Buddhist Rebirth and the Oranges of Geronimo Bosch

Yes, we should keep an open mind about rebirth. We should also keep an open mind about no rebirth. Because the diehards are doubling down, in direct proportion to what they fear they have to lose, I suppose: certainty, predetermination, magic, or maybe even their jobs? But mostly, I think, they are worried about losing their religion, because religion is about nothing if not certainty, and without rebirth, Buddhism might be seen as lacking that, and so nothing more than a philosophy. But philosophy doesn’t pay the bills, and religion does, because that’s where you turn when times are hard, to magic and superstition, not existentialism or logical positivism.

And let’s be clear that we’re not talking about ‘spiritual rebirth’ or being ‘born again’ in the Christian sense. Because, though the definition is deliberately fuzzy (how could it not be?), its resemblance to brother Hinduism’s reincarnation is hard to explain away. And in a sense it can serve as a stand-in for Christianity’s eternal life, even though the one is supposed to be a blessing and the other a curse. Often, I suppose that the curse you know is far preferable to the great unknown that is death.

The religious quest that is certainty is often preferable to the scientific truth, which is tentative, by definition. And so, a big idea that was popular at the time, reincarnation and/or rebirth, was accepted by the Buddha, sorta kinda almost maybe, because it promised better results than the alternative. But it is now an obstacle for the evolving dharma which is Buddhism, and which is teetering on the side of dogma, if the ‘rebirthers’ get their way. And so far, up until now, they do get their way, as almost every time the Pali/Sanskrit word ‘jati’ is used, the correct translation as ‘birth’ is now retranslated as ‘rebirth.’ But there is a different word for that.

Entire concepts, indeed, such as Dependent Origination, are remade in the image of rebirth. Ironically the monks who you’d think would be most resistant to this, the Westerners, are often in fact the ones doubling down. I spent a few months in a Thai forest temple, and we never talked about rebirth. Many Western monks talk about nothing else. One prominent Western monk has even declared that non-self ‘anatta’ was always tentative, so that there can be no issue over what gets reborn.

In the Thai tradition, ‘making merit’ is a big deal and past lives are jokingly referred to, but the karma involved is little more than the Golden Rule, not the generation-jumping karma of retribution that characterizes the rebirth-heavy Tibetan tradition. And the revered Thai monk Buddhadasa specifically denied rebirth, while Ajahn Chah dodged the issue. Of course, my pet theory is that it’s all a ruse designed to ensure the dominance of the Brahmin caste in India over their lessers, but I can’t prove that—yet. Can it be proved that Christian eternal life is a pretext for capitalism? Probably not. This is the garden of earthly delights–enjoy, a little bit…