Anatta and the Process of Rebirth in Buddhism

Rebirth or Reincarnation

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay explains the process of rebirth or transmigration in the context of Anatta, the Not Self concept of Buddhism.


You might have heard of the transmigration, rebirth or reincarnation of souls (punarjanma). The idea is that, upon the death of a living being, the embodied soul which resides in it departs from the body. It goes to another world and stays there for sometime, until its karma is exhausted, and returns to the earth to take another birth. The Bhagavadgita states that the body is like a cloth for the soul. It discards it at the end of each birth and assumes a new one in the next.

In Hinduism, which believes in the existence of eternal souls, the idea is simple and straightforward. However, Buddhism does not believe in the existence of eternal souls. It believes in Anatta, which means  not-Self or no-Self. It is an important concept of Buddhism, according to which beings do not possess eternal, individual souls (atman). There is nothing eternal or permanent about life or existence. Everything in the whole existence is transient, including the Buddhas. They may last longer, but in the end all things decay and perish.

Therefore, the Buddha taught his followers to realize the impermanent nature of life and resolve their suffering accordingly, without deluding themselves with the belief that one could exist forever in an alternate reality. Nirvana was the ending of impermanence, but not the beginning of a new existence. He advised them to cultivate detachment and become indifferent to the suffering caused by impermanence, not by escaping from it but by observing it and understanding it.

In other words, Buddhism does not believe in the existence of an eternal Self or in the possibility of transcendental reality, but in the transient Self, which is nothing but the physical self or the being. It becomes empty or nonexistent upon Nirvana or upon the dissolution of its components and formations. All beings are bound to the cycle of births and deaths and suffer from the consequences of their desire-ridden actions.

The being as a formation of aggregates

The Buddhist texts identify five distinct parts or khandas which constitute the beingness, physical self or personality namely feeling, corporeality, consciousness, perception and mental formations. They are impermanent since they are subject to change, decay and disintegration. The khandas do not continue into the next birth, but produce karma as they are put to desire-ridden actions. The karma thus accumulated in the course of a being's existence upon earth defines the being’s births and deaths and transmigration. Until it is resolved, the being keeps revolving in the cycle of transmigration. To resolve the problem, the Buddha advised his followers to contemplate upon the Four Noble Truths and practice the Eightfold Path to subdue their desires and silence their minds.

Buddhism not only avoids speculation upon the subjective reality of Self but also upon the existence of the Self itself. Thereby it differs from other conventional religions about its approach to achieve liberation or freedom from the cycle of births and deaths. Firstly, it denies the existence of an eternal and fixed entity called soul and the need to explore its subjective reality. Secondly, it believes that since suffering is caused by the objective reality (Anatta), one should look for solutions there

From a Buddhist perspective, since objects are mere formations and empty in themselves, here all are subject to decay and destruction. The impermanence of Anatta which we objectively experience is the source, from where our suffering arises. The right is approach is to look for the causes and resolve them rather than withdrawing from it and escape into some unknown reality which we can never conceptualize or comprehend.

The concept of Anatta makes Buddhism more practical and realistic. It searches for solutions to the problem of sorrow within the realm of wakeful experience, objective reality or perceptual knowledge through mindfulness. With the help of discernment which arises from mindful observation, one should verify the truths of Dhamma and practice it to experience peace and happiness and achieve Nirvana. In brief, this is the central theme of the Buddhist spiritual practice on the Eightfold Path.

Anatta and the rebirth problem

It is interesting to note that although Buddhism does not acknowledge the existence of eternal souls, it still believes in rebirth and suggests that beings go through many births and deaths, until they achieve Nirvana. It is not necessary that they are always born in this world only. They may take birth in 31 planes of existence or in many of the heavens and hells, some with forms and some without, according to their karma. Life there lasts much longer.

However, beings return to earthly life, once they complete their existence there and learn the required lessons. The Buddhist texts suggest that even gods and celestial beings who live in the higher worlds cannot escape from transmigration. Rebirth depends upon karma. Hence, there are no guarantees in rebirth. Human beings need not necessarily be reborn in their next birth as humans. They may be born as animals or lower life forms if they indulged in sinful actions, or as gods (devas) if the performed good deeds.

Which entity goes through rebirth?

The question that arises is if there is no Self in the beings, what is that which takes rebirth or which part or aspect of the being remains bound to the cycle of births and death? It is easy to answer this question in the context of an eternal soul. If the soul is missing, then how do the beings go through rebirth? What survives upon death and what takes birth in another life? The Buddha found no contradiction with it. He suggested that beings were subject to rebirth, despite the absence of an eternal Self. They possessed individuality or physical identities, which were not eternal, but parts of them survived death and continued to the next life.

In other words, what survives the death of a being is the casual body, or the essence (consciousness) of Anatta or the Not-self. It is not eternal, but exists for a long time, across many births, until its formations are completely dissolved. Buddhism firmly believes that there can no effect without a cause. Just as the Samkhyas, they believe that the effects are already hidden in their causes. They manifest when right circumstances exist. The same is true with regard to rebirth also. There can be no rebirth without a cause or causes. The cause of the rebirth is karma. The accumulated karma of past lives ensures the continuation of beings through  transmigration, and desires ensure the continuation of karma. Together, they ensure their bondage to Samsara, the cycle of births and deaths.

The Buddha saw the unmistakable connection between karma and transmigration. He expressed it in the following words, “Beings are owners of their kamma, heirs of their kamma; kamma is the womb from which they have sprung, kamma is their friend and refuge. Thus, kamma divides beings into the high and low.

The process of rebirth

How karma translates into rebirth? In the course of their existence upon earth, due to desire-ridden actions and impure conduct, karma becomes integrated into the body of the beings in a subtle manner as a subtle force or energy  (kamma-vega) and resides there like a seed awaiting its fructification. At the time of death, it acts like the casual self or the casual body (karana sarira or karma sarira) and departs from the gross body to the next world, which can be any of the 31 or so planes of existence. When the time is ripe for the being to reenter the earth, the karma body becomes the seed for its rebirth. Through sexual union, it enters the womb, partaking some casual energy of both parents and grows into a complete being. Thus, although there is no permanent soul, the karma body or residual beingness acts like an entity (Anatta) and participates in the rebirth process.

The Buddhist texts variously refer to the casual body as the ghost (gandharva or gandhabba), the karma energy or some type of consciousness or life-stream (bhavanga-sota). Whatever it is, the casual body is a subtle formation, but not eternal. It is made up of the causative principles or residual karma. It is an aggregate (Khanda) of dominant memories, desires and latent impressions, which become the seed for the next birth. Its purity and the quality determines a being's next birth. The Buddha emphasized the need to keep the mind pure and engaged in the practice of the Eightfold Path because not only karma but the dominant thoughts and memories of a person at the time of his death also influenced the course of his next birth. A person’s whose mind is empty at the time of death, will likely achieve Nirvana.

Rebirth not a concept but a reality

For the Buddha, rebirth was not a mere concept or speculation. He arrived at the conclusion by knowing it himself through insightful awareness. He saw how beings were born in the other worlds upon their death and how they returned to the earth. He saw his own previous births and how each led to his Buddhahood through a long chain of causation. His own statements corroborate this. For example, in the IItivuttaka, he declared that it was not by hearing from others, but from having known it himself, seen it himself and realized it himself that he was able to say that the noble ones who were endowed with good conduct, right views and right actions appeared in the heavenly world at the breakup of the body.

According to the Buddha beings are reborn according to their qualities or properties. They form associations or relationships according to their qualities. Beings of low nature associate with beings of low nature. Beings of admirable nature associate with admirable beings. Good people are born in good families. The evil ones likely to take birth in the lower worlds or in the bodies of animals and lower life forms. In other words, it is karma which determines the quality of a person’s life in the next birth. The Buddha also said that by knowing his past lives, by seeing the heavens and states of suffering (hells), and ending all formations, modifications and churning, a monk becomes a brahman with threefold knowledge. On another occasion, he made the following comments regarding rebirth (IItivuttaka).

"I have seen beings conquered by receiving offerings — their minds overwhelmed — at the break-up of the body, after death, reappearing in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell… It's not through having heard it from other priests or contemplatives that I say, 'I have seen beings conquered by receiving offerings — their minds overwhelmed — at the break-up of the body, after death, reappearing in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell…Instead, it's from having known it myself, seen it myself, observed it myself that I say, 'I have seen beings conquered by receiving offerings — their minds overwhelmed — at the break-up of the body, after death, reappearing in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell.

The Buddha had a glimpse of his past lives when he entered the fourth dimension (jhana) of consciousness at the time of his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, which he described in the following words (Majjhima Nikaya 19).

"When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of recollecting my past lives. I recollected my manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two... five, ten... fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction & expansion: 'There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance.  Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.' Thus I remembered my manifold past lives in their modes & details."

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Suggestions for Further Reading

1. Meditating on No-Self A Dhamma Talk Edited for Bodhi Leaves by Sister Khema)