Buddhism, Karma and Rebirth

With my good friend David Webster from the University of Gloucestershire



4 thoughts on “Buddhism, Karma and Rebirth

  1. The problem of there being no self to be reborn has been much-discussed for quite a long time, as you mention in the video. But, reading your book on views, which (at one quarter of the way through) I think is suggesting that the Buddha was putting emphasis on what we can see for ourselves through direct experience, rather than taking on belief in views constructed from other sources, I wonder if there isn’t an even greater contradiction in seeing the Buddha as preaching belief in rebirth as leading up to awakening. It seems to me that you are correct in your thesis — that the Buddha was saying that what we must rely on is actual experience, seen clearly — and given that the vast majority of humans don’t have direct experience of rebirth, asking disciples to base their approach to the world on an item that has to be taken on faith seems a bit contrary.

    I’m not suggesting that he didn’t speak about rebirth, or behave in a way that encouraged its worldview. I am suggesting that he had a reason for speaking as he did, and that it wasn’t because he was certain rebirth was the Cosmic Order.

    I find justification in the Buddha talking so much about rebirth because it seems to me that — if there were such a thing as “sin” in Buddhism — the cardinal sin would be certainty that one is right in what one believes, when it is based on other than direct experience — certainty to such a degree that one says everyone else is wrong. Many of the micchadiṭṭhi in the Pali canon are not so much “views” as denials of others’ views, and I believe it is that aspect, that denial, rather than the supposed “content” of the wrong views that the Buddha is objecting to, because he has seen (directly!) where that dogmatic certainty leads. If this is the case, then when he speaks, as he so often does, in terms of rebirth he is putting into practice what he preaches: even if he had no direct evidence for rebirth he would not deny anyone else’s belief in it as the cosmic order. As I see it, he found a unique way to speak to people who have these beliefs from their own perspective. Talk about religious tolerance! — I can’t think of any other founder of a religion who displayed anything like that open-minded behavior.

  2. Some great ideas, thoughts and comments Linda. I’ve not got a lot of time at the moment but wanted to thank you for this. And thanks for reading my book. When I have more time I will offer some thoughts on what you have written.

  3. Where to start! Maybe I will simply stick to a couple of comments. As for views the simplest explanation is given in the -kathā of the Paṭisambhidāmagga, There the question is asked: ‘What is view?’ (kā diṭṭhi ti, Paṭis I 135). The answer given is that: ‘clinging by adherence is view’ (abhinivesa parāmāso diṭṭhi, Paṭis I 135). As you suggest Linda, it is not so much the content that makes wrong-views wrong. They are not primarily a form of ignorance but a mental rigidity, a form of attachment. This is clear from the familiar list of terms used to describe views, for example in the Dhammasaṅgaṇi:

    ‘Gone over to view (diṭṭhi-gata), the thicket of view (diṭṭhi-gahana), a wilderness of view (diṭṭhi-kantāra), the contrariness of view (diṭṭhi-visūkāyika), the turmoil of view (diṭṭhi-vipphandita), the fetter of views (diṭṭhi-saṃyojana), holding (gāha), fixity (patiṭṭhāha), adherence (abhinivesa), clinging (parāmāsa), a bad path (kumagga), a false way (micchā-patha), falsity (micchatta), the realm of (other) systems of crossing over (titthāyatana), the hold of the perverted views (vipariyesa-gāha)’

    The key terms here are about holding, fixity, adherence and clinging – not a lack of knowledge. But what about rebirth, the notion of rebirth? It seems to me that to deny rebirth would be a wrong-view, but part of a different aspect of wrong-view: wrong because they hinder the religious life, or religious striving. What reason would there be to live the holy life if death were the end. This is the view of nihilism (uccheda-diṭṭhi).

    Someone like Buddhadasa was able to say that the idea of rebirth was not part of original Buddhism. This, in part, was to prompt his Thai audience to stop concentrating on the accumulation of merit, but to focus on the ethical life. I imagine the question is whether there is attachment to the notion or view of rebirth. If there is it is a wrong-view, even though it may be ‘factually’ correct.

    Thanks for the comments Linda!

  4. Yes, the problem with views is not their content, but our relationship to those views, and how that causes us to behave — it seems we agree on that. But don’t you then take the objection to uccheda-diṭṭhi literally, as a problem with what it would mean if true, rather than being about clinging to it?

    Just above, you said, “What reason would there be to live the holy life if death were the end.”

    Question for you: Have you ever found the Buddha saying anything like that? I have not, and it seems to me if that were part of his reasoning, he’d have said so.

    It seems that I agree with Buddhadasa, because I find in MN 117 that the Buddha does too, though reading it that way contravenes the traditional understanding. I hear him saying that holding mundane views about rebirth (as well as sacrifices, etc.) generates a trinity of “sāsavā puññabhāgiyā upadhivepakkā” — taints, merit, and clinging to rebirth.

    I don’t think that it’s necessary to believe that uccheda is *not* the case — to say that the only use to a holy life is *if* something of us continues after death (even if it’s not self that does) — that would be a belief, also. It seems to me the Buddha is saying that *in any case* — whether we continue after death or not — it is worth living the holy life (and he says this specifically in several places, doesn’t he).

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