Can one be a Buddhist without believing in ‘Rebirth’?
Bhikkhu Sugandha, Brunel University
This was one of the questions that came up during a discussion in the middle of a Sunday lunch. The event took place in an English home. It was a normal social gathering among friends and family. However, in terms of guests invited that Sunday it was rather special. All had different religious affiliations. The host herself is very keen on Buddhism and has been reading a lot about it for many years. One of the friends visiting her that weekend was a strong believer in Catholicism although his wife had lost her faith in Christianity. Amongst the other guests was a British married couple who proudly proclaimed themselves Buddhists. They have been learning Pali, the language used by the Buddha, to enable them to understand Buddhist teachings from the primary sources. This couple is very much into Theravada Buddhism. Next was a Polish fellow, who has been practicing Tibetan Buddhism and had visited Nepal from time to time to keep up with his study of Tibetan Buddhism. He also proudly proclaimed himself a Buddhist. The last in the list was me, a Nepalese Theravada Buddhist monk.
The lunch was very enjoyable and the food was a typical English Sunday lunch with mashed potatoes in the menu. Many people did not know each other before this gathering so everyone was busy introducing themselves and exchanging their personal backgrounds to become acquainted each other.
After the lunch, in a sitting room everyone was enjoying their warm cup of tea when a serious discussion on Buddhism began. Many issues were raised and comments made with different flavours of belief systems. It turned out to be a inter-religious dialogue. There were strong and weak Christian voices, a Tibetan Buddhist approach, a Theravada Buddhist perspective, a truth seeker_s stand and obviously a Buddhist monk’s viewpoint.
At one point of the discussion, the issue was karma. ‘God is the Creator and karma is God’ from a Christian point of view. Theravada Buddhists argued that it is a volitional action with a result. Whatever one does it has an effect of its own. Tibetan Buddhist added to that the effect will carry on to the next life. This is where the discussion heated up. Yes! The issue of a next life or rebirth or even reincarnation. This raised a whole question on Buddhism.
If something can be passed on from this life to next one it means that there is a carrier. Then what is that carrier? Does it mean there is something which is permanent? Is that what we call ‘soul’? If there is one, isn’t it against the core teaching of ‘no-soul’ and impermanence in Buddhism? This opened a whole spectrum of questions. With this issue even among Buddhists it began to show different perceptions and understandings of Buddhism. However, to cut the long story short, a Theravada Buddhist opened a question: ‘Can one be a Buddhist without believing in rebirth?’
Two types of Buddhists began to show different stand points on the issue. Buddhists who believe in next life and ones who do not. So who is a Buddhist and who is not?
This made me think ‘what is the sign of being a Buddhist at the first place?’ As far as I am concerned, I was born in a Buddhist family raised in a Buddhist culture and later ritually ordained as a Buddhist monk which verifies my identity as a Buddhist regardless of what I personally believe. But for a Western lay person how can one know one is a Buddhist because there is no ritual for a lay person to verify himself as a Buddhist convert or to become a Buddhist. It is not like other religions where they have a clear mark of identifying one’s religious identity. Baptism for example.
Let us take the simple and popular ritual of Theravada Buddhism—taking refuge in Triple Gem and observing the Five Precepts. Is it enough to proclaim someone as a Buddhist when he takes refuge in Triple Gem and keeps the five precepts? Or must he believe in many other doctrines of Buddhism such as ‘rebirth’ and/or ‘reincarnation’ too? What makes one a Buddhist? During the discussion all those questions popped up in my mind.
The Theravada Buddhists argued that the whole issue of rebirth is obviously one of the subjects concerned with Buddhism but it is not necessarily the essential teaching. It is an individual choice to believe in it or not. The main point is to believe in the doctrine of ‘karma’ which literally means ‘action’ or ‘deed’. On the other hand, the Tibetan Buddhist was a strong believer in a next life being determined by the deeds of present life. Hoping for a definite answer everyone stared at me!
This reminded me of the difference of perception between East and West. I still remember my brother telling me about the perception of time by people in the East compared to the West. It was in Nepal when my brother took me with him to a public event. The given time was two o’clock in afternoon. We were there on time but we did not see anyone there, neither had they opened the hall where the venue supposed to take place. I was a bit upset because I had postponed other appointments for that event. I complained to my brother about Nepalese not taking the matter of time seriously. He then explained to me that it is a direct effect of the believe system in the East.
In the East they believe in next lives one after another. Time is therefore limitless for Easterners. If one does not finish his work in this lifetime he still can carry it on to the next life. Whereas in the West time is limited and everything has to be finalised in this life. Therefore, they have to keep their time very rigid. But among Nepalese it is much more relaxed. If you missed something today you still have chance to do it tomorrow. If you are suffering this life you hope to be happy in the next. They do not regret suffering but accept it smilingly and hope for better in the next life to come. Similarly, this relaxation of time reflects in every aspect of Nepalese life. For example, public transport hardly even runs on time and most public events never begin on time. A matter of delaying an hour or two is not a problem at all! Even if you miss an appointment you need not feel apologetic because there is tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, next week, next month, next year and your next life to finish the matter which you cannot finish now.
Here we can see how differently people perceive time. Obviously, the issue of karma and rebirth can be understood with the same degree of understanding among Easterners in general.
This issue of karma and rebirth are very delicate and intriguing. It is an abstract matter and can be explained only with metaphors because no one has died and come back to tell his story after death. Therefore, the question of life after death is like the question of Creator of the universe. It can go on and on endlessly without being able to prove anything.
In most explanations the issue of ‘karma’ and ‘rebirth’ is linked. Karma which is a Sanskrit version of Kamma in Pali literally means ‘action or deed’. It is a neutral term as it could be wholesome deeds, unwholesome deeds or neither wholesome nor unwholesome deeds. But in a religious sense it has to be deeds with intention. Unintentional deeds are not regarded as karma. All intentional deeds and actions lead to different consequences. In other words, it is a theory of cause and effect.
‘Rebirth’ in Pali literally means ‘again-becoming’. According to the Buddhist texts Buddha and many of the great sages in His tradition have remembered past existences and seen, moreover, how karma initiated in one life has come to fruit in another.
This teaching of a continuity of lives is not peculiar to Buddhism but is accepted also in Hinduism, Jainism and the religion of the Sikhs. It has, for a long times been a strong undercurrent, (though not officially accepted) in Islam (Sufism), Christianity (Origen and the Gnostics) and is well-known in Neo-Confucian and Taoist teachings.
A teaching in which birth depends on the intentional action (karma) of the individual definitely makes some sense. It gives value to life and brings a sense of justice into what might well seem chaos and injustice. If one wants to know how evil-dowers can be happy and wealthy, while good people groan, oppressed in many ways, this too is answered by the teaching on karma and rebirth. Provided one believes in the Buddhist understanding that not all intentional actions have immediate fruits.
Not only has the teaching on rebirth a value for those who would see some justice in this world, it also has a pragmatic application. When teaching those who took rebirth for granted, Buddha strengthened their belief, but with others who were sceptical and asked questions, instead of asking them to accept rebirth as true, Buddha employed a ‘wager argument’. In this way he brought into focus the value of this teaching by stressing its practical benefits, here and now.
Clarification of the issue of rebirth may be done in the words of a famous Buddhist simile from the questions asked by King Milinda (Menander in Greek) of the sage Nagasena:
Rebirth is by the latter compared to the changes which a single jug of milk may undergo. To begin with there is just milk, this changes to curds, these to butter, from butter comes ghee and from ghee, the skim of ghee, and such processes may develop one from another, infinitely. Each stage is compared to one birth and all the time from the stage of being milk until it becomes ghee-skim, there is no underlying entity which actually goes unchanged—there are here only processes at work, unstable processes in the process of further change. The position of man, if he had but a little humility to see it, is the same: processes constantly change, react and change.
From these explanations we can see that the issue of rebirth is not related with being a Buddhist. This is further confirmed by Buddha’s teaching on five qualities of a good Buddhist. To be a good Buddhist lay disciple, Buddha said, one should be: 1) Endowed with faith (arising from wisdom). 2) Have good conduct (keep the precepts). 3) Not to be superstitious but believing in deeds (karma). 4) Not to seek for the gift-worthy outside of the Buddha’s teaching (to bring Buddha’s teachings into practice), and 5) To do his first service in a Buddhist cause (to endeavour adhering to Buddhism).
Therefore, if anyone follows these virtues one can be regarded as a good Buddhist without believing in rebirth. However, as a Buddhist essentially one must believe in the theory of karma. Following is a verse the simplifying the theory of karma which appears in the Buddhist texts:
According to the seed that is sown,
So is the fruit ye reap therefrom.
The doer of good will gather good,
The doer of evil, evil reaps.
Sown is the seed and planted well;
Thous shalt enjoy the fruit thereof.
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