G: Can I be a Buddhist and not believe in reincarnation?
R: That’s a good question. Well what would you say?
G: I would say that you could be a Buddhist without believing in reincarnation, although if you do believe in reincarnation it certainly helps. It helps your understanding of Buddhism. Reincarnation is automatically assumed in Buddhism.
R: You can’t assume that someone is a Buddhist just because he or she believes in reincarnation because Hindus believe in reincarnation. Also I don’t think you can assume that you are not a Buddhist just because you don’t believe in reincarnation. Because reincarnation is one part of Buddhist teaching, you cant say people have to believe every part of Buddhist teaching, Buddha didn’t want people to believe everything anyway.
G: If you don’t believe in reincarnation it can handicap a full appreciation of karma.
R: Yes, and also continuity of life.
G: Reincarnation is a fairly important assumption in Buddhism but if you decide to live a very peaceful life saying ‘I want to pay homage to the Buddha, I want to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and I’ll leave reincarnation as a possibility for the time being. I’ll leave it as a possibility. That’s OK.
R: ‘I wouldn’t say there is no reincarnation but I can’t say there is reincarnation, I just say I don’t know, at this point. I don’t know.’ that’s good. Don’t you think that’s fair enough? You still believe karma. Yeh it becomes a handicap because not believing in reincarnation makes it difficult to understand karma. Karma is difficult to understand anyway. Also when you don’t believe in reincarnation then it makes it difficult to create karma for future lives. It also makes it difficult to understand your life where you are now. Your life or karma is the result of past life karma, you have the problem there, so it becomes a problem.
G: Eventually, but it is OK to start out by believing it as a possibility.
R: I don’t think it’s a good idea to think that because you don’t believe in reincarnation therefore your out, your not Buddhist or you can’t be a Buddhist. I know one lady who met me in Toronto and said she had asked a Lama Geshe: ‘I don’t believe in reincarnation but can I still be a Buddhist. He said ‘No you cant be a Buddhist. She was very confused. She said ‘I can’t say that I believe in reincarnation. I don’t know. There is no proof.
G: she was being truthful
R: but at the same time she was saying ‘I do like Buddhist teachings. Buddhist teaching is very good and wonderful. I love Buddhism. I love Tibetan Buddhism. I love everything. I like to meditate. I like to practice. But Geshe doesn’t have an answer. He didn’t even say why I couldn’t be a Buddhist. He just said ‘No you cant.’
G: that’s not good
R: This raises another question. If you say: ‘I don’t know. I don’t believe in reincarnation but I want to be Buddhist.’ So what kind of Buddhist are you?
G: You are as good a Buddhist as any other Buddhist or you can be. In the West when people start out in Buddhism they only have a vague knowledge of what Bodhicitta is or what sunyata is. Usually they don’t have the full experience of those sorts of things, but that doesn’t exclude them from being a Buddhist. Buddhism is a path of understanding and learning and as you practice over the years your understanding deepens more. What defines someone, as a Buddhist is his or her sincerity. You have faith in something and you give yourself time to understand more and more. As time goes by your understanding deepens. Of course you take some things on faith in the beginning. So for someone who doesn’t believe in reincarnation that doesn’t make them a bad Buddhist.
R: In that case what would be the difference between someone who is a humanist and always works for a good cause for human beings for animals for the environment and is a very spiritual person and doesn’t harm anybody, always doing good things, practicing love and compassion, but he says I am not a Buddhist. What is the difference between that person and someone who calls himself a Buddhist and is also a good person but doesn’t believe in reincarnation? Or let us say a Christian person who doesn’t believe in reincarnation as 90% Christians don’t believe in reincarnation. They are also good Christians who don’t want to harm others. What is the difference between them and that Buddhist who doesn’t believe in reincarnation?
G: There is not much real difference. This discussion goes back to our conversation earlier about what is dharma practice and what is dharma. (See page..). The essence of dharma is trying to help people. You can call yourself a Buddhist and be practicing dharma and you can be practicing the dharma and not call yourself a Buddhist. It goes back to that fundamental question of what is dharma practice. It doesn’t really matter whether you call yourself a Buddhist or not. However you can acknowledge and formally take on the title: ‘Yes I am a Buddhist.’
R: It does make a difference for some people.
G: It depends on their mind.
R: Right, it’s all mind.
G: If you have a very sincere person who says ‘I am not a Buddhist. I am not an anything, but I am practicing loving kindness for all sentient beings.’ It doesn’t matter whether he or she is called a Buddhist or not
R: So he could be a Buddhist?
G: Well, Buddhism is a name. It’s the same principle, whether you are a Buddhist or not, just because you wear monks robes, and say I’m going to be enlightened or just.
R: Well the word. someone saying, ‘I am a Buddhist’ means they are following the Buddha’s teachings. Traditionally calling one’s self a Buddhist means that you take refuge. That is the traditional definition. If you take refuge to the three jewels then you’re a Buddhist. If you don’t then you’re not a Buddhist. However that doesn’t mean just because someone says ‘I take refuge to Buddha dharma and sangha’, or repeating those words three times a day or three times a night, doesn’t make you a Buddhist either. You have to practice the dharma and live with the dharma. So you don’t see any difference between those two people: the Buddhist who doesn’t believe in reincarnation and the other person who is a good Christian?
G: In terms of their mental development or in terms of their mind going in a positive direction, there is no difference.
R: What I see is one difference. The Christian person who is like a Buddhist, but doesn’t take refuge to Buddha as an example. He doesn’t follow Buddha as an example. Then he wont practice the dharma in some ways as the Buddha taught it. Also he doesn’t have the sangha as support. In that sense on the relative level or surface level you are not a Buddhist, so you can’t call yourself a Buddhist.
G: You might be going in a different direction
R: There are people who are not Buddhist and not Christian who are also like that. They are wonderful people. They say, ‘I don’t want to call myself a Buddhist, I don’t like that label. A label is not important for me. Maybe I am following the Buddha’s footsteps as an example, maybe not.’
G: I think it is important that if you are going to call yourself a Buddhist to follow the Buddhist teachings as much as possible.
R: Yeh because you don’t want to confuse people.
G: If you call yourself a Buddhist you have a responsibility. I feel that responsibility as a Buddhist and also as your student, and also as a lineage holder, for calling myself a Buddhist. I have no worries about calling myself a Buddhist. After all Buddhist is just a name. Why get freaked out by the name.
R: You are not worried about the name anyway, you don’t worry about what people might think, and at the same time you are not attached to that name. Also if you call yourself Buddhist then you have responsibility to follow the Buddha’s guidelines and the Buddha’s teachings. The guidelines are the Buddha’s guidelines. Buddha’s teachings are wonderful, and one of the most wonderful teachings. There is no problem calling yourself Buddhist if you want to. If you don’t want to that’s up to you too.
G: When people ask me these types of questions I always say what the Buddha said when he was walking along the road and someone came up to him and said: ‘Are you a man or a God? The Buddha said I am neither a man nor a god. I am awake.’ So practicing being a Buddhist is practicing the path of awakening. Awakening the way the Buddha awakened. If you are really trying to practice awareness and trying to develop your mind and trying to be mindful all your life you are doing what the Buddha tired to do or did. That’s what the word Buddha means.
R: Yeh Buddha means awakened; awakened one. So our conclusion bottom line what we are trying to say is that you can be Buddhist even if you don’t understand or you don’t fully accept the idea of reincarnation, or you are not sure at this point. What we are saying is that you can still be Buddhist, right?
G: However I would put a rider on that. It may be a handicap in the future if you don’t entertain the possibility of reincarnation.
R: Your dharma practice, your intention or motivation to practice dharma for the sake of all sentient beings is limited if you don’t believe in reincarnation. You can’t really work for the next life because you can’t imagine a next life so you can’t imagine working in the next life or life after life. You can’t even imagine that you can do something as a cause for the next good rebirth. You can work for the benefit of all sentient beings but you can only say ‘I will work for the benefit of all sentient beings for the next 20 years. After that then I am expired. That is the disadvantage.