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.