On Rebirth: Buddhism & Reincarnation
Paul Williams

[Excerpted with permission from Paul Williams, The Unexpected Way: On Converting from Buddhism to Catholicism (Edinburgh: T+T Clark/Continuum, 2002), pp. 198-203. ISBN 0 567 088308. 12.99]

The Buddhist position on rebirth is always stated to be that the rebirth is neither the same as, nor different from, the one who died. The Buddhist sees our present life as a causal continuum. We are constantly changing, with each moment of our life arising in causal dependence upon a preceding moment that has since ceased, and acting to cause the next moment in the continuum.

It is a bit like the flow of a river. This flow that we are is made of five 'strands': physical matter, sensations, determinate perceptions, additional factors like volition (intentions), and consciousness. These are called the 'five aggregates' (Sanskrit: skandha). They are each a flow, each constantly changing. Upon this fivefold flow we superimpose for everyday practical purposes a singular identity, called by a name like 'Archibald', or 'Fiona'. Thus we are in fact a bundle, or a bundle of bundles. But because of beginningless ignorance we have a tendency to overrate this practical everyday unity, and to think that there is some sort of unchanging essence constantly present. The presupposed unchanging essence, the stable referent for the use of 'I', we think of as our 'Self' (Sanskrit: atman).

This Self as such is a fiction. We attach to this fiction, with cravings associated with 'I' and 'mine'. These cravings, based on delusion, power our egoity, our endless series of rebirths, and ultimately all our misery. In letting-go of this fiction of Self (that is, of a self as anything more than just a practical way of giving an identity to the flow) we let-go of the forces that power rebirth. In finally bringing about this letting-go at the deepest possible level of our being all rebirth ceases. Thence ceases all misery, all suffering. That is nirvana, liberation or enlightenment.

Just as we are actually a fivefold flow in this life, the Buddhist wants to say, at death all that happens is that there is a particular sort of break caused in the physical flow. Powered by forces resulting from egoity (in other words, powered by karman) the flow, the continuum, continues and is reconfigured into another everyday identity. Thus, in everyday language, we speak of the death of Archibald, and 'his' rebirth as Fiona. But really Archibald is no longer there. He is dead. The flow that was explained for practical purposes as 'Archibald' has been reconfigured into 'Fiona', but of course Fiona as such is a further stage in the flow. Archibald ceases; the flow continues, Fiona begins; the flow continues. This flow is literally beginningless. There is no first beginning. It ends only in nirvana.

Now, using my example of Archibald and 'his rebirth' Fiona, what is the relationship between Archibald and Fiona? The answer, the Buddhist wants to say, is that they are clearly not the same. Archibald is dead. This is Fiona. Thus it follows that the rebirth is not the same as the one who died. In fact (and this is important to my argument) the rebirth is not at all the same person as the one who died. But also, the Buddhist wants to say, the rebirth is not different from the one who died either. What does the Buddhist mean by this?

What is meant is that the rebirth is a practical everyday construct superimposed upon a later phase of a single causal flow. Thus the rebirth exists in causal dependence upon the one who died. In this respect the relationship between Fiona and Archibald is not the same as the relationship between Fiona and her friend Dougal, who is himself a rebirth of Archibald's great partner Morag. Fiona is a later 'stage' in the same causal flow as Archibald. Dougal is a later stage in the same causal flow as Morag. But the relationship between Fiona and Dougal is merely lust, not one of a causal continuum and rebirth. Thus we can say that Fiona and Archibald are not 'different' in the same way that Fiona and Dougal are different. Hence, the Buddhist wants to say, the relationship between the one who dies and the rebirth is one of 'neither the same nor different'.

This is the common Buddhist position. But it seems to me we should note the following.

The rebirth is not the same person as the one who died. Indeed there are Buddhist traditions (such as the dGe lugs pa in Tibet) that would have no problem in affirming that the rebirth is a different person (Sanskrit: pudgala; Tibetan: gang zag) from the one who died. I treated this in my article 'Altruism and rebirth' [in my book Altruism and Reality (Curzon, 1998)]. It is a textual point.

Philosophically I am certain on Buddhist premises that they are right in saying the rebirth has to be a different person from the one that died. Consider the following: Imagine that I die and am reborn (as I might be) as a cockroach in South America. For our present purposes let us understand by 'person' (as does the Buddhist) any conscious subject of experience. Thus the cockroach is a 'person' in this context. Now, it is clear that the cockroach in South America is not the same person as me, Williams, professor in England. But I can also make absolutely no sense of any claim that the cockroach is also not a different person from Williams. Clearly the cockroach is indeed a different person. What follows from this is that the person Williams is has actually ceased to exist. There is now a cockroach called Pablo. In terms of what it is to be me, the ongoing lived life that it is to be me, it has come to an end. A cockroach is now having an ongoing lived life that is indeed a cockroach life, the life of Pablo the cockroach. It seems to me that it is sheer confusion to think that somehow Williams continues in, or within, or underlying, Pablo. It makes no sense for me to look forward to my life as Pablo. It also makes no sense for me to carry out actions aimed at benefiting my future life as Pablo. If this story is not one of Williams ceasing to exist, I do not know what would be.

I say all this notwithstanding the fact that the Buddhist position is said to be that the rebirth is not different from the one who died either. By 'not different' here, what is meant is that the rebirth is not different in the sense that it is not a different causal continuum. It is actually causally dependent upon the one that died, and thus both the dead being and the rebirth form one causal continuum. Pablo is the reincarnation of Williams in the sense that there is a particular type of causal connection between Williams and Pablo. But it seems to me that in terms of personal survival being causally dependent upon the one that died is irrelevant. The Buddhist claim of 'not different' rests on an idiosyncratic sense of 'difference', i.e. as 'not causally related'. But for my purposes what counts is whether or not Pablo is a different person from Williams. It seems clear that he is, and various Buddhist philosophers admit this fact.

Thus notwithstanding the Buddhist position on rebirth, I want to claim that in fact given the Buddhist premises when I die I simply cease. The fact that there will be a cockroach then existing bearing a causal relationship to me is, in terms of personal survival and thus in terms of specifically my interests, irrelevant. If I were told I was to be shot at dawn I would be terrified. If I were told not to worry because after I had been shot there would be born a cockroach in South America bearing a particular (even close) causal relationship to me, I think I should still be terrified. And I would be terrified not because I do not want to be a cockroach. I would be terrified because whether of not there is a cockroach there would not be me at all. What is that cockroach to me? If I am told I am to be shot at dawn I should plead for survival, not a lesson in entomology.

I have used the examples of Williams and a cockroach because it seems so obvious here that Williams would have ceased. But supposing I am reborn as a baby in my very own family, looking exactly like I do now. Still, Williams (the person I am) will have ceased, just as much as in the case of a cockroach. If rebirth as a cockroach involves cessation of the person I am then any other rebirth based on the same principles would involve cessation of the person I am. Thus, in the terms used above, in this case too it makes no sense for me to carry out actions aimed at benefiting my future life as the Williams look-alike. It is still a story of Williams ceasing to exist.

Thus even though the Buddhist position is that the rebirth is neither the same nor different from the one that died, I want to claim that the Buddhist (or at least some important Buddhist thinkers) maintains that the rebirth is a different person from the one that died. Moreover it seems to me this must be correct. Therefore as far as I am concerned the Buddhist position entails that at death the person I am shall cease. Someone else may exist in causal dependence upon me, but what is that to me?

It seems to me that on any Buddhist understanding of rebirth this is likely in most if not all cases to be the way it is. None of this in itself means the Buddhist position is wrong. But what it does mean is that, if the Buddhist position is correct, then unless we attain a state (such as nirvana) where in some way or another our rebirth will not matter, our death in this life is actually, really, the death of us. Death will be the end for us. Traditionally, at least on the day to day level, Buddhists tend to obscure this fact in their choice of language by referring to 'my rebirth', and 'concern for one's future lives'. But actually any rebirth (say, as a cockroach in South America) would not be oneself, and there is a serious question therefore as to why one should care at all about 'one's' future rebirths. Of course, one Buddhist response would be to say that it is an example of the very egoism one is trying to escape to be concerned whether the rebirth will be oneself or not. But I am not sure that helps much. We tend to forget that the original direction of Buddhism was towards the overriding urgency of the need to escape from the cycle of rebirth. Rebirth, in Buddhism and in other early Indian systems of liberation, was seen as horrific. To point out that 'my' rebirth involves among other things the destruction of everything that counts as me would have been seen simply as emphasising how horrible rebirth is, and the need to escape from it through spiritual liberation, nirvana.

In the last section of my book Altruism and Reality [Curzon, 1998] I also engaged in a much more extensive critical study of problems which it seemed to me emerge in the Buddhist conception of persons (and other things) as actually nothing more than conventional constructs. Part of my concern here and elsewhere has been to provoke scholars working in Buddhist Studies to a far greater critical sensitivity. Christian philosophers have spent many years defending their positions against philosophical criticism. In the last twenty years this has borne fruit in some immensely sophisticated defences and sometimes modifications of traditional Christian positions. I can see only gain in engaging in the same constructive criticisms and defence of Buddhist philosophy.

In my essay I range over a number of key Buddhist presuppositions that seem to me to be questionable. Thus I criticise the idea that the whole is simply a mental superimposition upon the parts. I attack the idea that the world of everyday life is a mental construct, and I argue that persons are not bundles, not constructs out of a series of evanescent mental and physical 'parts', but are rather prior to analysis into parts and presupposed in it. I criticise the idea of data like pains as conceptually prior to the person who possesses the pains, on the basis that pains necessarily involve subjects ('persons', in the sense in which I use the term, which would include animals) and make no sense as free-floating.

The broad direction of my critique is in favour of what might be called some form of 'commonsense realism', and towards minimalising the role of subjectivity (our minds) in the construction of our world. I see the problem of solipsism (the world is no more than the product of my consciousness) as endemic in all of Buddhist thought. I also see the move towards subjectivity, reflected in a tendency towards privileging individual mental states such as sense data and feelings over 'everyday objects', as ethically and religiously problematic. I tend to favour some form of ethical objectivism. I argue that the Buddhist tendency to reduce persons to other impersonal data claimed to be more fundamental, far from making Buddhism more coherent as an ethical base, actually removes what I am now inclined to think of as a mainstay of coherent ethics. That mainstay is the primacy and irreducible uniqueness of the person.

Anyone familiar with Buddhist thought is able to see that in all of this I am attacking central presuppositions of the very direction Buddhism takes. Anyone familiar with Christian thought might also see here why I found Christianity intellectually tempting.