Is Rebirth After Death a Real Phenomenon?

| January 4, 2012 | 30 Comments

Take this poll to share your opinion on rebirth after death of the body.

[poll id=”5″]

 

::Discuss this Poll::

 

 

 

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Dana Nourie

About the Author ()

Dana is Technical Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. She learned Buddhism through a DVD course on Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, followed by a two-year course in person. She then studied Theravada Buddhism through the Insight Meditation South Bay with teacher Shaila Catherine. She has been a practitioner now for over a decade. Dana has been working in the internet industry since 1992, has held the positions of web developer, technical writer, and online community manager. She is a geek girl with a passion for science and computing.

Comments (30)

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  1. Linda Linda says:

    I don’t like the word “myth” as applied to other people’s belief systems, especially when there are great numbers of people alive now who believe in what is being called a “myth”.

  2. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Curious at what point we call stories myth, Linda? Can we call the Greek stories myths because so few people believe they are real? There are some people who do still believe them. Are you saying a large consensus is needed to label events as myths?

    Thanks! As a child I was curious how we decided when something is mythology versus when it is religion. I still am:-)

  3. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Linda, the word was intended to be provocative. However, a myth is a story created to help people understand and communicate some understanding of the world. To that extent, mythology functions as a kind of hypothesizing about how the world works. We can still look to mythology to understand the issues people felt were important and the truths they wanted to communicate. Mythology can still be compelling even when we accept its status as fiction. However, I don’t think it’s a problem to point to something a lot of people believe — thetans, the Angel Moroni, the supposed Mayan apocalypse, or classical Indian rebirth — and call it a myth. Much mischief is perpetrated in the name of mythology that is considered impolite to question publicly.

  4. Linda Linda says:

    I think the word “belief” is better than the word “myth”, unless you’re referring to something someone specifically made up to be mythical.

  5. hundovir says:

    The word “myth” has a long and honourable history in the field of Religious Studies, where it means something like “significant story” or “story with meaning”. It is emphatically NOT the same as “childish fiction”. I had assumed that it was being used in the technical sense in this poll, not in the popular sense. (There is a similar disparity in the use of the word “cult” in Religious Studies and in popular usage.)

  6. justinasia says:

    This poll is highly biased in that is it obvious the writer of it believed in non-reincarnation. Here is a translation of the 5 options the poll gives:

    1) I do believe in reincarnation.
    2) I don’t believe in reincarnation
    3) I don’t believe in reincarnation
    4) I don’t believe in reincarnation
    5) I don’t even want to speculate about reincarnation

    Furthermore, whereas those who do not believe in reincarnation and those who believe in non-reincarnation have 4 options to choose from, the only option given to those who believe in reincarnation is option 1, which will not be acceptable to all of those who believe in reincarnation because this option also contains the statement “Without rebirth, there is no basis to Buddhist ethics or salvation.”

    So is the writer of this poll assuming that the only reason anyone could believe in reincarnation is because of the consequence not doing so would have on their view of the validity of the Buddhist framework of ethics and salvation?

    I find this disrespectful. This silences all those who believe in reincarnation but not the additional statement, such as, for example, all the non Buddhist who believe in reincarnation, not to mention what I assume would be the vast majority of Buddhists.

    People have different reasons for believing in reincarnation. Some due to culture. Some due to education. Some due to personal experience. Some due to experience of friends and associates, or by reading written experiences or studies. I also notice that your poll is effectively stating that there is no evidence for reincarnation – I see no option which says “Since we have evidence, I believe in rebirth”. And yet, many people consider that they do have evidence. Perhaps your belief makes you discount their evidence? That is fine, but if they believe they have evidence, why not let them say so, if you are really interested in polling opinions.

    I was expecting intelligent discussion from a site with such a title as ‘secular Buddhism’. Buddhism itself is so very scientific and rigorous in investigating things logically. How much more so might a secular Buddhism be! But alas, from reading this poll I am disappointed by the attitude it conveys.

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      Hi, J. Thank you for your comment on the poll, perhaps I could put in a somewhat different perspective.

      You are right, the poll can be seen as biased. We’re a secular Buddhist site, that *is* our bias, and we’re very well aware of that limitation all people have. But your translation is changing the poll incorrectly; reincarnation is not the same as rebirth, even within the context of Buddhism. Setting that aside, you also list four disbeliefs, and that is simply incorrect. Here’s another rewording that is more accurate:

      1) I believe in rebirth — literally
      2) I believe in rebirth — metaphorically
      3) I do not believe in rebirth
      4) I am agnostic about rebirth — because I think it’s speculation
      5) I am agnostic about rebirth — because Buddha said to avoid speculation

      That’s two *for* rebirth, only *one* against, and two agnostics. Note that the poll is asking about one’s opinions, it is not a scientific survey, it is interpretive. As such, 1) and 2) are distinguishing between the two common positive beliefs about rebirth.

      This is not disrespectful, nor is it silencing you — tell me, do you have polls on your religious sites that ask fairly about our views against rebirth? If not, then we would also be being silenced. Of course this is ridiculous, religious sites are about religious matters, and should be, it is their area of interest and focus.

      As for evidence for rebirth, we continue to be quite open about our interest in seeing evidence — not stories that have been subject to years of narrative corruption with no controls, as that remains nothing more than speculation. If you’re going to suggest the old Lancet article, I’d suggest re-reading it, as there is no evidence whatsoever in it. Also, Ian Stevenson says very clearly in his book about reincarnation that the stories in it are not proof, either.

      I agree with you that Buddhism can be rigorous, so please, if you have evidence to provide, please do so, we would be *eager* to see what it is. If there is none, that’s okay to accept it if it works for you. Many of us want to see something more clear and unambiguous.

      Now, that being said, we have an opportunity to do a new poll and address concerns in the interest of having a more balanced response. Would you be willing to partner with us to write that poll? Happy to work with you, and we’ll link to it on our various network nodes.

      • justinasia says:

        Sorry for not addressing your later questions. Yes I would be very happy to help you in creating a new poll. No I do not have any ‘religious’ website so I do not have any polls on my websites. I am involved in Western and Eastern fields, and have studied science a fair bit, and try to keep myself free of bias, logical and rooted in experience. Regarding evidence, I tried not to give my own view nor my own reasons for my view since I thought that that would not be so helpful, since I am only one person. I just felt that the equality was in need of being addressed, regardless of my own particular experience or view.

  7. justinasia says:

    Hi Ted,
    Firstly please forgive me for replacing the term of the poll ‘rebirth’ with the term ‘reincarnation’. That was accidental and I had not even noticed. For me the two terms are synonymous in that they are different words which I believe are used for expressing the same phenomenon, albeit that both terms may have more or less palatablity with different philosophical explanations of the phenomenon. For me, the life starts with conception, which is about 9 months before birth – so I prefer the term reincarnation since 1) it is the more common of the two terms and 2) it refers to the coming into form, or the coming into being of a physical form, which relates to conception rather than 9 months later coming out of the womb which ‘birth’ represents. But I am very comfortable with either term.

    I would disagree with your suggestion of “2) I believe in rebirth — metaphorically”
    That for me is like a Christian saying “I believe the world is flat – metaphorically” or “I believe God created the world 5000 years ago – metaphorically”. Believing ‘metaphorically’ that the world is flat would in any normal person’s words mean that you do not believe the world is flat. Try telling it to a 5 year old. “So you DO believe the world is flat?” “Yes, metaphorically”. They will just ask you to tell them straight, “Do you believe it or not?” And if you care anything about the kid understanding what you really believe, you will tell him “No, I believe the world is round like a ball, not flat.”

    Since rebirth or reincarnation are words which have accepted meanings, or consensus definitions, then in the context of this modern world and in the context of ordinary language, I think what you are meaning would be more reasonably expressed as “I do not believe in rebirth. I believe what was being referred to as ‘rebirth’ was meant to have been understood as merely a metaphor”.

    This does of course bring the question of why the Buddha did not have the balls to just come out and tell it straight to the rebirth-believing masses that rebirth was actually not true, rather than disguising it in metaphor as this option assumes.

    Regarding number 3, yes perhaps I could agree that that is more agnostic, except that it is already dismissing all of the evidence for rebirth. And in that respect, it is not really agnostic. To me it actually sounds like someone who is sure there is no evidence and so it is as believable as any other story with ‘no evidence’ such as bigfoot or cheese on the moon. To be fair it should have an equivalent, such as:
    “Since we evidence for rebirth, I believe in rebirth.”
    Without that to balance it, the poll in fact comes across as acting not merely as an unbiased set of questions, but actually as a ‘teaching aid’ of the people who believe in non-rebirth to spread their doctrine.

    Regarding the last option:
    “Rebirth is metaphysical, and Buddha clearly taught against speculation about such matters.”

    Why not balance that with:
    “Buddha clearly taught about rebirth, so I believe in rebirth.”
    Again, without something like that to balance it, it looks like another teaching aid for those adhering to the non-rebirth doctrine.

    To quote the great Buddhist scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi, “If we suspend our own predilections for the moment and instead go directly to our sources, we come upon the indisputable fact that the Buddha himself taught rebirth and taught it as a basic tenet of his teaching.”

    By the very options given, by their wording, and by the omission of balanced alternatives, the poll becomes a message. Is this its purpose? The question sounds more open than that: “Is Rebirth After Death a Real Phenomenon?” And the explanation: “Take this poll to share your opinion on rebirth after death of the body.” This makes it sound like a place to share opinion, as if the aim of the poll is to receive views, or survey them. But the poll itself has the smell of something which in fact is trying to disseminate a view. Have I smelled correctly?

  8. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    Hi, J. Thank you for the thoughtful response, I sincerely do appreciate you taking the time to have the dialogue. That’s really what this site is about, an exploration of what a secular approach to Buddhism might be, and this helps further the understanding of what people’s beliefs are.

    I think that’s really the answer to your last question, sorry to take them a bit out of order! I didn’t write the poll, but my expectation knowing the folks who did is that it wasn’t intended to be a disingenuous way to further an agenda; it was simply written from a perspective of a secularist. And of course that could easily have put a spin on it that I don’t think was intended. We’re fallible, and unintentional results will occur as we speak. So in that regard, it would be very helpful to have your input on another poll around this topic — thank you for that as well!

    As for 2) above, you make a good point about metaphor not being the right wording (this is one of those examples of our shortcomings in word choice!). Perhaps a better way of framing the meaning many secularists have around rebirth isn’t that it’s a metaphor, but that it can be demonstrably useful when taken in the context of moment by moment existence. Now, there are quite lengthy and deep conversations around this topic of the Pali canon, what Gotama said and what might have been meant or otherwise added or misconstrued, in the recent podcast episode with Ajahn Sujato, so I’d suggest going there to take on that topic. But you’re right, metaphor wouldn’t be accurate; instead, some wording around rebirth being interpreted as moment by moment rather than physical life to physical life. I’m not saying that was the intent, or denying what’s in the canon, just that’s how many people interpret the words. The poll is about what people think, not what the words are.

    As for evidence of rebirth, you mentioned Bigfoot, which I find to be a very good analogy. We have stories for Bigfoot, but not good evidence. Until something more compelling, demonstrable, and repeatable comes along, full acceptance of the veracity of Bigfoot is perhaps not warranted. I feel the same way about rebirth — what do we have that’s more than stories after the fact? Again, I’m happy to be convinced, but nothing even remotely meeting what you and I would both expect for a claim about another religion’s post-mortem explanation has been provided. We should expect from ourselves the same standard that would convince us that Jesus is our savior, for example.

  9. justinasia says:

    Hi Ted,
    Can you email me privately from this system? If so, then when you would like help making a new poll, please feel free to ask, or contact me directly through my website http://www.equaltaste.com otherwise.

    Regarding my own personal opinion, I have met enough people who have remembered their past lives to be convinced. Most of them I have come into contact with seem only to remember up to the age of about 5 years old. After that, they may only remember the memories, rather than actually have the memories themselves, if you know what I mean. This has been memories such as the place they used to live, their family members’ names and appearance, life events, things like that. And they were able to confirm them, for example one friend of mine was born in a village in North East India and remembered his previous life from a nearby village. His parents did not believe him straight away but when they took him to where he had explained, it was as he had said. It was accepted in that culture since they were Buddhists, but I also met an English man who had, as a child, given his parents a guided tour around a Cathedral which they visited as a family for the first time. Now, he was not sure it was due to a previous life, but he seemed to feel that as a possibility. In particular, he felt a particular connection to one of the graves. Anyway he was only a child, and his guided tour freeked out his parents enough for the matter to never be raised again. I know another Westerner with a similar story also. So perhaps these things do happen more in Western culture than is realised, but are less spoken about due to cultural taboo.

    Now, these are not ‘scientific proof’ because they do not have strict conditions, and have not been ‘tested’. And more to the point, anyone hearing them from me is merely receiving hearsay. But for me, since I knew these people personally, it gives me the same sense of belief as if I had had a dozen friends I had met independently, trusted well, and heard their reports of their visit to Firenze. It would be illogical after such consistent reports from independent sources for me to conclude that I should exclude the belief in the existence of Firenze from my belief system.

    I would not of course expect anyone else to believe due to my stories though. Better from them to meet other people with 1st hand experience.

    In fact another valid line of investigation would be to attain the level of meditative experience which the suttas say is necessary to remember ones past lives, and then report on what is perceived or not. I believe that to be considered scientific, the theory should be testable. The discourses of Early Buddhism, which may be the earliest we can go back to the Buddha’s own ideas, say that recollection of past lives will occur after training in the 4 jhanas. If Secular Buddhism is attempting to refute this, has it been tested? Presumably it would be very difficult to refute this prediction scientifically without testing it. Are there a good number of Secular Buddhists, or for that matter any persons from whom Secular Buddhists have gathered reports, who have mastery in the 4 jhanas, and have reported either way? This would seem to me the most scientific way of testing the validity of this tenet of Buddhism.

  10. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    Hi, J. Hope you’re enjoying a long weekend. We can email privately on this site, but I’ll simply email you directly as needed.

    You’ve said, “I have met enough people who have remembered their past lives to be convinced.” There are a few question that come to mind with that statement. First, though I expect they have had very compelling experiences, that does not make them accurate experiences, or even real memories. The interview with Elizabeth Loftus makes quite clear that the human brain is not a tape recorder, and that memories can not only be created, but quite often are. You are willing to accept that such a memory is accurate — I am not. So tell me, what specific things did you do to verify these were accurate reflections of real events, how do you know that the memories were not created, and how did you tie the memories as having been caused by those events?

    This is the problem, J. The stories are uncontrolled, and people with the most sincere of beliefs in their veracity may be in error. Going to a place, for example, and seeing something that seemed very familiar and making a good guess about its history does not mean the person lived in that history.

    “Most of them I have come into contact with seem only to remember up to the age of about 5 years old. After that, they may only remember the memories, rather than actually have the memories themselves, if you know what I mean.”

    Yes, completely. The older the memory, the more it is a copy of a copy of a copy.

    “His parents did not believe him straight away but when they took him to where he had explained, it was as he had said.”

    And how exactly did that go? We’ve just agreed that memories in this lifetime are copies of copies, and not the actual memories. Are you open to the possibility that the narrative wasn’t exactly as they describe it now, and that coincidence may have played a part? I’m open to the possibility of it being rebirth, if someone — anyone — can provide more than narratively uncontrolled retelling that increases in strength like the size of the fish that got away.

    “In particular, he felt a particular connection to one of the graves.” J., in three different conversations with people who have been on this podcast, they related truly believing they were Buddhists in a past life — until they saw an episode of Kung Fu on television again, and remembered the show was where their ideas had come from. Up to that point, they felt particular connection with Buddhism that they were explaining as past lives.

    “Now, these are not ‘scientific proof’ because they do not have strict conditions, and have not been ‘tested’. And more to the point, anyone hearing them from me is merely receiving hearsay.”

    Thank you, I sincerely appreciate the honesty of that statement.

    “But for me, since I knew these people personally, it gives me the same sense of belief as if I had had a dozen friends I had met independently, trusted well, and heard their reports of their visit to Firenze.”

    The difference is that this place can be externally verified, their stories cannot.

    “Better from them to meet other people with 1st hand experience.” I would suggest that best would be to have the experience themselves, write down the information that could not have been known in any way, and then check it out with company to help offset confirmation bias. And when we say ‘could not be known in any way’, that’s exactly what it means — no asking if there was a person with a common name living in such and such a place when of course there would likely have been such a person. Give exact dates that are not on record, find the buried treasure, or if rebirth is true, the previously unknown archeological site complete with accurate maps. That would be more compelling than asking of someone named Dave lived three towns over, when you may not remember having heard about Dave a few years before as a child.

    “If Secular Buddhism is attempting to refute this, has it been tested? … This would seem to me the most scientific way of testing the validity of this tenet of Buddhism.” This is a fundamental misperception that is very common about the burden of proof — it is the person asserting the claim, in this case rebirth, who has to demonstrate it, *not* the person asking for the evidence. Let’s take another example: If I claim that Thor visited me, I would have to prove it; you would not have to prove that Thor didn’t visit me. This video on explains it much better than I could.

    • justinasia says:

      Hi Ted,
      I am a bit limited for time, but I will try to reply in part at least.
      “First, though I expect they have had very compelling experiences, that does not make them accurate experiences, or even real memories. […] You are willing to accept that such a memory is accurate — I am not.”

      I totally accept this, and expect it, as I stated earlier. This is just about me.

      “So tell me, what specific things did you do to verify these were accurate reflections of real events, how do you know that the memories were not created, and how did you tie the memories as having been caused by those events?”

      If my friend had come back from a holiday in Paris, and told me about the Eiffel Tower, how it was made of metal, and stood very tall, and how he went inside it and went up to a great height, I would be unlikely to go to great lengths to verify that. Were his stories accurate reflections? Had he perhaps hallucinated the experience? Or had he passed by a postcard stall in London, seen the picture, and then drempt about being there? How can I be sure that even if he had the memory of being at the Tower, that this was caused by a real event?

      I would not take that approach. In fact, I do not think most people would expect me to either. However, if I lived in a community which was convinced that the Eiffel Tower did not exist, and that there were some people who falsely claimed that it did exist, then, if my friend came and claimed he had been there but I was certain that it did not exist, I might be more compelled to undertake some kind of complicated analysis, perhaps search for some ‘scientific proof’. Does he have photographs? But, how do I know he took those photographs? And, how can I be sure that the photographs are real, or of what really caused the photographs? And so on.

      That might not be a worthless investigation. However, since I have no reason to disbelieve the existence of the Eiffel Tower, I have a different threshold for what I need in order to believe in it. The same could be said about you and I perhaps, regarding rebirth.

      “We’ve just agreed that memories in this lifetime are copies of copies, and not the actual memories.”

      No, we did not agree that. My point was that in that case, there was the actual memory, lasting up to the age of about 5 years old. I for example still now have visual memories from my life at the age of 2. However, in the case of my friend, those memories faded away after that time, though he still remembers that he used to remember all of that, and remembers going to see his old family, and so on – just no longer remembering what was in his memory at that time. Of course his family also still remember those times, as do the family of his from his last life, whom he remains in contact with in this life.

      “Up to that point, they felt particular connection with Buddhism that they were explaining as past lives.”

      I think it is good to be skeptical, and admire your skepticism. I think there are a lot of flaky people out there claiming all sorts of past life nonsense. However, when a kid gives his strict Christian parents a guided tour of a Cathedral without ever having been there, enough to freak them right out and never speak of it again, for it to be a taboo in the family, then I for me that sparks more interest in me than if he had *merely* felt a connection to a grave. The first part is by far the most important for me in that case, and the latter far more unclear in meaning.

      “The difference is that this place can be externally verified, their stories cannot.”

      That is the difference for you, because you wish for verification. See above re. the Eiffel Tower. And by the way, for the sake of scientific investigation, this is of course an important, and quite frankly inconvenient, difference.

      ” I would suggest that best would be to have the experience themselves, write down the information that could not have been known in any way, and then check it out with company to help offset confirmation bias.”

      I was under the impression that this is sometimes done during the recognition process of some reincarnated lamas in Tibet. I know it is not done for all of them, but I thought for some of them they are put under various tests.

      “This is a fundamental misperception that is very common about the burden of proof — it is the person asserting the claim, in this case rebirth, who has to demonstrate it, *not* the person asking for the evidence.”

      Perhaps I misunderstood. I thought you guys were trying to make a kind of Buddhism which you would find acceptable. I admit that I do not know so much about what you are doing – is it something like that? If you are really starting on the basis of having no claims, then would you not be starting with no Buddhism at all? But, I had thought you were starting with Buddhism, and then trying to remove the things you don’t like. Is it not like that? And then so, would you not better have a good reason for removing the things you do not like? And in that case, would the burden not somewhat be on you?

  11. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    Hi, J. So, are we able to agree that a real world example, like the existence of the Eiffel Tower, is not incongruent with the natural world? That we not only have ample evidence for it, it is predictable (you will always find it in the same spot) and repeatable (it’s there all the time). But stories of rebirth have no such integral stability. This is not a valid comparison.

    Let’s put it another way: I have plenty of reason to expect that life and consciousness is dependent on physical form, and the brain in particular. If you have severe head injury, memory and personality are likewise impacted, demonstrating that connection. I see nothing quite so tangibly demonstrable in the event of complete destruction of the brain — death — that would indicate post mortem survival.

    A tour, a story retold years later is utterly useless in this regard, as it is completely subject to confirmation bias at the outset, and narrative contamination as time has gone on. It’s just not evidence.

    That being said, if you find belief in rebirth to be positively of value to you in your practice, have at! We’re not the judges of what anyone finds useful to them in their engagement with the dhamma. And that may address your last question — we’re exploring what may or may not work for us as contemporary secular practitioners. If that exploration and a secular approach doesn’t suit you, we’re not about to force our ideas on you or anyone.

    And no, one can’t shift the burden of proof by suggesting a denial claim, that’s just rewording the initial problem. The claim is rebirth, we’re happy to hear about evidence, but continued stories do not fit the bill — and they don’t for you either if someone claims to have met Jesus, Thor, or Tinkerbell, you would and should ask for more than just an interesting story.

  12. justinasia says:

    Hi Ted

    “a story retold years later is utterly useless in this regard, as it is completely subject to confirmation bias at the outset, and narrative contamination as time has gone on. It’s just not evidence.”

    I would again underline that this is not *scientific evidence*. For me however it is no less *useless* than friends telling of their visits to foreign countries, or my Turkish friend telling me of his life in Turkey, what life is like there, how the markets look and so on. I do not require scientific proof of these ‘stories’. And yet I accept that, for this particular topic, you personally have a need for scientific proof. I understand that, and applaud that.

    In fact it is due to this that there is no ‘burden’ of proof, because, I feel no burden. I would if I were trying to convince someone, but I am not. And that was my point that if you guys are trying to make a new type of Buddhism, if there is any burden it might be on you. Of course, if Buddhists are trying to convince you, the burden may shift to them. Of course the question of burden only enters when people are trying to prove things either to each other or to themselves, so there need not even be any burden necessarily.

    I am still curious as to whether people in the field of secular Buddhism have gathered reports either from their own members or others, who have mastery in the 4 jhanas. After all, jhana practice is the very core of the Buddhist path to enlightenment, at lest of Early Buddhism anyway. Or, is jhana practice removed from secular Buddhism?

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      Hi, J. Sorry for the shorter response before and now, a bit time constrained. But I do sincerely appreciate having the dialogue with you, and having the opportunity to learn more about your point of view.

      You’re right, and that’s a very good point, we simply have different needs, perhaps based on our personal histories. For you, anecdotal evidence is quite sufficient. Burden of proof isn’t meant as a negative weight, but just as an acknowledgement of where the effort would sit when a positive assertion is made.

      I do find jhana practice to be particularly helpful, yes, but am far from having any kind of mastery over them. Leigh Brasington’s episode might be of interest to you, as he’s very well versed in the Pali canon about them, teaches jhanas, and is what I would consider very secular in his approach. So, yes, jhana practice is very much a part of secular Buddhism!

    • mufi says:

      I’d just like to insert a familiar expression/guideline (at least among scientific skeptics) here: “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.”

      That said, I find the claims surrounding the idea of rebirth to be a lot more extraordinary than the claims of friends describing their visits to foreign countries. Of course, if those same friends were to say things that lead me to doubt the truth of their claim (e.g. by mentioning places or other phenomena that either don’t exist or are very uncommon in a particular country), that’s different. But traveling abroad in itself is quite an ordinary experience (for those who can afford it).

      • mufi says:

        PS: Perhaps I should add that this guideline is a practical-philosophical one, which is available to everyone – not just scientists (or academic philosophers, historians, or journalists, for that matter). It’s really about critical thinking, to which the Buddha was no stranger, even though his criteria for “evidence” were not exactly the same as ours.

  13. anita says:

    This may sound pathetic; but I very much like the idea of rebirth. I like the notion of coming back to past friends, loved ones, one’s children etc in a next incarnation. I find this a very joyful doctrine indeed. I suppose this is what I find “salvific” about it.

    Do you all think I am utterly soppy?

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Recall that even on the Buddha’s own view, you would have no recollection of any of those people (recollection of past lives is only a very advanced ability in the Canon), and you would almost certainly not be born anywhere near them. You would, to all intents and purposes, be a completely different person.

      Also, what is “salvific” in the Buddha’s picture is escape from rebirth. Rebirth itself is saṃsāra, it’s dukkha, it’s what we should escape from. For the Buddha, one can only like rebirth if one is deep in ignorance and clinging. Which isn’t to say it’s not understandable …

      • anita says:

        … thanks, doug, i’m glad you think it’s understandable!

        Seriously, though, did the Buddha think that “escape from rebirth” = nibbana?

        cheers and best regards from anita

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Yes. For the Buddha, the only escape from rebirth was nibbāna, and indeed “escape from rebirth” is part of how one defined nibbāna. As a secularist, I tend to prefer the more concrete part of the definition, all about eliminating greed, hatred, and ignorance, though!

          • anita says:

            Yes, Doug, i agree it would be wonderful to escape greed, hatred and ignorance. but is “escaping” the same as “eliminating”? Also, I’m idealistic enough to say that it’s possible to eliminate all three poisons forever. The fact that I think it’s possible gives me the strength to carry on studying about dhamma.

            Cheers and Metta, Anita

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            Yes, for the Buddha “escaping” was “eliminating” greed, hatred, and ignorance. It was to “uproot them, make them like a palm stump”, etc. I have a hard time quite envisioning how it would go, but then it’s well beyond my stage of practice anyhow!

            :)

          • anita says:

            beyond my practice as well; though i’m getting more p-o-s-i-t-i-v-e about it =)

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      Hi, Anita. Oh, goodness, I certainly do *not* think of you or anyone else who believes in a literal rebirth as soppy! My apologies if I gave that impression, it was not intended.

      We can find inspiration from our stories, our understandings, and our experiences. They excite us, help us gain perspective, and think creatively in the moment. For some of us, viewing a particular idea as factually correct is helpful — this is the perspective of our friend Thupten Lekshe in his interview. For others like me, though we do find the idea of rebirth as contributive to our moment by moment compassion for others as being closer to us than we usually think, we don’t need to accept it as a scientific reality for that benefit.

      The question for all of us is how does it help us in our practice, and is that literal belief necessary for that practice? For some of us, sure, it helps! For others, our practice is not dependent on that belief.

      • anita says:

        hello ted; thanks for that. yes, i suppose the idea that we have the capacity for moment to moment compassion for others (and or ourselves) is something we wouldn’t ever want to lose.

        Metta from Anita

  14. ruedade says:

    Reading the comments, I get a sense of the murkiness of the whole task of defining what secular Buddhism is.
    Maybe the task is similar to what a person wishing to live a Christ-like life would have to do in the face of Catholic dogma, although Indian metaphysics seem much more daunting.

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      Hi, ruedade. The problem is that very assumption that there will be a single definition that applies to the wide variety of approaches a secular Buddhism can be. I’d suggest that we not paint ourselves into the ideological corner many faith traditions have found themselves in by adhering to that assumption. Certainly a rule of thumb is appropriate, and we have that on the Guiding Principles page, but this is early and we’re still in the exploration stage.

      Time will tell how this goes!

      • ruedade says:

        Thanks for your reply. I agree that the assumption that there can be one definition of secular Buddhism is problematic and that wasn’t what you were attempting to do anyway. My comment lacked clarity.
        What I was trying to communicate was my visceral feeling or ” felt sense” on reading the other writer’s comments regarding their thoughts and feelings on the subject of rebirth in particular and faith or beliefs in general.
        The word I came up with was murky but it’s not totally satisfactory. Sticky, tangled and knotty also come to mind. This was about my reaction to the difficulty of agreement when our perspectives are all unique.
        This is not very clear either but what can I say except language is diabolical (and human)

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