We Are All Nihilists Now

“I want to be human. … Humans can live and die and be reborn.” (Microsoft Bing AI Chatbot)

Rebirth is not supposed to be an article of faith for Buddhists. Previous births are described in the Buddha’s discourses as memories a meditator can access (with talent, effort, and supportive conditions) through inner vision, which is a result of highly developed mindfulness. It’s difficult to access the deeply buried archive of lifetimes, but not so rare that I don’t personally know a handful of people in the Insight Meditation community who have gotten quite skilled at it. 

But rebirth as a concept is foreign to the postmodern ear, which has spent 100 years convincing itself that God is dead, and with him the corruption-laced fantasy of our souls enjoying or suffering one eternal rebirth in the good or bad place. And with the death of the afterlife, past lives as well, and everything else that can’t be verified by machinery. If an individual claims to have direct experience of their past lives, well, that could just be a lucid dream or some other idiosyncratic visionary experience with no more universal status than a visit from the ghost of a favorite grandmother announced by a candle flicker in a windless room or an unexplained slip of a vase from the shelf.

Industrial modernity killed not just the God of the Bible but all the little gods too—the gods of the great trees, keystone species, fragrant herbs, and weather patterns. It killed the subtle community: the ghosts, ancestors, demons, angels, fae, dragons, and talking animals—everyone non-human that humans used to talk with, and who would respond. No matter that you can contact these beings through deep practice and immersed listening. If it can’t be measured and the results reproduced, it’s unfit to be included in the new map of the world. Rebirth is off the map.

Modernity murders things by turning them into metaphors. Demons and angels were never considered part of yourself—they used their vast, inhuman power to assault and protect you in turn, all while being soldiers in a cosmic war you have little role in. Then they were caught in the x-ray blast of the new “science” of psychology and reduced to expressions of the id and superego playing out the cosmically insignificant drama of how poorly your parents loved you and how you feel about that. The great ecosystem deities who needed sacrifices to keep the weather on track so the crops grow—what happened to them? They’re just the weather, right? Now we have good meteorological models and we know that sacrifices aren’t what keeps the weather on track. Funny that the weather’s really off track for kind of the first time ever. Coincidence, I’m sure.

In many postmodern, convert-oriented Buddhist communities, rebirth is basically only taught—if it’s mentioned at all—as a psychological metaphor. Because the teaching of karma is that reactivity and craving leads to rebirth, we can say that a pattern of reactive anger, when not seen with mindfulness, leads to “rebirth as the angry one.” When I identify with my feelings or some other aspect of my experience like a strong preference, I have “taken birth” as that person. The realms of rebirth are projections of emotions: bliss is heaven, ambition is a lower heaven, grasping is ghosty, hatred is hell. This is a really useful way to use the model of rebirth as a support for doing emotional intelligence work, and it weaves beautifully into the project of cultivating mindfulness and understanding. But to think about rebirth only as metaphor means we have to read huge swaths of the Buddha’s discourses also as metaphor, because rebirth underlies all of the major doctrines. Including enlightenment.

I made people uncomfortable last week [and regularly do with this topic—sorry, friends, just working it out over here!] partly by using the word “nihilism” to describe Humanist and Materialist worldviews. Here’s its connection to the Buddha’s argument. Nihilism is a philosophical approach that denies meaning so completely that nothing can then be said to hold universal value. It is an essential tenet of the postmodern world, starting with Nietzche, but it was also a popular position in the Buddha’s time. 

One of the Buddha’s contemporaries was a teacher named Ajita Kesakambala, who was a Carvaka, or “Annihilationist.” Kesakambala’s doctrine was this:

There is no meaning in giving, sacrifice, or offerings. There’s no fruit or result of good and bad deeds. There’s no afterlife. There’s no such thing as mother and father, or beings that are reborn spontaneously. And there’s no ascetic or brahmin who is well attained and practiced, and who describes the afterlife after realizing it with their own insight. This person is made up of the four primary elements. When they die, the earth in their body merges and coalesces with the main mass of earth. The water in their body merges and coalesces with the main mass of water. The fire in their body merges and coalesces with the main mass of fire. The air in their body merges and coalesces with the main mass of air. The faculties are transferred to space. Four men with a bier carry away the corpse. Their footprints show the way to the cemetery. The bones become bleached. Offerings dedicated to the gods end in ashes. Giving is a doctrine of morons. When anyone affirms a positive teaching it’s just hollow, false nonsense. Both the foolish and the astute are annihilated and destroyed when their body breaks up, and don’t exist after death.

(DN 2)

Because this denies that good and bad actions bear fruit, and that nothing continues after death, this is a classic nihilist position. The Carvakas are both nihilists and materialists (which mean the same thing). The Buddha rejects this position because it denies the observable truth of karma and rebirth. We can easily see that many actions have effects in the present life, but the important error the Carvakas are making is to deny rebirth. Why would a doctrine of rebirth be needed in order to avoid the trap of nihilism?

It answers one of the most vexing ethical problems: why good and bad actions so often don’t seem to bear fruit. Good people regularly die without receiving the benefit of their good actions. And bad people obviously often live long and comfortably without suffering pain comensurate with their misdeeds. This is an ancient theological problem: the infant with cancer and the elderly despot who just keeps winning. There’s no visible justice in the world.

The Buddha’s solution was to look deeper, and he claimed that he found the law (Dharma) that guides the whole process. The law is karma (Pāli: kamma), and it says that ethically-charged action must inevitably bear fruit for the actor, but that because conditions are complex, it often takes till a future lifetime for it to do so. If this were not true, there would indeed be no justice, and therefore no meaning to good or bad actions—no reason to avoid the easy evil or practice the difficult good. With no justice to fear, and all debts erased at death, there also would be no reason to seek enlightenment, or do anything at all except seek pleasure. This is why Materialism is philosophical siblings with Hedonism.

In Buddhist logic, then, any worldview that denies rebirth also denies that actions can bear fruit for the actor beyond this lifetime, which strips action of its ethical weight, which was its fundamental meaning. Without trajectory, actions are meaningless. That’s nihilism.

The Buddha claimed to see the truths of rebirth and karma directly, through concentration and insight. The whole system he taught can be seen as a thousand different ways to train seekers to see those truths for themselves. If we believe the texts, thousands of people did so, and apparently still do. You can take classes from some of them now, though they hardly ever talk about it. Why would they? The subject always immediately turns to whether or not to believe them. I hardly ever hear someone say “Wow, what do I have to do to see that for myself?”

I’m not saying that we have to believe in literal, materialist rebirth [what would that even be, anyway?], but I am saying that only admitting a modernist interpretation of rebirth as psychological metaphor is a limiting view. I’m not sure it can go deep enough to truly liberate, because psychology is fairly useless when you start to hang out in sustained meditative states that are free of emotional narrative, and it doesn’t explain insight very well.

(If rebirth is a metaphor, I think it’s more usefully an ecosystem metaphor than a psychological one. Salmon DNA in an acorn 100 feet up in a rainforest canopy 100 miles from the ocean is rebirth. How about just family? Rebirth isn’t a good metaphor for family and blood ancestry because that puts an artificial, materialistic border on the self. I am the result of much more that the actions of those who made my body. Let’s think about this more together: what kind of metaphor/image/description/spell might rebirth most usefully be?)

So you’re probably a nihilist, from a Buddhist perspective. That’s ok. I’m trying not to be one, but I’m a gen-x Californian academic and don’t really know how, tbh. Some days Nietzche’s brooding symphony is more in tune with my angst than the Buddha’s 3-note syncopated hip hop and I’m suddenly reborn a nihilist! The struggle of modern practice is the struggle to keep the faith. Doubt is everybody’s most dreaded hindrance—or should I say demon?

A haunting paradox of Buddhist practice is that it’s meant to be skepticism-friendly, asking us only to “come and see” for ourselves what is true. It relies on direct experience over tradition, theory, inference, logic, authority, and lineage. But then this big thing it wants us to experience is super subtle and advanced and almost nobody can do it. It’s like those mathmaticians who swear to us that calculus is divinely beautiful. We who never got past fractions will have to take their word for it.

When I was 9, I told my mother that since nobody in the world seemed to really know what was going on, but there did seem to be some order to things, there probably was something after death that would either explain things or give us more of a chance to figure it out. And that I wasn’t in a rush, but was looking forward to that when it came. She didn’t like that. But it just didn’t make sense to me that all this would be so… full of action but empty of meaning.

Karma gives meaning to the sound and fury, and rebirth a narrative form big enough for it to play out. Our challenge is to engage the long story without getting stuck on the implausibility of its epic episodic structure. Raised on one page lyrics, epics are hard for us to read, and seem a relic of ancient attention spans. But anyone who makes it through the Odyssey or Mahābhārata is changed by it. Or the Pāli Canon for that matter. Don’t take my word for it. Come and see for yourself. 

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