Friday, March 15, 2013

The Buddha On Rebirth

The first Buddhists regarded life (jiva) as a process of consciousness  moving through a succession of bodies, death being only a momentary event to this process. This phenomena is sometimes called `moving from womb to womb' (Sn.278) or more precisely, rebirth (punabbhava, D.II,15). Later Buddhist thinkers explained rebirth in complex and minute detail  - death-proximate kamma   (marana samma kamma), last though moment  (cuti citta), relinking (patisandhi), the underlying stream of existence (bhavanga sota), etc. Interestingly, none of this is mentioned in the Sutta Pitaka, much of it is not even to be found in the Abhidhamma Pitaka. It is the product of speculation dating from the early centuries  CE onward. This is not to say that such  concepts are valueless, but it is important to distinguish between early, late and very late Dhamma concepts.
The Buddha mentions rebirth often enough but what does he say  about the actual process of rebirth? The answer is `Not very much'. The Buddha considered death to have taken place when bodily, verbal and mental activities stop,  when vitality (ayu) and heat (usma) cease,  and when consciousness disengages from the body so that it  becomes suspended (acetana, M.I,296).  The consciousness  `moves upwards' (uddhagami) and then `descends' (avakkanti) into the womb, i.e. the mothers newly fertilized egg (D.III,103; S.V,370), finding `a resting place' (patiññthà) there (D.II,63).  I assume that these `up' `down' description are only metaphorical.   
Some Buddhist schools teach that after death, consciousness hovers in an in-between state (antarabhava) for a certain period before being reborn. Others, such as the Theravadins,  assert that rebirth takes place  within moments of consciousness disengaging from the body. The Buddha suggests that there is an interval between death and rebirth. He spoke of the situation `when one has laid down the body (i.e. died) but has not yet been reborn' (S.IV,400). On several other occasions he said that for one who has attained Nirvana there is `no here, no there, no in-between'(S.IV,73),  presumably referring to this life, the next life, and the in-between state.  He even said that in certain circumstances someone might attain Nirvana while in this in-between state. He called the individual who achieved this `a Nirvanaized in-between type' (antaraparinibbayi, S.V,69).    
When the consciousness is in transition between one life and the next it is referred to as gandhabba,  and the Buddha said that this gandhabba has to be present for conception to take place (M.I,265). For most people the whole process between death and actually being born again is unconscious (asampajana), although a few spiritually evolved individuals can remain fully aware during the transition (D.III,103). The question of  exactly which point the consciousness finds `a resting place' in the fertilized egg or fetus so that it can be considered a new being,  is nowhere addressed in the Tipitaka. Whether or not it is mentioned in any later Buddhist literature  I do not know. Can anyone help? This question is important because it has a bearing on the abortion debate. Certainly, the earliest Buddhists considered abortion to be wrong (D.I,11; Ja.V,269).
Today theosophical and New Age publications are full of accounts by people who claim to be able to remember their past lives. I think most such claims are due to delusion,  vivid imaginations or suggestion. A friend of mine tells me that he knows of at least 5 people who can remember being Cleopatra!  Studies of patients who have undergone so-called  past life therapy by researchers such as Nicholas Spanos, etc. have shown that  their `memories' are not memories at all.  One of the best studies casting doubt on  past life memories that I know of is Ian Wilson's Mind Out of Time? Reincarnation Claims Investigated (1981). Wilson's findings are enough to make any objective person  highly skeptical of this phenomena. This book is a really good read if you can get  a copy.  Even the supposed phenomena of repressed memories from the present life is not  accepted in mainstream psychology and is being subjected to increasing criticism. None of this disproves rebirth but it should caution us not to give credence to every claim of past life remembrance.  
In traditional Buddhist countries but particularly in  Sri Lanka,  young children occasionally come to public attention after claiming that they can remember their former life. Some of these claims have been carefully studied by Prof. Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia. His researches have been published by the university as Cases of the Reincarnation Type, Vol.I,1975; Vol.II,1978; Vol.III, 1980 and Vol.IV,1983. While not being easy to read, Stevenson's research has a high degree of  scientific credibility and objectivity. According to the Buddha, just before the attainment of enlightenment some individuals have an experience called the knowledge of former lives (pubbe nivasanussati, D.I,81). During this experience, vivid and detailed memories of one's former lives flash through the mind.


Kathy said...

Could you summarize Prof. Stevenson's findings? I have met one such person (Dhammaruan)who is from Sri Lanka. His story is very compelling.

jundo cohen said...

Thank you for your always open and refreshing writings.

It may be worth noting, just for balance, that many of Prof. Stevenson's research methods and resulting conclusions have been open to criticism. The following highlight some of those criticisms.

Pressed Palms, Jundo Cohen

Ryan Higginbotham said...

I'm going to ask a question I'm sure you've had to answer hundreds of times before and for that I apologize, but you seem to be very pragmatic in your conception of Buddhism which I like; also, I'm very new to Buddhism, so this may be a very elementary concept that is easy to answer, for which I again apologize.
Anyway, if nothing is permanent, especially not the human mind, what exactly is being reborn? If you could point me in the direction of the Buddha's own words regarding this as well (maybe in one of the suttas?) that would be nice.

Anyway, cool blog and sorry to bother you.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Kathy, Stevenson’s purpose was to gather information that seemed to point to something like reincarnation/rebirth. Over the years he looked at past-life hypnotic regression, children’s memories etc, and gradually abandoned then all as unreliable. During his last years he was exploring birth deformities and birthmarks that seemed to be connected to past life memories. I met him several times during his trips to Sri Lanka and he told me that he believed in reincarnation/rebirth although he kept his opinion to himself, aware that he research was on the outer edge of science and that the scientific community looked upon his research with misgiving. However he would say, these experiences are interesting enough to deserve careful study.

Dear Jundo, you are quite correct, although Stevenson’s colleagues in the scientific community tended to ignore his work rather than criticize it. He was fully aware that there were many looking for errors in his procedures and so he was constantly striving to make them as objective as possible. I have read few legitimate criticisms of his approach although I do think Ian Wilson has managed to highlight at least one glaring error in his work.

Dear Ryan, I and other Buddhists have answered this question many, many times before, but I’m happy to do so again. However, I do find it curious that people think that identity is incompatible with change. Surely it is correct to say that Rome is 2500 years old despite the fact that the city changes every day. We have no problem at looking at a photo of ourselves taken in childhood and saying “That’s me” despite the fact that our size, shape, muscle tone, ideas, opinions, etc have completely changed since the photo was taken. The individual is like a football team founded 75 years ago. During that time hundreds of players have joined the team, played with it for five or ten years, left and been replaced by other players. Even though not one of the original players is still in the team or even alive, it is still valid to say that ‘the team’ exists. Its identity is recognizable despite the continual change. The players are hard, solid entities but what is the team’s identity made up of? Its name, memories of its past achievements, the feelings that the players and the supporters have towards it, its esprit de corps, etc. Individuals are the same. Despite the fact that both body and mind are continually changing, it is still valid to say that the person who is reborn is a continuation of the person who died - not because any unchanging self has passed from one to another but because identity persists in memories, dispositions, traits, mental habits and psychological tendencies.

brahmavihara said...

Hi Bhante, thank you for another interesting post. This is not exactly on subject, however. It is now commonly believed that the fetus cannot live outside of the womb before 23 weeks. This seems to be an absolute limit although survival rates and vitality are still few and far between at this early 23 week mark. My supposition is that like all other processes, the five aggregates probably reach some sort of "stability" At or after this time. As for memory of previous lives, there are few of us that can recall our current life prior to say, 5 yo and even after this its sporadic. Even as adults memory is still a rather incomplete and often a flawed phenomenon. Even more interesting is the notion that perception in the 5 aggregates is one and the same as recollection. So we can live for quite long periods but can only recall a preciyed version of it. My supposition is that the closer you get to enlightenment the greater the unity of the recollection past and present become, clarified as it were by right view and the other 7 factors of the noble eightfold path.

Vasile Andreica said...

nice answer, Bhante, reminds me our conversation from 4 years ago. now I'm convinced that identity is just a mental and languge thing, a label or construct.

as for rebirth (or re-becoming), the Bardo Thodol is fascinating in some aspects, as it seems to imply that at first we are facing the clear light of the ultimate and then we "bounce back", like a tennis ball off the wall, according to the karmic seeds we carry and the "self" we still subscribe to.

I will write a blog post about you these days, and link to the Romanian version of the GQGA. I am doing well, Andrea too.

Damnthing said...

I am a newcomer to Buddhism, and while my practice is yet concerned with more mundane matters, I have very little interest in rebirth, and other matters of this nature. I tend to disengage from situations involving the metaphysical, having been raised with a high degree of skepticism concerning the "concealed". This has hampered my ability to integrate with my sangha, who, while they don't emphasize it much, still do often enough to make me feel uncomfortable. Is this going to be a problem for me, moving forward?

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Damnthing, you will notice that very little on my blog is given to rebirth, pretty much because, like you, it is not a subject that particularly interests me. However, it is of interest to others, and it is a part of the Dhamma, so I occasionally make some comments on it. As for your problem of feeling slightly uncomfortable in your group because of your disinterest in this and related subjects, I will only say this. If it is not your imagination, then it is a pity that a group of Buddhists should make you feel `out of the circle'. But do give some attention to exploring whether this feeling is subjective or objective. If you discover that it actually they rather than you, then do your best to deal with it in a mindful and meditative manner. Try to `walk evenly over the uneven'.

brahmavihara said...

I forgot to mention the last time I posted about what we all experience to some degree or another, namely, elastic time!
I was watching a documentary about the Battle of The Atlantic in WWII.
One person gave a first hand account of escaping from a damaged German U Boat. As the stricken submarine sank to the bottom it quickly filled with water until there was only breathing space which was quickly dissappearing. He made the descision to exit via one of the torpedo tubes clearing the submarine his life vest took him gradually to the surface. During his ascent he said that he absolutely recalled all the details of his life. His rise to the surface may have taken a few minutes at most and yet his life was (according to him) completely replayed. Elastic time! and of course this is not incompatible with conditionality, a feature well known amongst Buddhists to be the feature of all phenomena. Less dramaically perhaps is the notion of the experiencing time slowing down when we are bored or suffering deprivation. When we are happilly engaged in some pleasant event time flashes past. My point therefore is that the moment between death and rebirth may be instantaneous but the instant may actually be elastic, that is in the externall world many years may have passed. I know this is a little tenuous but even Einstein believed that time was elastic. Damnthing please only deal with what you can handle with Buddhism No need to swallow absolutely everything you hear. My golden rule is that if something resonates with you then its probably worth investigation, but of course only you can know that. All the best

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Brahmavihara, thanks for the interesting comment.

Damnthing said...

Thank you both, so much, for your insights and suggestions!

404 said...

Your blog was given a very nice mention on DhammaWheel today. You have more fans out here in cyberspace than you might realize! Metta.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear 404, try as I might I can’t find it. Please give me the link.

Michael Roe said...

Dear Bhante:

Re: the great rebirth debate

Postby David N. Snyder » Wed Mar 20, 2013 10:23 am
There was a pretty good blog post by Ven. Dhammika the other day about rebirth. ... birth.html

I like how he presents the Buddhist concepts, issues with references to the Suttas, the Pali, and keeps it short and simple, to the point.

Michael Roe said...


Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Michael, thanks for the link.

Dear 404, for your information; I get an average of between 450 and 550 readers every day. Within about 10 days of a new post the number of readers begins to drop. Over the 4 years of blogging the largest number of readers by far was the posts I did about killing bed bugs and the other ones about killing rats. I wonder if this indicates something interested about Buddhists!

Michael Roe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Roe said...


404 and I are the same person...I used a google sign in that ID'd me as 404 for some reason. I very much enjoy your blog, but the bedbugs and rats do not rank amongst my favorite subjects. :) Maybe a blog on killing snakes will bring you your number 1 return on readers! :) In any case, I'm a fan for the Dhamma.



Ravi said...

Dear Bhante,
I have come to a similar understanding of the process of rebirth.. but how do you interpret the initial statement in the MahaTanhaSankhaya sutta MN38?
Is it not the same consciousness which migrates because it is a separate intermediate state?


Rashmi said...

Yes. As Bhante says Dr. Ian Stevenson's books are bit hard to read. But now his successor Prof. Jim Tucker is carrying on Dr. Stevenson's work and they are on the YouTube. If one picture is better than thousand words, one video is better than ten thousand words. I mention some links below. There are many more. First two stories are very interesting and the third is narrated by none other than the great science fiction writer Arthur C. Clerk.

The interesting thing is that these past life stories are not restricted only to countries like India, Sri Lanka and India where the reincarnation or rebirth is generally accepted as a fact.

It is sad that the world did not give enough recognition to Prof. Ian Stevenson.

1. Reincarnation of a US fighter pilot
Part I
Part II

2. A Scottish Boy Recalls Past Life
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

3. Reincarnation
part I
Part II
Part III

4. Jenny finds her children
Part I
Part II

5. Bethany Link's Past Life
Part I
Part II

6. Life after death news story

7. 90 minutes in heaven
A Christian priest’s experience of death

8. One Steop Beyond
These are Discovery Channel videos.

Life after Death
Out of Body

9. Life After Death

10. Scientific and Rationalist Case for Life after Death
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Ravi, what a delight to know that someone actually studies the suttas. In the sutta you mention Sati has the false belief that “it is the same consciousness, not another, that runs and wanders through the rounds of rebirth.” Although it is not clear from how he expressed his belief, it is clear from the Buddha’s rebuttal to it that Sati believed that an unchanging consciousness that is reborn. The Buddha proceeds to explain that consciousness is dependently arisen, conditioned and constantly changing. It seems that the crux of the matter is Sati’s phrase “not another” (anannan), in other words it, consciousness, is exactly the same. Thanks for your query. I hope you keep reading.

Ravi said...

Thanks for the clarification Bhante!

For the record, I was extremely happy to find your blog which said physical effects may not be effects of Kamma. Kathavatthu seems to agree that rupa is not kamma, though I dont think you mentioned that in your post.

Will keep reading,

Gui Do said...

There is an Embryo Sutra (chin. Fo-shuo-pao-t'ai-ching), a part of the non-canonical Maharatnakuta-Sutra in the Mahayana tradition. A German translation can be found here:

Although it states that after the "embryo" has dwelled for 7 days there is nothing that can be added or taken away, it then clearly desribes what happens with respect to the physical development in which week. There are also stupid explanations like the wrongdoing in a former life would lead to difficulties at birth. The whole time in the mother's womb is "unspeakable misery". Up to the last week there are "winds of karma" that create the body. According to this explanation, as karma is not complete before birth, it could be very well said that abortion is possible at any stage, due to this scripture, as the karmic being is not complete before birth.

On the other hand, I do not agree with the ideas of rebirth. We clearly see that individual strains of beings can be completely destroyed, originals are not repeated, that even goes for works of art. The last thought is as empty as any other, so there is not even "a sum of intentions" or whatever that is able to create karma when the brain that holds those intentions is dead. It is of course also ridiculous to think that only advanced practitioners might go through the rebirth stage consciously as that would clearly indicate that they would not have let go, that they are attached to and thus NOT advanced.

Gui Do said...

Addition, roughly translated: When the spirit goes into the mother's womb, the gaining of the elements is dependent on the spirit's karma.

The spirit seems to be there from the beginning, but the person is therefore not complete.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Gui Do, thanks for that. I’ll check out the sutra in the Chinese Tipitaka.

tom isaan said...

what does any of this have to do with the cessation of Dukkha?