Reality of Rebirth in Early Buddhism
Main Points of Rebirth:
– Introduction: Basic idea of Rebirth in Buddhism & Hinduism
– What is rebirth
– Buddha’s Clairvoyant Vision
– Indian Sages & Modern time are Known
– Is the New Being the same as the Previous one
– The Cause of this one Rebirth process
– Modes of Birth & Death
– The four modes of Birth
– Planes of Existence
– How Rebirth takes place?
– What is that is Reborn (Non-Soul-Anatta)
Introduction: Basic understanding of Rebirth in Buddhism & Hinduism
There are a number of approaches that we can take to what we might call outlining the case for the reality of rebirth. One line which we might take would be to recall that in almost all the major cultures of the world, at one time or another, there had been a strong belief in the reality of rebirth.
This is particularly true inIndiawhere the idea of rebirth can be traced back to the very earliest period of Indian civilization where all the major Indian religions, be they theism or atheism, be they schools of Hinduism or non-Hindu doctrines like Jainism, believe in the reality of rebirth.
Similarly, in other cultures there has been a belief in rebirth, as for instance even in the Mediterranean world, there is a lot of evidence that belief in rebirth was quite common before and during the first few centuries of the Common Era. So the belief in rebirth has been an important part of the human way of thinking about one’s situation.
Specifically, within the Buddhist tradition, we have the testimony of the Buddha on the matter of rebirth. On the night of His enlightenment, the Buddha acquired three varieties of knowledge and the first of these was the detailed knowledge of His past lives. He was able to recollect the conditions in which He had been born in His past lives. He was able to remember what His names had been, what His occupations had been and so on.
Besides the Buddha’s testimony, His prominent disciples were also able to recollect their past lives. Ananda, for instance, acquired the ability to recollect his past life soon after his ordination. Similarly, throughout the history of Buddhism, saints, scholars and meditators have been able to recollect their past lives.
Scientific investigation of rebirth
Nonetheless, neither of these two arguments for rebirth can be expected to be completely convincing in a scientific and rational environment. So perhaps we need to look a bit closer to home so to speak, and here we get help from a very unexpected direction.
Most of us may be aware that in the past twenty or thirty years there have been a huge amount of scientific investigations of the question of rebirth and these investigations have been pursued by psychologists and parapsychologists. Gradually through these investigations, we have built up a very convincing case for the reality of rebirth, a case which is developed along scientific lines.
There have been many books published in which the details of these investigations have been described and discussed. One scholar who has been particularly active in this area in recent years is Professor Ian Stevenson of theUniversityofVirginia,USA. He has published findings on more than twenty cases of rebirth.
Some of us may be familiar with the case of the woman who was able to recall her past life more than a hundred years before as Bridey Murphy in a foreign land which she had never visited in her present life. I am not going to go through these specific cases in detail because if one is interested in this scientific evidence for rebirth one can read about it for oneself. Nonetheless, I think we are now at a point where even the most skeptical of us will have to admit that there is a lot of circumstantial evidence in favour of the reality of rebirth.
What is Rebirth
KAMMA leads to rebirth. Why? Past Kamma conditions the present birth. The present Kamma, in combination with past Kamma, conditions the future birth(s).
The past effects the present; it, in turn, effects the future. We all live and feel the present. We rely on memory and reports to live and feel the past. We use forethought and inferences to describe the future. Reasons to believe in a Past Birth.
In Buddhism, rebirth is part of the continuous process of change. In fact, we are not only reborn at the time of death, we are born and reborn at every moment.
This too, like many other Buddhist teachings, is easily verifiable by reference to our own experience and by reference to the teachings of science. For instance, the majority of the cells in the human body die and are replaced many times during the course of one’s life.
Even those few cells which last one’s entire life undergo constant internal changes. This is part of the process of birth, death and rebirth. If we look at the mind too, we find that mental states of worry, happiness and so forth are changing every moment. They die and are replaced by new states. So whether we look at the body or the mind, our experience is characterized by continuous birth, death and rebirth.
Buddha’s Clairvoyant Vision of Rebirth
The Buddha is the greatest authority on rebirth. He said, “With clairvoyant vision, purified and supernormal, I perceived beings disappearing from one state of existence and re-appearing in another. I beheld the base and the noble, the beautiful and the ugly, the happy and the miserable, passing according to their deeds.”
The Buddha would never tell an untruth to deceive His followers. He had retro-cognitive knowledge and was able to read past lives of beings. His disciples, following His instructions, also developed the retro-cognitive knowledge to various degrees.
Note however that the development of this supernormal vision is not restricted only to the Buddha and His disciples. Any person can possess this faculty.
Indian Sages & Modern times are known
Some Indian Rishis (Sages), even before the advent of the Buddha, developed supernormal powers such as clairaudience (Divine Ear), clairvoyance (Divine Eye), and thought reading.
Some people in modern times are known to spontaneously develop the memory of their past birth and remember fragments of their previous lives.
Several case studies in rebirth have been reported in books and journals. The test subjects come fromBurma,India,Germany,England, and various other parts of the world.
Extraordinary experiences of some modern reliable psychics and strange cases of alternating and multiple personalities tend to throw light upon this belief in rebirth.
This phenomenon of secondary personalities has been explained either as remnants of past individual experiences or as “being possessed.” The former explanation sounds more reasonable, but the latter cannot totally be discarded.
The theory of heredity should be supplemented by the doctrine of Kamma and rebirth for an adequate explanation of these puzzling problems. Is it reasonable to believe that the present brief span of life is the only existence between two eternities of heaven and hell?
Is the New Being the same as the Previous one
This new being which is the present manifestation of the stream of kamma-energy is not the same as, and no identity with the previous one in its line; the aggregate that makes up its composition being different from, and having no identity with, those that make up the being of its predecessor.
And yet it is not an entirely different being, since it has the same stream of kamma-energy, though modified perchance just by having shown itself in that last manifestation, which is now making its presence known in the sense perceptible world as the new being.
This s well expressed in the Milind Panha. King Milinds asked Arhant Nagsena whether he who is reborn remains the same or becomes another. Neither the same nor another, was the answer he received.
‘Suppose, O king, that man were to light a lamp, would it burn the night through? Yes, it might do so, Venerable Sir, Now; it is the same flam that burns in the first watch of the night, Sir, and in the second?
No,Venerable Sir, ‘Or the same that burns in the second watch and in the third?, No, Venerable Sir, ‘Then is there one lamp in the first watch, and another in the second, and another in the third?
No, the light comes from the same lamp all the night through’. Just so, O king, in the continuity of a person or a thing maintained. One passes away, another comes into being; and the rebirth is as it were, simultaneous, Thus, neither as the same nor as another does a man go on the last phase of his self-consciousness.
Asked for another illustration, Arahanta Nagasena give that of milk which, once it is taken from the come, after a lapse of time turns first to curds, and then from curds to butter, and then from butter to ghee. Just as it would not be correct to say that the milk was the same thing as the cruds, or the butter, or the ghee, but that they are produced out of it, so he points the continuity of a person or a thing as being maintained in the same way.
There is also the illustration of a wave of water in lake or the ocean. A certain mass of water is raised up as wave. As the wave passes on, or seems to pass on, a moment or so later it is not the same mass of water that forms the wave, but a different mass altogether. And yet we speak of the wave ‘passing on’
The true Buddhist regards death as a momentary incident between one life and its successor, and views its approach with calmness. His only concern is that his future should be such that the conditions of that life provide him with better opportunities for perfecting himself.
Holding, as he does, the great doctrine of kamma, he perceives that it is within his power to alter or modify the quality of the life force that continues in the nest birth, and that his future environment will dependent entirely on what he does, upon how he behaves, in this and in his previous lives.
The Cause of this Rebirth Process
The Wheel of Life Kamma, which is rooted in Ignorance, is the cause of birth and death. As long as this Kammic force survives there is rebirth.
This process of becoming is fully explained in the Paticca-samuppada (Dependent Arising or Dependent Origination). The Paticca-samuppada is only a discourse on Sanara or the process of birth and death and not a theory of the evolution of the world from primordial matter.
It deals with the cause of rebirth and suffering, but it does not attempt to show the absolute origin of life. If, on account of a cause, an effect comes to be, then if the cause ceases, the effect also must cease.
The complete cessation of Ignorance leads to the cessation of birth and death. The above process of cause and effect continues forever. The beginning of this process cannot be determined since it is impossible to say when this life-flux was encompassed by ignorance.
But when this ignorance is replaced by knowledge (i.e., realization of the Four Noble Truths), then Nibbana Dhatu becomes evident and the end of the life process or Sansara occurs.
Modes of Birth and Death: Buddhism assesses death to the following four causes
1. The exhaustion of the force of Productive Kamma that gives rise to the birth in question is exhausted (Kammakkhaya). The Buddhists believe that, as a rule, the thought, volition, or desire which is extremely strong during lifetime, becomes predominant at the point just before death and conditions the subsequent birth. In this thought-moment preceding death is present a special potentiality. When the potential energy of this Productive Kamma is exhausted, the corporealised life-force ceases even before one gets old.
2. The expiration of the life-term (Aayukkhaya). This category includes natural deaths due to old age. Sansara–lit. wandering again and again. It is the unbroken process of the Aggregates, Elements and Sense-organs. According to Buddhism, there are various planes of existence and each plane has an assigned natural age-limit. Irrespective of the Kammic force that has yet to run, one dies when the maximum age-limit is reached. If the Kammic force is extremely powerful, the Kammic energy rematerializes itself on the same plane or in some higher realm as in the case of the Devas.
3. The simultaneous exhaustion of the Productive Kammic energy and the expiration of the life-term (Ubhayakkhaya).
4. The action of a stronger Kamma (Upacechdaka) that suddenly cuts off the power of the Productive Kamma before the expiry of the life-term.
The first three types of deaths are collectively called Kala-marana (timely death). The last one is known as Akala-marana (untimely death). An oil lamp can go out if any of the following four occurs: the exhaustion of the wick, the exhaustion of oil, simultaneous exhaustion of both wick and oil, and some extraneous cause like a gust of wind.
The Four Modes of Birth
1. Egg-born creatures (Andaja), such as birds, and snakes.
2. Womb-born creatures (Jalabuja). All human beings, some earth-bound deities, and those animals that take their conception in mother’s womb, belong to this class.
3. Moisture-born creatures (Samsedaja), such as certain insects that take moisture as material for their growth.
4. Creatures having spontaneous births (Apapatika). They are generally invisible to the naked eye.
Conditioned by past Kamma, they appear suddenly, independent of parents. Brahmas, Devas of heavenly realms, Petas, and miserable ones who are subject to torments and sufferings in states of woe (Niraya) are included in this class.
There are 31 Planes of Existence
(A) The Four States of Unhappiness (Duggati):
1. Niraya–woeful states, which are temporary, but not everlasting.
2. Tiracchana Yoni–the Animal Kingdom.
3. Peta Yoni–the plane of Petas or ghost-beings.
4. Asura Yoni–the plane of Asura demons.
(B) The Seven Happy States (Sugati), viz.,
1. Manussa–the realm of human beings.
2. 6 Devalokas–heavenly realms.
3. 16 Ruplokas–Realms of Form.
4. 4 Arupalokas–Formless Realms.
How Rebirth takes place
A dying man is presented a Kamma, Kamma Nimitta, or Gati Nimitta. Here Kamma means some action ether good or bad. It may be either a meritorious or a demeritorious Weighty Action (Garuka Kamma), such as jhanas (Ecstasies), or killing one’s own father, and so forth.
These are so powerful that they totally eclipse all other actions and appear very vividly before the mental eye. If experience has afforded him nothing weighty, he may take for the object of his dying thought a Kamma done immediately before death (Asanna Kamma).
In the absence of an Asanna Kamma, a habitual meritorious or demeritorious act (Acinna-Kamma) is presented, such as stealing in the case of a robber, or the healing of the sick in the case of a good physician. Failing all these, some casual act, that is, one of the accumulative reserves of the endless past Katatta-Kamma, becomes the object of the dying thought.
Kamma Nimitta is any sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, or idea which was obtained at the time of
the commission of the Kamma. Examples include knives in the case of a butcher, patients in the case of a physician, and an object of worship in the case of a devotee.
Gati Nimitta means some sign of the place where one is to be reborn. Such events frequently happen to dying persons. When these indications of the future birth occur, if they are bad, they could be turned into good. One can suggest the dying man to have good thought; it may now act as the proximate Kamma and ounteract the influence of the Productive Kamma which would otherwise affect his subsequent birth. These symbols of one’s destiny may be hellish fires, forests, mountainous regions, the wall of a mother’s womb, and celestial mansions.
Taking one of the objects of near dying-thought mentioned above as object, a thought process runs its course, even if the death appear to be an instantaneous one. Even a fly which is crushed by a hammer on the anvil experiences such a process of thought before it actually dies. By death is meant the ceasing of the psychophysical life of one’s individual existence. Death takes place by the passing away of vitality (ayu), body heat (Usma) and consciousness (Vinnana).
According to a Western philosopher, death is merely “the temporary end of a temporary phenomenon.” It is not the complete annihilation of the so-called being, because even though the organic life has ceased, the force which has actuated it is not destroyed. An electric light is only the outward visible manifestation of invisible electric energy. Like wise, we are only the outward manifestations of invisible Kammic energy. The bulb may break and the light may be extinguished, but the current remains and the light may be reproduced in another bulb.
At death the consciousness perishes only to give room to another consciousness in a subsequent birth. This new life-flux inherits all past experiences. This new being is not exactly the same as the past one because it has a different composition.
The new being is not totally different because it results from the same stream of Kammic energy. Consider the birth-process of the butterfly. It was first an egg, and then it became a caterpillar. Later it developed into a chrysalis, and finally evolved into a butterfly. This process occurs in the course of one lifetime. The butterfly is neither the same as, nor totally different from, the caterpillar. Here too there is a flux of life or continuity.
The transition of the flux is also instantaneous. There is no room for an intermediate state (Antara-bhava).
Theravada Buddhists do not believe that the spirit of the deceased person stays in a certain state until it finds a suitable place for its reincarnation. Rebirth takes place immediately. There is no interval of time between death and rebirth whether one is reborn in a heaven or in a state of misery, in the United States or in Australia, as an animal or as a human being.
What is it that is reborn?–No-soul (Anatta)–Pancakkhandha
According to Buddhism, mind and matter constitute the so-called being. There is no immortal soul or an eternal ego which man is either gifted with or has obtained in a mysterious way from a mysterious Being or force.
The Buddhist doctrine of rebirth should be distinguished from the theory of re-incarnation or transmigration. Buddhism denies the existence of an unchanging or eternal soul.
In the ultimate sense a Buddhist cannot think of an unchanging soul, any being in the form of a Deva, a man, or an animal. These forms are merely the temporary manifestations of the Kammic force. “Being” is only a concept used for conventional purposes.
If nothing in the form of a spirit or soul passes from this life to the other, what is it that is reborn? In asking this question one takes for granted that there is something to be reborn.
In the past it was argued “Cogito, ergo sum–I think, therefore I am.” True indeed, but it has to be proved first that there is an I to think. I say that there is no I to think. In one breath I contradict myself. Yes, it has to be admitted that we cannot avoid using conventional terms.
We continue to say that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The heliocentric model used by scientists tells us that the apparent motion of the sun is actually caused by the earth moving round the sun. A lot of us say, “Lightning does not strike a place twice”. Conventional wisdom is difficult to dispel. Everything has changed so soon. Even space has changed at the second moment.
According to Buddhism the so-called being is composed of mind and matter (Nama and Rupa). Rupa or matter is merely the manifestation of forces and qualities.
The ancient Indian sages believed in an indivisible atom (Paramanu). The Buddha analyzed this so-called indivisible Paramanu and declared that it is only a manifestation of inter-related forces which He termed Paramatthas or fundamental units of matter.
These Paramatthas are Pathava, Aapo, Tejo, and Vayo:
Pathava means the element of extension, the substratum of matter.
Aapo is the element of cohesion.
Tejo is the element of heat.
Vayo is the element of motion. The four essentials of matter are invariably combined with four derivatives, color (VaÓÓa), odor (Gandha), taste (Rasa) and nutritive essence (Oja).
The four elements and the derivatives are inseparable and inter-related, but one element may predominate the others. For instance, the element of extension predominates in earth; cohesion in water, heat in fire, and motion in air.
Mind is the most important part of man. Mind is also a compound of fleeting mental states. There are fifty-two such mental states.
Vedana or sensation is one,
Sanjja or perception is another.
The remaining fifty mental states are collectively called Sankhara or volitional activities.
These immaterial states arise simultaneously with consciousness Vijjana.
Thus the so-called being is a complex compound of five Aggregates (Pancakkhandha), namely, Rupa or matter, Vedana or sensations, Sanjja or perceptions, Sankhara or mental states, and Vijjana or consciousness, which are in state of constant flux.
One’s individuality is the combination of these five Aggregates. There is no permanent soul that resides in this so-called being. How is Rebirth possible without a soul to be reborn? Birth is simply the arising of the Khandhas, the aggregates.
Rebirth is the arising of the aggregates again and again. The arising of a physical state is conditioned by a preceding state as its condition.
The coming-into- being of this psycho-physical life is conditioned by causes prior to its birth. As one life-process is possible without a permanent thing passing from one thought-moment to another, a series of life processes is possible without anything to transmigrate from one life to another. A being (used here as the conventional term) dies here.
As a result of Kamma he or she did in the past, a new being is reborn in a new existence without anything transmigrating from this life to the other.
The new being is neither absolutely the same as its predecessor–since the composition is not identical, nor entirely another–being in the same stream of Kammic energy. There is, therefore, a continuity of a particular life-flux; just that and nothing more.
Finally, I would like to distinguish rebirth from transmigration. You may have noticed that in Buddhism, we consistently speak of rebirth and not transmigration. This is because in Buddhism we do not believe in an abiding entity, in a substance that trans-migrates.
We do not believe in a self that is reborn. This is why when we explain rebirth, we make use of examples which do not require the transmigration of an essence or a substance. For example, when a sprout is born from a seed, there is no substance that transmigrates.
The seed and the sprout are not identical. Similarly, when we light one candle from another candle, no substance travels from one to the other, and yet the first is the cause of the second. When one billiard ball strikes another, there is a continuity, the energy and direction of the first ball is imparted to the second.
It is the cause of the second billiard ball moving in a particular direction and at a particular speed. When we step twice into a river, it is not the same river and yet there is continuity, the continuity of cause and effect.
So there is rebirth, but not transmigration. There is moral responsibility, but not an independent, permanent self. There is the continuity of cause and effect, but not permanence.
I want to end with this point because we will be considering the example of the seed and the sprout, and the example of the flame in an oil lamp next week when we discuss dependent origination.
And with the help of the teaching of dependent origination, we will understand better how dependent origination makes moral responsibility and not self compatible.
Reality of Rebirth in Early Buddhism
Presented by Dr. Manish – SBSC, GBU