There are religious Buddhists who claim there is rebirth.
There are secular Buddhists who claim there is no rebirth.
Are they both extremists?
You probably think that the Buddha believed in past lives and rebirth. If you read in the English translations of the 10,000 discourses of the Buddha, you will see a number of references to “past lives” and “rebirth.”
In 1100 pages and 152 discourses of the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, there are 12 references to “knowledge of the recollection of past lives.”
There is one problem with the above translation. The Buddha never used the term “past lives.” This is a free translation of the Pali term pubbe nivasa anussarati which actually means “to remember one’s former dwelling place” or “to remember one’s place of entering on or settling on.”
The Buddha does not fall into the dualistic traps of either claiming past lives, refuting them or upholding an agnostic position. In other words, he basically recalled the countless numbers of times where the “I” and “my” landed.The Buddha consistently placed the emphasis on visible and immediate experience. He stated:
Svakkhato bhagavat? dhammo
“The Dhamma is well expounded by the Blessed One,
directly visible, immediate,
inviting one to come and see, applicable,
paccatta veditabbo viññuhi”ti
to be personally experienced by the wise.”
Theravada Buddhist monks chant this refrain daily in many Buddhist monasteries but do the wise personally experience rebirth?
How could a wise person show beyond all reasonable doubt that his or her memory of the past confirmed a single past life, let alone numerous past lives? An individual can only make a claim about experiencing a past life (lives) but cannot provide concrete evidence to confirm such an experience. Religious Buddhists tend to take for granted past lives and believe rebirth comes to an end through awakening and complete liberation.
Such Buddhists will point to the various places in the texts referring to past lives and future births after this existence. There are claims among the orthodox religious in Buddhism that we can only understand the Buddha’s teachings in light of karma and rebirth. To ignore the teachings of karma and rebirth mounts to a major blind spot, they claim.
There are secular Buddhists who never refer to past lives or future births. They believe that we only have one life and it is merely speculative to make claims on past and future lives. Such Buddhists also rarely make any reference to karma as it is so strongly associated with past and future lives. Yet this position ignores the Buddha’s regular references to karma, namely volitional actions of body, speech and mind that sooner or later distort perceptions, views and experiences.
Secular Buddhists adopt the view that that there is no evidence of transmigration from one life to the next. Yet, human life does not start with a state of purity and innocence but reveals a variety of latent tendencies that may have no obvious connection with parents or inherited conditioning from the family history found in the DNA.
Agnostic Buddhists steer of a position about past lives, past dwellings or a single life. They hold to the view “I don’t know. Nobody really knows. I just get on with my practice.”
There is a point of view that rebirth refers to the rebirth of “I” and “my” owing to unresolved latent tendencies from a previous life. These unresolved latent tendencies explain the differences between siblings, such as twins with vastly different behavioural patterns, despite being brought up in a very similar environment and treated equally.
Those who accept rebirth assert we pass through birth and death repeatedly while those who reject rebirth believe the self only takes birth once and only dies once. What can be pointed to that shows a self? If the pointer had any kind of self-existence, not formed of conditions, nor needing them, then such a self would be forever pointing – an immortal, eternal pointer to a secondary self different from the pointer.
The Buddha employed a careful language that neither denies nor accepts rebirth, nor sits on the fence with regard to rebirth. He kept true to his teaching of dependent arising rather than grasp onto views about a self that suffers extinction at death or is reborn in the future. He referred to the landing of “I” and “my” in the past and rebecoming in the future, not rebirth.
What Continues after birth?
The consistent problem of belief in rebirth also shows itself at the point of death and the point of birth. What continues, if anything, after death? Some Buddhists believe that that final thought of life acts as the spur to trigger an influence in conception of the next life. This bizarre view puts enormous pressure on practitioners to die with a very calm and clear moment in the very last thought of their life. Such pressure could rob a Buddhist of any peace of mind in the last second of their existence. What if the person died snoring in their sleep?
Some Buddhists will compare rebirth to one candle flame lighting another candle flame or the force under one wave in the ocean influencing another wave. It is not the same candle or wave that is reborn but it also not different. The Buddha did not use such language or metaphors. He simply referred to his former dwellings and rebecoming in the process of unresolved cycles.
“When my composed mind was purified, bright, malleable and steady, I directed it to knowledge of recollection my former dwellings. I recollected numerous former dwellings, one past dwellings, two dwelling, three dwelling, four dwelling, five dwelling, ten dwelling, twenty dwelling, thirty dwelling, forty dwelling, fifty dwelling, a hundred dwelling, a thousand dwellings, a hundred thousand dwellings, aeons of expansion and contraction. there I was of such a name, of such a clan, of such appearance, happiness and suffering, passing away from this place I reappeared in that place; there, I was of such a name, of such a clan, of such appearance, Thus with their aspects and particulars, I recollected my many past lives. “
In SN 22.79, the Buddha then explained even further what he means by settling on former dwelling places. He stated that a meditator recollects many places of settling upon through the five compositions (aggregates of a human being).
“When recollecting, ‘I was one with such a form in the past,’ one is recollecting just form. Or when recollecting, ‘I was one with such a feeling in the past,’ one is recollecting just feeling. Or when recollecting, ‘I was one with such a perception in the past,’ one is recollecting just perception. Or when recollecting, ‘I was one with such mental fabrications in the past,’ one is recollecting just mental fabrications. Or when recollecting, ‘I was one with such a consciousness in the past,’ one is recollecting just consciousness.”
The Views of Future Lives
Polls reveal that one in four people believe in some kind of future life after they die. Perhaps the thought that death brings total extinction seems too much to bear. After a hard life with all the effort to maximise income, accumulate property and consumer goods, it seems a brutal consequence to end up with absolutely nothing – not a single thought, not a single $ can make it pass death. Belief in a future life, such as rebirth or going to heaven for eternity to be with their God make the transition from death to rebirth or from death to eternal life easier. It is seen as a reward for a good life or a life of faith and devotion.
There are those who dismiss rebirth and belief in eternal life. They believe without a shadow of doubts that the self has a single life. They claim that religious views to support rebirth only offer compensation to the harsh reality that life is short, a single birth, a single death, and only the void before and after. Some express relief in the view that they will never have to live again regardless of the circumstances of their life.
The Buddha declined to take up an optimistic or pessimistic view of the rebirth or extinction of the self but simply referred to rebecoming (puna bhava) or again becoming. If the Buddha had referred to rebirth, he would have said puna jati. The term puna jati (literally rebirth) does not appear in the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha kept trust with his teaching on the process of rebecoming, namely what remains outstanding or unresolved from the past. Such processes keep dependently arising until there is realisation about such dynamics.
The language of past lives and future rebirth belongs to the Buddhist tradition bearing little relevance to the voice of the Buddha.
- Has “I” and “my” landed as various identities in the past in forms/body/feelings/perceptions/mind formations and consciousness? Yes. We know that from experience.
- Have we experienced unresolved issues rebecoming until they are resolved? Yes. We know that from experience.
To believe in the existence of numerous successive lives misses the significance of the Buddha’s teachings that challenge an eternalist view.
To believe in only one life and non-existence of future lives misses the significance of the Buddha’s teachings on claims of an existence and then a non-existence. He regarded this as an annihilationist view.
The Buddha made it clear that an eternalist view or an annihilationist view confirm the standpoints of extremists. The middle way remains essential to the entire body of his teachings.
Far too many religious and secular Buddhists have become caught up in views of existence or non-existence around past lives and future rebirth while far too many others sit on the fence.
The middle way between the extremists offers a liberating way of seeing. Meditate on this. Don’t delay.
May all beings be free from eternalist standpoints
May all beings be free from annihilationist standpoints
May all beings know the liberation of the middle way