04: The Parking Lot (Part Two): maybe full, maybe empty

by Konchok Dorje

“In order to free ourselves,” Geshe-la explains in his slow, careful diction, “we need to overcome our emphasis on this life, and then overcome our emphasis on next lives.”

– Dinty W. Moore, The Accidental Buddhist

The emphasis on future existence varies from school to school. Tibetan Buddhism tends to make the most of it. Theravada and Zen less so and I’m assuming that some amount is out on rebirth in the Pure Land School derivations. Likewise, the concept of shunyata or “emptiness” is of greater import in Tibetan Mahayana than the other schools and it is these two elements that taken together can lead to some intense mental gymnastics.

I want to approach this gingerly, for the moment. As I’ve said, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, but the discussion on sequential lifetimes bears scrutiny and attention. The questions are myriad: are there, in fact, post mortem continuations of the individual being that has died? What comprises the individual that has lived, and now lies dead? Or more succinctly, who or what is it that is born? Who or what is it that dies? What part does “emptiness” have in this and does the positing of the doctrine not render Buddhism more ontologically oriented than some would believe?

The problem surrounding the discourse regarding rebirth/reincarnation (and here I am using the terms interchangeably) is that it feeds into metaphysical assertions, unsupportable ones at that, and most disturbingly, a kind of buttressing of authoritarianism that serves no one very well. It is in this entry that I want to address why we believe some of the things we do, however aware we may be of cognitive dissonance in ourselves.

Metaphysical assertions or you exist enough to be reborn except when you don’t

The biggest problematic is that there is no inherently existing soul or ontological unit to survive the demise of the physical corpus. Yet, we are told that the individual can attain enlightenment in the bardo (if we hold to the Tibetan approach) or at the very least, the individual reincarnated anew in another realm or as a human being to continue evolving toward liberation in many of the other schools.

Much has been written from the Madhyamaka Prasangika school that seems to point up and underscore that the individual mind stream that continues is itself empty of inherent existence, but the question remains as to how this mind stream continues coursing along the waves of karma and cycling through innumerable lives and permutations. Who is this mind stream? What is it? How long does it last? It is subject to change, we assume, but is it permanent? Or does it, too, dissolve into emptiness?

My teachers have alluded to this mind stream as being an ongoing mental phenomenon that survives the death process and depending on one’s behavior is born again into circumstances appropriate to whatever causes and conditions have obtained during this and perhaps, earlier existences. Believe it or not, I don’t have a problem with this, but don’t present it as something demonstrable or as a fact. It’s conjecture, at best; dogma, at worst. I do begin to have a problem with it, though, when it is presented as a perfectly logical extension of Buddhist philosophy.

Buddhism, in all its myriad iterations, is primarily an ethical and epistemological investigation into how we should live our lives, with meditation at the heart of its praxis. True, as an outgrowth of Indian culture circa sixth century BCE, reincarnation seems to be part of the cultural landscape, but is it a necessity to believe in rebirth to be a Buddhist? I grow increasingly convinced that the seer is decidedly no.

From a philosophical perspective, I find it an amusing notion, but on a practical base, it strikes me as a useless distraction. I could be wrong, though; but I won’t know for sure until I die. I’ll address the claims made by mostly Tibetans about reincarnate lamas and teachers momentarily, but the most honest thing anyone can say about the post-mortem state is that they don’t know.

In terms of Buddhist ethics, rebirth is unnecessary. It is. You don’t need God to be good, you don’t need the threat of being born in the hell realms to make you behave virtuously (and hypocritically or at least, self-centeredly because you are just being nice to save your own skin); I find it detestable that so many people think so little of their fellow humans that the religious minded among us feel that the only way humans are to act kind is if they’re scared shitless into behaving so. Needless to say, that hasn’t worked if we view the countless wars and hideous tortures small and large inflicted on each other on a moment by moment basis. If people genuinely feared a hell or hells, they’d refrain from the selfish cruelties they visit upon others, be it a landlord raising rent to force someone out or impoverishing them in the process or passing a policy where a president can assassinate his own citizens should he so decide.

The genius of Buddhism as an ethic is in recognizing the pervasive suffering in the world and making the determination to end it here and now by seeing suffering’s origin in our base ignorance and the erroneous lives we structure out of that ignorance. But you don’t need the threat of hellish rebirths to grow that motivation.

Some have argued that Buddha himself may not have actually believed in rebirth. I think there are enough passages in the received teachings that he apparently did. And there’s nothing wrong with this; he was a man of a specific time and place with a cultural milieu that had rebirth/reincarnation as part of its social structure. What’s becomes an issue here is that I don’t recall where he ever said you better believe in rebirth or else you are not a follower of mine. This leads us to the next part.

Who says there’s rebirth and who says you’re not a Buddhist if you don’t buy it?

Certainly, just about every Buddhist says there is reincarnation/rebirth, but the Tibetans have taken this and run with it farther than anyone else. A lot of rinpoches say there’s rebirth. A lot of followers of rinpoches say you are not a Buddhist if you don’t believe in rebirth. A lot of rinpoches say that the Buddha only assumed the life of Shakyamuni to show that even a normal human could achieve enlightenment (but of course he had had many past live prior to this one! How else could he become Buddha?!); that this is a matter of skillful means. But I find this to be misleading on several levels.

One is that it sells short the human possibility for attaining enlightenment through one’s own efforts. Old Gautama never said this originated with him, but he was fearless in staring down the orthodoxy of the times and what he proposed was pretty bare bones; meditation, reflection and work on oneself. He also recognized the interdependence of phenomena but this was not some supernatural insight. It’s a pointed realization of how the phenomenal world works. I had this realization when I was much, much younger. Didn’t know what to do with it, but it didn’t come about because I had lived innumerable past lives, it came about because I was silent and watching. Or did it?

What if I find interesting is how shrill opposition is to anyone who says they don’t support or believe in the idea of rebirth. Alan Wallace’s rebuttal rebuffing Stephen Batchelor’s Confession of a Buddhist Atheist is an example of this(1). For the record, I have huge admiration for Wallace, but his reaction to Batchelor’s book verged on the hysteric. Similarly, Robert Thurman’s conversation with the same troublemaker points up I high relief the disparate nature of the believer in rebirth and the non-believer (or in Batchelor’s case, in 1997 anyway, the agnostic) (2).

The larger issue that I find disturbing is that there does seem to be a cadre of sorts who would like to be the one s to determine who is or is not a Buddhist. Alexander Berzin has a list of characteristics that comprises “Dharma Lite” and in this article tackles the Dharma Lite approach to rebirth: http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/archives/approaching_buddhism/introduction/dharma_lite.html. But I find the characterization somewhat insulting. There’s no room for anyone in his or Wallace’s buddhism to question the validity or necessity of rebirth. The fall-back is usually that rebirth was just “taken for granted” in India and Indian culture at the time. But just because a thing is taken for granted doesn’t make it true. And this is a doubt others are not allowed to entertain. Berzin points out that we in the west don’t come to Buddhism with a cultural history that accepts rebirth. But neither did the Chinese, or East Asian civilizations, either. Indeed, the overlay of the Indic concept of rebirth seems awkward to me when I consider the Confucian and Taoist pragmatism that originally infused those cultures. It’s not uncommon to hear Chinese Buddhiats talke about how they must have done this or that in a past life to come to this point, but I haven’t encountered much in the way of just how deep or not the concept of rebirth in Indian terms has made it into the East Asian mind set.

What is apparent is that there are those who would like to position themselves as the keepers of the orthodoxy, but orthodox according to whom? To the Tibetan preceptors? To the Chinese, Japanese or Korean schools? To the Theravadins? I truly believe that Buddhism in the west is too laden with westerners trying to be Asian. It’s as if skeptical inquiry has come to be seen as incommensurate with Buddhist practice. I know this has been repeated endlessly, but in the Kalama Sutta, Shakyamuni laid it out not to accept anything as truth because of tradition, hearsay, or even because he himself said it. But what happens when you express doubt about rebirth or any other anomaly in the teachings is that you are more than not met with indifference or ridiculed as not ally being a Buddhist or you’re seen as a threat, sowing doubt in the minds of the faithful. Or so it seems. There is a fairly vocal group of skeptical Buddhists around. Glen Wallis comes to mind, Batchelor, of course, and others, but the general run of karma fearing faithful don’t seem to want to extend too much compassion their way.

What’s a skeptical Buddhist to do? Am I cognitively dissonant?

Personally, I tend to fall in more with Batchelor in his conversation with Thurman. I’ll be frank; if rebirth does happen, I don’t necessarily believe it happens to everyone. I think of Gurdjieff’s admonishment to Ouspensky that only someone who has developed an essence will have some form of post-mortem existence. But he was mum on what form that takes. The Taoists spoke of developing a second body through meditation and other practices, and I tend to feel that these make more sense to me.

Like a lot of people, it’s just plain impossible to imagine not existing. This doesn’t mean it’s not a possibility, but i can’t figure out what the experience would be like. Or lack thereof, I should say. I have my doubts, as I’ve said earlier, that karma works in a one to one manner. The problem I have with rebirth and the six realms is that they lack imagination. This world is not all bad or all good. All depends on our perspective and if there is a future existence in which an “I” forms – out of what, I don’t know – then I doubt seriously it’s anything as banal as any of the six realms. Frankly, here’s where I am in Berzin’s Dharma Lite shopping aisle: I do see the six realms as simulacra of psychological states. My sense of it is that I’m not alone in that and I’ve heard that Trungpa Rinpoche, Tharthang Tulku and others have felt similarly, so I’m not in bad company. That said, however, a hell realm as a psychological state would still be hellish and I don’t wish that for anyone, but as cautionary elements in pedagogy, I avoid these.

I’m also aware that I’m not as hardcore as some of the more skeptical of the skeptical Buddhists and as such, I am willing to leave the door open to some extraordinary phenomena, some I’ve witnessed and accounts I’ve heard from people I trust that fall outside the norm of quotidian rationality (and to be sure, I find slavish devotion to rationality irrational).

On that parenthetical note, then, how is it that I consider this blog the work of a skeptic? Shouldn’t skeptics be über-rationalists? Why do I still take refuge in faith? On what do I base my reasons for sensing that the substance of life is the ineffable? Does this use of the word make me a substantialist? Well, not in the sense that Buddhists mean it. Maybe I should have said the nature of life, but in any event, what reason do I have to posit existence after the physical has ceased to breathe and move? Reason would be hunch. More problematic is what evidence is there of such a thing and there is none. And that’s where faith comes in and this is where my skepticism hits a wall.

I’m going to crib from one of the best definitions or better yet, descriptions of faith I’ve ever come across. This is from the guitarist Robert Fripp:

Faith is not superstition, not investment in dogma; rather, an experiential participation and engagement in a creative process informed by Love: an action founded in a discipline, way or practice. Belief is personal, what we hold. Faith is impersonal, and embraces us.


Back in the car, closing thoughts

The salient point out of all this is that it’s taken as a given that all the schools recognize reincarnation as a fact. There is good reason for this, since the cultural matrix in which Buddhism arose conceived it as such and it was just assumed that there is reincarnation.

I find that if there is to be a true western Buddhism, it will have to be informed by some degree of skepticism. And it’s not going to be monolithic. In fact, I suspect western Buddhism is going to be more pluralistic than Buddhism is right now. The west may well be driving more cars onto the lot.

Of course, it may be that there will always be strident critiques and critics, but that leads me to one of my rhetorical questions to religionists of all stripes, if your god or God or gods and saints and prophets and Buddhas and bodhisattvas are so omnipotent, omniscient, then why are you so threatened by dissent? In the meantime, I’ll continue to sit and cultivate what I can in terms of patience, understanding and maybe even, love.


1. This link should take you to the Google search page that has links to the review itself and the various retorts and reviews of the exchange.

2. Actually, Thurman’s conversation with Batchelor is pretty measured and lively. Robert Thurman is by no means a dour fellow. http://www.tricycle.com/feature/reincarnation-debate.

3. http://www.dgmlive.com/diaries.htm?entry=21251

Further reading

In addition to the citations above, The Secular Buddhist is a great source of pod casts and postings: http://www.thesecularbuddhist.com/index.php.

This is the site of a terrific writer, who I understand won’t be posting anymore or as much: http://jayarava.blogspot.com/2012/01/rebirth-is-neither-plausible-nor.html

I mentioned Glen Wallis above: http://glennwallis.com/

This is or should be galvanizing to me, but I know I fall into the x-Buddhist category; I’m nowhere near as skeptical as perhaps I should be, but this is worth returning to again and again: http://speculativenonbuddhism.com/2012/05/09/on-the-faith-of-secular-buddhists/#more-893

Lastly, this may seem tangential, but again, it’s worthwhile for as food for thought.