Death and Rebirth

None of the contemporary views of the Buddha’s teaching seem satisfying, nor offer much hope for the future, especially in the West. The Buddha’s teaching is a solution to the problem of death and rebirth. It is a technology to optimize opportunities for rebirth. Taking it out of that context renders it incomprehensible, relative and valueless.

The Buddha’s teachings on action, or kamma, and his accompanying teachings on rebirth, are often dismissed as unessential to his teaching, something he simply picked up from his Indian environment. Actually, they are central to his teaching, and form one of his most original insights. Although many people assume that the Buddha derived his teachings on kamma from a view of the cosmos as a whole, the line of experiential proof was actually the other way around. After directly observing and analyzing the role of action in shaping his experience of time, he then followed the implications of his observations to confirm his vision of the process of rebirth and the structure of the cosmos that lies under the sway of time. — Thanissaro Bhikkhu, introduction to his translation of Itivuttaka

One of the greatest difficulties confronting Buddhism is the modern disinclination to accept the principle of kamma and its corollaries, especially rebirth. The Buddha’s observations of causality and result are so central to his teaching that it makes little sense without them. Especially, the great engine of becoming, Dependent Origination (paṭicca-samuppada) is meaningless without them. And without paṭicca-samuppada, the Buddha’s teaching is effectively disempowered.

If there is no rebirth, there is little hope of encountering conditions favorable to the development of jhāna (meditation) and experiencing Nibbāna. This earth planet is, cosmically speaking, a bit of a slum. Anyone who takes birth here certainly has a past that conditions him to suffering.

However, the unavoidable suffering of life on the earthly plane can also motivate us to seek a permanent solution. For most of us, that solution includes rebirth in more favorable conditions, such as the heavenly realms (svarga). In svarga there is little environmental suffering or anxiety over resources. The suffering there is almost completely existential: “Oh, what if I lose my kammic credits and have to be reborn on earth again. Yuck!”

Conditions in svarga are ideal for further progress leading to complete emancipation, including the availability of excellent teachers and saṅgha. Much of the Buddha’s strategy for those who cannot attain enlightenment soon is aimed at creating conditions for improved rebirth.

“Rebirth in heaven is welcome, agreeable, pleasant, & hard to obtain in the world. Now, I tell you, these things are not to be obtained by reason of prayers or wishes. If they were to be obtained by reason of prayers or wishes, who here would lack them? It’s not fitting for the disciple of the noble ones who desires long life to pray for it or to delight in doing so. Instead, the disciple of the noble ones who desires long life should follow the path of practice leading to long life. In so doing, he will attain long life, either human or divine.” — Ittha Sutta (AN 5.43)

Our work in The Dharmasar Solution has been to make the Buddha’s path of practice accessible to modern western-educated people. Such people generally disregard the teachings on kamma and rebirth, because we see that good people who follow moral precepts also experience misfortune and suffering. But that is not the point; the point is the sum total of experiences, attitudes and impressions in the mind at the time of death—for that determines one’s destination in the next life.

“Because there actually is the next world, the view of one who thinks, ‘There is no next world’ is his wrong view. Because there actually is the next world, when he is resolved that ‘There is no next world,’ that is his wrong resolve. Because there actually is the next world, when he speaks the statement, ‘There is no next world,’ that is his wrong speech. Because there actually is the next world, when he is says that ‘There is no next world,’ he makes himself an opponent to those arahants who know the next world. Because there actually is the next world, when he persuades another that ‘There is no next world,’ that is persuasion in what is not true Dhamma. And in that persuasion in what is not true Dhamma, he exalts himself and disparages others. Whatever good habituation he previously had is abandoned, while bad habituation is manifested. And this wrong view, wrong resolve, wrong speech, opposition to the arahants, persuasion in what is not true Dhamma, exaltation of self, & disparagement of others: These many evil, unskillful activities come into play, in dependence on wrong view.” — Apannaka Sutta (MN 60)

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Dev Jacobsen

Musician, author and yogi, developer of Palingenics.

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