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Indian spirituality

What’s the evidence for reincarnation?

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.

Translating therapy

Depression is the leading cause of ill-health worldwide, but therapy is little known or practiced outside the West. If psychotherapy is going to become more popular in the non-western world, it needs to build bridges and find cultural parallels in local spiritual traditions. This is totally doable. 

The UK has had a good last decade when it comes to mental health awareness. The Brits don’t talk about our emotions? We never shut up about them these days! Not a week goes by without some official or celebrity – Theresa May, Prince Harry, Rio Ferdinand – saying we need to talk more about mental health. That’s a good thing. It’s good to talk, though it’s even better when that talk is backed up by increases in government spending on mental health services.

The situation is a lot worse elsewhere. As the World Health Organization highlights this Friday in its World Health Day campaign, depression is now the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide, affecting more than 300 million people. While only around 50% of people with depression get therapy or medication in high income countries, in middle and low income countries, the percentage is closer to zero.

In half the countries in the world, there’s only one psychiatrist per 100,000 people. In India, where I spent the last three months, the country spends 1% of its GDP on health (the OECD average is 9%), and 0.1% of that on mental health services – one of the lowest figures in the world. There’s one psychiatrist for every 300,000 Indians, though in fact most psychiatrists are based in the big cities. In poorer rural regions, there might be one psychiatrist for every million people.

There’s a lot of stigma around mental illness around the world, and little awareness of psychotherapy. And there’s a cultural and language problem for both psychiatry and psychotherapy. Sadia Saeed Raval, who runs the Inner Space therapy centre in Mumbai, says: ‘Therapy in India is mainly Anglophone. The training is in English, the terminology is English, and the therapy techniques tend to be developed in the West.’ 

At a recent event I attended on mental health in India, the discussions were almost all in English, and even when a psychiatrist spoke in Hindi, he still used English words like ‘stigma’ and ‘depression’. The WHO’s own campaign posters, ‘Let’s Talk’, are also all in English. Imagine if we in the UK only had Indian words for depression, anxiety or other internal states.

This Anglicisation of therapy has limited its cultural dispersal in low and middle income countries to affluent, westernized elites. So how does everyone else cope with mental illness? In large part, by turning to religious or spiritual healing. This might sometimes work – it can help provide meaning, community support, meditation, and the powerful placebo of hope. But it doesn’t always work, and in some cases can be harmful.

What to do? Obviously, the best thing would be for countries to increase their spending on mental health services. I imagine the WHO is trying to get its member states to do that. But we shouldn’t assume that western psychiatry has all the answers to the meaning of life (look at suicide rates, where some Western countries do worse than many non-Western countries).

We can also try to help bridge the cultural gap between western psychiatry and psychotherapy, and non-western cultures. And here the medical humanities can help.

In the UK, the most popular and evidence-based therapy for depression and anxiety is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). As I and others have researched, CBT has its roots in the ‘healing wisdom’ of Stoicism and, to a lesser extent, Buddhism.

That means that it is easily translatable into other cultural contexts, because the idea of ‘healing wisdom’ appears not just in Greek philosophy but also in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism and many other religious and spiritual traditions. Indeed, Stoicism was a big influence on therapeutic wisdom books in Christianity (Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy, for example) and Islam (eg Al-Kindi’s On Dispelling Sadness).

There is also a great deal of similarity between Stoic-CBT therapeutic ideas and those found in the wisdom texts of Hinduism and Buddhism. For instance, Stoicism / CBT is based on Epictetus’ idea that ‘it’s not events, but our opinion about events, that cause us suffering’. Likewise, the Buddha taught: ‘We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world’.

Many different wisdom traditions recommend learning detachment, both from one’s own thoughts and desires, and from the ups and downs of fortune, and learning to accept the limit of one’s control over the world – both of which are central concepts in CBT and Positive Psychology. Many also recommend some form of mindfulness and techniques for improving it – Stoicism-CBT recommends keeping track of your thoughts and behaviour in a journal, Jesuits practice ‘recollection’ at the end of the day, Orthodox Christians practice ‘nepsis‘ or watchfulness, and so on. 

Many wisdom traditions also emphasize that changing the self takes repetition and practice (askesis in ancient Greek), as CBT does. Proverbs, in the Bible, talks about seeking wisdom, and inscribing wisdom on the ‘tablet of your heart’ through memory and practice. The Bhagavad Gita says: ‘It is difficult to curb the restless mind, but it is possible by constant practice and by detachment’.

There is some evidence that CBT works better when its basic ideas and techniques are connected and translated into local language and local culture. Here, for example, is a paper on Islamically modified CBT. Others have developed Christian CBT, and of course mindfulness-CBT now has a strong evidence base, although ironically it is barely known or practiced in India, the home of Buddhism.

Medical humanities scholars can help explore the cultural connections between western psychotherapy and various wisdom traditions around the world, and help to discover the local vernacular for local emotional states.This will help people overcome their suspicion of therapy. Speaking personally, for example, I’ve done workshops on healing wisdom for evangelical Christians, where you can describe the basic ideas of CBT purely using quotes from the Bible and Christian wisdom literature. That is helpful for an audience which has traditionally been wary of psychiatry and psychology, partly because of psychiatry’s long history of hostility towards religion.

At the same time, we should remind ourselves that cultures aren’t static and monolithic. There is no such thing as ‘Indian culture’, for example, there are many Indian cultures, all in flux. A 2013 article in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry calls for the ‘Indianization of psychiatry’ to take account of cultural differences such as the greater emphasis on traditional family structures. Fine – but Indian therapists also tell me of the stress and suffering caused to some Indian women by the traditional understanding that their role is entirely to support their husband and his family. Therapy can help people not just adjust to traditional roles, but also help them evolve into new roles, new identities, a new place in society.

Working with local spiritual healers

A second way that medical humanities researchers can help to bridge the cultural gap between non-western cultures and western psychiatry / psychotherapy is by working with local religious and spiritual leaders, facilitating dialogues of mutual respect to work together.

Aaron Beck, one of the inventors of CBT, with the Dalai Lama, who has spoken about the close similarity between CBT and Buddhism’s theories of the emotions

At my university, Queen Mary University of London, a team of psychiatrists are working with local Muslim spiritual healers, to try and improve relationships with a community that has traditionally been very wary of psychiatry. The latest issue of the WHO’s Panorama magazine has an article on psychiatrists working with Kyrgyz spiritual healers. In India, I think it would help to work with local spiritual leaders like Sadhguru, the best-selling yogi who regularly speaks on yoga as a means to mental health. We already know how fruitful the dialogue has been between western psychiatrists and psychologists and the Dalai Lama – it has helped western psychotherapy advance. 

Finally, I think technology has a role to play in improving global mental health. Governments are spending far too little on mental health services, and should be encouraged to spend more. But could the WHO or other organizations like the Wellcome Trust help to develop apps, websites and online courses, in local languages and local cultural terms, to disseminate basic therapeutic ideas and techniques? It would not be enough, but it would be something. And it would be cheap. 

I’m working with the WHO on a project called the Cultural Contexts of Health. Find out more about it here.