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Elements of Buddhism can be rationally accepted such as the suffering that arises through attachment, the benefits of meditation, and even the acceptance of anatta, or non-self. It seems, however, that a belief in rebirth cannot be accepted rationally. A believer must suspend rationality to accept a theory that describes the migration of some level of consciousness across a lifetime. A common analogy used is the light emitting from a candle. Nothing substantial transmigrates, however something passes over from one life to the next. This theory cannot be directly perceived. Therefore, it cannot be tested, or verified rationally. It is simply a metaphysical inference.

Buddhism encourages debate and questioning of its theories, and to not accept everything on face value. How then can a Buddhist test this theory? Can one disregard this element of Buddhism? Is it an essential aspect of the philosophy?

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    This topic is a near-duplicate of (and so you may also find answer at) Is rebirth a delusional belief? – ChrisW Nov 5 '16 at 5:32
  • Possible duplicate of Is rebirth/reincarnation central to Buddhism? – user4970 Nov 11 '16 at 17:23
  • I would say it is essential. But while most of the doctrine may be arrived at by metaphysical analysis rebirth seems to be a sort of 'lemma' in that it cannot be proved or falsified in logic. Perhaps this is why it is treated by some as dispensable. Immediate experience seems to be the only way to confirm it. – PeterJ Oct 10 '18 at 11:43
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From Ven. Bodhi's excellent short essay "Dhamma Without Rebirth?":

The aim of the Buddhist path is liberation from suffering, and the Buddha makes it abundantly clear that the suffering from which liberation is needed is the suffering of bondage to samsara, the round of repeated birth and death. To be sure, the Dhamma does have an aspect which is directly visible and personally verifiable. By direct inspection of our own experience we can see that sorrow, tension, fear and grief always arise from our greed, aversion and ignorance, and thus can be eliminated with the removal of those defilements. The importance of this directly visible side of Dhamma practice cannot be underestimated, as it serves to confirm our confidence in the liberating efficacy of the Buddhist path. However, to downplay the doctrine of rebirth and explain the entire import of the Dhamma as the amelioration of mental suffering through enhanced self-awareness is to deprive the Dhamma of those wider perspectives from which it derives its full breadth and profundity. By doing so one seriously risks reducing it in the end to little more than a sophisticated ancient system of humanistic psychotherapy.

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If SN 12.2 together with SN 23.2, SN 5.10 & SN 22.81 are studied carefully, it appears what the Buddha actually taught about was "birth" ("jati") rather than "rebirth", which is not physical birth from the womb of a woman but instead the birth of the idea, view or mental concept of "beings" ("satta') or, more simply, "self".

Thus, the goal of Buddhism is to eradicate the birth of the "self" idea, i.e., eradicate attachment,i.e, realise not-self (anatta). The Alagaddupama Sutta states:

There is the case where a monk's conceit 'I am' is abandoned, its root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising.

There is the case where a monk's wandering-on to birth, leading on to further-becoming, is abandoned, its root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising.

It is obvious believing in post-mortem "rebirth" is not essential to Buddhism because many fully enlightened beings came into existence after the Buddha spoke his first three sermons and none of those three sermons mentioned "rebirth". Each of those sermons only mentioned the eradication of craving & self-view.

The Pali scriptures explicitly state that the dhamma of the Buddha is visible here-&-now & is to be verified by each wise person thus "rebirth" cannot fall into the dhamma of the Buddha.

The common analogy about the light emitting from a candle is not logical, which is why the Buddha never taught such an analogy. In Buddhism, only a later-day monk famed for teaching Greeks is known for such an analogy. This is because the light of the candle depends on the wick & wax. The light (flame) of a candle cannot move to a second candle if the first candle is devoid of wick & wax. Further, the first candle cannot even be lit without fuel from other source. This is why the Buddha taught consciousness cannot arise without a physical body & without sense organs & admonished a monk for teaching consciousness is reborn (refer to Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta & Upaya Sutta).

Buddhism originally criticized other religions that believed in unverifiable things (refer to Canki Sutta, Tevijja Sutta, Tittha Sutta, Bhūmija Sutta, etc) but later-day Buddhism over the years must have started to teach & write scriptures about unverifiable things.

The Pali scriptures themselves explain any belief about any kind of "rebirth" is not a factor of the noble eightfold path but is, instead, a polluted right view that sides with only morality (refer to Maha-cattarisaka Sutta).

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Rebirth

Rebirth and death is momentarily. Each instance the material composition of your body changes, arising and passing away. Physical death is not different. See this answer, this answer and this answer.

How then can a Buddhist test this theory?

By doing Samatha meditation some people can develop memory of past lives. This way you can ascertain it. Also buy validating what you remember. Also there are studies like: Many Mansions: The Edgar Cayce Story on Reincarnation

Can one disregard this element of Buddhism? Is it an essential aspect of the philosophy?

This is an essential part. Each subatomic particle (Kalapas) arise and pass away. Main practice of Buddhism (vipassana) is to understand this at the experiential level.

And finally use this knowledge and insight at the moment or physical death to release oneself from the cycle of birth and death.

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"Elements of Buddhism can be rationally accepted such as the suffering that arises through attachment, the benefits of meditation, and even the acceptance of anatta, or non-self. It seems, however, that a belief in rebirth cannot be accepted rationally."

Indeed, the Buddha described his Dhamma as "The Dhamma visible here & now". However, if that visibility were immediately accessible, we wouldn't have doubts about it, and it would not be necessary a "path" to help us "see it". So, knowledge and skills are necessary to develop understanding, just like knowledge and skills are necessary in sciences to "see" phenomena (e.g. whether the claim of climate change affected by humans is true or not).

In the same way, knowledge and skills are necessary to see past lives according to the Buddha.

"When my concentrated mind was thus purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to knowledge of the recollection of past abodes. I recollected my manifold past abodes, that is, one birth, two births ... 'There I was so named, of such a clan, with such an appearance' ..."

-- MN 36

"A believer must suspend rationality to accept a theory that describes the migration of some level of consciousness across a lifetime."

One does not need to accept (believe) or reject a theory that one is unable to verify at the moment. One can simply be aware of the competing theories and strive to see which one, if any of them, is true.

In science something similar happens where researchers point out flaws or remaining questions that need to be answer (i.e. that need more research) before accepting a theory.

I find this similar to the way the Buddha taught as well (e.g. refer to the discourse of DN 1). Thus, generally speaking, it's better to try out methods to see the truth than to hold or cling to any view prematurely. Or, more than that:

Who is attached still enters into doctrinal debates, but one unattached, how could he take sides? For him nothing is taken up or put down, With all views shaken off, relying on none.

-- Snp 4.3

Finally, the idea of "what transmigrates" is an old and on going debate, as the Buddha explicitly denied that any substance transmigrates, which would make that very substance something that endures -- that is, a Self (see this question: Then where did the concept of “rebirth” come from?).

"A common analogy used is the light emitting from a candle. Nothing substantial transmigrates, however something passes over from one life to the next. This theory cannot be directly perceived. Therefore, it cannot be tested, or verified rationally. It is simply a metaphysical inference."

As explained above, the buddhist doctrine asserts this knowledge can be directly perceived without resorting to fragile or indirect means (like beliefs). So, in the context of buddhism, recalling past lives is as metaphysical and irrational as the idea of remembering what one did a few moments ago.

"Buddhism encourages debate and questioning of its theories, and to not accept everything on face value. How then can a Buddhist test this theory"

I'm not able to recall my past lives, so my knowledge is not rooted in practice, only in reading. The progression of meditative attainments the texts shows seem to indicate that one who has mastered the fourth jhana (samadhi practice) possess enough skills in concentration to direct his/her mind to memories of past lives. I've heard that one practice is to gradually recall childhood, infancy, even memories in the womb, and then, to the past life, and so on.

"Can one disregard this element of Buddhism? Is it an essential aspect of the philosophy?"

This question has been asked here: Is rebirth/reincarnation central to Buddhism?.

There is, though, a Secular Buddhism movement in the west which seem to, literaly, strip out a lot of things from Buddhism, including rebirth. Also, some buddhists who may not subscribe to this movement may also believe rebirth (as in dying and reappearing in another life) is not true or not part of what the Buddha taught.

  • The Pali actually does not state: "he recollects his numerous past lives". This is a mistranslation & misrepresentation of the teachings. Note these following proper translations that use "homes" & "abodes": accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.02.0.than.html & suttacentral.net/en/sn22.79 Regards. – Dhammadhatu Nov 6 '16 at 20:06
  • The SN 12.70: Susima Sutta explains many arahants declared enlightenment without any recourse to recollection of past abodes. accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn12/sn12.070.than.html – Dhammadhatu Nov 7 '16 at 1:02
  • @Dhammadhatu all the translations I know (Walshe, Nanamoli, Bodhi...) use "past lives" in these contexts -- or mean "past lives". It may be the case that a literal option could be adequate (not always the case, as any translator can attest) or that these translators are letting their bias show. However, it's a stretch to say this is misrepresentation. – Thiago Nov 7 '16 at 3:59
  • I posted a translation from Bhikkhu Bodhi that does not use "past lives". – Dhammadhatu Nov 7 '16 at 10:09
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Rebirth is regarded by the Supreme Buddha as essential and foundational to the pursuit of His teachings. This is very evident and is clearly illustrated in the Dependent Origination (Paticca samuppāda) that the being is born in the Becoming (bhava) caused by the grasping or attachment (upādāna) as stated "Upādāna paccaya bhavō, bhava paccaya jati...," But many people have mistaken the Becoming given here to soul or ego (ātma). This clearly shows that 'Rebirth' is integral to the Dependent Origination taught by the Supreme Buddha and is one of the twelve reasons that all of us are unable to comprehend. What are these twelve reasons?

Dependent on ignorance or lack of knowledge arises volitional actions or thoughts or kamma formations: Dependent on volitional actions or thoughts arises consciousness; where the consciousness is created, there exist mind and matter or mental physical phenomena and caused by them, arise spheres of senses (salāyatana) or faculties. Those faculties cause to contact and then get to sensation or feeling. Through feeling arise, desire thirst or craving (tanhā) Through craving arises grasping or clinging which leads to the process of Becoming where the concept of being exists. This existence of the concept of being is subjected to the concept of birth decay, illness and death etc.

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KARMA IS ESSENTIAL TO BUDDHISM. Buddha said that if one doesn't believe in karma then it's wrong view. There are many proof for karma. You just need to look back into your life and remember all the bad things that you did and the similar bad experiences that you suffer.

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One option is to neither believe nor disbelieve the actions of rebirth.

The very definition of belief is rooted firmly in the absence of fact. The same is true for a non-believer. Somewhere between the two lies a spacious void where one can remain open-minded about the notion of rebirth.

Personally, I shelved it precisely in this way. Two years later insight had occurred and not from books or other people. But still, I'm not able to prove it so it's neither here nor there. You'll have to find out for yourself. Wondering about it in this way may become huge hindrance to your practice. There's nothing wrong with entertaining your curiosity though if you keep the seriousness out of it.

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How do the "rationalists" (those who try to just depend on what they have already understood) argue how and why they come into being with all their diversity, desires, character... and where is might disapear intom From nothing to nothing? God? Mystic? A mysterious plan?

Is there any valid argument beside of the fact of being reborn and that birth has a cause?

And what is the cause of birth?

Then, in the first watch of the night, he gave close attention to dependent co-arising in forward and reverse order:

From ignorance as a requisite condition come fabrications. From fabrications as a requisite condition comes consciousness. From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-&-form. From name-&-form as a requisite condition come the six sense media. From the six sense media as a requisite condition comes contact. From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling. From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving. From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging/sustenance. From clinging/sustenance as a requisite condition comes becoming. From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth. From birth as a requisite condition, then aging-&-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair come into play. Such is the origination of this entire mass of suffering & stress.

From the remainderless fading and cessation of ignorance comes the cessation of fabrications. From the cessation of fabrications comes the cessation of consciousness. From the cessation of consciousness comes the cessation of name-&-form. From the cessation of name-&-form comes the cessation of the six sense media. From the cessation of the six sense media comes the cessation of contact. From the cessation of contact comes the cessation of feeling. From the cessation of feeling comes the cessation of craving. From the cessation of craving comes the cessation of clinging/sustenance. From the cessation of clinging/sustenance comes the cessation of becoming. From the cessation of becoming comes the cessation of birth. From the cessation of birth, then aging-&-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair all cease. Such is the cessation of this entire mass of suffering & stress.

It's all around and within oneself possible to prove rebirth, day by day, moment by moment, and the truth of cessation of becoming can be proved as well. Just cut off not-knowing, ignorance, and the wheel is stopped: release. Real-ease.

[Note: This is a gift of Dhamma and not meant for commercial purpose or other low wordily gains by means of trade and exchange.]

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