Let’s see if I have this right. I’m struggling through the first pages of Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s “The Truth of Rebirth.” Like all of Than Geoff’s writing, it is dense with knowledge and profound thought. He writes with great clarity, but his subject matter is not easy to grasp; and I continue to struggle, of course, with my own skepticism.
As I understand it, then, Than Geoff is disputing the easy path of “Buddhism without belief”—the familiar Western choice to embrace Buddhism as no more than essentially a sound guide to a life well lived and a fine model for psychological health. But not as a religion. This is the choice I myself have made, in my reluctance to move beyond reason into faith. I am, I confess, one of those who in Than Geoff’s words “have felt burned or repelled by the faith demands of Western religion” and who “would prefer a Buddhism that makes no faith demands.” Because faith would require that great leap beyond what can be rationally tested and proven into the belief in rebirth.
For Than Geoff, though, this belief is integral to following the Buddhist path. As is his custom, he turns to the Buddha’s words for instruction—or at least those words as they are reported by the followers who first set them down. He cites the three knowledges described by the Buddha in recalling the night of his awakening: the knowledge of “manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two… five, ten… fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, may eons of cosmic contraction”; the second knowledge, the “vision of how living beings at large are reborn after death”: and the third, the understanding that the “same causal pattern” of events—karma, then—operates in both the macro experience, life to life over eons of time, and the micro, “events immediately present in his own mind.”
All of which gave rise to the Four Noble Truths, because each life brings with it suffering, and the Buddha’s great teaching and his goal for all living beings was the end of suffering—and the end, then, logically, of the continuing cycle of death and rebirth, the attainment of the “deathless.” (Bear with me, I’m trying to work my way through this…) After identifying the existence and the cause of suffering, and establishing that there is an achievable end to it, the fourth Noble Truth lays out the path to follow if we wish to reach that goal.
Than Geoff argues vigorously—and with meticulously researched scholarship—against the historical revisionism that is used by those who seek to adapt Buddhism to a twenty-first century world by attributing the Buddha’s thoughts on rebirth to a long-discredited, pre-scientific cultural context. He sees the Buddha’s insights as a radical departure from then current thinking, when theories of the after-life were either “annihilationist” or “eternalist.” Much like the atheism of today, annihilationism denied any form of survival after death. In this view, death puts a full stop to everything, body and consciousness alike. Eternalism argued, on the contrary, that some part of our being survives after death, but without agreement as to exactly what. It hinged on “the metaphysics of personal identity”—the definition of what a “person” actually is. Some seemed to propose the existence of that kind of vital essence that Christians today believe in as the “soul”—the tradition in which I myself was raised and have subsequently abandoned.
In this context, the Buddha’s revolutionary contribution was to take the matter out of the power of extra-human hands—whether deities or metaphysical systems—and return it to the individual human being and his actions, thus empowering each of us to take responsibility for our own suffering and its cessation. Knowledge of his own past lives, revealed in the course of his awakening, convinced the Buddha not only of the truth of rebirth, but also of the causal connection between action and its consequence: what was true on the macro level, from life to life over eons of time, was also true of the micro experience of this lifetime: that wholesome, skillful, well-intentioned actions result in greater happiness for myself and others, while thoughtless, unkind, ill-considered actions bring the opposite results.
Once this responsibility is acknowledged, then, the matter of rebirth comes down to a pretty simple proposition. We can choose to either believe in it or reject it. Our choice may be guided by something akin to the famous bet that Blaise Pascal offered in the 17th century on the belief in God: if I choose to believe in the truth of rebirth, the Buddhist bet suggests, my good actions now will assure me a good destination in the “heavenly world.” If there is no world after death, those same good actions will assure me greater happiness and less suffering in this one. If the bet is a win-win, I can only benefit from making the choice to believe. Conversely, I have nothing to gain—and everything to lose—if I refuse it.
So, yes, this remains a leap of faith. The Buddha offers no proof, just the example of his own experience, the challenge to think it through, and a way to go about it. I'll be reading further and reporting further on is challenging and, to me, quite difficult book.