Western Buddhist Review

Weighing the Evidence

On Fri, 12 October, 2018 - 10:55
Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Dhivan Thomas Jones

We present a review by Nāgapriya of Anālayo’s recent study of the Buddhist teaching of rebirth and what evidence there might be for the truth of it:

Rebirth in Early Buddhism and Current Research

by Bhikkhu Analayo

Wisdom Publications, Somerville MA, 279pp. hb. £22.50

review by Nāgapriya

Bhikkhu Anālayo has garnered a distinguished reputation as an authoritative scholar of the Pali Canon and early Buddhism. His mastery not only of Pāli sources but also of parallels in Chinese translation has enabled him to produce a growing corpus of erudite books and articles which are, at the same time, anchored in his spiritual practice as a Theravāda monk. His basic approach is to select a key theme and explore what the Pali Canon and related texts have to say about it, supplemented by his own critical apparatus.

In the present work, Anālayo brings his formidable talents to bear on the vexed topic of rebirth. While he begins with Pāli sources, he then goes on to look at scientific investigation into rebirth, besides documenting in considerable detail the case study of a Sri Lankan boy who was able to recite Pali texts seemingly from memory without ever having been taught them. 

Anālayo makes it clear in his introduction that he does not aim to campaign for the acceptance of the doctrine of rebirth and that, moreover, his own practice does not rest on its acceptance. He also notes that not all of the sections are likely to be of equal interest. It is worth pointing out too that the book includes a lengthy appendix, around 70 pages, which consists in a transcription of the texts that the Sri Lankan boy recited. This material relates only in a tangential way to the central topic and could easily have been omitted without significant impact on the central topic.

In Part 1 of the book, which is relatively short (around 30 pages), Anālayo reviews the early Buddhist doctrine of rebirth. In this section, rebirth is contextualized within the general principle of conditionality, and the traditional view that meditative training may permit the capacity to remember past lives is explored. He concludes that ‘rebirth is an integral and essential component of early Buddhist thought’ (p.35) and that its flat rejection would seem to contradict notions of right view. What precisely rebirth may mean is not treated in detail here and there is no exploration of different rebirth models or options.

In Part 2, Anālayo explores how Buddhists throughout history have defended and argued for the notion of rebirth. He squarely rejects modern attempts to claim that the Buddha didn’t really teach rebirth and underlines its orthodoxy. He also touches on the difficulty encountered in the Chinese reception of karma and rebirth, pointing out that it was more common for people to think in terms of receiving retribution for the deeds of their ancestors. While Anālayo does not explore this option, such beliefs invite reflection as to whether rebirth should be understood only as an individual transmission or whether we may in fact inherit the karmic traces of multiple individuals and bequeath our own karmic legacy to multiple others.

In Part 3, Anālayo summarizes a range of empirical evidence that would appear to offer support for the idea of rebirth. In doing so, he looks at near-death experiences, past-life regression, children’s memories of past lives, and xenoglossy. Xenoglossy refers to the ability to utilise a language which it would seem a person could not have learnt in their present life. After considering these topics, Anālayo concludes that;

the body of data that has emerged so far changes the status of the idea that rebirth can occur from a religious creed into a reasonable belief supported supported by a body of evidence (p.116).

But this evidence also raises many questions. Why do so few people have past life memories? Does the evidence necessarily indicate an individualized process of rebirth? Is it possible that rebirth is the exception rather than the rule? None of these more philosophical questions are examined. In reflecting on the evidence of apparent memories of past lives, Anālayo concludes that ‘at least some of these cases do reflect genuine memories of the past’ (p.117). This is of course a long way from showing that they represent evidence for rebirth as generally understood in the Buddhist tradition. 

Part 4 presents an extensive study of a striking case of apparent xenoglossy, which relates to a Sri Lankan man named Dhammaruwan who, as a boy, had the capacity to recite a series of Pāli Buddhist texts from memory without ever having learnt them. He later lost this ability but recordings were made of his chanting which Anālayo analyses in relation to the extant written equivalents while forensically identifying discrepancies. At the very least, such phenomena point towards remarkable capacities within consciousness and may even be suggestive of past life memories. The past life in this case appears to relate to the fifth century CE and so raises additional questions about continuity of consciousness and memory, as well as whether rebirth might be a relatively rare event or whether rebirth happens soon after death or whether in fact centuries could pass between rebirths. It is perfectly possible that Dhammaruwan had had intervening lives but then why would he remember a life from some 1600 years earlier? We don’t know. 

In his endorsement on the dust jacket, B. Alan Wallace claims:

This book points to the principle of conservation of consciousness, analogous to the conservation of mass-energy, as one of the fundamental truths of the natural world.

The book certainly doesn’t do that. It does, however, underline how rebirth has formed an integral part of Buddhist teaching and offers some evidence for those in need of it which indicates that rebirth in some form or other is a credible belief. It also leaves many questions untouched which relate to the nature of personal identity, continuity, and karmic legacy. 

Anālayo concludes by proposing that ‘what remains of central importance is to learn to face mortality, one’s own and that of others, rather than turn a blind eye to it’ (p.165). This requires us to practise mindfulness of death. This is an important and pragmatic reminder. All of us will die, whether or not we believe in rebirth, and this fact invites us to consider what our legacy will be. 

Nāgapriya lives in Mexico where is director at Centro Budista de Cuernavaca. His latest book is The Buddhist Way (New Holland). He is also author of Exploring Karma and Rebirth (Windhorse Publications, 2004).

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