I am sometimes asked this question, especially at the end of an introductory class on Buddhism. The person asking me will usually have been struck by one of the life-enhancing insights offered by the Dharma. Perhaps they have experienced the gentle but powerful impact that meditation has on our state of mind. Many Buddhist teachings have a strong resonance among busy Westerners for a variety of reasons.
But karma and reincarnation? Not so much.
It’s not at all surprising that most people struggle with these concepts. I certainly did. Quite simply, they are not part of our culture. The Western view, largely shaped by Christianity and materialist science, has it that when we die our souls go to heaven or hell, or alternatively that they go nowhere at all because they never existed in the first place. The idea that some part of us continues through successive experiences of birth, ageing, death and rebirth, and has done since the beginning of time, is not our way of thinking.
After all the sane and life-enhancing wisdom of Buddhism, it may seem disappointing to drag such outlandish concepts into the picture – especially as most of us can’t remember a single thing about a previous lifetime.
Hence the question: can you be a Buddhist if you don’t believe such things.
My own response to this question is simply to ask: why do you want to be a Buddhist? It isn’t necessary to give a label to yourself or what you do. If you find certain things in Buddhism that are useful to you – take them. If there are others you find weird – leave them. The objective is not to get people to join some sort of club. It is to offer tools to be happier.
If the idea that the consciousness of your now-deceased mother in law is currently experiencing reality as a termite in the jungles of Papua New Guinea sets you on edge, then, no problem. On the other hand, that suggestion may be sparking a renewed interest in this Buddhist rebirth malarkey!
Karma and rebirth are core to Buddhism. Yes, they were part of the culture in which Siddartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, grew up. But he didn’t plod along in sheep-like acceptance of convention. It is said that on the night he became enlightened he reviewed his own previous lives – one imagines, like fast-forwarding through a pre-recorded drama series – clearly noting the law of causality, or karma, playing out from one lifetime, or episode, to the next.
One of our biggest challenges, as Westerners, is letting go of the preconceptions we have about what exactly moves through different lifetimes. So conditioned by both Christianity and, ironically, materialism, about this entity known as the soul, we have a tendency to think that our acquired personality, together with memories, likes and dislikes, the ego and all its kit and caboodle, are transferred wholesale from one body to the next.
This is not the Buddhist view.
Even we beginner meditators can come to recognise, after a while, that consciousness exists at different levels. Those aspects of personality and memories, which we may have come to believe is who we truly are, turn out to be conceptual notions which come and go, with no independent existence at all. Running behind this, all the time, we discover mind to be something more subtle: a formless continuum of clarity and cognition. It is this very subtle consciousness that Buddhists say moves from one life to the next.
As for karma, all of us ‘believe’ in the law of cause and effect on a material level – we rely on it every time we turn the ignition key in the car, or press a light switch. We can also observe it at a psychological level, perhaps more easily in others than ourselves, in the way that negative thinking leads to self-harmful behaviour, which in turn reinforces the negative thinking and so on, in a vicious spiral downwards. Just as the opposite is also true. Perhaps it is not so outlandish to suggest that causality can occur on a longer term basis, constantly propelling the formless continuum of clarity and cognition through different experiences.
Karma and rebirth are big subjects – certainly too much to deal with adequately in a short blog. But I hope I have provided a few tools to help any readers who may have been struggling with these concepts.
Coming back to the original question, you don’t have to believe in karma and rebirth to be a regular at Buddhist classes. But you do have to have an open mind. My advice would be to put less helpful subjects to one side, and focus on the ones that are most useful to you at this moment in your life. Often it is the case that as our understanding of one subject deepens, it illuminates others in a quite unexpected way. Step by step, we discover an elegant coherence to all the teachings.
The last word on this subject goes to Buddha himself:
“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”
(Asvaghosa’s Buddhacarita or Acts of the Buddha.)
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My introductory book to Tibetan Buddhism, Buddhism for Busy People, can be ordered from your local bookstore or bought online. It has different covers in different countries, but the content is the same:
Enlightenment to Go, an introduction to Shantiva’s famous work ‘A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’ is for readers who’d like to explore Tibetan Buddhism a little more deeply. Again, different covers in different countries: