Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s “The Truth of Rebirth” : A Review, Part 3

| March 20, 2012 | 38 Comments

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.


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About the Author ()

Mark J. Knickelbine, MA, C-MI, is a writer, editor, political activist, and certified meditation instructor. "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and "The End of Faith" led him to seek out a dharma practice without the supernatural beliefs of traditional Buddhism. He found it at a local health clinic, where he learned mindfulness in the manner of Jon Kabat-Zinn. He has continued to study texts from the Pali, Chan and Zen traditions, and he is an active member of the mindfulness community at the UWHealth Department of Integrative Medicine. Mark is a member of the SBA board and serves as Practice Director.

Comments (38)

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  1. Tom Alan says:

    I see no evidence in support of the claim that this belief is beneficial. Nor do I see evidence to the contrary. Psychologists have studied the relationship between religion and health. Why don’t you refer to their findings?

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      I tried to stick to the topics raised in TB’s book — and the review turned out way too long anyway. If what you are suggesting is that if some study were to demonstrate a link between religious belief or practice and positive health outcomes, this would mean that the metaphysical belief was on the whole a wholesome thing, there would still be a problem. One is not going to adopt a belief simply for utilitarian purposes — certainly not one like rebirth. You have to really believe that it’s true — true on its own terms, whether you believed it or not. The “evidence to the contrary” is that a belief system that cannot be believed will not have any impact on us, physically, emotionally or morally. While TB argues that a belief in rebirth is central to Buddhist practice, he hasn’t made the concept any more believable.

  2. Tom Alan says:

    I see no evidence in support of the claim that this belief is beneficial. Nor do I see evidence to the contrary.

    Psychologists have studied the relationship between religion and health. Why don’t you refer to their findings?

  3. Tom Alan says:

    If we put aside for the moment statistical evidence pertaining to religious belief, we can agree that some people want to believe in afterlife and some people do not.

    You may remember this finding from the 2001 study conducted by cardiologist Pim van Lommel, which was published in The Lancet. I mentioned it in a recent discussion.

    “Significantly more patients who had an NDE, especially a deep experience, died within 30 days of CPR (p<0.0001).”

    Van Lommel referred to the data that was pertinent with regard to the mortality of patients revived from cardiac arrest and found that educated guesses could be made about patients who were apparently in the same physical condition, the only difference being their reporting or not reporting a near-death experience. The odds of these guesses being only lucky guesses is 1 in 10,000.

    "I distinctly remember hearing a female voice saying, 'We have a problem. Her arteries are too small.'"
    — Pam Reynolds, relating her experience while undergoing brain surgery

    Robert Spetzler, the neurosurgeon who operated on Reynolds, has said that it is "inconceivable" that the patient could have heard the exchange about a problem of arteries "through normal auditory pathways." The Pam Reynolds case was documented by cardiologist Michael Sabom and later by the BBC.

    Consider the language TB uses to describe the Buddha's approach to the question, one that I would call pragmatic:

    "the Buddha recommended conviction in rebirth as a useful working hypothesis"

    While the studies I've mentioned here are controversial, there are reputable scientists who take the idea of afterlife seriously in light of the studies. In the opinion of many educated men and women, it is a viable hypothesis.

    Whereas the calculation of a probability is objective, the value of a probability is subjective. For example, if a test shows that there is only 1 chance in 5 that a new drug will treat a given illness, does that mean that the drug is not a good one? Suppose the illness in question is terminal and there are no other treatments. Suppose also that the drug has few if any side effects and can be produced at a low cost. In other words, if a person who wants to believe in afterlife is told that there is only a small chance of that, the response might be, "That's good enough for me."

  4. Dana Dana Nourie says:

    I have to adamantly disagree with TB that we can’t see the consequences of our actions in this lifetime. On the contrary! My practice has shown me, and from raising three kids with this thinking, is that if we are mindful to how we feel at the time we do something, we do indeed experience the consequences of ill will, for instance. The trick is we have to develop the ability to examine ourselves in the moment, immediately after, and then reflect. This is the beauty of mindfulness! Additionally, we do have some measure of empathy, and it’s easy enough to ask ourselves, how would I feel if someone did this to me?

    If we lie, and we are mindful in the moment, we discover it doesn’t feel good internally. If we are mindful following the lie, we’ll notice unrest, worry either about getting caught or having made the decision to lie. We don’t need to wait a lifetime to suffer the consequences of such actions. True there are people who are chronic liars, don’t even know they’re lying, but the do suffer consequences from the reactions of others.

    While someone may feel justified in killing a person in the moment, there is bound to be emotional and mental repercussions following: anxiety at the prospect of being caught, guilt over taking a life, perhaps still anger over whatever the situation was. It will eat at the person one way or another in what we call suffering, or dukkha.

    And what TB seems to assume, and I don’t buy at all, is that karma is some kind of payback system. That if we do wrong we’ll be punished, even if it takes many lifetimes, and if we do good, we’ll be rewarded, even if it takes many lifetimes. I argue that is no different than thinking god will fix all eventually, and that in reality the consequences of our actions are immediate, even if we choose to ignore them, if they are of a mental and emotional nature.

    Another great article, Mark!

  5. Tom Alan says:

    “Mayo Clinic researchers reviewed published studies, meta-analyses, systematic reviews and subject reviews that examined the association between religious involvement and spirituality and physical health, mental health, health-related quality of life and other health outcomes. The authors report a majority of the nearly 350 studies of physical health and 850 studies of mental health that have used religious and spiritual variables have found that religious involvement and spirituality are associated with better health outcomes.”

    — “Religion, spirituality, and medicine: how are they related and what does it mean?”by H.G. Koenig, Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 2001

    • Jan says:

      Correlation is not causation. This is a third variable issue. High group solidarity is the significant variable, whether or not the group involved isa religious one.

      • Tom Alan says:

        Point taken. However, I stand by what I said at the onset, that no evidence in support of the assertion that belief is harmful has been presented here.

        I notice that there have been no comments about the van Lommel hospital study or the Pam Reynolds case study. As I said, I don’t offer these findings as proof, but I think they are in conflict with what Mark has said:

        “The metaphysics of ancient India cannot be embraced by an educated, intellectually honest person today”

        If accepting a belief as a working hypothesis constitutes embrace, then, as I have shown, there are educated and intellectually honest people who embrace the idea of a transcendent reality.

        • stoky says:

          Tom, that’s an interesting point. However, I think its totally different from TB’s point.

          In your case it’s not really meta-physics anymore but more psychology, (as you’re looking for evidence it might turn into physics). More importantly It’s not a belief anymore but a “working hypothesis”.

          I’m not quite sure if the Buddha wanted us to “believe” in reincarnation (ultimately I don’t care), but I’m pretty sure that he wanted us to live as if there was. Independently of the “truth”, he definetly wanted us to treat others like they’ve been our mothers and fathers in previous lives.

          If you’re interested in writing an post about “Reincarnation without belief – a reincarnation for secular Buddhists” I would love to read that.

        • Mark Knickelbine says:

          The point of the review was not to suggest that religious belief was harmful — merely that it is not necessary to practice the dharma, as TB claims it is. And as I said in Part 1, it is nonsensical to talk about a “working hypothesis” in the absence of evidence. A near death experience is not a death experience; and the fact that some studies studies show a positive link between health outcomes and religious belief says nothing about how those effects come about. Point to anything observable that could possibly survive the death of the body that could contain memory and personality, and now we have a hypothesis, one we could test by trying to look for this something. Otherwise, you just have a dogma that you say I have to believe even though it defies the evidence I do have. This is not a basis for helping people change their lives.

  6. Jan says:

    Correlation is not causation. This is a third variable issue. High group solidarity is the significant variable, whether or not the group involved isa religious one.

  7. hundovir says:

    It seems to me that both the Hindu/Buddhist ideas of rebirth and the Judaeo-Christian ideas of heaven and hell are, at least partly, a result of a refusal to accept that reality might be unjust—that it might not conform to our ideas of right and wrong, that it might not accord with how things “ought” to be or how we WANT them to be.

    There MUST be a reason why innocent people suffer and evil people prosper—as there is no recompense in this life then there must be some other life in which there is. This is a belief that somehow reality is or must be “just”, “fair”, “good”, whether it’s the workings of karma or the beating of a compassionate heart of Buddha-nature or the actions of a loving personal god.

    • Tomer says:

      To quote TB:
      “4) In discussing rebirth, the Buddha differed from the other schools of the time in that he didn’t base his position on a metaphysical view of personal identity — that is, on defining what it is that gets reborn. By placing rebirth in the context of dependent co-arising, he was presenting it in a phenomenological context — i.e., one that focused on phenomena as they can be directly experienced and that refused to take a stand on whether there is a reality of “things” underlying them. His purpose in taking this sort of position was pragmatic and strategic: By focusing on events and processes as they’re directly experienced, you can redirect them — through the power of attention and intention — away from the suffering they normally cause and toward a deathless happiness. In this way, the Buddha’s approach, instead of being metaphysical, bears similarities to modern schools of philosophy — phenomenology and pragmatism — that avoid getting involved in metaphysical assumptions about a reality behind direct experience.

      5) The fact that the Buddha suggested that his contemporaries drop their metaphysical assumptions about personal identity if they wanted to practice the path suggests that he would make the same suggestion to people in the modern world. To get the most out of his teachings, *it’s necessary to recognize that we have metaphysical assumptions about personal identity and the world; and that — unless we put them aside — those assumptions will prevent us from looking deeply enough at immediate experience in the terms described in dependent co-arising.*
      Could it be that reality may seem unjust and to not conform to our ideas of right and wrong because these ideas are based on our, your and my, metaphysical assumptions about personal identity and the world, which do not conform to the true nature of reality? Those assumption do tend to masquerade as unconscious truths for each of us and dictate our approach. If this could be so, then it is better to check the assumptions we have by seeing them as a result of the activity of taking a view, and not ‘truth’, instead of trying to accept reality’s unjust nature. For me, this is a worthwhile endevour regardless of the question of “rebirth: skillful teaching or burdensome cultural remnant”. For me, TB implies that after looking at your current assumptions as such (his number 5), number 4 will seem skillful, including rebirth.

  8. Linda Linda says:


    “…the consequences of our actions are immediate…”

    Really? Everything we do has its full reaction instantly, nothing ever comes back to us somewhat later?

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      Linda, I don’t think Dana is saying that all of the consequences of our actions are immediate. But I think mindfulness reveals that all of our actions and intentions DO have immediate consequences, and if we watch them we can see how skillful intentions and actions cultivate wholesome mental states and how unskillful ones do the opposite. IMHO, that’s how training works — the more we can experience this in the moment, the more likely we are to cultivate positive intentions.

      • Dana Dana Nourie says:

        Yes, Mark, that is exactly what I mean! We do have personal consequences that reveal themselves right away. What consequences our actions lead to outside of ourselves we may never know. But we can be mindful of how all of our behaviors have consequences on our internal suffering or feelings of joy.

  9. Linda Linda says:

    Tom, I realize you’re wanting someone to answer your points about scientific studies, and it seems some folks have, above, but I want to address your comment ” that no evidence in support of the assertion that belief is harmful has been presented here.”

    I don’t have scientific studies because I’m talking about subjective experience but I do have both the logic of the Buddha’s teachings and the evidence of what I see in my discussions with fellow Buddhists, which is this:

    The Logic: The essence of the Buddha’s teaching is for each of us to come to recognize the degree to which we mistake things we are certain of, on little evidence, for “truth”, or even if we don’t push it all the way to truth, we have enough certainty to act on our beliefs as if they are truths. This is what gets us into trouble: the actions we take based on that mistaken certainty, that’s karma. The understanding that the Buddha taught that we must believe in rebirth is being spread by many in traditional Buddhist lineages, and this is teaching precisely the opposite of what the Buddha taught: it is teaching people to look for possible evidence in everything, all around them, teaching them to take uncertainty about causes (why one was born with a genetic disorder for example) and build certainty onto it — certainty that the cause is karma from a past rebirth — when there is no actual evidence for such a belief.

    Evidence: I see huge amounts of time spent worrying over trivial matters to do with rebirth, like whether it’s okay to throw away a badly written Buddhist book that contains quotes from suttas (bad merit!), or whether folks have tried to recall past lives, or whether a backache is caused by past karma. Even huger amounts of time are spent on speculating whether rebirth is or is not possible, with heat generated by those who hold one view or the other. These are not the things the Buddha was suggesting we spend our time on — speculations and arguments over things that aren’t even close to proven.

    These are all just distractions from the real work of looking at our own lives, and the degree to which our belief that we are right about this or that, without evidence, leads to trouble. And I am not just talking about feeling certain we are right about the Big Questions (though it is a large scale example) but learning to question whether I am right when I am certain that X did Y for reason Z and therefore what *I’m* going to do about it is based on that certainty. On the small scale, understanding the difference between belief and actual knowledge is really critical, so a framework that teaches us that the right thing to do is look for vague evidence and match it up to what is actually speculative, and build a strong case, and then believe it, and then act on it –is the wrong way to go, and learning to do that certainly distracts from learning *not* to do that with everything else within one’s life, and teaches by example how to do quite the opposite, in a way that will spread all through one’s beliefs about what’s going on in social interactions and life in general.

    Our minds are very, very good at taking very small things to be clues to bigger things and building certainty out of it — especially if that certainty is in some way comforting — it’s what we humans do, it’s how we operate. But we need to learn to see the danger in that because it is so pervasive and has effects on so many levels.

  10. Tom Alan says:

    Mark, two cardiologists and one neurosurgeon have said that their find findings cannot be explained by physiology. Aside from your master’s degree in English, what expertise do you have with which to dismiss their conclusions?

  11. Linda Linda says:

    hundovir, good comment! You said, in brief, what I said at great length, just above, in my comment to Tom. A part of us clings to that sense of comfort, of a desire for the balance that a cosmic scale would provide. Learning to recognize that drive for comfort and how it underpins so much of our belief and action is precisely what the Buddha was aiming to teach.

  12. Linda Linda says:

    @Tom. One neurosurgeon and two cardiologists out of how many in the world?

  13. Tom Alan says:

    It’s important to consider the difference between “evidence” and “conclusive evidence.” When a judge allows an exhibit or testimony to be entered as evidence in a criminal trial, the judge is not saying that it proves guilt or innocence. The judge is only saying that it is pertinent.

    Mark says that the testimony I’ve shown, that of two cardiologists and a neurologist, is not evidence. Is it not pertinent?

  14. Tom Alan says:

    It’s important to consider the difference between “evidence” and “conclusive evidence.” When a judge allows an exhibit or testimony to be entered as evidence in a criminal trial, the judge is not saying that it proves guilt or innocence. The judge is only saying that it is pertinent.

    Mark says that the testimony I’ve shown, that of two cardiologists and a neurologist, is not evidence. Is it not pertinent?

  15. Tom Alan says:

    @Linda, in a previous discussion, I cited a recent Gallup poll in which a substantial minority of scientists – 40% -expressed supernatural belief.

  16. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Tom, what you have presented may be evidence of something – mostly evidence of people’s opinions – but you haven’t presented any evidence that rebirth occurs, or suggested any observable process by which rebirth could possibly occur. Surely you don’t mean to suggest that TB’s account of rebirth and its importance to dharma practice must be true because 40% of scientists have supernatural beliefs or because a doctor can’t explain how a woman heard something during surgery. No, I am not a doctor, but I am aware that neurologists are increasingly demonstrating that all mental activity is associated with biochemical activity in a living human brain. For a long time, they have known that damage to various areas of the brain is associated with specific, predictable changes in sensory and cognitive processes. And diseases like Alzheimer’s have been shown to be associated with biological damage to the brain. All of this is consistent with our general understanding of organic biology. The notion of rebirth fundamentally contradicts all of this evidence, so you will need more than a few opinions and unexplained anecdotes to make an educated, intellectually honest person find rebirth believable. More importantly, as Dana and Linda have pointed out, it’s unnecessary, it contradicts the core dharma principles of anatta and conditioned arising, and it is irrelevant to dharma practice.

    • Tom Alan says:

      Mark, I haven’t said that any such thing “must be true.”

      The evidence is not merely anecdotal. I refer you to the probability given in the van Lommel study – 0.0001 – which was found by statistical analysis.

      As Jan has pointed out, correlation is not the causation. This is the response of neurologist Peter Fenwick to the assertion that mind is merely a product of brain activity.

      Dr. Fenwick has expressed skepticism toward the NDE research. That is, he has said that he finds it interesting but not conclusive. This illustrates the difference between skepticism and dogmatism.

      If the question of materialism is “irrelevant to dharma practice,” why make an issue of it? I have said that secular Buddhism should put it aside, just as other secular entities, e.g., dentistry, have.

      • Tom Alan says:

        Re the van Lommel calculation, there were a total of 344 patients, of whom 62 reported NDE.

        That a minority reported NDE figures into the study’s conclusion, which is

        “We do not know why so few cardiac patients report NDE after CPR, although age plays a part. With a purely physiological explanation such as cerebral anoxia for the experience, most patients who have been clinically dead should report one.”

  17. Dana Dana Nourie says:

    Hundovir, I so agree! When we examine our beliefs closely, no matter what the belief, they are often driven by fear or a strong emotion, often an attachment to an idea. People’s desire for a fail-safe justice system often drives their need to believe in god or rebirth. This can be a cause of suffering if one sees how fear is driving that belief.

    I was rather appalled that TB seemed to suggest that holding a belief of fear or a belief of reward is good. After all, attachment is driving that, and attachment leads to suffering.

    We all have various beliefs. It’s a part of our mental construction. But through mindfulness we can become aware of what’s behind the belief, whether it’s fear, attachment, dread, desire, all of which lead to suffering, or if it’s simply a loosely held belief based on compelling evidence. My point being any belief we have should be closely examined, as it could well be a source of suffering.

    • Peter K says:

      I wonder if it’s worth quoting Marx’s famous words?

      ” Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

  18. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    Please read the entire study being referred to, it make absolutely no claims about the validity of an afterlife whatsoever, it merely says they were not able to identify all neural correlates to NDE’s.

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      And, more to the point, neither ambiguous findings about NDEs nor anecdotes about weird experiences come anywhere close to showing an afterlife that works the way the Theravadin Buddhist tradition says it does. And it doesn’t reconcile the contradiction between the Gotama who identifies craving for non-being as samsaric and a religious tradition that claims that craving for non-being is liberative.

  19. Tom Alan says:

    Those interested in van Lommel’s interpretation of the findings may wish to read his paper “About the continuity of our consciousness,” which is available on the Internet.

    You Tube has several clips from interviews with Peter Fenwick, the neuropsychiatrist and author I’ve referred to. It also has clips from the BBC documentary on the Pam Reynolds case, which has been documented by cardiologist Michael Sabom.

  20. Mark Knickelbine says:

    And, more to the point, neither ambiguous findings about NDEs nor anecdotes about weird experiences come anywhere close to showing an afterlife that works the way the Theravadin Buddhist tradition says it does. And it doesn’t reconcile the contradiction between the Gotama who identifies craving for non-being as samsaric and a religious tradition that claims that craving for non-being is liberative.

  21. NaturalEntrust says:

    I find all this interesting but I come in too late
    to comment on it. Does this discussion exists
    somewhere else?

  22. Mark Knickelbine says:


    You’ll notice that replies to an article show up on the front page of the SBA site no matter how old the article is. You can certainly resume the discussion here if you like!

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