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I have yet to read the entire Pali canon, but I've read a lot of it. It is a source I trust is fairly accurate. I'm still looking for an anecdote from the Buddha's life where he tells a non-believer to start believing in rebirth. Confining answers to the suttas, I'd appreciate pointers to any specific statements he made.

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  • It must be where he talks to a non-believer or instructs others to persuade non-believers? Jul 3 at 23:35
  • Yes, thanks, speaking to an individual. I like your addition of "instructing others to persuade non-believers" too. Thanks. Jul 3 at 23:58
  • It's difficult for me to entertain the notion of the Buddha imposing teachings onto individuals. Perhaps my understanding of your question is misplaced?
    – Max
    Jul 4 at 7:31
  • @NeuroMax: I'm not sure what you're asking me. Jul 5 at 14:10
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This is as close as it gets afaik;

A2. "Because there actually is the next world, the view of one who thinks, 'There is no next world' is his wrong view. Because there actually is the next world, when he is resolved that 'There is no next world,' that is his wrong resolve. Because there actually is the next world, when he speaks the statement, 'There is no next world,' that is his wrong speech. Because there actually is the next world, when he says that 'There is no next world,' he makes himself an opponent to those arahants who know the next world. Because there actually is the next world, when he persuades another that 'There is no next world,' that is persuasion in what is not true Dhamma. And in that persuasion in what is not true Dhamma, he exalts himself and disparages others. Whatever good habituation he previously had is abandoned, while bad habituation is manifested. And this wrong view, wrong resolve, wrong speech, opposition to the arahants, persuasion in what is not true Dhamma, exaltation of self, & disparagement of others: These many evil, unskillful activities come into play, in dependence on wrong view.

A3. "With regard to this, an observant person considers thus: 'If there is no next world, then — with the breakup of the body, after death — this venerable person has made himself safe. But if there is the next world, then this venerable person — on the breakup of the body, after death — will reappear in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell. Even if we didn't speak of the next world, and there weren't the true statement of those venerable contemplatives & brahmans, this venerable person is still criticized in the here-&-now by the observant as a person of bad habits & wrong view: [2] one who holds to a doctrine of non-existence.' If there really is a next world, then this venerable person has made a bad throw twice: in that he is criticized by the observant here-&-now, and in that — with the breakup of the body, after death — he will reappear in a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell. Thus this safe-bet teaching, when poorly grasped & poorly adopted by him, covers (only) one side, and leaves behind the possibility of the skillful. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.060.than.html

It's similar to

Of those, right view is the forerunner. And how is right view the forerunner? One discerns wrong view as wrong view, and right view as right view. This is one's right view. And what is wrong view? 'There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed. There is no fruit or result of good or bad actions. There is no this world, no next world, no mother, no father, no spontaneously reborn beings; no contemplatives or brahmans who, faring rightly & practicing rightly, proclaim this world & the next after having directly known & realized it for themselves.' This is wrong view. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.117.than.html

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  • Yes, I recall that sutta, but (1) it's not speaking to an individual and (2) as Thanissaro Bhikkhu points out on his introduction on the Access To Insight page for the sutta, this portion breaks the logic of the sutta. It seems to me, most likely, a corruption added later by some partisan editor, since it is the only place in the suttas the Buddha gets that dogmatic. It's the reason I'm looking for a case of him telling an individual they must believe it. Surely there were plenty of opportunities for him to do so. Jul 4 at 1:20
  • 1
    Linda Blanchard, this excerpt is logical per se because it complies with everything else in the canon: If you don't think that there is rebirth according to kamma, it's unlikely that you will put up as much effort and devotion to abandon unwholesome kamma and develop wholesome kamma as someone who does believe in it. Thus, you're unlikely to attain liberation as well. You can see throughout the canon that this standard formulation of Right View (which includes rebirth according to kamma) is endorsed by the Buddha because its a major prerequisite for the path that he laid out.
    – Danilo
    Jul 4 at 15:00
  • I'm not a Buddhist, but is this passage talking about reincarnation or afterlives? It sounds more like it's condemning people who say that existence ceases after death than saying that belief in reincarnation is required. For example, it sounds like a belief in the Christian afterlives of Heaven and Hell would be perfectly compatible with these verses.
    – nick012000
    Jul 4 at 16:47
  • Yes it would be compatible. Jul 4 at 19:22
  • @Danilo. The first sutta is known as the "Safe Bet" in that, like the (less famous parts of the) Kalama Sutta, it is pointing out that if there is no life after death, and no cosmic reward/punishment system, following a moral path gives rewards. Saying "but you have to believe this or else" negates the argument. Also, suggesting that those who do not believe in rebirth are less likely to behave in wholesome ways is simply a view from inexperience with what it's like to be agnostic or of a scientific bent. It's a prejudice based on ignorance. Jul 5 at 14:20
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In SN 15.5, SN 15.6, an individual monk and in SN 15.8, an individual brahmin lay person, spoke to the Buddha, and asked a question about the length of an eon. The Buddha answered it and then reflected on how samsara (translated by Ven. Sujato as "transmigration") has been going on for a very long time, with an unknown beginning, and tells the individual to use this to inspire himself towards liberation.

The stock phrase in SN 15 translated by Ven. Sujato is:

Transmigration has no known beginning. No first point is found of sentient beings roaming and transmigrating, hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving. For such a long time you have undergone suffering, agony, and disaster, swelling the cemeteries. This is quite enough for you to become disillusioned, dispassionate, and freed regarding all conditions.”

The stock phrase in SN 15 translated by Ven. Thanissaro is:

"From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. Long have you thus experienced stress, experienced pain, experienced loss, swelling the cemeteries — enough to become disenchanted with all fabricated things, enough to become dispassionate, enough to be released."

You don't have to believe in rebirth to be liberated, but rebirth is used above as skillful means to inspire one towards liberation.

Of course, we have seen many arguments re-interpreting verses that sound like rebirth, typically explaining renewed existences as different states of mind or different mind-moments, plus explaining the "break-up of the body" as the break-up of the five aggregates (from one mind-moment to the next). Also one body to another body can be reinterpreted as one set of five aggregates to another (from one mind-moment to another) for SN 44.9.

Also, the rebirth as animal or ghost or human or deva as different states of mind. Another one is seven remaining rebirths for a stream enterer can be re-interpreted as seven remaining fetters.

For SN 15, renewed existences through the eons can be explained as rebirth of the self or rebirth of individuality, rather than the rebirth of a specific individual person or entity.

These types of reinterpretation could make sense. After all, Pali terms related to "birth" and "rebirth" can be used as metaphors or redefined terms, just like how the terms "dhamma" and "sankhara" have been used in different contexts to mean different things.

This is made difficult by certain suttas in SN 15, which refer to rebirth of a specific individual person. I will quote them below. However, all these suttas are addressed to monks, not an individual.

“Mendicants, transmigration has no known beginning. …

One person (ekapuggala) roaming and transmigrating for an eon would amass a heap of bones the size of this Mount Vepulla, if they were gathered together and not lost.
SN 15.10

“Mendicants, transmigration has no known beginning. … It’s not easy to find a sentient being (satta) who in all this long time has not previously been your mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter.
SN 15.14 to SN 15.19

These suttas are followed by the same stock phrase for SN 15, which tells the listener(s) to use the rebirth of many beings across the eons to inspire oneself towards liberation.


MN 117 states that it is wrong view to believe that there's no next world.

But to be fair, this applies to those clinging to self view, because thinking the self is annihilated and not reborn, is the wrong view of annihilationism, and drives the unenlightened towards hedonism.

So, this appears to fully answer your question. However, it's addressed to monks, not an individual.

And what is wrong view? 'There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed. There is no fruit or result of good or bad actions. There is no this world, no next world, no mother, no father, no spontaneously reborn beings; no contemplatives or brahmans who, faring rightly & practicing rightly, proclaim this world & the next after having directly known & realized it for themselves.' This is wrong view.
MN 117

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  • “You don't have to believe in rebirth to be liberated…“ can one be liberated while holding wrong views? Is knowledge of rebirth attested as a consequence of liberation? Jul 4 at 15:08
  • @YesheTenley The OP asked for a sutta which stated that you must believe in rebirth, otherwise you cannot be liberated. SN 15 suttas provide rebirth as a source of inspiration for striving towards liberation. But as we have seen from the SN 22.85 and MN 38, that's not absolutely true. So, it's used as skillful means.
    – ruben2020
    Jul 4 at 15:12
  • I have asked my own question… about liberation and right views… thanks :) Jul 4 at 15:15
  • FWIW, Yamaka sutta and MN 38 … the points uphold and strengthen conventional right views… they do not undermine them. Yamaka sutta for instance affirms the conventional truth of rebirth. Jul 4 at 15:21
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    @Yeshe Tenley. I'm not sure if your brief line about asking your own question is a reference to here or elsewhere, but I find a lot of good information on the subject of right view vs. wrong view in Paul Fuller's book, "The Notion of Diṭṭhi in Theravada Buddhism". Jul 5 at 14:44
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The suttas (MN 117; MN 60) explicitly say belief in anything construed as 'rebirth' only sides with 'merit' rather than with liberation. MN 117 says:

And what is the right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions? 'There is what is given, what is offered, what is sacrificed. There are fruits & results of good & bad actions. There is this world & the other world. There is mother & father. There are spontaneously born beings; there are contemplatives & brahmans who, faring rightly & practicing rightly, proclaim this world & the other after having directly known & realized it for themselves.' This is the right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions.

"And what is the right view that is noble, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path? The discernment, the faculty of discernment, the strength of discernment, analysis of qualities as a factor for awakening, the path factor of right view in one developing the noble path whose mind is noble, whose mind is without effluents, who is fully possessed of the noble path. This is the right view that is noble, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path.

MN 60, which repeats the above non-transcendent right view, says:

If you were to go along the north bank of the Ganges giving and sacrificing and encouraging others to do the same, merit comes of that, and an outcome of merit.

Uttarañcepi gaṅgāya tīraṁ gaccheyya dadanto dāpento, yajanto yajāpento; atthi tatonidānaṁ puññaṁ, atthi puññassa āgamo.

In giving, self-control, restraint, and truthfulness there is merit and outcome of merit.’

Dānena damena saṁyamena saccavajjena atthi puññaṁ, atthi puññassa āgamo’ti.

You can expect that they will reject bad conduct by way of body, speech, and mind, and undertake and implement good conduct by way of body, speech, and mind.

tesametaṁ pāṭikaṅkhaṁ—yamidaṁ kāyasucaritaṁ, vacīsucaritaṁ, manosucaritaṁ—ime tayo kusale dhamme abhinivajjetvā yamidaṁ kāyaduccaritaṁ, vacīduccaritaṁ, manoduccaritaṁ—ime tayo akusale dhamme samādāya vattissanti.

A sensible person reflects on this matter in this way:

Tatra, gahapatayo, viññū puriso iti paṭisañcikkhati:

‘If there is effective action, when this individual’s body breaks up, after death, they will be reborn in a good place, a heavenly realm.

Therefore, it appears impossible we can find a sutta where the Buddha says believing in 'rebirth' is required for liberation because the Buddha said rebirth belief is "polluted" ("asava"); leading to "acquisitions" ("upadhi") and "death" ("marana"). "Death" is the realm of Mara. The words "marana" and "Mara" have the same root. SN 12.66 says clearly the direct immediate condition for "death" ("marana") is "upadhi" ("acquisitions"). The Buddha said "rebirth" view results in "acquisitions" ("upadhi"). That is why the suttas say even going to heaven occurs "after death".

In fact there is one sutta (MN 79) where the Buddha explicitly says "enough" to a questioner who keeps asking about the destinations of various people. The sutta says this questioner was engaged in all manner of "animal talk (tiracchānakathaṁ)" and "can’t even see a mud-goblin". Then the Buddha instructs him on 'The Dhamma' of with this as condition, this arises; with the cessation of this, this ceases.

Then MN 79 ends with describing how liberation occurs, as follows:

Knowing and seeing like this, their mind is freed from the asava (pollutions) of sensuality, becoming and ignorance.

Tassa evaṁ jānato evaṁ passato kāmāsavāpi cittaṁ vimuccati, bhavāsavāpi cittaṁ vimuccati, avijjāsavāpi cittaṁ vimuccati.

When they’re freed, they know they’re freed.

Vimuttasmiṁ vimuttamiti ñāṇaṁ hoti.

Therefore, rebirth belief is not required for liberation. What is required from liberation is ending the asava (pollutions of defilements).

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  • Dhammadatu, if you do find the sutta, please let us know here. I went looking for it searching appearances of "alaṃ" but didn't find it. Also, can you cite a specific line in MN 60 about siding with merit? I'm not finding it. Jul 4 at 1:22
  • MN 60 refers to three types of good kamma, which is not supramundane. "You can expect that they will reject bad conduct by way of body, speech, and mind, and undertake and implement good conduct by way of body, speech, and mind. tesametaṁ pāṭikaṅkhaṁ—yamidaṁ kāyaduccaritaṁ, vacīduccaritaṁ, manoduccaritaṁ—ime tayo akusale dhamme abhinivajjetvā yamidaṁ kāyasucaritaṁ, vacīsucaritaṁ, manosucaritaṁ—ime tayo kusale dhamme samādāya vattissanti." suttacentral.net/mn60/en/sujato Jul 4 at 3:34
  • Re MN 79: "But let be the past, Udāyin, let be the future. I shall teach you the Dhamma: When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases." Effectively saying, "Enough!" but "...let be the past, let be the future" is more poetic, I think. Jul 5 at 19:47
  • Thanks for the clarifications. Re: MN 60, it does indeed describe those 3 kinds of kamma, but without making it clear it is not talking about the ultimate goal of practice. I think a sutta that's clearer about that is MN 78, which discusses the end of wholesome conduct as a desirable thing. I find it in clear support of the two kinds of right view as described in MN 117. Jul 5 at 19:52
  • my answer is clear. it says the three good kamma lead to heaven. Jul 8 at 12:26

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