One of the most fascinating, as well as necessary controversies in contemporary Western Buddhism concerns rebirth. Historically, all Buddhist traditions have regarded rebirth--which should not be confused with reincarnation--as fundamental to Buddhist doctrine. The Buddha himself taught that rebirth was part of the cosmic order and he claimed to possess direct knowledge not only of his own previous lives, but also those of all sentient beings. His testimony appears in the Pali Canon, the oldest, as well as the most authoritative scriptures in Buddhism. Until recently, unquestioning belief in rebirth has amounted to virtual orthodoxy. But as Buddhism has begun to find its way in Western culture, it has encountered a well established Western world view that opposes belief in an afterlife of any kind as a matter of epistemological principle. In this sceptical and empirical world view, to credit the possibility of rebirth without the possibility of empirical verification is simply impermissible. Rebirth must be rejected just as summarily as the Christian belief in heaven and hell. Yet, there a few people who subscribe to this view and still call themselves Buddhists, in spite of their entrenched scepticism. In his wonderful memoir, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, Stephen Batchelor recounts his experiences as a Buddhist monk and scholar who, though he sincerely tried to believe in rebirth, was unable to shed his doubts. Although his lack of conviction led him to disrobe after years of being first a Tibetan monk and then a Zen monk in Korea, he still regards himself as a Buddhist because he believes that the Buddha's message of spiritual liberation remains valid within the limits of human finitude. Batchelor refers to his position as "Buddhism without belief" and he used this memorable phrase as the title of his best known book. However, not all Western Buddhists agree with him or share his scepticism. The British born Theravada monk Ajahn Brahm, for example, describes Batchelor's views as beliefs without Buddhism. And many other Western Buddhists appear drawn to the religion precisely because it affirms rebirth.
The question of what happens to us after death is unlikely ever to be settled by examination of the empirical evidence, for what little evidence there is, is highly questionable, to say the least. Still, the want of evidence won't make either the question or the belief in rebirth go away. As a Western Buddhist myself, I sit on the fence in this matter. I don't find the evidential case for rebirth convincing and regard most personal testimony about past lives as doubtful, if not fraudulent. Yet, unlike Batchelor, I don't believe Buddhism carries much moral force without rebirth, for without that belief it loses its essential moral imperative. To paraphrase Doestoyevsky, without karma anything is permitted. It also seems to me that Batchelor doesn't believe so much in the Buddhist ideal of enlightenment as he does in ataraxia, the state of deep tranquillity that was extolled by the Stoic philosophers as a way of achieving harmony with the universe. And unlike Buddhism, personal rebirth doesn't figure into Stoic metaphysics, at all. But Buddhism, as I understand it, offers far more than an antidote to the stress and anxiety that is inherent in our mortal condition. It also promises the possibility of finding permanent release from samsara, the wheel of life and death. From the Buddhist perspective, death as a finality would not constitute a metaphysical problem. Oblivion at death would mean the end of suffering, which would make it tantamount to nirvana. But this is a view that the Buddha explicitly rejected as annihilationism. What he taught is that it is birth and death as an inseparable sequence that makes suffering inescapable. And that is the problem: to be born is be fated to die; to die is to be fated to be reborn, only to die and be reborn again and again in an infinite series. It is easy to grasp the first of these propositions, but the second is too obscure for most of us to see. Though we witness the reality of both birth and death all the time, the idea of rebirth may seem to be mere speculation.
Religions claim to know what science cannot disprove and so there is a vast array of ideas about what happens to us after death. The Hindu Vedas speak of reincarnation and of an atman, an eternal soul that is reborn in accordance with its karma. Buddhism differs from this view, chiefly in its rejection of the idea of atman, claiming instead that there is anatman, or not-self that is better thought of as a karmic process than a psychic entity. What we take to be a self is actually a collection of elements that has been brought into being by prior karma without there ever being a soul or self to direct or oversee this process. It is a blind, vacant urge to be, rather than a sempiternal self that turns the wheel of life and death. Yet, Buddhism also claims that it is possible to be aware of that urge--even, strange to say, to be self aware of it. As the great Japanese Zen Master Dogen expressed it, to study the self is to lose the self. Or, to put it in another way, to become deeply self aware is to realise the truth of not-self. But in order to do this it is necessary to have insight into the blind urge that perpetuates being. And it is in observing this urge in action that we may also reach some understanding of rebirth.
In the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination, which describes birth and death as a twelve stage cycle, birth [jati] follows from craving [trishna] and clinging [upadanna] only to be succeeded by death [jaro maranam] in inevitable progression. Death itself is a transitional state of deep ignorance or unconsciousness in which all our latent urges germinate before giving rise to the same sequence all over again. The description of the cycle is necessarily abstract and schematic, but for that very reason it can appear deceptively simple. The Buddha himself reproved his close disciple, Ananda, when he exclaimed how easy it was to comprehend. But it is within each stage of the cycle that things become complicated, perhaps most of all in the samskaras, a term that means both volitional action and karmic formation. One way of thinking of a samskara is as a habit pattern that springs to mind whenever the conditions for its emergence are propitious. And each time we act on that habit, it becomes more deeply ingrained in our mentality. Samskaras then function like karmic capital that only increases every time it is invested in being as voluntary action. Not all samskaras are harmful or inauspicious and Buddhism has always advocated the cultivation of benign karma both to lead to a better life and make an advance towards ultimate liberation. But even the most sublime samskara cannot offer liberation, for when the conditions that sustain it disintegrate as all compound things do, the samskara vanishes as if into the air. And here, perhaps, we may catch a small glimpse of what it is like to die and be reborn.
Almost everyone knows what it is to experience a loss that amounts to a kind of death, when everything we thought we had been living for felt torn from our grasp. Yet such losses may not have been as dire as we had first thought. As children, for example, we may have mourned the loss of a cherished toy with inconsolable grief. And for some people, even as adults, losing something as inconsequential as a football match or a beauty contest could provoke a feeling approaching self negation. Of course, there are other losses that may strike us as worthier of sorrow, such as the end of a relationship or marriage, and, above all, the death of someone we love. But no matter how important or trivial a particular loss might be deemed, it is our reaction to it that indicates how death could condition rebirth. We might experience a feeling of numbed bewilderment in which nothing--no hope or desire, perhaps not even a feeling of distress--seems to impinge on our sense of self. We would simply feel cut off from the people or things that once seemed to sustain us. But then, something remarkable would likely happen, usually without much conscious effort: we would become ourselves again. And though this might feel like rejuvenation, it could just as well feel like a return to a dreary round of familiar need. Though it might seem to be a rebirth of some kind, our coming back to life would still be led by the same self needs that had always ruled us.
Of course, none of this provides any argument for rebirth after physical death. No matter how much we might feel reborn within one lifetime death would still appear as the irreversible exit it always has been and will always be. But if there is an afterlife our present lives might offer some clues about what we should expect.