I simply ask myself rather one could make sense of the Dharma and apply it without the concepts of rebirth and kamma?

Though for me it is my personal approach to the Dharma, which i find to be highly meaningful in both theoretical and practical manner. As like no other intellectual complex, I think the Dharma could claim something like describing the essence and nature of being - if such claim should ever be stressed. I would not dare to discuss this question as a devout follower. My interest is simply philosophical in its nature.

So i am just about to read C.W.Gorwans "Philosophy of the Buddha" and I am very pleased about how well balanced and respectful he treats the topic as a scholar of analytic philosophy. Considering the concepts of kamma and rebirth, ONE of the approaches the author offers, is that the Lord Buddha just simply took kamma and rebirth as beliefs deriving from his culture, beliefs so deep and taken for granted that he would not spend a second on doubting it - although he must have been very critical to all kinds of believe. But for example, if you consider doubtful questioning in western philosophy, such as "the meditations" of Descartes and Husserl, it seems mostly obvious that doubt could never ever stressed out in the whole sense. Even though while claiming that radical doubt will set up everything to the disposition of rational examination, there will always be some "leftover" belief as remains (for Descartes it was god , for Husserl it must have been the ego). The latter should also be a position that C.Taylor stresses in his historical treatise "Sources of the Self".

Ok, but coming back in addressing my question to you as experts in the Dharma, what are your opinions about this issue? Could we make sense of the teaching of the Lord Buddha without believing that we will be reborn?

As for the concept of kamma, it is possible to make sense of it without believing in rebirth.

Well I do not expect a discussion on a very high intellectual level, but maybe an exchange of ideas and opinions on the applicability of "Buddhism" and its precious teaching in a mindset that could be called "western". As I found out that it is a major critique of native Buddhists about western fellows that they don't sufficiently reflect the teaching according to their own culture and should not simply adopt it as a belief - which would actually be contradicting the Dharma.

warm regards!

  • in what way is not reflecting the teaching according to culture a contradiction to the dharma?
    – Ryan
    Jul 24, 2015 at 10:11
  • 4
    Welcome to Buddhism.SE. You might want to do a search for questions that have already been asked on karma and rebirth; many have answers to the very questions you pose. This is most likely a duplicate to at least one of them. Jul 24, 2015 at 12:10
  • 1
    @AndreiVolkov previously posted these answers which expand on the above comment.
    – ChrisW
    Jul 24, 2015 at 20:36
  • @Ryan: the Buddha said not to accept something simply because it was said by an authority, but to prove for yourself. So, not adapting the teaching to one's own culture does not allow one to see things in familiar terms. It would be accepting things on faith, without proper understanding. [I rewrote this, had gotten it backward.]
    – user2341
    Jul 25, 2015 at 17:23

4 Answers 4


Though "dharma without rebirth" have appeared here more than once ...

... I'll tackle some of the points as they come to me with a interesting clothing.

"Considering the concepts of kamma and rebirth, ONE of the approaches the author offers, is that the Lord Buddha just simply took kamma and rebirth as beliefs deriving from his culture"

I'm not a buddhologist, so personally, for me to take the proposed idea seriously, the author would have to show, at least:

  1. why the Buddha took the view of those that believe in rebirth and karma?

    there's evidence that his context was diverse in regard to beliefs, and that belief in rebirth and karma may not have been as popular as we would think. So why picking this one in particular, when other views are available and believed?

  2. If rebirth/karma was indeed such a deep part of the culture he was in, why he would "sacrifice truth for pedagogy sake" in that particular case?

    ...when he clearly refused in other circumstances, let alone, that he stated "whatever a Tathagata says from the moment of his enlightenment to his parinirvana, that is so, and not otherwise" -- DN29.

  3. In the case of textual corruption inserting rebirth/karma doctrine, how these corruptions took place, and why?

    it would certainly have to happen very early on. Maybe with the cumplicity of all monks and disciples (an extremely ambitious project, I'd say).

"[...] beliefs so deep and taken for granted that he would not spend a second on doubting it"

There's plenty of evidence of the Buddha being careful about his statements (see also number 2 above). Not having knowledge about something (specially something about dharma, his specialty) and declaring it would be quite careless on his part.

"Dharma without karma?"

As for the above, the tradition rejects this view. It's not just a matter of "because it's on the suttas" -- though it's overwhelmingly on the suttas. But I think that (a) the doctrine itself is intimately intertwined with these concepts; (b) it provides a complete picture of the grand scheme of things; and (c) it justifies in a very strong way the importance of the buddhist soteriology, nirvana.

But rebirth/karma seems to be something put aside by secular buddhists. I think their method for rejecting is through empirical evidence and their focus is on practicality. That is, they reject because of the lack of empirical evidence for both concepts, or inability to conciliate them with related empirical evidences:

It is for reasons such as these that any contemporary, scientifically informed Buddhist practice should reject belief in rebirth and its associated kammic causation. The Path is rich enough without them. And while we can make good use of kamma and rebirth as metaphor for our moment-to-moment lived experience of change, or of skillful and unskillful action, we simply cannot make any more of it and expect to end up with a system which is compatible with our best understanding of the way the world works.

-- http://secularbuddhism.org/2013/05/29/a-secular-evaluation-of-rebirth/


Buddhadasa Bhikkhu takes rebirth to be a metaphor for the taking on of a momentary self identity when being caught in a cycle of suffering following the conditioned pattern of dependent origination.

Under the Bodhi Tree • Buddhadasa Bhikkhu


If you accept Dhamma, you must at the very least accept impermanence, with respect to phenomenological things. Accepting this, just a logical question: how can an impermanent entity (a human) have a permanent property (of death)?

Rebirth is just the bare minimum logic that dependent origination must state, not to contradict impermanence. There is no Self that transmigrates within Buddhism, so rebirth is just a statement that conditioned experience does not end through further conditioned experience.

Kamma - intentional action, no thing more, is also the most rational nexus for conscious activity. With respect to what an individual can themselves affect, it is one's intentional thought, speech, and action that brings about future states of thought, speech, and action.

One can choose between two extremes:

1: 'Between rebirth and death, a being is the owner of this exact kamma, but between death and rebirth, a being is not the owner of this exact kamma'

This is pure determinism within a life, and pure indeteerminism between lives - Essentialism within, annihalationism without.

2: 'Between rebirth and death, a being is the owner of this exact kamma, and between death and rebirth, a being is the owner of this exact kamma'

This is pure determinism within a life, and pure determinism between lives - Essentialism all the way!

The Buddha did not advise that either of these were correct - the middle way is the path between extremes, and here it works just as well. Majjhima Nikaya 135 argues for the middle path between the above choices. The Angulimana sutta is an interesting one too for this discussion, to think about kamma, imo!

Now, that any discussion of rebirth starts with the claim 'there is a being [that is reborn [but does not transmigrate]]', should be enough for any follower of Dhamma, and the Buddha, to see this as at best a conventional teaching, not an ultimately important teaching. After all, 'there is a being..' does not sit straight with anatta!

Rebirth and kamma combine to push a person to action their own liberation, because the cycle of impermanence is unsatisfactory, and because only the intentional aim of cessation offers freedom from impermanence.


One doesn't have to believe in karma, rebirth or anything in the Buddha's teaching because the practice of seeing things "as they are" shows us what the truth really is.

The better one actually practices the teaching of seeing "things as they are", the more one actually sees first hand for themselves "what actually is" without all the distractions & wrong views that arise in one's "business as usual" mind. Then one can see how the words that the Buddha taught fit with one's own experience causing one's doubt in the teaching to lessen.

Those who live by the Dhamma know that practicing the Eightfold path to see things as they are is not a matter of simply reading about the Eightfold path, reading about karma, reading about rebirth or reading about anything. It is not an intellectual pursuit. It is an impartial experiential pursuit.

Hope this helps-Metta :)

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