This is the final installment of my three-part review of Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s 2011 e-book, The Truth of Rebirth and Why it Matters for Buddhist Practice. You can read it online here.
“One reason the Buddha recommended conviction in rebirth as a useful working hypothesis is that, as we have noted, he had to teach that skillful human action was powerful and reliable enough to put an end to suffering; and his teaching on the consequences of skillful and unskillful action would be incomplete–and therefore indefensible–without reference to rebirth
“This is because the distinction he draws between skillful and unskillful is based on the consequences of the actions: The working-out of karma may always be complex, but skillful actions always lead in the direction of happiness and well-being; unskillful actions always lead in the direction of suffering and harm. This distinction provides not only the definition of these concepts, but also the motivation for abandoning unskillful actions and developing skillful ones in their place.
“This motivation is necessary, for while people are not innately bad, they are also not innately good . . . To develop skillful qualities, people need to see the dangers of unskillful behavior and the advantages of skillful behavior. Because actions can sometimes take many lifetimes to yield their results, a complete and convincing case that unskillful actions should always be avoided, and skillful ones always developed, requires the perspective that comes only from seeing the results of actions over many lifetimes.”
I have quoted this section at length because it is the core of TB’s argument. In another borrowing from the language of science, TB presents the Four Knowledges as the Buddha’s realization of how the same effect (the arising of being from craving) arises on both the macro level (many lives) and micro level (our current existence). But we have to notice that this is a circular argument: TB is saying that since we do not always perceive the connection between our actions and our happiness, that means that the connection can only exist outside the framework of a single human lifetime. Therefore, unless we accept that there are multiple lifetimes, we can’t accept Gotama’s teaching as complete and defensible. Presumably, however, if one could see in this life how one’s intentions and behaviors lead to their outcomes, belief in rebirth would be unnecessary; and I would argue that this is precisely what the practice Gotama taught enables us to do. That is, in fact, what the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are all about: to “fully know dukkha” is to observe how conditioned arising plays out in the laboratory of our own experience.
“[W]hen you assume both the efficacy of action and its effect on rebirth, you are more likely to behave skillfully. To assume otherwise makes it easy to find excuses for lying, killing, or stealing when faced with poverty or death. And from there it’s easy to extend the excuses to cover times when it’s simply more convenient to lie, etc., than to not. But if you assume that your actions have results, and those results will reverberate through many lifetimes, it’s easier to stick to your principles . . .”
In other words, only if I fear the consequences of my actions after my death do I have the motivation to engage in skillful behavior. This view of human nature is pessimistic in the extreme — it amounts to a Buddhist take on Original Sin. The unwholesome mental qualities I cultivate when I engage in activity that brings me into unskillful conflict with others count for nothing here. Neither does the joy that results when I try to mindfully cultivate friendliness, compassion and sympathetic joy toward others. The only reason my intentions and activities matter is because of the kind of rebirth they will generate.
TB makes this clear in his discussion of “mundane and transcendent” right view, about which our own Linda Blanchard has written. He refers to suttas in which mundane right view is associated with the attachment to codes of action and belief which are prescribed to produce various effects in future lives. In transcendent right view, on the other hand, we “focus directly on the actions within the mind that cause suffering so that those actions can be abandoned. This brings suffering to an end–at which point all views are put aside as well.” As Blanchard has pointed out, the obvious interpretation of this distinction is that mundane right view is a spiritually inferior perspective, another form of clinging which we ought to drop in order to examine suffering in the here and now. For TB, however, mundane right view is the indispensable perspective without which we cannot hope to develop the transcendent variety.
“To move his listeners from mundane right view to transcendent right view, the Buddha used the teaching on rebirth to inspire not only a sense of heedfulness in his listeners, but also a sense of samvega: dismay and terror at the prospect of not gaining release from rebirth.”
TB does not attempt to explain how dismay and terror are supposed to lead to joy and equanimity; presumably, they will compel us to practice until these states are somehow obtained, perhaps when we finally achieve nibbana and are safe from the horrors of rebirth. It is conceivable, as Blanchard has pointed out, that Gotama might have used teachings about rebirth to persuade listeners who cared about their future lives to live morally and take other steps that would start them off on the Eightfold Path. But the implication of the Right View with Taints teaching is that this would be an interim step until the individual could see the unskillfulness of grasping at future becoming. As Gotama tells us in Chapter V of the Atthakavagga in the Sutta Nipata:
For whom there is no interest here for either of two extremes,
For this or that existence, here or hereafter,
For him there are no entrenchments
Seized, having discriminated, from among the philosophies. (v. 6)
By contrast, what TB seems to be advising us skeptics to do here is actually cultivate an attachment to the terrifying prospect of rebirth in order to gain the motivation to overcome that attachment. But why wouldn’t it be better to avoid mundane right view in the first place? Or perhaps our version of mundane right view might be our desire to overcome grief, loneliness, fear, depression, anxiety, addiction, physical pain, and the other very real and present trials of an ordinary human life. These would seem sufficient motivation to practice in themselves, without having to convince ourselves of implausible horrors after death.
At this point, we see that TB’s forcefully argued presentation of Theravadin orthodoxy serves only to reveal the contradictions at the heart of that orthodoxy. Although the canonical Gotama’s silence on metaphysical identities appears to successfully evade certain logical questions about the nature of rebirth, it cannot address the practical problems of an ethics based on future life karma. If the prospect of rebirth is supposed to inspire in me sufficient terror to change my entire worldview, I will naturally want to know what that rebirth is going to be like for me. Surely any perceptive teacher would realize that one could not stop people from wondering about rebirth just by refusing to tell them how it works, and that this would be bound to inspire all kinds of metaphysical speculation. And it has, even in the Theravadin tradition; for example, in In the Buddha’s Words, Bhikkhu Bodhi provides a naturalistic-sounding rationalization that is in fact a metaphysical statement:
“[I]ndividual existence is constituted by a current of conditioned phenomena devoid of a metaphysical self yet continuing on from birth to birth as long as the causes that sustain it remain effective.”
Again, this may be an effective logical stratagem, but why do I care about a “current of conditioned phenomena”? The metaphysical Gotama of the canon isn’t teaching about currents of conditionality — he remembers past lives, where he lived, what he ate; he tells his followers where the dead have been reborn, and holds out the promise of bliss and the threat of agony in future lives. If the concept of rebirth is to motivate me, I’ll want to know what this “individual existence” is and how I will experience it in my future births. If there is nothing I can identify as “me” — some coherent combination of awareness and memory that would survive my death and experience the consequences of my karma — then why would the “truth” of rebirth motivate me in this life at all? Either we believe in a something, a self, that survives from life to life – either we are entrenched by interest in the hereafter — or rebirth becomes a meaningless abstraction.
None of this is to say that TB doesn’t present a doctrinally consistent reading of the Pali canon. He does; and with a centuries-old commentarial tradition behind him, and his own formidable intellect, it would be a surprise if he didn’t. But his reading is an interpretation, which, however ancient and venerable, is still only an interpretation, one which, as we have seen, must necessarily gloss over contradictory detail. It is not the only possible or defensible interpretation, and it does not cover over the heteroglossia that the vast body of these texts present to the unbiased reader. TB’s interpretation is a selective one designed to achieve his objective, the defense of the religious tradition to which he owes his allegiance.
More importantly, TB fails at his main goal, that of making the case for the indispensability of a faith in rebirth to Buddhist practice. In fact, he misses the point entirely. It is not as if Westerners, burned by the poverty of their own religious traditions, have been misled into an erroneous version of Buddhist teachings that panders to their materialist prejudices; nor that, if they only understood what the Buddha really taught, they would amend their ways and begin to practice in the true (Theravadin) tradition. Anyone who can read TB’s translations of the suttas can easily, and ad nauseam, read depictions of Buddha teaching about rebirth. Rebirth, or, more popularly and more correctly, reincarnation, is firmly cemented in the public mind as being a core principle of Buddhism.
The reason why secular Buddhism exists, and the reason why TB is compelled to write this book, is that a growing number of individuals in the West and worldwide have come to see that, in order to benefit from the value of Gotama’s teachings, one need not accept every word in the Pali canon as gospel. There is a pragmatic, phenomenalist Gotama in the suttas, and his teachings reveal a strategy for releasing craving and achieving liberation in this life. We can listen to that voice, and accept as metaphorical poetry the voice that talks of Brahma and Mara, devas, yakkhas and nagas, past lives and future lives. And we do so because a little practice, a few steps down this path, reveal the taste of freedom that Gotama said pervaded the dharma. No cosmic ”macro view” is necessary to allow us to see the arising and cessation of grasping; we can experience it, just as Gotama promised, as it actually occurs in our own experience. As we witness for ourselves the way mindfulness opens the pathway to freedom, every step down that path opens up new possibilities and encourages us to be steadfast and energetic in our practice. And our experience encourages us to read the Pali suttas, and all the traditional Buddhist teachings, not as proof texts to conform our understanding to, but as the gifts of past practitioners whose cultural context may be irretrievable but whose wisdom still has the power to resonate with us today.
Secular Buddhism exists because, while the metaphysics of ancient India cannot be embraced by an educated, intellectually honest person today, the practical teachings recorded in the Pali canon are eminently sensible, thoroughly consistent with our scientific understanding of the human animal, and have demonstrated their effectiveness in alleviating suffering and promoting human flourishing. The secular dharma is succeeding in touching the lives of thousands of people today, and we owe Thanissaro Bhikkhu our respect and gratitude for his role in the evolution of the dharma and the transformation of those lives. One would hope that anyone who shares Gotama’s principal goal, the cessation of suffering, would see this movement as something to encourage.