“The Buddha’s Wager”

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In the 17th century, the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal outlined his famous “wager,” attempting to make a case for why we should believe in God. Briefly, the wager rested on the assumption that their either is or is not a God, that no logical proof can be make for either proposition, and that believing or not believing is a coin toss that we can’t avoid making. Weighing up the consequences of the coin toss, Pascal pointed out that “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.” Therefore, he argued, we should unhesitatingly believe in God, in order that we might win an “infinity of an infinitely happy life.”

Better minds than mine have picked over the premises of this wager, but we could consider perhaps that we might worship the wrong God (this is Homer Simpson’s Wager: “Suppose we’ve chosen the wrong god. Every time we go to church we’re just making him madder and madder!”). Or we could consider that God might have a thing against people who try to game his system, and might have a special place in hell reserved especially for them.

The Buddha, over 2,000 years earlier, had proposed his own wager. The wager is found in a famous discourse in which he helped a clan called the Kalamas who were confused because they encountered many spiritual teachers with conflicting messages and were unable to decide which to listen to. The Buddha’s answer is rightly famous because he told the Kalamas not to rely on conjecture, tradition, holy books, habit, and even logic. Instead, he said, they should rely on experience — evaluating experientially whether teachings, when put into practice, are praised by the wise and lead to welfare and happiness. (The wise are those, presumably, who you have observed experientially to be right about such matters.)

That’s the part that the Kalama Sutta is well-known for. The wager is found a little further on, where the Buddha tells the Kalamas that his disciples acquire four assurances in the here and now. The first two of these assurances are as follows:

  1. If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly and 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.
  2. But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly and wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.

We’re not told why the Buddha decided to say this, but given that he was talking to a bunch of people who were skeptical and confused about the claims of spiritual teachers, it seems likely that they had asked him whether the system of practice he taught made sense if rebirth wasn’t a reality. And clearly, he thought it did.

This is of comfort to those us of who are agnostic, at best, about the likelihood of rebirth. On the one hand, I find it hard (to say the least) to imagine how consciousness could survive the death of the brain, exist independently of a body, and transfer itself to another body. On the other hand, we live in a universe where there are things like quantum entanglement and in which 95% of the matter that constitutes it is unknown, so who knows? The evidence for rebirth rests largely on supposed memories of past lives. In some cases it does seem there is such evidence, but on the other hand that evidence might be tainted by the belief systems of those conducting the investigations, especially where children are concerned.

As a result of such considerations, I describe myself as “profoundly agnostic” on the matter of rebirth, and this annoys some of my fellow Buddhists. But the Buddha himself seems to have suggested that it’s acceptable for a disciple to practice with rebirth being an open question, so I’m happy with my agnosticism. And more than that, the Buddha clearly held that belief in rebirth wasn’t necessary in order for us to experience the benefits of practice. So whether I come back (or something comes back) after death, I have this assurance, that my practice benefits me and others, right here, right now.

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