No Future In A Parrot’s Egg
"For the pious, Buddhism is a religion like all the others, with its own share of weird and wonderful dogmas.
Stephen Batchelor, the author of Buddhism Without Beliefs, is a former Buddhist monk and a pioneer in the project of extracting the wisdom of Buddhism from its supernaturalistic agglomerations. His newest book is Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. Batchelor kicked off his book tour of the United States with a reading at the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy in March. He retains a Buddhist identity because, at the core of the historical Buddha's teachings, Batchelor finds a humanistic approach to suffering. In this new piece for The New Humanism, however, he reflects what he's had to leave behind.
Can I be a Buddhist without believing that I will survive the death of the brain to be reborn in the womb of a jackal or the egg of a parrot? Can I be a Buddhist and not believe in the existence of a hell where I could be roasted alive for thousands of years in a human body with a fish's head until I have expiated my misdeeds? Can I be a Buddhist and doubt that the Buddha's body-hairs are coloured deep blue like corrylium and grow clockwise in rings? Can I be a Buddhist and not believe that adepts in meditation can multiply their bodies, walk through walls and mountains, dive through earth as if it were water, fly through space like a bird, and touch the moon and sun with the palms of their hands? These examples are not taken from an esoteric Tibetan text. They are found in the Buddha's earliest discourses as recorded in the sober Pali canon. And I do not believe in any of them.
In the minds of many Buddhists, such a disavowal would disqualify me from being considered a member of the faithful. They would find it puzzling, if not offensive, that I would even want to think of myself as a Buddhist. It would be comparable to someone denying the existence of God, then describing himself as a practising Muslim. For the pious, Buddhism is a religion like all the others, with its own share of weird and wonderful dogmas. It is certainly not my business, as a mere Western convert, to question truths that have been verified, again and again, by people far wiser and more accomplished than me. Instead, I should abandon the conceits of my ego and humbly acknowledge that I share in a far grander destiny extending over millions of lifetimes in myriad realms, compared to which our brief sojourn on this paltry planet pales to insignificance.
From a traditional perspective, to reject such a view of the world is not only erroneous but also immoral. To believe there is no rebirth and no law of moral causation, is an evil act that will lead to confusion and anguish in this life and hellfire in the world to come. One doesn't need to say or do anything to commit it. All you have to do is form an incorrect opinion in the privacy of your mind. It is a thought crime, yet listed in the classical texts alongside murder, robbery and rape. Indeed, "wrong view" is said to be the heaviest of all evil actions, since it establishes the viewpoint from which every other misdeed stems. If I do not believe in potentially endless future lifetimes governed by the inexorable laws of karma—so the argument goes—what would prevent me from indulging every desire to lie and steal, while expressing each angry impulse in an act of violence? What conceivable motive would I have to do good if all that awaits me at death is oblivion? Buddhists concerned for my well being frequently ask me such questions.
Like other religions, Buddhism teaches a mechanical morality of punishment and reward, the fruits of which are primarily reaped after death. If you do good, you may be reborn in one of various heavens; if you do bad, you will be scheduled for one of many hells. Such justice is underwritten not by an omniscient and omnipotent God but by an impersonal and inexorable moral law, immanent in the very make-up of reality itself. Fortunately, Buddhist hells last for mere millennia rather than eternity. Unfortunately, this is also true of their heavens. The aim, therefore, is to escape the round of birth and death altogether by bringing to a stop the craving that results from ignorance and keeps the cycle of cosmic misery spinning. Rather than seek to improve conditions here on earth, the most loving and compassionate thing one can do is help others find their way off the wheel. In the grand scheme of things, the fate of this world is of relatively little importance.
One glaring weakness of this metaphysics is that it is so transparently and crudely anthropomorphic. That which is invoked to explain what lies beyond the range of human experience turns out to be a distorted reflection of the human condition itself. For what are the gods if not just long-lived, conceited humans, enjoying the sort of utopia yearned for by dreamers and children? What are the titans but vain, ambitious people who cannot bear the success of others but are powerless to vanquish them? What are the peta (ghosts) but caricatures of human beings tormented by unquenchable desires? What are hell-beings but people racked with horrendous pain? The only realm that does not betray its human origin is that of the animals, which, unsurprisingly, is the only one of which we have direct experience. As for the law of moral causation ("karma"): this is human justice dressed up as cosmic justice and then imputed to the impersonal workings of the natural world.
But the natural world is no more fair or just than it is cruel. "Fairness," "justice" and "cruelty" are human attributes, which we are prone to project onto non-human realities. When the lion sinks its teeth into an antelope's neck, it is not committing a cruel and evil act that will result in punishment in an afterlife, any more than the antelope is getting its just deserts for something nasty it did in a previous existence. Yet this is how classical Buddhism would understand it. Of course it is tragic that a gifted young musician should die a slow, agonising death from multiple sclerosis, just as it is offensive that a corrupt, murderous politician should live a long and healthy life in luxury. But to explain these facts as the consequence of actions done in past lives and to reassure oneself that justice will be done after death is to clutch at consolations. As long as one adheres to such a metaphysics, the less one will be inclined to devote oneself to finding a cure for MS or to campaign for transparency and accountability in politics: the only things that might actually make a difference.
My first Tibetan teacher Geshé Dargyey once told us that we would gain more "merit" (i.e. karmic credit) by building a monastery than a hospital. It was not that he disapproved of hospitals—I have no doubt that he would have applauded their construction and commended the work of doctors and nurses. But in the bigger picture, the most a hospital can do is delay by a few years the inevitable breakdown and death of the body, while providing others with a good opportunity to practice compassion. Far better, therefore, to sponsor a monastery and fund the training of monks, who can teach you how no longer to be reborn, which, instead of merely curing the cancer of a body that will die anyway, goes to the very root of the problem. "No head," I recall Geshé-la saying with a twinkle in his eyes, "then no headache." From the standpoint of orthodox Buddhist doctrine, this is an entirely reasonable and cogent argument.
In terms of its ability to explain why the world is the way it is, belief in rebirth and karma is no different from belief in God. Both function as ways of giving meaning to what otherwise appears to be meaningless and unfair. If a Christian couple give birth to a brain-damaged child, this is the inscrutable will of God, whereas, for a Buddhist couple, it is the result of the baby's actions in a past life. Both explanations are equally indemonstrable or refutable. Yet both render the tragedy meaningful and situate it within a well-defined frame of moral obligation and responsibility. Perhaps this is one reason why such beliefs have been selected by evolution and are so deeply entrenched in the human psyche. Otherwise, would life not be too bewildering and painful for rational animals to bear?
As a Buddhist atheist, I reject the doctrines of karma and rebirth, just as a Christian atheist would reject belief in a transcendent God. Yet I do so as a Buddhist, as one who has adopted the template of values, ideas and practices laid out by Siddhattha Gotama more than two thousand years ago. I reject karma and rebirth not only because I find them unintelligible, but because I believe they obscure and distort what the Buddha was trying to say. Rather than offering the balm of consolation, the Buddha encouraged us to peer deep and unflinchingly into the heart of the bewildering and painful experience that life can so often be.