Reincarnation, Rebirth, and Buddhism: Here We Go Again


Is there reincarnation in Buddhism?  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.

This article is part of a series on the basics of Buddhism.  Click here to view more.  
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Reincarnation: Not in My Lifetime

Oh, Bhikshu (Monks), every moment you are born, decay, and die. ~ Shakyamuni Buddha

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 “reincarnation” or “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.

Briefly, here is the difference:

Reincarnation / Transmigration

  • A major part of Hinduism
  • Your permanent and unchangingself” or “soul” (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)

Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh explains the confusion with reincarnation this way:

Reincarnation means there is a soul that goes out of your body and enters another body. That is a very popular, very wrong notion of continuation in Buddhism. If you think that there is a soul, a self, that inhabits a body, and that goes out when the body disintegrates and takes another form, that is not Buddhism.

When you look into a person, you see five skandhas, or elements: form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. There is no soul, no self, outside of these five, so when the five elements go to dissolution, the karma, the actions, that you have performed in your lifetime is your continuation. What you have done and thought is still there as energy. You don’t need a soul, or a self, in order to continue.


  • A major part of Buddhism
  • The concept of “nonself” (anattā in Pāḷi and anātman in Sanskrit) in Buddhism emphasizes there is no “independent”, “unchanging and “permanent” self
  • Ignorance creates desire and unsatisfied desire causes rebirth
  • Rebirth happens moment-to-moment and after death of your current existence
  • Karma:  Actions influence the present and future (actions are stored in the Alayavijinana or “Store Consciousness”)
  • Alayavijnana is the force, or energy, which 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?

Hello, is there anyone up there?! (CC0 Photo via Comfreak on Pixbay)

What exactly are “you”?  In Buddhism, “you” are a continuous set of thoughts, beliefs, ideas, and of course “ego”, which form the illusion known as “you”.

This illusion you have clouded 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 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 Taughtthe wrong notion of a permanent self or soul has long been a 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, in fact, but that was not always the collective 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 is 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 in the ocean and we call it “Bob” (since it “looks” different from the rest of the ocean and has a “body”), 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.

The water in the ocean doesn’t have suffering (Dukkha), and the waves are not it’s natural state. Photo by Keith Skelton on Flickr

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 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.

The different "Doctors" who played on the TV show "Doctor Who"
The different “Doctors” who played on the TV show “Doctor Who”
Learn more about “Nonself” with my article here and “Impermanence” with my article here.

Karma Again?

Young boy giving food to a Buddhist monk. Photo by Sasamon Rattanalangkarn on Flickr

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 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 eventually 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 in three ways:

  1. Your Actions
  2. Your Thoughts
  3. Your Words

By understanding these three things create either wholesome or unwholesome karma, you can always change it…even at death’s 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 during the cycle of rebirth.

For example, let’s 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 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 must 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 effects.  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 possibly explain rebirth and karma in an entertaining way, it must be the Terminator movies.  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.

Learn more about “Karma” with my article here.

Rebirth Now:  Animals, Hell, and Hungry Ghosts

Hungry Ghosts by Timothy

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 realm your store consciousness (Alayavijnana) will arise in a new existence (the five aggregates).

It is also a very relevant teaching and concept because you can use it right now in this existence to understand your current state of mind at any given moment so you will understand your mindset and prevent any unwholesome actions.

  • 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.

The six realms of existence may look overwhelming to someone new to the religion.  There is the human realm, where we are right now, but also the animal realm, a heavenly realm, heck there is even a hell realm!

The important part to remember is that existence in any of these realms is impermanent.  Yes, that means even if you become a “god” in a heavenly realm, it’s impermanent (even though it’s extremely long).  You’re only there due to a lot of wholesome karma, but that will eventually “burn” off and you’re right back into the cycle of rebirth.

We look at the lower realms, such as the hell, animal, hungry ghosts, and demigods realms, as ones we do not want our store consciousness to be reborn in.  This is because hearing the Buddha’s teachings (Dharma) is near impossible in those realms, and even if we were to hear them, it would be challenging to practice it.  Thus, they are not conducive to liberation in the Buddhist path.  Further, one is essentially ‘trapped’ in these realms until their unwholesome karma is “burned” off.  Thus, why create the conditions in this life to be trapped for an extended time in these realms?  It’s counterproductive!

The same holds true for the “heavenly” realm.  This blissful place sounds like a ‘heaven’, but it’s not the same as you’d find in Christianity for instance.  There are essentially ‘layers’ of heavenly realms and beings, but they all have degrees of “bliss” and “ease” in life, which are also not conducive to the Buddhist path.  This is because they don’t have the right conditions to want to be liberated from Samsara (cycle of rebirth).  But the fact is they’ll be back in Samsara as soon as that existence ends – thus, right back into suffering.

A quick note that Bodhisattvas can be found in the Heavenly realm, but shouldn’t be considered the same as other beings there.  For instance, Bodhisattvas who are destined to be a Buddha in their next existence reside in the heavenly realm until ready for rebirth.  This is how our current Buddha, Shakyamuni/Gautama, came into existence.  And the next Buddha, Maitreya, is also in a heavenly realm awaiting his time in the future.

When we think of the six realms of existence, the only one we want to remain in is the Human realm.  Think of it in a very Buddhist visual way.  We use lotus flowers a lot in Buddhism, and it encompasses both rebirth and enlightenment.  A lotus flower starts its life in this muddy water.  It can’t see the beautiful sky, only the muck.  But that muddy water and soil are vital for it to grow.  And when it breaks the surface and blooms (“enlightenment”), that’s the goal.

We need this “right mix” in the Human realm to actually progress on the Buddhist path.  We will experience extremes of this, however, such as a very pleasant life, or even a very hard life.  But, no matter what, it is impermanent.  And it spurs us to practice Buddhism.  Otherwise, we would be in a realm where we are suffering but cannot hear the Dharma and liberate ourselves with the teachings or be in a higher realm where we are too blissfully unaware of our impermanent nature to do something about it.  This is why Buddhists want to be reborn in this realm.

Further, those on the Bodhisattva path (such as in Mahayana Buddhism), need to be reborn in the Human realm to continue practicing (we will talk about Pure Land practice a little later on which is also found in Mahayana Buddhism).

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!) 😉

One of my previous cats, Tara, getting ready to meditate.
One of my previous cats, Tara, getting ready to meditate.

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 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 let us 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 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:

  1. Form
  2. Sensation
  3. Perception
  4. Mental Formation
  5. Consciousness

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 a 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 on 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 a new life.

This doesn’t mean that you will be literally 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, which 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 (and realm of existence, if not remaining in the current realm of existence)

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 explanations in her video about rebirth and past lives:

We’re Not Done Yet:  Rebirth in a Pure Land

Tibetan Monastic in a monastery (Photo via Pixbay)

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”).

Briefly, there are many ‘pure lands’ that you can be ‘reborn’ into so you can 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!) or those with heavy karmic debt.

In this Pure Land (such as Amitabha’s Western Pure Land), you are able to effectively reach enlightenment under the guidance of numerous teachers (including Bodhisattvas).  One can then re-enter one of the six realms as a Bodhisattva to help other sentient beings, or stay longer until they become a Buddha and help others that way.

An important distinction is that these Pure Lands (also called Buddha Fields) are not a “heaven”, but can be likened to a safe harbor where all weary travelers can enter and be educated/trained.  In turn, they go back.  You don’t stay forever in a Pure Land, but only long enough to become an enlightened Bodhisattva or Buddha in order to help others.

In Chinese Buddhism where Ch’an (Meditation) and Pure Land are practiced complementary, the Pure Land has a dual meaning.  It is where you can go after you die, but also the highest level of realization as your true mental state (which Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh articulates).

For example, chanting Amitabha Buddha’s name can be closely compared to meditation and “calling out” or “polishing” your own Buddha-nature.  In this particular example you would not specifically be 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.

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.

He has also said:

When one chants the Buddha’s name, one remedies deviant
thoughts with right thought, then progresses from right thought to no thought. The result of this practice is what is meant by the saying, “The mind has the Buddha so recite Buddha with the mind; recite until the mind is empty and thus true attainment gained.”

If one plants Amitabha Buddha firmly in one’s mind and becomes like Amitabha Buddha, is this not better? That is why I often say that the true recitation of the Buddha’s name is to “recite without the thought of reciting, to not recite yet still be reciting.”

We can also look to the Chinese monk T’an-luan (476-542, the third Pure Land patriarch) who also favored this approach.  He taught that reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name slowly allows one to empty the mind.  As random thoughts arise in the mind, reciting the Buddha’s name allows one to effectively realize samādhi through constant practice.

To help others challenge their impression of the Pure Land, he 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.

Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh said:

The notion that the Pure Land is an exterior reality, a place to be found far away in the western direction, is just for beginners.  If we deepen our practice, the Buddha and the Buddha’s land become a reality in our mind.  Our ancestral teachers have always said this.  If we practice well, we can experience Amitabha Buddha and the Pure Land wherever we are in the present moment.

So, what’s going on here and what do these statements mean?  Is Amitabha and the Western Pure Land real or not?

These statements are not saying that the Western Pure Land doesn’t exist.  Instead, they are eluding to the fact that enlightenment/awakening is within your own power – even in this world.  The power of Amitabha Buddha doesn’t need to just be when you go to his Western Pure Land.  You can, in fact, realize the inherent truth that both Amitabha Buddha and his Western Pure Land can be in “you” as well.

Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh provided one explanation of this.  He stated that during the Tran dynasty in Vietnam (1225 to 1350 CE), two teachers provided an explanation of Pure Land Buddhism as three levels of practice.  They articulated that Amitabha and the Pure Land are, according to Hanh, “the Pure Land are found right inside the mind, and Amitabha Buddha is our own Dharma body.

  • The highest level of practice, according to Hanh, is when “the Buddha is not an external reality but instead is within our own mind.  The pure land is the Pure Land of the one mind, and Amitabha is the original nature of our own mind, which is silent and bright. “
  • The middle level is when “the practitioners goes from the need for recollection to no more need for recollection.”  The light of Buddha Amitabha “shines out in his or her own mind” without needing to recollect the name or image of Amitabha.
  • The lowest level is when we, as beginners, need “images and sounds as the conditions for us to maintain our mindfulness.  The object of mindfulness is Buddha Amitabha and the Pure Land of the West.”

Hanh explains that we shouldn’t get caught up in these levels, because that is where “ideals” come in and we can be wrong about them.  I would expand upon that with a correlation to Buddhist practice in general.  “Beginners” most likely encompasses all of us, no matter how “far along” the path we really think we are.  In Buddhism, eons (kalpas) are used for immeasurably long periods of time where true cultivation is needed.  So being at this “lowest” level is, in fact, perfectly fine and still beneficial.  We can even argue that celestial Bodhisattvas are doing the same thing we are!

Humanistic Buddhism (which is part of Pure Land and Ch’an) 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?

He has also said:

If we want to construct a pure land on Earth, we have to start with our minds because “when the mind is pure, the land is also pure.”

To learn more about the Pure Land School, download this free book by Ven. Master Hsing Yun.

I’m Getting Tired of Rebirth

Buddha is on his deathbed surrounded by grieving disciples. Photo by Alan Peto at the British Museum, London, UK.

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?

Rebirth is a principal component of Buddhism that the Buddha taught.  In fact, it is the principal reason for a Buddhist’s practice.

It is completely fine to begin in Buddhism not fully understanding rebirth and all that it entails.  After all, many Buddhist concepts and teachings are challenging to understand (which is why Buddhists listen to monastics and practice throughout their lives to understand and progress in the path).

However, fundamentally rejecting rebirth would not make you a Buddhist or practicing Buddhism.  It is simply the core part of the religion and why we practice it.  Without rebirth, “Buddhism” wouldn’t be what the Buddha taught.  And the practice would be superficial in nature, in many aspects.

This doesn’t mean you blindly believe in rebirth or understand everything at once.  Everyone starts somewhere in Buddhism, and not all parts of the teachings will be fully understood by everyone.  Any small steps in learning Buddhism are said to have positive effects.  However, not believing in rebirth is not in accord with the Buddha’s own teachings (and thus, not Buddhism and not being a Buddhist).  Rebirth, like many other Buddhist concepts, is challenging to understand and comprehend and can sometimes take a lifetime (or many) to “get”.

While it is true we can’t follow this ‘mind consciousness’ after death to prove anything, it is one part of Buddhism we take on faith (but not blind faith) due to the Buddha and his teachings.  It would be hard to believe that the Buddha would create a “fake” concept while everything else he taught could be verified.

Buddhists take rebirth as half verifiable, and half on faith from the Buddha.  Just like astronomers were unable to verify black holes until recently, and scientists could not truly verify their beliefs until electron microscopes were invented, we put our justified faith in the Buddha with his teachings.

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.  That may allow you to connect with ‘rebirth’ in a way you can ‘digest’.

For many, however, the teaching and belief in rebirth will help them grow and understand the Buddhist teachings (including the four noble truths and impermanence), and also provides moral and ethical guidance.

See you later! 😉

Article Notes

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