***I wrote this last year but I think it still holds up quite well and is accurate. Of all the many hang ups that I’ve seen westerners have over the years regarding Buddhism, it’s Rebirth. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve seen ” I really like Buddhism but I can’t get into this rebirth and kamma thing”. This is my typical response when I speak to people having trouble.***
Westerners who are exploring Buddhism always have questions regarding “rebirth”, and I’ve been asked by people before if I believe that we move on to further existences when we die.
It is hard for me to give a quick and dirty answer to a complicated question like this, but if I’m forced then the best answer I can give right now is “almost”.
And you know what makes that so awesome? is that it’s perfectly ok. Where else could you be a clergymen/monastic and openly be able to say “ I don’t know”. The Buddha never forced us to believe anything, he called us to come and see for ourselves, to put the teachings into practice in order to gain insight through examining our experience.
In the Pubbakotthaka Sutta, the Buddha gives a discourse and then asks his right hand man, Sariputta, if he believes what the Buddha just said. Sariputta says that he does not have to believe, because he knows it for himself. In the Kesaputtiya sutta, in which the famous Kalamas are exhorted, the Buddha advises us to not just believe something because a book or a teacher says something, or your intellect reasons something out, but to question and explore and see for yourself through your own experience, does this lead to my benefit and the benefit of others, or to my harm and the harm of others.
As for my personal views on repeated existence, I’ll start out by saying that as far back as I could remember thinking about these deep questions, I’ve always been agnostic. Growing up Catholic you are of course taught to believe In God and the like, but I can’t say I ever truly believed, nor have I disbelieved. My scientifically bent mind and my agnostic mind come together to say I cannot prove nor disprove the existence of a God or rebirth, so until such time as my experience tells me otherwise, I’ll remain agnostic, ie I’ll “shelve it”.
There are some indications of a preference for repeated existence in me growing up. from an early age I remember often thinking about what great historical figures I was in a former life and how I’d like to be reborn again in the future to be a starship captain, since I won’t be alive long enough haha. I always thought an eternal heaven sounded boring, and the possibilities of all kinds of various lives more exciting. I remember as a teen watching that movie “What dreams may come” and thought it was cool that there could be a heaven but also you can go back and be born again.
OH I was such a happy go lucky idealistic child haha. These days however my view matches the Buddha’s with regard to living again and again. I’ve had enough of that thank you! I have no desire to be reborn and have to go through it all again anymore.
I do like the concept though of viewing it as a journey of self improvement. You don’t just have one life to get it right, but you have all the chances you need to break the cycle, making yourself better second by second, day by day, year by year, life by life, until you awaken into a radiant being of unlimited wisdom, goodwill, and compassion, breaking free of the cycle and gaining ultimate freedom.
I also look at nature itself. Everything in nature is cyclical, from the smallest scale to the largest, even the stars themselves are born and die, seeding new stars. Now those who propose the multiverse suggest the possibility of universes themselves being born and dying out creating new big bangs etc. Nothing in existence is static, nothing is everlasting, everything is always changing, in Flux. This is exactly what the Buddha taught 2600 years ago.
In the previously mentioned Kesaputtiya Sutta, where the Buddha is speaking to the Kalamas, who are confused about various teachings, including whether there is rebirth and whether there is fruit of action(ie Kamma). The Buddha gives four assurances:
“This noble disciple, Kālāmas, whose mind is in this way without enmity, without ill will, undefiled, and pure, has won four assurances in this very life.
“The first assurance he has won is this: ‘If there is another world, and if there is the fruit and result of good and bad deeds, it is possible that with the breakup of the body, after death, I will be reborn in a good destination, in a heavenly world.’
“The second assurance he has won is this: ‘If there is no other world, and there is no fruit and result of good and bad deeds, still right here, in this very life, I maintain myself in happiness, without enmity and ill will, free of trouble.
I highlighted the second assurance specifically. When I first read this section I had already been a practitioner for a good five years and listened to dozens upon dozens of dhamma talks, with never hearing this section discussed, but to a westerner such as myself it was like a light bulb coming on. Here was the Buddha saying that even if there is nothing after death, this path of practice brings immense benefits right here in this very life.
And I’d say he was correct.
Following the Buddha’s path has so far in my experience shown the Buddha to know what he is talking about. Every step along the path so far he has been right, so I think to myself, well if the Buddha has been right about all of this… why not the rest? I believe this can also be anyone’s experience as well when following the path honestly and sincerely.
This his is how I am able to say I “almost” believe. I’m probably at about 90% believe, 10% doubt, good enough odds that if I were a betting man I’d put my money on it. The Buddha did say however that knowledge of past lives is something you gain on the path as you get close to awakening, so it is something verifiable , just not yet, so I remain open minded and “shelve it”. It really does not make a huge difference in my daily practice, but it does inform my practice and put it in the right framework.
So in summation my advice for those who are interested in Buddhist practice but repeated existence is a hang up, is to not worry about it too much, keep an open mind and shelve it, ie put it away for later. You don’t need to believe to begin the practice, you just have to want to begin to look inward. This practice will make you question much more then do I go to heaven or be reborn, you will question all of your most deeply held views, including the view you are a self to begin with.
Until that time you can practice for more peace, happiness, and contentment in your life, which is how I myself started, you never know where the practice may lead you.
May your practice blossom my friends.