Secular Buddhism and the Denial of Rebirth: Is It Buddhist? Is It True?

Secular Buddhism goes by different names, including agnostic BuddhismBuddhist agnosticismignostic Buddhismatheistic Buddhismpragmatic BuddhismBuddhist atheism, or Buddhist secularism, but Secular Buddhism is the name of the main Wikipedia article so that is what I shall call it here. The essential notion of secular Buddhism is that historical Buddhism is mired in supernaturalism, belief in the paranormal, superstition, hierarchy, patriarchy, gender exclusivity, etc., and should be liberated from these traditional limitations in order to make it acceptable to secular humanists, skeptics, agnostics, pragmatists, naturalists, rationalists, evidentialists, and modernists, mainly, but not exclusively, Westerners who choose to take an interest in Buddhism. Proponents of this view of Buddhism include Jack Kornfield, S.N. Goenka, and Stephen Batchelor. The basic assertion is that this form of Buddhism is closer to the original teachings of the Buddha as recorded in such early Buddhist texts as the Atthaka and Parayana vaggas of the Suttanipata before they were overtaken by religious dogmatism. Noted Japanese Buddhist scholar Hajime Nakamura has suggested that these texts “are very old” and “likely … existed even in the lifetime of Gotama Buddha” (Indian Buddhism, p. 45), especially the Atthakavagga. The Khaggavisānasutta or “Rhinoceros Sutra” might also be included in this group.

These texts emphasize non-attachment to all views, which is assimilated by some Secular Buddhists to the Hellenistic philosophical tradition of Pyrrhonism, a school of philosophical skepticsm of the fourth century BCE, founded by Pyrrho (c 360- c 270 BCE), who spent 18 months in India during the conquest of Alexander the Great (327-325 BCE), and may have been influenced by Buddhism. Ironically, Pyrrhonism also influenced Nagarjuna (c 150- c 250 CE), widely regarded as the greatest Buddhist philosopher. If Pyrrho were indeed influenced by the Buddha, this was very early indeed, as the Buddha died c 397 BCE,[1] just about 70 years earlier. While it is not my intention in this talk to discuss Secular Buddhism in its entirety, it is worth noting, besides the remarkable coincidence that it “just so happens” that, according to Secular Buddhists, early Buddhism exactly coincides with contemporary Western rationalist skepticism, the Atthakavagga (“Octet Chapter”) includes references to such “superstitious” notions as nirvana, rebirth, transcendent realization, skilled means,[2] emptiness, wisdom (gnosis), ontology, the trans-dual, epistemology, sun worship,[3]  truth, the ontological binary of mind and matter, non-rejection, heaven,[3.1] gods, and immortality. If one accepts one set of ideas because they appear, or are believed to appear, in these texts, why not accept the other set?

Thus, Secular Buddhists are as guilty of the same dogmatism that they, following the Buddha, reject in others, falling into the same trap that the Buddha criticizes: “If one who does tolerate another’s view is a fool, a dolt and stupid, then all of them are fools without understanding, because all of them abide by their own views only.  … They make their own individual views true. Therefore, they determine that another person is a fool” (Sn 880, 882). Similarly, Hajime Nakamura explicitly states that “early Buddhism” included belief in a true Self, rebirth, karma, dharma, the Five Groups (corporeality, feeling, perception, mental formations, consciousness), non-ego, and the “subconscious.”[4] One view that one comes upon with increasing frequency, and thus I have determined to discuss it today, is the rejection of the pan-Indian doctrine of rebirth, despite, as noted above, its appearance in the earliest texts. The basic argument that is used is that the doctrine of rebirth cannot be substantiated empirically and is thus contrary to Buddhist rationalism which disdains belief in what is not evident. I have already shown that the latter is based on cherry picking passages that support one view while denigrating any other passages as late or whatnot that are inconsistent with this conclusion. From a  Buddhist perspective, the belief in rebirth is quite empirical.

However, taking the Pali Canon as a whole, it is quite clear that the Buddha not only believed in rebirth, but experienced his own past lives, including memories of people, places, and situations in his immediate surroundings from his own past lives. While it is certainly true that the memories of past lives are not evident to most people today,[5] this criticism of the Buddhist teachings amounts to the statement that because something is not evident to common sense (i.e., unenlightened by definition), therefore the evidence of an enlightened realization is dismissed. The logical fallacy is obvious, and can be used to disprove that the earth orbits the sun, that atoms exist,  that quantum physics is true because the mathematics that underlies it is incomprehensible to the common ruck, or a million other things commonly accepted as fact. In fact, science is constantly disproving common sense assumptions. The assumption that underlies the assertion that that which is not “scientific” is false is based on an erroneous conception of science as all-knowing and closed, neither of which is true. This dogmatic perspective is self-contradictory because it implies that the unenlightened mind is enlightened, in which case there is nothing to do.

What we choose to investigate scientifically is often an expression of personal bias, having no basis in science, nor is the scientific method, based as it is on quantification, precise measurement, and repeatability, capable even in principle of universal application. The scientific worldview is not fixed; it expands and changes constantly. Dualistic, analytical reason can never grasp the totality because the whole is not a system, whereas reason can only proceed by systematic analysis and classification. Because something cannot be proved does not amount to disproof. It is notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to prove a negative.

In fact, many scientific theories are just that; there are very few, if any, scientific certainties. Scientific truth is provisional and probabilistic. Therefore, scientific skepticism is perfectly agnostic; to say that rebirth is disproved by science is an epistemological mistake. At best we can say, “based on our current understanding of the world, using the scientific experimental and analytical techniques  available to us, at the present time there is no scientific evidence for rebirth.” But even this highly qualified statement is false, since such evidence does exist.

Another tack that is taken is to denigrate the mind as such. Anything that originates in the mind is dismissed as imagination. Only matter is real. Mind itself is an epiphenomenon of matter, having no reality in itself, and prone to illusion, delusion, and error. However, the basis of science is not only observation, it is also mathematics, a discipline that originates in the mind, and includes a vast number of principles that cannot simply be deduced from observable material processes. It has its own inherent and transcendent logic. The fact that this is so is a great mystery, and implies a profound unity of mind and matter.

It is also a matter of immediate intuitive apprehension that mind cannot simply be reduced to material processes. Matter is unconscious and causal. Mind is conscious and ultimately and inherent volitional, albeit conditioned. According to quantum physics, the indeterminate waveform reality is collapsed by the “act of observation,” thus producing the particular reality that we experience. This “act of observation” must be a reality of a different  order from either the waveform or its particular expression, even though it clearly interacts with it.

Buddhism accepts mind as a sixth sense. If mind is a sense, then mind objects are as real as the objects of the other senses. Saying that mind is an epiphenomenon of matter is like saying that the radio program is an artifact of the electronics of the radio, that the tv program is an artifact of the electronics of the tv, or that the computer software is an artifact of the computer. Yet there are people, mostly Marxists and psychotics, who actually believe this!  Mind and matter are mutually incommensurable, though clearly correlated.

If we examine our own experience, we see if we look at the very small that it loses individuality and definition the closer we look. The experience of the body is progressively dissolved into microbes, bacteria, viruses, cells, molecules, elements, atoms, sub-atomic particles, and ultimately probabilistic stresses in space that have no particular existence at all. The quantum froth is an indeterminate chaotic matrix. As the Buddha says, there is no self in any of it. As we go deeper and deeper into the nature of reality, we find less definition, not more, until finally we come to the pure geometrical abstractions of Planck-length and Planck-time, the “pixels” of experiential reality.

It is obvious therefore that the patterns that characterize the objects that we experience including each other do not arise from below, but from above. According  to quantum physics, it is the “act of observation” which collapses the wave form, determining whether Schrodinger’s cat lives or dies. And so for all of the objects of our experience, ranging from our own bodies and the bodies or others to the planets, stars, galaxies, galaxy filaments, universes, multiverses, planes, and whatnot that make up the macrocosm.  Given all this, why should we find the notion of rebirth so incomprehensible? In fact, we experience death-rebirth in every moment of existence, when we sleep and awake, and in all of nature, which is based on the universal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. And yet we can go further.

A common claim of skeptics is that there is no “evidence” for rebirth, similar to similar claims made by skeptics vis a vis the UFO phenomenon. Both are wrong. Dr. Ian Stevenson (1918-2007) was a  Canadian-born American psychiatrist who worked for the University School of Medicine for 50 years, including chair of the department of psychiatry.  He was the founder and director of the Divison of Perceptual Studies, which studied so-called paranormal phenomena. Over a period of 40 years he undertook extensive international fieldwork into the hypothesis that emotions, memories, and physical bodily features can be transferred from one life to another.

Stevenson investigated 3000 cases of children who claimed to remember past lives. He wrote 14 books and about 300 papers on reincarnation. Robert Almeder, an academic specializing in logic and the philosophy of science, also conducted a thorough investigation of the evidence for the post-mortem survival of the human personality, and concluded that the evidence of the post-mortem survival of the human personality is at least as good as the evidence of their past existence of dinosaurs, which is generally accepted by science:

There is something essential to some human personalities … which we cannot plausibly construe solely in terms of either brain states, or properties of brain states … and, further, after biological death this non-reducible essential trait sometimes persists for some time, in some way, in some place, and for some reason or other, existing independently of the person’s former brain and body. Moreover, after some time, some of these irreducible essential traits of human personality, for some reason or other, and by some mechanism or other, come to reside in other human bodies either some time during the gestation period, at birth, or shortly after birth.

Buddhism is a sophisticated metaphysical philosophy, every part of which is integrated with every other part. If we reject the doctrine of rebirth, the consequences for Buddhism are critical. Some Secular Buddhists would have it that Buddhism is just a sort of psychotherapy, a theory of the relationship between desirous attachment and suffering, which can be ameliorated by means of insight into the nature of experience, the cultivation of dispassion, and the practice of “mindfulness.” Nirvana is nothing other than a state of calm. But if we remove rebirth and the goal of timeless immortality from the equation, and all ends in annihilation anyway, if the goal is simply the elimination of desire, why not just shoot yourself now and save yourself the trouble of spiritual practice? The end result is the same. Thus, Buddhism becomes a sort of nihilism, which the Buddha explicitly denied.

It might also be argued that faced with the choice of mixed pleasure and pain and suicide, it is actually more rational to maximize wholesome pleasures, perhaps by benefitting others, and minimize pain, rather than to give up all pleasure now. “Take your pleasure while you can,” as Richard Gere declared in American Gigolo.  Moreover, the doctrine of karma holds that every cause produces its just effect. However, if there is no rebirth, then the causes which remain “unfruited” at death simply vanish. Therefore, it is not true that every cause produces its just effect.[6]

This conclusion undermines morality and combined with the previous notion, justifies a form of hedonism, precisely the opposite of what the Buddha taught. In fact, a number of monastics did commit suicide, which the Buddha condemned in no uncertain terms. The Buddha also condemned nihilism and immorality. How then can this doctrine be denominated Buddhism? Why call yourself a Buddhist at all if you hold views that are clearly at variance with the fundamentals of the Buddha’s teachings? To that, unfortunately, I have no answer. You will need to ask the Secular Buddhists!

That said, there is a very real sense in which the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth is false, since it is samsaric, and everything samsaric is illusory. The true Self, being an absolutely simple and indivisible monad by definition, exists eternally in a timeless present, only it is  ignorantly involved in its spatio-temporal projections, to which it attributes its own reality, but is constantly frustrated by their unsatisfactory, transitory, and illusory nature. In order to cross the river one must withdraw all those projections through radical insight and self-realization, after which it can discard them and simply rest in the state of perfection. Universally accepted, this realization has the potential to change the world.

Bibliography

Almeder, Robert. Death and Personal Survival: The Evidence for Life After Death. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1992.

Dalai Lama. On Buddha Nature: Death and Eternal Soul in Buddhism. Trans. Christof Spitz. Rev./ed. Catherine Hunter. 1997; rpt. Woodside, CA: Blue Star Communications, 1999.

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche. “Is There Buddhism Without Reincarnation.” 5 parts. Oct. 14, 2019. YouTube video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-jZ0lkXQbYI&t=1s, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHKNk888svU, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zukCusYtzXc, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DVYxrYLAKzQ, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeUQre94hiU.

Nakamura, Hajime. Indian Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987.

———-. “The Problem of Self in Buddhist Philosophy.” In Revelation in Indian Thought: A Festschrift in Honour of Professor T.R.V. Murti, ed. Harold Coward and Krishna Sivarman, pp. 99-118. Emeryville, CA: Dharma Publishing, 1977.

Saddhatissa, H., trans. The Sutta-Nipata. 1985; rpt. Curzon Press, 1987.

Sarao, K.T.S.. “The Date of the Buddha.” ResearchGate. January 2017. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315859350_Date_of_the_Buddha.


[1] K.T.S. Sarao, “The Date of the Buddha.” Sarao’s date is close to that of Norman, Hikata, Bechert, Nakamura, and Bareau.

[2] The Buddha does not say that “purification” is neither attained by view, tradition, knowledge, virtue, or ritual, nor by their absence, but that these factors may be used as means of attainment without being grasped as things in themselves (Sn 839). This is the doctrine of skilled means (upaya). This is not quite the Secularist view that these things are irrelevant or even false.

[3] The Buddha’s family is said to have been descended from the Sun (Sn 915).

[3.1] Specifically, the Tushita (“contented” or “joyous”) heaven, associated in later texts with the abode of a bodhisattva before their final rebirth leading to Buddhahood. Tushita experiences time dilation, amounting to 400 human years for each divine day. Maitreya, the Coming Buddha, resides here.

[4] Indian Buddhism, pp. 63-66.

[5] Although this is not entirely true. Some young children spontaneously exhibit past-life recall, as do some of those who experience psychedelics such as DMT, etc., as well as trauma, similar to NDEs.

[6] Thus violating the law of causality, fundamental in science also.