Is rebirth a myth?

Posted by on Jul 24, 2012 in Buddhism, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Brad “Hardcore Zen” Warner wrote a post a little while ago about the ‘myth’ of rebirth. I then saw something in the Guardian (a UK newspaper) about myths, and somewhere else too – I forget where.

I should mention that Brad’s blog is my favourite blog right now.

But this idea that rebirth is a myth – it needs some further thought.

Traditionally, rebirth is not a myth (as in a poetic description designed to point at something of value), it’s true. It’s just how things are. Different Buddhist schools have different ideas about what exactly happens, but they all believe that rebirth is how it is.

Philosophically, the different Buddhist abhidharma frameworks break down the process of death and rebirth extremely precisely. That’s not what myths are like. That’s what theories are like.

Empirically, rebirth can’t be proved or disproved. There is no scientific measuring system that will confirm it (though there has been some western-style research into rebirth stories by Dr Ian Stevenson which is pretty interesting).

Mythically, the rebirth idea can help us to understand things we experience. And I agree with Brad in that this is perhaps where rebirth is of most use to us. For example, we can talk of the ‘death’ of the child and the ‘rebirth’ as an adult. Or the death of one thought, but that thought giving rise to another thought – it’s not the same thought, but the previous thought caused it to arise, in the same way that Buddhists see rebirth happening (there is no permanent ‘soul’ moving from one incarnation to the next – there is a causal process, based on karmic momentum from a previous life that brings a new being into existence).

What’s actually going on? Who knows! My own experience on the point of death was not that consciousness was in danger of extinguishing, though ‘me’ didn’t mean very much. I wouldn’t describe it as ‘my consciousness’.

One final point. Buddhists who don’t believe in rebirth (for example Stephen Batchelor) must also let go of the idea that Buddhist practice leads to enlightenment. You can’t have it both ways. Most Buddhist practitioners don’t become enlightened in their lifetime – so if this is all there is, that’s that.

Enlightenment is not necessarily a bad thing to let go of, and I think Buddhist practice is clearly of benefit without the idea of enlightment as a goal. I’m just saying that, since the vast majority of Buddhist practitioners don’t achieve enlightenment before death, one could argue that focusing on accruing and enjoying wealth and power makes at least as much sense as a life choice as spiritual practice. When you’re dead you’re dead. So party?

What do you think? Is rebirth, or enlightenment, a key part of Buddhism that you can’t leave out just because it doesn’t sit well in a Western Buddhist framework? Or is it a cultural hand-me-down that we can throw out in our development of a Western Buddhist tradition? 



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