Conversation about the necessity of rebirth in Buddhist traditions

The New York Times ran an fascinating interview[1] between Gary Gutting and Professor Jay L. Garfield, Smith College on the requirements of Buddhism.

Drs. Gutting and Garfield touch on the subject of rebirth, part of the cycle of samsara (संसार|संसार). Rebirth is a difficult concept for many Westerners, and for some of the Asian Buddhist traditions. Garfield finds a solution to this difficulty by moving the aspiration of awakening to the entire sangha:

“Just as a stonemason building the ground floor of a medieval cathedral might aspire to its completion even if he knows that he will not personally be around to be involved in its completion, a practitioner who aspires that awakening will be achieved need not believe that she will be around to see it, but only hope that her own conduct and practice will facilitate that.”

So, while I may not achieve awakening, my aspiration of awakening means that through my practice, and the practice of other sentient beings, awakening is possible.

Finally, if you’re unfamiliar with the tenets of Buddhism it’s worthwhile to read what Garfield has to say about the nature of Buddhism as a religion. First, he comments on the difficult that most Westerners have with the Buddhist tolerance of syncretism. All of the Abrahamic religions have strong antisyncretic[2] traditions; whereas Buddhism - in all of its diverse instances - seems relatively happy to coexist alongside other local faith traditions. Then there’s the issue about whether Buddhism is a religion at all. Some Westerners classify Buddhism as a non-religion because it is neither monotheistic nor polytheistic as Gutting puts it. Garfield responds that this classification is: “…a serious ethnocentrism [that] can blind us to important phenomena about non-Abrahamic religions.” I suspect most practitioners of Buddhism would not care one way or other. For them, there a truths about the nature of reality[3], the refuges that relieve the suffering that distort reality[4], and the practices that constitute the path to awakening.


  1. Gutting, G. (2014, April 27). What does Buddhism require? The New York Times, Link

  2. Syncretism is a melding of practices or schools of though. A blending of separate traditions.

  3. These are the 4 Noble Truths (चत्वारि आर्यसत्यानि catvāri āryasatyāni.) 1. There is dukkha ( दुःख “suffering”) in the world. 2. There origin of dukkha is desire. 3. The cessation of dukkha can be achieved., 4. There is a path to the cessation of dukkha.

  4. To be a Buddhist is to take the three refuges - Buddha (बुद्ध), Dharma (धर्म), Sangha (संघ). Or, the Enlightened One (or the Enlightened nature?), the teachings, and the community of practitioners.