I don’t believe in Reincarnation. Am I still a Buddhist?

Via Waylon Lewis
on Jun 16, 2009
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I grew up in a Buddhist family. As the Dalai Lama says of Buddhism,

Anything that contradicts experience and logic should be abandoned. – His Holiness the Dalai Lama

In fact, the Buddha himself said something along the lines of “Buddhism is what can be experienced, not what I say it is.” And so I’ve never believed in reincarnation—I’ve never experienced it, it strikes me as superstition, as a spiritual hangover from Buddhism’s origins with Hinduism (I also don’t particularly believe in eight-armed green deities).

Still, from a strict Buddhist p.o.v., reincarnation is part of our dogma. Wait, I thought we didn’t have dogma, we only “believed” what we could experience? Well, there’s the rub. If you ask my teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the fact that I don’t believe in reincarnation means I’m not, strictly speaking, a proper Buddhist. I say, show me the evidence of it, and why it matters to my Bodhisattva Vow: to be of benefit.

Because that, after all, is the whole point of all this Buddhist stuff (at least as I was brought up to understand it in Chogyam Trungpa‘s sangha community): to become sane (Hinayana), work for the benefit of others (Mahayana) and fully involve onself in this short, precious human existence (Vajrayana). And Trungpa Rinpoche himself never emphasized reincarnation, or the six realms (except as psychological analogies).

So call me a dis-believer. But given that Buddhism is a non-theistic tradition, I think that just makes me a…Buddhist. ~ elephant journal editor-in-chief, Waylon Lewis.

Via one of my favorite Buddhist e-newsletters, Upaya, which also has an elegant site that’s chock-ful of events and Dharma:

Shinshu Roberts was looking at Suzuki Roshi transcripts and ran across this:

suzuki roshi reincarnation buddhism

Student F: “Reincarnation. What do Buddhists believe?”

Suzuki-rōshi: “Yeah, that is—it has been Buddhist belief, and no one can deny it, you know. It is difficult to say it doesn’t exist. It is very difficult to say. [To say,] “It does exist” is easy [laughs], but we cannot—if you want to deny something, it is very difficult, you know [laughs]. It is easy to say, “I am not enlightened.” This is easy. But it is very difficult to say, “I have no easy [?] desires”—I have no such easy desire as you have. Can you [laughs] clearly declare in that way, you know?

Maybe, you know, your idea—the thought of reincarnation—someone may say it is—it is superstition. It is easy—it is not so easy to say that is superstition. You have to prove, you know, everything from every angle if you want to say that is—reincarnation does not exist. It is almost impossible to deny something, some idea which you have. So maybe we shouldn’t [laughs]. It is better not [to].

And actually, some of you may say that is superstition. Some of you may say so, but he himself, you know, what exactly what he does, actually, is based on that kind of idea—idea of reincarnation. That is how he is—how human nature is going. I may die tomorrow, you know, but I—until I die, I think I will live tomorrow too. When I go to bed I think I am quite sure [laughs] that I can get up tomorrow at five o’clock. I am quite sure. But we cannot be so sure [laughs]. You see, we—I believe in my future life always. That is actually what we are doing. So it is more than belief, you know. [It is] actual life we have. Okay?”

Now, I have little idea what Suzuki Roshi is saying. I think he’s saying reincarnation happens now—it’s beyond superstition. But whatever he means, I agree with it—he’s the author of one of my favorite Buddhist books, like, ever.


About Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of elephant magazine, now elephantjournal.com & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat." Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword's Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by "Greatist", Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: "the mindful life" beyond the choir & to all those who didn't know they gave a care. elephantjournal.com | His first book, Things I would like to do with You, is now available.


59 Responses to “I don’t believe in Reincarnation. Am I still a Buddhist?”

  1. Was Buddha a Buddhist? Perhaps the question is whether or not to be an "-ist."

    That said, I find contemplating the doctrine of reincarnation interesting, especially in conjunction with anatta (no-self). Who is it that reincarnates if the separate self sense is illusory? Certainly my atoms "reincarnate" as dirt, which perhaps partially becomes a flower, but this isn't what is usually meant by reincarnation.

    I also find the stories of children recalling particular events of apparently previous lives interesting. But I'm not willing to claim anything solid around this mysterious topic.

  2. Great points! I just don't like to presume generally. When "I" die and am "reborn" as something or other, and the seed of ego remains intact (as the teachings go, I'm reborn until ego is dissolved) then I'll know I was wrong to disbelieve. Until then, count me out.

  3. Good point: I do acknowledge that my physical self becomes fertilizer or what have you…trees, flowers, air…but right, that is not what's meant by reincarnation in Buddhist tradition.

  4. This reminds me of the Buddha's teaching on "things that don't matter." Many of the "big questions," like "What happens to me when I die," don't matter according to the Buddha!

  5. Jeff McDuffee has it in the first line there. Why is it necessary to identify one's self with a framework/belief structure? Such will never describe your individual experience. There will always be fundamental differences between you and it.
    What are labels for? They function like any other word, but in this case to enhance our identities and thus our egos. Let go of the label and you will be free to believe or disbelieve whatever you like, but you will no longer get automatic respect from certain others or some of the other benefits that a label may provide.
    In this physical dimension about which we can prove and disprove, only for practical purposes mind you, certain things, yes the substance of our bodies lives on in other forms according to physical laws. But the mind is ultimately of this world and largely limited in its conceptual ability to describing possibilities in terms of spacial and temporal concepts with which we are familiar, often with emphasis on linear continuity.
    If "reincarnation" exists, then its actual process or mechanism is most likely beyond the ability of the mind to grasp and of language to express. This is why experience is so important. Only when you see with your being, not just your five senses, can you know a thing, and even then the knowing is not of the same order of a knowing based on sense perception and analysis thereof. And further, the knowing is likely *only valid for you*.

    Let go if your need to have a convenient label to describe your conceptual framework by which you live, because it sounds like it now hinders your exploration of this experience more than it helps you. You can always pick it up again if your experience brings you back to a compatible understanding.

  6. sj* says:

    read the Bhagavad Gita. it will answer any questions you have about reincarnation. then you can let go and live.

  7. Xenu says:

    If you choose to believe in reincarnation, choose to believe that you will be reincarnated in a hell realm if you don't practice now! If you don't believe in reincarnation for whatever reason, then the time you have is limited, death is certain, and you should practice now!

  8. Via Facebook:

    Mary Jo likes this.

    John Perks at 3:41pm June 16

    Waylon Hart Lewis at 3:44pm June 16
    I'm with you, John! But why?

    Ehron at 5:02pm June 16
    I believe that the belief in actual reincarnation is not as important as fully understanding the inner, outer and innermost meaning of reincarnation from the Buddhist perspective.

    Cary at 5:06pm June 16
    arising one moment to the 'next' is not a belief…

    Laith at 7:22pm June 16
    do you have to believe in god to be a christian?

    Phyllis at 7:44pm June 16
    Do you have to believe in buddhist if you reincarnate?

  9. aefpix says:

    No. And you can believe in reincarnation and NOT be a Buddhist. American General Patton believed in reincarnation and he was not Buddhist.

  10. sdaniels_57 says:

    A snippet of email Q&A with my old philosophy instructor (who, to my benefit, is a Buddhist) on reincarnation:

    Q: Do you believe in reincarnation and if so what is the justification?

    A: “Some days it seems dead on obvious that some kind of reincarnation occurs, other days it seems to be more of a metaphorical and symbolic way of talking about the ways that habits become destiny, other days the whole thing just sounds ridiculous.”

  11. I think Suzuki Roshi is saying that we should be cautious and not to rush in denying reincarnation, because this would imply that we know for sure, that we have explored the subject from all its sides. He seems to point that negating reincarnation is difficult given the weight of this as a settled belief in the Buddhist tradition and canon. Also, he warns that someone can say reincarnation is superstition but still behave as if he believed in reincarnation, since he or she expects to live tomorrow morning, which implies a notion of continuity of self, like reincarnation. So, how can we dare deny reincarnation and still believe that we exist?

    Clara Llum, sensei

  12. Linda V. Lewis says:

    Trungpa Rinpoche didn't like to talk to much about reincarnation or rebirth as he felt the then young sangha might be given too much false hope. I remember him saying it was an "ego loophole". The ego doesn't recycle; just the energy. The ego is fabrication, a patchwork we try to keep together, which is always falling apart. Death and rebirth happen moment to moment. There is only the continuity of awareness.

  13. Jordan52 says:

    I recall that Buddha remembered many reincarnated lives but did he say they arose sequentially, over time? If the ego is an illusion then could the aspects of a reincarnated awareness exist within different egos during the same present moment? In this way people who are meaningful in my life could be variations of me or the nondual awareness that produces this illusion I think is me.

    The elegance of awareness evolving from different aspects of the same energy field, at the same time, might mean you really can't harm another without harming yourself because there is no "other" in the most intimate sense. If I believe you might be a reincarnated aspect of myself would I be more compassionate, more accepting and less judgemental of you – or me? Would it become more compelling to to work for the enlightenment of all beings if the beings sharing this moment are essentially me anyway? Karma happens now AND in a different "life". In this sense perhaps every birth is a rebirth, a reincarnation that defies constraints imposed by my non-liberated mind.

  14. Xenu says:

    Identifying oneself as a "Buddhist" contradicts the teachings of Buddha.

  15. […] Denmark. It vividly reminds us that in getting up off the couch, in working our butts off for the benefit of others, no matter the setbacks…it’s all worth […]

  16. Greg says:

    Waylon, your teacher is correct. Without an understanding of reincarnation one does not have an understanding of Buddhism.

    It is not something one believes in. It is something one comes to know. Practice.

    Part of the problem with discussions of reincarnation comes from wrong thought. It is a terribly misunderstood but an integral part of Buddhism.

    Trungpa was very much aware of reincarnation. I am surprised you have not read Luminous Emptiness.

    In my view, one is not a Buddhist teacher unless one knows this area cold.

    Always good to return to the Dhammapada to read:

    "Whoever knows all his past lives,
    Sees both the happy and unhappy realms,
    Is free from rebirth,
    Has achieved perfect insight,
    And has attained the summit of the higher life.
    Him do I call a Noble One."

    Too often we make the mistake of considering reincarnation unimportant and not vital to our practice but nothing could be further from the truth.

    This happens because we do not recognize the importance of knowing reincarnation has to with knowing our true nature.

    It is not about the past life we have concern but rather about the nature of a Buddha (an enlightened one) who has recognized his past lives and has come to know freedom from rebirth. If one does not know reincarnation, its causes and conditions, one cannot begin to know what it means to be free from rebirth.

    If one knows nothing of reincarnation from a firsthand viewpoint of the practice one has not begun to know Buddhism and one has not truly taken the bodhisattva vow as the vow of the bodhisattva is given within the context of knowing one's true nature as it exists separate from reincarnations.

    We grossly underestimate the teachings of the Buddha. Stephen Batchelor has confused so many with his claims that the teachings are beliefs rather than the result of diligent practice. Buddhism is soooo much more than it is (mis)conceived to be.

  17. Susi says:

    So much thinking!!! Most important… what are you doing right now? Just wake up to this moment… this moment… this moment…

  18. Greg says:

    What is this moment? How far does it go spatially? Temporally? In this moment what does one view? What are the causes and conditions that make this moment?

    While "wake up this moment" expresses a true simplicity getting to that simplicity can be deceptively difficult. Many who consider themselves awake merely dream. For them "this moment" is limited.

  19. […] commentary on the guy feel free to reference this post by me. Or this one by a friend who, while a practicing Buddhist, doesn’t believe in reincarnation. Buddhism isn’t dogmatic. It’s […]

  20. Brian Adler says:

    Bravo Waylon!!!!

  21. Robert J. Bullock says:

    I agree with J–.

    I have grown tired of "scientific materialist Buddhists" who think that enlightenment is the end result of some dry, logical process, who try to turn emptiness into an antidote and who have no faith in the testimony of those they bow to so readily in the shrine room.

    I trust my Tibetan Buddhist masters and many other revered masters that speak of rebirth and transmigration of consciousness as an actual reality, not a mere symbolic teaching.

    Waylon, I'm afraid you're foolish to speak so dismissively of rebirth.

  22. Robert J. Bullock says:

    Boooo Waylon!!!

  23. Sheila says:

    That's up to your karma. You'd have to be a yogi to direct your rebirth. A very accomplished yogi, at that. I'm just saying… most will not be reborn with sentience. Including myself probably. We are still transforming though. We are reincarnating. Eventually, we may be human again.

    So, we absolutely will reincarnate. The question is really whethere we have some control over what form or direction in what our next form will be. Sure we can. If wind can move a boat. If lightning can knock down trees. If sun can travel through space and nourish a plant. Even fire, is not wholly solid yet can be devastating. Why do we think we have to have a body to interact? Just looking at the world we live in we can see that many things have no solid form, yet can visibly be seen to make an impact on the physical world.

    Your concept of reincarnation has to include sentience? I just don't see how you can allow for evolution without allowing for reincarnation as well. If we do not transform, then we would simply cease to exist, which doesn't happen.

  24. […] Denmark. It vividly reminds us that in getting up off the couch, in working our butts off for the benefit of others, no matter the setbacks…it’s all worth […]

  25. […] is about experience, not faith. If you can’t experience something to be true…say, like reincarnation…you don’t have to believe in it. We don’t believe in anything, after all, that we […]

  26. always seemed to me that reincarnation presumes two things – the existence of linear time, and the individuated self … neither of which have been proven to exist …. not sure where that leaves us …

  27. Not being a Buddhist myself, I don't particularly care. Nonetheless, here's what notable Buddhist (if not as authoritative on the subject as tamingauthor Greg) Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about it: "Not only is our body impermanent, but our so-called soul is also impermanent. It, too, is comprised only of elements like feelings, perceptions, mental states, and consciousness… Before its so-called birth, the flower already existed in other forms — clouds, sunshine, seeds, soil, and many other elements. Rather than birth and rebirth, it is more accurate to say "manifestation" (vijñapti) and "remanifestation."… Manifestation means its constituents have always been here in some form, and now, since conditions are sufficient, it is capable of manifesting itself as a flower. When things have manifested, we commonly say they are born, but in fact, they are not. When conditions are no longer sufficient and the flower ceases to manifest, we say the flower has died, but that is not correct either. Its constituents have merely transformed themselves into other elements, like compost and soul." (from Living Buddha, Living Christ)

  28. onecuriousyogi says:

    I don't believe in reincarnation either. I experience it.

  29. onecuriousyogi says:

    Thank you.

  30. DonPedro says:

    Thank you for that illuminating quote. I have been much in the camp of Waylon (buddhist, but not "believing" in reincarnation). But if there is no self, then the the continuity represented in reincarnation/rematerialisation is more of an "pan-sentient being" thing. Basically the karmic laws and reincarnation can be interpreted as an interpretation of our existence that lays the basis for a pure, non-dualistic morality and wholesome life. So: Even though my ego is not reborn in any way, the materials and energies from which I was made will be absorbed by other beings. If I truly believe in "no self", I believe that I should care for these beings as much as I care for myself (as if it was I that was born, again). Likewise, it is easier to tread the path of the Dharma with a vibrant Sangha around us. Thus, my practice does not end with death, because of my contribution to the Sangha and the ongoing practice of others around me. Does this make sense to anyone else than myself?

  31. akismet-e8d7c971ae4b6e7d6aeeaf26d33b98c8 says:

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  32. yogijulian says:

    the doctrine of reincarnation is the only thing preventing buddhism from living up to its potential as a secular, systematic system for retraining the brain, cultivating compassion and transforming more people's lives.

    the fact that science and psychology have validated so much of the the interior process of meditation practice and the observations of buddhist philosophy makes the core of the dharma more relevant than any other spiritual teaching that has ever existed.

    shedding the albatross of the highly improbable transmigration of an immaterial soul – a concept that belongs to the archaic past and is indefensible given what we now know about biology, neuroscience and the cosmos in general, will only move buddhism forward as humanity attempts to transition out of mythic literalist religious silliness and into a viable 21st century spirituality.

    precisely because buddhism has so much that makes it extraordinarily wise and ahead of its time in comparison to the other faiths, it would do well to relinquish the superstitious beliefs that make it seem like just another religion.

    i too am a buddhist and i find reincarnation ludicrous!

  33. Gary D. says:

    I guess I believe in re-incarnation just like I believe in I was around last week — based on memories. Important questions for me on this:

    1. There we 1 billion people on earth in 1800. There are about 7 billion now and maybe twice that in another 100 years. Were do some of the new people come from? I was often asked this. The only possible answers I can think of are A. From animals, B. From other life outside of the earth, such as exoplanets in other solar systems. C. That spiritual beings are queued up waiting for new people and so what was a long line in 1800 is a shorter line now. D. That maybe all spiritual beings were one single entity at one point and over time that have been splitting up into different beings but not knowing it — I always find this possiblity fascinating that we were all one at one time, but not anymore.

  34. Gary D. says:

    2. Can we chose where we go after each death. My own memories seem to be that after death, I then am released from the body and soon all goes blank again.

    3. Were did we come from originally. The earth is only had humans for a million years and only had life for maybe 4.3 billion years. The universe is only 14.5. No one knows if there are other universes, but assuming they are, they had to start at some point. What were we doing before then?

    4. When the universe fizzles out, where do we go? To another universe. Or will we all have reached nirvana.

    5. Did we get into this whole thing of birth, living, death with our own agreement? Or was this forced? Or in between, was this a trick?

  35. […] first encounter with Buddhism and the mystery of reincarnation was when my mother returned from a trekking expedition in the Himalayas with a first edition copy […]

  36. Robert Daniels says:

    Eleanor Roosevelt was once asked what her views on the subject of reincarnation were. She stated simply,
    "You know, I don't think it would be any more unusual for me to show up in another life, than showing up in this one!"

    try not to over think "is" or "isn't".. life is to short.

  37. elephantjournal says:

    Amen! Great quote and point. I'm just not into believing or blind faith, generally. Show me evidence, or even why it's important at all, and I'm in.

    And, "to" is too short.

  38. I am not a Buddhist, I was raised Christian, church of England, spent 30 years searching for some kind of connection with the religion I was in, but never got anything remotely as close to enlightenment as I did one day in a yoga studio. So now, I don't subscribe to any religion other than the one inside me, which, coincidently runs parellel to many elements of Christinity, and to Buddhism, and to just generally loving myself, the earth, and living breathing beings.
    My point?
    My point is does it matter? If you believe in reincarnation or not…..as long as you love, are loved, and you feel.

    No, it doesn't really does it.

  39. Greg Eckard says:

    This is indeed a difficult area of Buddhism to understand, especially for a newcomer such as myself. I read this article hoping for some insight into it, but it seems that this is a somewhat advanced topic that is down the road for me. Still, the article got me thinking.

  40. Deeb says:

    I think the term reincarnation is misleading. It implies a pre-incarnation. If we think instead of re-manifestation, we have something that can b demonstrated by science, since we know matter can neither be created nor destroyed. The first part is requires getting rid of any duality between the physical and spiritual. If we understand them together, then it is easy to see that you re-manifest in many ways. When you pee, your physical being goes into the plant you pee on. It becomes the plant, just like when you drink water, the cloud that it once was is not inly in you, it actually becomes you. It has merely taken a different form. We have already re-manifest in many ways, and many things have re-manifest as us. The material that makes up our bodies is different than the matter that was us years ago (or even minutes ago).

    This is the nature of inter-being. It is why the single-pointed mind sees all of existence in that single point of focus.

  41. Ozz says:

    "shedding the albatross of the highly improbable transmigration of an immaterial soul – a concept that belongs to the archaic past and is indefensible given what we now know about biology, neuroscience and the cosmos in general, will only move buddhism forward as humanity attempts to transition out of mythic literalist religious silliness and into a viable 21st century spirituality. "

    This is the most incisive and clearest articulation of this position that I've ever heard. Thanks, Julian.

  42. Ryan Farnham says:

    I take the middle path on this topic, I don't believe in reincarnation but I believe it may be possible, I will not state something as fact without knowing for sure one way or another. The Buddha him self said he did not believe in reincarnation, so why is it included in Buddhism if it was never part of the Buddha Dharrma (Dhamma in Pali)?

    For me, I distinctly remember the last moments of being a wolf in a past life, this has been with me since childhood, but I can't state it wasn't some fantasy or dream I had, yet it has just been there and I can't shake it away like dreams or fantasy, so it makes me wonder, but that is all it is, wonder, it's not enough to go on to consider reality, but it also won't stop me from following the path.

  43. Ryan Farnham says:

    Also, by teaching reincarnation as fact and the rest of the Buddha Dharma (dhamma) as something to question makes us hypocrites, it goes against what Buddhism is, especially if we say that if you do not believe in reincarnation than you are not a true Buddhist, once you make such a statement you are not making a Buddhist like statement, there is no room for this type of behavior in Buddhism.

    To sum things up, I am not saying not to teach it, I'm saying to teach it in a better way, because ultimately it is for each Buddhist to find out if something is true or not and to apply it. Buddhism should not have any Dogma in it, it's about truth, it's about practice of reality and having no way to test something like reincarnation in this life prevents it from being tested and stated as fact, so stating it as fact without proof is rather dogmatic.

  44. […] say this often but I’m pretty sure I was a cat in a previous life. If I believed in reincarnation, I’d be purring right […]

  45. I definitely dont think you need to believe in reincarnation (or rebirth) to be a Buddhist. The Triratna movement which I practice with has an agnostic position on it, each person makes up their own mind.

    In particular I think its important to recognise that you can still have Karma without rebirth. Ive just read Nagapriya's book Exploring Karma and Rebirth which covers this topic really well.

    kind regards,

    Rational Buddha

  46. […] Buddhism doesn’t believe in anything. Any Buddhist who tells you to believe in reincarnation or anything that can’t be proven is caught up in superstition, and should be forcibly sent to […]

  47. […] don’t believe in reincarnation, but I believe in this moment, and the universe, and the beautiful art that is this beautiful video […]

  48. […]   PS: that’s why, say, if reincarnation doesn’t makes sense to me, but is a Buddhist “belief,” I (after much consideration and study) toss it. […]

  49. @drawohara says:

    unless you've found a way to create matter or energy you, along with the rest of the modern world accept reincarnation as a matter of fact. buddhism's dogma is in the particulars, not in the concept itself.

    we're made of matter and energy – which can only be recycled, not created. all matter is continuously distributed among beings and non-beings ( http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?stor… ). ergo we exist *directly* as products of other beings and non-beings and have all experienced, from the moment of our conception, the experience of being reconstituted from other living beings.

    so, actually, the only way to not believe in reincarnation is to have faith in the existence of an eternal and separate soul.

    our experiences and understanding simply demand accepting reincarnation as the way in which we are born, die, decompose, and are re-born.

    it's the inability to point to a distinct set of matter, energy, or soul as the 'I' that makes this reasoning correct: it's right to use "we are born…" and "we are re-born" since there isn't a clear line, physical other otherwise, that differentiates us as individuals. in other words it is true to say that "*you* are not re-born"; but that is because there no real "you". for the same reason it's correct to say that all of us – "we" – are most definitely and provably re-born.

    logic tells us this. not meta-physics.

  50. Maria Spizuoco says:

    The Dalai Lama definitely believes in reincarnation despite the quote you used at the top of this article: