Oh, Bhikshu (Monks), every moment you are born, decay, and die. ~ Shakyamuni Buddha
Perhaps one of the most controversial, debated, and confusing topics in Buddhism is that of “Reincarnation” and “Rebirth”. If you want to get a debate started, just bring this up with Buddhists from different traditions. For years this was a confusing topic for me, so my hope is this article can easily explain this important topic. And I promise this: you will experience rebirth by the time you read all of it. Curious? Read on.
Reincarnation: Not in My Lifetime
Hope you are sitting down for this, but reincarnation (or ‘transmigration’) does not exist at all in Buddhism. But I’m sure you have heard Buddhists talking about “rebirth”. These are two completely different topics, which confuse Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. The reason for this confusion, or interpretation, is many to include there is no great ‘English’ translation from the original texts.
In a nutshell, here is the difference:
Reincarnation / Transmigration
- A major part of Hinduism
- Your permanent and unchanging “self” (ātman) is reborn again in a new body
- Karma: Past actions influence the present, and present actions influence the future (i.e., you’re punished or rewarded in your next life based on what happened in the past, and vice versa)
- A major part of Buddhism
- Concept of “non self” (anattā or anatman) in Buddhism (there is no “independent” self)
- Ignorance creates desire, and unsatisfied desire cause rebirth
- Rebirth happens to you moment-to-moment, and also after death
- Karma: Actions influence the present and future (actions are stored in the Alayavijinana or “Store Consciousness”)
- Alayavijnana is the force, or energy, that creates rebirth
- Only the Alayavijnana (“Store Consciousness”) continues in the cycle of rebirth (last to leave your body, and first to arrive in the next body)
- The cycle of Rebirth can be transcended
Ven. Master Hsing Yun explains rebirth in this way:
The constant state of flux, renewal and metabolic change that we experience physically (birth, old age, sickness, and death) and in our minds (the forming, existing, changing and ceasing of thoughts) are what we call the wheel of rebirth.
“Who” Experiences Rebirth?
What exactly are “you”? In Buddhism, “you” are a continuous set of thoughts, beliefs, ideas, and of course “ego”, that form the illusion known as “you”. This illusion you have clouds you from the fact that “you” are not permanent (“impermanence“), and you do not have an independent self (“nonself“).
OK, I know right now you either have one eyebrow raised, or pinching yourself and going “um, I can feel ME…I’m real!”. Let’s take a second and scroll back to the top of the page and re-read the quote I had from the Buddha. What he is saying is that you are constantly experiencing ‘rebirth’. Science has shown that many parts of the human body “regenerate”. You are not the “same” you as a few seconds ago, or even in a decade ago. By thinking you are unchanging, permanent, and having an independent self is the illusion. We call this concept and term “nonself” in Buddhism.
Compared to other religions of the world where “you” are permanent, Buddhism says the opposite because nothing is permanent, and nothing has an independent self. The only thing that continues in the cycle of rebirth is the alaya-vijnana (“store consciousness”), which (as Ven. Dr. Walpola explains) are the traces and impressions of past actions (Karma), and the future potentials of them. As Ven. Walpola Rahula said in What the Buddha Taught, the wrong notion of a permanent self or soul has long been the common belief:
It must be repeated here that according to Buddhist philosophy there is no permanent, unchanging spirit which can be considered ‘Self’, or ‘Soul’, or ‘Ego’, as opposed to matter, and that consciousness (viññāṇa) should not be taken as ‘spirit’ in opposition to matter. This point has to be particularly emphasized, because a wrong notion that consciousness is sort of Self or Soul that continues as a permanent substance through life, has persisted from the earliest time to the present day.
But that’s the physical side of things, but it’s also enlightening. The bones I had when I was 20 are not the same bones I have now. But I FEEL the same, and can’t tell the difference. I’ve always thought the hair I had, was the same individual strands I had since I was a baby…nope, that’s an illusion too because new hair strands are always being created. We understand that scientifically now, as a matter of fact, but that was not always the common understanding historically.
Sentient beings (such as people) do not have an independent self that is unchanging. The Buddha said that what we call “I” or “you” is a temporary condition caused by the combination of both physical and mental components of existence. When causes and conditions bring these two components together, your body is formed. And when conditions cease, your body will also cease (for example, if one of your body organs ceases to function, you have no air, no food, etc.). There is nothing permanent in you thanks to the Buddhist concept of Impermanence (the 1st Dharma seal). But this is not something to be sad about, in-fact it something to be happy about because it helps lead us towards understanding our true nature, Nirvana.
This all sounds very depressing of course. If “you” are not permanent, then “who” is experiencing rebirth? “Who” continues on? And maybe more importantly, if “you” are not permanent, what does it matter what you do in this life? As explained earlier, the “store consciousness” is what continues on in the cycle of rebirth which has all your seeds (actions) that are ripe to manifest in this “life” you are in now, or in the future through rebirth.
But if the physical body you have now is “gone”, and thus all your money and possessions are gone, then who “cares”? Ah! That is the right question. Your body, money, possessions, and other attachments are impermanent…even in your current “life” and do not bring you real happiness (do you worry about losing them, them changing, or what happened if you did lose them?).
Understanding that everything is interconnected, nothing is permanent (impermanence), and that things like you do not have an independent self (nonself), you begin to look beyond this illusion of an “independent you”. That little baby born halfway around the world in a poor family with horrible living conditions? Perhaps your store consciousness made it to that baby, and through your actions (Karma) in this life you have not only allowed positive seeds to be within this little baby, but also you donated to a non-profit organization that brings healthcare and education to rural villages which thus gives this baby a chance at a better life.
Did that save or benefit the next “you”? There is no “you” to benefit! And that is the point…we are all connected and not independent of each other (no matter how much we try). If a wave appears on the ocean and we call it “Bob” (since it “looks” different from the rest of the ocean and has a “body”), and then it ends on the beach and flows back into the ocean again, did “Bob” ever exist as an independent and unchanging thing? Nope. You also are part of a large ocean my friend.
If you are a fan of the long-running British BBC series “Doctor Who“, you’re very familiar with how the “Doctor” has changed throughout the years into a different physical form and acts differently, but is still the same stream of ‘consciousness’. He is a completely different person each time shaped by new actions, thoughts, and impressions, but has a somewhat greater understanding of his past “lives”. Please take this example simply as fun or with a grain of salt, since the Dr. Who series is pure fiction, and is not intended to be rooted in reality or even Buddhism.
We can’t go further talking about rebirth, without touching (briefly) on karma (you can read an entire article on karma here). While karma is referred to in popular culture as some sort of supernatural force (almost godlike) that determines your “fate”, but it is nothing like that at all.
The word “Karma” means “deed” or “action” in the ancient Sanskrit language and is a central teaching to all schools of Buddhism, and all teachings and interpretations of the Dharma. Karma governs the concept of “cause and effect”, meaning that all “intentional” deeds produce results that the doer (“you”) will eventual feel.
So how does this impact you? The karma you create can influence which of the Ten Spiritual realms you want to live in (more on that in the next section). But not to worry, you can leave the lower realms for the higher realms whenever you’d like! YOU are in control of karma.
You make [wholesome or unwholesome] karma through three ways:
- Your Actions
- Your Thoughts
- Your Words
By understanding these three things create either wholesome or unwholesome karma, you can always change it…even at deaths door.
- Wholesome karmic actions are based upon generosity, compassion, kindness, sympathy, mindfulness or wisdom
- Unwholesome karmic actions are based upon greed, hatred, and delusion
Ven. Master Hsing Yun explained why karma is so important to the concept of rebirth:
All sentient beings are trapped in the ocean of birth and death due to their karma. Karma is like the string that holds prayer beads together. The string connects all the beads; likewise, karma connects our lives from the past to the present and into the future, continuously causing us to be reborn in the six realms of existence.
Like seeds in a garden, your actions (karma) are planted in the Alayavijnana (“store consciousness”) ready to be watered and grow due to causes and conditions. This can happen when conditions are right in your ‘current’ life, or continue on during the cycle of rebirth. For example, lets say you lie about stealing some office supplies. You have now planted unwholesome seeds in your Alayavijnana. If the conditions become right, such as you have to take a lie detector test for a promotion or another job, they are watered and bloom and affect you (perhaps not getting the job). For any seeds that do not bloom in your current life, they still continue on in your Alayavijnana. Actions are energy, so it could impact at some future time. Because we are all interconnected, there is always a “you” that is affected (or in a reverse explanation, there is never a “you” that is not affected).
Only a truly enlightened being, such as a Buddha, is not impacted by Karma, and does not create Karma. In this way, they escape this cycle of rebirth (since rebirth requires karmic actions).
For the rest of us we might think “it is hopeless!”, especially if we have created a lot of unwholesome Karma in our past. Not so. Even though Karma does not “go away”, and we have to face these repercussions (good or bad) at some time, we can still mitigate them. I have always liked the example of the ocean and a cup of water. Imagine if you had a cup of perfectly clear and pristine water. You can drink it and it tastes perfect (perhaps we can create a slogan of “Karma free!”). But if we dump this cup of water into the ocean, which is quite salty, and then dunk our cup of water in there again, we would be unable to drink that water due to the salt (and pollutants). Now imagine a different scenario where you have that same cup of water and you pour some salt in there making it too salty to drink anymore. Now you dump that water into a large bucket or container full of pristine clear water. Suddenly, the salt is dispersed and not as concentrated as before making the water “drinkable”. There is still salt in there, but you have reduced its affects. The same holds true with Karma as you can always change your actions and start creating wholesome karma. You can’t erase your past, but you can sure dilute it.
If a single movie [franchise] can somewhat explain rebirth and karma, it has to be the Terminator movies and TV series. As the character Sarah Connor said in the movie Terminator 2:
The future has not been written. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.
Rebirth Now: Animals, Hell, and Hungry Ghosts
You’re bound to hear about ghosts, hell, and animals…and that you can be reborn in any one of these! While not all branches of Buddhism believe in what is known as the “Ten Spiritual Realms”, it is part of the rebirth discussion and some Buddhists believe you will be ‘reborn’ into one of these realms.
Now that you understand from this article that rebirth is happening to you all the time (or ‘moment to moment’), the Ten Spiritual realms we are going to talk about will make better sense. Each one relates to a state of mind you have which is important because you want to be part of the higher realms:
- The Six Realms of Desire are: Hell, Hunger (also called “Hungry Ghosts”), Animality (or Beasts), Arrogance (or Anger), Humanity (or Passionate Idealism), and Heaven (or Rapture)
- The Four Higher (Noble) Realms are: Learning, Realization (or Absorption), Bodhisattvahood, and Buddhahood.
Takashi Tsuji puts this into perspective for us:
In what realm do you now live? If you are hungry for power, love, and self-recognition, you live in the Preta world, or hungry ghosts. If you are motivated only by thirsts of the human organism, you are existing in the world of the beast.
So, don’t worry that you will be reborn as a pigeon because you stole some candy as a kid and have ‘bad karma’. The reason that people often believe they can actually be reborn into one of these realms, is due to a teaching performed by the Buddha with farmers. The Buddha often used what is known as “skillful means” to explain his teachings (many which were complicated and difficult to understand) to different groups and types of people. When he explained rebirth to farmers, he used concepts they understood such as animals in an effort to explain morality. But due to misunderstanding the teaching throughout the centuries, it turned into “fact” in the minds of many believers.
Takashi Tsuji expands upon this:
A parable, when taken literally, does not make sense to the modern mind. Therefore we must learn to differentiate the parables and myths from actuality.
On a personal note, if we truly can be reborn as animals…I will gladly take the life of a house cat (they have it made!) 😉
Rebirth Later: What Happens When You Die
Now that you have learned that in Buddhism the concept of “you” is an illusion, well…what happens to “you” when you die? This section may be a little long, but there are a few concepts to explain that helps explain what happens.
In one of my favorite books, What the Buddha Taught, Theravada scholar Ven. Walpola Rahula summed up what happens when you die:
What we call death is the total non-functioning of the physical body. Do all these forces and energies stop altogether with the non-functioning of the body? Buddhism says ‘No’.
He later goes on to say:
According to Buddhism, this force does not stop with the non-functioning of the body, which is death; but it continues manifesting itself in another form, producing re-existence which is called rebirth. … when this physical body is no more capable of functioning, energies do not die with it, but continue to take some other shape or form, which we call another life.
All that talk about “energies” and “force” sounds a bit mysterious, however Barbara O’Brien explains explains it this way:
One way to explain rebirth is to think of all existence as one big ocean. An individual is a phenomenon of existence in the same way a wave is a phenomenon of ocean. A wave begins, moves across the surface of the water, then dissipates. While it exists, a wave is distinct from ocean yet is never separate from ocean. In the same way, that which is reborn is not the same person, yet is not separate from the same person.
But lets get back to basics. Why does rebirth even occur? According to Ven. Master Hsing Yun, rebirth is a result of Karma:
Karma is the force that causes us to be born even if we do not want to be born and causes us to die even if we do not want to die. However it is important to understand that in the cycle of birth and death it is not “we” who are being born again and again, but rather it is our karma. Buddhist practices places great emphasis on doing good deeds because the good that we do today will form the foundation for future lives. The right way to understand karma is not to think about what we are going to “get out of” our actions, but rather to pay attention to what we [are] doing right now, and what the effects of our actions will be.
But how does karma impact rebirth? And how the heck is all that Karma stored up to impact rebirth? Good question!
Now this ‘consciousness’ I was referring to earlier with “Doctor Who” is part of the fifth aggregate in Buddhism. In Buddhism, “you” are made up of “the five Aggregates“. These aggregates are impermanent, and don’t last (and in-fact, “change”). They are:
- Mental Formation
All of these are connected to each other, and make you what you are. However the fifth one, consciousness, takes a special meaning as it relates to rebirth (and is considered the core of rebirth in Mahayana). Once again according to Walpola Rahula:
According to Mahayana Buddhist philosophy the Aggregate of Consciousness has three aspects: citta, manas and vijnana, and the Alaya-vijnana (popularly translated as ‘Store-Consciousness’) finds its place in this Aggregate.
For most in the Theravada tradition, Alayavijnana is treated as purely as Mahayana invention (specifically the Yogacara or Vijnanavada School), and not what the Buddha taught. It should be noted, however, that eight years after Dr. Rahula (A Theravada scholar and monk) wrote the popular book “What the Buddha Taught” (and the verbiage above), he wrote an essay on Alayavijnana (Middle Way , London, August 1967 – click here to view [PDF-9mb]) where he said at the end:
Thus one may see that, although not developed as in the Mahayana, the original idea of alayavijnana was already there in the Pali Canon of the Theravada
This Alayavijnana or “Store Consciousness” impacts rebirth. As Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh explains:
According to Buddhist psychology, our consciousness is divided into eight parts, including mind consciousness (manovijnana) and store consciousness (alayavijnana). Store consciousness is described as a field in which every kind of seed can be planted – seeds of suffering, sorrow, fear, and anger, and seeds of happiness and hope. When these seeds sprout, they manifest in our mind consciousness, and when they do, they become stronger.
He later goes on to explain:
Even before agitation manifests in our mind consciousness, it is already in our store consciousness in the form of a seed. All mental formations lie in our store consciousness in the form of seeds. Something someone does may water the seed of agitation, and then agitation mainfests in our mind consciousness. Every mental formation that manifests needs to be recognized. If it is wholesome, mindfulness will cultivate it. If it is unwholesome, mindfulness will encourage it to return to our store consciousness and remain there, dormant.
Ven. Master Hsing Yun explained (November 21st, 1982, at the CKS Cultural Center in Kaohsiung, Taiwan) that Alaya-vijnana is the crucial part of rebirth:
If it is not the physical body that is reborn, then what is this “compelling force” that is at the core of rebirth? In Buddhism, the core of rebirth is described as the alaya-vijnana (storehouse consciousness).
He goes on to say:
Alaya-vijnana is the basic source of life. As it comes into contact with different conditions and circumstances, it gives rise to various mental formations and actions, hence karma. The seeds of karma are [in turn] stored in this giant warehouse of alaya-vijnana. The relative abundance of the good or bad karma in this giant warehouse then determines the direction of the next rebirth. When a being dies, the alaya-vijnana is the last to leave the physical body. When a being is reborn, the alaya-vijnana is the first to arrive in the next body. It is the core of rebirth.
Going back to the last section where we talked about the Ten Spiritual Realms, your karmic actions and influence impact rebirth while you are alive, and after you are dead. For example, while you are alive your karma (“actions”) can move you in and out of different realms and you are in control of it. While you are dying, and then deceased, your karmic influences are also part of the energy that is transmitted into new life. This doesn’t mean that literally you will be reborn as an animal, but that it will impact the new life in that ‘realm’. But like everything with Karma, that new life can change it. Karma is not “fate”.
If we can sum up what happens to you when “you” die:
- Your karmic actions (good and bad) are kept in your store consciousness (alayavaijnana)
- Alayavijnana is the force, or energy, that creates rebirth
- When you die, your store consciousness (alayavijnana) is the last to leave your body, and the first to arrive in the next body
Alan Watts, the famous Buddhism teacher, explains about “death”, along with impermanence, reincarnation (the term he used for rebirth, especially for the era he taught in), and self/non-self.
Do You Remember The Time?
So if ‘reincarnation’ or ‘transmigration’ doesn’t exist in Buddhism, then why do Buddhists talk about past life experiences? This is primarily the part that creates the confusion, because a rational person would think that if you recall past life (or lives), then that must have been “themselves” in that past life.
While I’m still personally undecided about recalling past lives, the Buddha did explain his past lives (as a teaching aid) in the Jataka tales. I personally believe the Jataka tales were “Upaya” (“expedient means” in Buddhism) where the Buddha used it as a teaching aid to help explain concepts, and not as fact.
To give some modern examples, here is a video by Mindah which gives you some stories and explanation in her video about rebirth and past lives:
We’re Not Done Yet: Rebirth in a Pure Land
Thought you were done right? Not yet! In Mahayana Buddhism, there is something known as “Pure Land” (thus a school of Mahayana Buddhism called “Pure Land Buddhism”).
In a nutshell, there are many ‘pure lands’ that you can be ‘reborn’ in to better practice Buddhism and achieve enlightenment. Specifically, the appeal is that you are ‘reborn’ in a Pure Land (the Western Pure Land is perhaps the most popular) in which there are no distractions and you can easily attain enlightenment which would be difficult or impossible in the earthly world (especially for laypersons with busy daily lives!).
In my personal opinion, the Pure Land(s) are truly a mental state, but it is often commonly considered by laypersons as a place you actually “go” when you die. For example, chanting Amitabha Buddha’s name can be closely compared to meditation and “calling out” or “polishing” your own Buddha nature. You are not praying or chanting to Amitabha to be reborn into a future Pure Land, but putting your faith into the Buddha Nature within yourself to create a Pure Land in your own world and mind right now (this is a topic I will expand on much further in a future article on Pure Land Buddhism).
As Ven. Master Hsing Yun explained:
An example of the Pure Land on Earth is the one described in the Vimalakitri Sutra. It is said in the sutra that although Vimalakitri lived in the saha world, his state of mind was that of the Pure Land.
To reinforce my opinion that the Pure Land should not be taken as a literal place you are reborn, we can look to what T’an-luan (476-542, the third Pure Land patriarch) said:
If people hear that they will constantly experience pleasure in the Pure Land and desire to be born there because of it, they will not be born there.
However, I will digress that there truly could be an actual Pure Land(s) you can be reborn into and if your faith is focused on this, and it helps you do good in life and be strong, then keep doing it. My opinion is simply based on focusing on Buddhism in the world we live in right now. Once again, I will go more into this topic when my future article on Pure Land is finished (and a link will be provided here).
Humanistic Buddhism (which is part of Pure Land) tackles this concept in a different way: to create a ‘pure land’ in the here and now on earth, and not wait for Amitabha Buddha’s pure land to go to after you die. By bettering themselves and society on earth, they can create a ‘pure land’ for themselves and others right now. As Ven. Master Hsing Yung said:
Humanistic Buddhism seeks to create a Pure Land on earth. Instead of resting our hopes on being reborn in a pure land in the future, why don’t we work on transforming our world into a pure land of peace and bliss? Instead of committing all our energies to some later time, why don’t we direct our efforts toward purifying our minds and bodies right here and now in the present moment?
To learn more about the Pure Land School, download this free book by Ven. Master Hsing Yun.
I’m Getting Tired of Rebirth
Rebirth is a result of desire (greed), and there are plenty of desires out there for us to “latch” onto (the six realms of desire we talked about earlier). But as the Buddha has taught us with the Four Noble Truths, desire leads to suffering, and suffering leads to the endless cycle of birth and rebirth.
That is why we have Buddhism, and the Buddha’s teachings, to liberate us from this endless cycle of rebirth so we can enter Nirvana. No matter if it’s rebirth in our current life (“moment to moment”), or the continuous cycle of life and death, we can escape it and the Buddha gave us the foundation of this liberation with his instructions listed in the Noble Eightfold Path.
As Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh said:
Birth is okay and death is okay, if we know that they are only concepts in our mind. Reality transcends both birth and death.
Ven. Master Hsing Yung said:
Birth and death are like two sides of a coin. After death, there is birth, and when you are born, you are sure to die. However, there is a phrase that states, “Birth is not truly birth, and death is not truly death.” Because it’s all actually just one continuing process, we should not worry much over the fleeting appearance of birth and death.
So we shouldn’t really dwell too much on “death” and “rebirth”, as this is the natural course of sentient beings. However, Buddhism says there are two types of birth and death: one that is experienced by sentient beings and one that is experienced by bodhisattvas and arhats.
As Ven. Master Hsing Yung said:
Ordinary sentient beings only experience fragments of the cycle of birth and death. We only see process, but cannot see the whole. Each time a sentient being is reborn, their appearance and lifespan differs according to their karma. As one life ends, the next beings, without much awareness of what is going on.
Bodhisattvas and arhats experience the cycle of birth and death differently. Such beings have incredible self-cultivation and have compassion for all beings. They see the cycle of birth and death functioning in all things: the rise and fall of virtues, understanding, perception, and awakening. Bodisattvas and arhats are different from sentient beings, for while their minds are still part of the cycle of birth and death, their bodies are unrestrained by it, and can be manifested as they wish.
What a wonderful view of birth and death in Buddhism. Of course, striving towards being enlightened (as a Bodhisattva or Arhat) is truly a goal both practitioners in Mahayana and Theravada strive towards.
Still Not Convinced?
As a Buddhist you can believe, or not believe, in rebirth and that’s quite okay. You can still practice Buddhism without believing in rebirth (even though it’s part of the Buddha’s teachings) and nobody would think any worse of you.
There are Buddhists who do not believe in (or embrace) rebirth, such as some secular Buddhists (if you are a secular Buddhist, you may enjoy this article about an evaluation of rebirth), or even some Zen Buddhists. Their rejection of rebirth can be for many reasons such as misunderstanding what rebirth actually is (they believe it may be more religious or confuse it with reincarnation), that the Buddha didn’t have the scientific ability to prove or disprove rebirth, or the inability for anyone to actually ‘prove’ rebirth occurs after death. If you are one of these Buddhists who are still unconvinced, I’d like to refer you to an essay by Bikkhu Bodhi on Access to Insight who offers a more intellectual and ethical way to embrace rebirth in their practice.
For many, however, the teaching and belief in rebirth helps them grow and understand the Buddhist teachings (to include the four noble truths and impermanence), and also provides moral guidance.
See you later! 😉
— Alan Peto (@alanpeto) July 2, 2013
- Recommended Books: What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula and The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh
- Further Reading: Rebirth and Reincarnation in Buddhism by Barbara O’Brien, Do Buddhists Believe in a Soul by Lions Roar, Does Nonself Contradict Rebirth by Lions Roar, Ask the Teachers: “If there is no self, who is it that keeps getting reincarnated?” by Lions Roar, What is Karma and How Does It Work by Lions Roar