The traditional Buddhist claim that sentient beings are reborn after death is rooted in the Buddhist approach to consciousness and causality. Buddhism has a long history of philosophical discussion regarding the relationship between consciousness and the physical body, which has informed its approach to rebirth.
Nevertheless, there is a tendency for Buddhist practitioners raised in secular societies to treat rebirth as a mere religious dogma. This is understandable given that, within secular societies, there has been a loss of interest in the philosophical subjects that explore claims about the afterlife. For about a century, much of western philosophical and intellectual culture has been dominated by a tendency to treat the physical sciences as the highest form of knowledge. Such an attitude misunderstands the history and purpose of the sciences. It also undervalues philosophical subjects such as epistemology and metaphysics, both of which are central to Buddhist intellectual tradition.
With this informal talk, the aim is to facilitate discussion in order to dig deeper into the assumptions that underpin scepticism about rebirth. We can also discuss some of the key Buddhist ideas that support the traditional belief in rebirth as well as some important issues in western philosophy that suggest there are serious limits to what the physical sciences can tell us about consciousness after death.
“On the one hand, it is difficult for us to check the existence of past and future lives for ourselves. However, a clear distinction should be made between what is not found and what is found to be nonexistent by science. What science finds to be nonexistent, we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter.
On the other hand, the Buddha stated clearly that our awareness of both the impact of our previous lives on this life and the consequences of our present deeds on our future lives is an essential way to motivate a proper sense of ethical maturity and spiritual development.”
HH Dalai Lama
Jacob Lucas began studying both western and Buddhist philosophy at the same time, albeit in different ways. Within months of starting a course in A-Level Philosophy, he began practising and studying Buddhism with the Saraswati Buddhist Group in South Petherton. These two types of study continued to run in parallel during his undergraduate years.
Eventually Jacob was able to bring these two together in the form of a doctoral research project based at the University of Exeter and co-supervised at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Buddhist Studies. The project explored the key Buddhist ideas that underpin belief in rebirth and how these can be approached using recent developments in western philosophy of consciousness. He received his doctorate in July.