a Buddhist perspective on rebirth

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Background to Buddhism 10
Dharma 2
2.3 Have We Met Before?
A Buddhist Perspective on Rebirth
By Piya Tan ©2003
Abridged from “Life After Life”, Lecture 3 of 3 in the series “A Matter of Life and Death 3 (Buddhist Perspectives on Life and Death)”
Buddhist Youth Leadership Training Course (20 May 2001); Buddha’s Light International Association (20 June 2001)
Most Buddhists take the teaching of rebirth for granted. But little do we realize that it is one of the
most difficult doctrines in Buddhism to prove since it is currently beyond our experience, or we are
usually unable to recall any such experience.
If we regard the God idea of the theistic religions as a problem to God-believers, then I think that
rebirth is a parallel problem to the Buddhists. Of course, both faithful Christians and confident Buddhists
would claim they have no problem whatsoever with the respective teachings. That is so long as they do
not think about it and no one asks the right (or wrong) questions!
And today we are going to ask a lot of questions. We will even play the devil’s advocate. In other
words, I do not promise to answer every problem here. But as long as we ask questions and freely do so,
as is the Buddhist tradition, then the answers await us in due time.
Scholars use a number of big words in connection with rebirth: reincarnation, metempsychosis,
metensomatosis, transmigration of the soul, even renaissance.
Reincarnation simply means “taking physical form again”, in other words, a physical body is
involved. For Buddhists, rebirth may occur in a formless realm.
Metempsychosis is not a disease, but a Greek-derived word, meaning “the passing of the soul
(psyche) into another body (a human or animal). In Buddhism, we do not accept the idea of an
unchanging soul. Moreover, we believe that rebirth can occur in forms other than human or animal, such
as hell-being, asura demon, or heavenly being.
Metensomatosis is another Greek-derived word, meaning “the migration into one body of different
souls”. Again Buddhists find this definition problematic.
Transmigration is a literal translation of the previous two Greek terms. These three terms can be
used in connection with the Hindu doctrine of rebirth.
Renaissance is French for “rebirth” but has been used exclusive in the cultural and historical sense in
Palingenesis, the condition of continued becoming is the best technical term for “rebirth” as
understood by the Buddhists. Interestingly, it is also the Greek term for the Christian idea of “rebirth” in
the sense of being “born again” after baptism. But the connection is only in word, not in the spirit.
So we are happily stuck with rebirth or, less commonly, rebecoming.
Brahmanism, and its later form, Hinduism, teach that the soul is an emanation of the Param’ātman
(Supreme Soul) to which, after its wanderings in the world, it will in the end return.
The Buddhist technical term for rebirth is puna-b.bhava (Pali) or punar.bhava (Skt), literally meaning “re-becoming”. The term is free of the idea that anything permanent or substantial passes over in the
process. Later Buddhist literature, however, mostly use paṭisandhi (lit. “reunion, relinking”).
The Buddha’s doctrine of rebirth explains some difficult points, such as human inequality and the
existence of suffering, which other religions have great difficulties explaining. This is the classic passage
Background to Buddhism 10
2.3 Have we met before?
of the Buddha’s claim to the Three Knowledges (tevijjā) (stock passages taken from the Bhaya.bherava
Sutta, M no. 4; also V 1:3-4; M nos. 7, 77):
(1) Knowledge of the recollection of past lives.
When my concentrated mind was thus purified…and unshakable, I directed it to
knowledge of the recollection of past lives [Vism 13:13-71]. I recollected my manifold past
lives…, many aeons of world-contraction and expansion….
(2) Knowledge of the passing away and reappearance of beings.
…I directed [my mind] to knowledge of the passing away and reappearance of beings
[Vism 13:71-101]. With the divine eye (dibba.cakkhu) [clairvoyant vision], purified and
supernormal, I saw beings passing away and reappearing, the inferior and the superior, the
beautiful and the ugly, the fortunate and the unfortunate. I understood how beings pass on
according to their deeds….
(3) Knowledge of the destruction of the defilements.
This knowledge ends rebirth: attainment of Nirvana.
…I directed [my mind] to knowledge of the destruction of the mental cankers. I directly
knew: “This is suffering… This is the origin of suffering… This is the cessation of suffering…
This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.
(4) Declaration of enlightenment.
The Buddha attains Nirvana.
…When I knew and saw thus… I directly knew: “Birth is destroyed, the holy life has
been lived, done is what had to be done, there is no more coming to any state of being”.
(M 1:22 f; Sn 502)
There are 5 kinds of evidence: spontaneous, experimental, experiential, scriptural and spiritual.
This is what has been mentioned in the previous section.
In modern terms, the first 2 knowledges are called retrocognition.
Geniuses. Child prodigies could have inherited their genius from past lives.
Christian Heinecken: talked within a few hours of his birth at Lübeck (W. Germany in 1721. He
could repeat passages from the Bible at 1, answer questions on geography at 2, speak French and
Latin at 3, and at 4 was a student of philosophy. He died before he was 5.
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), the British philosopher, could read Greek at 3. By his eighth year
he had read the original Greek Aesop’s Fables, Xenophon’s Anabasis [Greco-Persian war 5th cent.
BC] and the whole of the historian Herodotus. At 8 he started learning Latin, the geometry of Euclid
and algebra, and began to teach the younger children of the family.
(1) Theodore Flournoy made the earliest recorded experiments by a psychologist. He was a
professor of psychology in the University of Geneva. He recorded his data and findings in a book called
Des Indes à la Planète Mars, Geneva, 1899.
Flournoy experimented with one of his Swiss subjects and recorded that she was an Arab chief’s
daughter who married a Hindu prince about 4 centuries before. The subject spoke and wrote Arabic and
Background to Buddhism 10
Dharma 2
Prakrit, which she knew in the regressed state, but not in her normal life. She also gave details of
experiences in that life, re-enacting and reliving some of the scenes.
(2) Dr. H.J. Eysenck recorded the case of a Mrs. Smith whose work necessitated her going into
various hospitals but in doing so she experienced a very strong fear reaction. The sight of hairy arms or
knives also produced such a reaction.
Under hypnotic age-regression, she was able to recall and relive the incidents that were responsible
for her condition. It all arose from the shock caused by a mastoidectomy1 performed on her at the age of
16 months. (Sense and Nonsense in Psychology, Penguin, 1958)
(3) Phobias. Most of our phobias can, in fact, be traced to past experiences, whether in the historical
present or in previous lives.
(1) Personal recollection.
Some people could simply give an account of their past lives without being induced in any way.
(2) Dr. Ian Stevenson.
He did one of the best scientific studies on rebirth: Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, NY,
1966). The accounts were given by persons, mainly children, of their alleged past lives, which when
subsequently check, prove to be historical and accurate and could not have been derived from any normal
source in this life.
(3) Déjà vu.
This is the feeling of “I’ve been here before!” This feeling could apply to places as well as people,
especially those we met for the first time.
The American couple in Bombay. The couple, visiting Bombay for the first time, found some parts
of the city to be very familiar to them. To test their knowledge, they went to a certain spot, where they
expected to see a house and a banyan tree in the garden. A policeman informed them that he recalled
having heard from his father that they (the house and the tree) had, in fact, been there before, and that the
house belonged to a family called Bhan. Curiously, this couple had called their son Bhan because they
liked the name! (W.C. White, Beyond the Five Senses, NY, 1957)
(4) Edgar Cayce.
His life and doings are recorded in Dr. Gina Cerminara’s Many MansionsI (NY: Sloane. 1950).
There is strong evidence that Cayce had remarkable clairvoyant powers, that is, personal actions or
abilities regarding things beyond the normal human senses, things hidden from sight or at a great
distance. For example, he diagnosed illness sometimes from a distance without seeing the patient.
More remarkable, he went on to give accounts of the prior lives of some of these individuals, and also
gave the alleged karmic causes of their present illnesses. Like child prodigies, Cayce must have inherited
his knowledge and abilities form his past lives.
(5) Our untrained mind.
If our minds are untrained, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to recall our past experiences. When
it is so difficult for us to recollect what we did last year, last month, last week, or even yesterday, how
could we recall our deeds in past lives?
But through proper meditation practice, we will be able to recollect past lives, if we choose to.
This is our own experience of rebirth resulting from our meditation. However, as long as we are not
yet enlightened, our ability of retrocognition may not be totally correct, or our evaluation of our
perceptions may be faulty. It is possible that we may “think” that we were so and so in our past lives.
My experiences in Thailand. My Thai sounded Isan (NE Thailand). My best friends are from
there, etc. And the food I like is also Isan! I also find it easier learning Thai than learning Mandarin!
An operation on a bone behind the ear.
Background to Buddhism 10
2.3 Have we met before?
Philosophers and opponents of rebirth have forwarded various possible reasons for rejecting it. The
most common and important arguments against rebirth are:
(A) The lack of memories of former lives.
Basically, this argument is: we cannot remember any past lives. I’ve already given at least 3 answers
against this argument:
1. We have very short memory span.
2. Spontaneous recall of past lives.
3. Various methods can be used to recall rebirth (for example, meditation),
Analogy of milk. A bowl of milk is left standing and the next day turns to curds. Although they
are physically different, they are sequences in the same process (Miln 40 f, 48).
A lamp burns in the 3 watches of the night. Is the flame the same or different? “It is not the
same, and it is not another.” (Miln 40; cf. 47 where the flame burns a village.)
Analogy of the candles. One candle is burning. It lights another candle. The flame is “passed
on”. It is the same, yet not the same flame. (The flame arose because of proper conditions.) [This
analogy also illustrates not-self.]
(B) The fact of population growth.
Simply stated, there are more people on earth now than say a millennium ago. Now where did the
extra souls come from? (This question has several assumptions that do not apply to the Buddhist
1. Buddhists do not believe in a permanent soul. So we need not imagine a fixed number of souls
waiting around in some heaven to be reborn as a human on earth.
2. It is possible that some dying people’s thoughts influence more than one “being-to-be-born”
(foetus) at a time.
3. It is possible that lower animals may be reborn as humans.
4. There are many other realms of existence. Any of these alien beings may be reborn on earth as a
human. Buddha once tells Ananda:
As far as the sun and moon move in their course and light up all the quarters with their
radiance, so far extends the thousandfold world-system. Therein there are a thousand moons,
a thousand suns, a thousand Sumerus, lords of mountains: a thousand Rose-apple Lands
[Indias], a thousand Western Continents [Aparagoyāna], a thousand Northern Continents
[Uttara.kur], a thousand Eastern Continents [Pubba,videhā]; four thousand mighty
oceans… [along with a thousand of each of the various heavens.] This, Ananda, is called
“The system of the thousand lesser worlds”.
(A 1:227)
The Buddha goes on to tell Ananda of “a system a thousandfold the size of this [system]” and “a
system a thousandfold the size of this is called ‘The Thrice-a-thousand Mighty Thousandfold World
System’” (ti,sāhassa.mahā,sāhassa.loka,dhātu).2
The Buddha then tells Ananda that “his voice” could be heard throughout this vast world system or
even farther!
From the analogy of the candles (point 8b above), it is clear that nothing is transferred during
rebirth. However, in order to talk about it as a process, we need to use concepts. Such a concept is the
On the world systems, see, for example, Randy Kloetzli, Buddhist Cosmology. Delhi: MLBD, 1985: ch 3.
Background to Buddhism 10
Dharma 2
intermediate state (antarā.bhava) or intermediate being (antarā,bhava.sattva) which links one birthmoment to the next.
The dying and rebirth process, for example, according to the Tibetan tradition, may last up to 49 days.
During that time, the “conscious principle” or “psychic factor” (rnam shes)3 of the deceased encounters
many visions that are the personification of his own past karma.
The actor in the “out-of-body experiences” and the “near-death experiences” is this intermediate
being, which is your own consciousness. [See Lecture 2,14.]
The Metta Sutta has an interesting term, sambhavesi, “those seeking birth” (M 1:48, S 11:11):
bhtā vā sambhavesī vā / sabbe sattā bhavantu sukhit’attā
Those already born or those seeking birth: May all beings be happy-minded!
The term, sambhavesi, evidently refers to the “intermediate being”. The Pali texts also refer to this
“intermediate being” or “being-to-be-born” as gandhabba (Skt gandharva), in which case it is the object
of rebirth consciousness (paṭisandhi.citta
As such, it is consciousness that is reborn.
The difference between death and birth is only one thought-moment. The last thought-moment
in this life becomes the first thought-moment in the next life. As such, the Khuddaka.pāṭha Comy
records the Buddha as saying:
When the Aggregates arise, decay and die, O monks, every moment you are reborn,
decay and die.”
(KhA 78)
So life is a moment to moment, and we have to prepare well for each new moment.
According to the Mahā,taņhā.saŋkhaya Sutta, the Buddha teaches that for the conception of an
embryo, the following 3 conditions must be present:
1. the union of the mother and the father;
2. the mother’s season; and
3. the being-to-be-born (gandhabba) is present. (M 1:266, 2:157; Miln 123 ff.)
In other words, for life to arise, the biological conditions alone are not enough: a conscious being
must be present, too.
The Buddhist teaching is that life continues after death. So death is not goodbye, but just a brief
Imagine if there were no rebirth—that this is our only life, and death is the final end of all things as
we know them. Then:
(a) Suicide could be seen as an easy solution to an existence perceived as inherently more painful
than pleasurable.
(b) Hedonism, the total abandonment to pleasure, would be widely practised. People would try to
enjoy life and take advantage of other people and nature as much as they can since they will not
face any consequences in future lives.
On the term “psychic factor”, first used by Prof. C.D. Broad, see John Hick, Death and Eternal Life, London:
Macmillan, 1976, 1985: 344.
Background to Buddhism 10
2.3 Have we met before?
(c) Self-interest (egoism). People would take advantage of others and everything else (esp. Nature)
for selfish ends.
At the end of the Kālāma Sutta (A 3:62, Vibh 378), the Buddha says that is a disciple were to have a
mind free of greed, hate and delusion, he stands to enjoy the four solaces:
1. If there is rebirth and karma, then after death, he will be born into a happy world.
2. If there is neither rebirth nor karma, still he lives in this world safe and happy.
3. Suppose evil deeds have evil consequences: he worries not because he has done no evil and so
faces no evil consequences.
4. Suppose evil deeds have no evil consequences: he enjoys the best of both worlds!
Many are born Homo sapiens, but how many evolve into humans?
Greed turns us into hungry ghosts.
Hatred makes us demons.
Delusion changes us into animals.
Indeed, it is often said in the Buddhist scriptures that to be born a human is a very rare and
wonderful thing indeed:
Rare is birth as a human being.
Hard is the life of mortals.
Hard it is to hear the True Dharma.
Rare is the arising of Buddhas.
(Dh 182)
Conversely, now that we are born as human beings, now that we can listen to the True Dharma, now
that we are living in a Buddha age, we are extremely fortunate. Hence, we can fulfill life’s true purpose:
to grow, to evolve into liberated beings.
Rebirth (or the doctrine of rebirth) implies that we are a part of this unimaginably vast network of
living beings, Indra’s Net of Jewels, spanning the whole universe, covering the three period of time. We
have been mothers and fathers to one another; we have been sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, to
one another. Conversely, we also have played the role of bad guys, of enemies and villains, even of Devadatta and Mara. But there is always hope if we understand our true higher nature.
Thich Nhat Hanh, in Peace is Every Step, relates how he was affected by the story of the Vietnamese
boat people who suffered in the high seas off Thailand. One day he received a letter telling him about
how a young girl on a small boat was raped by a Thai pirate. His first reaction was one of anger at the
pirate. You will naturally take the girl’s side, he said. It’s easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot
the pirate.
But what if you are the pirate? You were born and raised in the pirates’ village; then you would grow
up into a pirate yourself. This is because educators, social workers, politicians, and others did not do
something, or did not do enough about the situation. If we were born in those fishing villages, we may
become sea pirates years later. If you take a gun and shoot them, then you shoot all of us, because all of
us are to some extent responsible for this state of affairs.
After a long meditation, he wrote this poem, one of the most moving Buddhist poems in our time,
entitled “Please Call Me by My True Names”, because we have so many names.
Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
Background to Buddhism 10
Dharma 2
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchants, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open, the door of compassion.
(Peace is Every Step. London: Rider, 1991:123 f.)

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