the practical buddhist : essentials

rethinking rebirth and reincarnation

The religious nature of life after death

I think it’s safe to say the vast majority of traditional Buddhists believe that to be a Buddhist, one must believe in reincarnation or rebirth. Certainly non-Buddhists tend to associated these doctrinal concepts with Buddhism at large. However, a closer look at the origins and development of Buddhist thought leads to another conclusion.

Writing in his book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, Stephen Batchelor says this:

“Religions are united not by belief in God, but by belief in life after death.”

Not all religions believe in the same God. But what all mainstream religions have in common is, as Batchelor points out, is the belief in some sort of afterlife.

If you research this you’ll find that the descriptions of the afterlife also differs (no big surprise here) among the mainstream religions.

Buddhism doesn’t describe the attributes or qualities of any deity, however, the Buddha did describe a cycle of rebirth or reincarnation that most categorize as an afterlife.

In Practical or Secular Buddhism, there are no beliefs in God, original sin, man’s needs for redemption, or an afterlife.

Therefore, it becomes necessary examine why the Buddha spoke of an afterlife and how it has has affected the practice of Buddhism.

Why the Buddha spoke of rebirth

While many religions, including traditional Buddhism, make the point that life continues after death, the claim alone doesn’t make it true.

Just as the earth’s inhabitants believed that the earth was flat, the claim didn’t affect the shape of the planet.

The Buddha lived 2,600 years ago. In his time, similar to finding someone in the early 1500’s that didn’t believe the earth was flat (disproved by Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe), it would’ve been difficult to to locate someone who didn’t believe in an afterlife. It was the current thinking of the day, influenced by generations of spiritual and cultural norms.

The Buddha, whose spiritual heritage included a form of Hinduism and severe asceticism, favored this view and was undoubtedly influenced by this idea of rebirth where the spirit specific to each personality discards then skin and physical body of one and is passed on to another just coming into the world.

Indeed, the Tibetan lineage of Gelug Buddhism adopted this principle and the current Dalai Lama is the supposed fourteenth reincarnation of a tulku, the bodhisattvah of compassion. However, not all schools of Buddhism buy into this principle.

Not all Buddhists agree on rebirth

In Zen Buddhism, the doctrines of rebirth and reincarnation are not supported because of the inability to consciously experience it.  Dōgen Zenji, the founder of Japanese Sōtō Zen, writes the following regarding reincarnation:

“According to [that] non-Buddhist view, there is one spiritual intelligence existing within our bodies. When this body dies, the spirit casts off the skin and is reborn.

If we learn this view as the Buddha’s Dharma we are even more foolish than a person who grasps a tile or pebble thinking it to be a golden treasure.”

Dōgen clearly didn’t associate an afterlife with Buddha’s Dharma. Specifically, in Zen the past and future are considered to be merely ideas which are held in the present. Because as living beings rebirth can only be viewed as something which may have happened in the past or that might happen in the future, we must essentially reject the present moment, or Dharma, in order to even consider it.1

Where does Practical Buddhism stand on rebirth?

Practical Buddhism emphasizes direct experience and discards those ideas that require belief. Because Practical Buddhism is a secular, non-theist set of practices, the doctrines of rebirth and reincarnation are only interesting from the standpoint of historical interpretation. They have no place in the practice of meditation, mindfulness, or compassion.

Theists and traditional Buddhists are forced to adopt of position of belief in an afterlife. It’s as if the present moment isn’t enough and they feel there is a better existence than the one currently embodied.

I find this to be perplexing, especially for traditional Buddhists because it leads to states of further suffering.

The concept of rebirth leads to unhappiness and further suffering

No matter if you’re a Christian or a traditional Buddhist, believing in something that doesn’t exist requires you to suffer more than you need to. In the case of the Christian, Jew, or Muslim (all are religions that support a perfect Creator), the current life is inadequate and the life after death is the perfect one.

In my mind, this the same as saying that the creation of a perfect Creator was not quite good enough; that the creation of a perfect Creator was in some respect, imperfect.

I’ve heard it argued that a perfect Creator also gave his creation the ability to think and make decisions and their resulting behavior placed them outside the Creator’s confines for perfection. I still have difficulty with this principle because there is nothing to be experienced and relies completely on belief in the truth of the Creator story.

Depending on which religion you ascribe to, there are different ways to access their brand of afterlife. However, all the major religions share a relative disdain for the current life, in favor of the next, because of man’s inherent imperfection.

If this sounds illogical, that’s because it is. Religion, despite its intent, is the imperfect creation of man for one ultimate outcome, the control of others. Religion has no other purpose; it is founded on an illogical cosmology and ideology that is manipulated by those in positions of leadership to control the behavior of the laity. It’s how the church was first organized and even in the current age, it is largely unchanged.

Practical Buddhism leads to the cessation of suffering

The practice of mindful Buddhist meditation leads to a refined practice of mindfulness, the ability to live in the present moment, realizing its beauty and perfection despite the circumstances. Instead of wishing for a new life that will ultimately replace this one, the Practical Buddhist lives in this moment and doesn’t need the promise of an afterlife that cannot be experienced.

The Buddha taught his followers to experience the fulness of the present via the realization of the Four Noble Truths and, through the Eight-Fold Path, create a life in the present free of suffering. The Buddha also taught that there is an inherent goodness in all people. Yes, people make choices to carry out harmful non-compassionate, even evil consequences, but their Buddha nature -their inherent goodness- is a part of who they are, despite their religion.

When it comes to choosing a beautiful now or an illogical future, I’ll choose now any day…which is actually now.