In defence of Buddhism without rebirth

A few years ago I wondered how a naturalized Buddhism could avoid advocating suicide. If our goal is the cessation of suffering, and death is not the beginning of a new birth but a simple ending, shouldn’t death itself be our goal? I didn’t go very far with this argument, in part because I didn’t identify as a Buddhist at the time – there was a certain way in which not being a Buddhist made it not my problem. But now I am a Buddhist. And an excellent recent chapter by Jan Westerhoff, in Jake Davis’s fine new edited volume on Buddhist ethics, brings the point back into uncomfortable focus.

Westerhoff argues that a Buddhism without rebirth is simply incoherent – unless, that is, it is willing to bite the bullet and accept that committing suicide is the best response to life. (Which he presumes, probably rightly, that it isn’t.) He spells out the problem:

The central goal of the Buddhist path is the complete and permanent eradication of suffering (duḥkha). If there is no continuity of mind after the decay of this physical body, and if the existence of our mind depends on the existence of our body, the third Noble Truth, the truth of the cessation of suffering, would be to put an end to the existence of this body, and the fourth Noble Truth, the way to this cessation, would be suicide. This would lead to the permanent destruction of the complex of the five skandhas, the physico-psychological elements that make up the person, thereby leading to the complete elimination of suffering. In this case none of the three trainings of ethics, meditation, and wisdom would be necessary for the cessation of suffering, but the simple act of destroying the body would be sufficient. (149)

The logic here is hard to dispute. A very large number of the Pali Buddhist texts are phrased in negative terms: ethical injunctions are injunctions to not do things, in order to get out of suffering. But Mahāyāna does not necessarily fare any better – if the goal is to end the suffering of other sentient beings, then the logical course of action moves from suicide to murder.

Westerhoff’s position is that Buddhism logically requires rebirth; coherence requires that one give up either Buddhism or that form of naturalism that rejects rebirth. Strikingly, he does not take the first option as one might expect – to declare that science has simply refuted Buddhism. Rather, he urges Buddhists to follow a path very similar to Christian “creation scientists”, and hunt for scientific avenues that would allow Buddhist conceptions of rebirth to be coherent:

This approach would begin with a careful analysis of the Buddhist doctrinal position on mental continuity, rebirth, and karma and would subsequently try to determine which of the positions in contemporary cognitive science and the philosophy of mind might be compatible with it, and which would be most suited to explaining the view of the mind the Buddhist thinkers developed. (159)

I commend Westerhoff for the boldness of that proposal. I have seen few others willing to take such a step. Still, I reject it. The history of creation science, as I understand it, is a sad and pathetic one – full of ever more desperate attempts at special pleading to show the biblical understanding of creation as compatible with an ever-increasing body of observations that show no support for it. It seems to me the perfect example of what Imre Lakatos calls a degenerating research program: one that does not progress because it does not anticipate novel facts, and becomes littered with an ever larger pile of anomalies. The future for Buddhists who emulate creation science does not look bright. And it seems to me that to cling to whatever flimsy theoretical and empirical support might be offered for rebirth, is exactly to emulate creation science.

I do note here the work of Ian Stevenson, who has managed to provide some small evidence that is, in his words, “suggestive of reincarnation”. But there are two problems with taking Stevenson’s work as a foundation for living as a Buddhist. First, as far as I am aware, even Stevenson – who provides the best observational evidence for rebirth I am aware of – does not provide any evidence that this rebirth is, in Gananath Obeyesekere’s terms, ethicized. That is to say, even if were to take the generous view that humans can be reborn, we would have no particular reason – aside from Buddhist texts telling us so – to believe that that rebirth has anything to do with karma_ There is no connection established between the ethical quality of our actions in this life and the well-being of our future lives.

True, even such a non-ethicized rebirth might go some way to answering the suicide objection, making suicide appear futile at best. But that brings us to the second problem, which is that work like Stevenson’s is an awfully thin thread to hang our worldview on. It is not just that his work is disputed (though it is); even Stevenson himself merely identifies his cases as suggestive of reincarnation. It would hardly be a surprise if attempts to confirm it amounted to nothing. It is not difficult at all to imagine a rebirth-based research program degenerating as far and as quickly as has intelligent design. And what then? If Westerhoff were right that Buddhism and a rebirth-free naturalism were incompatible, a commitment to truth would require that we reject Buddhism out of hand. I find it a more promising strategy to preserve a Buddhism that does not require rebirth. But that does indeed require finding an answer to the suicide objection. How may we do that? More next time.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

8 thoughts on “In defence of Buddhism without rebirth

  1. Just a quick thought, but Stevenson’s successor, Jim Tucker, has managed to address some of the issues with Stevenson’s methodology. Agreed, though: one will not hang one’s entire worldview on such studies. My own belief in karma and rebirth (though as a Vedantin rather than a Buddhist) is based on an adapted version of Jamesian pragmatism.

  2. Wow. I hope you will forgive me for saying that I think Westerhoff’s “logic” is sadly easy to refute. He seems to be arguing one isolated point, while ignoring other aspects of Buddhism, namely karma–or cause and effect. (And cause and effect is a concept that is very friendly to scientific proof/observation, I might add.)
    Every student of Buddhism 101 knows that killing–of oneself or of another–is an action that creates innumerable ripples of effects. And you don’t ever have to have even heard of Buddhism to observe this fact in real life. Every murder and every suicide *increases* suffering in the world–have you ever observed anything different?
    I also think it is a grave mistake to imply that such an action could result in eliminating bonds between and/or within skandas. The experience of Suicide or Murder is a trauma. (Unless one has already achieved a state of detached nirvanna–in which case, why bother?) Trauma is a causative moment with karmic effects, thus new samsaric bonds between/within skandas will be produced. . . . and this is not only limited to bonds between the skandas within a single individual (This is the crucial point on which Westerhoff’s discussion fails).
    Intense causative events create karmic bonds/attachments between the skandas of multiple individuals (Am I saying anything that we all don’t already know?). The more bonds there are, the farther away (every)one is from freedom from suffering.
    At least, that’s what I heard.

    • I think it is the case that, absent rebirth, suicide does eliminate the suicide’s own suffering, from the moment of death onward. I’m not sure how one could dispute that. Sure, there can be increased suffering leading up to the moment of suicide, but it ends as soon as the person is gone.

      Now you are right that any given person’s suicide tends to cause suffering for many around them, likely increasing a net amount of suffering. But there are a number of responses to this.

      1) I’m not so clear that that is the case for suicide that occurs for tradition-sanctioned reasons – thinking especially here of Jain santhara/sallekhanā. Some have argued that because the circumstances are not so different it should not be even called “suicide”, but it is certainly suicide in the sense that Westerhoff is talking about.
      2) It is also not clear whether this is a problem in early or Theravāda tradition, where the goal is above all the ending of one’s own suffering. The Vessantara Jātaka and the Buddhacarita, in different ways, dramatize the point that the alleviation of one’s own suffering is the really big thing, and those others who are affected negatively by that quest are likely so because they are deluded.
      3) The most important point, which Westerhoff makes and which I didn’t get to in the post: if one does take a more altruistic position that the ending of others’ suffering is more important (as a Mahāyānist would be committed to), then the logical conclusion turns out to be not mere suicide but outright murder. Yes, the reality of murder in any given current particular situation may increase the suffering of the survivors, so in the short term it may be wise to avoid it. But our ideal long-term goal would then be the extinction of all life on earth, and therefore all suffering with it – a goal which modern technology also makes quite thinkable. No survivors, no suffering.

      • As you probably know, there was indeed a group of people (known only through the mention of them in their opponents’ texts) who did exactly that. The saṃsāramocakas `liberators from saṃsāra’ (so are they called) killed as many living beings as possible in order to liberate them. Non-Buddhist schools make fun of them (see Halbfass 1992 for a discussion of them).

  3. Nice post. I look forward to your next one on the topic. I think there’s another way to raise the problem. What is nirvāṇa? More precisely, what is nirvāṇa “without remainder” (nirvāṇa once one has died)? If we look at things through the Indian rebirth cosmology and metaphysics, and the soteriological project is to attain nirvāṇa, understood as release from that cycle so that there is no more rebirth, then it can be hard to distinguish that release from the annihilationist view of death, in either its modern or Cārvāka form. Release is the cessation of the aggregates, and there’s no mind, self, or soul outside the aggregates (or inside them, of course). Modern materialists and Cārvākins believe we get this release at death; Buddhists (traditionally) believe we can’t get it until we stop the round of rebirth. I know the Buddha is reported to have said that whether the Tathāgata exists or does not exist after death can’t be reckoned or does not apply, and that the tradition (e.g., Nāgārjuna) repeats this. That statement may be pragmatically efficacious (focus on what matters here and now) but it’s not much help if we’re in the grip of your question or the way I’m varying it here. And, in any case, it seems that the Buddhist tradition pretty early on grappled with this problem, given the different ways of talking about nirvāṇa that are present in the suttas, the controversies about exactly what sequence of meditative attainments is needed to stop the influxes, etc., and the later development of the Buddha-nature doctrine, which offers a way out of this problem but also brings Buddhism very close to Vedānta, and so strains hard against other aspects of the tradition (witness the “Critical Buddhism” rejection of the idea). So another way to think about your question is whether there can be Buddhism without the Indian soteriological narrative of suffering and rebirth. The Chinese had problems with that narrative when Buddhism arrived, and they arguably downplayed it a lot, at least in certain quarters. One moral I take from these thoughts is that the problems are actually very old ones in the tradition and not just problems for those who seek to “naturalize” Buddhism.

    • Thanks, Evan, and welcome. I think you are right that the questions at issue here go deeper than naturalization per se; my next post will go into that point at more length. Short version: I think it’s not just the Chinese who have gone beyond attempting to deal with only dukkha. And yes, those modifications do bring their own problems, as the battles between Critical Buddhism and the Kyoto School suggest.

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