Most Westerners come to Buddhism without prior belief in reincarnation or rebirth. Many approach the study and practice of Dharma as a method for improving the quality of this lifetime, especially in terms of overcoming psychological and emotional problems. This attitude reduces Dharma to an Asian form of psychotherapy, which can be extremely beneficial, but Buddhism goes far beyond that.
I have coined the term Dharma-Lite for this approach to Buddhist Dharma, analogous to Coca-Cola Lite. It is a weakened version, not as strong as "The Real Thing." The traditional approach to Dharma – which includes not only discussion of rebirth, but also the presentation of the hells and the rest of the six realms of existence – I have termed The Real Thing Dharma.
There are two ways to practice Dharma-Lite.
- We may practice it with acknowledgment of the importance of rebirth in Buddhism and the sincere intention to study the accurate teachings on it. Thus, we aim to improve this lifetime with the Dharma methods merely as a steppingstone on the way to working to improve our future rebirths and to gain liberation and enlightenment. Thus, Dharma-Lite becomes a preliminary step on the graded path to enlightenment, a step prior to the initial scope. Such an approach is completely fair to the Buddhist tradition. It does not call Dharma-Lite "The Real Thing."
- We may practice it with the recognition that Dharma-Lite is not only the actual Dharma, but also the most appropriate and skillful form for Western Buddhism to take. Such an approach shortchanges and is grossly unfair to the Buddhist tradition. It easily leads to an attitude of cultural arrogance.
Therefore, we need to proceed with great care if we find that, at our present level of spiritual development and understanding, Dharma-Lite is the drink for us.
Buddhism becomes Dharma-Lite when
- The aim is to improve only in this life
- The student has little or no understanding of the Buddhist teachings on rebirth
- Consequently, the student has neither belief nor interest in future lives
- Even if the student believes in rebirth, he or she does not accept the existence of the six realms of rebirth
- The Dharma teacher avoids discussion of rebirth or, even if he or she discusses rebirth, avoids discussion of the hells. The teacher reduces the 6 realms to human psychological experiences.
The Importance of Rebirth
Tibetan Buddhism, however, follows the Indian tradition and all Indian traditions take for granted belief in reincarnation or rebirth. Even if traditional Buddhist seekers do not have a deep understanding of what takes rebirth or how rebirth works, still they have grown up with the idea of rebirth as a cultural given. They need merely to have their understandings refined, but do not need to become convinced in the existence of rebirth. Therefore, texts on the graded stages of the path (lam-rim) do not even mention the topic of gaining conviction in the existence of rebirth.
Without rebirth, the discussion of mind having no beginning and no end becomes meaningless. Without beginningless and endless mind, the entire presentation of karma falls apart. This is because the karmic results of our actions most frequently do not ripen in the same lifetime in which we commit the actions. Without the presentation of karmic cause and effect over the span of many lifetimes, the discussion of the voidness (emptiness) of cause and effect and of dependent arising likewise falls apart.
Moreover, in terms of the three scopes of lam-rim motivation, how can we sincerely aim for benefiting future lives without belief in the existence of future lives? How can we sincerely aim for gaining liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth (samsara) without belief in rebirth? How can we sincerely aim for enlightenment and the ability to help others gain liberation from rebirth without belief that rebirth is a fact?
In terms of bodhichitta meditation, how can we sincerely recognize all beings as having been our mothers in previous lives without believing in previous lives? In terms of anuttarayoga tantra, how can we sincerely meditate in analogy with death, bardo, and rebirth to purify ourselves of uncontrollably experiencing them if we do not believe that bardo and rebirth occur?
Thus, it is clearly evident that rebirth is a cornerstone for a large and crucial portion of the Dharma teachings.
The Real Thing Dharma is the authentic traditional practice of Buddhism, in which
- The student at least acknowledges the importance of rebirth on the spiritual path and has the sincere wish to gain a correct understanding of it
- The student aims either for liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth or for enlightenment and the ability to help all others gain liberation
- Even if the student aims for improving future lives, this is merely as a provisional step on the path to gaining liberation or enlightenment
- Even if the student aims for improving this life, this is merely as a provisional step on the path to improving future lives and gaining liberation or enlightenment.
So long as Buddhism is not reduced to being merely Dharma-Lite and thus another form of therapy, Dharma-Lite is an extremely helpful steppingstone into traditional Real Thing Dharma, complete with rebirth.