Rebirth in Buddhism

1. Rebirth in Buddhism

Rebirth (Sanskrit, punarāvṛtti, punarutpatti, punarjanman, or punarjīvātu), also called transmigration and reincarnation, is the belief common to all Buddhist traditions

that birth and death occur in successive cycles driven by:

1. Ignorance (avidya),
2. Desire (tṛṣṇā), and
3. Hatred (dveṣa).

The cycle of rebirth, termed Saṁsāra, is beginningless and on-going, and it is determined by the moral quality of a person’s thoughts and Karma (Action).

The effects of good moral actions lead to wholesome rebirths,
and the effects of bad moral actions lead to unwholesome rebirths.

2. Origins of the doctrine

Scholars have long debated the origins of the theory of rebirth among the religions of India”

Some trace the belief to the ritual models inscribed in the ancient literature of the Vedas and Brāhmaṇas, which rested firmly on belief in the efficacy of ritual sacrifice as a means to secure a place in Heaven.

To guarantee positive future results these sacrificial acts were required to be perpetually re-enacted.

The conceptual parallels in this ancient model of a continuous cycle of ritual action have led some scholars to suggest that the mechanics of Vedic ritual should be seen as the precursor to later Indian theories of Karma, Saṁsāra, and Rebirth.

Other more controversial suggestions have been that Rebirth Doctrine originated among the ancient non-Āryan tribal groups of India.

Still others theorize that the doctrine was formulated by followers of the Saṁnyāsin (renouncer) traditions affiliated with the broad-based Śramaṇa (mendicant) movement that began to emerge in India around the 6th century B.C.E., a movement that included the early Buddhists and Jains.

3. Rebirth and the problem of no-self

The Buddhist doctrine of Rebirth differs fundamentally from the idea generally upheld in Hinduism and Jainism, both of which accept the existence of an eternal and substantial self or Soul (Ātman in Hinduism, Jīva in Jainism) that transmigrates from life to life:

Buddhism, by contrast, rejects the notion of an absolute self. Fundamental to its understanding of rebirth is the doctrine of no-self (anātman)

- the idea that in Saṁsāra, which is forever in flux, impermanent, and constantly changing, there can be no permanent, unchanging, independent self or soul.

But if there is no absolute self, how does Buddhism resolve the problem of transmigration and of the continuity of Karma between one life and the next?

The early Buddhist schools in India offered a variety of responses to this conundrum:

One school, the Vātsīputrīya (also known as the Pudgalavāda), went so far as to propose the concept of an inexpressible personal entity (pudgala) that travelled from life to life, a concept that seemed to contradict the fundamental tenet of Anātman.

Other schools, such as the Sarvāstivāda, posited the existence of an ethereal entity (called a gandharva) composed of subtle forms of the 5 Skandha (Aggregates) that passed through an Intermediate State (antarābhava) between death and the next birth.

In the early period of Buddhism in India, concepts like pudgala and antarābhava were subjects of much controversy.

Not all of the schools accepted such ideas:

The Theravāda, for example, denied the existence of an intermediate state and argued instead for the existence of an inactive mode of deep consciousness (bhavaṅga) that forms a causal link (Sanskrit, pratisandhi; Pāli, paṭisandhi) between one life and the next:

In this view, the first moment of consciousness in a new birth is simply the direct conditioned effect of the final moment of consciousness of the immediately previous existence. 

4. Rebirth and cosmic causality

In basic Buddhist doctrinal terms, an answer to the difficult question of Rebirth in light of the cardinal teaching of “no-self’ is to be located in how Buddhism understands causality, the way one thing leads to another. One Buddhist formula describes it as follows:

When this exists, that exists;
 from this arising, that arises.
When this does not exist, that does not exist;
from this ceasing, that ceases.

Technically speaking, this principle of causality is explicated by the formal doctrine of Pratītya-samutpāda (Dependent Origination),

which holds that all phenomena, including the “self’ and the surrounding world, arise out of a network of relationships dependent upon other causes and conditions.

The self, therefore, is not to be understood as an essential, independent entity moving from one life to the next, but rather as a manifestation of a complex of causes and conditions, both mental and physical, themselves interdependent and continually in flux.

The doctrine of dependent origination is graphically depicted as a circular chain consisting of 12 conditioned and conditioning links (nidāna):

(1) ignorance, the inability to perceive the truth
of anitya (impermanence) and dependent origination, conditions
(2) karmic formations, from which comes
(3) consciousness, which leads to
(4) mind-and-body (name and form) and then
(5) the 6 senses (sources); the gateway of the 6 senses leads to
(6) sensory contact that creates
(7) sense impressions or feelings; these lead to
(8) attachment; attachment leads to
(9) grasping, which in turn gives rise to
(10) becoming; becoming culminates in
(11) birth, from which follow
(12) aging and death, and the cycle begins again.

In sequence, these 12 links generate life cycles
within the perpetual process of Saṁsāra
driven by Karma.

In this way, the 12-fold chain of Dependent Origination describes the process of Rebirth.

Birth and death, then, are to be understood as nothing more or less than oscillating links in the on-going chain of cause and effect.

Rebirth is a configuration of a new cluster of causes and conditions propelled by previous karmic impulses:

The process is compared to lighting one candle with the flame of another; the former flame is not the same as the latter and yet there is still a transfer of the flame.

Like lighting a new candle, Rebirth is simply the movement of a continuum of ever-changing mental and physical complexes from one physical support to another. It is this particular notion of causality that lies at the heart of the Buddhist understanding of rebirth.

The engine of Rebirth is Karma, the good and bad actions of body, speech, and mind that have been performed not only in the immediately preceding life but also many lifetimes ago.

The cumulative moral quality of a person’s Karma determines the quality of each successive life.

There is widespread consensus among Buddhists everywhere, however, that the state of a person’s mind at the moment of death can actually be the most significant factor in setting the course for the future Rebirth:

It is usually the case that the mind at death tends to be occupied by whatever habitual thoughts and actions were most familiar in life or by whatever actions are performed just prior to death.

For this reason, Buddhism recommends the cultivation of proper mindfulness and the performance of virtuous activities at the time of dying, which are all designed to insure a favourable Rebirth.

To be sure, the concern of the vast majority of ordinary Buddhists is less about the achievement of Liberation from the cycle of Saṁsāra and more about the attainment of a better position within that cycle.

A Good Rebirth, according to Buddhism, is birth in one of the 3 higher realms of Saṁsāra:

1. gods (deva),
2. demigods (asuras), and
3. human beings (manuṣya),

- with human birth deemed the most precious.

Rebirth in the other 3 realms, of:

4. animals (tiryak),
5. ghosts (preta), and
6. hell beings (Naraka),

- is regarded as terribly unfortunate.

In all Buddhist cultures, certain merit-enhancing actions are performed at death to assure favourable circumstances in the next life:

In the most general terms, these actions include the dedication of merit, almsgiving, and the recitation of Buddhist scriptures.

5. Methods for ensuring a wholesome rebirth

In China and Japan, much emphasis is placed on Rebirth in a Buddha’s Pure Land, such as Amitābha’s Pure Land of Sukhāvatī, the Land of Bliss.

Although there are multiple explanations for how best to ensure Rebirth in one of these Pure Lands, in general it requires faith and a sincere aspiration to be reborn there.

The repeated chanting of the name of the particular Buddha of that realm or the recitation of his scripture at the moment of dying is also recommended.

In addition, Chinese Buddhists at the time of death sometimes offer ritual paper money, popularly called “spirit money,” to the post-mortem bureaucrats and executive officers who are believed to abide in the afterlife:

It is thought that this monetary offering will lessen the deceased’s karmic debts and secure passport to a more favourable Rebirth.

The burning of such “hell notes” as an offering for the benefit of the dead is also practiced among Buddhists in Burma (Myanmar) and Vietnam.

In Japanese Buddhism, posthumous Ordination, the monastic ordination of the dying on their deathbed, is commonly practiced as a means to guarantee salvation and a better rebirth. In this way it can be said that all Buddhists in Japan die as Monks or Nuns.

Tibetan Buddhism also recognizes the value of virtuous actions and proper Mindfulness at the moment of death:

In Tibet, special rituals are performed to actually guide the deceased’s consciousness through the perilous pathways of the Intermediate State (Tibetan, Bardo) and into the next life:

These funerary rituals are inscribed in specific Tibetan Buddhist liturgical manuals, some of which have achieved notoriety in Western-language translations, such as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

In all of these Buddhist deathbed practices an underlying principle is at work:

Virtuous actions performed at the moment of death by the dying and by surviving relatives can positively affect a person’s future destiny. In other words, a good death leads to a good rebirth.