(Writer’s note: If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Zen and from life itself, it’s the value of doubt. Doubt has the capacity to question certainties that need to be doubted -particularly certainties of religious belief. The following essay explains in detail one of my grave doubts regarding Buddhist teaching. It’s a doubt that survives my years as a Zen teacher and author. No book publisher or Buddhist magazine has been willing to publish so controversial a dissent. So I’ve published it here for anyone whose interests might bear upon questions of philosophical or religious belief. Lin Jensen)
One of life’s more profound journeys is the travel taken between the two covers of a great book. When I first enrolled as an English major under the GI Bill at California’s San Jose State University, Professor Harold Miller, chairperson of the College of English Studies, gathered the incoming English majors for an orientation. He told us that we had opted for one of the most challenging of all possible fields of study. I thought he was referring to the hard work and academic discipline required of an English major, but instead he was talking about a much more far-reaching, even dangerous aspect of literary studies. Let me recreate as best I can Professor Miller’s words that day:
“In these next four years, you will each of you read books that by the time you’ve read the closing sentence will have revealed truths to you that leave you a far different person than when you first opened the book’s cover. At times you’ll regret what you have learned and want to turn back the clock. But a truth once seen, can’t be unseen. There will be no going back, no way to recoup the innocence with which you began. This is the power of great literature to transform; it can be a wrenching and exhilarating journey, one that can reroute your entire direction in life once you have taken that first step.”
It turned out that Dr Miller was right: a book can alter your very person in ways that leave you doubtful as to whom you really are. But what he didn’t tell us in that initial orientation is that a book can effect its life altering force upon you without you being aware of it – at least not until sometime later and maybe not even then. In books as in life, time and circumstance reshape us in ways we may never consciously recognize. These unseen changes may very well be the most transforming of all, more so than those changes we are cognizant of, the latter merely changing our idea of ourselves, the former actually changing who we are. A great book can distill into the space of a few sentences a potent amalgam of sudden insight. Such literature poses a hazard to anyone who wants to control personal outcomes. I could list hundreds of books that you shouldn’t read if you want to remain comfortable in anticipating your life’s directions.
Since the day Professor Esther Shepherd recited the opening lines of Homer’s Odyssey to a group of us in her freshman class on World Masterpieces, I’ve been a student of classic literature. Story has always been a source of insight and redirection for me. Among the stories we were assigned that first semester was the Purgatorio from Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the Purgatorio, Dante is led by the Roman poet Virgil down through the nine circles of hell where he witnesses the suffering of those who’ve sinned. He first descends into the circle of limbo where the relatively innocent are being held, and from there down through circles of lust, gluttony, greed, anger, heresy, violence, fraud, and treachery where each pitiful inhabitant suffers the consequences of his own wrongdoing.
Dante’s Circle of Heresy
Of all the suffering inhabitants of Dante’s hell, the ones I most identify with are those in the circle of heresy. It is there that the non-believers, such as the Epicureans who held that the soul dies with the body, are trapped in flaming tombs. Like the Epicureans, I’m not good at believing things myself, especially a belief in some sort of life after death. Had I lived in Dante’s time, I’m certain to have been thrown into the flames along with all the other dissenters. Those such as the Epicureans punished for their dissent from the institutionalized authority of the church had only to renounce their heretical viewpoints in order to be released from their suffering. But they would not, and the courage of their resolve entered into me by stealth like that of an exchange between two adjacent cells in the body of truth. Today, fifty six years after that first reading of Dante’s Purgatorio, I, like the Epicureans, hold views heretical to virtually all religious orthodoxy, a dissent purchased at a cost of some degree of social and personal alienation.
My own first hand religious experience has been limited but deep – first in my youth as a Christian and afterwards as a Buddhist. I can no longer claim to be either a traditional Christian or Buddhist. The irony in this is that Jesus himself was a heretical Jew as was the heretical Brahmin, Siddartha Gotama, who had the courage to say “No” to much of the long held religious orthodoxy of his time. We live today in an expanding circle of heresy wherein religious orthodoxy is rightfully held to account by an exercise of reasonable doubt.
We in the West are sons and daughters of the Age of Enlightenment with its insistence on subjecting beliefs to the test of reason. Among the beliefs that reason compels me to say “No” to is the widely held Buddhist belief in rebirth, an element of orthodoxy for which there exists no objective verification. The only evidence offered for rebirth are the tales people sometimes recite of their past lives. Aside from the difficulty of ruling out the element of persuasive suggestion, there’s simply no means -even if it’s my past life that I’m entertaining- of distinguishing between historical fact and an inventive imagination.
If you conduct a weekend retreat designed to put people in touch with their past lives –and such retreats are in fact held- of the fifteen or thirty who attend, the same number will identify a past life. Most of the participants “discover” that they were nobles or great artists, martyrs or leaders of some sort. In the animal realm, leopards and eagles are particularly popular. Very few recall being truck drivers or warthogs. No one with the least experience of the persuasive power of imagination can possibly accept such subjective accounts as proof of past lives. And without real verification, rebirth is a merely fanciful proposition.
When a religious teacher’s word is held sacrosanct and a student feels dependent upon those words, then such dubious notions as that of rebirth may go unchallenged. And this is particularly true when the words are those attributed to the Buddha in the Mahasaccaka Sutta:
“When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of recollecting my past lives. I recollected my manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two…five, ten…fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction & expansion: ‘There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.’ Thus I remembered my manifold past lives in their modes & details.”
If you can imagine a human mind capable of recalling “many eons of cosmic contraction & expansion” comprised of a hundred thousand past lives “in their modes and details,” and to do so in a single sitting, then you may regard the words of this sutta attributed to the Buddha as conclusive evidence of at least one man’s multiple rebirths. But if you can’t imagine a human mind capable of such a feat, then you’ve already questioned either the accuracy of the Mahasaccaka Sutta’s attribution to be the words of the Buddha or, having accepted the attribution, you’ve questioned the words of Buddhism’s foremost teacher. Either way, doubt makes good sense here.
A Heretic Burns
Much of Buddhist literature is of questionable attribution, and much of Buddhist teaching is questionable. The Buddha was a human being, not a god, and the generations of Buddhist ancestors who have annotated the Buddha’s teachings in accord with their own understanding and cultural biases were human as well. We do well to judge the content of these teachings for ourselves. That’s what Siddartha Gotama did with the Brahmin teachings he encountered, and why, by virtue of his own native skepticism, he came up with a core of original and practical insights constituting a new religion that came in time to be called Buddhism. We can take the Buddha’s own example as an assurance that we needn’t forfeit our minds to the authority of any teacher, principle, or practice regardless of longevity or stature. We can all benefit from a reliable teacher’s guidance, but we need to be an active participant in the exchange, allowing ourselves to question what’s being taught. Every tradition originates in fresh invention and its survival as a living practice and philosophy requires more of the same as it reinvents itself in accord with changing circumstance. If we exempt religion from criticism and doubt, we effectively forfeit its participation in our everyday lives. Heresy is the flame that burns away superstition.
For me, the most unfortunate aspect of the widely accepted belief in rebirth is its impact on the way karma is viewed. Karma is a core concept of traditional Buddhist practice and one of great value that deserves better than to be linked to notions of rebirth. According to traditional Karmic teachings, a child born with a cleft palate is suffering the consequences of actions taken in a past life. Again, it’s a teaching drawn from the Mahasaccaka Sutta:
“With the divine eye, which is purified and surpasses the human, I saw beings passing away and being reborn, inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate, and I understood how beings fare according to their actions thus: those beings who behaved wrongly by body, speech, and mind, who reviled the noble ones, held wrong view, and undertook actions based on wrong view, with the breakup of the body, after death, have been reborn in a state of misery, in a bad destination, in the lower world, in hell; but those beings who behaved well by body, speech, and mind, who did not revile the noble ones, who held right view, and undertook actions based on right view, with the breakup of the body, after death, have been reborn in a good destination, in a heavenly world.”
So there you have it in words once again attributed to the Buddha that we’re destined for heaven or hell dependent on something we did in a past life. It’s screwy reasoning that makes a suffering child the perpetrator of his own victimization, thereby promoting the heartless view that he’s getting what he deserves. The truth is that practically no one wants to believe this to be the case, but fearing that it might be so, Buddhists often pursue a path of self-interest wherein they work toward an accumulation of merit to insure their own favorable rebirth. They are encouraged in this by such teachings as that of a Roshi who explained to the monks in her charge that unresolved negative karma was like a bag of rotting fish that one was doomed to carry about until the karma was resolved. In the complicated reasoning of rebirth everyone is born with a bag of rotting fish, since theoretically a person with fully resolved negative karma wouldn’t be reborn at all. The parallel in this conceptualization to that of “original sin” in the Christian tradition is troubling in that a Christian superstition makes us all heirs of Adam and Eve’s fall from Eden, fated to live out the consequences of something we’re not personally responsible for and can’t remember doing.
Is there no such thing in the world of rebirth as innocence, a fresh unencumbered start in life? How many parents could possibly look upon their newborn infant and believe that it has come to them as the roshi claims smelling of something rotten or that the infant bears the taint of original sin? And yet these very same parents may adopt a purely theoretical belief in this impossible conceptualization that’s much better suited to celibate monks and priests of whatever religious persuasion who’ve never been parents. Is this rebirth not among the most unnecessarily troublesome ways of accounting for personal wrongdoing and misfortune? Can no one claim to suffer simply because of present circumstance or admit responsibility for the consequences they’re suffering as a result of mistakes they’re making or have made in this present life?
Karma’s appeal to the believer lies partly in the rationale it offers for the troubling inequality that exists among humans. Karmic philosophy refuses to attribute the inequality of humankind to accidental circumstances, to matters of chance. Buddhist master, Mahasi Sayadaw, speaks from this viewpoint when he writes, “No sensible person would think of attributing this unevenness, this inequality, and this diversity to blind chance or pure accident.” Well, no sensible person would want to explain all inequalities as attributable to blind chance or pure accident: but the very ones -like deformity at birth- thought by believers to be attributable to past life transgressions ought to be among the first to qualify as accidental. Orthodox Karma provides a comforting rationalization of why one person is born to wealth and another to poverty, why one is of high intelligence and another retarded, why one is kind and considerate and another criminal and cruel, why one is born gifted with artistic athletic, literary, or musical talents and another born congenitally blind, deaf, or deformed. It’s a means of explaining away the disturbing fact that through no visible fault of one’s own some of us are cursed and some of us blessed from birth.
Admittedly, many misfortunes such as poor health due to cigarette smoking or over-eating, broken marriages due to infidelity or neglect, imprisonment due to embezzlement or murder are obviously not a consequence of pure chance but rather of bad decisions and behaviors of the sufferers themselves. For the most part, we are responsible for our own happiness and misery. We can all of us witness for ourselves that some consequences are by choice and some aren’t. The need to argue for something so self-evident would never occur hadn’t generations of Buddhists perpetuated a dated and improbable conceptualization of the Hindu religious belief in rebirth. Adherents to the philosophy of rebirth are acting on a belief that was prevalent in India long before the Buddha’s formulation of it in his own teaching.
To deny the validity of rebirth is not to deny that one generation influences the behavior of the next, and that we often behave the way we do because of foundations laid down in our various cultures centuries ago. But these are influences easily accounted for by ordinary means of cause and effect. And it is equally true that a child born into a particular culture is in a sense a victim of that culture’s attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs, but once again this is all the clearer when not muddied by notions of karmic retribution for wrongs committed in past lives.
Karmic rebirth among western spiritual aspirants enjoys considerable surface popularity. If you’ve hung out with Buddhists as much as I have, you’ll have heard how glibly references to karmic incarnations are insinuated into casual conversation. “The minute I saw you, I felt a karmic connection to you,” a woman at a Zen sesshin once told me. She felt certain we’d had some significant contact in a former life that deserved acknowledgement in this life. A married couple once confided to me that they’d been in love in some former life, but had passed each other by and were correcting the mistake now in their present life. A recovering alcoholic had no recollection of a particular sort but was of the opinion that his addiction was due to “something evil” he’d done in a past life. The problem with this is that the believer perceives present circumstance as necessity, a fate to which one was born. No one who thinks this way need take responsibility for the circumstance he finds himself in. The woman who felt a karmic connection with me doesn’t have to recognize the present sources of her attraction; the married couple who feel they were drawn together by the force of karmic necessity forfeit credit for their own good judgment in choosing a life’s partner; the alcoholic becomes a victim of something he can’t remember doing and forgets that no one forced him to drink in the first place.
The persistence in the West of a belief in rebirth among otherwise reasonable persons is partly explained by the fact that the whole convoluted notion is reinforced by the corroboration of contemporary western Buddhists teachers. The founder and abbess of one Zen monastery believed herself to have been a tiger in a past life, thereby putting pressure on the resident monks -most of whom had received virtually all their Buddhist training from her- a near necessity to concur with her claim. How do you go about doubting the words of someone in whose hands you’ve put years of trust? Another Zen priest once described to me an ordination ceremony he conducted for a common Scrub Jay that he’d nursed back from a broken wing. He told me that when he asked the Scrub Jay, “Is it your wish to become a Buddhist?” the Jay inclined its head toward him in such a manner that the priest was convinced the Jay was responding affirmatively to the question.
I’m actually touched by the affection and concern the priest had for the bird, but I’m less touched by the fact that the basis of his concern was a belief in the transmigration of a human essence into the body of the bird. The whole point of conducting the ordination was to clear the way for the Jay’s more favorable rebirth as a human being. What’s wrong about being a Scrub Jay? And why is its value as a being supposedly enhanced by its being an incarnation of human life? What makes human life superior to other forms of life?
A friend of mine just returned from a week’s celebration of Jukai at a Soto monastery and she had this to say about the cross-species exchange of bodies: “An unanticipated event in our week was the death of Rev. Shiko’s kitty “Maisie,” who had been ailing for a long time. A funeral service was held and all the Jukai retreat participants were there – word is that it was the best attended cat funeral they’d ever had. While I don’t know that I am quite as religious as the monks in terms of belief in offerings of merit and rebirth, I’d say that cat left this world with money in the bank – I just can’t imagine a cat wanting to return as anything other than a cat – they seem so satisfied with their catness.”
And so are most people and animals content with what they are in this life, desirous of no other speciation or identity in some other life, but still the notion of rebirth persists among Buddhists of all traditions. Take for example the belief in the reincarnate Dali Lama. Senior Lamas actually go out looking for a child that seems to have some recollection and attributes of his predecessor, stitching together the most coincidental behaviors as evidence that they’ve found the incarnate prior Lama. This tradition requires a fabulous exercise in the suspension of reasonable disbelief. The first recognized reincarnation of a Dalai Lama lived from 1391 to 1474 and the present Dalai Lama, recognized in 1937 still lives. How one might ask can a whole culture sustain belief in such an insupportable notion for over six hundred years?
It can do so for the same reasons that Christians are persuaded to believe in the resurrection and immortality of Jesus and hence in the immortality of the individual believer. However mythical a belief might be, if it offers a promise of some orderly, stable, predictable and lasting element in this world of impermanence and unpredictable change, it is a belief that will be adopted by many. In the face of verifiable evidence to the contrary, people clung for centuries to the belief that the earth was the center of the universe for much the same sort of reasons. When Copernicus in the early 16th century first introduced his evidence of a heliocentric solar system, his findings were adamantly rejected by the Catholic Church. As late as the 17th century the majority of philosophers and clerics still subscribed to an earth centered universe, and when Galileo’s work brought further evidence of the accuracy of the heliocentric view, his findings were denounced as “false and contrary to Scripture” and he himself as “vehemently suspect of heresy.” In the end, he was forced to recant and was kept under house arrest for the rest of his life.
People cling to even the most improbable beliefs because they’ve invested so much of themselves into it: the belief itself forms an integral element of personal identity. I’ve done the same myself: I once was a Christian, once was a Buddhist, and the loss of these identities was painful to me. I’m not certain that I’d be true to my doubts had not those unfortunate Epicureans in Dante’s hell shown me the way. To doubt a long-held cherished belief is to doubt not only one’s judgment but one’s identity as well. So much is at stake that a person might feel as if he simply can’t afford to doubt, and when contrary views raise in him even the faintest doubt regarding his belief, he may react as if in defense of his life. A belief long indulged can be powerfully entrapping, and that’s why it’s good for us to doubt even those beliefs that are seemingly the most invincible to doubt. Doubt is the universal corrective of error, and every truth regardless of how self-evident it might appear ought to be subject to the best doubt that can be brought to bear.
Unquestioned beliefs -all the virgin births, the heavens and nirvanas, the resurrections and rebirths- ought to be subject to humor as well. We could laugh them away. A friend of mine once caught the perfect silliness of rebirth when he said his worst nightmare was being reborn as himself. Perhaps a sense of humor can dissuade us from this nonsense after all.