Buddhism Without Beliefs?

Buddhist cosmological and soteriological beliefs are a challenge for minds steeped in Western culture. We are of course at liberty to reject karma and rebirth as redundant metaphysical theories, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of viewing these traditional teachings as mere religious accretion. Nor should we accept dharma without any references to karma and rebirth as the Buddhadharma – as taught by the Buddha himself.






Buddhist cosmological and soteriological beliefs are a challenge for minds steeped in Western culture. We are of course at liberty to reject karma and rebirth as redundant metaphysical theories, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of viewing these traditional teachings as mere religious accretion. Nor should we accept dharma without any references to karma and rebirth as Buddhadharma – as taught by the Buddha himself.

The early Buddhist scriptures are a reliable guide to the Buddha and his teachings

If we want to know what the Buddha most probably thought and taught we need only look at the core texts of the Pali CanonThe Digha Nikaya (The Long Discourses);  The Majjhima Nikaya (The Middle-length Discourses); The Samyutta Nikaya (The Grouped Discourses); The Anguttara Nikaya (The Further-factored Discourses). These are the oldest Buddhist scriptures available, and scholars (‘Buddhist’, ‘non-Buddhist’, and ‘Ex-Buddhist’) who have studied them in their original format tell us they are a reliable guide to the Buddhadamma. [1], [2], [3], [4] Among the probable facts that we can garner from this scriptural evidence are: the Buddha believed in miracles; the Buddha believed he had lived many previous lives; the Buddha believed in supernatural beings; the Buddha believed in hell and other-worldly realms; the Buddha was neither agnostic nor scientific. [5]

When confronted with the evidence of a Buddha who believed in karma (kamma) [6] and ‘rebirth’ [7], who saw himself as teacher of gods and humans (sattha devamanussanam) [8], the default response of modern day secularists like Stephen Batchelor [9] et al is to assume they are reading mere religious ‘add-ons’. The ancient script writers are seen as naive or pragmatic in saddling the historical Buddha with their own unquestioned assumptions of life after death and the supernatural.  Rather than accept the Pali Canon at face value, regarding it as reasonably reliable evidence for what the Buddha and his earliest followers actually believed, the secularists strive instead to uncover the ‘real’ Buddhadharma by exorcising any scriptural accounts that don’t fit their modern world view. The idea that a more accurate insight into the Buddha’s mind can be gained by viewing ancient religious scriptures through the prism of philosophical rationalism or scepticism (and revising them accordingly) would be laughable if it wasn’t an indication of severe clinging to an ideological standpoint.

Obviously, I’m not saying we should accept and follow Buddhist teachings without asking questions. But if we apply the Ockham’s Razor principle it seems simplest to me to assume that the authors of the Pali Canon were closer to the historical Buddha and no less sincere in their efforts to preserve his legacy than the authors of later texts.

‘Right understanding’ (of karma and rebirth) was as an essential component of the Liberating Path

The ancient scriptures portray a Buddha who was more than capable of questioning the prevailing cultural views of his time. His empirical understandings of karma and rebirth were hard won through rigorous meditation and weren’t widely accepted in India 2500 years ago. In common with many people nowadays, most of the Buddha’s spiritual contemporaries appear either to have believed in some form of eternal soul or to have rejected all notions of life after death. The Buddhas reformulation of karma as intention, and ‘rebirth’ as neither reincarnation nor annihilation, was unique and set him apart from other spiritual leaders at that time. [10]

When teaching on the origination and cessation of dukkha the Buddha was clearly going against the cultural flow in attributing a key explanatory role to karma and rebirth. Why is that? The most likely explanation for why karma and rebirth features so strongly in Early Buddhism is, for me, the simplest one: the Buddha and his followers considered ‘right understanding’ of these concepts to be an essential aspect of the Liberating Path.

Karma and rebirth are an indispensable component of the Buddha’s ‘right view’ – first among the eight path factors we should be developing if we hope to attain the ultimate liberation he’s clearly talking about. Because of how karma works, however, we cannot be certain that upholding the Buddha’s precepts, listening to dhamma recitals, reading texts, and meditation away from the distractions of mundane sensuality, will result in our being fast-tracked to nirvana. (nibanna) [11] If we want to taste the Buddha’s freedom we must also have faith, trust, or confidence, that the hours we’re putting into developing ‘right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration’, will eventually pay off big time – in a future life if not this current one!


I can’t say that I’m one hundred percent comfortable with all that I read in traditional Buddhist scriptures. But I do get the main message. The Buddha’s primary goal in teaching dhamma wasn’t to offer us mere philosophical consolations or psychological tricks to ease our passage in this current life – his primary goal was to offer us a method for stopping the endless painful deaths and rebirths that he unequivocally says we’ll continue to experience after our current body has disintegrated.

The dhamma without karma and rebirth, on the other hand, is a modern invention with a much lesser scope and purpose. ‘Mindfulness Therapy’ or ‘Agnostic Mindfulness’ strike me as more honest labels for it than ‘Secular Buddhism’, ‘Atheist Buddhism’, or ‘Buddhism Without Beliefs’.



[1] “Most of the [Early Buddhist Texts] are authentic… The EBTs were edited and arranged over a few centuries following the Buddha’s demise. The texts as we have them now are not a verbatim record of the Buddha’s utterances, but the changes are in almost all cases details of editing and arrangement, not of doctrine or substance… The inauthentic portions of these texts are generally identifiable… The denial of authenticity is a product of excessive and unreasonable scepticism, not evidence.” – Bhikkhu Sujato & Bhikkhu Brahmali.
‘The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts’, Supplement to the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies Volume 5 by Bhikkhu Sujato & Bhikkhu Brahmali, November 2013.

[2] “We must conclude that a careful examination of early Buddhist literature can reveal aspects of the pre-Aśokan history of Indian Buddhism.” – Dr. Alex Wynne.
The Historical Authenticity of Early Buddhist Literature: A Critical Evaluation, by Dr. Alex Wynne. Vienna Journal of South Asian Studies Volume 49, 2005.

[3]  “The oldest extensive evidence for the Buddha’s ideas, I hold, is found in large parts of a huge collection of texts known in English as the Pali Canon.” – Richard Gombrich.
What The Buddha Thought by Richard Gombrich , Equinox, 2009, (p. 5.)

[4] “Do we know what the Buddha actually said? Do we have an historical record of what the Buddha said and thought and taught, or is it some mystery lost in the passage of centuries? Guess what! The answer is, yes. We do know.  And we know the same way we know how Plato thought, and how Aristotle thought, and how all kinds of philosophers from the Han Dynasty in ancient China thought. And we know it because somebody wrote it down!” – Eisel Mazard.
‘Buddhist Philosophy, Known or Unknown?’ by Eisel Mazard, YouTube, Aug 2014.

[5] “Early Buddhism was never rational or scientific in the way that we understand these terms to mean today; the ‘magical thinking’ of the Buddha and his contemporaries does not sit comfortably with the findings of modern science. Nevertheless, the EBTs are historical evidence and they give perspective to later developments within the religion.” – Paul Lockey.
‘Making Sense Of Buddhism’ by Paul Lockey, Trusting In Buddha, 24 March 2015.

[6] “So, monks, I have taught you new and old kamma, the cessation of kamma, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of kamma. Whatever a teacher should do — seeking the welfare of his disciples, out of sympathy for them — that have I done for you.” – The Buddha.
‘Kamma Sutta: Action’ (SN 35.145) , translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.

[7] “I recollected my manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two…five, ten…fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction and expansion: ‘There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.’ Thus I remembered my manifold past lives in their modes and details.” – The Buddha.
‘Maha-Saccaka Sutta: The Longer Discourse to Saccaka’ (MN 36),
translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.

[8] “The Buddha teaches deities when they visit the human plane where he normally resides, and sometimes too by visiting them on the higher planes. On some occasions devas and brahmas come to the Buddha for clarification of Dhamma problems. On other occasions the Buddha becomes aware, through his supernormal knowledge, that a god needs some instruction to correct a wrong view or to goad him further on the path to awakening. Then the Buddha travels to the higher plane and gives the deity a personal discourse… The opening section of the Samyutta Nikaya is devoted entirely to dialogues between the Buddha and various gods.” – Susan Elbaum Jootla.
‘Teacher of the Devas’ by Susan Elbaum Jootla. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.

[9] “In accepting the idea of rebirth, the Buddha reflected the worldview of his time. In common with Indian tradition, he maintained that the aim of life is to attain freedom from the anguished cycle of compulsive rebirth… It is odd that a practice concerned with anguish and the ending of anguish should be obliged to adopt ancient Indian metaphysical theories and thus accept as an article of faith that consiousness cannot be explained in terms of brain function.” – Stephen Batchelor.
Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening by Stephen Batchelor, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., 1998. (pp. 35-37)

[10] “The idea of rebirth was far from universally accepted in India during the Buddha’s time…  the Buddha, in teaching rebirth and its relation to karma, was actually addressing one of the hot topics of the time. Because he didn’t always take up controversial topics, he must have seen that the issue passed the criterion he set for which topics he would address: that it be conducive to putting an end to suffering. And, in fact, he made rebirth an integral part of his explanation of mundane right view — the level of right view that provides an understanding of the powers and consequences of human action that allows for the possibility that human action can put an end to suffering… He also made rebirth an integral part of his explanation of the four noble truths and the understanding of causality — dependent co-arising — on which those truths are based.” – Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
‘The Truth Of Rebirth & Why It Matters For Buddhist Practice’ by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access To Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.

[11] “This is peace, this is exquisite — the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Nibbana.” – The Buddha.
‘Nibbana: nibbana’. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *