How Do We Make Sense of Rebirth?

Questions around rebirth—from how it works to whether it’s even real—have energized and divided Buddhists for millennia. In this excerpt from his book “Rebirth,” Roger R. Jackson unpacks the complexity of it all and offers four basic approaches to incorporating it (or not) into our own practice.

By Roger R. Jackson

Photo by Philippe Frangiere.

The writings of philosophically inclined scholars of Buddhism published in the past several decades reveal a remarkable variety of positions on rebirth, ranging from deliberate silence, to outright rejection, to the doctrine’s acceptance on metaphysical, empirical, or other grounds.

A number of writers who wish to place Buddhism in dialogue with contemporary philosophy and science have been content to leave traditional cosmology and metaphysics—especially the notion of rebirth—in abeyance. Thus, philosopher and neuroscientist Owen Flanagan writes in The Bodhisattva’s Brain of his desire to “naturalize” Buddhism within modern philosophical discourse, in part by bracketing out such unproven and likely unprovable notions as rebirth, karmic causation, nirvana, magical powers, heavens and hells, and nonphysical states of mind. Similarly, in his best-selling Why Buddhism Is True, journalist Robert Wright specifies that the Buddhism he claims is “true” is not “the ‘supernatural’ or more exotically metaphysical parts of Buddhism—reincarnation, for example—but rather…the naturalistic parts: ideas that fall squarely within modern psychology and philosophy.” Even philosopher and Buddhism scholar Jay Garfield specifies at the outset of his Engaging Buddhism: Why It Matters to Philosophers that he will “not discuss Buddhist theories of rebirth, of karma, or approaches to meditation…not because I take these to be unimportant…[but] because I do not see them as principal sites of engagement with Western philosophy.” The underlying assumption here, obviously, is that most contemporary philosophers and scientists simply will not consider nonphysicalist accounts of the operations of mind, let alone belief in life after death. Similar attitudes are evinced by Western Buddhist scholar–practitioners intent on aligning the tradition with modern culture. Stephen Batchelor, for instance, surveys a range of Buddhist rational, empirical, and ethical justifications for rebirth, finds them inconclusive at best, and concludes that

…all the pictures I entertain of heaven and hell, or cycles of rebirth, merely serve to replace the overwhelming reality of the unknown with what is known and acceptable…. To cling to the idea of rebirth, rather than treating it as a useful symbol or hypothesis, can be spiritually suffocating. If we are able to take Buddhism as an ongoing existential encounter with our life here and now, then we will only gain by releasing our grip on such notions.

Similarly, and even more pointedly, Richard Hayes asserts that the potential of Buddhism in the West “will never be realized…[until it] is purged of some of the Asian habits it has acquired down through the millennia,” and goes on to specify that the first of the teachings that should be discarded “are the obstructive doctrines…of rebirth and karma…[reflection on which] dulls the mind and impairs the faculty of reasoning”—although he does also concede that it may be a useful fiction for Buddhists as they seek to find their way in the modern world. Batchelor and Hayes know Buddhism well enough to recognize the importance of rebirth for traditional Buddhists, but both are convinced that it is possible to be Buddhist without taking the doctrine literally, and go on to imagine what a nonmetaphysical Buddhism might be like.

The standard argument for rebirth in the Indian and Tibetan Buddhist philosophical circles was that of Dharmakirti, which is notoriously complex. Richard Hayes summarized and partially translated a number of Dharmakirti’s arguments against materialism and in favor of rebirth, commenting along the way that, ingenious as they are, they do not fully succeed in dismantling materialist claims about the physical basis of mind or in establishing mind as ultimately independent of physical causes. In his 2012 study of the problem of intentionality in Buddhist and contemporary philosophies of mind, Dan Arnold faulted Dharmakirti for discussing mental causation in terms that actually are based on the model of physical causation that we observe in the world, pointing out that modern cognitive philosophers frequently eschew such classic causal language when attempting to make sense of how the mind works—and that doing so would have made a case like Dharmakirti’s easier rather than more difficult to argue.

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama has repeatedly reframed Dharmakirti’s arguments for rebirth in his discourses and published writings, most notably, perhaps, his discussion of Buddhism vis-à-vis science, The Universe in a Single Atom. He has famously declared that if a Buddhist doctrine is contradicted by irrefutable scientific evidence, then the doctrine ought to be discarded, and in the case of the traditional flat-earth theory, he has proposed just that. When it comes to rebirth, however, he argues, although not in so many words, that because absence of evidence does not constitute evidence of absence, he cannot accept that the doctrine has been refuted. He continues to present Dharmakirti’s arguments, at least in a general way, and to insist that although there may be a stronger connection between neurological events and ordinary mental states than traditional Buddhists believe, there remains the possibility that there are extraordinary mental states that do not depend on the neurological system, namely, the meditative experiences of advanced tantric yogis, especially those who have entered the postmortem concentration on the clear-light nature of the mind known as thukdam. The Dalai Lama has even encouraged neuroscientific studies of meditators in thukdam, although whether these will provide evidence for either the materialist or Buddhist position on mind and body remains to be seen: the presence of subtle neural activity in such contemplatives might prompt revisions of current notions of death, but would not prove that the yogi who has passed out of thukdam moves on to another realm; while the absence of neural activity would not assure that the meditative state assumed by tradition is not occurring, only that it is clinically undetectable. And if it is real but undetectable, then our current definitions of death—and consciousness—certainly will require rethinking.

Other contemporary thinkers seek to justify rebirth, and Buddhist mind–body metaphysics, not by reframing Dharmakirti’s arguments but by embracing alternative scientific cosmologies that make the mind or consciousness, rather than matter, the driving force in the universe, hence its passage from one life to the next relatively unproblematic. B. Alan Wallace has argued long and passionately that science’s prejudice against “first-person” subjective experiences as a source of knowledge both overestimates the reliability of science’s “third-person,” measurable methods and underestimates the role and reliability of what is often dismissed as “mere subjectivity.” This is especially true at the quantum level, where it appears that mind plays an active role in shaping so-called external reality. Indeed, says Wallace, an important implication of cutting-edge research in quantum mechanics is that the universe is properly conceived not—as classical physics insisted—as a physical system but as “fundamentally an information- processing system, from which the appearance of matter emerges at a higher level of reality.” He adds:

On the macroscopic scale this implies a shift from a materiocentric view of the universe to an empiricocentric view of the universe, and on a microcosmic scale, this requires a shift from a neurocentric to an empiricocentric view of human existence…[in which] meaning is fundamental.

On such a view, the independence of mind from body is easier to maintain, and rebirth easier to defend. In a somewhat similar fashion, David Loy proposes a “new evolutionary myth” inspired by the work of cultural historian Thomas Berry (1914–2009), which sees the universe as an organism and “evolution as the creative groping of a self-organizing cosmos that is becoming more self-aware.” If, as suggested by such a scenario, “consciousness is basic—if there might be rudimentary awareness even at the quantum level, as some physicists now believe—then there may be some plausibility to the notion of sanhkara [karmic formations] persisting after death.” This might not end up entailing individual survival in the manner usually described by traditional Buddhists, for in the absence of a self that is reborn, there is simply the emptiness/infinity that is the nature of the cosmos, which endlessly seeks and assumes form after form; in this sense, concludes Loy, “there is only rebirth,” but nothing resembling individual immortality. It is worth remarking briefly that the stances taken by Wallace and Loy, while influenced by radical interpretations of contemporary physics and cosmology, are also redolent of Yogacara “idealism,” and compatible in a number of ways with such Mahayana contemplative traditions as Zen, Tantra, and the Great Perfection.

Descending from the world of metaphysics, we find that a number of contemporary Buddhist thinkers are intent on demonstrating rebirth by appealing to empirical evidence, whether that evidence be the result of scientific investigation or meditative experience. Thus, the French-born Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard finds that “the certainty arising from a life of contemplative practice, or a life lived with a spiritual teacher, is just as powerful as that arising from the demonstration of a theorem,” hence must be granted some epistemic value. B. Alan Wallace, with his insistence on the importance of “first-person” evidence for knowledge about the world and his confidence in the deliverances of profound meditative concentration, argues that the experiences of advanced contemplatives give us real information about the world, and that the memories of past lives often unearthed by such yogis may therefore be reliable—hence evidence of the possibility of rebirth.

Even an “empirical” proof of rebirth—were there one—would not necessarily confirm the Buddhist theory of rebirth, either in its broad strokes or its fine details.

More recently, Bhikkhu Analayo has examined a number of modern grounds for accepting rebirth. He delves deeply into the research and case histories recorded by Ian Stevenson (1918–2007), who researched a large number of cases “suggestive of reincarnation”—agreeing that there are a small number of cases that truly seem inexplicable without the notion of rebirth—and investigating in particular detail a case with which he is personally familiar, that of a Sri Lankan boy whose style of reciting Pali texts was completely unknown early in his life, but turns out, on the basis of more recent research, to have been prevalent in an earlier era, of which the boy claims to have memories. These cases are, as Stevenson says, suggestive of rebirth, but hardly conclusive. As Evan Thompson notes, Stevenson’s studies may be faulted on a number of methodological grounds, particularly as relates to the time lag between a child’s first report of a past-life memory and the time they were interviewed by researchers, leaving “a large amount of room for false memory and after-the-fact reconstruction.” And Stephen Batchelor observes that even if some such reports are reliable, and certain people have undergone rebirth, “this in itself would not furnish any proof whatsoever either that they themselves would experience rebirth again or that anyone else was reborn in the past or will be in the future.” In other words, even an “empirical” proof of rebirth—were there one—would not necessarily confirm the Buddhist theory of rebirth, either in its broad strokes or its fine details.

It should be added that any Buddhist claims about metaphysical truths such as rebirth that are based solely on extrasensory or other special, “mystical” perceptions must inevitably face comparison with special-experience-based claims in other religious traditions, which may point to a very different way of “seeing” the cosmos—and in the absence of “third-person,” publicly available evidence, there is no way to give priority to one claim or the other, except on purely dogmatic grounds. As William James puts it,

Mystics have no right to claim that we ought to accept the deliverance of their peculiar experiences…. The utmost that they can ask of us in this life is to admit that they establish a presumption…for they form a consensus and have an unequivocal outcome.

“But,” adds James, “even this presumption from the unanimity of mystics is far from being strong,” for their unanimity dissolves upon closer inspection, since the philosophical positions and ways of life developed by mystics are quite various, admitting, for instance, of pantheism, monism, dualism, or theism; asceticism, celebration, or self-indulgence; and images of darkness or of light. James is discussing mysticism in general, but even if we were to push the dubious claim that all accomplished Buddhist “mystics,” wherever they have been, have enjoyed the same vision of the cosmos and its nature, those mystical claims—including claims to have seen the reality of karma and rebirth—cannot stand on their own as evidence, for they invite inevitable comparison with conclusions drawn by mystics in other traditions, which point in very different metaphysical and cosmological directions.

Approaches to the Question

Although most Buddhists in premodern Buddhist cultures accepted, and sometimes defended, the traditional Buddhist karmic eschatology, it is evident that since Asian Buddhists began to take account of modernity and Western Buddhists to take account of Asian traditions, those Buddhists that have bothered to talk about rebirth at all (and many have not), have typically done so by adopting one or the other of four possible approaches to rebirth:

(1) Among literalists—who accept traditional descriptions of the karma–rebirth cosmology and arguments for it either unquestioningly or on the basis of their own analysis—the most common constituency is Asian Buddhists, whether in Asia or the West. These would include many traditionally trained Theravada monks and Tibetan lamas, with the latter category including such figures above as Sakya Trizin, Dudjom Rinpoche, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, and Kalu Rinpoche. Many of these teachers’ Western disciples have adopted a literalist idea of rebirth as well, though they do not often write about their views, and what they do write is sometimes difficult to find outside of small Buddhist tracts and magazines.

(2) Neo-traditionalists—who seek to justify traditional cosmology and metaphysics in more “up-to-date” terms—comprise a large and diverse group. Among them, we might count Robert Thurman, who has argued for the truth and importance of the classical notion of rebirth but reframed it in evolutionary terms; B. Alan Wallace, who has argued on the basis of quantum physics that the mind is a more prominent factor in the cosmos than materialist science will allow, and, in the spirit of William James, that first-person experience is more reliable as a source of knowledge than philosophers will admit; Martin Willson, who finds rational arguments for rebirth unpersuasive but regards several types of empirical or experiential evidence as very promising; and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, who accepts many of the premises and conclusions of Dharmakirti’s arguments on rebirth, but limits their true applicability to the very subtlest level of the operations of mind and body, conceding that ordinary consciousness may indeed be impossible without neural activity.

(3) Modernists, who are uncertain about the literal truth of the traditional cosmology and metaphysics and generally unpersuaded by arguments for it, seek in various ways to maintain the language and imagery of karma, rebirth, and the realms of samsara—but recast in symbolic, psychological, or existential terms that are more amenable to modern sensibilities. Stephen Batchelor, with his “existential” interpretation of Buddhism, is the most prominent Western exponent of such an approach, but there are many others. Alan Watts, for example, understood claims about past and future lives as a way of describing the multiple social roles we adopt in our present life. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche seems (at times, at least) to have favored a largely psychological explanation of the six realms of rebirth and traditional ideas about death. David Loy recasts notions of rebirth within a new cosmological myth that effectively removes them from the traditional individual-survival framework. Richard Hayes regards rebirth as, at best, a useful fiction.

(4) Like those in the other groups, secularists vary in their motives and arguments, but are in accord that rebirth just doesn’t matter very much. Even if it was taught by the Buddha and his followers over the past two millennia, it is actually superfluous to the real meaning of the dharma, today as in B.C.E. India: a way to understand reality and live wisely, compassionately, and meaningfully within our present lives and in the common world we share. Thus, writers like Owen Flanagan, Robert Wright, and Jay Garfield deliberately put rebirth in abeyance when attempting to engage Buddhism with modern philosophy or psychology. Engaged Buddhists either reject the idea outright, as B. R. Ambedkar did, or largely ignore it, like Thich Nhat Hanh and many others. And, for the many modern people who do not identify as Buddhist but wish to draw on Buddhist insights and meditation techniques for specific purposes in their daily lives, rebirth is irrelevant at best, a distraction at worst, and in any case hardly worth worrying about.

In various contexts, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama may be read as a literalist, a neotraditionalist, or a modernist—and he even has propounded an ethics that might align him with the secularist camp.

These categories must be taken with many grains of salt: the lines between one and the other are not always sharp, such that, for instance, the difference between literalism and neotraditionalism is not always clear, nor that between modernism and secularism. By the same token, many of the thinkers discussed here are too complex to assign solely to one category. Thus, in various contexts, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama may be read as a literalist, a neotraditionalist, or a modernist—and he even has propounded a secular ethics that might align him with the fourth camp. Batchelor and Hayes may be classified as modernists but show strong secularist tendencies; indeed, Batchelor, for his part, has most recently described his as a secular Buddhism, even though he presents Buddhist doctrines, including rebirth, symbolically and existentially, as a modernist would. And a figure like Thich Nhat Hanh, who largely eschewed discussion of rebirth and hence appears “secularist,” clearly had both traditional and modern elements at work in his public ministry—and perhaps in his private convictions as well.

It might be argued that the very effort to think about Buddhism vis-à-vis modernity that generates these four categories is itself open to criticism. Most of the aforementioned thinkers attempt in one way or another to align traditional Buddhist cosmology and metaphysics with modern Western ideas and practices, whether simply to make it comprehensible, to defend it, to reject it, or to reinterpret it along less traditionally “religious” lines. One might suggest, though, that such efforts stem from a failure to recognize that traditional Buddhism is in fact almost entirely incommensurable with modern science, psychology, and aesthetics. This is the stance taken by Donald Lopez in his analysis of “the Scientific Buddha”—the Buddha imagined by moderns as perfectly consonant in his life and teachings with the scientific perspective and procedures developed in the past several centuries in the West. Lopez finds that such a Buddha never existed, and to posit him is to do serious violence to the way Buddhists have traditionally understood and lived in the world. According to Lopez, the Buddha and the tradition he founded are in most ways incompatible with modern, Western ideas and values, and must be acknowledged as such:

The Old Buddha, not the Scientific Buddha, presented a radical challenge to the way we see the world, both the world that was seen two millennia ago and the world that is seen today. What he taught is not different, it is not an alternative, it is the opposite. That the path we think will lead us to happiness instead leads to sorrow. That what we believe is true is instead false. That what we imagine to be real is unreal. A certain value lies in remembering that challenge from time to time.

Lopez says, in effect: don’t try to align Buddhism with science, psychology, or contemporary philosophy, don’t try to justify it, don’t try to reimagine it; rather, understand it as a radical critique of modernity and its complacencies. Perhaps, then, this is a fifth approach: literalism as radical cultural critique. Lopez’s approach is a demanding one, for it forces modern Buddhists to hold in mind opposing ways of understanding the world, an exercise in “negative capability” only sustainable by a few. The vast majority, I expect, will opt for one of the four approaches to rebirth outlined above, or some combination of them. Each of them, I believe, has a role to play in the ongoing colloquy among Buddhists as to how the tradition ought to be imagined and enacted in the modern world: literalists remind us of the classical Buddhist outlook, so different from our own; neo-traditionalists provide ways to argue for the traditional cosmology and metaphysics, or something akin to it; modernists either suspend or reject the classical paradigm, but find new, nonmetaphysical ways of making it meaningful; while secularists raise vital questions about just how much of tradition can be jettisoned in the process of finding a place for Buddhism in our disenchanted world.

My own view—certainly debatable—is that one or another form of modernism best points the way forward. I am particularly drawn to the various forms of “Buddhist agnosticism” that have been articulated in recent decades. The term was coined by Stephen Batchelor, but may appropriately be applied to any thinker who finds traditional rational, empirical, or faith-based arguments in favor of rebirth problematic but does not reject the idea outright, admitting that—with our present limitations—we simply do not know whether past and future lives are real. One interesting agnostic argument comes from an unexpected source, the late Tibetan lama Lati Rinpoche, who in a 1986 conversation with Richard Hayes suggested that Westerners uncertain about karma and rebirth (which Rinpoche concedes are “beyond absolute proof ”) should remain open to the possibility that the traditional cosmology and metaphysics are true, and in any case behave as if they were true by living ethically and compassionately. In that way, they will generate happiness for themselves and others in this life, and if there are future lives, they will be happy ones; conversely, if they behave negatively, they will bring misery to themselves and others in this life and face a sorrowful rebirth, if rebirths there are. As Hayes rightly notes, this argument is akin to Pascal’s famous “wager” regarding the existence of God and the reality of final judgment. Leaving aside the question whether so tentative an acceptance of religious claims might itself be problematic in the eyes of God or amidst the subtleties of karma, we may agree with Hayes that Rimpoche

…seems to place these doctrines in a mythical space, as opposed to a historical or scientific framework. Access to this mythical space can be gained, not by logical proof or through a methodical empirical investigation of the sensible world, but by exercising one’s imagination and then having the courage of one’s imaginings.

For Hayes, reading traditional cosmology and metaphysics as myth—as “fictional”—allows modern people to imagine ways of living quite different from their own, not unlike a good novel; to the same degree that a novel or other work of art may widen our perspective and ennoble our lives, engaging with the traditional Buddhist imaginary allows modern Buddhists to enter more meaningfully into the streams of Buddhist life and provide meaning within their own.

Freed from the illusion of perfect objectivity, why not think and live as if Buddhism were true?

Along similar lines, Batchelor opts for a “middle way” agnosticism in which one “does not have either to assert [rebirth] dogmatically or deny it; one neither has to adopt the literal versions presented by tradition nor fall into the other extreme of believing that death is the final annihilation.” This, he asserts, does not mire us in indecision. Rather, it allows us, as in Zen, to confront with ruthless honesty “the Great Matter of Life and Death,” and “is a powerful catalyst for action, since in shifting concern away from a hypothetical future life, to the dilemmas of the present, it demands…a compassion-centered ethic” that will bring joy to our lives and the lives of others. In his writings, Batchelor seems ambivalent about entertaining traditional cosmology and metaphysics even at the symbolic level; he often implies that we simply ought to get beyond these outmoded conceptions. He has also asserted, however, that if he were to utilize the traditional Buddhist vision, “I would try to behave as if there were infinite lifetimes in which I would be committed to saving beings.”

I myself would argue without ambivalence for what I call “As-If Agnosticism.” My stance is agnostic because, like Hayes and Batchelor (and many others), I do not find traditional descriptions of karma and rebirth literally credible, nor am I fully persuaded by arguments in their favor, whether rational, empirical, or faith-based; on the other hand, I cannot rule out the possibility that such descriptions (or something akin to them) may in fact be true. The universe, after all, is surpassingly strange.

In the spirit of Wallace Stevens’s famous statement that “we believe without belief, beyond belief,” I propose that we live as if such descriptions were true. I am not suggesting we simply take up wishful thinking: if only there were past and future lives, if only karma works the ways tradition says it does, if only glorious and perfect buddhahood awaited us all at the end of the rainbow. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. But as Buddhists have argued for millennia, Western humanists have claimed for centuries, and scientists have recently begun to recognize, the world is actually built far more on our ideas, aspirations, and speculations—the As-If—than we suppose, and the solid foundations we presume to lie beneath us—the “As-Is”—are much more difficult to find than we assume. It’s not, therefore, that by living as if certain doctrines were true we really are in flight from some bedrock, objective reality, because that reality—though it certainly imposes limitations on us, most notably at the time of death—turns out to be far more a matter of convention and far less “just the way things are” than we had thought. Freed from the illusion of perfect objectivity, therefore, why not think and live as if Buddhism were true? In doing so, we empower ourselves to enter, as fully as is possible in a skeptical age, into the ongoing, ever-changing life of the dharma, adopting Buddhist ideals, telling Buddhist stories, articulating Buddhist doctrines, performing Buddhist rituals, and embodying Buddhist ethics in ways that make meaning for ourselves, provide a measure of comfort to others, and perhaps contribute in some small way to the betterment of the imperfect and imperiled world in which we all live.

From Rebirth: A Guide to Mind, Karma, and Cosmos in the Buddhist World, by Roger R. Jackson (Shambhala Publications, 2022)

Roger R. Jackson

Roger R. Jackson

Roger Jackson is professor emeritus of Asian studies and religion at Carleton College and a visiting professor of Buddhism at Maitripa College. His research interests include Indian and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, meditation, and ritual; Buddhist religious poetry; and modern Buddhist thought. Trained by Geshe Sopa in Madison, he is a long-time practitioner and a scholar of Mahamudra; his most recent book, Mind Seeing Mind, is a study of Mahamudra in the Geluk tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.