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Published in:  P.S. Thera, L. Perera & K. Goonesena  Buddhist Essays: A      Miscellany.    London: Sri Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre (1992)



A. Campbell Purton



In this paper I want to discuss what is involved in speaking of rebirth in a religious context. I approach the theme from the vantage point of Western philosophy, and hope that what I say is in the spirit of Ven. Saddhatissa’s 1 concern to bridge the gap between Buddhist and Western ways of thought, though I am not sure that he would have agreed with my conclusions!

The doctrine of rebirth is, I believe, one of those doctrines which, like that of the Resurrection of Christ in Christianity, is peculiarly liable to misunderstanding in our time. Modern thought is deeply imbued with attitudes that are appropriate in scientific contexts, but which cause deep confusion when transferred to the religious sphere. Science is concerned with developing speculative hypotheses about the nature of the world, which are then tested by observation and experiment. Because we are so used to dealing with statements whose function is to present hypotheses, it is tempting to assume that religious statements also have this function.  Thus we are tempted to say, “Well, what is the evidence for the Resurrection?” or “What is the evidence for our being reborn?” Following a line of thought in Wittgenstein I shall argue that to see religious doctrines in this way as a species of hypothesis supported by evidence is a serious misunderstanding. We need to look first at how religious doctrines function in practice in the lives of those who live by them before we can reasonably assert that their function is similar to the function of hypotheses in science or history.

Let us begin with one of Wittgenstein’s examples. In some conversations on religious belief 2 Wittgenstein discusses the remark “God’s eye sees everything”. This remark seems to express a certain attitude to one’s life. It is not easy to summarise the attitude fully in words; what is said is conveyed by means of a picture. Further,  the picture is used in a particular way. If someone starts to talk of eyebrows in connection with the eye of God, then we know that he is using the picture in a quite different way. The picture is used by the believer to convey something along the lines of “I can’t get away with anything in the long run”, “There is no point in pretending about my motives”, “I am just what I am”, etc. It is then tempting to suppose that when we say that God’s eye sees everything we are just summarising a set of attitudes and feelings in a picturesque way.

Yet it is not so simple. The ‘etc.’ following the list of the attitudes and feelings is revealing — how are we to know how to continue the ‘etc.’ without in some way referring back to the picture, which is then not dispensable? It may be helpful to compare the situation here with that discussed by philosophers of science in connection with scientific models.  It has become widely accepted that what is conveyed in a scientific theory by the use of a model (such as that of the atomic nucleus) cannot be replaced by a set of statements which do not invoke the model. The picture is not a second-rate way of expressing what could better be expressed in other ways. As Wittgenstein puts it: “The whole weight may be in the picture.”3 For some people “God’s eye sees everything” is a picture expressing a religious truth. For others this is not a picture that plays any role in their lives. There seems to be nothing of hypothesis here. No one, for example, speculates that there may be certain kinds of thing which God’s eye does not see. The use of the picture is not developed along such lines.

Consider Wittgenstein’s example of the difference between two people, one of who takes everything that happens to him as a reward or punishment, and one who doesn’t think of this at all:

 Suppose someone is ill and he says: ‘This is a punishment,’ and I say: If I’m ill, I don’t think of punishment at all.’ If you say: ‘Do you believe the opposite?’ — you can call it believing the opposite, but it is entirely different from what we would normally call believing the opposite.

I think differently, in a different way. I say different things to myself. I have different pictures.

It is this way: if some said: ‘Wittgenstein, you don’t take illness as a punishment, so what do you believe?’ — I’d say:  I don’t have any thoughts of punishment’. (p.55)

If someone believes that misfortune is a punishment, this is not a matter of his accepting a hypothesis which may or may not prove to be correct. It is rather a matter of his engaging in a whole way of thought and life, one that involves constant reference to this picture. The world can be seen in that way. If it is asked, “Should we so see it?” the relevant discussion will not be a scientific one about how strong the evidence is, but an ethical one about how we should live.

Wittgenstein’s illustrations are drawn from the area of Judaeo-Christian belief, but the same issues arise in the case of Buddhism. If we are to understand the saying, “We have many lives,” we need to see how the saying functions in the lives of those who assent to it, and how the picture which it incorporates is used in practice.  Consider first the picture itself, or rather the pictures, for not all believers in rebirth picture it in the same way. Some people picture human beings as having a ‘subtle body’ — a body made of very ‘fine’ matter but of the same general shape and size as the physical body4. The subtle body can be pictured as leaving the physical body at death, then as adapting its shape and size to ‘fit’ a foetus or new-born child, so that the person is thus reborn. Others would not wish to think of rebirth in terms of subtle bodies, but as the rebirth of the ‘soul’. Here it is less easy to think in visual imagery. We may vaguely picture a ‘something’ which moves from one body to another. Buddhist pictures tend to be rather different, as when Nagasena in the Milindapanha pictures rebirth as the lighting of one candle from another, or the growth of a new mango tree from the seed of the old. These versions of the picture emphasise causal connections between lives rather than the existence of a continuing entity.

Now clearly any of these pictures could be entertained in a speculative way. For example Professor Subodh Jain 5 reflects on the question of what the physical basis of the causal link between lives could be, considering the possibilities of pheromones and radio-waves! Investigations could be carried out in this area, but it is important to see that the idea of such investigations forms no part of the traditional context within which the picture of rebirth has its life. The rebirth picture does not come into the lives of traditional believers as a hypothesis, but in quite different ways.

We need to ask what it means in practice to say that we have many lives. What difference does it make if someone thinks in terms of a picture which portrays human and other sentient beings as being reborn over countless aeons? Here are some possibilities from within the Buddhist tradition:

First, rebirth in Buddhist thought is bound up with the notion of kamma, or moral causality. What we do in some way returns to us, and the rebirth picture portrays that not even death can release us from the consequences of our actions.’ Someone who takes this picture seriously will live differently from one who does not.

Secondly, rebirth is seen in Buddhism as involving progress towards an end, which is nirvana, or enlightenment. This picture requires us to take seriously the view that there is such a thing as spiritual development, with all the consequences which that entails. (For instance, it entails the likelihood that there are those who are further along the path than we are ourselves, and hence the possibility of spiritual direction).

 Thirdly, the doctrine of rebirth is taught in the context of the Buddhist conception of anatta, the ‘no self’ doctrine. Like the doctrine of rebirth, the anatta doctrine needs to be understood in terms of the role it plays in Buddhist life. That is, anatta should not be seen as the hypothesis that there is no soul or substantial nature to things, but as a way of expressing the value of not seeing ourselves as separate, self-contained egos. The anatta doctrine says something like “Do not take yourself too seriously, for there is no self that was you at birth, you as a child, you in middle age”; the rebirth doctrine puts it the other way round: “If you do picture there being a self which was you at those earlier stages of your life (and short of enlightenment we all think this way to some extent), you can equally picture this self as being there at earlier stages of the universe.” We naturally want to ask, “But these people who lived before, were they really me?” — yet the more we reflect on this question the more we realise that we don’t have any clear sense of what it means. And this, on an intellectual level at least, begins to undermine the powerful picture we have of ourselves as enduring substantial entities. 

Fourthly, rebirth portrays us as intimately connected with other people. In some Buddhist traditions one is encouraged to picture all sentient beings as having been one’s mother in countless pervious existences, thus weakening the sense that any other person is fundamentally alien to us. (But if someone asks, “How many times, in fact, has old so-and-so been my mother?” then I suggest that this is like enquiring about God’s eyebrows. The picture is not used like that).

Fifthly, through the rebirth picture we see ourselves as intimately involved also with the non-human world. If I say, with Empedocles, “Already I have once been a boy and a girl, a bush and a bird, and a silent sea fish”7 this helps me to develop an attitude of interest, respect and consideration for all forms of nature.

Sixthly, there is the issue of whether we see ourselves as ultimately responsible for being the sorts of people we are. If we see ourselves as ultimately responsible we cannot attribute our moral characters entirely to such factors as heredity and environmental influences, since over those we had no control. Hence if we are to see ourselves as being responsible for our lives we must picture ourselves as having in some way determined the general character traits with which we began this life. Thus the rebirth picture helps us to maintain our trust in our moral autonomy.  In all these ways, and no doubt in others besides, the rebirth picture makes a difference to our attitudes and to how we live. To say, “We have many lives” is, I suggest, to say “Live like this — keep in mind this picture.”

The natural response, of course, is, “Yes, but is rebirth a fact? And isn’t it a matter of scientific investigation to establish whether or not it is a fact?” Further, it may be argued that scientific investigations have actually been carried out in this field, such as the work of the psychiatrist Ian Stevenson.8 Work has been done on checking the memories of people who claim to remember past lives 9,  and whether or not one finds the case for such ‘far memory’ claims conclusive 10,  the possibility of such studies means that what we are dealing with is, after all, a hypothesis.  My reply is that empirical studies of ‘far memory’ do not, and cannot, get to grips with the rebirth doctrine as it is understood in religions such as Buddhism. The most that could be established by such studies is that in special conditions (such as under hypnosis, or in certain meditative states, or in certain phases of early childhood) people have unexpected access to what happened in the lives of people who died before they themselves were born. This phenomenon, which I am inclined to think is a real one, is a phenomenon similar to that which is labelled ‘telepathy’; indeed one could well see ‘telepathy’ and ‘far memory’ as the spatial and temporal aspects of a single phenomenon. However, from a Buddhist point of view such phenomena are of no more (and no less) significance than ordinary patterns of interconnection between people. If I have a far memory of a life as Jock the lumberjack in nineteenth-century Canada then this means there is a close link between myself and Jock, a link which is perhaps closer than that between myself and a friend in this life, but less close than that between myself now and myself at the age of twenty 11. That people exist in relation to all other people, rather than as self-sufficient egos, is a fundamental aspect of the anatta doctrine, but whether the relationships are mediated in a normal or paranormal way is of little religious significance 12. Traditionally,  ‘far memory’ and telepathy are of course widely recognised in Buddhist thought, and included as two of the Panca  Abhinna, the Five Supernormal Powers. On the night of his enlightenment the Buddha is said to have reviewed his past lives and to have been able to see the patterns of rebirth of all other beings. Yet the acquisition of pubbe-nivasanussati nana (far memory) is not central to the Buddhist way of life — in general the Supernormal Powers are seen as by-products of spiritual development, and not worthwhile goals in themselves. Rebirth, on the other hand, is a central theme, from which it follows that rebirth in Buddhism is at best only loosely connected with the far memory phenomenon. Indeed, even if all the alleged cases of far memory turned out to be spurious this would not in any way undermine the doctrine of rebirth. (It is significant that those Western philosophers who have taken rebirth seriously —Plato, Schopenhauer, McTaggart — have never rested their arguments on the evidence of some people’s claims to remember past lives.)

“But still, it must either be or not be a fact that we are reborn.”  Certainly: for the Indian religions it is a fact, but it is a religious fact, not a scientific fact. In Buddhism, rebirth is as much a fact as the roundness of the earth is a fact in twentieth century geography. The difficulty we may feel here has nothing to do with the nature of rebirth; rather, it has to do with the difficulty of getting a clear understanding of the concept of a fact. If I say that the earth is round is a fact, I am saying that this is a picture which I accept. I trust it, I don’t have any doubts, I see the details of maps and international air travel in terms of it. It is a good picture, it forms part of a framework of my thought in connection with geography. Similarly, if I say that rebirth is a fact I am saying that this is a picture I accept and live by. I see people and their relationships in terms of it. I see moral choice in its light. It is a good picture, it forms part of the framework of my thinking in the sphere of religion. What is hard to see is that there is no more than this involved in saying that something is a fact.’13 It is true that other religions, and other philosophies, see things in terms of very different pictures. However this should cause Buddhists no problems. The world clearly is such that it can be pictured in many different ways. The Buddhist picture, and the Buddha-Dhamma generally, has always been seen as a raft which exists to carry us across the ocean of samsara, and once it has served its purpose the raft is no longer needed. From the perspective of nirvana the picture —all pictures — are provisional and ultimately dissolve  in an unpicturable light. (But of course that too is a picture.)


1 For some of Ven. Saddhatissa’s own reflections on rebirth see his Facets of Buddhism, World Buddhist Foundation, 1991, pp.193-206.

 2 Wittgenstein, L. Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, Blackwell, 1966, p.71.

3 op.cit. p.72.

4 Such are the linga sarira of Hindu philosophy, and the ‘etheric doubles’ of Western spiritualists.

5 Jain, Subodh: “Communication regarding the process of rebirth” in Wendy D.  O’Flaherty (ed.), Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Tradition, University of California Press, 1980, pp.237-8.

6 “Wittgenstein once suggested that a way in which the notion of immortality can acquire a meaning is through one’s feelings that one has duties from which one cannot be released, even by death.” Malcolm, N.: Ludwig Wittgenstein, A Memoir, Oxford University Press, 1962, p.71.

7 Fragment 476. See Kirk, G.S. and Raven, J.E. The Presocratic Philosophers, Cambridge, 1964, p.354.

8 Stevenson, Ian: Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, University Press of Virginia, 1974.

9 See Hans Ten Dam, Exploring Reincarnation, Arkana, 1990, for a review of some of this material.

10 See Ian Wilson, Mind Out of Time? Reincarnation Claims Investigated, Gollancz, 1981, for a sceptical view of the far memory claims.

11 For a discussion of this way of looking at the notion of personal identity

within a single life, see Derek Parfitt: “Personal Identity”, Philosophical Review

80,1971, pp.3-27.


12 It is only significant insofar as paranormal experiences may release a person

from the dogmatic assumption that our ordinary concepts of space and time are

reflections of a self-existing reality, rather than aspects of the human form of life. To ‘remember a past life’ can be a moving, or a disturbing, experience because in such an experience one’s ordinary perception of people as separate self-existing beings dissolves. (Schopenhauer noted this: see The World as Will and as Representation, Vol.l , tr. E.F.J. Payne, Dover, 1969, p.353.)

13 For a discussion of this whole issue see L. Wittgenstein: On Certainty, Blackwell. 1969.

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