Thai forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a frequent contributor to Tricycle, sends the following:
It never ceases to amaze me that scholars—who should know better—keep repeating the idea that the Buddha lived in a time when everyone took for granted two principles: (1) that rebirth happened, and (2) that karma had an effect on how rebirth happened.
You wonder why this idea gets repeated so often, because the Pali Canon provides clear evidence to the contrary, evidence that has been available in Western languages for more than a century.
The Buddha frequently referred to two extremes of wrong view that blocked progress on the path: eternalism and annihilationism. “Annihilationism” is the term he used to describe those who denied rebirth. Apparently he didn’t invent the term himself, as MN 22 reports that other teachers sometimes accused him of being an annihilationist as well.
The Canon mentions two people who, in the Buddha’s times, were famous for their annihilationist views. One was Ajita Kesakambalin, the leader of a materialist sect. DN 2 reports his views as follows:
“‘There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed. There is no fruit or result of good or bad actions. There is no this world, no next world, no mother, no father, no spontaneously reborn beings; no contemplatives or brahmans who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next after having directly known and realized it for themselves. A person is a composite of four primary elements. At death, the earth (in the body) returns to and merges with the (external) earth-substance. The fire returns to and merges with the external fire-substance. The liquid returns to and merges with the external liquid-substance. The wind returns to and merges with the external wind-substance. The sense-faculties scatter into space. Four men, with the bier as the fifth, carry the corpse. Its eulogies are sounded only as far as the charnel ground. The bones turn pigeon-colored. The offerings end in ashes. Generosity is taught by idiots. The words of those who speak of existence after death are false, empty chatter. With the break-up of the body, the wise and the foolish alike are annihilated, destroyed. They do not exist after death.’” — DN 2
DN 23 tells of a Prince Payasi who held a similar materialist view and who had used his power to execute criminals as an opportunity to conduct gruesome, quasi-scientific experiments to test whether any part of a human being survived death. Two of the experiments were these:
“There is the case, Master Kassapa, where my men—having caught a thief, a wrong-doer—present him to me, (saying,) ‘Here is a thief, a wrong-doer for you, lord. Decree for him whatever punishment you want.’ And I say, ‘Very well, then, masters, having placed this man while still alive in a clay jar, having sealed the mouth, having covered it with a damp skin, having plastered it with a thick layer of damp clay, having set it in a furnace, light the fire.’
“They—responding, ‘Very well,’ to me—having placed the man while still alive in a clay jar, having sealed the mouth, having covered it with a damp skin, having plastered it with a thick layer of damp clay, having set it in a furnace, light the fire. When we know, ‘The man has died,’ then—removing the jar, breaking through the seal, opening the mouth—we look carefully, (thinking,) ‘Maybe we’ll see his soul escaping.’ But we don’t see his soul escaping….’
“There is the case, Master Kassapa, where my men—having caught a thief, a wrong-doer—present him to me, (saying,) ‘Here is a thief, a wrong-doer for you, lord. Decree for him whatever punishment you want.’ And I say, ‘Very well, then, masters, having weighed this man with a scale while still alive, having strangled him to death with a bowstring, weigh him with the scale again.’
“They—responding, ‘Very well,’ to me—having weighed the man with a scale while still alive, having strangled him to death with a bowstring, weigh him with the scale again. When he is alive, he is lighter, more flexible, and more malleable. But when he has died, he is heavier, stiffer, and less malleable.
“This is the reason, Master Kassapa, for which I believe, ‘There is no other world, there are no spontaneously reborn beings, there is no fruit or result of good or bad actions.’” — DN 23
DN 1 gives a more comprehensive picture of annihilationist views current at the time, classifying them by how they define the self annihilated at death. There were seven types in all. Three of them defined the self in terms of a body: either as a physical body composed of the four material elements, as a divine physical body, or as an astral body. The view espoused by Ajita Kesakambalin and Prince Payasi would fall under the first of the three. Four other annihilationist views, however, defined the self as formless: experiencing the dimension of infinite space, of infinite consciousness, of nothingness, or of neither perception nor non-perception. In each of the seven cases, these doctrines state that the self, however defined, perishes and is annihilated at death.
As for the non-Buddhist schools that affirmed the idea of rebirth, the Pali Canon explicitly names at least four: Brahmans (SN 42:6; AN 10:177), Jains (MN 101), and two contemplative (samana) schools: one led by Makkhali Gosala, and the other by Pakudha Kaccayana. We know from other sources that the Jains and some Brahmans affirmed that action played a role in shaping rebirth; the Canon shows, however, that the other two teachers denied that action played any role in rebirth at all.
“[Makkhali Gosala:] ‘Though one might think, “Through this morality, this practice, this austerity, or this holy life I will ripen unripened kamma and eliminate ripened kamma whenever touched by it”—that is impossible. Pleasure and pain are measured out, the wandering-on is fixed in its limits. There is no shortening or lengthening, no accelerating or decelerating. Just as a ball of string, when thrown, comes to its end simply by unwinding, in the same way, having transmigrated and wandered on, the wise and the foolish alike will put an end to pain.’” — DN 2
“[Pakudha Kaccayana:] ‘There are these seven substances—unmade, irreducible, uncreated, without a creator, barren, stable as a mountain-peak, standing firm like a pillar—that do not alter, do not change, do not interfere with one another, are incapable of causing one another pleasure, pain, or both pleasure and pain. Which seven? The earth-substance, the liquid-substance, the fire-substance, the wind-substance, pleasure, pain, and the soul as the seventh. These are the seven substances—unmade, irreducible, uncreated, without a creator, barren, stable as a mountain-peak, standing firm like a pillar—that do not alter, do not change, do not interfere with one another, and are incapable of causing one another pleasure, pain, or both pleasure and pain.’” — DN 2
So the issues of whether there is rebirth and—if there is—whether karma has an effect on rebirth were hotly debated in the Buddha’s time. And the debate didn’t extend just to philosophers. Ordinary people were also affected by the debate, as is clear in the Buddha’s instructions to the Kalamas, a group of skeptical householders. Knowing that he can’t prove the principle of karmic results to them—proof of that comes only with the first stage of awakening—he says that if you assume that karma has results, you will act skillfully. And when you act skillfully, you gain four assurances in the here and now.
“‘If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.’ This is the first assurance one acquires.
“‘But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease—free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.’ This is the second assurance one acquires.
“‘If evil is done through acting, still I have willed no evil for anyone. Having done no evil action, from where will suffering touch me?’ This is the third assurance one acquires.
“‘But if no evil is done through acting, then I can assume myself pure in both respects.’ This is the fourth assurance one acquires.” — AN 3:65
If everyone in his time believed in karma and rebirth, the Buddha wouldn’t have had to state these assurances.
So it’s obvious that that the idea of rebirth and its connection with karma was not an unexamined assumption in Indian culture. It was one of the most controversial issues of the Buddha’s time—which means that we can’t write off his teachings on karma and rebirth simply as an undigested relic from his culture. In teaching these principles, he was consciously taking a stand on an issue that was hotly debated, in a culture that expected him to articulate clearly his explanation for how and why rebirth did or didn’t happen. We know that he didn’t take on all the hot issues of his day—remember the story of the man shot by the arrow (MN 63)—so the Buddha must have had his reasons for taking this issue on.