The Fourth Noble Truth—and Wondering if We Have to Believe in Rebirth to Find the End of Suffering

The Fourth Noble Truth—and Wondering if We Have to Believe in Rebirth to Find the End of Suffering


The topic of the Dharma talk for which I signed up this morning is the Fourth Noble Truth.

My path from signing up to talk about the Fourth Noble Truth to being here this morning to do that has been long and twisty.

The title of the talk to which I have finally found my way is this: “The Fourth Noble Truth and Wondering If We Have to Believe in Rebirth in Order to Find the End of Suffering”.

If that strikes you as a non sequitur, you are probably right, and it reflects a lot of uncertainty and confusion in getting here.

The Fourth Noble Truth

As you know, this morning’s talk is the fourth in a planned coordinated series of teachings about the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, which is anticipated to take approximately a year to complete.

The Fourth Noble Truth reads more or less as follows, depending on which version and which translation you happen to choose; this is Nanamoli Thera’s translation:

The way leading to cessation of suffering, as a noble truth, is this: It is simply the noble eightfold path, that is to say, right view, right intention; right speech, right action, right livelihood; right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

“Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting Rolling the Wheel of Truth,” 1993, Access to Insight

The substantive content here is not the Noble Truths, but rather is the Noble Eightfold Path, viz., announcing the Path and naming the eight branches, so clearly we need to devote substantial attention to the Noble Path this morning; before we do that, however, let’s review the first three Noble Truths, about which we already have heard .

The first three Noble Truths

Summarizing very briefly, the first three Noble Truths have to do with 1) the pervasive existence of suffering (dukkha) in human life, 2) the cause of suffering, which is craving (tanha), and 3) the end (nirodha) of suffering, which comes from letting go of craving.

Looking back over the past few months, we heard very edifying talks by Hugh, Ken and Curt explaining these Noble Truths, respectively, in depth and detail.

If we think of these first three Noble Truths as the core of the Buddha’s teachings, we can regard the Noble Eightfold Path as a systematic compilation of his suggestions about how to enact these teachings.

The Noble Eightfold Path

Turning our attention ahead now to the next several months, we look toward this Path that the Buddha has laid out for us.

The Noble Path has been taught many different ways and by many different teachers, and there is no way to know in advance exactly how it will be taught here at Still Mountain.

But I think it is safe to assume that it will be presented by our teachers in a way that is generally consonant for vipassana-oriented Buddhists in this country.

Given that assumption, the eight parts of the Path probably will be presented as grouped into three broad categories that may be labeled 1) wisdom, or panna, 2) ethical conduct, or sila, and 3) mental discipline, or samadhi, although the specific names used may vary across teachers.

The Wisdom group (panna) consists of Right Understanding (or sometimes named Right View) and Right Thought (or sometimes Right Intention).

  • Right Understanding includes understanding the way things really are, as based on the Four Noble Truths; it also plays an important role in orienting us to all the other practices on the Path (cf. Fronsdal, “The Buddha’s Eightfold Path“, as found on the Insight Meditation Center website).
  • Right Thought means keeping one’s mind free of sense desire, ill-will, and cruelty, thus getting rid of unskillful thoughts and encouraging pure ones (cf. Venerable Nanissara, “The Buddha and His Noble Path,” Vipassana Research Institute website).

The Ethical Conduct cluster (sila), which is based on love and compassion, includes Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood.

  • Right Speech involves not telling lies, not backbiting or talking in other ways that elicit hatred or enmity, not using harsh or rude speech, and not indulging in idle gossip (cf. Walpola Sri Rahula, “The Noble Eightfold Path,” Tricycle website).
  • Right Action includes not killing, not stealing, not engaging in sexual misconduct; generally, minimising the pain we inflict on others (cf., Venerable Nanissara, Ibid.).
  • Right Livelihood, which means not making one’s living through an occupation that brings harm to others, e.g., trading in weapons, intoxicating drinks or poisons, killing animals, cheating, etc. (cf., Walpola Sri Rahula, Ibid.)

The Mental Discipline group (samadhi) has mainly to do with the practice of meditation and includes Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

  • Right Effort involves preventing unwholesome states of mind from arising, getting rid of unwholesome states already arisen, causing wholesome states of mind not yet arisen to arise, and perfecting wholesome states of mind already arisen (cf., Walpola Sri Rahula, Ibid.)
  • Right Mindfulness means being aware of what is happening in the present moment in the body, sensations, feeling, perception, and thoughts and mind, without grasping or aversion (cf., Venerable Nanissara, Ibid.)
  • Right Concentration leads to the four stages of jhana, which are described in the order they typically arise in practice, ultimately culminating in the fourth stage, with “…only pure equanimity and awareness remaining” (cf., Walpola Sri Rahula, Ibid.)

This completes our brief summary of the Eightfold Path.


So, what does rebirth have to do with all this?

The doctrine of rebirth is foundational to traditional orthodox Buddhism, including the teachings of both the Eightfold Noble Path and the Four Noble Truths—as well as many others—but it is among the beliefs that are typically ignored and/or rejected in modern reinterpretations in this country.

In traditional points of view, as I understand it, the ultimate point of practice is to reach nibbana and escape from the horrors of samsara, i.e., escape from the karma-driven endless cycles of birth, death and rebirth, so that after a fully enlightened person’s final death the relevant individual karmic stream is totally ended and there is no further existence of any sort in any of the cosmic realms. 

Obviously, if the existence and effects of karma, and the reality of birth, death and rebirth, are denied—or just not believed in—this belief system collapses.

I got caught up in concerns about rebirth by some of the readings I did in preparing for this dharma talk; in particular, it emerged that there has been a great deal of conflict and disagreement over the meaning and correct understanding of the traditional teachings, continuing into the present time.

Toward the end of the Wikipedia article on the Four Noble Truths there was a section on different ways in which the four truths have been understood and taught in several traditions, including Theravada, Mahayana, Tibetan and Western forms of Buddhism (Wikipedia,Four Noble Truths”).

This Wikipedia article also mentioned that many western Buddhists find doctrines like karma and rebirth puzzling, difficult to understand, and hard to find credible.

According to this section, quote:

[s]ome Western interpreters have proposed what is sometimes referred to as a ‘naturalized Buddhism’. It is devoid of rebirth, karma, nirvana, realms of existence, and other concepts of Buddhism, with doctrines such as the Four Noble Truths reformulated and restated in modernistic terms. This ‘deflated secular Buddhism’ stresses compassion, impermanence, causality, selfless persons, no Boddhisattvas, no nirvana, no rebirth, and a naturalist’s approach to well-being of oneself and others.


Defenders of traditional orthodoxy

It was also pointed out in this section that these “modernist Western interpretations” have many critics among traditional Buddhist scholars; Bhikkhu Bodhi and Thanissaro Bhikkhu were mentioned as examples.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu seems to have been especially thorough in his analyses, having authored a 49-page article filled with arguments in favor of the traditional beliefs in karma, birth and death, and rebirth, and counterarguments against the modern lines of analysis that attack these traditional ideas (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “The Truth of Rebirth and Why it Matters for Buddhist Practice,” 2012, Access to Insight website).

On the other hand, there also have been extended essays on the other side, i.e., attacking traditional orthodoxy and advancing contemporary challenges to it.

The vipassana movement

One of the sources of “modernist Western interpretations” of Buddhist teachings in this country is what Gil Fronsdal refers to as “the vipassana movement” (Fronsdal, “Insight Meditation in the United States: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”, from a chapter in Prebish and Tanaka’s The Faces of Buddhism in America, 1998).

As you are aware, many of us here at Still Mountain value and practice insight meditation, or vipassana meditation.

Personally, I identify with the vipassana movement in many ways, and the traditional interpretations do not square with my own vipassana-influenced understandings.

Fronsdal has written an especially relevant article in support of modernist vipassana interpretations, in which he goes through multiple lines of analysis explaining his own understanding of the issues, which he encapsulates as follows:

When asked if I believe in rebirth, I prefer to say that I can find no reason to believe in rebirth, and that my Buddhist practice is not dependent on the belief. Because it seems unlikely we will ever have definite proof that it doesn’t happen, I think of myself as an agnostic on the issue of rebirth. At times I have been a sympathetic agnostic, but for the most part I have been highly skeptical.

Fronsdal, “Should I Believe in Rebirth?“, Insight Meditation Center website

Fronsdal concludes this article as follows, reminding us to remain unattached to whatever beliefs we come to:

So, in concluding whether I should believe in rebirth, I have so far not encountered the necessary evidence for the belief. Just as important, I have not found a reason why such belief would be necessary to my practice …. In the meantime, I hope to remain unattached to any views that might be for, against, or agnostic about rebirth. I believe that peace is found in not clinging.


Personally, I really like Fronsdal’s conclusion.

Stephen Batchelor’s point

I also very much like the following comment by Stephen Batchelor (he is referring to “doctrines such as rebirth, the law of kamma, and liberation from the cycle of birth and death”):

The reason people can no longer accept these beliefs need not be because they reject them as false, but because such views are too much at variance with everything else they know and believe about the nature of themselves and the world. They simply do not work anymore, and the intellectual gymnastics one needs to perform to make them work seem casuistic and, for many, unpersuasive. They are metaphysical beliefs, in that (like belief in God) they can neither be convincingly demonstrated nor refuted. One has to take them on trust …

Stephen Batchelor, “A Secular Buddhism,” Journal of Global Buddhism, 13, 2012, pp. 87-107

Concluding comments

So, where are we ending up with all this?

My guess is that Batchelor’s comment may fit pretty well for many of us.

While traditional scholars such as Bhikkhu Bodhi and Thanissaro Bhikkhu may well regard modernist influences as at best profoundly mistaken and deeply regrettable, other senior scholars and analysts do not agree with their historical orthodoxy.

Obviously, Fronsdal and Batchelor, for instance, do not agree with their views; consider the following comments by Batchelor: 

(E)ach generation has the right and duty to re-interpret the teachings that it has inherited. In doing so, we may discover meanings in these texts that speak lucidly to our own [era] but of which the original authors and their successors may have been unaware …. I take what I am saying with utmost seriousness, but I recognize that it too is as contingent and imperfect as any other interpretation of the dharma.


Personally, I believe it is healthy and helpful for our sangha to be aware of alternative interpretations of important teachings, whether as individuals we come to agree with such interpretations or not.

As embarrassing as it is to admit, before researching for this talk I had not taken these traditional beliefs as seriously as I now think I should have.

I was aware of them, of course—at least from readings, if not necessarily from direct instruction by my teachers—but I did not fully appreciate the degree to which traditional teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path are very deeply rooted in, and completely dependent on, beliefs such as karma and rebirth.

I’m not exactly sure how I managed this compartmentalization of ideas, but in retrospect I think I had always thought of the Four Noble Truths (which I like and find helpful, at least the version I have in my head) as “core teachings” of the Buddha, that we all have to take seriously, and karma and rebirth (which I don’t like and do not think about particularly) as some sort of “secondary teachings” that we don’t have to take very seriously at all, unless we happen personally to find them interesting for some idiosyncratic reason.

However it was that I managed these internal gymnastics in the past, I now feel that my own understanding of the dharma has been enriched and deepened by learning about the traditional roots of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path in historical beliefs about karma, birth, death and rebirth, even though I personally still do find these historical interpretations persuasive and still do not share them.

I hope that your understanding of the dharma also has been deepened and enriched, regardless of which of the various interpretations of the teachings call to you most persuasively.

And as a sangha, I believe we have plenty of room to hold differences of understanding among us comfortably and openly, without feeling that we have to try to eliminate such differences by somehow “resolving” them.

Thank you very much for your kind attention.

Let’s open the floor now for questions, comments, discussion.

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