By Roger R. Jackson
Shambhala Publications, 2022
Review by Alex Studholme
Buddhists believe in reincarnation, don’t they? For the vast majority of people, this is entirely axiomatic. If religion is an “immortality project”, assuring us of some sort of life after death, then Buddhism does this by asserting the reality of a succession of rebirths, followed eventually by nirvana, a transcendent state beyond ordinary life and death. Yet for western Buddhists, things may not be quite so straightforward. Belief in reincarnation, not culturally ingrained, may actually be somewhat peripheral to one’s identity as a Buddhist, hovering instead in an unresolved way somewhere in the background. Roger Jackson’s definitive new work on this topic is a valuable guide both to the Buddhist tradition’s treatment of rebirth and also to the way this idea has been received by modernity.
Those expecting a conclusive answer to the question of how rebirth takes place, or whether it actually takes place at all, will be disappointed. Instead, Jackson presents us with a dispassionate survey of the subject, contextualizing the question of reincarnation in the widest possible way. He relates rebirth to Buddhist ideas of cosmology (the realms of samsara) and ontology (the nature of reality), karma and dependent origination. He examines the different approaches to these issues in the early Pali canon, and in Mahayana and Vajrayana literature. And he looks at the way rebirth has been absorbed into the different Buddhist cultures of Sri Lanka and South East Asia, China, and Tibet, including sections on different attitudes towards rebirth as a woman.
No doubt this is all very valuable in leading newcomers through the multifarious ways rebirth is regarded by actual Buddhists: not simply as a philosophical idea or tenet of faith, but as an integral part of a diverse and highly evolved religious system. It is interesting to learn, for instance, that the Sri Lankan custom of offering alms to monks as a means of transferring nourishment to hungry ghosts may derive from Hindu rites of feeding the dead. Or to encounter in China a bureaucratized view of rebirth, in which karmic punishments and rewards are meted out by purgatorial officials acting suspiciously like Chinese civil servants. Nonetheless, more seasoned Buddhist readers may want to skip over a lot of the other rather more familiar background material in search of the main arguments.
In this regard, Jackson provides a helpful précis of many of the Buddhist defenses of reincarnation, without engaging with them in any great depth, often content simply to point out the obvious drawbacks. Thus, justifying a common sense view of one’s own personal continuity – in this lifetime, let alone from one lifetime to the next – is difficult to square with the Buddhist emphasis on radical impermanence. Similarly, attempts to assert what it is that is actually reborn are undermined by the Buddhist doctrine of non-self: various ingenious solutions to this problem may inadvertently smuggle a self in by the back door.
Jackson doesn’t say it explicitly, but one suspects he assumes that none of these Buddhist arguments would pass muster in a modern philosophy department. Even Dharmakirti, the 7th century Indian pandit whom many Tibetans regard as mounting the ultimate philosophical case for reincarnation, is given short shrift. To back up the notion that the mindstream can continue without the body, Dharamakirti argues that the mind cannot be dependent or an emergent property of the body, because the two are so fundamentally different: mind is clear, knowing and immaterial, while the body is coarse, insentient and physical. This, Jackson writes, “appears to beg the question, by defining terms in such a way that the desired conclusion is unavoidable.”
Jackson does actually lay his cards on the table in his final, illuminating discussion of how reincarnation has been adopted by the modern west. He is not a literalist, recalling his shocked incredulity at a Tibetan lama’s earnest account of the fates of two brothers who had committed serious, but slightly different misdeeds: one was reborn as red fish with a blue head and the other as a blue fish with a red head. But nor is he the kind of secular, humanistic Buddhist that believes the doctrine of reincarnation should be entirely disposed of, or perhaps interpreted in symbolic or psychological terms, leaving a set of core teachings shorn of speculative metaphysics and superstition. And unlike some of these secularists, Jackson finds no good reason for thinking that the Buddha himself did not believe in rebirth.
Rather, Jackson declares himself to be what he calls an As-If Agnostic, by which I think he means someone who keeps an open mind that reincarnation could operate in some way or another, whilst acting as if traditional attitudes to reincarnation were true, trusting that taking on such a mindset will help one to participate in the liberating and meaningful sphere of the dharma and, even, of the way things really are. Such an attitude might be supported by appeals to experience: the counsel of venerable teachers who tow the conventional line and, perhaps, the many remarkable case studies of children who recall past lives collected by the American academic Ian Stevenson.
In the course of this final discussion, Jackson makes two further arresting points. Firstly, many of the Buddhist teachers who gained most influence in the west were those who downplayed the importance of reincarnation. Secondly, the doctrines that these teachers have tended to emphasize – such as Dzogchen, Mahamudra, or Zen – center around direct experience of the enlightened mind, where considerations of karma and rebirth can seem somewhat remote. Perhaps, this is the answer to why some western Buddhists – even those involved in non-secular, traditional sanghas – feel that the question of reincarnation is not of paramount concern. For if Buddhism is a form of “immortality project”, we may be encouraged to discover the “deathless” state first and foremost, not in some distant future, but in our own immediate experience. This may be the true direction of travel.
Jackson himself points to just such a conclusion in the story he uses to end his excellent book. In a previous lifetime, the Buddha says, he was a seer who was able to fly as fast as the wind for hundreds of years, yet never reached the end of the world. But this, we are told, was a mistake: the end of the world he should have been seeking is the place “where one is not born, does not grow old and die, does not pass away and get reborn.” And where is this to be found? “It is,” the Buddha explains, “in this fathom-long body endowed with perception and mind that I proclaim the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world and the way leading to the cessation of the world.”