Do I have to believe in rebirth?

There are many people out there who are interested in Buddhism but are turned off or just sincerely worried about the idea of rebirth. So do I have to believe in rebirth to be a Buddhist?

Much of what is attractive about Buddhism, especially to educated Westerners, is that it seems mostly free of messy religiousness. It’s just a philosophy, right? Much of Buddhism stands up pretty well to a scientific or philosophical critique. But of course, buried in back of the closet is this whole ugly rebirth thing that just embarrasses the heck out of people like Stephen Batchelor.

So first let me address this: did the Buddha really teach real, literal, bodily rebirth? Really? There’s a very simple answer to that question. Yes he did. Any reading of the suttas leaves no doubt. He repeatedly taught real, literal, bodily rebirth.

Now, I personally don’t have any problem with someone, even a Buddhist, who doesn’t believe in rebirth. It’s a very foreign concept for most of us. Or, it may be that the Buddha was just wrong! But I really do have a problem with any “Buddhist” teacher that claims that rebirth isn’t really a Buddhist teaching. They are either extremely uneducated in their own subject, exceptionally self-deluded, or just lying to you. In any case stay away from that person.

But back to the question at hand: Do I have to believe in rebirth to be a Buddhist? No, but with an asterisk. The first step of the 8-fold path is Right View, and rebirth is a part of right view. If you deny rebirth, you are not fully embracing right view. But hey, who said you have to be perfectly practicing the 8-fold path to be a Buddhist? Does that mean that anyone that isn’t always mindful isn’t a Buddhist? Of course not! Buddhism is a path, and most of us, hell, all of us are not perfectly on the path all the time.

If your interested in rebirth check out my posts on Ask yourself…Notes on Rebirth, and Last Word on Rebirth (for Now).



5 thoughts on “Do I have to believe in rebirth?

  1. dependence arising details dukkha ending with birth, sickness and death and centering on ignorance as the cause of the generation of the 12 steps leading to this final step. Two questions: where is this ignorance and ignorance of what?

    1. I think you have it exactly right. If you examine the Chain of Dependent Arising, there aren’t many places where the chain could be broken. After all, you can’t end birth, aging, or death directly, so it makes sense to zero in on ignorance as the link that we can have control over. This also points out once again the importance of Right View. There is an idea in Western Buddhism that Buddhism doesn’t really have any doctrines. One just sees the mind directly, and boom, the work is done. Now of course, that is possible (after all, it’s what our Buddha and all the other Buddhas have done.) But it’s much more difficult. And unnecessary! The beauty of Right View is that it points us in the direction we need to look.

      My own thinking on this is that Right View means understanding in a deep way the Chain of Dependent Arising itself. The Buddha practiced deep meditation under Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta but didn’t achieve enlightenment. Why? It’s because they were teaching subtlety wrong view. The Buddha described them as “having but a bit of dust in their eyes.” But it was enough. It was only when he dropped these views and went back to meditation like when he was a child that he made his breakthrough. And the description of what he experienced on the night of his awakening is a visceral experience of Dependent Arising.

      For us the problem is reversed. We have the Buddha’s teachings to point us to Right View. Now we have to perfect our conduct and meditation.

      As to the question of “where is this ignorance?” I think that’s a bit like asking, “What time is the color blue?” It’s a category error, not a real problem to be solved. In any case, we experience ignorance as a “function” of mind, so that’s the place to do our work.

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