I recently received the following post from Santikaro, teacher and founder of Liberation Park, which he posted in response to this question about the accuracy of the suttas on the question of birth/rebirth:
Since the words of the Buddha (the Suttas, the discourses) were recited at the First Council and carefully (I suppose) repeated, memorized and transmitted orally from then on until they were eventually transcribed, how can we explain the many references to rebirth explicitly described as what happens “after death, when the body dissolves” in the Pali Suttas ?
Santikaro’s response is scholarly and worth reading in its entirety even if your understanding of his references is not complete. I’ll elaborate on his more important points later in commentary. I have also placed small interpretations and comments in brackets [ ], so any discrepancies or misinterpretations there are mine.
“First of all, there are unsolvable uncertainties when we deal with ancient texts and their interpretation. We don’t have any manuscripts from the Buddha’s time, just legends (from the main protagonists) about how perfectly the teachings were preserved? Were they? Traditionalists argue “yes”; others, such as Ajahn Buddhadasa [scholar and Santikaro's teacher: 1906-1993] and a growing number of scholars see reality as more complex.
Further, as is now happening in the West, at least what I see here in USA, Buddhist groups & societies have tended to see the Buddha’s Dhamma through the lens of their own times, world views, assumptions, social systems, fears, needs, etc. For example, feudal Buddhist societies pictured the Buddha and his early followers in ways that don’t fit so well with the tendency of liberal democrats these days. And how much would Freud and the Buddha actually understand each other? Probably not as much as some advocates of the psycho-Dhamma school believe.
In short, it’s an on-going adventure to be mindful of our own lenses & filters with which we approach various versions of Buddhism and to try to get close to what was actually going on in the Buddha’s time and teaching. Fortunately, there is a growing body of research we can draw upon. Unfortunately, traditionalists don’t make much use of such resources. (There are many parallels w/ the critical Christian theology that originated in Germany in the mid-1800s (I believe) and the rejection of such approaches by many fundamentalist Christians.)
Tan Ajahn’s [Buddhadhasa's] approach was to make use of criteria contained in the suttas themselves. Conversely, traditionalists argue that the suttas can’t be understood without the guidance of the commentaries (of which the Visuddhimagga [The Path of Purification, a commentary to the suttas written by Buddhaghosa aproximately 430 CE in Sri Lanka] is the lynch-pin). They believe that there are few important discrepancies between suttas and commentaries. More critical readers see some important departures. Even such a staunch apologist for the orthodoxy increasingly notes some of the less major discrepancies, tho not going anywhere near as far as we who are less committed to the commentaries, which, of course have their value. [Note: Theravada Buddhists place less emphasis on the commentaries to the scriptures than Mahayana or Vajrayana Buddhists do.]
NOW, to your main question, which comes up repeatedly and will be with us for a long time. Here’s my current take on it:
Yes, there’s no denying the frequent references to “further becomings” and “previous dwellings,” though not literally/exactly to “rebirth,” which has too often been a corrupt translation of jāti, which is simply “birth.” Of course, the contexts on many passages clearly indicate some sort of connection between a death of one life and the appearance/arising of another life, usually in another realm of existence. Note, tho, that the Buddha never explains how this happens, except for the 2nd Vijjā [part of the Anguttara Nikaya, the fourth division of the Sutta Pitaka] which concerns beings passing away and reappearing according to their karma. Still, even these passages can be read in different ways. What was the Buddha’s intent? Traditionalists insist on their interpretation, tho it seems to contradict more fundamental Dhamma teachings, especially anattā [not-self, one of the three characteristics of existence]. In the last 5-6 decades, alternative readings have been proposed, including by Tan Ajahn.
Tan Ajahn at times suggested that the Buddha made use of two levels of understanding regarding such passages. First, a literal moralistic level for people who don’t understand anattā and a more metaphorical meaning that fits better with anattā and idappaccayatā [the conditioned nature of things, conditionality, assignable causality] .
In short, if one wants a simple clarity, one will be frustrated. Instead, inquire into the nature of dukkha [disturbance, worry, anxiety, uncertainty, uneasiness, suffering], its arising, its quenching, and the path of its quenching. Which understanding(s) of birth/rebirth are most useful in cultivating the right view (non-dogmatic) that guides the path of dukkha’s quenching?”
Santikaro, (of Liberation Park, now in Norwalk, Wisconsin) was ordained in Thailand as a Theravada monk in 1985, and subsequently trained at Suan Mokkh with Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, a leading Thai teacher, scholar, and reformer of Theravada Buddhism. He lived in Thailand as a Buddhist monk for 16 years. He became Ajahn Buddhadasa’s primary English translator and was abbot of nearby Suan Atammayatarama.
Santikaro is a founding member of Think Sangha, a community of socially engaged Buddhist activists that has given special attention to the ethical and spiritual impact of consumerism and militarism. He led meditation retreats at Suan Mokkh for many years before returning to the USA’s Midwest in 2001.
In 2004, Santikaro returned to lay life. He continues to teach in the Buddhist tradition with an emphasis on the early Pali sources. He is the founder of Liberation Park, a modern American expression of Buddhist practice, study, and social responsibility within community. There he continues to teach, study, practice, translate the work of his teacher, engage in social activism, and imagine the future of Buddha-Dhamma in the West. Currently, Santikaro is being treated for lymphoma at the Mayo Clinic.
For more information about Santikaro’s work, visit the Liberation Park website at http://www.liberationpark.org.