My journey to Buddhism
I wasn't always a Buddhist. As far as I recall our immediate family was not particularly religious, although on our father's side there were practising Anglicans and relatives had been Anglican vicars. On our mother's side I do not remember any especial interest in religion. I heard once that our maternal grandmother had said she would be a Buddhist if she were anything at all. I discovered fairly recently that in fact our maternal grandfather's family was traditionally Catholic, although he had abandoned the faith. I am not sure now why, but for some reason when I was really quite young I joined the local Anglican church choir. I loved singing church music. Unfortunately my voice broke rather early and, since I was thought to be too young to be a bass, as far as I recall I spent my entire time as Head Chorister miming. This perhaps gave me an early taste of the bluff necessary for an academic career.
At the appropriate age early in the 1960s I was confirmed in the Anglican Church by the Bishop of Dover. I became a server at Holy Communion. As the 60s wore on I became involved in the lifestyle and all the normal things that teenage boys get up to. As public examinations loomed larger, I left the choir, ceased to be a server, and lost contact with the Church. I grew long hair, and dressed strangely.
I went to the University of Sussex to read Philosophy. By that time, in common with many in the late 1960s, I had developed an interest in meditation and things Indian. I channelled this interest particularly into Indian philosophy. I subsequently took my doctorate in Buddhist philosophy at the University of Oxford.
By about 1973-ish I was already beginning to think of myself as a Buddhist. I finally 'Took Refuge', formally becoming a Buddhist, in the Dalai Lama's tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. When I found myself teaching at the University of Bristol in the early 1980s I set up with others a group in Bristol that also now has its own Buddhist Centre. I became involved in occasional teaching within the context of practising Buddhism at Buddhist Centres. As well as my academic work in Buddhist philosophy I wrote and spoke as a Tibetan Buddhist on television, the radio, and at conferences. I took part in public and private dialogue with Christians, including Hans Küng and Raimundo Pannikkar.
I was interested in philosophy, but also I was interested in meditation and the exotic East. Many of us found Buddhism attractive originally because among other things it seemed so much more rational than the alternatives (but also much, much more exotic). In particular Buddhism seemed much more sensible (and exotic) than a theistic religion like Christianity. Buddhists do not believe in God. Well, (we thought) there seemed no reason to believe in God, and the existence of evil presented for us a positive argument against the existence of God. Those of us who were brought up as Christians were fed up with defending the existence of God in an unsympathetic world against its detractors. When we stood back and tried to be as objective as possible God looked less and less likely. In Buddhism one has an immensely sophisticated (and exotic) system of morality, spirituality and philosophy which does not require God at all. At a stroke difficulties involved in accepting the existence of God were bypassed. Instead, in becoming a Buddhist, (we thought) one could be a meditator with Buddhists, the ones who really know about meditation.
However, over many, many years as a Buddhist I became more and more uneasy about my Buddhism. Absolutely central to my growing unease with Buddhist affiliation were worries about rebirth and associated worries about the doctrine of karma. Buddhists believe in rebirth, that is, as it is broadly understood, reincarnation. And, Buddhists claim, there is no chronological first beginning to the series of past lives. We have all of us been reborn an infinite number of times. No God is needed to start the series off – for there simply was no first beginning. Things have been around (somewhere) for all eternity.
Now, belief in rebirth (and indeed karma – I'll come that) seems to be quite common nowadays even among those who would not claim to be Buddhists or Hindus. One even finds Christians who say they believe in rebirth. But rebirth was well-known in ancient Greece and Rome, and it has never been part of Christian orthodoxy. And there are good reasons for this. Rebirth is incompatible with certain absolutely central Christian doctrines, including the inestimable value of each and every individual person, and the justice of God. If rebirth is true, realistically we really have no hope. It is a hope-less doctrine. As a Buddhist, it dawned on me that I had no hope. Let me explain.
Hands up who wants to be reborn as a cockroach?
I want you to imagine that you are told you are to be painlessly executed at dawn. You are terrified. You are not terrified because it will hurt, since it will be painless. So why are you terrified? Perhaps your fear lies in it being the end of all your projects for the future – the story is over. Or maybe you do not want to leave forever your friends and family. Or perhaps you fear just a great empty void, a nothingness. What is it, exactly, that frightens you?
Now I want you to imagine that your executioner gently puts his arm round you and tells you not to worry. It really isn't so bad. Although you are to be executed, it has been discovered without a shadow of a doubt that the Buddhists and Hindus were right after all. You are to be instantly reborn. In fact, you are to be reborn as a cockroach in South America.
Well - I suggest that you would still be terrified. Indeed you might be even more frightened. But why would you be so frightened? Being a cockroach answers all, or most, of the fears that first sprang to mind when you heard of your imminent execution. Cockroaches surely have projects for the future, to get enough food, poison humans, or whatever it is cockroaches happily spend their lives doing. It'll be fun, once you get used to it. Of course, being a cockroach still means you must leave your friends and family, but then in life we often leave our friends and family. Our family and friends may be separated from us by exile, war, quarrels or whatever. Or if they die, instead of you, it has the same effect. So why in this respect should we be more terrified of our own death, than of the deaths of our loved ones? Moreover as a cockroach you will have lots and lots of new friends and family, many, many cockroach friends and cockroach family to replace the ones you have lost. You'll get used to it. It's not so bad, not half as bad as you thought. And being a cockroach is not nothingness. It's not like a great empty void. It is a life, too. You will still live.
So why are we not consoled by all this? Why do we still not relish the idea of execution at dawn, followed by all the fun of being a cockroach in South America? Well, you might say, cockroaches are horrible, ugly, verminous creatures. Who wants to be one? But is that fair? Perhaps cockroaches are not horrible and ugly to themselves. After all, I expect their mummies love them.
Can you imagine being a cockroach? Can you imagine living that cockroachy life? Surely you cannot. We are not asking can you imagine waking up inside a cockroach's body (as Kafka tells us, in his story Metamorphosis). We are not asking you to imagine being you, somehow having to come to terms with being crammed inside a cockroach's body. That would not be much fun. You would have problems with all those legs, at least for a while, and you would hate your cockroach mummy getting anywhere near you. She is so creepy! But it wouldn't be like that, would it? You would love your cockroach mummy, because (I expect) cockroaches do love their mummies. For you would be a cockroach too. You cannot imagine what it would be like to be a cockroach, because you would not be you inside a cockroach body. You would be a cockroach. And who knows what the imaginations, the dreams, of a cockroach might be.
Rebirth means the end of me
What is my point here? My point is this: What is so terrifying about my being executed at dawn and reborn as a cockroach is that it is simply, quite straightforwardly, the end of me. I cannot imagine being reborn as a cockroach because there is nothing to imagine. I quite simply would not be there at all. If rebirth is true, neither I nor any of my loved ones survive death. With rebirth, for me – the actual person I am – the story really is over. There may be another being living its life in some sort of causal connection with the life that was me (influenced by my karma), but for me there is no more. That is it – end of it. There is no more to be said about me.
None of this in itself means the Buddhist position is wrong. But what it does mean is that, if the Buddhist position is correct, our death in this life is actually, really, the death of us. Death will be the end for us. Traditionally, at least on the day to day level, Buddhists and others who accept rebirth tend to obscure this fact in their choice of language by referring to 'my rebirth', and 'concern for one's future lives'. But actually any rebirth (say, as a cockroach in South America) would not be oneself, and there is a serious question therefore as to why one should care at all about 'one's' future rebirths.
I began to see that if Buddhism were correct then unless I attained enlightenment (nirvana) or something like it in this life, where the whole cycle of rebirth would finally come to a complete end, I would have no hope. Clearly, I was not going to attain enlightenment in this life. All Buddhists would be inclined to accept that as true concerning just about everyone. Enlightenment is a supreme and extremely rare achievement for spiritual heroes, not the likes of us – certainly not the likes of me. So I (and all my friends and family) have in themselves no hope. Not only that. Actually from a Buddhist perspective in the scale of infinite time the significance of each of us as such, as the person we are, converges on nothing. For each of us lives our life and perishes. Each one of us – the person we are - is lost forever. Buddhism for me was hope-less. But was I absolutely sure Buddhism was true? As St Paul knew so well, Christianity at least offers hope.
Let me say something now about the theory that usually goes along with that of rebirth, the theory of karma. This is the theory, broadly, that our virtuous and vicious actions have respectively pleasant and painful results for us. Thus if I stub and break my little toe, that painful experience is as such the result of a vicious deed done by me in the past. If what I have said so far is correct then the principles of karma when applied over lifetimes must mean that some persons escape altogether at least some of the results of their vicious deeds, and others receive unpleasant experiences that result from vicious deeds they did not do.
For consider the following: Supposing a horrible dictator gives orders on his deathbed for painfully executing a thousand people. That dictator dies, so that person – the dictator – never receives the nasty results due to him through karma. There no doubt will be another being, 'his rebirth' who will receive those horrible results. But, first, what is that to our dictator? And, second, clearly that other being (the rebirth) will be horribly hurt as a result of something he, she, or it, did not do. The idea that a baby, for example, suffers from a painful illness because of something another person did, even if the baby is in some sense a rebirth of that person, can scarcely be portrayed as satisfactory or just. It could certainly not be, as some have claimed, the most acceptable answer to the problem of evil. The baby simply is not that person who did the wicked deed, no more than a baby cockroach is me after my execution.
Buddhists do not hold that God exists, but if there were a God certainly the theory of karma would be quite incompatible with His justice. So, too, would be the throwing away of persons on the rubbish heap of history, that is entailed by rebirth.
The Christian has hope
It seems to me patently obvious that if I am reborn the person I am now in this life ceases to exist. This is blindingly obvious if I am reborn as a cockroach in South America. We could not say that I am the same person as a cockroach in South America. Could we anymore say I would be the same person if my rebirth involved a human embryo in Africa? Or in Bristol, in my own family? And the standard Buddhist position (correctly) explicitly denies that the rebirth is the same person as the one who died. Thus rebirth is incompatible with the infinite value of the person.
But Christianity is the religion of the infinite value of the person. The person we are, or can become, is not accidental to us, and is not unimportant. Each person is an individual creation of God, as such infinitely loved and valued by God. On this is based the whole of Christian morality, from the value of the family to the altruism and self-denial of the saints. Because we are infinitely valuable to God Jesus died to save each one of us. He did not die to save chains of rebirths, or reincarnating Selves. He died to save us. And we are the persons we are, as embodied individuals with our stories, families and friends. Contrary to the myth of the Christian hatred of the physical and the body, actually Christianity is also the religion of embodiment and the essential goodness of all physical creation.
It follows from all this that rebirth would be diametrically opposed to the whole direction of Christianity. If there is survival of death - and the faith of the Christian, originating in Christ's own resurrection, is based on that - it cannot be in terms of rebirth. Rebirth and the infinite value of the person are incompatible. The Christian view of death is one of hope, indeed of triumph, for (apart from anything else) it sees death not as an empty void, a nothingness. The story is not over for the persons we are, and we can hope that we do not part forever from our friends and family. But much, much more, our faith is that in God our deaths will be meaningful for each and every one of us – each individual person – in ways that exceed our imaginations but that even now excite our hope and draw-on our lives.
Well – it was thoughts like this that gradually led me away from Buddhism. Buddhism was for me hope-less. Christians have hope. I so wanted to be able to be a Christian. I returned, to look again at the things that I had rejected in my earlier Christian faith. I detail the stages of my journey in my book The Unexpected Way (T&T Clark/Continuum: 2002). Through grace I came again to God. I convinced myself that it was rational to believe in God, as rational – indeed I now think more rational – than to believe with the Buddhists that there is no God. Coming to believe in God, I could no longer be a Buddhist. I had to be a theist. I looked carefully at the evidence and was astonished to find that the literal resurrection of Our Lord from the dead after His crucifixion was the most rational explanation of what must have happened. That, I felt, made Christianity the most rational option out of theistic religions. And, as a Christian, I argued that priority has to be given to the Roman Catholic Church. I needed a good reason not to be received into the Catholic Church. In my book I examine various arguments that were given to me against becoming a Catholic, and I argue that as a reason for rejecting the Catholic Church they fail to convince. So I was received into the Catholic Church.
I now live in gratitude and hope. And I have never, ever, for one moment regretted my decision.
If what I have argued here is correct, then it seems to me we are entitled theologically to say that we know rebirth is false. What I mean by this is:
i) Rebirth is incompatible with Christian belief.
ii) As Christian believers we are entitled to say that we know theologically that Christian belief is true.
iii) Whatever is incompatible with a truth is false.
iv) Hence we are entitled to say as Christian believers that we know theologically that rebirth is false.
Some further reading on Buddhism and Catholicism by Paul Williams:
The Unexpected Way, Continuum, 2002
Buddhism from a Catholic Perspective, Catholic Truth Society, 2006
'Buddhism', in Gavin D'Costa (ed.) The Catholic Church and the World Religions: A Theological and Phenomenological Account, Continuum, 2011