To believe there is no rebirth and no law of moral causation is an evil mental act that will lead to confusion and anguish in this life and hellfire in the world to come. And you did not need to say or do anything to commit it. All I had to do was hold an incorrect opinion in the privacy of my own mind. Such “wrong view” is a thought crime, listed in the classical texts alongside murder, robbery, and rape. Indeed, it is often said to be the heaviest of all evil actions, since it establishes the viewpoint from which every other misdeed stems.
— Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, p. 45.
Buddhism, it is sometimes claimed, is a “non-creedal” religion: there is no sanctioned system of beliefs to which one must assent in order to be Buddhist.
The claim jostles awkwardly with certain assertions in the canon that many consider orthodox even today. Principal among these are the literal claims of rebirth and karmic causation.
Such claims are not immediately compelling, and the Buddha was not one for promoting beliefs based on blind faith. So why should we believe them? In the Apannaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 60. The link is Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation; I use Ñāṇamoli/Bodhi), the Buddha gives an argument which he terms “incontrovertible” (4) for the acceptance of rebirth and karmic causation. However, interestingly, it is not an argument that directly bears on the truth of those views. Instead it is a prudential argument. In form it presages Pascal’s Wager for the existence of God by two millennia.
The Buddha’s Bet
The Buddha argues that those who reject rebirth (a position he refers to as “nihilism” since it implies the complete nonexistence of the self after death; cf. MN 76 para. 7) are more likely to behave badly and less likely to behave well, because they aren’t aware of the multi-lifetime dangers inherent in bad behavior, nor the multi-lifetime benefits of good. As he says,
… whether or not the word of those good [nihilistic] recluses and brahmins is true, let me assume that there is no other world: still this good person is here and now censured by the wise as an immoral person, one of wrong view who holds the doctrine of nihilism. But on the other hand, if there is another world, then this good person has made an unlucky throw on both counts: since he is censured by the wise here and now, and since on the dissolution of the body, after death, he will appear in a state of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, even in hell. (9).
The Buddha then makes the same argument with regard to the effectiveness of karmic causation that he did with regard to rebirth: those who do not believe that actions bring moral recompense are more likely to behave badly and less likely to behave well. Hence they will be censured by the wise, and if they are wrong about karmic causation, they risk rebirth in hell.
In this lifetime, one who accepts such views (we will call the person a ‘materialist’ for purposes of concision) faces two potential routes to downfall. First, he or she is liable to behave recklessly, and second he or she will be “censured by the wise”.
However, the Buddha does not stop there. One might say, he lays his metaphysical cards on the table: in fact the materialist faces a third downfall: since literal rebirth actually does occur (8), since there actually is karmic causation (16), one who holds otherwise “has wrong view”. To repeat about “wrong view”:
[I]t is by reason of such [mental] conduct [of holding wrong view] not in accordance with the Dhamma, by reason of such unrighteous conduct that some beings here on the dissolution of the body, after death, reappear in states of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, even in hell. (MN 41 para. 10. Also see MN 46 para. 14).
Although many views we have may be factually incorrect, there are only a few that the Buddha calls “wrong view” in this sense. Among these are that there is no effective karmic causation and that there is no literal rebirth. Presumably the Buddha took such a harsh opinion because these “wrong views” condition wrong speech and action, and “right view”, the view that karmic causation is effective and that literal rebirth occurs, conditions us to right speech and right action, and therefore to the Eightfold Path.
Evaluating the Bet
There are several problems with the Buddha’s arguments on wrong views about rebirth and moral causation.
First, there is the problem that his argument shares with Pascal’s Wager.
Pascal presents his wager in the form of a dilemma: either one believes in God or one is an atheist. If one is an atheist and God exists, one goes to hell. If one is an atheist and God does not exist, one has a bit more ease on Sundays. If one is a believer and God exists, one goes to heaven. If one is a believer and God doesn’t exist, one wastes a bit of time on Sundays. The point is clear: a wagerer should choose to believe in God, since the payoffs are better.
Here is a small table illustrating potential payouts to clarify the bet. (Numbers are arbitrary, of course, but should at least give the flavor. Since heaven and hell are everlasting these are gauged as infinite payouts or deductions).
|God Exists||God Doesn’t Exist|
|Believer||Heaven (+∞)||Waste time (-10)|
|Atheist||Hell (-∞)||Don’t waste time (+10)|
The problem is, this table doesn’t illustrate our only options. There are many different models for God. If we believe in God, which sort of God should we believe in? If we believe in Allah and Yahweh is the true God, we will go to hell anyway. If we believe in Zeus and Allah is the true God, the same. Further, why assume that the true God is one that humans have a name for? There are an infinity of possible Gods. Perhaps the one true God disdains creatures who apportion their beliefs by wagers of this type.
Pascal’s wager is an example of a fallacy called the “false dilemma”: there are an infinite number of options to choose from, not simply two, and so the proposed bet is not workable.
Buddha’s bet is substantially similar, although the arbitrary payouts will be slightly different. For example, neither Buddhist hell nor heaven is everlasting, so numbers will be finite.
|Rebirth and Karmic Causation are Real||“Nihilism” is True|
|Right belief||Acts well, reborn well (+1000)||Acts well, praised by the wise (+50)|
|Materialist||Acts poorly, reborn in hell (-1000)||Acts poorly, censured by the wise (-50)|
It seems it’s best to have “right belief”, since the payouts are superior. But the Buddha’s bet has the same problem as Pascal’s: there are more than these two alternatives open to us. Why must we assume that the only alternative to materialist “nihilism” is this particular karmic picture? Perhaps karma works such that people who believe based on apportioning evidence scientifically are rewarded, and people who believe based on faith in a teacher are not. Or perhaps karma works in yet another way. (Or, for that matter, perhaps God exists, and he prefers materialists over believers in rebirth and karma). Since there are an unbounded number of live options to choose from, the bet is also not workable. True, the Buddha asserts that he has direct knowledge of the correct karmic formula, but lacking a method of verification, his argument thereon remains far from “incontrovertible”.
Second, what are we to make of the claim that such materialist views are “censured by the wise”? To start with, who count as “the wise”? They cannot simply be defined as people who agree with the Buddha, since that would make the argument viciously circular. Presumably he means by “the wise” those people for whom ethical conduct is paramount. This brings us to our next point.
Third, the meat of the Buddha’s argument turns on the claim that one who does not believe in rebirth and the law of moral causation is likely to become a moral reprobate. While this sort of view appears common sense to many religious believers, there is no reason to accept it as true. Atheists and materialists are no more likely to be moral delinquents than are believers in God or the supernatural. One does not need to accept theories about rebirth and karma in order to believe there are moral truths, much less to reason and behave morally.
And after all, morally correct reasoning and behavior is what the Buddha recommends. He recommends right speech and right action as pillars in the Eightfold Path. His assumption is that right view with respect to rebirth and karmic causation is essential to achieving that end, but it is not. One can speak rightly, act rightly, work rightly, put in right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration without believing in either rebirth or karmic causation.
Of course, one who speaks and acts rightly in such a manner is worthy of being praised, not censured, by the wise.
Lastly, apart from being unnecessary and scientifically intractable, notions of literal rebirth and karma may be a hindrance. Is it really true that one who does good with an eye to karmic reward is morally superior to one who does good simply because it gives benefit? Or is it rather the reverse? Is it really true that one who avoids evil due to its karmic consequence is morally superior to one who avoids evil because it causes harm to others? Or is the former, instead, acting out of selfish motives?
Assertions of certain justice may be useful to some as a goad, but they are not necessary for those who understand moral reasoning on its own terms. Indeed, if as seems clear, these “wrong views” have no significant negative conditioning on moral behavior, then by the Buddha’s own lights they should have no particular karmic consequences, and should fail to support the unhappy rebirth that he claims.
Wielding threats of hellfire against such “thought crimes” as these is neither agreeable nor beneficial. And since the Buddha’s path is one of liberation from conditioned rebirth anyhow, perhaps these aspects of “wrong view” serve no final purpose, and therefore deserve reconsideration and eventual abandonment.