Is it important to have a traditional understanding of Buddhism or is avoiding so called "heresies" enough to make sure you are not distorting, undermining etc., the dharma?

Take the idea of an afterlife.

Religious and spiritual traditions throughout history have explained that death is not the end of life but that some part of us, perhaps all of us, somehow carries on.

Buddhism is no exception to this. It is undeniable that the historical Buddha accepted the idea of rebirth. He spoke of rebirth and frequently described, sometimes in considerable detail, how actions committed in this life determine the form of existence in a future world. He also spoke of enlightenment in terms of how many times one must be reborn before one will be freed from the cycle of birth and death. Although there are instances in his discourses (the Kalamasutta, for example) where he says that the practice of dharma is meaningful, whether you believe in a hereafter or not, the overwhelming mass of evidence does not suggest that he held an agnostic position himself.


I personally believe that we do experience the karmic result of this life, and that the next life is impermanent, illusory, but for whatever reason (mostly that accounts of past lives don't convince me) I don't think anyone experiences full rebirth as a new life. This is not traditional Buddhism. But as far as I know it is still a form of Buddhism and not a heresy. This is not Ucchedavada or the Senika heresy, I think, despite seeming possibly like either.

To an extent, it doesn't matter at all if you're not part of a church or pushing your idiosyncratic beliefs down anyone's throat, but is it dangerous, for you or anyone else?

  • It is extremely unclear what you mean by "traditional" Buddhism. It is certainly very clear that Buddha himself spoke of past lifes and rebirths as next lives. Sep 14, 2022 at 3:47
  • I'm confused hy what you mean, and think you are being overly rhetorical ("extremely unclear" to you?) and that's why. The Buddha talked about "future lives" which translates exactly as "next life". It is not the same life, but them the end of a piece of string or storm is not the same as its start @HomagetoManjushri
    – user19950
    Sep 16, 2022 at 11:14
  • I mean that your use of the word "tradition" is very wide, in its scope and thus remains unclear what is that which you are referring to as 'traditional' Sep 16, 2022 at 18:17
  • that kinda makes sense @HomagetoManjushri thanks for the reply. i'd hope there's enough conventional common sense on the site for me to understood by enough people to make sense to most. cheers
    – user19950
    Sep 18, 2022 at 18:10

2 Answers 2


Understanding is always useful. However, we need to recognize that understanding is not permanent. Change is inevitable; growth is preferred. What we are so self-assured about now we will inevitable come to look at with a rueful smile. Or if we don't, we will have missed something crucial.

Traditional understanding is valuable because it gives us a scaffold on which true understanding can be built. Nothing can give us the dharma — we have to find it on our own — but traditional understanding sets the stage for it (as it were).

Traditional understanding is problematic because it leads us too easily into dogma. The dharma is a way of living, not a mere collection of teachings, but people (sad to say) want to be told what to do. It's a trap for the ego...

I'm secular: I don't hold to much of what Buddhist tradition says. But I also don't reject it, because I see a value in it (if not the value that traditionalists see). We have this moment in which to manifest enlightenment. There's no sense worrying about tomorrow, or next month, or next year, or next lifetime; that will all take care of itself, according to things beyond our reach and understanding. Try not to undermine the dharma now, and everything else will align itself.


We take refuge in the teachings, so it is important to know what they say:

MN117:5.1: And what is wrong view?
MN117:5.2: ‘There’s no meaning in giving, sacrifice, or offerings. There’s no fruit or result of good and bad deeds. There’s no afterlife. There are no duties to mother and father. No beings are reborn spontaneously. And there’s no ascetic or brahmin who is well attained and practiced, and who describes the afterlife after realizing it with their own insight.’

Asserting "there's no afterlife." is simply wrong view. We put that wrong view aside and ask about right view.

MN117:6.1: And what is right view?
MN117:6.2: Right view is twofold, I say.
MN117:6.3: There is right view that is accompanied by defilements, has the attributes of good deeds, and ripens in attachment.
MN117:6.4: And there is right view that is noble, undefiled, transcendent, a factor of the path.
MN117:7.1: And what is right view that is accompanied by defilements, has the attributes of good deeds, and ripens in attachment?
MN117:7.2: ‘There is meaning in giving, sacrifice, and offerings. There are fruits and results of good and bad deeds. There is an afterlife. There are duties to mother and father. There are beings reborn spontaneously. And there are ascetics and brahmins who are well attained and practiced, and who describe the afterlife after realizing it with their own insight.’

If the phrase "there is an afterlife" is uncomfortable to accept, simply consider that genes touch and join us all from generation to generation, from past to present. Genes do very much influence our lives. So genes are a form of past life. Genes provide a form of afterlife in the literal sense "after this life". That fact alone aligns with Buddhist teaching and allows us to avoid worrying about other views traditional or not.

To take refuge in the teachings we have to study them and learn what they actually say.

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