Things used to be so much simpler

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I’ve believed in reincarnation longer than I can remember. It must have started in a previous life. I’ve never really examined my core belief. It’s just been there, part of the furniture. But a new book has stung me into examining that comfy old sofa. Do I really need it? Is it time to chuck it out?

The book is Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright, an American popularizer of evolutionary psychology and author of best-sellers including Non-Zero and The Moral Animal. Wright has spent much of his literary career trying to construct a scientifically-valid moral philosophy to replace the Baptist faith he lost as a teenager. Now, in Buddhism, he has finally found it.

The book should really be called ‘Why my version of Buddhism is true’. Wright’s Buddhism is secular and naturalistic. He assures us early on that he’s not championing ‘the most exotically metaphysical parts of Buddhism – re-incarnation for example’. He tells us Buddhism has some shockingly radical ideas – there is no self, emotions are usually delusions – but re-assures us that these ideas are supported by modern science, and would ‘fit easily into a college psychology or philosophy course’ (indeed, he ran such a course at Princeton and you can do it at Coursera in September).

Wright’s secular, naturalized Buddhism is all the rage among western intellectuals. There is Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, who (like Wright) is a follower of Vipassana meditation minus reincarnation. There is Owen Flanagan, a leading virtue ethics philosopher, who proposes a Buddhism shorn of ‘the mind-numbing and wishful hocus pocus that infects much Mahayana Buddhism’. There is Sam Harris, New Atheist provocateur, who thinks Buddhism is ‘unique among the world’s religions as a repository of contemplative wisdom’, but still says ‘there are ideas within Buddhism that are so incredible as to render the dogma of the virgin birth plausible by comparison’.

And there is Stephen Batchelor, who spent many years practicing Buddhism in Korea and India, and is now trying to develop a secular Buddhism. In After Buddhism, he writes: ‘I find it disturbing when Western converts to Buddhism with a background and upbringing similar to my own [ie rational humanist] uncritically adopt beliefs – in karma and rebirth for example – that traditional Buddhists simply take for granted.’ Unlike Flanagan or Harris, Batchelor doesn’t argue his secular Buddhism is superior to animist Buddhism: ‘My approach simply reflects an embedded cultural worldview that I could no more discard than I could wilfully cease to comprehend the English language’. Secular rationalism is simply the core belief he grew up with.

I want to address three questions. First, does a naturalistic Buddhism make sense? Second, is reincarnation utterly incredible? Third, does it really matter what we believe about the afterlife?

Firstly, does a naturalistic Buddhism make sense? I don’t think an entirely materialist-mechanistic Buddhism makes sense, unless it finds a place for free will and moral choice. As Richard Gombrich argues in his excellent What The Buddha Thought, the Buddha’s teachings on karma – as ye reap, so shall ye sow – makes no sense if we don’t have free moral choice.

Can one remove reincarnation without the building of Buddhism collapsing? Yes, but it challenges the Third Noble Truth – that it’s possible to attain a permanent end to suffering in Nirvana. That was the whole aim of the Buddha’s teaching, if I understand it correctly. Very few people actually do seem to attain Nirvana (in the sense of a permanent liberation from the self and from suffering). I’ve met a lot of Buddhists, but never an Enlightened person. Have you?

Either the Buddha was selling us a dud; or the journey to Liberation takes place over many lives; or the dharma only brings us occasional release from suffering, rather than permanent Liberation. Wright writes: ‘The object of the game isn’t to reach Liberation and Enlightenment on some distant day, but rather to become a bit more liberated and a bit more enlightened on some not-so-distant day. Like today!’

OK, but this is a different game. This is not the game the Buddha was playing when he sat under the bodhi tree and refused to move until he was Liberated. This is not the Great Crossing – there is no other side we can realistically hope to reach. And a bit of me wonders, if there is no Liberation, whether it’s worth it to forego the attachments of this life and sit on that cushion for many, many hours. If there is just this one life…maybe just go for it, play the game of this life, this world, attachments and passions and all. Sure, it will hurt, but it will be over soon.

Removing reincarnation also removes the Buddhist explanation for suffering and misfortune – that they’re karmic retribution for past misdeeds. It means that bad things happen to good people because life is random. The universe is not moral, bad people live wonderful lives without punishment, good people live awful lives without reward. Deal with it. This secular Buddhism seems close to the pessimism of late Stoicism – life is tough, the universe is amoral, but wisdom helps us bear it before we die.

Second, is reincarnation a ridiculous belief? Well, it’s certainly weird. How the hell would it work? You’d need some cosmic filing system, to match your soul with its virtues and vices to the proper re-birth. Most species don’t have the capacity for moral choice, so what decides their rebirth? Why is the human population growing?

Materialism, by contrast, is very clean – when you’re dead, you’re dead. No need for an elaborate soul-clearing system. That’s why most academics are publicly materialists, although 25% of people in both the US and UK believe in reincarnation, including a quarter of Christians and many Jews (particularly Kabbalists). Materialism has its own weird stuff to explain, of course – like how matter becomes conscious. But reincarnation is still a very weird theory.

I think I’ve tended to accept it, perhaps, because my two greatest spiritual heroes – Plato and the Buddha – both argued for it. If they were so wise about ethics and psychology, maybe they were right about the metaphysics too. Maybe when you reach their level of spiritual awakening, re-incarnation doesn’t seem so fruity. Some contemporary meditation masters say they remember past lives, such as Sharon Salzberg and Russel Williams. But the Buddha himself said we shouldn’t take things on trust just because of ‘the seeming competence of the speaker’.

What about scientific evidence? There was a Canadian psychiatrist called Ian Stevenson, who headed up the University of Virginia’s psychiatry department, and spent most of his life investigating cases where children claimed to remember past lives. He was given $1 million by the inventor of the Xerox machine to carry on this work. Stevenson spent decades travelling the world and investigating cases, and claimed to have discovered around 3000 reliable instances where children knew things about previous existences that were corroborated by ‘former relatives’.

According to Stevenson’s findings, people tend to be reincarnated around two years after they die, usually in a place near where they previously lived. They may retain desires and fears from their previous existence (if they drowned, they might retain a fear of water). They tend to forget their previous life by the age of six or so. Stevenson also suggested birth marks relate to death-wounds from the previous existence.

All rather strange, although some leading Skeptics are quite open to his research. Jesse Bering, author of The Belief Instinct, researched Stevenson’s work and decided: ‘I’m not quite ready to say that I’ve changed my mind about the afterlife. But I can say that a fair assessment and a careful reading of Stevenson’s work has, rather miraculously, managed to pry it open.’ Sam Harris also says he found Stevenon’s books ‘interesting, and I cannot categorically dismiss their contents in the way that I can dismiss the claim of religious dogmatists’.  Others, however, suggest Stevenson could be very prone to confirmation bias – he was looking for evidence to support his pre-existing core belief, after all. And why did none of the children recall previous existences as animals?

Finally, does any of this matter? Does it matter what we believe about the afterlife?

Certainly, humans have traditionally believed that our beliefs about the afterlife matter. The ancient Greeks venerated the Eleusinian Mysteries above all other rituals precisely because they thought initiates ‘died with a better hope’ for the afterlife. The Mysteries reduced their death-anxiety by improving their hope for the afterlife – just as psychedelics do, according to recent trials.

Christianity is also founded on the central idea that Jesus’ sacrifice enables the resurrection of the faithful in heaven. If that belief is not true, ‘if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable’, says St Paul. The belief in posthumous judgement animated medieval culture, inspiring its great cathedrals, its vast economy of penance and indulgence, its constant reminders of death.

Since the decline of Christianity, western culture has embraced a more Epicurean view – death is the end, there is no God and no eternal judgement, so get the most pleasure from this life while you can. But in fact our faith in the finality of death can make us somewhat neurotic about success and status – we’re anxious to leave something behind us once we’re gone (a family, a book, a selfie). I’ve wondered how western culture might change if our beliefs about death change, as presumably they will.

I think my beliefs about the afterlife inform how I live and feel. The near-death experience I had when I was 24 helped to heal me from PTSD because it gave me the strong belief there is something in me beyond the ego, which can’t be harmed and doesn’t die.This helped me overcome my ego-anxiety. 

Groundhog Day – would you behave differently if you knew you had multiple lives?

Since then, my faith in the afterlife has somewhat faded but never gone. It occasionally makes me more detached about my ego. I reflect that I have been many different people, of many shapes, sizes, sexes, colours and talents, so why get anxious about this latest incarnation? In mystic moments, I imagine life as a computer game where we get infinite rebirths – would we live differently if we really believed this? Would we get less wound up, and stop to appreciate the beauty of the game?

No, probably not! We’d get just as absorbed in the game, just as caught-up in the movie, just as attached and emotional. The fact is, our beliefs about death don’t affect us much, because life is so damn absorbing. We barely think about death until we or one of our loved ones die. When you compare religious and non-religious cultures, there’s just as much wrong-doing, and cruelty, and avarice, and vanity in both. Any belief can be held wrongly – a belief in reincarnation could make one lazy, or unkind, or proud of one’s position in the social hierarchy.

I think Stephen Batchelor is right – the truly radical thing in Buddha’s teachings is that he said our beliefs about the afterlife are of secondary importance. Don’t get hung up on it. We can’t know for sure. Practice the dharma now, see what happens, see if it makes life better. He is supposed to have said:

Nowhere does a lucid one

hold contrived views about it is or it is not,

How could he succumb to them,

having let go of illusions and conceit?

The priest without borders

doesn’t seize on what he’s known or beheld,

Not passionate, not dispassionate,

he doesn’t posit anything as ultimate.