Ruminations of a Buddhist SomethingOrOther

Last week a friend of mine, a fellow Buddhist Ph.d. student, emailed me with a question. She wondered if I might explain how I find being a Buddhist and an Atheist to be compatible. She sent me a link to an old debate on reincarnation published by Tricycle between Stephen Bachelor, author of Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, and Robert Thurman, the Je Tsongkhapa Professor of Religious Studies at Columbia University.

Both are brilliant scholars of the highest rank, so if you are interested in some of the finer points of Buddhist philosophy, do have a read.

And then I read this short article by Stephen Schettini, Why I’m Not a Buddhist, from Buddhadharma’s website. It’s a very touching piece, and strikes at the heart of some of the anxiety ‘Buddhisty’ people feel over the label ‘Buddhist’ and the many psychological issues that may come with it (being in the ‘in-group’ and/or being excluded from another ‘in-group’ at the same time…).

And thirdly, just yesterday yet another article was posted, asking “Can you have faith, yet disbelieve the Buddha?” This one is by Bodhipaksa, my own first meditation teacher, the man to whom I owe a great deal of my own understanding and practice of mindfulness and metta meditation, not to mention a blog post/article (coming soon….) that I’ve been promising for a couple months now. There, with the aid of a cute cartoon that has been making the rounds lately, Bodhipaksa delicately explores questions of faith and rebirth in Buddhism.

The great thing about all of the above, for me, is the challenge made to my own current beliefs, practices, and understandings. It is precisely in grappling with these issues, often at first in theory, but ultimately always in ‘practice’ of some form or another, that I have found the the greatest sense of growth in my own life – most often by way of letting go of deeply, perhaps even unconsciously held assumptions about myself and the world.

And with that, I give you a slightly cleaned up version of my response to my friend about Buddhism and Atheism:

My atheism goes back to my pre-Buddhist days, to around the age of 12 or 13. I recall reading that some prominent scientist [Einstein, I believe] had rejected God at that age, so I figured I would too and see what happened.

It turned out to be not such a big deal.

My parents didn’t demand belief or church attendance after that age, and I grew up with a diverse group of friends where church or religion was pretty much never discussed. When I did hear talk of religion – primarily Christianity – I found it to be remarkably stupid and wondered how or why anyone would believe in such things as a God who might intervene in human affairs.

At around age 19, I dated a nice very Catholic girl and tried to ‘invite Jesus into my life’ for her. But that didn’t do anything for me so I gave it up. I returned to my atheism, and at times anti-theism – really believing that the best stance one could have was vocal opposition to theism in light of the centuries of harm it seems to be responsible for.

I started a campus freethinkers group at U-Montana where I studied philosophy, co-organized and hosted a major debate on the existence of God, and moved a bit toward the [kinder, gentler?] position that theists were just ignorant, so maybe a good education could make them better.

Around that time I started studying and practicing Buddhism – first as an academic interest alongside philosophy, and later as a personal interest because I thought meditation actually did me some good.

Interestingly, I found that my atheism didn’t influence my understanding of Buddhism as much as my practice of Buddhism helped ease the militancy of my atheism. For example I began to look for, and find, the good in theism, the good in traditions that I had previously held in my mind to be merely stupid and oppressive.

In terms of Buddhism, early on I agreed with Bachelor’s take on things, and I still like the nice British pragmatism that he conveys. But from a philosophical point of view, I wanted to know what the Buddha’s ‘system’ is – if there is any. Did his understanding of things comprise a coherent whole, or was he just a wise guy tossing out nuggets of practical wisdom for 45 years? And so we turn to one of the most difficult issues in the ‘system’.

Can Buddhism work without rebirth?

Well, maybe for some people, yes. People who live rather pleasant lives can throw it out and ‘naturalize’ karma to meaning something like ‘if I’m a bad person, I create a character that makes me unhappy and people around me don’t like me, so karma just means the kind of person you are/become.’ But why then did the Buddha keep karma and rebirth in his teachings? He could have rejected them or given them this naturalistic nuance just like a number of other prominent ideas from his time.

The answer to me is that the Buddha wasn’t just offering a teaching on how to acquire pleasant states of mind or develop a good character so that people would like you and you would be successful. That might sound trite, but it does seem to be how a lot of contemporary Buddhists (particularly in the West) want to appropriate Buddhism. The Buddha’s teaching is a complete soteriology, based on a goal of nirvana, with karma and rebirth as essential mechanisms for ensuring the teachings, properly understood and applied, would lead to that goal.

So, philosophically speaking, I take rebirth and non-naturalized karma to be necessary factors of the Buddha’s system. I don’t think that believing in them is what the Buddha encouraged, but rather exploring them in your daily life until you see them. What it means to see rebirth and karma in your daily life might not match up with what you believe these terms refer to now.

There’s never a point at which you can say, ‘I don’t see them, I give up.’ Because your starting point is precisely that, not seeing. The Buddha taught a sort of empiricism – that we need to come to experience and understand for ourselves rather than merely accepting the words of others. But he also taught about things that we wouldn’t and couldn’t experience until we become fully awakened ourselves.

What separates the Buddha’s teaching’ as I know it here and mere skepticism or empiricism is the understanding of a system in which we start out deluded, we work to create better karma and to see more clearly, and ultimately we wake up and shed our delusions. Again, it’s not something to be ‘believed in’ (which seems to be a major tripping point for those steeped in Judeo-Christian traditions), but something to be understood and experienced for oneself.

So these days I lean more toward Thurman’s take – though it is interesting that he and Bachelor come together in the end. I haven’t read Stevenson’s work (20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation) , but I have heard from many sources that he’s not terribly convincing. And that is fine with me; I don’t think rebirth is something to be ‘proven’. Similarly, I don’t think God can be proved or meaningfully disproved. God plays a similar role in the theistic systems where we begin in a sinful state, do the right things or hold the right beliefs, and ultimately shed our sin in a heavenly place with Him. For me, that system is philosophically too cumbersome to even begin approaching, so I consider myself an atheist. The Buddhist system makes philosophical sense to me and the practices have improved my life, so I consider myself a Buddhist. And actually, I think Kant’s understanding of theism and ethics is fascinatingly closer to Buddhism than it is to most Western theistic soteriologies (hence the crazy ph.d. project that I should be working on right now!)…

  • Dana Nourie

    Justin, thank you much for this article and your take on atheism and Buddhism.

    Like you I became an atheist at an early age. I picked up Buddhism in my adult life. Honestly in the 7 years or so that I’ve been practicing, rebirth has emerged as the rising of the feeling of self/ego. It arises on thoughts, emotions, reactions, fades always and dies, only to be reborn again. Perhaps one day, before I die, I won’t give birth to the illusory self at all. Rebirth is simply a process of the human being.

    I practice secular Buddhism, meaning my entire focus and practice is on this world, this life. The practice itself, meditation, mindfulness, compassion, ethics doesn’t require beliefs. In fact, the practice itself examines beliefs, our attachments to ideas, and letting go of such clinging.

    By the way, if you are interested in reinvigorating your practice or practicing with other virtually, we have started a new weekly series on the Secular Buddhist Association site, where we’ll publish weekly practices:-) Atheists welcome too!

    Thank you again for this article.


    • Justin Whitaker

      Thanks for the SBA invite, Dana. I’m a big fan of the site and Ted’s podcasts. I agree with the idea of rebirth as a process in this life and I think this fits nicely with our understanding of the Buddha’s teaching. In my practice I’m also not concerned with anything beyond this life, and in theory too – as it’s in this life that I hope to understand more about what the heck the Buddha was talking about, including when he talked about rebirth :)

  • Bodhipaksa

    “But why then did the Buddha keep karma and rebirth in his teachings? … The answer to me is that the Buddha wasn’t just offering a teaching on how to acquire pleasant states of mind or develop a good character so that people would like you and you would be successful.”

    That seems like a non sequitur! You could believe in rebirth and think that Buddhism’s about “being nice.” You can not believe in rebirth and strive for enlightenment in this very life.

    I don’t have that watered-down view of Buddhism. I do believe in karma, but I pretty much (98%) don’t believe in rebirth, and yet I do see Buddhist practice as being about seeking Nirvana in this very life.

    I think it’s likely that the Buddha believed in rebirth because it was part of his culture. Perhaps he assumed that rebirth made as much sense as other things he believed, such as the existence of a million-mile high mountain surrounded by four continents that floated on water, that in turn floated on air, that in turn floated on aether.

    He may also have accepted (or taught) rebirth because he thought the belief was spiritually useful. As someone said to me, “One shot at life, nothing afterwards. Why bother at all?” That’s the view many people at the time of the Buddha would have taken, believing there was just one life. They’d become ucchedavādins. And we know that the Buddha had bad experiences with ucchedavādins, who seem to have been a hedonistic and immoral bunch. He may have been concerned about that happening with his sangha. Even today, many Christians today fear atheists because they think they have no moral grounding.

    I suppose I’m a provisional ucchedavādin, myself, but a modern one. Thinking it’s likely that this is my only life doesn’t have the effect of making me a nihilist, and other people can be moral and compassionate beings believing in one life. I want this one life to really mean something. I want to live and happy and fulfilled life, and to benefit others. Knowing I only have one life gives me a sense of urgency. In this scenario, of the rebirth teaching being expedient, he may not even have believed absolutely in rebirth. He may have thought it was likely, but also so useful that he was happy to teach it as true. He may even have been tentative about the belief in rebirth, at least sometimes. That seems to be the case in the final lines of the kalama sutta, where he points out that the Dharma is an effective way to be happy in this life, even if there’s no next life. Unfortunately, nuance is easily lost in several hundred years of oral transmission…

    • Justin Whitaker

      Fairly non sequitur indeed and in need of further explanation, which I may have done, but only poorly, near the end of my article. My contention is that rebirth is intimately tied with the ultimate concerns of the Buddha’s teaching. Sure, you can aim at nirvana in this life while doubting the Buddha on rebirth, but then I think what you mean by nirvana may well deviate from what the Buddha meant. Now, maybe he was wrong, or maybe his teachings pertaining to rebirth need to be understood provisionally or as spiritually useful as you suggest. And perhaps, as has been suggested, the Buddha didn’t have any coherent stance on the matter.

      I am definitely guilty of bringing a systematic and/or system-finding propensity to my reading of Buddhism, so all of this may just be my own projections and prejudices :) But yes, I do think rebirth and a non-naturalized account of karma do play key roles in the Buddha’s teaching.

      As for the big mountain and other cosmological teachings, I turn to an article by Rupert Gethin, “Cosmology and Meditation: From the Aggañña-Sutta to the Mahāyāna” – History of Religions, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Feb., 1997), pp. 183-217; where he argues that many quasi-mythological or impossibly unreal teachings of the Buddha (and later) could best be understood as visualization practices and I also appreciate Richard Gombrich’s efforts to show that some of his teachings were (sometimes elaborate) jokes making fun of ideas of the time. Perhaps the rebirth teachings fit in one of these – but I have yet to see a good argument for that.

      As for the idea that, “I think it’s likely that the Buddha believed in rebirth because it was part of his culture.” I seem to have found a younger, wiser Bodhipaksa asserting something a bit different:

      The scriptures are full of references to rebirth and to afterlives in heaven or hell. Although some have argued that the Buddha only taught rebirth as an accommodation to the culture he lived in, I see that in itself as a leap of faith!


      As for the Kalama -and no doubt countless other suttas- while I think rebirth plays a key role in the Buddha’s grand understanding of things, it makes sense that he wouldn’t always teach it explicitly or as a prerequisite for practice. And likewise I think people can do just fine without a notion of rebirth…

      • Bodhipaksa

        Tsk, tsk! “The Buddha teaching rebirth as an accommodation to his culture” and “the Buddha believing in rebirth because it was part of his culture” are not the same thing. In the first case the Buddha is not a believer in rebirth but uses that language anyway (I think that’s Batchelor’s view). And I describe that as a “leap of faith” because it’s a speculation on the Buddha’s thought processes, which are inherently unknowable.

        In the second case he’s taken on board a cosmological teaching on rebirth in the same way as he’s taken on board belief in Mount Sineru, etc. In this case he is a believer, but in something that’s outside his sphere of expertise, which is spiritual psychology.

        Interestingly, someone brought up in the comments on my article the notion that Nibbana is “by definition” the escape from the endless rounds of rebirth. And I thought, hey, I’ve seen that said many times but I can’t recall the Buddha ever saying that in the Pali canon. And I’ve looked in the Digha and Majjhima Nikayas and I’m currently looking at the Samyutta, and so far I’ve not found a single occasion that the Buddha defines Nibbana in that way. In fact I’ve found very few (so far I think three) times when Nibbana is even linked to rebirth in any way at all, making this a distinctly minority position. The most specific connection is with rebirth in a pure abode if you “only” break the first five fetters — nothing about an endless round.

        In fact, so far I haven’t seen an occasion where the Buddha even links the concepts of Nibbana and Samsara. Isn’t that curious? It’s as if Christian texts sometimes discussed heaven and sometimes hell, but never both at the same time. This is early days in my researches, and these findings are very provisional, but I’m beginning to suspect that teachings using the term samsara were a separate strand, perhaps introduced later. Food for thought, anyway.

        • Justin Whitaker

          I suppose I’m a bit of a fan of “leaps” into people’s thought process (I can imagine you thinking “uh?” right now), as I think (and now you know my thoughts) that thoughts can be known, at least indirectly, by way of one’s words and actions. Words and deeds are kind of like a wheel that follows an ox, or a shadow that never departs ;)

          The nirvana/samsara connection you mention is fascinating and had me diving into my bookshelves. Good ol’ Steven Collins has two great books on Nirvana which are both excellent. Even though this is a tiny bit tangential, in one he quotes from the Brahmajala sutta (DN 1) the Buddha saying of his body that it:

          ‘remains (alive) with that which leads to rebirth cut off … while his body remains, so long will gods and men see him; (but) after the break-up of the body, at the exhaustion of life, they will not see him’.

          (of course the Buddha isn’t saying his/him, but rather my/me)

          So I double checked by PTS version (p.90 for those who have it) and Walshe doesn’t mention rebirth here, but ‘becoming’, which is, strictly speaking, more true to the Pali:

          ‘‘Ucchinnabhavanettiko, bhikkhave, tathāgatassa kāyo tiṭṭhati. Yāvassa kāyo ṭhassati, tāva naṃ dakkhanti devamanussā. Kāyassa bhedā uddhaṃ jīvitapariyādānā na naṃ dakkhanti devamanussā.

          Which raises a potential problem, the ubiquity of synonyms for important terms in early Buddhism. Of course ‘bhava’ can be ‘becoming’ in a sort of mundane way, but it can also be (and most often is in the Pali I would suspect) another word for ‘rebirth’, as in the bhavacakra. So it may be just another way of speaking of samsara, whilst nirvana too has many, dozens, of synonyms.

  • David

    “But why then did the Buddha keep karma and rebirth in his teachings?” The truth is that we don’t know for sure that he did. We assume this is the case because that’s how it is presented in the early suttas. But there are many things contained in those works that were added latter, and no one can say that all the words ascribed to the historical Buddha are his actual words. It is quite possible that the Buddha taught nothing at all about karma or rebirth.

    I have always found it difficult to reconcile that on one hand, that the Buddha supposedly refused to engage in metaphysical speculation, such as dealing with a question about whether or not the universe is infinite, but, on the other hand, he offered teachings wrapped around the notion of an endless cycle of birth and death. That’s just one of the many incongruities we find in the teachings, and none of them are easily resolved.

    So, unlike you, Justin, I am not so confident about taking “rebirth and non-naturalized karma to be necessary factors of the Buddha’s system.” However, I wholeheartedly agree that whether one has problems with these concepts or not, “exploring them” is a good way to go. Ultimately, one may or may not see them play out in daily life, but simply to dismiss them is wrong.

    After several decades of exposure to, and practice of, the teachings of the Buddha, my personal take is that he was almost exclusively concerned with what happens to us in this life. I agree with Prof. Ling’s assessment that “the original Buddhist goal, nirvana, was the restoration of healthy conditions of life here and now, rather than in some remote and transcendent realm beyond this life.”

    For that reason, I would be hesitant about disparaging the aspiration to “acquire pleasant states of mind or develop a good character.” I think we often have a tendency to inflate the goals of Buddhist practice. Acquiring a pleasant mind and becoming a good person may sound simple but they are not simple to achieve. They are liberating conditions of life, and through them we can touch nirvana. Both involve dealing with the ideas of a self and ego, and according to Han Shan, when these are purged “the mind is in the state of nirvana.”

    • Justin Whitaker

      But there are many things contained in those works that were added latter, and no one can say that all the words ascribed to the historical Buddha are his actual words. It is quite possible that the Buddha taught nothing at all about karma or rebirth.

      Yes, the world of ‘quite possible’ is big, but I try to follow the evidence. If we find new evidence or what we have today can be used to reasonably suggest that he taught nothing of them, okay.

      And it seems to me that it is just certain metaphysical speculations that the Buddha refuses to engage in and/or calls vexing and unprofitable. And indeed some of that includes wondering what our own past or future lives were/will be like. But that there are past/future lives seems to fall out of this category of speculation. So the logic of many Western interpreters seems to be:

      1. The evidence: the Buddha avoids x,y,z instances of metaphysical speculation
      2. The mistaken conclusion: the Buddha avoids all talk of metaphysics
      3. The reaction: Any talk about metaphysics attributed to the Buddha must be false

      Perhaps certain metaphysical speculations (though ‘speculation’ seems to often be a pejorative term in Buddhist circles, often preceded by ‘mere’) are indeed useful, while others are not. Perhaps ‘examinations’ is a better word, or ‘analytic meditations’ as I often hear amongst Tibetan Buddhist friends, are better. “What will I be like in my next life?” may be vexing because it seems to attempt to imagine a fixed ‘I’ being transplanted far in the future. “What will I be like in 20 years?” might be equally meaningless. On the other hand, “What can I do now to work toward awakening?” might be okay.

      I also see in the texts a sort of tension between the ‘here and now’ and a broader temporal and geographic perspective. I’m sure you don’t fall into this, but I think it’s another potential wrong turn in modern understanding of the Dharma, but the call to ‘here and now’ can also be a great call to hedonism. A person of means can fill the here and now with pleasure and, with things like illicit drugs, pleasure themselves right into oblivion. There’s one way to end suffering. Certainly not a ‘healthy’ way though. :)

      And certainly I have nothing against acquiring pleasant states of mind and/or developing a good character. I work on these myself and I think aspects of the Buddha’s teachings and what have come down through various traditions can help. But I suppose I worry more about here is the deflation of the Buddha’s teaching by educated folks today. I’d agree though that the unrealistic inflation is also a problem in many circles. All for the sake of the middle way :)

      • David

        Regardless of how big “quite possible” is; that does not remove anything from the realm of possibility. Now, I was not making an argument for or against karma and rebirth, but rather pointing out just one possibility concerning the Buddha’s teachings on those subjects.

        As far as evidence goes, there is no evidence of anything directly concerning the Buddha, not even that there was such a person, so in the end, it’s all speculation. I was also not I making any statements about “metaphysical speculation” – an unfortunate choice of words, since in reality all Buddhism is metaphysics, in the sense that it is concerned with the fundamental nature of life and the world. As you mentioned, there are tensions within the texts, and I was just pointing one out as an example.

        It is possible that focusing on the here and now can lead to hedonism. It’s also possible that examining the prospect of past and future lives can lead to equally dangerous areas. However, neither is necessarily so. However, I suspect that many individuals who tend to reject the “here and now” aspect, do so because they feel it is too simplistic. But I maintain that changing one’s present life is just about the hardest thing one can do, and changing one’s life/mind, changing how we interact with others and how we view the world, is the prime point of practice.

        So while I am also concerned about the deflation of Buddha-dharma (which is why I always encourage people to investigate concepts like karma and rebirth before they come to any iron-clad conclusions about them), I don’t see here and now, pleasant states of mind or developing good character as contributing to that when presented with some real substance behind it.

        • Justin Whitaker

          “…there is no evidence of anything directly concerning the Buddha, not even that there was such a person, so in the end, it’s all speculation.”

          Well I’d say we have very good evidence pointing to such a man existing. The texts, traditions, and all that do reasonably suggest a single founder. We could, I suppose, concoct some sort of conspiracy theory to otherwise explain the evidence we have, but I’m doubtful that would be satisfying. If we take that he did in fact exist, walking and talking in the flesh, we can further wonder about and explore he effects on the people, religion/philosophy, and culture around him. The fact that none of the writing about him dates to his lifetime shouldn’t worry us too much – as we have found that oral cultures can preserve facts just as well as, and at times better, than writing.

          But I maintain that changing one’s present life is just about the hardest thing one can do, and changing one’s life/mind, changing how we interact with others and how we view the world, is the prime point of practice.

          Agreed, fully!

  • anagarika eddie

    I guess we could argue all day over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Is this true? What story will you believe? Will you believe in particle physics even though you have never operated a collider? Will you believe in Jesus? Will you believe in Buddha? Or karma, or heaven, or rebirth?

    We tend to believe in what resonates within us, what we agree with depending upon our past associations and experiences, the content of our consciousness. And then we reinforce that belief by only paying attention to self-reinforcing views until those who believe differently become the enemy. Isn’t this what human beings do?

    Are you interested in breaking that cycle of self-reinforced delusion? How would you go about it? Wouldn’t you objectively study the problem first?

    The problem is thought, is it not? Why not study that from a perspective of non-thought and see for yourself what is true? Can you do this? This is meditation. Or are stories more entertaining?

    • Justin Whitaker

      Sadhu, dear Eddie, sadhu.

      It’s easy (for me) to forget how odd a lot of these discussions (debates?) sound from the outside or the margins. I remember visiting a Catholic university years ago and overhearing 3 young Jesuits debating doctrines of the church fathers in excruciating detail. And I’m sure much of what I write and/or link to looks the same to a lot of folks (the Tricycle debate’s first comment is something like “Wow, that was long-winded…”)… :)

      I’m not a big fan of stories, but I do like analysis – especially the meditative kind you’ve described.

      I first got excited about philosophy precisely because it seemed to be an area of open inquiry, of bubble-bursting and reinforced idea demolishing. Around the same time, I got into meditation because it helped proved a calm, stilled inner-world wherein beliefs and experiences could be examined most closely. The two can work together, I think, in harmony and mutual support.

  • Sean Robsville

    If we regard Buddhism as a combination of a philosophy, psychology and religion, then we can get a surprising amount of mileage out of the first two aspects before we need to start invoking religious faith:

  • GordonHide

    I find atheism to be incompatible with Buddhism that supports Karmic judgement. A feature of existence that can keep track of all Karmic records and render judgement and give that judgement effect in each case may not be anthropomorphic but it otherwise is a god by any other name.

    Don’t mistake me. I have no objection to your calling yourself an atheist because Karmic judgement is not referred to as a god but there’s my opinion anyway.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Fair enough. I take the early Buddhist understanding of karma to be as a lawfulness of morality, akin to the law of gravity, and as such requiring no agent to enforce it.