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Responsibility and Rebirth

“Some people reject the idea of rebirth because they do not want the responsibility.”

Our teacher made this comment quickly and almost as an afterthought. At that moment, I did not give it much consideration. But later, his statement would come back to me and I began to contemplate his words. Why is the concept of rebirth challenging for some Buddhists? If you start typing a question about Buddhism and rebirth into your favorite search engine, you will see a common theme in your search results:

Can you be a Buddhist without believing in rebirth?
Should I believe in rebirth?
Are there Buddhists who don’t believe in rebirth?
What does Buddhism teach about life after death?

The term reincarnation makes several appearances too. Understandably so, as some use the terms rebirth and reincarnation interchangeably. Reincarnation relies on the transmigration of a soul. Or the same soul is returning to a different body. Rebirth is the state of being born again, of returning for another life. And in some Buddhist traditions, this may be recognized as a choice, such as in Mahāyāna, where a bodhisattva purposefully delays attaining nirvana in order to help others. Or, more commonly, it can be the result of one’s karma and state of mind at the time of death. 

The fact that so many people question whether or not belief in rebirth is a requirement demonstrates that this is an element of Buddhism that is challenging for some to accept. The purpose here is not to resolve whether your acceptance or rejection of rebirth qualifies whether or not you call yourself a Buddhist. Please choose your labels. Instead, this is a high-level exploration of why rebirth is difficult to accept and what that means in terms of your responsibility for your behavior.

When I have asked some of my colleagues who happen to be Buddhist monks about rebirth, some of them cut me off. Responding with either, “It’s OK if you are not ready for rebirth, you can still follow the Buddha’s teachings.” Or “Rebirth is absolutely a central theme in Buddhism. You better get used to it.” When they realize that I want to ask why some people feel challenged by the concept of rebirth, they are usually more candid. It seems that they are accustomed to someone like me, an individual who grew up in a Christian family in a Christian country, taking issue with rebirth. Actually, for as long as I can remember, rebirth always made sense to me. I was an anomaly in my family and my community. 

The Pāli Canon references rebirth. Passages such as this one emphasize that the human form is the most fortunate of rebirths and that there are many other forms:

Then the Blessed One, picking up a little bit of dust with the tip of his fingernail, said to the monks, “What do you think, monks? Which is greater: the little bit of dust I have picked up with the tip of my fingernail, or the great Earth?”

“The great Earth is far greater, lord. The little bit of dust the Blessed One has picked up with the tip of his fingernail is next to nothing. It doesn’t even count. It’s no comparison. It’s not even a fraction, this little bit of dust the Blessed One has picked up with the tip of his fingernail when compared with the great Earth.”

“In the same way, monks, few are the beings reborn among human beings. Far more are those reborn elsewhere. Thus, you should train yourselves: ‘We will live heedfully.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.”

SN 20.2

For many practitioners of Theravāda Buddhism, accepting that the Buddha taught liberation from suffering and that suffering results in a continuous cycle of death and rebirth is central to understanding the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.  

Some believe that the cycle of rebirth is not mentioned consistently enough throughout the Pāli Canon to be considered part of the path reliably. They are opening the door to skepticism. Others see no need for rebirth to be part of the teachings and part of their practice. The idea of one life might be more motivating than the opportunity to “get it right” across many lifetimes.

If you did not grow up in a community where rebirth was part of your socio-religious experience, the idea of rebirth might seem foreign. It might not fit into your worldview. But this passage, in its direct simplicity, might form the basis of your understanding of Buddhism:

“To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one’s mind—this is the teaching of the Buddhas.”

Dhp 183

Whether you accept rebirth or not, you are responsible for your actions and the results of your actions. The above passage does not say to have someone else cleanse your mind. You are to avoid evil and to foster good. 

This excerpt from MN 135 states that you are responsible for the results of your actions: 

“Student beings are owners of karma, heir to karma, born of karma, related through karma, and have karma as their arbitrator. Karma is what creates distinctions among beings in terms of coarseness & refinement.” 

MN 135

The passage goes on to describe in detail unskillful actions, such as killing, stealing, and lack of generosity, and more. It also describes the results of unskillful behavior, and those results mention rebirth. Within these teachings, it becomes clear: you are the master of your outcome. Your actions, wholesome or otherwise, are what shape what happens next. And while some may see this as freeing. Others may feel the heaviness of responsibility. Maybe worrying about one lifetime full of actions is enough to bear. At the end of one lifetime, one outcome seems more manageable—just one finish line to cross without worrying about the next one. Whether you accept rebirth or not, your result is in your hands. Your freedom from suffering is your responsibility.

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