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. Continue reading