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.

16 Replies to “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.

  4. If it is impossible to improve that anything can exist apart from some kind of knowing, how could naturalism be anything but incoherent? What does it solve to posit such a thing, which leads to endless variations of what Alan Wallace called “materialism of the gaps?”

    How did order (“laws of nature”) arise? Even Nobel prize winner Steven Weinberg admits we have nothing to offer but just so stories – “materialism did it” ends up being the substitute for “God did it” – thus, all we have nowadays is creation science.

    With epigenetics in the last few years finding even Jerry Coyne surrendering, acknowledging the epigenetic changes caused by psychological factors in fact DO endure and lead to fundamental changes in DNA, the only possible reason left for naturalism is that of biologist Richard Lewontin, who said, essentially, even though we know naturalism is completely irrational, we must adhere to it because the only alternative is so much worse.

    This clinging to an outdated 19th century faith – one that profoundly contradicts scientific findings – continues to amaze me. Psychiatrist Dan Siegel has investigated over 2000 neuroscientific studies which have led him to abandon this absurd, irrational belief in naturalism – it’s time for others to at least consider the “plane of possibility” that Siegel speaks of.

    • Welcome, Don. That form of naturalism which I accept – and I’m happy to admit that “naturalism” and even “naturalized” may not be the best terms for it – rejects unscientific claims, those that contradict what so far seems established by scientific research. I think that distinction is more important than the natural/supernatural distinction.

      I think the more important point at issue is: what reasons do we have to believe rebirth exists, and what reasons do we have to believe it doesn’t? As I understand it, the bulk of psychological studies of consciousness have indicated that consciousness is an emergent property: something that arises at a higher level out of a particular combination of biological factors, as life arises at a higher level out of a particular combination of physio-chemical factors. But that would indicate that when the life is no longer able to sustain itself, neither does the consciousness; such an understanding militates heavily against rebirth. The case is probably not closed entirely, as cases like Ian Stevenson’s suggest, but the weight of the evidence seems to go against consciousness surviving death. That is why I made the comparison between Westerhoff’s position and intelligent design: they both seem to be clinging unwisely to a very faint hope that some very slim and tenuous strands of science will vindicate them.

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  6. I am not a Buddhist scholar, or even a philosopher, so I might be totally wrong here but here is a thought experiment. As far as I understand, problem here arises due to understanding the meaning of the word ‘rebirth’ from an essentialist viewpoint and applying that to a worldview that is skeptic to begin with. If one were to totally immerse oneself in the idea of ’emptiness’, then what might the word ‘rebirth’ mean? And what does now the word ‘self’ that is being reborn might refer to? And how does one make sense of someone speaking words ‘no-self’ and ‘rebirth’ at the same time? If cohorency between the idea ‘no-self’ and ‘rebirth’ can be shown, then the problem of suicide would not be so difficult to answer. And I will try to do that by proposing a different meaning of these terms.

    I think the trick to resolve the dilemma between ‘no-self’ and ‘rebirth’, and subsequently the problem of ‘suicide’, is to see the whole thing from somewhat phenomenological point of view. If I have no ‘essence’, I can also define ‘self’ as the entity which is having the experience it is having due to the psychological/ emotional dispositions it currently has and the experience it will have in the next moment in response to various conditions of the world/mind which will arise in the next moment. In short, a very complex felt-experiential stimulus-response matrix or, to stretch the metaphor to its limits, a turing machine whose states represent felt-experiences instead of information. Seen this way, a person whose felt-experience while writing this comment is similar to mine, whose past experiences were similar to mine and whose future experiences will also turn out to be similar to mine is indistinguishable from me – as seen from a phenomenological point of view. For example, it might be the case that the specific memory I am recalling while writing this comment is totally different from the one my phenomenological doppelganger recalls, but if the felt-experience of that memory is similar for the both of us, then the exact content of memory doesn’t matter as seen from the phenomenological perspective. And it is in this way that I can still have a rebirth even while having no essence. Notice that seen from the lens of actual world events, this phenomenological doppelganger might appear immensely different from me. But that doesn’t matter to us because for us, ‘self’ corresponds to the felt-experiential matrix than the out-worldly circumstances. Also notice how neatly this felt-experential matrix view fits into the concept of self as stream of consciousness.

    One can also call this way of thinking as a rebirth of consciousness but the crucial thing to keep in mind here is that no consciousness is getting transferred, there is no continuity of mind as per the Westerhoff’s terminology. Instead a similar consciousness, mind is coming into existence again. So all of the Buddhist precepts still hold. And notice that this world view isn’t a deterministic one – I am not proposing that we are newtonian machines. I feel the notion of free-will as a capacity or a compatibilist notion of free-will will be consistent with such a worldview.

    And now one can easily see why suicide is not a solution. Even if I commit suicide, my future phenomenological doppelganger will inherit a world that is somewhat worse than the current one due to the negative emotions that will be generated in others due to suicide(Again notice that the term ‘future phenomenological doppelganger’ is aimed at those who have a reified view of self. For someone who is steeped in my worldview, such an obtuse terminology would not have been needed as I could straight away referred ‘my future phenomenological doppelganger’ as ‘my future self’). Therefore, future me will have even greater obstacle to surmount that the current me as far as reduction of suffering/ flourishing is concerned. And how can I justify doing something that will be harmful for my own self? And this is then also how ‘Karma’ operates in such a worldview.

    As an after thought, also notice that above hypothesis is extremely easy to defend if it can be shown that only a finite number of experiential-states exist, even if that number is 100 billion trillion. Because if that is so then combining that with the fact that human genome that is finite, number of cells one can biologically have is finite and so on; the total number of felt-experiential matrices will also be finite, even if extremely extremely large, and given a long enough timeline, repetition will be bound to happen due to pigeonhole principle and this repetition would be then what we would call a ‘rebirth’.

    I don’t know if any of it made any sense but I hope that I was able to present a gist of my thought process.

  7. I think Nanavira justified suicide for stream enterers in Clearing the Path. Personally, I don’t believe in rebirth but I think Buddhism might help achieve the kind of unburdening which Schopenhauer also recommends (though he didn’t believe in suicide). I don’t think there is a compelling reason apart from personal preference for living or dying, though I accept David Benatar’s argument in Better to Never Have Been that extinction is probably the best option for humanity (and all life for that matter). The biosphere will be extinct in a billion years (and even earth will be eaten by the sun in five billion) so we can easily agree with Ecclesiastes that existence on earth is a passing show.

    • A timely find:
      “The Buddhist doctrine of salvation though also concerned with the spiritual well-being here and now, seems firmly bound to the concept that one must continuously be reborn and die. If there is no rebirth, then one needs no path to salvation, because an end to suffering comes at death.
      And one can willfully make an end to life if there is unbearable suffering. But even if a modern Buddhist can no longer literally believe in rebirth, he can apparently still be a follower of the Buddha in a significant way on the basis of the rejection of the purely negative interpretation of the
      goal (xvi).”
      Tilmann Vetter, The Ideas and Meditative Practices of Early Buddhism (1988)
      In other words, on the basis of positive benefits in this life.

  8. There’s no logic to suicide nor killing in general, to end suffering. Killing is negative karma, whether it is yourself or other, thereby creating suffering in this life and the next.

    • While I agree, you still run into the utilitarian “benevolent world exploder” problem where the most moral thing one could do is find a way to end all life on earth instantly and almost painlessly.

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