Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s “The Truth of Rebirth” : A Review, Part I

| March 17, 2012 | 13 Comments

This is the first of a three-part review of Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s new e-book, The Truth of Rebirth: and Why it Matters for Buddhist Practice.  You can read it here.  In all three parts, I refer to TB by his initials.

Geoffrey DeGraff, aka Thanissaro Bhikkhu, is a giant figure in the Westernization of Buddhism.  Along with Bhikkhu Bodhi, he has produced a vast body of translations of Pali texts, known both for their erudition and their sensitivity to the needs of those who approach the texts not as linguists  or historians but as practitioners.  His works have allowed English speakers seeking the dharma to access the earliest and most complete tradition of  Buddhist texts; as readers of this blog will recognize, in so doing he has enabled us to form our own interpretations of those texts, helping us advance ideas from the ancient Pali canon that have immediate relevance for the time and cultural milieu in which we find ourselves.

But TB’s mission has never been to Westernize the dharma.  As a translator, commentator, teacher and founder of a Thai Theravadin monastery in the U.S.,  his mission has been to preserve and transmit the teachings of the Buddhism he learned in Thailand.  It is ironic, then, that in works like The Truth of Rebirth, he finds himself attempting to put the genie he helped release back in the bottle, to convince Western skeptics to embrace a metaphysical Buddhism that has changed little since Buddhagosa wrote the earliest extant Theravadin commentaries some 1500 years ago. I will suggest that his attempt to do so not only misses the point behind the secularization of the dharma, but betrays the contradictions that lay at the heart of the traditional Theravadin interpretation of the Pali texts.

 

“Each time you choose one course of action over another, you’re making a wager as to the consequences of your choice . . . The Buddha taught . . . that awakening — in going beyond the dimensions of space and time — gives perspective on how choices operate within those dimensions. You see that choices are real, that they do make a difference, and that the consequences of your choices can shape not only this life but also many lifetimes in the future . . . Prior to awakening, you can’t know these things for sure, but as the Buddha states, if you want to gain awakening and to minimize suffering in the meantime, it’s wisest to assume these principles as working hypotheses.”

It’s strange that a book that asserts ancient Indian mythology as “truth” would begin in the Enlightenment. TB almost sounds like Adam Smith here, presenting Man as a rational creature weighing his options and selecting from among them in pursuit of his own best interests. As he unveils his argument, he returns to this concept again and again — unless we are aware of and take seriously the torment we face in future lifetimes, we will be insufficiently motivated to make the effort required to awaken.

TB will appeal to logic, and even to modern Western science and philosophy, to advance the argument that the teachings in the Pali texts present a seamless and internally coherent doctrine of rebirth. By emphasizing Gotama’s refusal to speculate on the metaphysics of rebirth, he tries to present his Buddha as a pragmatist. But this display of rational argument has at its core an ironclad faith in a metaphysical concept. The “awakening” TB is talking about consists of “going beyond the dimensions of space and time.” To him, the tales of the Four Watches of the Night, Gotama’s vision of his own past lives and the transmigration of others, are the central insight of the Buddha’s awakening. He grounds his Buddhism so squarely in the metaphysical that no amount of redirection can avoid the rift between the mythology of his religion and the putative pragmatism and phenomenalism of Gotama’s teachings.

Adam Smith notwithstanding, a human being isn’t simply, or even primarily, a rational decision maker, as a neuropsychologist — or anyone who has spent time closely observing his or her own body/mind — will confirm. Our behavior arises from a complex biosocial matrix, much of which we are unconscious of. Our feelings and emotions impel us, and often our intellection serves only to rationalize what we are driven to do. A system of morals and ethics based on “wagers” about invisible abstractions like future lives, then, will not have much chance of changing our lives here in the present. And in fact, in the end, the awakening TB preaches is less about rational choice than about terror, the terror of what happens to us when we die.

The phrase “working hypothesis” is one of the borrowings from science that TB uses to give his argument a patina of rationalism. But the only reason one has to form a hypothesis, working or otherwise, is to create a framework for finding and analyzing evidence. If the evidence supports our hypothesis, we can confirm it, and perhaps extend it. If not, then we will have to revise or even abandon our hypothesis. But, as TB admits, we can’t have any evidence of rebirth — at least not until we achieve the Buddha’s capacity to see “beyond time and space.” We must take it on faith, as TB does, that the Pali canon is an accurate and coherent presentation of the Buddha’s teaching, and that  the supernatural experiences that are told of in those texts are a reliable depiction of human destiny.

Unless and until someone reveals an observable entity or substance that can contain human memory and personality after the death of the body, there is no real evidence we can hope to find of rebirth. Of course, TB uses Gotama’s admonitions against metaphysical speculation to avoid this question entirely. However, without even the possibility of evidence, what we have is not a hypothesis to test, but a dogma to believe. What TB does in The Truth of Rebirth is try to make the intellectual case that rebirth is real and that it matters because the Buddha said it did. In so doing, he must hew closely to the Theravadin commentarial tradition, and so his conclusions are never in doubt. If you share his belief in the Theravadin religion, you may find his arguments compelling. If, however, you are inspired by the canonical Gotama who urges us not to take on beliefs simply based on argument and tradition, you are likely to find TB’s book unconvincing.

Read Part 2 . . .

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Category: Articles, Book Reviews

About the Author ()

Mark J. Knickelbine, MA, C-MI, is a writer, editor, political activist, and certified meditation instructor. "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and "The End of Faith" led him to seek out a dharma practice without the supernatural beliefs of traditional Buddhism. He found it at a local health clinic, where he learned mindfulness in the manner of Jon Kabat-Zinn. He has continued to study texts from the Pali, Chan and Zen traditions, and he is an active member of the mindfulness community at the UWHealth Department of Integrative Medicine. Mark is a member of the SBA board and serves as Practice Director.

Comments (13)

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  1. Dana Dana Nourie says:

    Great points, Mark! Well said, and I look forward to the next articles!

  2. Mark says:

    …this post proving how well you deserve the honorary doctorate:) Blessings.

  3. Mark says:

    “..what we have is not a hypothesis to test, but a dogma to believe.” For me, Mark, your insight here touches the heart of the matter. All metaphysics is dogmatic. Like sin and salvation, kamma and rebirth are unfalsifiable. The Christian scholastic speaks of ‘connaturality’, Thanissaro Bhikkhu of a ‘deep intuitive sense’ – but however one sweetens their wishful thinking, the horsepill of metaphysics remains. This, to me anyway. And Feuerbach’s psychology of the Christian mythos applies here as well. Great stuff! Blessings.

  4. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    Well said throughout, Mark. Taking a stance on something which cannot be shown is, to me, where this notion of rebirth as a literal truth falls apart. And it seems our biggest challenge is how to help people understand that what they consider evidence is really nothing of the kind.

  5. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    Well said throughout, Mark. Taking a stance on something which cannot be shown is, to me, where this notion of rebirth as a literal truth falls apart. And it seems our biggest challenge is how to help people understand that what they consider evidence is really nothing of the kind.

  6. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Thanks for the comments, everybody!

    TB’s book isn’t just another rehashing of the case for rebirth. He’s attempting to reinforce the claim we always hear — “If you don’t accept rebirth, you’re not a Buddhist.” He ends up with a circular argument that leads to some pretty remarkable claims, and I think inadvertantly demonstrates why rebirth is actually irrelevant to the dharma practice Gotama advised.

  7. Linda Linda says:

    “If the evidence supports our hypothesis, we can confirm it, and perhaps extend it. If not, then we will have to revise or even abandon our hypothesis. But, as TB admits, we can’t have any evidence of rebirth…”

    The remarkable thing to me is that what TB is teaching is, as far as I can see, quite the opposite of the entire point of the Buddha’s teaching: that it is recognizing that line between what we can be reasonably sure of because we have solid evidence, and what we are taking on faith, that is critical; that we should not be basing our actions on the things we take on faith. In daily life that “faith” may just be “faith in my ability to judge character” — so that when I am certain I know what someone’s motivations are and act as though my certainty is fact I may get in trouble if I’m really just guessing, but I will behave more wisely if I realize I’m just guessing. This is the central teaching: know the difference. And yet teaching people to base their understanding of the dhamma on an act of faith subverts what’s being said in a really dramatic way.

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      And as I suggest in Part III, if you’re going to care about ending rebirth you have to do literally the opposite of what Gotama taught — you have to crave non-being. But Gotama also talks about the carrot/stick aspect of rebirth, who’s a once-returner, who’s someone who’ll be born no more than seven times, etc. There is a contradiction at the heart of the Pali texts that the Theravadin tradition does not successfully resolve. I found these little verses in the Atthavaga the other day:

      At death, also, that is lost
      of which a man imagines “this is mine.”
      So having realized this an intelligent person,
      a disciple, would not incline toward “mine”ness.

      Just as a man awakened
      does not see one he met in a dream
      Even so a beloved fellow
      that is dead, expired, one does not see.

      Seen and heard are these fellows
      who are called by this or that name —
      Of a dead person only the name
      will remain to be announced.

      Does this sound like rebirth to you? By the way it’s Atthavagga 6 verses 3 – 5

  8. Mark Knickelbine says:

    And as I suggest in Part III, if you’re going to care about ending rebirth you have to do literally the opposite of what Gotama taught — you have to crave non-being. But Gotama also talks about the carrot/stick aspect of rebirth, who’s a once-returner, who’s someone who’ll be born no more than seven times, etc. There is a contradiction at the heart of the Pali texts that the Theravadin tradition does not successfully resolve. I found these little verses in the Atthavaga the other day:

    At death, also, that is lost
    of which a man imagines “this is mine.”
    So having realized this an intelligent person,
    a disciple, would not incline toward “mine”ness.

    Just as a man awakened
    does not see one he met in a dream
    Even so a beloved fellow
    that is dead, expired, one does not see.

    Seen and heard are these fellows
    who are called by this or that name —
    Of a dead person only the name
    will remain to be announced.

    Does this sound like rebirth to you? By the way it’s Atthavagga 6 verses 3 – 5

  9. Doug Smith Doug says:

    Thanks for this review. I haven’t read the book, but know well that the notion of rebirth has no place whatever in modern science. Until and unless reliable, verifiable evidence can be found, evidence which is good enough to convince skeptical scientists working in fields such as cognitive psychology and neuroscience, we are justified in considering such hypotheses as nothing more than delusions.

    It’s unfortunate to saddle such a wise approach to life with delusions, but as people like Kahnemann and Tversky, not to mention practices like facilitated communication make clear, the human mind is endlessly deluded.

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      Doug, thanks for the comment. I am reading a fascinating book by Grace Buford tracing how the teaching of the earliest texts — that metaphysical views are a hinderance and that the fruit of practice is to be realized in this life — was subsequently pasted over with the rebirth-oriented teachings that came to characterize Theravada, resulting in irresolvable doctrinal inconsistencies. I’ll share more when I’m through with it!

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