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Rebirth in Buddhism is the doctrine that the consciousness of a person (as conventionally regarded), upon the death or dissolution of the aggregates (skandhas) which make up that person, becomes one of the contributing causes for the arising of a new group of skandhas which may again be conventionally considered a person or individual. The consciousness arising in the new person is neither identical to, nor different from, the old consciousness, but forms part of a causal continuum or stream with it. The basic cause for this persistent re-arising of personality is the abiding of consciousness in avidya (ignorance); when ignorance is uprooted, rebirth ceases.
Although the cessation of a life is not in itself a sufficient condition for the inception of a new life (since arhats, pratyekabuddhas and buddhas pass away without rebirth), the supporting conditions for a new birth are almost always present. From an external perspective, each life appears as a link in a beginningless sequence of lives, varying in length and in quality.
In traditional Buddhist cosmology, these lives can be in any of a large number of states of being, including those of humans, any kind of animal, and several types of supernatural being (see Six realms). The type of rebirth that arises at the end of one life is conditioned by the karmas (actions of body, speech and mind) of the previous life; good karmas will yield a happier rebirth, bad karmas will produce one which is more unhappy.
In the traditional Buddhist languages of Sanskrit and Pāli, there is no word corresponding exactly to the English "rebirth". A rebirth, that is, the state one is born into, is referred to as jāti, i.e. simply "birth", also referring to the process of being born or coming into the world in any way. The entire process of change from one life to the next is called punarbhava (Sanskrit) or punabbhava (Pāli), literally "becoming again"; it is also known simply as bhava, i.e. "becoming". The process seen from a universal perspective, encompassing all living beings, is called saṃsāra.
From an interior perspective, a person who remembers or imagines a past life is likely to think of it as representing a continuity of existence between lifespans, i.e., that the same person (however defined) was formerly one person (with a certain name and body) and is now a different person (with another name and body). This perspective is objectionable from the point of view of Buddhist philosophy on two counts. First, because it seems to postulate an enduring, self-existing entity that exists separate from the elements of mind and body, contrary to the Buddhist philosophical position of anātman. Second, because it overlooks the characterization of this process as one of constant change, both within and between lives, in which the newly-arising life is conditioned by but in no respect identical to the predecedent life.
Nonetheless, the Buddha is represented using language reflecting the interior perspective in stories about his past lives in both jātakas and sūtras. For instance, "At that time I was the Brahmin, the Great Steward..." (Mahāgovinda-sutta, DN.19) or "Six times, Ānanda, I recall discarding the body in this place, and at the seventh time I discarded it as a wheel-turning monarch..." (Mahāsudassana-sutta, DN.17). This can be regarded as a concession to the needs of conventional speech.
Rebirth as Cycle of Consciousness
Another view of rebirth describes the cycle of death and rebirth in the context of consciousness rather than the birth and death of the body. In this view, remaining impure aggregates, skandhas, reform consciousness into a new form.
Buddhist meditation teachers suggest that through careful observation of the mind, it is possible to see consciousness as being a sequence of conscious moments rather than a continuum of awareness. Each moment is an experience of an individual mind-state: a thought, a memory, a feeling, a perception. A mind-state arises, exists and, being impermanent, ceases following which the next mind-state arises. Thus the consciousness of a sentient being can be seen as a continuous series of birth and death of these mind-states. In this context rebirth is simply the persistence of this process. Clearly this explanation of rebirth is wholly divorced from rebirth which may follow bodily death and it is possible for a Buddhist to believe in either, both or neither definition.
The explanation of rebirth as a cycle of consciousness is consistent with other core Buddhist beliefs, such as anicca (impermanence), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) and anatta (non-self). Furthermore it is possible to observe a karmic link between these mind-states.
In the practice of Vipassana meditation, the meditator uses “bare attention” to observe the endless round of mind-states. This observation derives insight and understanding from seeing this cycle of birth, death and rebirth without interfering, owning or judging the individual states of mind that arise and pass away. This understanding enables them to limit the power of desire, which according to the second noble truth of Buddhism is the cause of Dukkha (suffering, unsatisfactoriness) thus making possible the realisation of Nibbana. So it can be concluded that the understanding of rebirth in the context of the cycle of consciousness is an invaluable and practical component of the fundamental aim of Buddhism.
Rebirth as Buddhist Reincarnation
Within Buddhism, the term rebirth or re-becoming (Sanskrit: punarbhava) is preferred to "reincarnation", as the latter is taken to imply there is a fixed entity that is reborn. However, this still leaves the question as to what exactly the process of rebirth entails.
The lack of a fixed self does not mean lack of continuity. One of the metaphors used to illustrate this is that of fire. For example, a flame is transferred from one candle to another, or a fire spreads from one field to another. In the same way that it depends on the original fire, there is a conditioned relationship between one life and the next; they are not identical but neither are they completely distinct. The early Buddhist texts make it clear that there is no permanent consciousness that moves from life to life.
Early Buddhists had to deal with the problems of establishing the nature of the causal link between two lives, especially the crucial one of how one being could receive the fruits of the actions of a previous being, now dead, and how saṃskāras, or volitional tendencies to act and think in particular ways can be transferred from one being to another.
The Puggalavāda school (now extinct) believed in a personal entity (puggala) separate from the five skandhas that provided a link of personal continuity that allows for karma to act on an individual over time. The medieval Pali scholar Buddhaghosa posited a 'rebirth-linking consciousness' (patisandhi), which connected the arising of a new life with the moment of death, but how one life came to be associated with another was still not made clear. Some schools were led to the conclusion that karma continued to exist in some sense and adhere to a particular person until it had worked out its consequences. Another school, the Sautrantika, made use of a more poetic model to account for the process of karmic continuity. For them, each act 'perfumed' the individual and led to the planting of a 'seed' that would later germinate as a good or bad karmic result.
While all Buddhist traditions seem to accept some notion of rebirth, there is no unified view about precisely how events unfold after the moment of death. Theravada Buddhism generally asserts that rebirth is immediate. The Tibetan schools, on the other hand, hold to the notion of a bardo (intermediate state) which can last up to forty-nine days, and this has led to the development of a unique 'science' of death and rebirth, a good deal of which is set down in what is popularly known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Also, Rick Strassman's book "The Spirit Molecule" touches on the association between the intermediate state and a possible scientific explanation.
While Theravada Buddhism generally denies there is an intermediate state, some early Buddhist texts seem to support it. One school that adopted this view was the Sarvāstivāda, who believed that between death and rebirth there is a sort of limbo in which beings do not yet reap the consequences of their previous actions but in which they may still influence their rebirth. The death process and this intermediate state were believed to offer a uniquely favourable opportunity for spiritual awakening.
There are many references to rebirth in the early Buddhist scriptures. These are some of the more important: Mahakammavibhanga Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 136); Upali Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 56); Kukkuravatika Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 57); Moliyasivaka Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 36.21); Sankha Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 42.8).
Rebirth in the context of other religions and other Buddhist beliefs
In the religions of Middle Eastern origin, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, life and death are believed to be linear: a being is born (usually understood as a new creation), lives, and then dies, at which point their soul or other part that survives death, passes to a domain that is inaccessible to living beings and remains there indefinitely, or until the end of the world. (Note that reincarnation, in the limited form of gilgul neshamot plays a role in some forms of Judaism. An even more restricted belief in reincarnation (tanasukh) is found in the Druze religion which is derived from Islam.)
The Buddha lived at a time of great philosophical creativity in India, and many different concepts of the nature of life and death that were proposed at that time. Some thinkers were materialists, believing that there was no existent consequent upon the end of a life, and that there was an ātman (self) which was annihilated upon death. Others believed in a form of cyclic existence, where a being is born, lives, dies and then is re-born, but in the context of a type of determinism or fatalism, in which karma played no role. Others were "eternalists", postulating an eternally existent ātman, comparable to the Western concept of the soul: when a being (or his body) dies, the ātman survives death and is re-embodied (reincarnates) as another living being, based on its karmic inheritance. This last belief is the one that has come to be dominant (with certain modifications) in modern Hinduism.
The Buddha taught a concept of rebirth that was distinct from that of any Indian teacher contemporary with him. This concept was consistent with the common notion of a sequence of related lives stretching over a very long time, but was constrained by two core Buddhist concepts: anattā, that there is no irreducible ātman or "self" tying these lives together; and anicca, that all compounded things are subject to dissolution, including all the components of the human person and personality. The Buddha's detailed conception of the connections between action (karma), rebirth, and their ultimate causes is set out in the twelve links of dependent origination.
Steven Collins, Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravada Buddhism, Cambridge, 1982. ISBN 0-521-39726-X
Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind: Personality, Consciousness and Nirvana in Early Buddhism, Curzon, 1995. ISBN 0-7007-0338-1
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully: The Profound Practice of Transference of Consciousness, Tharpa, 1999. ISBN 81-7822-058-X
Glenn H. Mullin, Death and Dying: The Tibetan Tradition, Arkana, 1986. ISBN 0-14-019013-9
Vicki MacKenzie, Reborn in the West, HarperCollins, 1997. ISBN 0-7225-3443-4
Tom Shroder, Old Souls: Scientific Search for Proof of Past Lives, Simon and Schuster, 2001. ISBN 0-684-85193-8
Francis Story, Rebirth as Doctrine and Experience: Essays and Case Studies, Buddhist Publication Society, 1975. ISBN 955-24-0176-3
Robert A.F. Thurman (trans.), The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Liberation Through Understanding in the Between, HarperCollins, 1998. ISBN 1-85538-412-4
Martin Willson, Rebirth and the Western Buddhist, Wisdom Publications, 1987. ISBN 0-86171-215-3
Nagapriya, Exploring Karma and Rebirth, Windhorse Publications, Birmingham 2004. ISBN 1-899579-61-3
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