I am a huge proponent of scientific skepticism, rationalism and critical thinking. As a former Christian, I enjoy watching debates and more recently, discussions on YouTube. I like the debate format because it allows for the use of cross-examination, which is a real art in my opinion; especially as demonstrated in the masterful use of rhetoric by say, the late Christopher Hitchens. Likewise, I enjoy a format geared more toward discussion as it allows me to truly "step inside the head" as it were, of people who I disagree with on a fundamental level and if the conversation is good, to grasp the concepts from angles that may never have occurred to me.

As an example of the difference between the two, let me recommend that you watch two videos. The first one being the debate between Sam Harris and noted Christian apologist, William Lane Craig that took place at Notre Dame.


Contrast that one with Craig's performance in any of the three videos that were filmed in Australia, mainly in the discussion format with physicist Lawrence Krauss.

https://youtu.be/-b8t70_c8eE https://youtu.be/V82uGzgoajI https://youtu.be/7xcgjtps5ks

Now, honesty dictates that I admit my bias going into these. It is that I suspect that the natural world is all there is and that my experience after I die will probably be much like it was before I was born.

However, the aforementioned should in no way be taken as a discounting or criticism of personal experience, i.e. of the numinous or transcendent. I think that people have a basic right to believe whatever they want. What they don't get to have though is automatic immunity from criticism about things they tell others as matters of fact, and this is where my question begins...

Where are the Buddhists engaging in either debate or discussion wherein they are asked simple and direct questions about their epistemology? Debates with the form

"So you believe in and espouse the doctrine of rebirth? That's great, but how do you know it's true?"


"By what method of inquiry did you come to this knowledge?" and, "Why is that method of determining what is true equally as or more valid than traditional western methodology?"

The only person I know about who has been willing to attempt this, to his credit, has been Ven. Brahmali in both debate and discussion with Stephen Batchelor. I just wish that more people for whom I have a lot of respect due to their accessible teaching, like Ajahn Brahm and Mattieu Ricard, would follow suit.

Recommendations to videos and books are most welcome.

  • Hi and welcome to Buddhism SE. We have put together a Guide and a Resource section for new users that you might find useful. – Lanka Aug 16 '15 at 14:39
  • Your question is asking, "Where are the Buddhists engaging in either debate or discussion wherein they are asked simple and direct questions about their epistemology?" I guess you could ask such questions of any Buddhist; and therefore that "any Buddhist" isn't the answer (or doesn't have the answer) you're looking for. Am I right in reading your question as your asking specifically/only for a book or video in which a famous Buddhist teacher replies to skeptical questions about rebirth, preferably in a polemic live debate? – ChrisW Aug 16 '15 at 14:54
  • Also, you wrote, "As an example of the difference between the two" ... between what two? It's not clear what "the two" are; the previous paragraph seemed to be to only talk about one thing, i.e. "debate/discussion". – ChrisW Aug 16 '15 at 14:59
  • The question itself has already been more-or-less asked already on this site (i.e. in this site's "Q&A format" rather than a live "debate format"): see for example Is rebirth a delusional belief?. – ChrisW Aug 16 '15 at 15:03
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    Hi, I added a link to Brahmali/Batchelor but am unaware of the other: if anyone has it would be nice to link it as well. – Thiago Aug 16 '15 at 15:56

The problem is not new. Several disputes on the subject of rebirth are recorded in traditional texts. In Pāḷi we have the Katthāvatthu - a record of various intellectual disputes with other Buddhists by the Theravādins. In Sanskrit there is Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakārikā (MMK) which disputes the Mainstream Buddhist view of karma and rebirth. Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa records disputes between Sarvāstivādins, Sautrantikas, and others on this subject.

There are a number of points of dispute, but two principle and related arguments. These arguments assume that rebirth is what happens after we die, and that karma is the driving force behind rebirth - or in other words, that rebirth is the primarily effect (vipāka) of actions (karma). It's not well understood that the early Buddhists texts in particular do not teach "actions have consequences" so much as they teach "actions cause rebirth".

Firstly there is the problem of action at a temporal distance. I first described this problem in an essay called "Does Karma Break the Rules." The basic question here is, how does karma manifest an effect (vipāka) long after the cessation of the condition? This is specifically denied by the principle of dependent arising (pratītyasamutpāda), which says that when a condition ceases the effect must also cease, with the implication (in the grammar of the statement) that this happens either simultaneously or in immediate sequence. There is no question of a delayed effect from a condition in dependent arising. This argument is made by Nāgārjuna, for example, in chp 17 of MMK:

If the action endures to the time of maturation, then it would permanent
If it is destroyed, then being destroyed, what fruit will it produce?
(MMK 17.6. Siderits and Katsura, p.176)

Since the main "effect" of karma is precisely rebirth, then this is a very important question to decide. Nāgārjuna answers it by saying that:

Defilements, actions, and bodies, agents, and fruits, are similar to the city of gandharvas; they are like a mirage, a dream (MMK 17.33, p.191)

But this answer was not routinely accepted by other Buddhists, because even though it solves the problem on the surface, the implications are that nothing is real and most Buddhists found this unsatisfactory. Nāgārjuna was accused of being a nihilist. And in any case the Theravādins ignored these developments in India.

Three main theories emerged to try to show how karma might cause rebirth. The doctrine of momentariness, the doctrine of always existent (sarva-asti) dharmas, and the seed theory.

  1. In momentariness, adopted by the Theravādins, each karma is conceived of as a citta (In AN 6.63 the Buddha says cetanāhaṃ kammaṃ vadāmi - "intention is what I call karma"). This citta arises and passes away in a very short space of time (a moment) and is the condition for the arising of a second identical citta. That citta arises and passes away and is the condition for a third citta. And so on until the final effect of the action manifests, usually combined with other cittas to produce a final citta at death (cuticitta) that conditions the first citta of a new life elsewhere (paṭisandhicitta).

  2. The always existent theory, associated with the Sarvāstivāda, argues that if a dharma (i.e. a mental event) has an effect in the future, then it must exist in the future, else it violates pratītyasamutpāda. Similarly if a past dharma has an effect in the present, then it must still exist in the past or it violates pratītyasamutpāda. Thus dharmas must always exist, in some form, but may only be "active" in the present - which is why we only perceive them in the present. This is a much better theory than most Buddhists give them credit for. Most other Buddhists modified dependent arising to allow for karma, but the Sarvāstivādins opted to retain dependent arising unchanged and modified dharmas. Of course other schools rejected this as a form of eternalism.

  3. The seed theory starts off as a metaphor: cittas are like seeds that are planted in the soil and grow into a plant. The plant and the seed are not the same, nor do they co-exist in time, but one develops into the other. This is an elegant metaphor, but we have no idea of the underlying mechanism. Vasubandhu takes this metaphor and formalises it - this is definitely how karma and rebirth work. He introduces the idea of the ālayavijñāna "store consciousness". But his Yogācāra followers reified the metaphor and made the ālayavijñāna a real thing, thus making the theory eternalist and a wrong view.

Of the three, only 1. and 3. are currently in use, but 2. was very prominent in North India for many centuries. Each theory introduces a number of ad hoc alterations to the received tradition - indicating that they could not see how karma and rebirth worked as things stood. Unfortunately none of the new formulas really solved the problem (nor did any of the less influential attempts not mentioned here). In several articles on my blog I show that the logic of these solutions to the problem, though in some cases admirable and elegant, actually fail to explain how karma and rebirth work. See especially The Logic of Karma. This leaves us in the present with no workable theory of karma and rebirth. And this is before we invoke science!

Secondly, this led to another big argument, the one over the interim realm (antarābhava). The doctrine of momentariness requires that the stream of cittas be unbroken. For this purpose they had to invent a kind of "neutral gear" called the bhavaṅgacitta which is what the mind is doing when it is not doing anything. It primarily provides continuity when our mind is inactive - such as when we sleep or in the nirodhasamāpatti "attainment of cessation". In this case there can be no gap between death and rebirth or the stream of cittas would be broken.

On the other hand, for other Buddhists the idea of an instantaneous transition did not make sense. Some pointed out that a cart carrying rice from one village to another took an appreciable time to get there. How could a citta fly from one person to another in no time? So they had to invent the interim realm, the antarābhava or bardo in Tibetan, to accommodate this.

At most, only one of these views can be correct. There can either be an interim or not. This dispute is never resolved in Buddhism so that today the official position of the Theravāda school is that there can be no interim realm, and Tibetan schools make the bardo between death and rebirth a particular feature of their teaching. Ironically many modern Theravādins (such as Bhikkhu Sujato) find the interim realm plausible, even though it destroys the stream of cittas that underlies their view of karma and rebirth.

I have been writing essays on this subject for some years now including critiques of the traditionalist views of some prominent Buddhists. Some of my work has also been published in academic journals. A complete list can be found under the heading Afterlife.

In addition I was interviewed by Ted Meissner of The Secular Buddhist on the subject of karma and rebirth:

Doug Smith of the Secular Buddhist Association has also critiqued the Traditionalist view of rebirth: http://secularbuddhism.org/2013/05/29/a-secular-evaluation-of-rebirth/

Someone put together this discussion between me and David Chapman on Twitter on storify.

  • Atwood, thank you very much for your detailed post. I'm inclined to vote the question as having been answered, although I surely could have asked it more coherently. Thank you for also linking to your wonderfully informative blog. Due to not finding an appropriate place to ask, a quick question for you concerning textual criticism... – user117619 Aug 17 '15 at 10:16
  • This is so good. I'm a little confused with this passage though: "Vasubandhu takes this metaphor and formalises it - this is definitely how karma and rebirth work". The last sentence, is it just reiterating the formalization? I parsed it as if that was your position, but later on you point that all of them are unsatisfactory. – Thiago Aug 17 '15 at 14:40

This is a debate from the World Science Festival called "Faith and Science 2010".

There is a Buddhist scholar, namely Thupten Jinpa participating.

Here is a description of the debate:

"For all their historical tensions, scientists and religious scholars from a wide variety of faiths ponder many similar questions—how did the universe begin? How might it end? What is the origin of matter, energy, and life? The modes of inquiry and standards for judging progress are, to be sure, very different. But is there a common ground to be found?

ABC News’ Bill Blakemore moderates a panel that includes evolutionary geneticist Francisco Ayala, astrobiologist Paul Davies, Biblical scholar Elaine Pagels and Buddhist scholar Thupten Jinpa. These leading thinkers who come at these issues from a range of perspectives address the evolving relationship between science and faith."

Important note: I have not seen it yet but i have to point out that it does not say anything about rebirth anywhere here. It might be that a the question will arise in the debate. I don't know yet.

Anyway, enjoy the debate. World Science Festival usually produces some very high quality content.

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