I’ve often heard it said, rightly I think, that Buddhism cannot do without a concept of karma; it is too central to Buddhist thought. I don’t see this as a big problem in itself, even for those (like myself) who would wish to do without the supernatural elements in Buddhism. For karma, as Dale Wright has proposed, can be naturalized on Aristotelian grounds: virtue makes our lives better, because it makes us happier on the inside. In that sense, our good and bad actions come back to us as good and bad results, without any supernatural causation being involved. Buddhism may require karma, but we can have karma without rebirth.
The question troubling me now is: can we have Buddhism without rebirth? There’s a basic problem posed here by the First Noble Truth, the classic Buddhist idea that all is dukkha: all is suffering, painful, unsatisfactory, sorrowful, bad. If this is so, why not commit suicide? For a classical Buddhist, rebirth is the answer to this question, and the obvious answer. Suicide makes your dukkha even worse; as a bad, un-dharmic activity, it will trap you in a far worse rebirth, leave you far more sorrowful and suffering than you are.
But if there is no rebirth? Then death starts to look disturbingly like nirvana. The suttas are cagey about describing nibb?na; they’re more ready to say what it is not, and it is not like the sorrowful existence we face in worldly sa?s?ra. Etymologically, the Pali or Sanskrit word connotes “extinguishing,” like blowing out a candle. When they do venture to characterize nirvana the suttas identify it as peaceful, tranquil, undisturbed. And in those same suttas, while one can attain nirvana in life, the death of a person who has attained nirvana is spoken of as the highest nirvana, parinibb?na. The cycle of sa?s?ra and rebirth, on the other hand, is characterized as a weary, sorrowful place from which we would do well to escape if only we could. Seen in this light, an anti-supernatural worldview turns out to be oddly good and hopeful news: we don’t have to go through all the rigours of the Buddhist path to find the end of suffering. We merely have to die.
But if all this is so, the logical consequence seems to be one that would make most Buddhists, and everyone else, uneasy: we should end it all, quickly, with a suicide.
At least, that would seem to be the consequence for Theravāda tradition, in which our own liberation from suffering is paramount. But the consequences for Mahāyāna would seem even grimmer. True, without rebirth, the Mah?y?nist needs to prolong her own life in order to save others from suffering. But how can one best end others’ suffering? One might easily provide the answer: kill them. Universal euthanasia. One avoids suicide so that one can kill others. The conclusion is not as far-fetched as one might wish it were: Wilhelm Halbfass in Tradition and Reflection notes that classical Indian sources refer to a group called the Sa?s?ramocakas, who were said to practise compassionate murder in order to liberate others from suffering. But if we are led to the Sa?s?ramocakas’ position, we have at least prima facie reason to think something has gone seriously wrong, somewhere, with our reasoning.
I don’t think one can get out of this problem through a deeper examination of the concept of dukkha and its classification. True, the suttas tell us that there are three kinds of dukkha: basic dukkha (dukkhadukkha), dukkha from change (vipari??madukkha), and dukkha from conditions (sa?kh?radukkha). I’ve seen some people try and look to this distinction as a solution: for example, this essay by Omar Moad at the British magazine The Philosopher.
Only basic dukkha is obviously, visibly, immediately painful or sorrowful, and not everything is basic dukkha, it can be the other kinds. But the thing is, the other two are painful and sorrowful as well – we just don’t see it. All three are undeniably bad, and everything is composed of them. And contrary to Moad’s article, even dukkha from conditions, sa?kh?radukkha, does not merely arise from a limited perspective; it is part of the conditioned nature of things. As Moad notes, for those who have attained proper insight, “even the most blissful existence as a deva in one of the Buddhist Heavens would seem to be a miserable Hell.” Buddhists can remain optimistic in that there is a way out of all this – but that way involves transcending it all. And if rebirth is no longer an issue, one way to transcend it would be through suicide – or murder, if one is being altruistic.
Is there a way out of the problem? I can see two. The most straightforward approach, which I have previously taken, is to deny the First Noble Truth: life is good. But in saying this, one denies a great deal of Buddhist tradition, at least as much as one would do by denying karma. A more Buddhist approach would be to take Nāgārjuna’s M?dhyamika lead and say nirvana is merely sa?s?ra properly viewed, so that the life of the bodhisattva is in fact blissful, much better than mere extinguishing. But if that’s true, then if we were to somehow know that someone will not become a bodhisattva, then would it not seem that that person is better off dead?