A few years ago I wondered how a naturalized Buddhism could avoid advocating suicide. If our goal is the cessation of suffering, and death is not the beginning of a new birth but a simple ending, shouldn’t death itself be our goal? I didn’t go very far with this argument, in part because I didn’t identify as a Buddhist at the time – there was a certain way in which not being a Buddhist made it not my problem. But now I am a Buddhist. And an excellent recent chapter by Jan Westerhoff, in Jake Davis’s fine new edited volume on Buddhist ethics, brings the point back into uncomfortable focus.
Westerhoff argues that a Buddhism without rebirth is simply incoherent – unless, that is, it is willing to bite the bullet and accept that committing suicide is the best response to life. (Which he presumes, probably rightly, that it isn’t.) He spells out the problem:
The central goal of the Buddhist path is the complete and permanent eradication of suffering (duḥkha). If there is no continuity of mind after the decay of this physical body, and if the existence of our mind depends on the existence of our body, the third Noble Truth, the truth of the cessation of suffering, would be to put an end to the existence of this body, and the fourth Noble Truth, the way to this cessation, would be suicide. This would lead to the permanent destruction of the complex of the five skandhas, the physico-psychological elements that make up the person, thereby leading to the complete elimination of suffering. In this case none of the three trainings of ethics, meditation, and wisdom would be necessary for the cessation of suffering, but the simple act of destroying the body would be sufficient. (149)
The logic here is hard to dispute. A very large number of the Pali Buddhist texts are phrased in negative terms: ethical injunctions are injunctions to not do things, in order to get out of suffering. But Mahāyāna does not necessarily fare any better – if the goal is to end the suffering of other sentient beings, then the logical course of action moves from suicide to murder.
Westerhoff’s position is that Buddhism logically requires rebirth; coherence requires that one give up either Buddhism or that form of naturalism that rejects rebirth. Strikingly, he does not take the first option as one might expect – to declare that science has simply refuted Buddhism. Rather, he urges Buddhists to follow a path very similar to Christian “creation scientists”, and hunt for scientific avenues that would allow Buddhist conceptions of rebirth to be coherent:
This approach would begin with a careful analysis of the Buddhist doctrinal position on mental continuity, rebirth, and karma and would subsequently try to determine which of the positions in contemporary cognitive science and the philosophy of mind might be compatible with it, and which would be most suited to explaining the view of the mind the Buddhist thinkers developed. (159)
I commend Westerhoff for the boldness of that proposal. I have seen few others willing to take such a step. Still, I reject it. The history of creation science, as I understand it, is a sad and pathetic one – full of ever more desperate attempts at special pleading to show the biblical understanding of creation as compatible with an ever-increasing body of observations that show no support for it. It seems to me the perfect example of what Imre Lakatos calls a degenerating research program: one that does not progress because it does not anticipate novel facts, and becomes littered with an ever larger pile of anomalies. The future for Buddhists who emulate creation science does not look bright. And it seems to me that to cling to whatever flimsy theoretical and empirical support might be offered for rebirth, is exactly to emulate creation science.
I do note here the work of Ian Stevenson, who has managed to provide some small evidence that is, in his words, “suggestive of reincarnation”. But there are two problems with taking Stevenson’s work as a foundation for living as a Buddhist. First, as far as I am aware, even Stevenson – who provides the best observational evidence for rebirth I am aware of – does not provide any evidence that this rebirth is, in Gananath Obeyesekere’s terms, ethicized. That is to say, even if were to take the generous view that humans can be reborn, we would have no particular reason – aside from Buddhist texts telling us so – to believe that that rebirth has anything to do with karma_ There is no connection established between the ethical quality of our actions in this life and the well-being of our future lives.
True, even such a non-ethicized rebirth might go some way to answering the suicide objection, making suicide appear futile at best. But that brings us to the second problem, which is that work like Stevenson’s is an awfully thin thread to hang our worldview on. It is not just that his work is disputed (though it is); even Stevenson himself merely identifies his cases as suggestive of reincarnation. It would hardly be a surprise if attempts to confirm it amounted to nothing. It is not difficult at all to imagine a rebirth-based research program degenerating as far and as quickly as has intelligent design. And what then? If Westerhoff were right that Buddhism and a rebirth-free naturalism were incompatible, a commitment to truth would require that we reject Buddhism out of hand. I find it a more promising strategy to preserve a Buddhism that does not require rebirth. But that does indeed require finding an answer to the suicide objection. How may we do that? More next time.