This essay was written for the purposes of a class at Harvard Divinity School: it is purely a philosophical argument written for a class and does not intend to offend or endorse anyone or their religion. I fully accept that these arguments are not fully developed, and welcome any counterpoints. The original title of this essay was: Two Lives are Better than One: Rebirth as a Superior Moral Impetus for Social Justice Projects.


Religion has famously been referred to as the “cry for help.”[1] Over millennia of existence, we humans have had any number of reasons to cry for help, but the continuous, inescapable motivation has been the knowledge of our own mortality. We humans have never been satisfied with one life. Long as life may be for some of us, we are left always with regrets, left always with alternate paths we would’ve taken or experiences we would’ve enjoyed. So we have created a foolproof answer: life beyond death; clever aphorisms to claim that “death is just the beginning,” and an inherent faith in our limitlessness when faced with the cruel reality of limited life. Still, even in creating this belief in an afterlife, we have disagreed as to what form such a life will take. The Ancient Egyptians had one vision, the Chinese another vision, and Jesus yet another vision entirely. How do these different visions of the afterlife affect our current lives on Earth?

For those of us who are concerned with our conduct of life and living a good life as such, we must consider how our religious beliefs affect our treatment of living beings around us. Our commitments to revolutionary projects, moral behavior, and more can shift and change with the worldviews we assume through inherited religious systems of thought. Accordingly, our impetus to change the world through radical or incremental social justice projects can also vary with our understanding of life’s end. If I believe in rebirth, I am bound to think differently about my life’s work than if I believe in an eternal Heaven. To be more specific, my moral imperative to create social justice can vary greatly depending on whether I think I’ll come back to this same Earth or inhabit an ethereal plane for eternity. In this essay, I am interested in identifying the afterlife belief that best serves us for carrying out service to our fellow humans.

I argue that a Buddhist belief in rebirth provides a greater moral imperative for carrying out social justice work than the Christian belief in Heaven. In this essay, I will first discuss the belief of a heavenly afterlife, using selections from the Bible and Soren Kierkegaard, to prove that it has a limited moral imperative for improving the mortal world. Then, I will discuss how a belief in rebirth empowers and mandates one to improve the society they inhabit. Crucially, and this cannot be stressed enough, I do not ask people to change or reject the religious beliefs their faith traditions have provided. This essay simply asks the reader to consider how they conduct their mortal lives with an intent to improve the world– that is to say, one can be a faithful Christian but still carry out social justice work as if they will be reborn. I do not argue for a religious belief in rebirth, but I certainly ask for all of us who are interested in improving the world to act and serve as ifwe will be reborn. In doing so, I believe we can imbibe the best life lessons of the Hindu and Buddhist rebirth traditions, regardless of what our religious identity may be.

The Escape of Heaven

Heaven, like the idea of eventual release in many religions, allows a person to escape from the conditions of the mortal world. Unlike the Buddhist Nirvana, Heaven offers a continued existence that is supposedly blissful in nature, and (crucially) unending. The paramount question for the purposes of this essay is whether access to this immortal heavenly life requires a person to improve the mortal world. Before establishing this, it is first worth establishing general expectations about Heaven. To do so, I borrow from Soren Kierkegaard, who was used as a primary example of Christian philosophy in our class, and I additionally use direct passages from the Christian New Testament.[2] Three points need to be made here before scrutinizing the Heaven belief and its moral imperative for social justice: 1) Christians believe in an eternal life after death, 2) that eternal life exists in Heaven or Hell separate from the mortal world, and 3) righteous people gain access to an idyllic eternal life in Heaven. Once establishing these, we can turn to understanding how exactly one strives to be righteous enough to enter Heaven.

In his introduction to The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard directly distinguishes the Christian worldview as one which believes “death is by no means the last thing of all, just another minor event in that which is all, an eternal life.”[3] Clearly for Kierkegaard and for the Christian imagination, death is what enables the realization of one’s eternal potential. He believes that humans are a “synthesis of the infinite and the finite.”[4] The end of the finite life, then, allows a Christian person to finally access the infinite life that was always due to them. Crucially, the finite and infinite lives exist on different planes entirely. This is confirmed in 1 Corinthians: mortal flesh and blood does not inherit the “kingdom of God,” but a separate existence of “imperishability” will be provided to the Christian believer upon death.[5] From this passage, we can surmise that in the Christian belief about death, a person takes on a separate form and exists on a separate plane, with no continuing relation with the mortal world. The concerns despairs problems issues injustices of the mortal world have no bearing on the eternal life – in the separate plane of unlimited existence, there is no holdover of one’s previous limited existence. Furthermore, as Jesus explains in Matthew during the Sermon on the Mount, the idyllic eternal life is awarded to the “righteous” in the “kingdom of heaven.”[6] Again in Romans, the Bible states that “the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory” of the afterlife.[7] Thus we may also gather that the life beyond mortal life is free of suffering: we are all too familiar with the popular depictions of heaven as eternal happiness, pearly gates upon pristine clouds. To achieve this however, as Jesus said on the Mount, we must be “righteous.” Herein lies the crux – whether or not the righteousness worthy of Heaven involves a sufficient imperative for doing social justice work. I believe it proves insufficient for the following major reasons, which I will elaborate upon in turn.

  1. The blissful afterlife is detached from the mortal world, giving less incentive to make this world better.
  2. Since there are no hierarchies in a perfect Heaven, an individual can aim to do the bare minimum that provides them access to Heaven.

I.

If I act based on a Christian vision of the afterlife, which is ultimately more glorious and hopeful than my present life, but has no connection to the mortal world, then I have less incentive to improve the mortal world. Over the course of an eternal life, only a miniscule fraction of my life would be spent on the limited Earth, and the vast majority spent on the unlimited plane of Heaven. Given that eternal Heaven is a glorious and happy existence, the miniscule fraction of my life would contain the greatest suffering I can experience in my eternal life. I am able to retain a hope through this suffering because of the promise of Heaven, but ultimately I am constantly looking forward to the escape of Heaven. I will accomplish what I can, or be as righteous as I need, to attain Heaven, but I have no reason to go above and beyond to help the society that I only share a miniscule fraction of my life with. If I believed that I had to return to the Earth in some way, or that I would continue to be connected to the mortal world after death, then I would have a need to improve the conditions on Earth. Absent of that potential to return to Earth, I have a limited reason to engage in difficult social justice work with my time here. Mortality and Earthly life already contain enough individual suffering, and I would not want to take on the extra suffering of others in community service work, when this Earthly life is a miniscule fraction of my eternal life. Let us consider an example: If I have lived my life according to the injunctions of Christ’s Sermon the Mount, and I have dedicated the bulk of my life to successfully eradicating hunger in my community, then by the age of 50 let us assume I have lived a life worthy of Heaven. At that age, let us also assume I have the influence, money, and power to tackle another problem in my community, like gun violence. If I do not address that issue, I will go to Heaven and never experience that problem again. Since Heaven is a separate existence, once I have attained it, I have no incentive to go about fixing all the problems I can fix: I no longer have to face the problems that continue on, even those that were caused by me, because I live in a separate plane.

II.

The impetus then, is to live a life that grants me access to Heaven, and no further. Let us consider another example. If I am an American man with firm belief in Christ, I have acted in accordance with his teachings, and have volunteered every weekend at a homeless shelter, I am presumably living a life worthy of Heaven. I am loving my neighbor, which Dr. West claimed in class is the crux of the Christian moral imperative.[8] Yet, when I see on the nightly news that bombs are being dropped on innocent people in Syria, I have no imperative to act against those injustices, because I have already earned Heaven, and in Heaven I don’t have to hear about those Syrian casualties for the rest of my eternal life and I will experience no guilt. Since Heaven is a blissful existence, there are presumably no hierarchies or power discrepancies between those who were more and less righteous on Earth – once I have achieved heaven I have “made it.” Thus, even if the mortal world is in a state of complete disarray, with dictators unleashing chemical weapons attacks on their own citizens, the eternal world continues to exist blissfully separate from such problems. If I have already lived a life worthy of Heaven, I have no incentive to stop those chemical weapons attacks because I have already guaranteed a good life for myself. I do not have to leave my country to join rescue efforts in Syria and take on difficult work because it will not afford me any better place in Heaven. So I can safely stick to doing the bare minimum, and my imperative to do social justice is curtailed after I have done enough “Heaven-worthy” deeds in the world.

Given the two points above, there may well be counterarguments from those who prefer to believe in Heaven, and I shall address two such arguments here:

A. The idea of an afterlife in Hell is a deterrent for not helping others, or for doing the bare minimum to achieve Heaven.

B. The crux of the Bible is to love thy neighbor, which is a call to perform social justice to reach Heaven.

A.

The concept of Hell is certainly a deterrent from performing immoral activities, but it hardly seems to be a deterrent from living a patterned, individualistic life. In other words, a “good” person can live free from the fear of Hell but they are not motivated by hellfire and brimstone to radically improve the society around them. Again, let us consider a concrete example. Consider the case of a 75-year-old white Christian woman who has recently retired. Over the course of her life, she has followed all of the commandments in the way Christ prescribes on the Sermon on the Mount: she has never killed, never coveted another woman’s husband, rarely even lied or felt jealousy in the long arc of her life. She worked a high-paying job at a respectable bank in New York, volunteered every month, donated to her church often, and gave money to the Red Cross occasionally. While she has never personally mistreated others, she never spoke up against discriminatory mortgage lending policies in her bank, even after she had the power to do so. Surely, most Christians would not consider such a person worthy of going to hell. She is simply guilty of falling into the Kantian patterns[9] that define “good” morality in modern-day America, without breaking outside of her boundaries to revolt against prevailing systems of prejudice or oppression that harm communities outside her own. She is a good person, who does not need to worry about going to Hell, but she is not a person who strives for social justice. She is not a person to go above and beyond the call of individual goodness to strive for societal goodness or improvement. Thus, the concept of Hell is not sufficient for prodding people into morality that is focused on social justice.

B.

As Dr. West proclaimed in class, the mark of the Christian is to “love thy neighbor.”[10] Drawing from Kierkegaard, Dr. West went on to say that loving thy neighbor means finding the image of God in another that is worthy of your love, and setting your heart on the possibility of improvement in each person. Accordingly, Christian belief is committed to the power of transformation in each individual, and by extension committed to the transformation and improvement of society. Thus, the achievement of Heaven is predicated on satisfying the call to “love thy neighbor.” There are two counterpoints to this general belief, as it regards loving thy neighbor as a call for social justice work.

First, love as a belief in another’s ability to improve, due to the image of God within them, is separate fundamentally from what is required in social justice – a belief in shaping social structures to fit individuals as they are. If we desire to bring about social justice as it relates to the education gap between urban minority youth and white suburban youth, we do not just need to love the urban youth and believe in their ability to grow out of their conditions. We must be committed instead to changing the very conditions that they have been forcibly thrust into as a result of years of segregationist policies and poor educational equity in our society. There is nothing we need to change in the youth, and everything we need to change in the society itself – the weakness of love as a model is that it is too dependent on individual connection and forgiveness. To bring about social change, sometimes we simply must hate the structures that create oppressive conditions.

The second counterpoint, which builds off the first, is: as Dr.West himself said in class, Jesus was not an abolitionist.[11] That is to say, loving thy neighbor is an entirely different concept than uplifting thy neighbor. I may very well love someone who is a slave, but my love is not predicated on lifting them out of their slavery. For indeed, love is supposed to be unconditional, but uplifting someone is grounded entirely in seeing their conditions and removing them from those conditions. If we are to be committed to improving the world around us, we must be dedicated to uplifting our neighbors, not just loving them. Thus, the Christian model of loving thy neighbor to gain access to the afterlife proves insufficient for compelling people on Earth to bring about social justice. It did not even prove sufficient for removing slavery when Jesus walked the Earth.

If acting as if we will go to Heaven is insufficient, as discussed above, for compelling individuals to improve their societies, then how is acting with the assumption of rebirth any better? In the remainder of this essay, I shall discuss the belief in rebirth as an alternative to the dominant monotheistic model of belief in Heaven, and posit that it provides a greater social justice imperative.

Rebirth as Ultimate Cause for Engagement

           The crux of the rebirth belief, as it relates to social justice imperative, is the following: Rebirth means that we are bound to return to a world of our own making, as any sort of lifeform; therefore, it is incumbent upon us to improve that world for any and all lifeforms inhabiting it if we want to secure a better life. Before delving into the main points that support this claim, allow me to first establish an understanding of how rebirth works in a Buddhist worldview, by drawing from content in Sources of Indian Tradition and class lectures.

In the afterlife beliefs of ancient India, mainly of the two major strains of philosophical thought, Hinduism and Buddhism, individuals are bound to come back to the Earth again and again in a cycle of rebirth. When one life ends, there is simply a waiting period before transmigration occurs, and the person is reformed as another individual and born again.[12] This continues to happen without end until a person reaches the state of Nirvana, where rebirth ceases and the individual existence is entirely ended after death. While this may seem unsatisfactory compared to the vision of a glorious Heaven aforementioned, it is important to keep in mind Buddhism’s First Noble Truth: in Sanskrit, sarvam idam duhkham, i.e, all this is suffering.[13] Desires, cravings, and our lives on Earth formed by them, are wholly impermanent and thus causes for suffering in some way. This also means that there are always more problems on Earth to fix, because the Earthly existence itself is one of suffering. Nirvana, escaping desires and rebirth, is thus the only way to reduce one’s footprint of causing suffering to others on this Earth, but achieving Nirvana is incredibly difficult. Enlightenment, the mental state that enables on to achieve Nirvana at death, can only be reached by a deep understanding of “the nature of existence, then by a carefully controlled system of moral conduct, and finally by concentration and mediation.”[14] Most people are bound to live hundreds or thousands of lives on Earth before they are able to achieve Nirvana. Naturally then, the overriding concern in any one life is not achieving Nirvana by its end, but instead positioning oneself for a spiritually better life in the next rebirth. In short, the believer of rebirth does not have a Heaven to look forward to, but instead another life on the same Earth that they have just left. As such, this belief has profoundly different implications than a belief in Heaven. The major points to be discussed are as follows:

  1. If an individual is bound to come back to this world, they want to create a better world to be reborn into – there is a continuous incentive to better the world.
  2. Since rebirth can happen in any lifeform in any location, there is an impetus to spread one’s desire for social justice throughout the world.
  3. Rebirth occurs through the process of karma, so God is not involved, and any change I wish for in the next life must be brought about by myself and other humans.

I.

If I accept a Buddhist belief in rebirth, then I cannot assume my relationship with the mortal world ends upon death. Indeed, I will have to come back to the world shortly after and live out another life, instead of attaining a new type of eternal existence, as seen in the Christian model. Thus, upon death I do not travel to a world of God’s making, but instead a world of my own creation – in essence, a true belief in “reaping what you sow.” The conditions I leave the world in will be the same ones I return to, and I will not be able to escape that cycle for hundreds or thousands of lifetimes. Since I directly reap the results of my mortal deeds in the next life, I have every incentive to live the best life possible. If I simply live the bare minimum of good moral conduct, without trying to improve the world around me, I will continue to be reborn into the same or worse position in life. But by striving to improve the world, I may be reborn into a better society. Unlike the world of Heaven, there are indeed hierarchies and power structures in the mortal world; if I accept them as such, I will continue to be born into them and suffer through them. Thus, if I want anything about my existence over lifetimes to change, I must venture out to affect that change myself. For example, if I believe that the voter disenfranchisement of minorities in the U.S. is one of the evils of this country, I am not able to escape it upon death by entering Heaven. I enter once again into a world where it is rampant, again and again, until I take it upon myself to help address that societal ill with other activists. Once I have done so, there are then other forms of suffering for me to address, because suffering is ubiquitous.

II.

Crucially, the social ills you can experience in a Buddhist worldview are not limited to the community you are born into for a given lifetime. If I am a man born in Sri Lanka, then in the next birth I may be a woman living with limited rights in Saudi Arabia. In the birth after that, I may be a polar bear struggling to balance myself on the melting ice caps of the Arctic circle. In the birth after that, I may be a child in Syria, dodging the bombs of government forces as I trudge from building to building looking for my lost parents. And so on and so forth. After I die, I may come back as anyone or anything in any part of the world, and so to put it simply, the world is me and I am the world. This is the ultimate cause for engagement with social justice: being able to put yourself in everyone else’s shoes because you may well inhabit them in the next life. To borrow from the poetic words of Miyazawa Kenji about this Buddhist ideal:

If in the east, there is a sick child, I want to go and nurse him. If in the west, there is a tired mother, I want to go and carry bundles of rice to her. If in the south, there is someone dying, I want to go tell them not to be afraid. If in the north, there is a quarrel, I want to tell them it’s not worth it… that’s the kind of person I want to be.[15]

In this worldview, there is not a blissful satisfaction of looking forward to Heaven, but instead a constant, nagging drive that tells an individual: somewhere out there is someone who is suffering, and I may become that person in the next life. With an understanding of the entire world as one’s community, there is a greater incentive to fight for social justice worldwide. This is a profound call to not just “love thy neighbor” but to uplift thy neighbor, to remove the causes of suffering to the best extent of my abilities because all suffering is my suffering.

III.

A natural consequence of believing in rebirth of your own making is that God is not necessary to dictate the conditions you are born into. Instead, a belief in karma facilitates the cycles of life and ensures that just repercussions follow any good or bad action that one takes.[16] As such, if I believe in Buddhist rebirth, it is not possible for me to pray for the world to be changed, because there is no God who controls a Heavenly realm and grants access to it. I must seek to change the world myself, or it will stay the same for my next birth and beyond. This too has profound repercussions for the imperative to do social justice work. Too often in the wake of mass shootings in America, we hear that it’s most important in such times to offer prayers for the victims and their families. Instead of adopting that worldview, if we adopted the Buddhist belief in rebirth, then prayers are immediately not sufficient. The only way to prevent such deaths is to revolt against the existence of gun worship in America, taking society into our own hands instead of praying for its betterment. Indeed, an individual may be born in the next life as the parent of a child who is needlessly shot down at an elementary school. To act as if karma operates in the world, one would have to assume that the societal problems we decide to overlook or ignore are the very ones we will experience in our next birth. Rebirth thus provides no excuses out of engaging in social justice work – it is consistently and prevalently necessary in a world of suffering.

Given the three points above, there may well be counterarguments from the Christian point of view, and I shall address two such arguments here:

A. Once an individual does decide to strive for Nirvana, they too detach themselves from the suffering of the mortal world because they cease to exist, and thus an imperative for social justice doesn’t exist.

B. There is no memory of past lives or ability to predict future ones: we are only consciously aware of one life so there is no incentive to serve others for the sake of social justice.

A.

When the Buddha isolated himself in deep meditation and achieved Enlightenment, he realized he would attain Nirvana. Instead of staying in isolation and heading towards an early death for release from the world’s suffering, he entered back into the world and taught others what he had learned for over 40 years. This idea has been enveloped into the Buddhist tradition as the concept of the bodhisattva ideal: even once you attain Enlightenment, you hold off on Nirvana out of a selfless desire to help others reduce the suffering in the world.[17] Thus, even when an individual has gone through hundreds of lifetimes and has finally readied themselves for the end of their births, they sometimes still continue to take birth solely for the purpose of helping others. Crucially, this is built into the rebirth belief: the desire is not to escape and leave everyone behind once you reach Enlightenment, it’s to help others on their own path to reducing suffering or bringing about social improvement. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, most living people who believe in rebirth do not strive to attain Enlightenment in their current birth, whereas most people who believe in Heaven are actively trying to attain Heaven in their current birth. The possibility of not being reborn does not weigh into the decision making of most who believe in rebirth and thus there is no detriment to the imperative for social justice.

B.

As stated in the introduction, choosing to conduct one’s life as if one will be reborn leads to a greater imperative for social justice – proof of rebirth is besides the point. Just as Heaven believers have faith but not definitive proof of Heaven, rebirth believers act on Earth with the faith that they will be reborn. Moreover, in the Buddhist view of rebirth, there is no Self or soul that remains from birth to birth, and instead it is merely the changing desires and conditions of one’s previous life that take some form in the next life.[18] Thus, the reduction of suffering on Earth is not done for the sake of a promised reward – there is no soul to collect that reward nor a guarantee that one will remember the good deeds of a previous life. Still, social justice work can be carried out because when one acts as if they will be reborn, they automatically identify with the world around them and want to reduce its suffering for good karma in this life and the next (see point II above). In other words, a belief in rebirth can make social work a thankless deed – but one should not strive to improve the world to be recognized for it.

Conclusion

If we consider again the idea of religion as the “call for help,” a difference between the two belief systems described above becomes clear. The Christian call for help is answered by a Heavenly existence that enables one to escape from Earthly suffering. The Buddhist call for help is answered by the very people who call for help themselves, through lifetimes of attempting to improve the world. As discussed above, the blissful afterlife of the Heaven view is detached from the mortal world, giving less incentive to make this world better, and allows one to do the bare minimum for access to Heaven. In contrast, the rebirth view has a continuous incentive to better the world for one’s subsequent births because change must be brought out by human action. Moreover, the desire to help others applies to the entire world because rebirth can happen in any community in any place. Yet, given all of the above, I would still not ask anyone to change their religious belief in Heaven if so inclined. There are incredibly valid faith reasons experiences for believing in a Heaven and I fully encourage others to keep believing in such an outcome. What I argue for instead, specifically for those who are interested in improving the world, is for people to conduct their lives as if they will be reborn. The crucial point: you do not have to actually believe in rebirth, but serve others as if you will be reborn. You do not have to actually believe you may come back to Earth as a child in Yemen, but when something bad happens in Yemen, try to serve those people as if you were going to be Yemeni in the next birth. We must do this because our moment in history calls for it.

As Dr. Unger mentioned in class, humans do not get to choose their moment in history. Despite that fact, accidents of birth or historical circumstance are disturbing grounds for a choice of philosophy, a choice of how to live one’s life. We live in an unprecedented time of religious and ideological access on Earth and it behooves us to think comparatively across religious systems, picking the beliefs that best resonate with our individualities, instead of lumping ourselves into automatic faith categories.[19] If I am a Hindu living in Mumbai, I can still try to learn something from the Christian ideal of “love thy neighbor.” If I am a Zen priest in Kyoto, I can still learn from the ideal of submission built into the very name of Islam. I can do so because this moment in our world’s history affords me that opportunity. Why not take it? For too long, we have lived our lives based on 17th and 18th century European ideas about categorical, intractable differences between humans instead of trying a 21st century syncretism to achieve better results. For those who want to lead revolutionary projects that better the world, combining ideas is key. By acting as if we will be reborn, we fundamentally identify with every single person and their suffering on this Earth, because that person could be you someday. What better way to uplift and engage with others than finding ourselves in their existence?

[1] Cornel West, class lecture, 2/28/18.

[2] Unfortunately, I cannot cover all Christian/ Heaven belief philosophies within the confines of this essay. These texts were chosen for their alignment with the general course materials.

[3] Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness Unto Death. London: Penguin, 2004, 38.

[4]Ibid., 43.

[5]The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Philadelphia: American Bible Society, 1989, 1 Corinthians 15.50-54.

[6]Ibid., Matthew 5.10.

[7]Ibid., Romans 8.18,

[8] Cornel West, class lecture, 2/28/2018.

[9] Michael Puett, class lecture, 4/4/18.

[10] Cornel West, class lecture, 2/28/18.

[11] Cornel West, class lecture, 2/7/18.

[12] Ainslie T. Embree, ed. Sources of Indian Tradition. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1960, 96.

[13]Ibid., 95.

[14]Ibid., 97.

[15] Kenji Miyazawa. Miyazawa Kenji: Selections. Translated by Hiroaki Sato. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007, 219-220.

[16]Sources, 96.

[17] Michael Puett, class lecture, 3/21/18

[18]Ibid.

[19] Roberto Unger, class lecture, 4/11/18.

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