So, the question at hand: do Buddhists believe in reincarnation? Some definitely do. Some kinda do but only as a metaphor. Some do or don’t but only after filtering it through definitions and interpretations. Some emphatically don’t.

By David Jones

One day in the mid-’80s my friend and I were waiting for a comic book store to open, and we talked about his upcoming Dungeons and Dragons campaign.

He asked a favor: he wanted me to play a cleric so that he could present a triune goddess to the campaign.

I didn’t understand why he thought of me for that, so he explained, “Since you’re a Christian, you’d be the perfect fit.” In his mind, all Christians believed in the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. I didn’t, but I thanked him and made a mental note to go home and study what the whole Trinity thing was, since my church didn’t teach that doctrine.

I’ve been researching beliefs and traditions for many years (often starting with some form of “What do _______ believe?” or “Do ________ believe in _________?”) and I know how awful it can be. There are so many definite yet conflicting answers.

So, the question at hand: do Buddhists believe in reincarnation?

Some definitely do.
Some kinda do but only as a metaphor.
Some do or don’t but only after filtering it through definitions and interpretations.
Some emphatically don’t.

Frustrating, isn’t it? “All I want is a simple Yes or No!” you holler, abandoning your research to watch cute videos about squirrels. I don’t blame you a bit. The video of the squirrels figuring out a backyard obstacle course is awesome! Although honest seekers may have a problem with getting multiple conflicting answers, hopefully I can help by saying that the problem doesn’t lie with the answers but in the assumptions underlying the question. In fact, the assumption problem pops up every time we ask this type of question.

Here’s an example:

Do Catholics believe in using birth control? The official church position is a big “No!” But I know several Catholics who use birth control. If that seems impossible, it’s because we’ve heard a certain position so often that we assume everyone under that umbrella agrees and adheres.

It’s the same as the classic “Is Buddhism a religion?” “Yes it absolutely is” for some Buddhist practitioners, and “No it absolutely isn’t” for others. Folks who say it isn’t can seem a bit prickly about it too; it’s possible they embraced Buddhism as a way to escape their negative experiences with organized religion.

It’s a series of fallacies to assume an umbrella group (like Buddhist, Catholic, Feminist, Conservative or Atheist) must have only one consistently applicable set of views and beliefs, then assume that everyone under that umbrella adheres strictly to them.

In reality, there are so many sects, schools, and traditions under the Buddhist umbrella that it would be ridiculous to expect all of them to believe the exact same things to the exact same degree. There are sects because there are differences.

One challenge to dealing with all these differences is that we humans are a biased lot, and often the view we embrace (whether recently or traditionally) becomes the “correct” view. Then anything which doesn’t support our view becomes a problem we need to solve or defeat.  Such a bias is on display when bloggers or authors state a definite position on such things. Suddenly their view is meant to speak for everyone without considering that others may disagree. It seems dogma and orthodoxy is alive and well in the world of online answer forums.

Back to the main question at hand.

Tibetan Buddhism and certain Nichiren traditions (along with certain texts such as the Lotus Sutra) have references to people having previous lives (incarnations). The Dalai Lama is an example. Some may believe in reincarnation as a holdover from Buddhism’s origin in Indian religion.

There are many Buddhists who see rebirth and reincarnation as metaphors, not literal events. Much ink is put to paper as folks explain how these metaphors make literal interpretations unnecessary.

Some Buddhists consider reincarnation to be incorrect so they lean toward the concept of rebirth and establish definitions to distinguish the two. Some say there can’t be reincarnation because there’s no eternal soul/spirit/self to die and be reborn as an animal or whatever. So they speak of rebirth as a different concept, which can lead to confusion. In fact, here’s one definition of rebirth:

Rebirth. What eventually occurs after one’s death, which is not the end of one’s existence. Again and again, after each death, one’s mind, the consciousness, takes rebirth as another being.

It’s called rebirth but sounds a lot like reincarnation. And some Buddhists have no problem using the two terms interchangeably.

Finally, many secular Buddhists (and perhaps many non-secular Buddhists) have neither the time nor inclination to believe in reincarnation or rebirth. For them, such speculations about unprovable things are at best an unnecessary distraction and at worst a pointless waste of time.

A few thoughts which might help:

-Even if all Buddhists did believe in reincarnation, you don’t have to. No one’s going to demand you turn in your robe at the desk.

-If you find a view, definition, or explanation that you just can’t get on board with, it’s fine. Read every definite statement a writer makes with a silent “I believe” at the beginning.

-When you research online, be mindful of bias in the results you find. Much of the content you encounter first is weighted to be first in order to present a particular view as being preferable (more correct, more trustworthy) to the others. A lot of people just read the first few results anyway.

-Remember that many articles are written simply to provide ammunition for argument or judgment, even pieces by important scholars.

-Often the topic is something the writer opposes, so all content will be skewed to dismiss, discredit, or even pass judgment on the topic or belief and those who support it.

-It’s always good to challenge our own pre-existing beliefs and views of things. Otherwise, any difference of opinion or view is written off without benefit of consideration.

So by all means, ask those big questions. Just be mindfully aware of different views and expressions and accord them the honor and respect you want for yours. Consider the world as a colorful spectrum and not just as a black-and-white duality.

I was a Christian who didn’t believe in the Trinity and who played D&D. If that seems surprising, just imagine what other surprises might be waiting for you out there.


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Editor: Dana Gornall


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The Question of Rebirth in Secular Buddhism

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