What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream

Revised August 3, 2016; re-written February 8, 2021; revised August 7, 2022

Reincarnation Versus Rebirth

1. Reincarnation is a Hindu concept where the “ātma” (“ātman”) or the soul remains the same but takes a different form. The Rigveda compares it to a person discarding an old suit and wearing a new outfit. See “Sakkāya Diṭṭhi – Wrong View of “Me” and “Mine.”

  • In Buddha Dhamma, it is a rebirth since there is no soul to reincarnate. We have accumulated many “kamma seeds” (kamma bīja), which contain various “habits” and “character qualities” (called “gati”) In our long journey through saṃsāra. Those lead to different types of rebirths; see, “Saṅkhāra, Kamma, Kamma Bīja, Kamma Vipaka.”
  • At the end of this human existence, the kammic energy of the kamma seed for the present life is exhausted. At that moment, a new life starts with a new potent kamma seed. The selection of a new seed itself is a complicated process and depends on the potency of the available kamma seeds, but it happens within a thought moment.
  • Let us first summarize Buddha’s description of sentient life. The following facts are indisputable.
No Discernible Beginning to Saṃsāra (Rebirth Process)

2. During the night of attaining the Buddhahood, the Buddha looked back at his rebirth process. He was able to scan eons in mere moments, but no matter how far back he looked, he could not see a “beginning.” He has given many similes (analogies) to indicate the “unimaginable length of the rebirth process.”

  • For example, Assu Sutta (SN 15.3) states: “Bhikkhus, this rebirth process has no discernible (na pannāyati) beginning. Beings whose minds are covered by ignorance and are bound to this rebirth process with bonds of craving.
  • Birth as a human is very rare among all those rebirths, as stated, for example, in the  Nakha­sikha Sutta (SN 20.2). “bhikkhus, sentient beings reborn as humans are few as this bit of sand on my fingernail. But those not reborn as humans are many as the sand on this great Earth. Therefore, you should strive diligently and without delay to end this suffering in the rebirth process.”
  • Further details in “How the Buddha Described the Chance of Rebirth in the Human Realm.”
The Concept of a Lifestream

3. The Buddha used the term “satta” to describe a living being going through that rebirth process. In the Satta Sutta (SN 23.2), Ven. Rādha asked the Buddha: “..they speak of this thing called a ‘sentient being.’ How is a sentient being defined?”

  • The Buddha answered: “Rādha, when there is liking (chanda), strong liking ( rāgo), reveling (nandī), and the tendency to attach (taṇhā), then a ‘sentient being with cravings’ (satta) is spoken of.” Note that the Pāli word ‘satta‘ means “to attach.”
  • In other words, as long as a ‘sentient being’ highly values things in this world, it will be reborn in this world. It could be reborn, a human, an animal, a Deva, etc., at various times. Thus, associating any such existence with an “unchanging entity” (such as a soul) is impossible. When born a human, a satta behaves like a human, and when born an animal, it acts like an animal, etc.
  • I use the English word to describe “satta” as a “lifestream.” The term “sentient being” is more suitable to refer to a “satta.” On the other hand, “a lifestream” refers to the process that a satta goes through in Saṃsāra.
  • A given lifestream can take various forms in the rebirth process. There is no “core” or ‘soul” or ‘atman” to talk about! On the other hand, as long as that fact is not understood, there is a satta in the rebirth process. 
A Bodhisatta is a Special Satta

4. Buddha Gotama, like any other Buddha, made a heroic effort to become a Buddha through many eons. When he made enough progress, he was declared a “Bodhisatta” by Buddha Deepankara many eons ago.

  • A Bodhisatta is a special satta destined to become a Buddha. “Bodhi” means “towards liberation/release.” When a satta has fulfilled enough paramitā to become a Buddha, he is declared a “Bodhisatta” by existing Buddhas. See, “Pāramitā and Niyata Vivarana – Myths or Realities?.”
  • Even after becoming a Bodhisatta, it is possible to be born in the animal realm (but NOT in the other three realms in the apāyās.)
  • Therefore, a sentient being is born in any given bhava ONLY according to causes and effects. That is described in Paṭicca Samuppāda, which starts with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” and ends in “bhava paccayā jāti” and jāti paccayā jarā, marana, soka-paridēva-dukkha-dōmanassupāyasā sambhavan’ti. 
  • There is no reference to a “special/particular being” in that whole process. Future existences (bhava) and births (jāti) within that existence only depend on past kamma (saṅkhāra) done with avijjā!
Transcending the “Satta State” to Attain Puggala Stages

5. All other living beings (sattā) overcome the “satta state” by learning how to do that from a Buddha or a true disciple of a Buddha (Ariya.)

  • Note that “satta” is pronounced, “saththa.” See “Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 1.”
  • There are eight such Ariyās (Noble Persons) as described in the “Paṭhamapuggala Sutta (AN 8.59),” for example.
  • They are: “Sotāpanno, sotāpattiphalasacchikiriyāya paṭipanno (sotāpanna anugāmi), sakadāgāmī, sakadāgāmiphalasacchikiriyāya paṭipanno (sakadāgāmi anugāmi), anāgāmī, anāgāmiphalasacchikiriyāya paṭipanno (anāgāmī anugāmi), arahā, arahattāya paṭipanno (arahant anugāmi).”
  • Another special satta overcomes the “satta state” with his efforts. That is a Pacceka Buddha. A Pacceka Buddha has not fulfilled ALL the paramitās to become a Sammāsambuddha like Buddha Gotama. Therefore, a Pacceka Buddha cannot explain Dhamma like a Sammāsambuddha. Not that many sattās can attain Nibbāna during a Pacceka Buddha.
All Sattās Are Trapped in the Rebirth Process

6. Therefore, until the Sotapanna Anugāmi stage is attained, all sentient beings are trapped in the rebirth process.

  • They all have not overcome the “satta state” and thus could be born in the apāyās in the future.
  • The lifestream of a satta in ANY of those 31 realms will flow ceaselessly until the fruitlessness AND danger in remaining in the rebirth process are comprehended.
  • The danger is that most births in the rebirth process are in the lowest four realms (apāyās.) The reason for that is in the verse that describes a “satta” in #3 above: “Rādha, when there is liking (chanda), strong liking ( rāgo), reveling (nandī), and the tendency to attach (taṇhā), then a ‘sentient being’ is spoken of.”
  • The Buddha referred to a sentient being (“satta“) as one with attachment to “worldly pleasures.”
Rest of the Satta Sutta

7. After explaining to Ven. Rādha the meaning of a “satta,” Buddha explained to him why those sentient beings are trapped in the rebirth process filled with unimaginable suffering.

Here is the English translation at Sutta Central (my revisions are in bold):

“Suppose some boys or girls were playing with sandcastles. As long as they’re not rid of greed, desire, fondness, thirst, passion, and craving for those sandcastles, they cherish them, fancy them, treasure them, and treat them as their own. But when they grow up, they get rid of greed, desire, fondness, thirst, passion, and craving for those useless sandcastles. Then they scatter, destroy, and demolish them with their hands and feet, making them unplayable.

In the same way, you should scatter, destroy, and demolish the desire for mind-pleasing things in this world and reject them. And you should practice for the ending of craving. You should scatter, destroy, and demolish the desire for feeling … perception … saṅkhāreViññāṇaṃ, making them unplayable. Taṇhākkhayo hi, rādha, nibbānan” ti (Rādha, Nibbāna is the elimination of taṇhā).”

Overcoming the Desire to Build Sandcastles

8. Thus, the Buddha compared the behavior of any living being in the “satta state” to children enjoying building sandcastles on a beach. Due to their ignorance (avijjā), they don’t realize the futility of building sandcastles for enjoyment.

  • In the same way, until one hears and comprehends the actual teachings of the Buddha (Four Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana), one would not “see” the futility AND dangers in enjoying sense pleasures in this world. Children building sand castles only waste their time. On the other hand, sattās enjoying sensory pleasures pave the way to rebirths in the apāyās without realizing it.
  • When one starts “seeing” the true nature of this world, one removes sakkāya diṭṭhi and becomes a Sotapanna Anugāmi. That “vision” is fully established when one also removes any doubts (vicikiccā) and also sees that rituals (silabbata parāmāsa) will not get one released from the rebirth process. One is at the Sotapanna stage at that point.
  • However, that is only the beginning of the Noble Eightfold Path. Only the diṭṭhi vipallāsa (wrong vision) has been removed yet. With that “new vision” (Sammā Diṭṭhi), one needs to follow the other seven steps and get to Sammā Samādhi to remove saññā vipallāsa at the Anāgāmi stage and the citta vipallāsa at the Arahant stage. See, “Vipallāsa (Diṭṭhi, Saññā, Citta) Affect Sankhāra.”
Puthujjano Is a Satta in the Human Realm

9. Finally, a human in the “satta state” (i.e., who has not comprehended the Four Noble Truths) is a “puthujjano.” Thus, a puthujjano (normally translated as “uninformed ordinary person” in many translations) is a human with sakkāya diṭṭhi.

  • In the “Cūḷavedalla Sutta (MN 44),” Ven. Dhammadinnā is asked: “how does sakkāya diṭṭhi (identity view) come about?”
  • She replied:  “.. uninformed ordinary persons who have not been exposed to the teaching of the Noble persons have one of the following views. One group has the wrong vision of rūpa (material form) in 4 ways: to regard rūpa as “mine,” or “I” as rūpa, or rūpa to be “in me,” or “I” to be “in rūpa.” Then there is the other group who regard one or more of the mental factors vedanā (feeling) … saññā (perception) … saṅkhāra  (ways of thinking) … viññāṇa (consciousness) as “mine,” or “I” as those, or them to be “in me,” or “I’ to be “in them.” (We discussed this in #1 of the previous post, “Sakkāya Diṭṭhi – Wrong View of “Me” and “Mine.”)
  • Thus, any living being (human, Deva, Brahma, as well as any other living being) who has not comprehended the “world vision” of how suffering arises is a “satta.” A satta in the human realm is a puthujjano.
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