How to Think About Rebirth

One paradigmatic objection to the concept of selflessness (anatta) is to hold it as a foil to the idea of rebirth. “If there’s no self, then what is reborn?” I think the question is often unconsciously disingenuous. At least it’s a red herring, but you can see why. Rebirth is a challenging doctrine for many of us to wrap our heads around, and often ends up being this anomaly in an otherwise pragmatic, phenomenological system. It’s the one thing we are seemingly asked to accept on faith, and it’s a biggie.

Rebirth flies so fully in the face of the European scientific consensus on how consciousness works that the standard approach in many convert Buddhist communities is to just ignore it. (Teaching about it only as a metaphor for moment to moment psychological experience is the main way the teaching is ignored.) But if we want to not ignore it, how do we do that?

I got trolled a bit, or at least mansplained, about this a couple weeks ago on FB by a representative of that classic argumentative persona: the snarky atheist who thinks that by asserting that things he doesn’t believe in are ridiculous he will win an argument with a person who holds a different worldview than he does. Mettā to him, and it’s no problem, but it suggests to me that we might address the “supernatural” sticking point that comes up with the rebirth doctrine in a different way.

What if we think about rebirth not as a proposal about cosmology that asks us to believe in a supernatural model of consciousness, but as a reasonable theory to explain a common experience: having a vision (felt sense, intuition, mystical experience) of being someone else? This is a way to go backward from direct experience into theory rather than start with a difficult supernatural proposal. Theory is explanatory, remember. We come up with theories to explain things. So the evidence: people regularly have experiences where they seem to be someone else, or “remember” being someone else or somewhere else. (I put remember in quotation marks because that’s already a theory—that this experience is necessarily pointing to the past.) I have an experience spontaneously, or as a result of guidance, or intentionally in meditation, that puts me in the experiential seat of another body, another being. What if “rebirth” is just a way to explain this phenomenon in a way that makes sense with other things we clearly experience?

We already know that memory is not a video camera. Memories change and evolve over the years as emotional charge rises and falls through us. In the ideas about rebirth that we find in the Buddha’s teachings, the main implication we get is that what is seen is important for its ethical implications. The “knowledge of one’s former births” is always connected to the knowledge that “beings disappear and reappear in accordance with their actions.” The interpretive leap here, I know, is from visionary experience to material reality. The most important objection to the theory of rebirth is the same one that discounts psychic information of all kinds. This objection, which is core to the materialist vision of consciousness, says that dreams, visions, psychedelic trips, and many other ways of getting an intuitive hit about what’s true in the universe are all just personal idiosyncratic imagination. The materialist view can only frame intuitive information as imagination, never as authentic insight into how the world works. By this logic, all of the insights that characterize the growth of wisdom in the Buddha’s teaching should be suspect. What is insight other than an intuitive leap into an understanding that was not there before?

All of the “supernatural” powers reported in the Buddhist texts can be held in the same way. Think of them as visionary trips more like shamanic practices than meditative. “Cross-legged, they fly through the air like a bird.” “They walk on water as if it were solid land.” Don’t get lost in materialistic speculation about these as if they’re proposing physical superhero actions, but start with the reproducible (if extremely difficult) experience of doing them, and then think about how you would describe those unusual experiences. The psychedelic trip is the easiest analog for some of us. You can either conceptualize the trip as completely imaginary, the result of chemical patterns in the brain, or as opening a window into a reality that is not usually available. What’s the difference?

The main difference, I think, is that the materialistic interpretation denigrates the experience, and by extension the practitioner. I think this is why this critique comes most often from those outside of the faith community. The mansplainer is essentially saying “Your explanation for your experience doesn’t make sense to me, therefore I’m here to tell you that your experience is invalid.” Mystical experience is threatening to those outside the interpretive community that holds the mystical practitioner. This is partly why deep practice can become so insular—nobody outside the small group of your friends has any idea what you’re talking about.

If we understand the rebirth doctrines as explanatory frameworks for mystical experience, and engaged directly with the ethics teaching at their heart, perhaps we can escape the trap of feeling like we need to defend them as materialistic cosmology. I hope this frees us too be more curious about the experiences they describe, and more open to the mystery around how they do indeed describe reality in a way that is both liberating and radical.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top

Connect with the beauty and power of Buddhist training.

Receive articles, guided meditations, and tools for starting or deepening your practice, along with Dr. Oakes’ teaching schedule.

We use cookies as part of website function, and ask your consent for this.