argument, and it seems impossibly feeble.

      And now you’re hypothesizing a “mode of transmission which is subtle, indirect and emergent over time.” But with no actual specificity that would allow us to test whether this is a reality or merely a figment of your imagination. So in terms of rebutting my argument this is entirely lacking in usefulness.

  • I’ve been following the back and forth of this discussion with great interest. Bodhipaksa, I take reassurance in your reasoned, science-minded, prove-it-to-me counterpoints.

    Many years ago I became enamored with Stephen Levine’s books on meditation, death, and healing. He is a brilliant writer. A passage in one of his books, “A Year to Love,” I believe, recounts him witnessing a workshop attendee going through a spontaneous past life regression. This particular scene took me out of the movie, so to speak. I’m a keen skeptic when it comes to metaphysics and so I’m pleased to discover that one can be a student of Buddhism, an adherent of the Buddha, without sacrificing rational analysis and scientific scrutiny.

    • You’re welcome, Stephen. I see rational analysis as being part of the project of right speech as well as of right view. I think it’s unethical to say something is the case when you don’t know for a fact that it is the case, and so tentativeness with regard to the expression of views is called for. Also, when I see the knots people tie themselves into because of their attempts to defend views that they cannot demonstrate the validity of, and yet seem to be strongly attached to, I wonder how they will develop the skepticism to deeply question the nature of their experience, and in particular question the vipallasas, or viparyasas, which are the cognitive distortions preventing us from seeing things as they really are.

      I am actually interested in things like part life regressions, but I’m especially guarded with respect to that kind of evidence because I know how powerful the desire can be to want to believe that kind of thing.

  • You and I experience our memories differently. My environment is in some way constantly arousing memories of all types. The content of what I remember is always in a direct relationship to my environment. Sometimes things like memories come to mind which seem discontinuous with my life’s timeline and I have no way to explain them other than to regard them as emergent. Memories tend to reinforce rather than conflict with the way we currently see things. Which applies to both of us.

    As I said before I dont find the idea highly improbable and that is the only case I wish to make. You stated that the burden of proof is on the person who believes in a highly improbable thing and I neither believe in rebirth nor think it is highly improbable. There is no burden for me other than to express my opinion which is indeed influenced by figments of my imagination.

    • Hi, Prasadachitta.

      I don’t think we actually experience our memories differently at all. As I said, our environment can trigger or help us to access emotions. If I walk upstairs and forget why I’m there, sometimes retracing my steps will help me remember. But it’s naive to think that the memory is somehow contained in the downstairs environment. Instead, the memory I’m trying to retrieve is connected to the memory of being downstairs. Retrieving the experience of being downstairs can therefore help me access the memory of my purpose. And as I said before, damage my brain and you damage my memories. Put me in a different environment and you don’t affect my memories at all — just, in some very minor ways, my ability to access some of them.

      Your thinking that something is not improbable doesn’t of course make that thing either probable or even possible. Many people think that it’s probable that God exists, or that they have an atman, of that there are psychic powers, or that the world is run by a global elite of Jews, or that aliens regularly kidnap people, or that the Bush administration destroyed the World Trade Center. I don’t see your belief in rebirth as having any more validity that those examples. If you believe something is probable, then for goodness sake marshal some real evidence to support your position, and thoroughly address any counter-evidence. If the evidence is weak or non-existent, or the evidence is preponderately supportive of a different position, or the matter is one that is not amenable to evidence, then start questioning why you want to believe.

      I suspect that for many Buddhists, belief in rebirth is just a refined fear of impermanence. Sure, they’ll say that there’s no “thing” that is reborn, but as long as you have a belief in the reality of a “self” (which is bound to be the case before stream entry) then you’ll inevitably see rebirth as the continuation of that self.

  • I hope no one has already written this:
    I recall reading about an exchange between the Dalai Lama and Carl Sagan in which Sagan asked, “If reincarnation could be proven not to exist, would you then cease believing in it?” and the Dalai Lama answered: “Of course…” and there was a pause and he continued with a twinkle in his eye “..but how would you go about disproving it?”
    As I understand it, what continues from lifetime-to-lifetime is a karmic pattern not a self or mind or consciousness- these are all products of causes and conditions. None of them is absolute. There’s no absolute individual identity which could move from body to body. This concept of identity is completely false. We in the West are egocentric in the extreme. We all believe we have separate individual identities but that’s not what Buddhism teaches.

  • I would like to ask an question from a rational perspective. We both agree more or less the Buddha believed in rebirth. You believe this view is incorrect as there is no scientific validation possible. Since the Buddha believed and taught this and his disciples believed he was a bearer of truth, they probably believed in rebirth as well. This is a spiritual issue, not one of science, that is a given. If we do not believe the Buddha on this, why believe anything else. He taught Karma but what would it matter. One shot at life, nothing afterwards. Why bother at all? The Buddha’s teaching was heavily influenced by these non-rational ideas. Wouldn’t he be just another mystic with a few loose marbles?

    • Hi, Caine Das.

      That’s a very interesting question, and I appreciate your asking it.

      The Buddha, despite later Mahayana teachings to the contrary, wasn’t omniscient. In terms of spiritual psychology he knew everything there was to know, I’m sure. But with regard to questions outside of this field, he was as limited as any other intelligent and educated Indian of his time. And so his grasp of things like physiology, cosmology, geology, etc. were simply reflections of what was believed in his culture. So we already do find ourselves in the position of having to set aside as untrue some of the things the Buddha said (there is no million-mile high mountain) while accepting as true other things, in the realm of spiritual psychology, such as the fact that greed, hatred, and delusion cause suffering. So we are already in the position of stepping back from a fundamentalist position that takes the Buddhist scriptures as literal and inerrant truth.

      Unless we’ve attained Arahantship, we’ve no way of knowing for sure whether rebirth comes under the category of spiritual psychology, or “secular knowledge,” if we can apply that term to the second category. We can have views on the matter, but no certainty. I’m open to the possibility that someone who is fully awakened might have access to knowledge of past lives, and that the Buddha taught rebirth because he had direct evidence from his own memories, but on balance I think it’s unlikely. That’s just my view, and I’m not trying to argue this either way, but just to highlight that the Buddha was not infallible, and that rebirth could fall into the sphere of knowledge in which he was as liable to be fallible as any other intelligent and educated person.

      I think it’s likely that he believed in rebirth because it was part of his culture. Now, not everyone believed in rebirth at that time, as we know from the scriptures. It seems belief in rebirth was a minority position. But the idea was around in his culture, and perhaps he assumed that rebirth made as much sense as a million-mile high mountain surrounded by four continents that floated on water, that in turn floated on air, that in turn floated on aether. That seems like a reasonable scenario to me (the adoption of an existing belief, not the mountain!).

      He may also have accepted (or taught) rebirth because he thought the belief was spiritually useful. As you say, “One shot at life, nothing afterwards. Why bother at all?” That’s the view many people would take. They’d become ucchedavādins. And we know that the Buddha had bad experiences with ucchedavādins, who seem to have been a hedonistic and immoral bunch. That may have been true at that time, and many Christians today fear atheists because they think they have no moral grounding. I suppose I’m a provisional ucchedavādin, myself, but a modern one. Thinking it’s likely that this is my only life doesn’t have that effect on me, or on many other people. I want this one life to really mean something. I want to live and happy and fulfilled life, and to benefit others. Knowing I only have one life gives me a sense of urgency. In this second scenario, of the rebirth teaching being expedient, which also seems reasonable to me, he may not even have believed absolutely in rebirth. He may have thought it was only likely, but also so useful that he was happy to teach it as true.

      Thanks for prompting me to think about this.

  • I do not disregard the brains relationship to memory I just think you give it to much credit. What actually constitutes a memory? If I am downstairs I expect to have a different memory to the one I have upstairs. That is why retracing my steps can help. I dont think memory storage is limited to the brain nor do I think it is contained in the environment. I will restate that I do not hold a belief in rebirth. I merely see it as being appropriate model for what in my opinion probably does occur. What I think probably does occur is that the ever accumulating activity of intention is in relationship with the actual experience of beings human and otherwise and that that activity and its relationships carry on throughout the deaths and births of countless beings.

  • I agree that this is a ‘spiritual issue’ and this brings to mind the way in which spiritual issues differ from non-spiritual issues. Specifically, I think spiritual language is heavily metaphorical and symbolic (as Joseph Campbell argued.) So rather than just be caught up in an ‘I believe’ or ‘I don’t believe’ mind-set, could we not try to go beyond this simple dichotomy and explore the possibility that there are spiritual insights hidden in the concept of reincarnation? We in the West are given to black/white thinking. For us, something has to be either A or B but cannot be both or neither. This kind of thinking (if it is really thinking at all) wastes our time and denies us the richness and meaning which could be found in the ideas of reincarnation, rebirth, karma, etc.

  • Ok, I follow what you are saying from that viewpoint. Where though is it determined that rebirth is secular? Rebirth was a new introduction. Reincarnation was widely held and believed by the Hindu religion. A rebirth, where as one comment tried to point out is much more of a karmic one than any type of soul carried forth. The Buddha taught rebirth, a different distinction. He told disciples about their past lives putting them on the path to meet him in their current life. How would this not be just spiritual pyschology. A wrong one at that. He would be lying. If that is the case, he should be regarded as false or at best an egomanic obsessed with pre and post lifes. If the Buddha is not true and Karma was incorporated into rebirth so it would not be true as well, why live to benefit others? Why not just benefit ourselves?

    • Well, I’m not saying that rebirth is definitely something outside of the Buddha’s sphere of direct knowledge — just that there are things outside of his area of expertise, and rebirth could possibly be one of them. The accounts of the Buddha’s recollections of previous lives are bundled with accounts of magical powers. I cannot take a statement such as “With his hand he touches and strokes even the sun and moon” as signifying an actual spiritual attainment. This bundling of supernormal powers with the recollection of previous lives suggests to me that later editors attempted to “upgrade” the Buddha’s attainment into something magical.

      Actually, there was no “Hindu religion” at the time of the Buddha. There was Brahmanism, which was founded on the vedas. And there was a bewildering variety of shramana traditions. These people would not have seen themselves as all being part of the same tradition. The vedas seem to suggest an afterlife “with the fathers” rather than what we would now think of as reincarnation. The shramanas had all kind of beliefs, including heavens, rebirth, and strict materialism with no afterlife. Most scholars, I believe, view rebirth/reincarnation as a belief that was still becoming established at and after the time of the Buddha, in the face of competing views.

      The Buddha’s take was of course distinctive, as it was for karma.

      I see karma as something that’s quite separate from rebirth. Karma is cause and effect in the realm of self-consciousness, explaining how happiness and unhappiness come to be. That model of spiritual psychology applies whether looked at in one life or (if you believe in such things) across multiple lives. I accept karma as a teaching, and live my life (or try to) with an awareness of its implications. One of those implications is that if we want to benefit ourselves we must benefit others.

      I certainly wouldn’t say that the Buddha was lying. He talked about a mountain a million miles high, but hadn’t personally seen it. He wasn’t lying. He may have believed that rebirth was the way things worked, and taught accordingly. It’s possible he was more tentative in his presentation than the scriptures indicate, and allowed for other possibilities — lots of nuance can get lost over several centuries of oral repetition.

      The Buddha’s past-life stories may well have been entertaining parables, not intended to be taken as anything other than spiritual fiction. Some of his tales — about meeting God, about the origins of the caste system — are widely regarded as satirical, and definitely not intended to be truth-teachings. Perhaps it’s as if the Dalai Lama had written a book of short stories, and 500 years from now they were taken as fact rather than fiction.

      I’m speculating, of course! But we’re forced to speculate, one way or another. We (and I) just need to wear our speculations lightly.

  • […] at the same time…).And thirdly, just yesterday yet another article was posted, asking “Can you have faith, yet disbelieve the Buddha?” This one is by Bodhipaksa, my own first meditation teacher, the man to whom I owe a great […]

  • The Brahmanin religious system had a well-developed belief in reincarnation, it was even passed down by the Brahmins. The 3,500 year old Upanishads have many references. “The wise soul is not born nor does it die.
    This one has not come from anywhere
    nor has it become anyone.
    Unborn, eternal, constant, primal,
    this one is not killed when the body is killed….”
    (Katha Upanishad 2)

    Hinduism grew out of this religious tradition of believing in reincarnation.

    I am concerned how you say you are open but you list things in order that actually show a contradiction. “Many people think that it’s probable that God exists, or that they have an atman, of that there are psychic powers, or that the world is run by a global elite of Jews, or that aliens regularly kidnap people, or that the Bush administration destroyed the World Trade Center.” The slide towards incredulous goes further and further. Would you really lump a belief in a God with aliens regularly kidnapping people?

    A questioning Christian could take offense, great offense and not think that Buddhists are serious in discussing anything with them.

    The question on rebirth was pivotal to the Buddha’s message, it was mentioned much more than miracles or a million mile high mountain. I really do not believe it is Faith that you are left with if you question the Buddha on rebirth. Science, fine. Questions, skeptic galore.

    I would hope people would ready beyond whatever either of us say and appeal to a scholar on the Pali Cannon: Bikkhu Bodhi Dhamma without rebirth Does rebirth make sense?

    I have found his scholarship to be impeccable and he is an admirable expert on the Pali Cannon, the actual teachings of the Buddha. The early Buddhist councils repeated what the Buddha said to each other making sure they had it correct. It was handled most sacred, not just translated over time with no thought. Could things have been added, certainly, but if that is so, why bother? Who really cares period.

    I do ask you to have my Faith in the Buddha, the Dharma or the Sangha, mine is as established as any fact. Again, I am a religious Monk and you are a respected and successful Teacher. There will be differences. Sadly, I think when we start taking away some of the more important and pivotal teachings of the Buddha such as rebirth truly is, you lose the whole point. At that point, I don’t see why anyone would even fool with it.

    I will leave you be, but I do pray for you and ask for blessings to come to your life and teachings.


    • I’m no expert, but I believe that very few (perhaps a dozen) of the Upanishads are thought to predate Buddhism, and it’s not clear by how long. Certainly some do predate the Buddha — he made reference to ideas found in them. Most are thought to be contemporary with the Buddha, or to substantially post-date him. However the Upanishads were, as far as I’m aware, texts of certain of the Shramana sects, who were rivals to the orthodox Brahmins. You seem to be conflating the two traditions, even though they saw each other as competitors, and had different beliefs, texts, practices, and lifestyles. Only later would the Brahmanas and much of the Shramana tradition (minus the Jains and Buddhists) be bundled up into a quasi-unified tradition: Hinduism. Indian history’s not something I’ve studied for a long time, though. I may be wrong on some of this.

      Anyway, rebirth into anything but a heaven world or world of the ancestors doesn’t seem to have been a feature of Indian religious thought until not long before the time of the Buddha, and certainly wasn’t mainstream during his life. Anyway, this debate hardly invalidates my suggestion that the Buddha merely accepted something that he picked up from the culture around him!

      I only lump together belief in God, UFOs, conspiracy theories, etc, because they all have in common that they are based on no, or on selective, evidence. I’m not suggesting they’re all the same thing! A Christian could take offense, but then they’d have misinterpreted my point.

      “I really do not believe it is Faith that you are left with if you question the Buddha on rebirth.” Well, please reread my article, which isn’t actually about rebirth, although that’s what seems to be getting people going. My article is about the nature of faith in Buddhism, and how saddha centers on acknowledging the Buddha as a person who has realized the truth and who is an effective transmitter of the teachings, faith in the Dhamma as a path to Awakening, and a response of devotion toward others who have begun to realize Awakening in their own lives. That is the Buddhist definition of faith, and it has nothing to do with assenting to particular beliefs. It does imply that we take the teacher’s words seriously and, as he himself suggested, test them rigorously, which is what I’m doing. I’m afraid your form of faith strikes me as a form of clinging to views, which is an impediment, rather than a means, to spiritual progress. May I be mistaken in this.

      “I do ask you to have my Faith in the Buddha, the Dharma or the Sangha, mine is as established as any fact.” So is mine. I have unbounded and unshakeable faith in the Buddha as one who is “worthy and rightly self-awakened, consummate in knowledge & conduct, well-gone, an expert with regard to the world, unexcelled as a trainer for those people fit to be tamed, the Teacher of divine & human beings, awakened, blessed.” Namo tassa!

      Thank you for your prayers and wishes for blessings to come into my life. I’m blessed to have the Dharma in my life, and blessed to have experienced some measure of progress in practicing it, and I look forward to the continued unfolding of realization. I wish the same for you.

  • “I’m speculating, of course! But we’re forced to speculate, one way or another. We (and I) just need to wear our speculations lightly.”

    Amen to that. This is what I meant by caution and I expect it is not lacking in you Bodhipaksa.

  • WOW – Seems like you have touched a nerve!

    Matt W above says it perfectly for me.

    When I find myself in conversations about rebirth I want to say “hey this doesn’t really matter, it is a distraction”. If I actually say this people get angry. They act like I am trying to take something away from them. I know that feeling of trying to hold on. I know that it is not the path. I feel this is a case of knowledge not belief – which worries me a little – is it arrogance? Probably.

    Thanks for the post Bodhipaksa.


  • The article and comments together now stand at a little over 11,000 words, which is slightly longer than Thich Nhat Hanh’s latest book, of which I was just sent a review copy.

    Don’t you guys have sentient beings to save? :)

  • Oh my goodness, search Wikipedia or any educational website for the Upanishads. “The Upanishads (Sanskrit: उपनिषद्, IAST: Upaniśad, IPA: [upÉ™niÊ‚É™d]) are philosophical texts considered to be an early source of Hindu religion. Although influenced by the non-Vedic Shramana movement,[1] these texts are considered fully Brahmanical Śruti.”

    Yes, their are sentient beings to save, they have to walk the path themselves, we just point the way of course.

    Good Luck!

    • This is irrelevant to the point of our discussion. My point was that the idea of rebirth was around at the Buddha’s time, even if it wasn’t universally held, and that it was possible, even likely, that he was influenced by it. You obviously agree with the fact that rebirth was a current belief, so there’s nothing substantive to argue about, in that regard, anyway.

  • Thank you for this article. First, we do have to take historic culture into account when reading suttas. Second infind in my own practice that rebirth refers to how my feeling of self, of ego is born, suffers, and dies, only for me to rebirth the processes again and again. It’s fasinating to watch and as you see it as illusory you stop putting so much weight into it. This is the process of letting go of the me and I.

    I don’t have any reason to speculate beyond my death. That I’m aging and will die is certain. That there is life before death is my practice!

    Dana Nourie,

  • The concept of rebirth is a given in Buddhism or else there would be no Buddhism. The Buddha specifically addressed the endless rebirths (and constant suffering) of people trapped in samsara and offered a way to end rebirth and escape suffering. That’s what nirvana is.

    • That there would be no Buddhism without belief in rebirth is arguable. Here I am, practicing the Dharma, and belief in rebirth plays no part in that practice. If I started every day with a hearty acceptance of rebirth, how would that change my practice? Apart, perhaps, from letting me off the hook by taking away a sense of urgency. If you dropped your belief in rebirth, what difference would it make to your practice?

      Here’s a definition of nibbana from the Pali Canon:

      “This is peace, this is exquisite — the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Nibbana.”
      — AN 3.32

      Perhaps the Buddha thought of Nibbana as release from endless rounds of rebirth, but it’s clear he principally saw it as the overcoming of psychological tendencies to craving. And in fact, I’m having trouble remembering anyplace in the Pali canon where the Buddha defines Nibbana as release from a “round of rebirths.” Samsara is definitely defined in terms of a “faring on” some places, but Nibbana — not so much. But that’s just my recollection.

      So — and this is very provisional research — I just combed through the entire Majjhima and Digha Nikayas — two of the major components of the Pali canon and looked up every reference to Nibbana that was in the index (excluding references to notes). What I found was interesting. Nibbana is described in terms of, for example:

      • Deliverance of mind and deliverance by wisdom that are taintless with the destruction of the taints (MN 12:36)
      • The unborn supreme security from bondage. (MN 26:12)
      • The stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation. (MN 26:19)
      • The greatest bliss … the Deathless. (MN 75: 19)
      • Peace without clinging (MN 102:23)
      • That which has an undeceptive nature (MN 140:26)
      • The unborn, unageing, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, undefiled supreme security from bondage. (MN 26: 12)

      etc, etc. There are a lot more references along those lines.

      Now there was one reference that could be seen as associating Nibbana with the end of rebirth, but it could be otherwise interpreted:

      • He personally attains nibbana. He understands: ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.’ (MN 37:3)

      “Coming to any state of being” can easily be seen not as referring to future lives but as applying to this life. Because the Arhat let go of any clinging and identification, there is no more “being.” “Birth is destroyed” can also be seen in those terms.

      There are just three references I found that mention rebirth in any way:

      • The knowledge and vision arose in them: ‘Our deliverance is unshakeable; this is our last birth; there is no renewal of being.’ (MN 26:30)
      • With the destruction of the five lower fetters he becomes one to reappear spontaneously [in the Pure Abodes] and there attain final Nibbana without ever returning from that world. (MN 64:15)
      • But that kind of good practice does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion … to Nibbana, but only to reappearance in the Brahma-world. (MN 83: 21)

      The last of these is in the context of a conversation between Ananda and the Buddha where the Buddha had been expounding on a lineage of kings he founded in a past life, each of whom lived for hundreds of thousands of years. That’s not something I’m going to take literally, so that whole passage, including the Buddha’s supposed previous birth, and the rebirth in the Brahma world, is suspect in my eyes.

      The first is in the context of the Buddha’s first five disciples having gained enlightenment. The Buddha is recounting this, and is stating what their thoughts were upon becoming enlightened. If you believe the Buddha was telepathic, then that makes sense. But I’d see this more as a literary device.

      The middle one — well, I have no grounds for dismissing it outside of my own bias against belief in rebirth, so I’ll let that stand!

      But it’s striking that there’s no reference anywhere in either of these two nikayas of Nibbana being an escape from an “endless round.”

      Of course this is just preliminary and rather crude research. There could be an association between nibbana and the endless round where the word “nibbana” is not used, and where my consultation of the index has failed me. And I’ve only consulted two nikayas – the other three might be chock-full of references that closely associate the two ideas. I’ll look into this further when I have the time. Meanwhile, if you’re familiar with such associations, please pass them on to me.

      Another interesting thing: I can’t remember many (and I didn’t find any) places where the Buddha thematically links samsara and nibbana. There are places where he discusses samsara. There are places where he discusses nibbana. But I didn’t see him doing any kind of “compare and contrast.” Again, this is based on very partial research, and I’m probably way off base.

  • I got so many notification emails from this thread I thought I would re-visit it and count the number of comments that actually mention the writer’s personal meditative experience. I think I counted 2 maybe 3 out of 58 but then I lost the will to go on and was speed reading.

    I notice my mind working like this when I am trying to plan my way out of a crisis – continually churning over different interpretations and sifting for evidence to support different possible scenarios. It is precisely to get away from this mindset that I turn to the practice.

    Things arise in dependence on conditions and when those conditions cease the things ceases. The notion of ‘me’ is included in this. I continually create the conditions for a me and a world. In every moment I am reborn through this process and only when I see clearly and stop creating a me will I cease to be reborn and be free of suffering.

    This is my understanding of rebirth from practice and reading.

    Nowhere in my understanding does biological birth and death figure.

    When I practice I find I have a different relationship to time. The psychological moment seems to open out so that questions about what came before and what comes after appear irrelevant.

    I think this is why I have an aversion to talking about rebirth in the context of what happens after I die or may have happened before I was born. It simply does not seem relevant to my experience of the practice.

    So yes rebirth is real but doesn’t seem to be connected to immortality!

    By the way I have a wonderful memory of looking at the wolves in London zoo through the fence from Regent’s Park it feels like it comes from another life. Only recently did I realize this was not from a past life but a scene from the 1987 film ‘Withnail and I’. I don’t think I am a reincarnation of Richard E. Grant especially as he is still alive. On the other hand if I had wanted to believe that this was a memory from a past life or I had generated it from a book or a story or a dream then I’d probably never have put two and two together. If I could prove boring old one biological life to the next rebirth then I’d be off to James Randi to claim a million dollar prize – so I could spend the rest of this life meditating and doing some yoga :)

    Bottom line – never trust memories. Work diligently to transform the contents of you ālayavijñāna and you will perceive everything differently. All else is a distraction.

    (Sorry to drag this thread on and on – I just couldn’t resist)

  • Great post, Roger. If I understand the point you’re making, “rebirth” is but a metaphor, which represents the mind’s relentless manufacturing of ego-based reality — “the notion of ‘me’.”

  • Yes. Much more succinctly put!

  • I totally agree with Roger too. In my practice, from what I observe, we give birth to the feeling of self, we cling to the idea, it creates suffering in all kinds of ways . . . that feeling dies down, and a new feeling of ego/self is reborn. This is the vicious circle we are caught in, and this is the cycle Buddha taught to observe, see it for what it is, and then to let it go.

    BTW, neuroscience also sees this as well, that there is no central driver, but processes that create the feeling of I, the feeling that we sit within a body.

  • Bodhipaksa,

    BRAVO and FANTASTIC!! Even though we disagree on rebirth, I believe it and you do not, I am very happy to see you going straight to the Pali Cannon for your thoughts and ideas. I don’t agree with your conclusions but I do applaud your example of consulting the Buddhist scriptures. It is an excellent way to introduce your readers to finding their own way regardless of the outcome of thought. You warmed the heart of an old Monk.

    Thank you,


  • Dear Bodhipaksa,
    ‘Quick & dirty’: I agree pretty completely with all the points you make throughout this emailed Mind-Thread. I think they are reasonable statements of what is (Apparently) So.

    I also think it doesn’t really matter if or that one is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in this dispute of Ratiocinating Minds At Work.

    I would think that what’s really important would be / is one’s Awareness of: experience of What-ever (including one’s beliefs – i.e. of one’s Mind-At-Work), and, of whatever we ‘make’ (i.e. Believe) of it / them – and, the effects that that has on one’s Life (i.e. experience).

    P.S. Relationships of Brain, to Mind, to Being, is a deep, deep subject well. I would not want to go through this (or any) Life without at least a Human-Model brain encased, and fully-functioning. Don’t think there would be much of an ‘I’ / Being there, to access or be a Buddhist, in such a case (maybe Brainless is the substrate for being Fully Realized as (a) Not-Self?).

    And I do entertain the consideration that Mind just might (be able to) operate in some functional areas to some degree or another, without (a) Brain. Or, probably not. It’s easy to imagine any / all Mind functions (including creating / experiencing ‘effect at a distance’ / ‘spiritual’ phenomenon) as requiring the engine of Brain to do so. And-or maybe there is (some evidence) for ‘store-consciousness’, etc. And again, perhaps the Brain is the mediator of that phenomenon.

    P.S.S. Peter Ralston’s latest book, “The Book of Not Knowing” is a worthwhile read, for a Mind to consider and contemplate.

    Most sincerely, and greatly appreciative of your Thinking,

    FWBO New-Mitra Ben O [I consider myself a ‘Puddle-Entrant’ – ‘I’ have gotten ‘my’ feet wet.]

    Much Love.

  • […] been a debate raging over at the Wildmind blog whether Buddhists should believe in rebirth. The original post is reasonable enough, but the ensuing comments get somewhat heated (for […]

  • Danie de Waal
    May 31, 2012 6:57 am

    Faith is an extremely scary topic for me: I grew up in a very ‘faithful’ Afrikaans community in South Africa in the Apartheid years, and have seen first-hand how blind-faith (is’n all faith blind), can be used to mislead and poison a whole nation.

    Do I believe in rebirth and reincarnation: Yes, I do. Do I have any proof that it actually exist: Absolutely no empirical proof. Do I believe the writer of the article is wrong or a ‘lesser’ Buddhist than me: Absolutely not. I believe that the Buddha has never expected us to be mindless sheep following his teachings, but that we have the right to challenge whatever believe we wish, as long as we do so with respect.

    I am a Vajrayana practitioner, and a very sceptical one at that. I believe that due to my scepticism there are many of my practices that will not be as fruitful as those who practice with a deeper sense of belief and acceptance. This however does not detract to the fact that I am following MY path to make the world better for me and you.


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