The Myth of Rebirth

A guy named James wrote to me and asked:

“Could you explain rebirth to me like I’m five. I’ve never been able to grasp a knowledge of this.”

I answered him thusly; Rebirth is a myth that some Buddhists believe in. It might be loosely based on fact. But it might just be a fantasy.

I used the word myth to define the Buddhist idea of rebirth. These days a lot of people use the word myth as a synonym for falsehood. But that’s not the proper meaning of the word. A myth is a way of explaining something for which there is no good literal explanation. A myth is not necessarily false. But it doesn’t have to accord with fact.

A myth is not untrue because it fails to accord with fact. It can be true but not in the way scientific explanations or histories are true. A myth can be true without being factual.

But it’s important that we don’t believe in our myths in the same way we believe in science and history. The problem that contemporary Christianity and Islam have is that many of the people who follow those faiths insist that their myths are true in the same way that scientific facts and histories are true.

A lot of Buddhists, particularly but not exclusively in the West, make the same mistake with Buddhist myths. This is especially true when it comes to Buddhist myths about rebirth. We read mythical books, like the Tibetan Book of the Dead for example, and we want to interpret them as being empirically true. But they aren’t.

My personal experience with zazen practice leads me to the conclusion that my previous understanding about what I was and what the world was, was incorrect. Based on some of what I’ve touched firsthand in my real experience, I might be tempted to spin out my own myths about rebirth. But none of those myths would really explain what I’ve seen any better than the myth of Noah’s Ark explains its writer’s understanding of God and the way God rewards virtue. And if you believed my myth about rebirth as a literal truth, you’d be no better off than those people who insist that a long time ago an old man really did put two of every real animal in a real boat and floated on real water for forty real days and forty real nights.

Now I gotta go. We’re trying to make it to the Grand Canyon by this evening.

I will be speaking at Empty Sky Zen Center near Phoenix, Arizona on Friday June 29th at 7pm. The address is 5246 E McDonald Dr., Paradise Valley, AZ 85253. If you’re not a regular there and wish to attend please send an email to Ann Baker at They just need to get a head count. Newcomers are very welcome. This is not an “advanced” sitting.

62 Responses

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  1. anon 108
    anon 108 June 30, 2012 at 5:52 pm |

    If there is a ‘whole point of Buddhism’ it may be to achieve a degree of contentment by gaining insight into the causes of dissatisfaction. Some people feel a need to penetrate apparent mysteries of existence – such as the nature of conscious awareness or the true nature of self – in order to find peace. Others don’t.

  2. Ted
    Ted June 30, 2012 at 10:08 pm |

    Of course the “whole point of Buddhism” is a subject of debate between the various Buddhist sects. But I don’t know of any Buddhist sect that espouses the goal of “penetrating the mysteries of existence.” It’s really only Zen that treats the goals of Buddhism as mysterious at all. All the Tibetan and Shravastavadin and Theravadin sects have quite clear goals, although the goals they state are different. They all explain the nature of reality quite clearly and unambiguously, after which they quite rightly point out that the explanation is not the thing. And they completely skip over the “mysteries” of the universe, because the Buddha told them to.

  3. anon 108
    anon 108 July 1, 2012 at 5:13 am |

    Ted – Where do you get the idea that Zen treats the goals of Buddhism as mysterious? ‘Ordinary mind,’ ‘nothing Special,’ ‘just this, ‘nothing holy,’ ‘don’t know’ … sounds radically down to earth to me.

    (Perhaps you misread the intention of my last comment? It was specifically a reply to BY’s last. I agree that Buddha skips over the mysteries. That’s clear.)

  4. Ted
    Ted July 1, 2012 at 7:38 am |

    anon 108, Zen avoids saying what the goal is, treating it as mysterious as a *practice*. Ordinary mind, nothing special, just this, what do these mean? These are all mysterious statements that avoid saying what they say. I went to a lecture at the SFZC last year where the teacher went on for an hour about “thinking not thinking” and how after twenty years of practice she still didn’t know what it meant. If that’s not mysterious, I don’t know what is.

  5. anon 108
    anon 108 July 1, 2012 at 7:56 am |

    “Ordinary mind, nothing special, just this, what do these mean? These are all mysterious statements that avoid saying what they say.”

    You think? I’ve also heard Zen teachers saying this kind of thing. Particularly in the USA. Heretics. All of em. I’m not surprised they get caught by “thinking not thinking”.

    But yes, everything is a mystery. It’s true.

  6. anon 108
    anon 108 July 1, 2012 at 8:00 am |

    …feel free to sprinkle a smiley or two. Not that I didn’t mean what I said.

  7. kigen01
    kigen01 July 1, 2012 at 1:53 pm |

    not an uncommon pov you are expressing, Brad. However, as unexcited as I was about the prospect of rebirth I must now affirm that from what i’ve learn in my practice, it really is the most logical extrapolation of the phenomenon of ‘living’. In fact, it seems far less plausible, in the light of what I’ve learned from Zen (Rinzai tho) that there will not be a rebirth. I wonder at what point our view diverge?

  8. Brookemcdoodle
    Brookemcdoodle July 7, 2012 at 12:25 pm |

    Google: the law of conservation of matter and then biogeochemical cycling of elements and then decomposition. It’s all there.

  9. Padma@MyBuddhistLife
    Padma@MyBuddhistLife July 24, 2012 at 12:43 pm |

    This sparked my interest! I just wrote a reply on MyBuddhistLife:

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