I am an agnostic on the question of rebirth. It is fun to think about, but I don’t see how, from my perspective, I could come to have any certainty about it without putting my faith in the words of others. It does, of course, matter greatly to many Buddhists whether or not there is an afterlife or rebirth. However, answers to the big question, “what happens after we die?” are almost always political. Most often the “right” answers are selected by the privileged to pacify the oppressed in this life by promising reward for virtue and punishment for sin in the next. By deferring the question of justice to be settled in another realm of existence, which may or may not exist, they make it more difficult for people to conceive of enacting justice in this life and in this world. Buddhist schemes for rebirth and karma are no different in this regard than are theistic beliefs in divine judgement. They differ only in their mechanics, one requiring a law-giving god or gods to act as judge and jailer, the other assigning this role to the “natural law” of karma.
From here, Buddhists often use karma to explain away the varied circumstances of birth and naturalize oppression, making it the “fault” of a person for their sins in a past life.
Like many problems of religious doctrine, I don’t think it has to be this way. It is a problem of interpretation; there is no “correct” or unmediated interpretation that perfectly represents the doctrinal “thing-in-itself”. All doctrines are mediated by the minds, and therefore the conscious and unconscious beliefs and biases, of its interpreters. If we examine the premises with a different lens, in this case, a broadly anarchist one, we can come up with some alternative interpretations of karma and rebirth which do not lead to oppressive social outcomes.
Being an agnostic, I thought it would be interesting to try this for all levels of belief, from the literal (strong rebirth) to the skeptical (non-rebirth).
- Strong rebirth: a being is literally reborn continuously into the 6 realms of samsara, transmigrating in ignorance until their final liberation. Therefore, the events of history are our responsibility and our burden, because until our escape, we will both cause and experience them. The seventh generation from now is still us. Unless we get our shit together, we will have to suffer the consequences of ecological collapse and nuclear war, not an imaginary future person. All beings are literally our relations (parents, family, enemies, friends, lovers, etc) either in the limitless past or infinite future. Gods, animals, ghosts, humans all exist and are equally in need of liberation, again, because they are ignorant sentient beings just like you and me. The conditions of our liberation in the future depend on our actions today. Karma is ultimately complex, and therefore mysterious; not deterministic of social conditions, birth circumstances, ability, etc, only of mental qualities, habits, inclinations, i.e. our “class consciousness” and our capacity to organize our escape. The struggle to abolish classes is one with the struggle to abolish Samsara. The bodhisattva is a partisan of this struggle, at times as a revolutionary radical, at others an underground railway conductor offering us refuge on our long journey out of bondage.
- Weak rebirth: no being is literally reborn, only karmic traces and seeds. Our present being is similarly a result of the past karma of others who contributed to our existence. We have a moral duty to pass on good karma to others, and a duty to ourselves to free ourselves of the karma we inherit. Leave the universe with less suffering than we found it. We can enter into and return from the pure land in a single mind moment. 6 realms are real but limited by our perspectives, at least partially metaphorical. The imaginary is not unreal, just non-material. Liberation is already won from a suprahistorical perspective but must be actualized through historical volition, starting in the present moment.
- Metaphorical rebirth: the mind is reborn moment to moment in the arising and passing away of phenomena. Thus our actions bear fruit in each instant, and likewise we have the potential and freedom to choose good over evil at every moment. 6 realms = worldly mental states. Liberation is possible in this life and this life alone. The pure land is this very mind, this very world. Rebirth and dependent origination is material-atomistic as well as psycho-social. Everything is becoming everything else, our being is becoming, without erasing the particular or reducing the whole. Consciousness is linked to and immanent in matter, uniquely expressed in particular arrangements; an atom, a rock, a flower, a cell, a brain, an ecosystem, a noosphere, etc. Human morality rooted in the natural law of mutual aid between social organisms, the “golden rule”, and extended in an ever expanding circle of human and non-human community through application of wisdom, compassion and reason in the dialectic flow of material history.
- Non-rebirth: This is it. The matter which was once us becomes other things, just as other things died and became us. The being we once were is annihilated, but lives on through the traces it leaves behind in the physical world and in the minds of others. Our afterlife is the history we contribute to. To live a free and happy life, we must be kind to others, paying heed to the social-evolutionary principles of mutual aid which bind us together in society. Make this life count. Fight like hell, get free, brings others along with you.
I think, with a broad and generous enough perspective, one can see all of these as true, or at least skillful means towards the truth. I see a lot of people online arguing about metaphysical concepts like this. I think people should form their own opinions through practice without forcing them on others. There is no need for people who believe in one interpretation or another to feel superiority towards others. Such conceit would only harm their practice. Suspending our disbelief and biases can be a very helpful practice itself, cultivating seeds of nondiscrimination, equanimity, and open mindedness. We will all meet each other somewhere in the turning of the wheel. We should be prepared to work together in order to break our chains.