5.2 IBP guest Jayarava decimates rebirth & karma


In this episode, guest Jayarava hits the Imperfect Buddha podcast with some hard truths regarding the impossibility of rebirth & karma whilst drawing on the work of Sean Carroll & his own research into Buddhism. It’s not an easy pill to swallow but it may just prove liberating to those braver Buddhists willing to confront the finality of death. Whatever you end up deciding, it’s a fascinating topic and Jayarava’s insights are not easy to dismiss.

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The interview is straddled by a very short discussion on the challenges of the material and Stuart shares his own destabilising reactions, which will no doubt be shared by many a listener.

RSS feed for those interested:


Show notes

I read through a number of Jayarava’s article at his site but the one that was key for me in our discussion of rebirth and karma is this ‘There is no life after death. Sorry.’

Reading List provided by Jayarava

The aim of this reading list is to highlight some examples of excellent academic writing, with a focus on work that has made me reassess my views.

Nattier, Jan. (1992) The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text? Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. Vol. 15 (2), p.153-223.

Jan Nattier is one of the finest scholars of Buddhism of any era, and perhaps my all time favourite. This article is an exemplary piece of scholarship. Nattier is a clear thinker and good writer who presents her evidence without any unnecessary jargon (some jargon is necessary of course). The material is presented methodically, drawing us through a though process that allows us to grasp the conclusion as if we ourselves were working through the problem. Although the Heart Sutra is a very well known text, it is not much studied in the West precisely because it is so well known. However, after more than 20 years the article is poorly known and even less well understood amongst Buddhists.

Nattier, Jan. (2003). A few good men: The Bodhisattva path according to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai’i Press.

This book shows all the hallmarks of Nattier’s work, good writing, presentation of evidence, major discoveries. However, the book also provides an almost forensic analysis of the process of working with Buddhist texts. Thus, as well as providing important insights into the formation of the Mahāyāna, it gives the lay person valuable insights into how the scholar goes about their work; and how such discoveries emerge.
Gombrich, Richard. 2009. What the Buddha Thought. London, Equinox.

In 2006, Professor Gombrich gave the Numata lectures at SOAS and I travelled down to London each week, for ten weeks, to hear him speak. It was a revelation. Those lectures became this book, the title of which is a pun on Rahula Walpola’s What the Buddha Taught (Walpola was one of Gombrich’s teachers). The lectures themselves were based on Gombrich’s oeuvre over some decades. An archive of Gombrich’s articles can be found on the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies website (under reconstruction 23.10.15 but see http://ocbs.org/). Gombrich’s keys insights are into the formative influences of early Buddhism and its relationship with existing religions. For me the take away concept is that ideas in Buddhism have a history. Sometimes these ideas existed long before Buddhism, e.g. rebirth, karma, saṃsāra, and meditation. Reading Gombrich encouraged me to read the early Upaniṣads and better understand the ideas found there as they form precursors for many Buddhist ideas.

I’m also grateful to Gombrich for his generous help and advice over the years, and his exemplary editorship of the JOCBS, which has to date published three of my articles.
David Drewes

Drewes is a scholar of impressive breadth, which has enabled him to take a step back and reassess the new wave of scholars from people like Nattier, Harrison, and Karashima, amongst others, and to evaluate the conclusions reached. He has pointed out necessary corrections and brought together the new ideas into a more coherent historical narrative.

Drewes, David. (2007) Revisiting the Phrase “sa prṛthivīpradeśaś caityabhūto bhavet” and the Mahāyāna Cult of the Book. Indo-Iranian Journal 50: 101–143DOI 10.1007/s10783-007-9052-zhttps://www.academia.edu/9225110/Revisiting_the_phrase_sa_prthivipradesas_caityabhuto_bhavet_and_the_Mahayana_cult_of_the_book

Drewes, David. (2010a). Early Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism I: Recent Scholarship. Religion Compass 4/2: 55-65. DOI:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00195.x https://www.academia.edu/9226456/Early_Indian_Mahayana_Buddhism_I_Recent_scholarship

Drewes, David. (2010b). Early Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism II: New Perspectives. Religion Compass 4/2: 66-74. DOI:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00193.x https://www.academia.edu/9226471/Early_Indian_Mahayana_Buddhism_II_New_perspectives

For my understanding of Buddhist history. I’m also indebted to Paul Harrison, Seishi Karashima, Harry Falk, and Richard Salomon for their insights into the early Mahāyāna texts; to Collett Cox and David Bastow for their work on Sarvāstivāda; to Michael Witzel for background on Vedic India.

Outside of the fields of Indology and Buddhism, I’m strongly influenced by certain other scholars such as Thomas Metzinger, George Lakoff, Justin Barrett, and Robin Dunbar. A partial list of works can be found here:
Jayarava’s writing on karma and rebirth


And academic work



  1. Hi Guys,

    Thanks again for having me on your podcast. I was slightly appalled at how often I talked over you Matthew. Sorry. An awful habit. I found Stuart’s response very interesting. It’s kind of what I expect really. What I’m saying is deeply uncomfortable and ought to be shocking. It gives me the willies sometimes. I found another example yesterday. Another deep flaw in Buddhist doctrine. It always gives me shivers as I work through the logic and realise that it doesn’t work.

    And it goes against everything we think we know. Thousands, hundreds of thousands of years of tradition argue against it. The facts alone are not sufficient to change minds. And we have some reason not to trust scientists 100%. We probably suspect that consciousness (a word that requires careful definition) lies outside the province of science. Many of my Triratna colleagues think this way. One told me: “Studying matter and energy will never tell us anything about consciousness”. I call this ontological dualism – mind and body are made of different stuff – and there are certainly some prominent people who think this way, including David “The Hard Problem” Chalmers. And the discussions about this are quite polarised so it’s hard to make headway.

    I like the image of an ecological system. Every atom and all the energy what make us up are re-used when we die. No raw material is lost, only information. Each of us is an ecosystem in point of fact. Our cells are colonies of once free-living bacteria that formed permanent symbiotic relationships. We are communities of such cells. And for each human cell in our body we lug around 100 bacteria and fungal cells, mostly in our gut and on our skin. The supposed individual is in fact a community of communities with fuzzy edges.

    What is the point of practice? Years ago Christians became concerned that with the rise of atheism would come a rise in immorality – what would stop people being evil if they did not believe in God’s judgement. Some Buddhists who are against mindfulness therapies say the same kind of thing about mindfulness without moral instruction. In fact even atheists seldom need explicit moral instruction. We are an empathetic and altruistic social species. Steven Pinker has argued that since the Enlightenment (and the rise of atheism) the world has become considerably less violent on average. The first few pages of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish make this clear – they describe man being publicly hung, drawn and quartered.

    The point of practice is to understand our experience in order to have a better life and make a better contribution to the world. We don’t really need the threat of an afterlife (and the judgement that comes with it) to motivate us. If we only live once, then the onus is on us to make a good job of it. I think too many Buddhists use the idea of rebirth as a second chance – this would have horrified the Buddha I think. He made it clear that rebirth is a disaster and that the goal of his practice, the main goal, was to not be reborn. Rebirth must be stopped! At that time more or less everyone in Greater India believed in a rebirth style afterlife. And by that time everyone agreed it was a bad thing. Brahmins, Jains, Buddhists were all looking for ways to *make it stop*!

    If there is more to life than this one life, and an afterlife with some judgement involved, I can only hope that I am treated kindly by karma or god or whatever. But these days I’m fairly confident that all of the afterlife stories and all of the “just world” stories are just stories. Fantastic and wonderful in many cases. Moving stories that have survived a very long time by popular retelling. But sadly wrong about everything. And if death is the end, then all my troubles will be over.

    Apparently a chap called Lucretius used to think this was as well. His long poem on death was translated by 17th century poet John Dryden: http://www.bartleby.com/204/186.html

    “The lifeless Lump uncoupled from the mind,
    From sense of grief and pain we shall be free;
    We shall not feel, because we shall not Be.”


    • Hi Jayarava,
      I get a nice feeling of panic on occasion but then it passes and I relax again and look at it and life feels more valuable than it did. The point I make and that you repeat here about the idea of having a second chance seems crucial and shredded by a sober contemplation of the implications of no rebirth. Such contemplation is a liberating force and for that I appreciate it and for that I appreciated our chat and its significance.
      As for your oral behaviour in our chat, no worries. These interview/chats are an organic process and sometimes they are more equal than at other times. My role is really to facilitate getting what’s important out onto ‘tape’ so to speak and that happened, so that’s what matters.
      I remain agnostic but have even less care than I had before about the hereafter. Perhaps some of our listeners will have made a similar shift? It’s nice to have a podcast without the happy shiny endings. Something for grown ups.
      I am a big fan of organic metaphors. I mentioned the work of Tim Ingold in an email exchange briefly. I feel like mentioning again a work of his: Being Alive. I am also a fan of Adrian Ivakhiv. If such things interest you, his blog on philosophy and ecology is wonderful in places: http://blog.uvm.edu/aivakhiv/p-r-theory/ Both explore organic metaphors that stray wildly from subject-object dualism often constructing a new sort of language in the process.


  2. I’ve also written about organic metaphors. The tree for evolution, which I take to task as being misleading. I suggest we replace it with the braided river system (a reticulated network) and explore how that might work:


    Other pieces on metaphor



  3. I didn’t hear any decimation of karma and rebirth. Instead, what I heard were conclusions based on the confirmation bias of materialist scientism. It would have been more relevant if there was any actual references to the sutras since there was no reference to personal realization that all manifestations are mind only.


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