Samsara Rebirth

Rebirth and Reincarnation.

The subject is not that simple. By the time the Buddha lived many Indian thinkers it seems had come to the conclusion that the heart of each person’s identity is their atman or soul which is also a spark of the ultimate world-soul, Brahman. There were and are many theories about just how this works, but at the heart of it is the belief that unlike the body the atman/soul is imperishable. What is more it was and still is commonly believed in India that on death this atman or soul is reborn in another being, human, animal, or spiritual being and this destination is a result of the way each person has lived. (A greedy person may be reincarnated as a pig, a hard working scholar may be reborn as a ruler, etc). Eventually, after thousands or millions of rebirths, (yes – that many) each atman is sufficiently purified to be re-united with the Ultimate Brahman, the Universal World Soul and in doing so it attains Moksha. Release from rebirth and an end to individual identity.

In the West Plato and Aristotle were influenced by this and also taught that each person had an immortal soul and that there was a rebirth into different life forms dependent upon behaviour. Christianity accepted the idea of the soul, an essentil non-physical essence, but following Jewish teaching it did not accept the idea of many re-births, adopting instead the Jewish Pharasaic teaching that history will end with a Day of Judgement and an after-life either with God, (Heaven) or separated from him (Hell) ( teachings the Diaspora Jews adopted from Zoroastrianism when exiled in Babylon)  To complicate matters Christianity also adopted the Jewish belief that human identity could not be seperated from the body even if there is a soul and that time would indeed end with a Day of Judgement when the righteous dead (no longer the Jews but those who accepted Jesus as their Saviour) would rise from their graves with new and glorious bodies, first to live on a New Earth ruled by Jesus, and then to remain with God in heaven.

Such teachings which are still asserted as being at the heart of the Christian gospel by leading scholars in the Evangelical tradition, are considered by many Christians confusing, unhelpful and frankly unbelievable.

Unlike the Greeks, and the Hindus, The Buddha argued that there is no evidence that there is such a thing as the soul, but that all the elements (he spoke of five) we are made of, however you look at them, can be seen as changing and impermanent and that therefore it follows that to believe “this my self which speaks and feels, which experiences the fruits of good and bad actions, now here and now there, this self is permanent, stable, everlasting, remaining the same for ever and ever, is a wrong view.” (Sabbasava Sutta)

He also taught, there are many points he did not address and did not consider were relevant to the attainment of a good life and liberation from Dukkha, such as:

Is the universe eternal, finite or infinite,

is the soul and the body the same or different,

does an enlightened one (a Buddha) in any sense exist after death?

Similarly he considered it a waste of time to speculate whether: one did or did not exist in the past and if so who and what was I? Will I exist in the future and if I do who or what shall I become?

He also taught there are only three things we can KNOW.

1. We will all die.

2. Everything is changing.

3. Every action has a consequence, effect follows cause. (everything is interconnected at some level)

I think it is difficult to take issue with any of those.  Nevertheless in the Buddhists scriptures the Buddha speaks of remembering many previous lives and there are constant references to rebirths in various realms, divine, animal and human. Are these to be taken as accurate descriptions of the cosmos or – as some have suggested –  metaphors for mental states?

Most traditional Buddhists have taken these teachings in what may seem a pretty literal way and argue that belief in transmigration is fundamental to Buddhism, despite the Buddha’s teaching that there is no unchanging, fundamental self. They also hold this together with the teaching that samsara – rebirth, takes place second by second – for everything about us is constantly changing. Samsara-rebirth in that sense surely does make sense.

Does one who seeks to follow the Buddhist path then need to accept trasmigration if not of the soul then of all the essential energies or elements that make one individual different from all others, something which jumps from one body at the moment of death to take up residence – either immediately or after a period of transition – in the body of an infant at the moment of conception?  Certainly this has become the conventional teaching and is accepted unquestioningly by most in the traditional Buddhist countries.  Many Western Buddhists are happy to accept it too as something more rational and believable than Christian, Muslim and perhaps Jewish talk of heaven, hell and resurrection bodies. Others, like me however, do not find a literal belief in transmigration to be a credible description of what happens when lives begin or end and are not convinced by accounts of “remembered” past lives.  More importantly however it obvious that a literal acceptance of this  teaching  can have terrible moral implications as can be seen in India where low status or female gender are regarded by millions as being a consequence of bad karma, something I understand the Buddha’s teaching and practice rejected.

Walpola Rahula quotes a sutta which says “When the Five Elements arise, decay and die, O bhikkhu, every moment you are born, decay and die.” If in this life we can continue without an unchanging soul why can’t we understand that those forces themselves can continue after the non-functioning of the body?”

I agree, only it seems clear to me that the Elements do not continue together in one person, but are as a simple  matter of fact are re-distributed within and across many lives with reverberating consequences. See my poem This I See is Certain.

So what is my conclusion as regards rebirg seen as re-incarnation? I think it all depends on how the teaching is used. I recognise that talking about or thinking about previous or future lives can be a useful short-hand metaphor for coming to terms with the apparently unjust effects of samsara-rebirth in our own lives.  It may also act as a way of motivating skilful/good behaviour in ourselves. However, it seems to me that asserting belief in what is essentially a form of re-incarnation more generally or considering it to be a pre-requisite for a genuine acceptance of the Buddha’s system of training – either implicitly or explicitly – is to get caught up into holding a profound delusion, a profound error. It is simply not the way things are.  We can all see we are constantly changing.  We can all see that in general terms skilful actions and restraint result in good kamma – healthy consequences, and unskilful, thoughtless and egotistical actions expressing greed, hatred and  delusion bring about bad kamma – disasterous consequences.  What is more we can all see and KNOW that the consequences our actions and intentions initiate go on and on. They roll on and affect the lives, the minds and the very environment around us.  That surely is the essential truth about samsara-rebirth that we need to recognise and try to practice if we are to live in a more enlightened way.

If you think I have got this wrong, please tell me how and why.

John Baxter