View Full Version : Am I a believer?

26 Dec 15, 14:08
This is an article which was written by Stephen Batchelor and can be found in an office document format by clicking on the same title under the heading "Various articles or transcriptions from Stephen Batchelor (Office.doc format)" at the Bodhi College link below.

Comments are welcome if you have read all of the article.

Am I a Believer?

Can I be a Buddhist without believing that I will survive the death of the brain and be reborn in the womb of a jackal or the egg of a parrot ? Can I be a Buddhist and not believe in the existence of a hell where I could be roasted alive for thousands of years in a human body.....?




26 Dec 15, 17:18
There are some serious problems with such things as rebirth and kamma. Let's build up a little Dhamma, and then hold these sorts of ideas against the Dhamma to see where we end up. (I can cite as needed, but for right now I'll simply make casual references.)


A: consider the six sense spheres.

If we examine an aurora borealis, for example, we can see an example of arising (the first appearance in the sky), change-while-standing (the amorphous pulse of the phenomenon in the sky over time), & cessation (its final dissolution from the sky).

We can discern that smells from e.g. a burning incense stick are, for the nose, akin to the sight of the aurora borealis for the eyes: first appearances to awareness, change-while-standing of a given amorphous 'waft', and then cessations of various kinds. If two incense sticks of different scents are burning above an old trash bin, the smells can overlap and interweave in complex ways, just as e.g. greens and blues in the aurora can flow about.

Feelings in the body are similar, of course. With the body, let us further examine this multiplicity: it's not a simple binary sense faculty, but contains a broad array of 'shapes' to given experiences. There is the feeling of the orientation of the body in space, the orientation of the body with respect to itself (e.g. which hand is higher than the other), heat & cold, motion, nausea, and so forth, and of course arising and ceasing, and so it flows along.

Finally, it's important to note that the mind operates by deriving its content from the other five senses; anything in the mind sense sphere is one or more sense inputs from the other five or else a thought derived therefrom.

B: consider what can turn out in one of two ways with respect to views: faith/confidence, preference, oral tradition, reasoning, and acceptance of a view by pondering.

C: consider the basic epistemological agnosticism of the Brahmajala Sutta, demonstrating that even meditative experiences & formless attainments do not provide epistemological certainties over & above average sensory operation. In fact, meditative attainments of any kind are simply nonaverage sensory experiences, but for all that they remain sensory.


Now, Iron Age India already had wide-scale ideas about caste, rebirth, realms, gods, and kamma. The Buddha, when directly asked about the existence of gods, mentioned that they were a social fact in the context of defining a state of affairs that's superior to heaven (nibbana). The point here is to convince listener to shift their goals away from cultural rebirth ideations to cessation-ideations in accord with the Dhamma.

It's a small example of an overall strategy to redefine extant cultural goals (kamma making merit to render heaven/ancestor realms/ascetic realms/etc.) so as to bring them into alignment with the Dhamma (watch for un/wholesome vis-a-vis liberative effort in the phenomenological world and train the mind accordingly); with respect to Right View, belief in gods and rites is taken to be a tainted view because - among other things - it tries to accomplish specific rebirths, a blameworthy pursuit.

The early Sangha could only receive support if the laity 'felt like it', and so rebirth found a suitable place as an anthropologically economic solution that fit within the overall context of ancient India. Later Buddhist thinkers & writers would spill much ink reconciling these cherished views, but it's altogether unnecessary.


One common argument is that rebirth needs to obtain in order for there to be a rationale for any ethical effort, but in fact the Dhamma generates its ethics on the basis of a common human empathy as well as a lubricative communality for the sake of the ending of dukkha, bringing in talk of heaven & hell only as suits the individual & what will motivate them.

"But it's obviously there in the texts."

The suitable texts used to build up the Dhamma are themselves a three-centuries-long collection that was edited together in a few different ways, so care must be taken when examining these materials. But it's possible to notice a concern with ethics combining with the rebirth-ideations as a cultural phenomenon with such strength as to ignore the epistemological guards mentioned above: reasoning and meditative attainments both end up being taken as valid sources of "only this is true", and with that, scholastic Buddhism is off & running.


I can expand on any of these points at all y'all's leisure. Suffice it to say here that, in brief, the Dhamma warrants a militant apatheism with respect to these sorts of things, e.g. heavens and hells, gods, psychic powers, and so forth. They are off-target in and of themselves; perhaps certain people can be motivated with such things, while other people are motivated otherwise. But they are, still, views that render dukkha when clung to.

Yes, even rebirth & kamma ideations. The Dhamma proceeds differently (via A-B-C, above).

28 Dec 15, 00:45
No, I am not a believer. I do not believe in Kamma and rebirth. That only serves to make people behave well. To scare people. That is the religious aspect of buddhism. You have to behave because you have to behave and that is all.

29 Dec 15, 08:58
I definately wouldn't call myself a "Secular Buddhist" - but after having accepted rebirth belief when I was practising Tibetan Buddhism years ago, I eventually became agnostic about it because I've never actually been given a satisfactory explanation about the process. Descriptions of two candles etc just don't do it for me, nor does the so-called 'evidence' of people like the late Ian Stevenson, so I just set it aside for now.

To quote part of the Stephen Batchelor article:

In terms of its ability to explain why the world is the way it is, belief in rebirth and karma is no different from belief in God. Both function as ways of giving meaning to what otherwise appears to be meaningless and unfair. If a Christian couple give birth to a brain-damaged child, this is the inscrutable will of God, whereas, for a Buddhist couple, it is the result of the baby’s actions in a past life. Both explanations are equally indemonstrable or refutable. Yet both render the tragedy meaningful and situate it within a well-defined frame of moral obligation and responsibility. Perhaps this is one reason why such beliefs have been selected by evolution and are so deeply entrenched in the human psyche. Otherwise, would life not be too bewildering and painful for rational animals to bear?

and amongst the salient points mentioned by Dave in #2:

Iron Age India already had wide-scale ideas about caste, rebirth, realms, gods, and kamma.


The early Sangha could only receive support if the laity 'felt like it', and so rebirth found a suitable place as an anthropologically economic solution that fit within the overall context of ancient India

I wonder if anyone else has any comments ?......