Rebirth: A Guide to Mind, Karma, and Cosmos in the Buddhist World

Rebirth: A Guide to Mind, Karma, and Cosmos in the Buddhist World
Roger R. Jackson
Boulder, Colo.: Shambhala, 2022. 327 pp., paper, $27.95.

Rebirth, aka reincarnation, has been a controversial philosophy since Hinduism and Buddhism were introduced to the Christian West nearly 200 years ago. Rebirth eschatology is difficult for Westerners to grasp, since many of us have been taught that we have this one life, which is finished upon death. Buddhism teaches an afterlife in various realms, including the animal and human realms, along with a whole host of hells.

According to Roger R. Jackson, professor emeritus of Asian studies and religion at Carleton College, who has fifty years of experience studying and practicing Buddhism, there were controversies over rebirth in the various sects that arose as Buddhism evolved.

Jackson gives us a thorough history of the East Indian teaching of rebirth. He begins his account with pre-Buddhist Indian rebirth theories from religious sects of the earliest Southeast Asian region and how these were adopted. Jackson also compares the teachings of the different Buddhist sects and the impact (if any) they may have had on what he terms “mainstream” Buddhist tradition.

What did the historical Buddha teach? As with many influential figures—religious and political—his exact words and deeds have become mixed with the interpretations of disciples. There are 547 stories (in the Pali collection) in which the Buddha recounts his past lives in various forms, circumstances, and realms, particularly the human realm.

As Jackson notes, the “samsaric cosmos,” consisting of suffering (samsara), karma, and moksha, is “complex.” The key to overcoming samsara is gaining “right view” as taught in the Eightfold Noble Path, through wisdom, “which requires us to understand the way things really are,” using the twelve links of dependent origination, which is linked to “right view.”

Jackson explores where rebirth happens in the various realms, noting, “All the realms of samsara, however appealing they may seem, are by their very nature shot through with suffering, since they are impermanent, and impermanence always entails either immediate or eventual mental and physical pain.” The human realm, however, is ranked among the higher realms and is “difficult to attain.”

How rebirth happens is also a complex issue, and here Jackson explores the doctrines of several teachers from differing Buddhist traditions, including the Pali Abhidharma, which defines death as “the cutting off of life faculty . . . included within the limits of a single existence” and rebirth. Jackson also covers the wide range of teachings of Buddhist sects including the five Mahayana wisdom traditions, Theravada, and Indian Tantric Buddhist views. 

While karma and rebirth are ubiquitous in Asian societies, Jackson reminds us that rebirth “is far from universally accepted, . . . the specifically Buddhist explanation of rebirth was often disputed by members of the Hindu and other schools that propounded rebirth, on the grounds that if the common Buddhist denial of self is true, then rebirth is an incoherent idea.” 

 As Buddhism spread throughout East Asia to China, Korea, Japan, and Central Asia, the teaching of karma and rebirth was adapted for those cultures. With the diaspora of Buddhism to the West, it began to be overlaid against Christianity, which typically has no idea of rebirth (resurrection as Christians see it is not “rebirth” as seen in the Eastern traditions).

Jackson looks at this teaching in the light of modern Buddhism’s movement from East to West, including the role that Theosophy played in introducing Eastern spiritual philosophies to the West, which were largely welcomed by the intellectuals of the nineteenth century. Jackson calls Theosophy a “Euro-American intellectual movement . . . that found its closest equivalents in ancient Egyptian religion, Neo-Platonism, Western esotericism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Rebirth was a cardinal doctrine of Theosophy, although there—as in many modern Western versions of the idea influenced by evolutionary theory—movement from one life to the next was seen as progressive rather than cyclical.”   

The twentieth century marked Buddhism’s grand entrance into America, and Jackson elaborates on the views of rebirth in modern Buddhism, as well as those of many Western teachers who have helped Tibetan and Zen Buddhism to grow in these countries.

As appealing as rebirth might sound to some, it is repugnant to others, especially if this life has been difficult and painful. Ultimately for Buddhists, the goal is cessation of rebirth through liberation or enlightenment. Jackson quotes Buddhist teacher Bhikkhu Bodhi: “The Buddha taught that the key to liberation was not the eradication of past kamma [karma] . . . but the elimination of the defilements. Arahants, by terminating the defilements, extinguish the potential for ripening of all their past kamma beyond the residue that might ripen in their final life.”

Clare Goldsberry

Clare Goldsberry’s latest book, The Illusion of Life and Death: Mind, Consciousness, and Eternal Being, was reviewed in the spring 2022 issue of Quest.