What would Śāntideva do without rebirth?

I have argued against Evan Thompson that philosophical texts are the proper source for philosophers, so let me now turn our discussion there: specifically to Śāntideva, whom both of us cite.

First let us be clear about two points on which I think Thompson and I agree. The first of these points is that Śāntideva himself believes in rebirth, and this concept deeply suffuses his philosophy; Thompson and I agree about that. The second is that Śāntideva is wrong in this belief: though Ian Stevenson’s kind of work does present a potential anomaly, the best evidence we have in psychology still shows us that human consciousness is tied ineluctably to human bodies, and when that body dies, the consciousness dies with it. As far as I can tell, Thompson accepts this latter proposition. If he does believe human consciousness is reborn at death, my apologies: in that case we are having a very different conversation, and I would be genuinely intrigued to hear his reasons for such a belief. Thompson has not said anything of the sort in the conversation to date, however, so I will proceed in the present discussion on the assumption that he does not.

The question then is how a contemporary Buddhist who accepts both of these points should read Śāntideva’s work. It was specifically in answer to this question that I first turned to a naturalized theory of karma: I did so because I wanted to take Śāntideva as seriously as possible. My dissertation was all about understanding Śāntideva’s reasoning at a deep level, so I looked in detail at the kinds of arguments and reasons Śāntideva offers for acting or feeling one way and not another – what Thompson calls their “warrant and motivation”. As the dissertation discusses, these reasons for action generally fell into three categories, not always separable from each other: the pleasant and unpleasant mental states the actions generate; metaphysical insight into the nature of things, especially their emptiness (which I explored in more detail in a later article; and good or bad karma. Only the last of these three is closely tied to rebirth. The latter terms “good and bad karma” are specifically my translations of puṇya and pāpa, terms ubiquitous in Śāntideva’s work; for him it is puṇya and pāpa, rather than karmaphala or karmavipāka, that most describe the process by which good and bad actions lead to good and bad results.

What are puṇya and pāpa, in Śāntideva’s work? As Barbra Clayton has noted, Śāntideva uses the term puṇya (good karma) interchangeably with several other terms. These include kuśala (a term that means both “skill” and “goodness”, like Greek aretē), śīla (properly restrained behaviour), and śubha (well-being or welfare). That these terms are used so interchangeably itself strongly suggests a tight connection between virtue and well-being – which is to say eudaimonism.

Puṇya and pāpa are much more central to Śāntideva’s work than they are to most of the Pali literature. The discussions of these terms do frequently refer to results of an action in future lives – but not always. As noted, Śāntideva specifically discusses ways in which bad actions bring bad results in this life and another (iha paratra ca). The passage I quoted before to that effect (BCA VI.6) is not an isolated one; Śāntideva uses an almost identical phrasing (iha loke paratra ca) in another chapter, at BCA VIII.40. So when Thompson says it is “abundantly clear in Śāntideva” that “the eudaimonistic aspect of karma—that good mental actions bring about good results—has no warrant and motivation for traditional Buddhist philosophers”, he is entirely wrong. Śāntideva comes right out and says the exact opposite of Thompson’s claim: that is, he not only says that good mental actions bring out good results, he clarifies that this is the case in this life as well as the next one. I’m not sure what clearer statement of eudaimonism there could be than Śāntideva’s claims that good actions bring about good results in this life, and he tells us enough about the good and bad effects of good and bad actions on the mind to make it clear why he takes that claim to be warranted and motivated, even when he is making no reference to future lives.

For me, recognizing this iha paratra ca point was essential to understanding Śāntideva’s arguments constructively, taking him seriously as a thinker who has something to teach us now, rather than as a curious museum piece of interest only to fusty antiquarians. (I believe he would perceive himself as a thinker to be taken seriously in this way as well.) This recognition allowed me to make better sense of Śāntideva’s work as a whole – certainly including the verses of his that Thompson cites, which we’ll get to in the next post. For according to Śāntideva, this life and the next are not discontinuous. And thus a great deal of what Śāntideva says about the next life applies just as well to this one. This, in my view, allows a naturalized view of karma to be congruent with Śāntideva’s, even though the naturalizing was never his own view (and I’ve never claimed that it was).

To take a slightly different angle on the question we might ask: what would Śāntideva do if presented with the evidence that humans are not reborn after death, in a way that would be convincing to him? Śāntideva does have a commitment to knowing things as they are (yathābhūtam); I don’t think his fidelity to scripture necessarily trumps that commitment. So suppose Śāntideva were to have been presented with our current psychological evidence that the mind dies at bodily death. Would it be an existential crisis for him? Yes, probably; it would make a major difference to the way he sees the world. But what then? Where would he go from there? We cannot know such a question for sure, of course. But we can make some inferences, twelve centuries later, from the things he actually said in his compositions. Let us think critically here about Thompson’s claim that “without the backdrop of the karmic eschatology, the belief that good actions make things go better in this life is not sufficiently supported. Rather, its warrant and motivation drain away.” Given everything else Śāntideva says in his writings, do we really think that, faced with the evidence against rebirth, Śāntideva would have responded: “welp, I guess the Buddha’s teaching is crap, I’m just gonna go spend the rest of this only life out drinking and whoring now”? Or switched over to a completely different tradition like Confucianism or Judaism?

That seems implausible to me. Śāntideva’s deep and sincere Buddhist orientation to life seems to me sustainable even in the face of a challenge to its supernatural underpinning, given the things he actually does say. Especially, the absence of bad karmic consequences paratra, in another life, does nothing to invalidate the presence of bad karmic consequences iha, here in this world and life, consequences that Śāntideva repeatedly refers to throughout his work. I believe it deeply congruent with his own work and concerns to focus on the latter.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

3 Replies to “What would Śāntideva do without rebirth?”

  1. Thought of writing that believing in science does not automatically eliminate the possibility of rebirth because if one thinks about this carefully: it is our consciousness that is aware of, and understands the whole world and the universe, and it is consciousness that understands the organ brain, as well as consciousness itself. Also, considering that we are able to send detailed messages/videos from one cordless device to another, thousands of miles apart within seconds, I do not see why life cannot continue after death.

    Regarding reincarnation studies conducted by Ian Stevenson and many others – these are carefully conducted studies, and they rule out alternative explanations – there was even a JAMA article (I can provide the reference) mentioning how carefully the studies are conducted. Also, these scientists do not have any vested interest to demonstrate positive results – they often say that they themselves are quite amazed and they do not have any alternative explanations for these cases. If one reads some of their books (as well as the many peer reviewed articles), one would understand. In one relatively recent case, a boy (named Ryan) gave the age at which he died in a previous life that did not match the death certificate of the pervious personality. However, when investigating further they found that the age at death had been incorrectly entered by the hospital staff, and the correct age was the age that the boy said he was when he died. There are other cases where children find things they had hidden in their previous life (when they was taken to the previous life house), about which no one else in their previous families knew. In another case, the child had asked questions like “what happened to the tree that used to be here?” Also, these are very small children around 2-3, they wouldn’t have any interest to make up a story, etc., and they are also very emotional when talking about their previous families and when meeting them.

    Other evidence that suggest consciousness is different from how we understand it, are near death experiences (NDEs). In these experiences, patients recall descriptions of their resuscitation that happened during the time their brain was clinically non-functional, and out of the potentially verifiable out-of-body perceptions, about 90% have been found to be completely accurate. It is estimated that 25 million individuals worldwide have had a near death experience in the past fifty years, and these experiences have been reported throughout time in essentially all cultures, by not just religious individuals, but by atheists and agnostics as well as children who are commonly considered to be too young to have any real concept of death (see the references below).

    van Lommel, P. (2011). Near-death experiences: the experience of the self as real and not as an illusion. The New York Academy of Sciences, 1234:19-28.

    Agrillo, C. (2011). Near-Death Experience: Out-of-Body and Out-of-Brain? Review of General Psychology, 15(1), 1–10.

    • TLC, thank you. Over the course of many posts I’ve written in the past few months, it has become increasingly clearer to me that I need to take a much closer look at both Stevenson’s evidence and the counterarguments made against it (such as by Paul Edwards). I admit I don’t expect to be convinced by Stevenson’s work that rebirth is real, but without a closer examination of the material I can’t say for sure that it isn’t. That’s why I wrote the top paragraph of this post the way I did – if it turned out that Thompson did believe in rebirth, my response would have to look entirely different.

      One big point I haven’t seen anyone dispute, though: none of the cases Stevenson examines suggest anything whatsoever about ethicized rebirth, the rebirth-infused-by-karma that Śāntideva believes, in which being virtuous now will give you a better future rebirth. Even if you’re right that Stevenson’s cases are convincing, it would still seem that Śāntideva is likely wrong about that.

      • Thank you for your reply. I have read the books, and have been amazed by the cases. Not just Dr. Ian Stevenson, but many other researchers including Dr. Jim Tucker have investigated cases and they have investigated over 2,500 children! I think people criticize rebirth studies only because they think it doesn’t fit well with materialism. Regarding ‘ethicized’ rebirth, according to Early Buddhist teachings (reference below), the way in which karma manifests is complex, where the consequences may be manifested in this life, the next life or the lives to come unless their potentialities get extinguished or they do not find an opportunity for fruition.

        Reference: Jayatilleke, K. N. (1968). Survival and Karma In Buddhist Perspective. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.

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