Rebirth Without Metaphysics

by Ven. Wayne Hughes (Ren Cheng)

The concept of rebirth can be described in a useful and productive way without relying on metaphysics. Rebirth as it relates to the not-self, and to impermanence can become part of our daily practice of Buddhism.

The concept of rebirth as described in Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Perspective, David J. Kalupahana (page 32) is accepted by faith in many Buddhist traditions. “The process of rebirth is explained as the combining of the two factors, consciousness (vinnana) and the psychophysical personality (namarupa). The psychophysical personality referred to here is the foetus formed in the mother’s womb and which represents the beginning of a new life span. Consciousness surviving from the past is said to become infused in this new personality, and thus a continuity is maintained between the two lives.” Accepted as linear “birth to death to birth” this involves a consciousness that is separate from the mind-body, an “entity” that exists after life ceases and can enter a developing fetus. Belief in this description of rebirth would require a belief in the metaphysical.

It is said that the Buddha spoke on the matter of rebirth as it related to his first enlightenment experience. At that time he acquired three varieties of knowledge, the first being detailed knowledge of his past lives. The Buddha could remember the conditions of those lives, what his names had been, what his works had been; he could recall those existences. The Buddha’s closest disciples, as well as Buddhist saints, scholars and meditators also make this claim.

Contemporary translations show that early Buddhism rejected metaphysics, replacing it with real world experience, and quoting Kalupahana again, “Still, they differ (here he writes of comparison with the Madhyamika school) with regard to the manner in which metaphysics was rejected. While early Buddhism appealed to experience in order to eliminate metaphysics.”

NOTE: The Madhyamika school was founded by Nagarjuna and held that the Buddha accepted the existence of an Ultimate or Absolute Reality that could not be described. The Pali Nikayas, as well as the Chinese Agamas both show that the Buddha did not hold a belief in the Ultimate or Absolute as they could not be possible given the reality of a causal world.

The Buddha’s disciples and the lay-people of his culture and time knew only the Hindi religion and what they had been taught by Brahman. Naturally when the Buddha spoke of rebirth their inclination would be toward the Hindu concept. Rather than “butt-heads” with their worldview perhaps the Buddha felt that over time they would come to realize a more causal view of rebirth. Setting aside the metaphysical, the “past lives” the Buddha spoke of were his time as a child, a teenager, a warrior, a prince, an ascetic, a yogi, and all the other paths Siddhartha had taken, each one being the “death” of one view and the “birth” of another.

There is much in Buddhist writings (sutras and commentaries) that seem contradictory. That is why it is important to look to contemporary scholars and translators like Kalupahana and his teacher, Jayatilleke whose translations and commentaries on the Pali Nikayas put the Buddha’s teachings into historical and cultural perspective. In my training as a Pragmatic Buddhist I also learned to add another important factor to scholarship; creative re-description.

I readily admit to an agnostic view of the metaphysical concept of rebirth. Might it be real, in a metaphysical sense? Absolutely, but I have no proof of it; so, it has no bearing on how I live and relate to life. As far as I know through experiential verification this is only life I’ll have so that makes it my responsibility to do my best with it. Should there be verifiable evidence then I’ll reconsider.

Now for the meat of this creative re-description of rebirth. It is accepted that the Buddha taught that there was no permanent, unchanging self (anatman) no matter how deeply one looked. Each experience we have results in a causal change to the self, or causes a rebirth of that self. This is logical to me because I have experiential verification that I was in a sense “reborn”, and Christians use the term frequently to describe someone who has accepted Jesus as their savior.

For years I checked Buddhist as my religion on official forms and if someone asked, “What religion are you?”, I answered, “Buddhist”. I could talk about Buddhism and I found that my personal beliefs paralleled what I read about Buddhist philosophy. That was “my self” until the moment I encountered a teacher who made me realize that talking wasn’t being a Buddhist, acting was being a Buddhist. Right then I experienced rebirth.

Now I realize that this happens often just to varying degrees each moment. There is the death of one self and the rebirth of another. This a dramatic example, but one that I bet has happened to many others.

It is consciousness being “infused in this new personality”. It just isn’t in a new body; it’s in a new version of the self. There is “death of the old” and there is “continuity” it is just in the same mind-body. The not-self is impermanent. Each experience, each moment causes change in that self. There is the opportunity in each moment for rebirth into a new self. It is up to us to realize this, and with that realization take the responsibility to make that a more positive, more engaged self.

Believing that we can make positive changes and engaging ourselves to make them are actions, thought and physical. Realizing that right now we can undergo a “rebirth” from who we are to who we want to be is an empowering thing. By engaging in positive activities we can become more positive. By engaging with like-minded people we can support each other.



Re-Birth and the Mystical

by Ven. David Astor (Xi Ken)

I wish to add to Ven. Wayne Hughes’s post on Rebirth Without Metaphysics. The notion of re-birth and karma have been taught long before Siddhartha Gotama was born, and is still being taught today outside Buddhism as principles associated in Hinduism. After considerable thought the Buddha refined his understanding of both re-birth and karma, and based on his experience after being enlightened he brought new insight to these teachings. Especially when considering the teaching of no-self (anatta). The problem is that today many Buddhists still take aspects of the Buddhist principle of re-birth and karma that are actually Hindu teaching. In some Buddhist schools and lineages re-birth is also associated with reincarnation. I also am of the mind that to study the Pali Nikaya suttas on the subject requires much research as the texts can be challenging in order to come to an understanding of what the Buddha taught. Not to mention cultural influences. In English just the word “re-birth” connotes relevance to after death experience.

Today wrong teachings concerning these principles are publicized in books and articles by various Asian and Western writers and presented as Buddhist teachings, but are actually about re-birth and karma as understood in Hinduism. So, the right teaching of Buddhism is misrepresented. It represents the importance language plays in transmitting new teachings from one culture to another, and how translating text is a scholarly endeavor. When I consider re-birth I can not do so without also considering the relationship it has (or doesn’t have) with the teachings of karma.

I agree with my Dharma brother that re-birth happens each time we do an action and that re-birth happens spontaneously at the moment of that action. So, we do not need to wait to “come back” in order to experience a re-birth. In my own life experience I have initiated what I call “re-inventing myself with intent” several times over the past decades. When we think and act the mind changes through our desires, our attachments, the filters we use to view the world around us in accordance with the law of dependent origination. How the Buddha saw it, there is no need to wait for physical death to occur in order for re-birth to happen. This should be considered as a core teaching of Buddhism as it relates to the state of no-self to be re-born. How the notion of re-birth after death crept into Buddhism is difficult to identify. That can be a detailed study left for another time.

Siddhartha took a very pragmatic approach to his understanding of how the Universe functions. His developed principle of the Four Ennobling Truths informs us on how to look at our own lives in order to find useful and productive ways to move away from unsatisfactoriness and toward a path of freedom. We need to deal with what we know to be real as demonstrated by verifying our experiences with developed knowledge. He practiced either silence when ask about metaphysical issues, or he defined them as “unknowns” not deserving the time for discussion because it would not result in resolutions of human suffering. But it seems to me that one aspect that makes us human is wondering about the mystical; which is only mystical if reality is limited to what can be measured by the intellect and senses. That is true in the Buddha’s day, and is true today. The Buddha tried to draw focus away from the metaphysical and back to reality of the moment. But here we are, still trying to make since out of the notion of re-birth even among Buddhists. One reason for this I think is because many Buddhist’s get their information second-hand. Not from the study of the Pali Cannon directly or especially the Nikayas. Another reason is the illusion of the ego, an individual existence, which is a dream that separates us from a true perception of the whole, and one that mystics seek – a reunion with the lost paradise of our “true nature.” This is seeking an illusion as the Buddha would say. For me, it is only man knowing he is the matter of the cosmos, contemplating itself and trying to embrace an unsolvable. The challenge is, while doing so, not to fall down the rabbit hole like Alice.


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