Aspects of Buddhist practice I find problematic – Sarah Kokai Thwaites


This for me is rebirth. I find it impossible to believe in reincarnation, literal interpretations of rebirth and versions of karma associated with these. I wrote this some months ago and found spending some time reflecting on the implications of this for my life and practice valuable, kickstarting another strand of practice. I’ll come back to that at the end. First my original musings and wafflings on rebirth:

I can quite easily accept westernised-type interpretations. I have no problem with the concept of karma, interpreted as actions and consequences, and rebirth as a moment-to-moment expression of impermanence. But if I pretend more traditional interpretations are not a key Buddhist concept, I’m fooling myself. Not believing in it doesn’t feel like a problem but perhaps my hasty dismissal of its implication is. If I am going to reject something that has been a key teaching for centuries, I’d better understand why and be clear for myself if removing that concept has other implications.

I can’t easily just dismiss traditional practices as superstitious because I am aware that my bizarre love of Buddhist statues, bowing and chanting could equally be viewed as superstitious nonsense. I know how powerful these have been for me even if I can’t explain why. Perhaps, for those who can accept or just experiment with it, a belief in reincarnation/literal rebirth might also have benefits and power?

I once sat both fascinated and bemused at a European Buddhist Union session as a Tibetan Rinpoche answered questions on rebirth and karma. The audience listened intently, nodding and scribbling down salient points as he talked about which actions done with which intent earned or lost an individual merit points and how merit points not dedicated hadn’t been ‘banked’ and so could be lost by even a minor misdeed or misthought. The audience were keen to know how to earn and keep merit and so earn a favourable rebirth. To me it felt impossibly literal and almost comic. It would have been easy for me to dismiss had it not been for his obvious sincerity and that of his audience. For many people in traditionally Buddhist countries, reincarnation is not a side aspect of Buddhist thinking. It is woven into people’s experience and thinking, even if not consciously practised, much as a belief in heaven and hell infuses the attitudes of many people brought up Christian. It seems to me that concepts of heaven, hell, afterlife and rebirth have a social and psychological purpose.

Perhaps an idea of justice is woven into human psychology. We like to think that good things happen to good people. Most of us learn before we are adults that this isn’t necessarily the case. Believing that this ‘unfairness’ can be righted in an afterlife, with our actions during this lifetime influencing whether we go to a good place or a bad place after death, is a feature across many religions and brings comfort to many. Not having a belief leaves a lot of not-knowing for me around death and whenever I have spent time thinking about death has thrown me back to an intention to fully live this life. I certainly wouldn’t want to knock anyone else’s belief in life after death or being reunited with loved ones. Sometimes perhaps having something to believe is more important than whether it is true, especially when we can’t possibly know for sure?

Then there is the social control role that various ideas about life and death have as deterrents to bad behaviour. Years ago when my ordination outed me as a Buddhist to many work contacts, I found myself being quizzed by two people, one a Christian and one a Muslim, who were intrigued by the unfamiliarity of Buddhism. They asked if I believed in heaven and hell. They were horrified and worried that I didn’t. What, they wondered, in the absence of that belief, was stopping me from committing murder or other violent crimes? The question seemed bizarre at the time. I don’t believe for a second that my questioners would be likely to murder anyone even if they lost their hope of heaven and fear of hell. I would prefer to believe that it’s not just fear of hell that prevents us from killing each other and that an innate goodness can motivate our actions and restrain any temptation to cause harm. Life however reminds me how often this is not the case. In my work I hear far too much about domestic violence, sex crimes and abuse to let me pretend that the world is always rosy. Life wounds, hopelessness, raging emotions can lead any of us to act in harmful ways, some of us more harmfully and more dramatically than others. Maybe we as a human race need social sanctions and rewards. If that doesn’t come from religion, perhaps more of the onus for this falls on governments and their policing arms which tend to focus on rules and punishments for breaking them rather than rewards for being good. The size and demographics of prison populations remind me this doesn’t work too well or fairly.

And religion is also problematic as a social control. Strong beliefs in heaven and hell can easily be co-opted to justify harm with religion being used as a justification for war, acts of terrorism, colonialism and other conflicts. I have no answer for how society could encourage people to do more good and less harm, or confidence that we always know the difference. And yet somehow practice seems to help me to do less harm despite not having the motivation of avoiding a bad rebirth.

Moving to a personal level, rejecting a literal concept of rebirth and being filled with not-knowing about death, as both an experience and a gateway to anything else, prompts some questions.

  • What is the motivation for my practice and my life? What matters to me?
  • How do I feel about death? Without a clear, comforting idea of life after death how would I cope with the death of my nearest and dearest?

Since writing the above I found myself pulled to an experiment. I was aware of Stephen Levine’s book A Year to Live, which encourages people to live for one year as if that year was their last. It outlines practices for the year and areas to explore. I’m currently one month into that year. I didn’t expect it would make much difference to my practice. I’ve already spent quite a lot of time reflecting on and sitting with the subject of life and death. I’ve read Frank Ostaseski’s “The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death can Teach us about Living Fully” multiple times and finding myself making life adjustments as a result. And yet having a notional death date has definitely added a new oomph and urgency to my already lively practice. Life became extra precious, heartbreakingly beautiful and tragic as I reflected on the state of the world I’d be leaving behind and my grief at its potential future. I’ve found myself reviewing my own life to date and facing deep regrets. I’ve reviewed my life priorities. I’ve excavated a new layer of trauma, finding it newly urgent to not leave anything unhealed which restricts my ability to live and love fully while I can. I also found the sense of time ticking away brought to the surface my overactive need to be doing something, to be making a difference and gave me a chance to delve into my overactive sense of responsibility, its roots and the downsides to it.

With all of that crammed into one month I don’t know what the next 11 months of my Year to Live will bring. I feel both excited and a little wary. I have a sense it will not be dull. I’m not expecting to find any answers to my uncertainties about death but perhaps I’ll have a greater willingness to be fully with my changing experience of this precious life.