this is a good prompt to say something about practicing Buddhism (e.g. training in meditation and other related forms of psychospiritual development) as a person who does not believe in reincarnation.
I'm going to start with a deeply radical claim.

The primary goal of Buddhism is to produce a framework of philosophies, practices, and communities that facilitate DEEP UNLEARNING. The most important thing to be unlearned are ideas that are harmful to self and others.
From the perspective of Axial Age Asian society (where Buddhism originated) the most widely held harmful idea would have been reincarnation. In that society, the idea was just absolutely taken for granted as the system of the world. Social systems were built on top of it.
Reincarnation metaphysics had been used to construct and fortify monstrous systems of iniquity and strife. The Caste system of India is the most visible example. All kinds of presentations of life as fatalistic and imprisoning arise from reincarnation metaphysics.
This is deeply analogous to the afterlife metaphysics that are prominent in the West (especially Christian and Muslim societies). These ideas provide ammunition to institutions that control people and immiserate them indefinitely. They justify monstrosities like wars of religion.
So my radical claim is that the central concern of Buddhism is unlearning harmful ideas that cause suffering to self and others.

Lemma: the most harmful idea Buddhism is trying to dispel is belief in dubious metaphysics of all kinds (including especially reincarnation).
Bad metaphysics causes people to be motivated by coercive fear arising from the uncertainty around death, the inability to process grief, and the desire for an authoritarian figure (such as a priest) to tell them they're good and won't be punished when they die.
I don't think I need to spell out the ways this results in harm. It's fundamentally a mind-prison. Recall that Buddhism is frequently labeled a "path of liberation". Yes, liberation from the wheel of reincarnation, but not in the way you might suppose.
Here's my second radical claim: we all obtain nirvana (cessation, non-reincarnation) by default upon death and the only thing causing us to fail to see this is conditioned belief about bad metaphysics.

Buddhism is almost entirely about deconditioning your mind.
There's several prominent schools of Buddhism (Zen most famously, Dzogchen view within Vajrayana less famously, and others too) that have a doctrine of "always already" w.r.t enlightenment.

You are always already enlightened but don't accept this because of your conditioning.
Well, if enlightenment means "will not reincarnate" then of course it's true that we're always already in that state. And of course it's true that the conditioning that causes you to believe you aren't enlightened is your belief that reincarnation metaphysics is true.
So the central problem that early Buddhists (and Siddhartha himself) had to solve was how to get people to realize that they held destructively harmful false metaphysical beliefs.

They had to do this without getting themselves killed and suppressed too.
Maybe the path of the martyr works too. It worked for Jesus and the early Christians. The early Buddhists weren't so keen on being tortured to death and having their families liquidated by the state though. They pursued a subtler path.
In Buddhism there's this word "upaya" which comes up a lot and is hard to translate. The most common translation is "expedient methods" or "skillful means". It can also mean "teaching technique". Contextually, it can also mean "euphemism" or "noble lie".
Buddhists have been very interested in ways of trying to teach something radical and destabilizing that doesn't create more harm than it solves. The entire motivation here was compassionate: to ease the suffering of people and make society better.
These were moderates from the upper crust of society (Siddhartha was a prince! his first disciples were nobles), not underclass revolutionaries. They were also pacifists and intellectuals. They chose _upaya_ that would avoid making enemies with the state.
So they started teaching a system that aims to decondition the mind of harmful beliefs but they did so entirely at the meta level. They said "greed, hatred, and ignorance are the seeds of suffering" instead of "these specific beliefs are false and harmful". Studious illegibility.
And they kept their legibility low for the same reason we here on the internet do so today: to avoid the heat of the culture wars. Pissing off zealous believers in something (and especially religious things) is a great way to have some violence visited upon you. They avoided it.
And this required them to never come right out and say "reincarnation metaphysics is wrong and harmful", so they left lots of breadcrumbs, did a lot of eye-winking, and set up a system where people are pursuing the goal implicitly from the start even if they don't know it.
I realize this is a controversial statement but I think it's consistent with the historical record and consistent with the most important ideas and methods that have been taught in Buddhist communities.
But then...why are there so many Buddhisms that go super deep on the metaphysics? You can find shit like maps of various hell realms, magical-thinking about karma and "merit" points, attempts to predict reincarnations, attempts to view past incarnations, etc.
Because Buddhism isn't some special religion that is somehow not subject to all of the same corruptions that anything bound within a society is subject to. The tension between the goal of nirvana and the need of Buddhist institutions to continue their own existence is real.
And we're talking about very long periods of time (centuries) and very large numbers of people over a huge geographical area (the Indian and then Chinese spheres of influence in Asia).

It wasn't possible to continue existing without a certain amount of degradation creeping in.
this is not an especially different type of story than the shift of early Christians away from their roots, towards fanaticism, and then later temporal dominion. The details are different but the tendency of radical movements to deradicalize over time is some kind of Iron Law.
that's all background though. the point of this thread is discuss what it means to be a practicing Buddhist in contemporary America who doesn't believe in reincarnation.
What does it mean to train in Buddhist philosophy and practice if nirvana is not the goal (because it's a default state, does not need to be pursued)?

It means the same as it always did. DEEP UNLEARNING. Deconditioning the mind of harmful beliefs.
I was never conditioned with the harmful belief in reincarnation so that's not my struggle. Instead my society has filled my mind with myriad other harmful beliefs. They all need to be unlearned in order to find true liberation.
One of the Bodhisattva vows that is chanted during Buddhist liturgy is "dharma gates are countless; I vow to wake to them."

This is the beacon that guides my practice the most. Let's unpack it a bit.
dharma is another hard to translate word. in traditional Hinduism it's often rendered as "duty", but a sort of cosmic duty. An obligation to adhere to the system of the world. Choiceless mode. Buddhists don't mean this.
A more accurate translation of the Buddhist use of the word dharma is something like "truth" or "learning true things" or "unlearning false things". In Buddhism, we view ourselves as fundamentally free, and so the meaning of dharma is epistemological not ontological.
so a dharma gate is a portal that one passes through to learn truth. that's a poetic way of saying "realization" or "internalized truth".

there are innumerable truths to be learned. I vow to realize them all.

this is the meaning of my path. this is liberation.
this beacon guides me because it illuminates a road that leads to a better society. the reason we want to realize truths is not for idle curiosity. it's because a mind that knows truth will act according to the truth and minimize harm and maximize well-being.
those are normative claims, by the way, and are not guaranteed. knowing the truth is itself not sufficient. it must be joined with compassion or else it's useless. I'm just paraphrasing traditional ideas in Buddhist (as well as Western) philosophy though. No need to dig in.
why should anyone devote their life to realizing wisdom and compassion?

because this is the only life we have, a precious human birth, and what we do with our hours and days is what we are and what it means. I would like my life to mean that people suffered less.
Why the emphasis on suffering less instead of some other, more exalted and abstract kind of greater good?

because I'm a realist and I already said I don't take kindly to dubious metaphysics. Utopian dreaming is just another dubious metaphysics.

But suffering is real.
So that's the only thing I, a realist, can even imagine is both meaningful and good. Suffering perpetuates cycles of greater suffering and its almost entirely unnecessary. It could be different. None of this is essential. We only have to change our minds.

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6 Apr
Imagine a world in which the institutions of society were really there to help you, and others like you, and others not like you, in their journey to a self-actualized life with abundance and happiness and purposefulness.

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