Do you have to believe in rebirth to be a Buddhist? Roger Jackson, emeritus professor of Asian studies and religion at Carleton College and author of Is Enlightenment Possible? Dharmakirti and Rgyal Tshab Rje on Knowledge, Rebirth, No-Self and Liberation, explored the question with Tibetan Buddhist scholar Jay Garfield in a recent discussion on modern Buddhism. The discussion was part of a recent Live@Tricycle event series around the new anthology Secularizing Buddhism: New Perspectives on a Dynamic Tradition.

To answer the question, Jackson suggests that what you practice may be more important than what you believe. He categorizes belief in rebirth as “a matter of working within what I would call a particular aesthetic, a Buddhist aesthetic, in which many of these, if you will, metaphysical or cosmological questions are either shunted aside or put in suspension, and you participate in the life of the tradition, uncertain about certain aspects of it.” 

For Jackson, the question, “do you have to believe in rebirth to be a Buddhist?” is “a good one,” but not “the essential” one. Rather, “the glue that’s held [him] together as a Buddhist has been the doctrine of emptiness.” And it’s that very “glue” that he uses to reconcile the doctrine of no-self with that of rebirth—a compatibility that was questioned in this recent discussion. In the process, Jackson shows why, despite the concepts of no-self and emptiness, Buddhism is not nihilistic. 

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There are many presentations of [no-self versus reincarnation] in early Buddhist tradition, but in some ways, the classic presentation of it is by Nagarjuna, the great philosopher of the Madhyamaka school and great philosopher of emptiness. In the 18th verse of the 24th chapter of his fundamental stances on the middle way (a verse I’ve heard His Holiness the Dalai Lama discourse on for two hours at a time), he makes an equation between emptiness and dependent origination

Dependent origination is another way of talking about how causes and conditions bring about events in the world and it’s all impermanent. In the context of that chapter, Nagarjuna’s opponent says if everything is empty—and Nagarjuna has spent 23 chapters showing this is empty, that is empty, time is empty, motion is empty, causation is empty, to the point of seeming utterly nihilistic—then basic items of the Buddhist path and cosmology are empty too, and they’re annihilated. Then Nagarjuna says, you’ve totally misunderstood what I’m doing. I’m talking from the ultimate standpoint. 

From the ultimate standpoint, there is no substantially existent causation or time or motion, or Buddha for that matter. But, in fact, conventionally all these things are reasonable and exist. And in fact, in one of the great jujitsu moves in Indian philosophical history, he says it’s not only that emptiness does not annihilate rebirth and the path and Buddhahood and arhatship. It’s that if things were not empty, none of this could actually be the case because the world is a changing, shifting, impermanent world. Dependent arising is simply the term that describes that, and things cannot dependently arise if they are not empty, because the opposite of being empty is being permanent, independent, and partless. It’s a brilliant move.

I would say that emptiness does, as Nagarjuna brilliantly argues, establish the validity of the conventional world, but what the conventional world actually consists of—whether there’s rebirth or not, whether the sky is blue, whether there’s Mount Meru—all these are matters for conventional philosophical debate. 

But the key thing is the harmony between dependent arising and emptiness, such that to say things are empty is to say that they arise dependently. To say that they arise dependently is to say that they are empty. This is a point that Nagarjuna makes, Tsongkhapa in the Tibetan tradition has made very powerfully, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama makes repeatedly. It’s a key to showing that the doctrines of emptiness and no-self are not nihilistic. 

Click here to watch the full discussion with Roger Jackson and Jay Garfield, part of Secularizing Buddhism—a week-long conversation series with Tricycle and Shambhala Publications celebrating the launch of the new anthology, Secularizing Buddhism: New Perspectives on a Dynamic Tradition

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