The Denial of Rebirth

The Denial of Rebirth August 18, 2020

The Denial of Rebirth

The Buddha Said:

“And what is wrong view? ‘There is no meaning in giving, sacrifice, or offerings. There is no fruit or result of good and bad deeds. There is no afterlife’” (MN 117).

Here the Buddha clearly says that the denial of an afterlife is a “wrong view.” If the first step in the Noble Eightfold Path is “right view,” then the denial of rebirth hinders one’s spiritual journey. But notice that wrong view is not, “I don’t know if there is or isn’t an afterlife,” it is “There is no afterlife.” It is the denial of rebirth.

The Buddha Taught Rebirth

First, it is a fact that the Buddha taught rebirth. And it’s wrong to say that he did “so for cultural and pragmatic reasons alone.” He believed and taught rebirth because he remembered his previous lives.

The Buddha said:

”When my mind had immersed in meditation like this—purified, bright, flawless, rid of corruptions, pliable, workable, steady, and imperturbable—I extended it toward recollection of past lives. I recollected my many kinds of past lives, with features and details. This was the first knowledge, which I achieved in the first watch of the night” (MN 36).

The second knowledge was “knowledge of the death and rebirth of sentient beings.” And the third knowledge was the clear comprehension of the Four Noble Truths (MN 36). Now if we accept the Four Noble Truths, why should we deny the other things the Buddha says he knows?

Buddhism is True

Psychologist Robert Wright has written a book about Why Buddhism is True. In it he gives evidence that, “Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and that its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important” (xii).

But like so many modern people, he accepts the psychology of Buddhism while rejecting its metaphysics. I used to do this myself, when I was a Secular Buddhist. But how could the Buddha be so right about human psychology, and so wrong about the nature of reality?

Scientism

The first problem is scientism, which, writes Bryan Appleyard, is “the belief that science is or can be the complete and only explanation” (2). But this is a statement of faith. The only way to know that science “is or can be the complete and only explanation” is to know everything. For what you don’t know might not fit. As Huston Smith points out, “what is taken to be self-evident depends on one’s worldview” (64).

Gary Zukav catches the problem, “‘Reality’ is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends upon what we look for. What we look for depends upon what we think. What we think depends upon what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality” (344).

“We feel,” wrote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched” (Shanker 311). Science is not about the problems of life but the nature of the physical universe. It can never be “the complete and only explanation.”

The fact is, writes Bryan Appleyard, that “If there were such things as meaning and purpose, they must exist outside the universe describable by science” (213). It is an obvious but overlooked fact, as Huston Smith points out, “that the finitude of mundane existence cannot satisfy the human heart completely. Built into the human makeup is a longing for a ‘more’ that the world of everyday experience cannot requite” (3).

Just because a blinds man does not see the moon, doesn’t mean that there is no moon. The Buddha claimed to be able to see into the spiritual realm. He was either right, lying, or wrong. If he was lying, Buddhism would be defeated. If he was wrong, what other important things could he be wrong about? The hindrance of doubt cannot be far away.

Evidence for Rebirth

Science is a method that studies the physical world. It cannot prove or disprove a reality beyond the physical. If a spiritual realm exists, then science can neither confirm or deny it. So from a scientific viewpoint, rebirth may be true. There is currently little scientific evidence proving rebirth. I will mention only two.

Dr. Ian Stevenson walked away from academic success to spend about forty years study reports of children claiming memories of previous lives. In his book, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation he lays out some of the best cases. He argues “that some of the cases do much more than suggest reincarnation, they seem to me to furnish considerable evidence for it” (2).

Dr. Jim B. Tucker worked with Dr. Ian Stevenson towards the end of his life, but he has taken up his mantle. He lays out a number of cases where children claim to remember their past lives. Francis Story, a Buddhist author, also worked with Dr. Ian Stevenson and wrote about a number of cases as well. He fills in Buddhist philosophy behind the experiences.

But the most compelling case comes from Bhikkhu Analayo. He tells about a small Sri Lankan child named Dhammaruwan, who could chant Buddhist scriptures in Pali. “At an age of about two years,” writes Bhikkhu Analayo, he would sit in meditation spontaneously and then start chanting” (120). Tape recorders were made of his chanting. When he became an adult, he lost the ability to perform these chants.

After verifying the recording, Bhikkhu Analayo, who is an expert in the Pali language, analyzed the chants, comparing them to the Pali canon texts. His conclusion is worth quoting in full, “The evidence surveyed above suggests that Dhammaruwan’s chanting of these texts as a child is a genuine case of xenoglossy, in these sense of involving a recitation of Material in Pali that he did not learn and was not made to recite in this way in his present life in Sri Lanka” (162).

The New Physics

Not only did Buddhism teach about the Big Bang over 2,000 years before modern science, there are other similarities. As Fritjof Capra wrote, “One of the strongest parallel to Eastern mysticism has been the realization that the constituents of matter and the basic phenomena involving them are all interconnected; that they cannot be understood as isolated entities but only as integral parts of a unified whole” (309).

Physicist David Bohm expressed a view that is compatible with the Buddhist worldview. He said that there was implicit order and an explicate order to the Cosmos. (186-190). As Michael Talbot explains, “According to Bohm, both aspects are always enfolded in a quantum’s ensemble, but the way an observer interacts with the ensemble determines which aspects unfolds and which remain hidden” (47). The Buddha found a way to see what remains “hidden” for most of us. But this also points to the importance of the observer.

Panpsychism

The hard problem of consciousness is well known among cognitive scientists. As Philip Goff states, “Nothing is more certain than consciousness, and yet nothing is harder to incorporate into our scientific picture of the world” (5).

This is because our naturalistic picture of the world is flawed. As Philip Goff explains, “The problem of consciousness began when Galileo decided that science was not in the business of dealing with consciousness” (23). He purposely eliminated anything subjective out of the domain of inquiry.

Panpsychism says this is a mistake. Quoting Philip Goff again, “Panpsychist’s believe that consciousness is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the physical world” (23).

Thomas Nagel argues: “If any two hundred pound chunk of the universe contains the material needed to construct a person and if we deny both psychophysical reductionism and a radical form of emergence, then everything, reduced to its elements, must have proto-mental properties” (49).

That means that consciousness is weaved into the very fabric of the Cosmos. Max Planck, a founder of quantum theory, once said, “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness” (Stromberg 329). Physicist and astronomer Sir James Jeans once said, “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine” (Tucker 189).

Mind as Sixth Sense

Now Buddhism claims that we have six senses, the usual five plus the mind as a sixth sense. If this is true, that would explain how consciousness allows us access to implicit order, that Physicist David Bohm theorized about. That means that only consciousness can give one access to this level of reality. It also means that in order to see it we need our minds to be like the Buddha’s, “purified, bright, flawless, rid of corruptions, pliable, workable, steady, and imperturbable” (MN 36).

Testimony of the Sages

The vast majority of ordinary people believe in life after death. It seems to be an intuition. Furthermore, nearly all the sages have believed in life after death. I would argue that what the sages believe is probably true. Since they believe in life after death, then life after death is probably true.

The greatest sage was the Buddha, and he said that not only did he believe in rebirth, he has witnessed it in his personal experience. Both by remembering his past lives, but also seeing the karmic results in the death and rebirth of other beings.
The question of rebirth may never be answered by science. We have the choice to trust the testimony of the Buddha or not. I don’t see that harm in siding with the Buddha on this one.

Works Cited

  • Appleyard, Bryan. Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man. New York: Anchor Books, 1993. Print.
  • Bohm, David. Wholeness and the Implicate Order. New York: Routledge Classics, 2007. Print.
  • Goff, Philip. Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. New York: Pantheon Books, 2019. Print.
  • Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism. 4th ed. Boston: Shambhala, 2000.
  • Nagel, Thomas. The View from Nowhere. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Print.
  • Shanker, V. A. Ludwig Wittgenstein: Critical Assessments. New York: Routledge, 200. Print.
  • Smith, Huston. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the human spirit in an Age of Disbelief. New York: HarperOne, 2001. Print.
  • Stevenson, Ian. Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, second ed. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988.
  • Story, Francis. Rebirth as Doctrine and Experience: Essays and Case Studies. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 2010.
  • Stromberg, Gustaf. “Coherence in a Physical World.” Philosophy of Science. Vol. 9, No. 4 (Oct., 1942), 323-334.
  • Talbot, Michael. The Holographic Universe. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.
  • Tucker, Jim B. Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children who Remember Past Lives. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013.
  • Wright, Robert. Why Buddhism is True: The science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017. Print.
  • Zukav, Gary. The dancing Wu Li Master: An Overview of the New Physics. New York: Perennial Classics, 2001.

Copyright © 2020 Jay N. Forrest. All Rights Reversed.

All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are by the author, some of which are modifications of the public domain translation by Bhikkhu Sujato for SuttaCentral.

Image by Tuan86 via Pixabay

About Jay N. Forrest
Dr. Jay N. Forrest is an American Buddhist teacher, an Ordained Humanist Minister, a Certified Meditation Teacher, and the author of over a dozen books. He is the host of the podcast “5 Minute Dharma” and a writer at Patheos. Following closely the Theravada tradition and the Pali Canon, Dr. Forrest gives you a reliable guide to the transforming truths of the historical Buddha. You can read more about the author here.

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