Although most of us who follow the Buddhist path will accept the law of karma, it seems there is an increasing number of Buddhists (in the East and in the West) who are not convinced by the doctrine of rebirth. When researching views on the topic in the context of the Triratna Buddhist Community, I noticed that there is also a diversity of positions on rebirth within the Order. The opinions of our authors, for example, range from Vessantara’s ‘strong confidence that there is rebirth’ to Dhivan’s statement that he ‘does not believe’ in it. So what exactly is it that these Order members disagree on? Is there any common ground between them? What is Sangharakshita’s position on rebirth? And does our acceptance or rejection of rebirth have any implications for our practice? Does rebirth really matter?
Let’s begin with Sangharakshita. All of the footage that I have seen shows him responding to questions on rebirth with the traditional Buddhist view. In two interviews from the 1980s, for example, he states that ‘Something survives death; something of the order of consciousness’, which carries with it ‘traces from previous lives’. ‘Buddhism does teach that we have a whole series of lives; that we lived before, we live now, and we will live again after death.’ In a more recent discussion from 2008, he makes his position even clearer: ‘It has to be said that the teaching of karma and rebirth is an integral part of all the different Buddhist traditions’.
It is evident that Sangharakshita is encouraging us to take the idea of rebirth seriously, to reflect on the teaching and its implications for our lives. However, he also warns of attaching ‘so much importance to the idea of rebirth and of future possibilities of trading the path to Enlightenment that we forget, or neglect, to do so in this life itself.’ This argument forms the basis of Nagapriya’s book, Exploring Karma & Rebirth, where he suggests that more important than whether or not we adopt rebirth as a belief is ‘what implications our belief has for the way that we live our lives now.’
Nagapriya is therefore not afraid to move away from rebirth ‘as conventionally understood’ and re-envisage the Buddha’s teachings on rebirth in a modern, Western context. Dhivan has gone even further by questioning whether belief in rebirth is actually necessary in order to practise Buddhism effectively. Since rebirth is, in his opinion, ‘positively unlikely as far as one can tell from the discoveries and implications of science’, does it really have a place in the Buddhism that we practise in the West?
In his article entitled, ‘Some Problems with Deciding there is No Rebirth’, Vessantara has argued that attempting to formulate a Western Buddhism without rebirth is a dangerous game. He expresses his concern that ‘in the West we shall end up with Buddhism Lite – a sanitized version of the Dharma that includes everything that fits in with current scientific belief and discards all those inconvenient aspects, such as rebirth, that aren’t subject to measurement or are difficult to verify objectively.’ According to Vessantara, rebirth is so central to the Buddhist worldview that ‘much of traditional Buddhism falls away or becomes problematic…once you decide there is no rebirth.’ Sangharakshita has also said that he finds it ‘personally very difficult’ to think of Buddhism apart from this teaching. A Buddhism without rebirth is certainly not the Buddha’s Buddhism. So is it really Buddhism at all?
Vessantara has also stressed that Buddhist teachings on rebirth are inextricably linked to the principle of karma, which, as we have seen, is similarly prone to misunderstandings in both a traditional and modern context. Yet whilst many would claim that they can observe the law of karma quite directly in their experience, the existence of rebirth is much more difficult to verify. Sangharakshita himself is ‘doubtful whether it can be conclusively proved’. In this sense, then, the opinions of all the thinkers mentioned retain an element of agnosticism; Vessantara would admit that his views are provisional, and Dhivan has argued that ‘the real task for western Buddhists is to hold to a genuine agnosticism’ about rebirth. So, despite their differences, Sangharakshita, Nagapriya, Dhivan and Vessantara all definitely agree on something: practising Buddhism in the 21st century means keeping the debate about rebirth truly alive.
Interested to find out more? You can read the introduction to Nagapriya’s Exploring Karma & Rebirth on our website. Dhivan’s article on rebirth, ‘Agnosticism About Rebirth‘ is published here and you can find Vessantara’s ‘Some Problems with Deciding there is No Rebirth’ on his website. Lastly, here are some videos of Sangharakshita sharing his thoughts on rebirth: ‘What happens after death?’, ‘What is reborn?’ and ‘Belief in Rebirth’.