Do I need to believe in reincarnation to practice the Dharma?

If you read the writings of the Mahasiddhas or other Dharma teachers, the idea of reincarnation often comes up. There is talk of the six realms of existence and of the danger of finding oneself in a much more painful world in the next life than in ours if one is too careless.

All these descriptions often give the impression that belief in reincarnation is a prerequisite for yogic/Buddhist practice. Of course, the idea of endless wandering in samsara is a great motivator for Dharma practice. IF I believe in it.

But what if I don’t believe in reincarnation and simply don’t find this idea plausible or convincing even after sufficient reflection?

Then that’s not a bad thing at all, nor is it in any way a reason for not being able to practise the Dharma. After all, leaving the cycle of rebirths is only one possible motivation for practising the Dharma. But it is far from being the central core of it.

What is the central core of the Dharma?

My answer to this question is a single word: certainty.

Certainty is the essence of the Dharma.

What all Dharma practice ultimately aims at is absolute certainty about the nature of all phenomena - the true nature of my consciousness and all phenomena. The idea that I first have to believe something specific - like in reincarnation - is therefore essentially contradictory to the Dharma.

The great commonality of all Buddhas is not their belief in reincarnation, but their success in having achieved absolute certainty about the nature of all things.

The desire for truth and the willingness to question and see through everything believed in is the only condition for Dharma practice.

So it doesn’t matter much whether I currently believe that my consciousness will be completely extinguished after death or whether I believe that my mind will then continue to exist and seek the next form. The crucial thing is to realise that I only believe both, but do not really know.

I don’t know.

And this confession of my not-knowing is enough to ignite the spark of dharma within me. After all, no human being feels truly satisfied and comfortable with the idea of not knowing what comes after death. No one. Some people may not have a strong fear of it, but as soon as they are really confronted with their impermanence, they too would love to know.

This big question mark at the end of our lives is the igniter of the Dharma.

The Dharma is the teaching and practice of reality. And unlike the thousands of doctrines of salvation in all religions, the Dharma precisely does not provide a belief about what comes after death. Dharma is not a matter of belief, but of knowledge.

The promise of all Mahasiddhas has never been anything else but certainty. They are living proof that it is possible to attain absolute certainty in this life about the nature of all phenomena including death and cessation. But not as a matter of belief.

The Mahasiddhas only show us the way to find certainty for ourselves. Just as they have done.

May all beings find certainty & be free.

Ugi

One doesn’t need to believe in the doctrine of reincarnation to practice the dharma.

I’d say though that all the basic doctrines like karma and reincarnation are absolute requirements to know and understand from first hand experience for anyone who considers her/himself to be a real practitioner. I’d even say that you’re not really a follower of the masters, if you don’t know these things inside out. Why? Because they put a lot of things into context, incl. bodhicitta and vows.

I understand that for modern post-religious people some teachings might appear off putting or woowoo but I also think it is very arrogant from modern people to just ignore these things as nonsense, especially when you can just sit down, practice and find out. Mahasiddhas don’t bluff.

I think that it is that very arrogance why people of the modern world are so lost, incl. many teachers.

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I completely agree with all your points. The doctrine of reincarnation is no pre-requisite to practice the Dharma but it will at one point of practice become obvious that there’s more to it than just a religious belief. Then it reveals itself as part of relative reality like time and space.

And a big “YES!” from me aswell regarding the arrogance of many modern people to swipe away all these doctrines and reflections as nonsense. I also think, it’s impossible to practice the Dharma effectively with prejudices like that in place and no willingness to question them. That’s the opposite of Dharma.

Western culture has still some way to go to shed off the empiricist-scientific dogma. Many people take their prejudices and dogmas to be scepticism. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. A true sceptic is someone who leaves no stone unturned and has an open mind to all possibilities, not satisfied with anything but doubtless certainty.

I came to think of physical yogas nowadays. All of the hatha yoga systems from India had a spiritual element in them in the form of mantras, prayers and meditation that brought in the blessings and acted as a balancer in terms of energies, you could say, there was an element of protection in the practice. However many Westerners felt they were woowoo, too religious or too whatever and removed them, and were left with asanas and pranayama. And that’s why you not only have people who damage themselves and get into trouble with prana (usually called “kundalini problems”) but also “yogis” who have no feel of purity and clarity to them.

Hello!

I am such an example of “empiricist-scientific” mindset. And I really want to learn another. What I am struggling with is to understand an alternative from buddhist perspective. I am all in about going and checking everything by myself. However, all the knowledge I get from my practice:

  1. Cannot be formalized with words. So I can’t really share it using language. Could I share it somehow differently? I had an experience feeling a presence of another consciousness while meditating. Together with my wife we felt indeed each others attention - very subtle feeling, but not an illusion for sure. Is it possible to share my experience if not with words, but with “radiating” it towards other person? Sorry for “radiating”, I couldn’t find another word.

  2. How scholars in Buddhist studies have been making discoveries about true nature of things if you cannot share your findings with words? From documentaries and fiction movies I got understanding that Buddhist scientists are indeed scientists (in our western sense), but maybe they are using their own scientific method? If so, what is it? For example, is it correct to say that bhumis were discovered in the past? If so, how other buddhist scholars justified this discovery? I doubt they just took it for granted.

What I am trying to understand is how could I “trust” my very subjective findings if there is absolutely now way of justifying them? Again, I am always comparing everything to western scientific approach where you conduct an experiment and then other people are trying to repeat it and if they can’t, your experiment is not valid. However, this is all objective verification, is there a similar, but subjective approach?

Hi Vladislav

You ask important questions that, if you ask me, go right to the core of the Dharma and also into the “friction” that it has with our Western empiricist mindset. I don’t have too much time to go into detail now but I’d like to give you some of my thoughts on this.

I would like to start with your second point:

The “new” thing for the West when it comes to Dharma is the subjective side of science. Until now, Western science has purely been object-oriented. It has been all about studying observable, objective and empirically verifiable data. Except for some philosophical innovations like phenomenology or the almost globablly misunderstood findings of quantum physics, the subjective side of experience has not been a part of science at all. Examining scientifically the first-hand aspect of experience itself: the conscious mind. If you ask me, Dharma is this science of the mind.

Vipashyana, Atiyoga and also the tantric methods are all scientific methods in this way. Methods to examine the nature of subjective experience, the nature of the mind and all phenomena.

The thing is, to do this science, one has first to acknowledge it’s validity. If one believes that only measurable things can be the object of science, then they completely deny the existence of a science of the subject. That’s pretty much the biggest challenge of mind scientists. When I was a reductionist materialist 8-9 years ago, I simply couldn’t see the subjective side of things. I was unable to. So the challenge is that Western science pretty much needs a pointing-out instruction first to even recognize the field of sujective science of the mind (Dharma).

When that step has been taken, then it’s only a matter of effective methodology. Experienced subjective scientists can show all beginners how to look at their minds and come to complete scientific certainty about it. This also goes for the Bhumis. As soon as you recognise the validity and availability of a subjective first-hand science of the mind, one can start to explore his thoughts, emotions, phenomenality and also the the energy body. It only needs willingness to look and an effective methodology. Then, everyone can come to this knowledge.

Of course, this also includes expressing it in words. As long as one doesn’t confuse the description with the actual experience, all verbal expression is completely fine and useful. I think, buddhists have been especially clear in their verbal expression. And they did A LOT of good by daring to describe.

This is actually quite simple: by discovering complete doubtless certainty in your mind about your findings. This certainty is the core of the Dharma. A certainty that is beyond justification and beyond rational doubt. As soon as you start to tap into this certainty, a radical shift begins to take place. The rational, dualistic mind slowly gets replaced as the ultimate authority of truth. By the non-conceptual certainty of Buddha nature itself.

That’s why Vipashyana on thoughts is so important in my experience. When we begin to see the emptiness of the thinking mind, the authority of thoughts loosens and eventually it is replaced by complete immediate certainty. No doubt of the rational mind could ever shake that certainty.

Dear Ugi, thanks a lot for this conversation simply for not rejecting my thoughts and treating them seriously. I really appreciate that. I would like to rephrase your answer, the way I understood it to confirm if my understanding is close to what you are saying.

Basically, it all boils down to this: “According to subjective science, when you find something truthful, you have no doubts. With more practice you will feel more confidence and you will be able to find exactly the words that are describing your findings. Thus having zero doubts is the main principle that allows a researcher to make progress in subjective science”. Is this correct?

I do feel that this principle of “zero doubts” fits into “subjective science” very well. I do know what you are talking about - I experienced this on sessions led by Kim Rinpoche. I also have a lot of experience with psychedelics (it is very interesting subject by itself) where you don’t question insights because you simply know they are truthful, and you are not really motivated to justify it, the justification itself is pointless.

However, I would have accepted “zero doubts” approach if only it would try to describe the nature of the mind, but not the nature of reality. If there are other realms - are they objective? Do they exist If me thinking about them does not exist? My understanding to the story about sound of tree falling in the forest is “it exists without me listening to it”. Though physicists that are trying to explain double-slit experiment might disagree completely:)

Of course, there is always an argument “this reality is the product of the mind only”, but then I am totally lost and stuck, because how do you find out about this? Being a product of “simulation” I doubt you could find out about simulation itself anything at all. I believe Godel in its famous theorem had made a good point about that.

Please tell me if this thread or this forum is not the place to attack this concepts with my very western mind. Last thing I want to do is to insult you or Kim or anybody else with my questions and ideas, that might look silly indeed. For me they are important to the extent that I can’t really make any progress in my practice until I understand what am I doing and why. Again I am very grateful that I am having this conversation!

Vladislav, in my opinion, don`t worry so much about the metaphysical stuff. You can be totally empirically-scientific minded western human being and practice dharma effectively. That is also what I am and I do believe I have practiced effectively. I also have very interesting psychedelic experiences :slight_smile:

I agree with you on the “tree falling” koan. Today we can measure “acoustic waves” without hearing the sound. This has not been known to those buddhist who invented the koan. But there is no experience of the sound without the hearer, and this is where the koan points to. Experience of hearing without a hearer, seeing without a seer, thinking without a thinker…

And you are completely right that what dharma describes is the nature of the mind. It is not interested at all in the nature of objective reality as you use those words. In dharma people talk about “nature of reality” because there usually is no distinction between (concepts of) mind and reality. Buddhism is an (philosophically) idealistic doctrine. It does not see the world independent of the mind. It describes the world only through subjective experience. Physical science is a (philosophically) materialistic doctrine. It describes the world objectively, not dependent on the mind. Both are valid in their own way and both work very well.

As Buddha Rinpoche says, Mahasiddhas don’t bluff, and every single action or utterance they make has primordial truth and is made with full realized
intentionality ; enlightenment can be summarized as taking the guru sufficiently seriously!