Buddhism - Belief in Rebirth or Reincarnation

Buddha, the Founder of Buddhism

by Jayaram V

"Bhikkhus, it is through not realizing, through not penetrating the Four Noble Truths that this long course of birth and death has been passed through and undergone by me as well as by you. What are these four? They are the noble truth of dukkha; the noble truth of the origin of dukkha; the noble truth of the cessation of dukkha; and the noble truth of the way to the cessation of dukkha. But now, bhikkhus, that these have been realized and penetrated, cut off is the craving for existence, destroyed is that which leads to renewed becoming, and there is no fresh becoming." Digha Nikaya 16

In the Milindapatha we come across this interesting conversation on transmigration.

"Revered Nagasena," said the king, "is it true that nothing transmigrates, and yet there is rebirth?

"Yes Majesty."

"How can this be?...Give me an illustration."

"Suppose your majesty, a man lights one lamp from another- does the one lamp transmigrates to the other?"

"No your Reverence."

"So there is rebirth without anything transmigrating!"

Like the Hindus the Buddhists also believe in the chain of many births and deaths before an individual achieves complete emancipation from it. But the comparison ends here. The Hindus believe that what passes from one birth to another is the Jiva, the subtle body along with the pure soul or Atman.

The Buddhist interpretation of transmigration is a little bit difficult to understand, especially if one is not familiar with their concepts of "anicca" or impermanence and "anatta" or the non-existence of soul.

Since the Buddhists do not accept the very existence of a permanent phenomenon like Atman, or a stable thing called the Jiva or the subtle body, they do not speak of transmigration of soul. Instead they speak of the transmigration of the ever changing character itself.

What passes from one life to another is the aggregate of a person's "present" character, which is a result of the effects of his previous actions. That which has become now will pass on to the next stage of becoming through rebirth.

In reality there is not much difference between a person passing from one stage of life to another, say from childhood to adulthood and a person passing from one life to another life. Both are essentially the same. Both are two independent existences between which something that has been changing continuously passes. In both are hidden the processes of change and becoming.

Death and birth are movements just like the process of aging. Dying and taking rebirth are just like growing up and becoming old. Both produce sorrow through change and both can be overcome through right effort and right living.

The Buddhist doctrine of transmigration is a little bit confusing to the ordinary people, because it is difficult to imagine the passage of a person from one birth to another without a fixed and central element of permanency which the human mind can comfortably recognize and understand.

Surely something must go from this body to another if we have to believe that the same person has again taken birth elsewhere. If we are told that a person has no soul, but has still taken rebirth, we may wonder what is it that has actually taken birth. How can we describe something unless it has a name and definition and unless it is related to some other name and definition, by which it is measured or understood?

We can understand a river in terms of a mass of water, or in terms of one continuous flow. But if we set aside this generic name 'river' that we have given to the river, because its water is changing continuously as it flows, we find it difficult to accept the river that is now flowing as the same river it will become the next moment. In reality they are two different rivers. Strictly speaking, they are not the same rivers, though for our general understanding and interpretation we consider it as the same river.

This difficulty can be solved only if we understand that the process of living is the same as the process of flowing. Rebirth and the growth of an individual are essentially the same processes. Just as a child becomes a man, a man passes from this life to another life. The thing that becomes now also becomes something else in the next life. But since the thing is changing continuously, can we call it always by the same name and definition? Can we recognize it with a particular description or specific word such as 'soul'? That which "was" is not the same as that which "is", because many events and actions happen in between and many changes take place in the thing itself.

Hence the Buddhists find it genuinely difficult to explain the theory of transmigration to those who are not familiar with it. What transmigrates from one life to another is the moment of individual existence, that is susceptible to continuous change and is not tagged to any permanent center.

That which has become now in this life also becomes the next in the next life. And that cannot be called "that" always because it never remains the same always. In a way life is one continuous process, a process of growing, of changing and of continuous becoming. Just as day and night, transmigration is also an illusion.

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