Q&A Karma and Rebirth
What are your views on rebirth?
A: Well, it is undeniable that the Buddha,
under the Bodhi-tree during the first night-watch, came to recollect his previous
Q: Yes, I know. But wasn't he just accepting the outlook of his day?
Didn't many of his contemporaries just assume that each person had a former existence
and that, owing to karma will continue to have more rebirths?
A: I seriously
doubt that. Jayatilleke pointed out in his book, _Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge_,
that it is false to conjecture that rebirth was generally accepted in India during
the Buddha's time.
Q: How so?
A: The theory can't be found in either the
Rigveda or the Atharvaveda. Nor do even the early Upanishads endorse it, being
only one of many such theories. So, I can't agree with you that 'rebirth' was
the accepted outlook of that day. The Buddha's insight seems to me to be quite
original and only finds parallels in ancient Greece. In fact, explicit mention
of rebirth is only found in Hellenic culture and in Buddhism.
Q: But I was
under the impression that he just adopted it as a ploy to get people to act in
a moral way. Isn't it true that rebirth served as the basis for moral responsibility?
It was hardly a ploy in the Buddha's mind! In fact, the Buddha's own recognition
of rebirth proved that morality is necessary. If there is nothing upon which to
base morality, why, therefore, bother to practice morality?
Q: But why do we
need rebirth to compel us to act in moral ways? We practice morality because it
benefits us here and now.
A: No, we practice morality because at a deep level,
in our being, we sense that we will be reborn. In other words, moral action arises
owing to the fact of rebirth.
Q: What, in your estimation, is reborn if Buddhism
denies a self?
A: The Buddha says that 'consciousness/vijnana' rather than
self is reborn. There is a huge difference. Presently, you may or may not understand
the Buddha's notion of 'self', but you are certainly aware that as you speak,
you are conscious of what you say. This is what transmigrates. Not a self.
Is there some kind of consciousness field that exists between the consciousness
which leaves the body and the embryo into which it enters in the next life?
Certainly, it is not impossible. For example, when a sodium atom occiliates at
510 billion times to the second, there is an interval between the atom's death
and its subsequent rebirth. In that interval, or zero phase, there must be a pattern
of the sodium atom if it is to reappear after one of its periodic deaths. If the
pattern is kept inside the atom, then when it cessates, so should the pattern
for the atom also cease. If not, then you must be open to the idea of a "consciousness
field" between sodium atom events which conserve the pattern of the atom.
Let me say that I think the Buddha was well within science to universalize birth,
death, and rebirth. It is the mode of everything. Indeed, this happens at the
micro level of our universe as I have shown. So, why shouldn't we assume the rebirth
of consciousness after death? Maybe this is the true meaning behind the Buddhist
idea of a conservatory of consciousness which perhaps mediates between discontinuous
phenomenal events. But whatever the opinion on this matter, it is better to have
an open mind.
Q: Is it really necessary to believe this stuff? I am an agnostic.
What do you mean by agnostic? If you mean by agnostic, "I don't want to know,"
then we shouldn't be agnostics. An agnostic, in that case, would be promoting
Q: But in his recent book, _Buddhism Without Beliefs_,
Stephen Batchelor said that the Buddha was agnostic. Isn't this essentially true?
The Buddha was not an unbeliever who presupposed that rebirth is impossible. He
had an open mind. He also verified rebirth at an intuitive level.
the Buddha only wish us to suspend our judgements if, for example, rebirth was
A: That is rather simple minded. Demonstration is limited.
Ironically, all demonstration ultimately rests on some undemonstrable basis. Even
the basis of the empirical sciences rests on theoretic consciousness which is
ideal and axiomatic. And what about the so-called scientific observer? Can this
'observer' be demonstrated? Treating the subject of rebirth as if it were a scientific
object will always give us cause to reject it. The validity of rebirth lies elsewhere
than by means of physical demonstration. Next, you will be suggesting that we
disbelieve compassion because it cannot be demonstrated [laughing]!
rebirth is just a belief. There are no empirical data to support such a theory.
Are there any studies of which you are aware?
A: Yes. Are you familiar with
Ian Stevenson's work from the University of Virginia? You should read his book
entitled _Children Who Remember Past Lives_. Although it is not proof positive,
nevertheless, it is reasonable to believe that rebirth is possible just as it
is reasonable to believe in global warming. Stevenson conducted a rigorous study
of the subject with children who had no motive to deceive him. I find his conclusions
Q: But what practical value does rebirth serve?
A: That is not
a very scientific question [laughing]. First, let's see whether or not it is reasonable
to believe in rebirth. In this direction, Stevenson operates by establishing a
rigid set of criteria by which to determine the truth or falsity of a rebirth
claim. If there are enough cases which fit his criteria, then the argument for
rebirth cannot be brushed aside, as there is no other way to account for the goodness
of fit. As for rebirth's practical value, it prevents the intrusion of relativistic
morality. It also prevents us from temporarily side stepping morality for short
term profit. Who knows, maybe in the future we will evolve a new morality based
on a science of rebirth.
Q: But I am indifferent to the matter of rebirth.
Can't Buddhists just do good and be Buddhists without believing in rebirth or
A: When is the suspension of belief just veiled disbelief? Perhaps it
is an attempt to escape from Buddhism's tenets-and morality. Being open to the
possibility of rebirth demands a reasonable open mind - not a suspended one. At
least, for me, it is reasonable to accept rebirth if only because the Buddha is
a worthy person and personally verified it. But your view, as I see it, is almost
that of an unbeliever! Remember that in the Buddha's time, he describes the views
of six heretics with whom he disagreed. Five of the heretics rejected karma and
rebirth. It must be borne in mind that rebirth and karma are integral to Buddhism.
I don't see myself as being the Buddhist equivalent of an infidel. The Buddha
didn't ask us to accept everything he said as being true. Isn't that right?
I agree, but he also told us to test the meaning of his words by intuitive wisdom.
Nor, did he suggest that we suspend belief. That is absurd! Just imagine, if you
will, twelve agnostic jurors!
Q: Just recently I finished reading Stephen Batchelor's
book, _Buddhism Without Beliefs_. He makes a fine case for suspending blind belief.
Don't you agree that we should weigh the Buddha's statements according to logic
A: Well, according to the Kalama Sutta which Batchelor cites
at the beginning of his book, we shouldn't! Why he used this particular citation
to shore up his arguments is beyond me. The passage clearly states that we should
not be satisfied with "logical inference" or with weighing evidence".
On the other hand, in the "Parable of the Water-snake" [Majjhima 22]
it clearly states that we should test the meaning in the canon by "intuitive
wisdom". Such wisdom is mystical, I must say.
Q: What is Dark Zen's understanding
A: Show me your original face before you were born!
Q: I can't!
And since you can't, you are constantly being incarnated as the human form to
which you are presently attached. If, on the other hand, you can see your 'original
face', you will not be reborn as your original face is unborn. Said another way,
you will be reborn in the unborn!
Q: But the idea of the unborn is just a fiction.
This is the real world, isn't it?
A: Yes, if you are tied to perceptual cognition
out of which this world is made. But when we go beyond perceptual cognition, there
we find the unborn. Here the opposition between perceiver and perceivable has
ceased. The original unity of Mind is restored. Duality is ended.
Q: Then what
is the purpose of this life?
A: To learn many lessons. But most of all to see
your original face before you were born.
Q: What does your original face look
A: Like yours.
Q: Is that the one you're looking at right now, with
a nose on it?
A: What is more original than that? In fact, besides a nose,
it even supports the perceptual cosmos!
Q: Thank you.
A: You're welcome.