A wonderfully useful discussion at sangha this morning, after our hour’s sit. It being the holiday season, and there being so few in attendance, I was about to leave right after the hour of silent meditation, but Bob—one of our three Bobs in the group—held me back with a thought about rebirth. He had brought a copy of Than Geoff’s “The Truth of Rebirth”, and knew that I had always found this a sticking point. What, he wanted to know, was my question about it?
Well, I have read the first twenty pages or so of Than Geoff’s book, with a good sense, I thought, of his argument: that the Buddha’s word about rebirth, contrary to much Western thinking about “Buddhism without beliefs”, are in fact central to his teaching. The principle of karma, Than Geoff argues, is critical both on the micro and the macro scale; and it makes fullest sense only if it works life-to-life as well as in this one life we are currently experiencing. It leads him to what I interpreted as a kind of Pascalian bet: no matter whether God—and heaven and hell—exist, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain if we bet in His favor.
I (mis)understood the Buddhist belief in rebirth to be the same kind of bet. And it’s true, there is some shared ground between the two. What Bob came up with that was truly helpful to me was the formulation of a “working hypothesis”: the insight to which he led me was the realization that I don’t have to see it as one thing OR the other. True OR not true. So it doesn’t have to be the “leap of faith” I had always imagined. As always, it seems, the Buddha was inviting our consideration of the hypothesis, challenging us to test out his idea to see how well it would work. It’s not a question of some absolute concept in which I am required to belief as an article of faith; it’s a proposition that may—or may not—prove valid in the light of lived experience.
Now, I am well able to watch karma in action in the one life that I know: my actions lead to demonstrable results. The skillful ones result in less suffering for myself and less suffering for others; ergo, my own greater happiness and greater happiness for others. The unskillful ones contribute demonstrably to greater suffering for all. But there are instances of karmic action that have no such immediate or comprehensible outcomes—and, of course, instances of outcomes that have no apparent relation to karmic action. Why, asks that unanswerable question, do bad things happen to good people? And why do people who do terrible things often seem to reap great rewards rather than appropriate comeuppance? In the light of such considerations, the theory of repeated rebirth makes much more plausible sense. AND it can still remain a hypothesis.