A wandering yogi called Vaccha asked the Buddha if the Buddha would still exist after death. This leads to an interesting and enlightening dialogue where the buddha points out that the truth is actually much more subtle and deep and not so easily nailed down by such concepts.
A wandering yogi called Vaccha asked the Buddha if the Buddha would still exist after death. The Buddha replied:
“Vaccha, the idea that I would exist or not after death – such ideas lead to dense jungles and arid deserts, to entanglements as though caught by thorns. They bring about anger, delusion, and argument and they do not bring about peace, knowledge, or wisdom leading to awakening freedom. I do not take up any of these ideas.”
“Then has the Buddha any belief of his own?”
“Vaccha, I have nothing to do with belief or speculation, but declare what I know. I declare the nature of form, how it arises and how it fades away; the nature of perception, how it arises and how it fades away. And, because I have completely abandoned all fantasies and speculative imaginings about the nature of self or anything to do with the self, I am freed from self.”
“But,” Vaccha asked persistently, “when one who has attained this emancipation of mind dies, where does he go, where is he reborn?”
“Vaccha, the word reborn does not fit the case.”
“Then he is not reborn?”
“To say that he is not reborn does not fit the case either. Nor should you say that he is both reborn and not reborn, nor indeed, that he is neither reborn nor not reborn.”
“I am totally bewildered, dear Buddha, and my faith in you is gone.”
“Never mind being bewildered. This is a deep and difficult doctrine to understand. Imagine there is a fire in front of you. You see it burning and know that it can only burn if it has fuel. And then you see that it has gone out. Now, somebody asked you, to which quarter has the fire gone – east, west, north or south? What would you say to them?”
“I would say that such a question does not fit the case, Buddha. For the fire depends on the fuel and when there is no more fuel, the fire is said to be out through lack of nourishment.”
“Well then, Vaccha, in just the same way, the body in which one can see the truth will die out, like a fan palm, without any future. But that which is the truth, that which is existence itself, is there although it is deep and infinitely hard to understand. Like the great ocean, one cannot fathom it. And so it does not fit the case to say that I will be reborn or will not be reborn.”
--- Digha Nikaya
This is an interesting dialogue between the Buddha and an itinerant yogi that clearly distinguishes the position of the Buddha from most religious thinking which tends toward faith statements made as if of ontological facts. It begins with the question that continues to possess the minds of many today: “Is there life after death?” Does the individual – in any way – continue to exist after death?
And note that the Buddha distances himself from such a question by pragmatically pointing out that such questions “lead to dense jungles and arid deserts, to entanglements as though caught by thorns.” He further points out that debating about such notions as life after death (whether in some heavenly realm or reborn or reincarnated into another body) “bring about anger, delusion, and argument and they do not bring about peace, knowledge, or wisdom leading to awakening freedom.” This was true 2600 years ago and it is true now; just think of all the suffering perpetuated by religious thinking and prejudicial action throughout the world. The Buddha clearly states his position: “I do not take up any of these ideas.”
I use the word “position” because it connotes holding a viewpoint on something not inherently based upon faith (as belief is) but can be based upon evidence. When one holds a belief, especially a faith-based belief not supported by evidence, one locks themselves into it unyieldingly. We see such political beliefs causing such polarity in the US now as hate crimes increase (for the third year in a row) and whole swaths of people have closed their minds to any evidence that conflicts with their tightly held ideological beliefs. However, if one holds their viewpoints as positions based upon evidence, then one can alter their position if new evidence seems to demand it. That is why as a Zen Naturalist, I prefer to talk about my positions on various topics rather than beliefs. I change them according to the strongest evidence arrived at through repeated testing and in line with the consensus of experts.
This is why I am impressed when the Buddha responds to Vaccha’s question as to whether the Buddha has any beliefs of his own. The Buddha responds by distinguishing knowledge from belief. “I have nothing to do with belief or speculation, but declare what I know. I declare the nature of form, how it arises and how it fades away; the nature of perception, how it arises and how it fades away.” This declaration is based upon deep investigation of phenomena. And what is revealed when we examine any phenomenon is that it is impermanent; arising and fading away based upon causes and conditions. And this leads to him saying “I have completely abandoned all fantasies and speculative imaginings about the nature of self or anything to do with the self.” Why? Because when the “self” is truly put under the magnifying glass, so to speak, we see that the self is a construct of non-self elements and nowhere is there any ‘thing’ or 'entity' that the word or concept “self” actually represents. This is a knowledge that is very much aligned with the knowledge derived from physics, chemistry, biology and neuro- and cognitive science.
Vaccha, however, persists in asking where does the one who has attained emancipatory knowledge go after death, still operating from the notion that there is a self or witness separate and a part from the non-self elements. After the Buddha tells Vaccha that “the word reborn does not fit the case,” Vaccha asks then if one who dies is not reborn and the Buddha says “To say that he is not reborn does not fit the case either.” Thus, the binary opposition “reborn/not reborn” is denied by the Buddha.
But then the Buddha goes on the say: “Nor should you say that he is both reborn and not reborn, nor indeed, that he is neither reborn nor not reborn.” With this the Buddha has denied the tetralemma, the four possibilities two propositions can be stated as.
With this, Vaccha is completely befuddled and says he’s lost faith in the Buddha, which is probably a good thing because the Buddha didn’t ask for faith in him but encouraged questioning and investigation from his students to “see for themselves.”
With this, the Buddha asks Vaccha to imaging a fire burning. The fire exists only because of the fuel (including the oxygen in the air); there can be no fire without the fuel. This already shows that the fire is ‘empty’ of any self-nature. Then the Buddha says, imagine the fire going out and someone asking “Where did the fire go?"
Vaccha responds, echoing what the Buddha said of the question about what happens after death; is one reborn or not: “I would say that such a question does not fit the case.” He continues, “the fire depends on the fuel and when there is no more fuel, the fire is said to be out through lack of nourishment.”
And this is exactly where the Buddha was leading Vaccha to see for himself. “The body in which one can see the truth will die out, like a fan palm, without any future,” says the Buddha. It is the truth itself – the truth of existence; of the empty nature of phenomena – that is there to be “seen” though “it is deep and infinitely hard to understand.” That is, it must be seen/experienced in order to actually be liberating knowledge. The Buddha summarizes: “And so it does not fit the case to say that I will be reborn or will not be reborn.”
If there is no “self,” what is it that could possibly be reborn or not reborn?