Rebirth and Nibbāna are core axioms in Buddha Dhamma (Buddhism). However, one does not need to believe in either rebirth or Nibbāna to get started.
Revised August 18, 2016; February 14, 2020; rewritten with new chart#2, February 20, 2023
1. I participated in several internet forums on “Buddhism” in 2013 and 2014. One thing that stands out is that many people like Buddhism, but they cannot understand what the big deal is about rebirth, and they cannot comprehend what Nibbāna is. Thinking is: Why can’t we have Buddhism without rebirth (because I do not believe in rebirth) and Nibbāna (because that seems too complicated)?
They are turned off by the concept of rebirth and are mystified by the concept of Nibbāna.
- Rebirth. I think the first issue is that most major religions are based on three levels of existence: This life and one of two eternal stages of life after that, committed to either heaven or hell for eternity based on what one does in this life. That model is straightforward. Buddha’s 31 realms of existence with many “unseen beings” seems far-fetched. Also, the possibility of being reborn as an animal is a disgusting thought similar to the one people had about “evolving from the monkeys” before the theory of evolution.
- Nibbāna. The second issue has become a problem mainly because of Mahāyāna doctrines. Mahāyāna sect arose basically out of the philosophical analyses of Nibbāna by Nagarjuna, Asanga, and other Mahāyāna forefathers. They could not understand the concept of Nibbāna or what happens to an Arahant upon death. So, they came up with concepts like suñyatā (suññatā) or emptiness; see, “What is Sunyata or Sunnata (Emptiness).”
The critical point is that EVERYTHING we observe, all we experience CAN be explained with the complete “worldview” of the Buddha, of which rebirth and Nibbāna are essential foundations. The following chart is a summary.
Download and print: Chart #2: Nibbāna – End of Suffering
Need for Understanding the Basics
2. There are two co-existing facets of Buddha Dhamma:
- The Buddha said, “This Dhamma is unlike anything the world has ever seen.” It needs a paradigm change to get into the “new perspective about this worldview of the Buddha.” To understand the core message, one must put aside all preconceived notions.
- However, the Buddha also said, “My Dhamma is good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good at the end.” There is something to be gained from Buddha Dhamma for people who just learned about it. This is why I have separated posts into three categories on the site.
- In Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book, “In the Buddha’s Words,” there is a chapter on “The Happiness Visible in this Present Life,” where Buddha’s discourses to those who did not have an aspiration to attain Nibbāna but were interested in pursuing moral lives, are described.
- The concepts such as rebirth and Nibbāna are paradigm-changing concepts. But as one follows what one understands, these concepts will become evident; I have summarized these two concepts below. But it will take much more effort and reading many more posts if one is interested in understanding Buddha Dhamma.
- For those who do not believe in rebirth, there is a simple way to get started without believing in the rebirth process. I strongly suggest the following post: “Starting on the Path without Belief in Rebirth.”
“Secular Buddhism” Can Be a Stepping Stone
3. However, in the end — If one is to benefit fully from Buddha Dhamma — one needs to understand its core message. And that core message is that this life is only but a little time in the cycle of rebirths that we have been on from eternity and that “our world” is much more complex than we see, with 31 realms instead of the two (human and animal realms) that we see. Even more significantly, the suffering in many of the lower realms of existence is much worse than that in the human or animal realm.
- That is a LOT of things to accept as a basis. But we are fortunate compared to those who lived even a hundred years ago. Because now we have EVIDENCE to back up this more comprehensive worldview of the Buddha; see “Views on Life.”
- And both major Mahāyāna sects and Theravāda Buddhism believe in rebirth and the concept of Nibbāna. All Buddhists (except the type of Stephen Batchelor, who has written some popular books on Buddhism) believe in rebirth and Nibbāna. The label “secular Buddhism” describes those who like other aspects of Buddhism (basically moral living and meditation) but not necessarily rebirth and Nibbāna.
- Thus, a Buddhist not believing in rebirth/Nibbāna is an oxymoron. The Pāli or Sinhala word for Buddhist is “Bhauddhaya,” meaning “a person trying the stop the rebirth process” (“Bhava+uddha”). Buddha Dhamma means “path or method of removing bhava and thus stopping the rebirth process.” Buddha means “one who has removed bhava (and attained Nibbāna).”
- However, there is no need to accept rebirth forcefully without believing in it; that would not work in the long term. One can start at a point where one can experience the other type of hidden suffering in this life: “Starting on the Path without Belief in Rebirth.”
4. Therefore, one can be a “secular Buddhist”; that could be an intermediate state (stepping stone) before becoming a Buddhist. We need to understand the concepts clearly. Since there is no formal established way to declare oneself a “Buddhist” (or a need to do that), it is really in one’s mind whether one is a Buddhist or not. The Buddha clearly stated that each person is at his/her level of understanding. And there is no need to pretend; what one believes is what it is. The critical thing is to make sure one is fully informed.
- One does not become a Buddhist by reciting the precepts. One becomes a Buddhist gradually as the mind embraces the worldview of the Buddha and realizes that real happiness is attained by comprehending the true nature of this world: anicca, dukkha, anatta, and eventually by stopping the rebirth process.
5. In the meantime, it is essential to realize that particular wrong views are bound to have adverse consequences, according to Buddha Dhamma. Established (firm) view that there is no rebirth process is one included in micchā diṭṭhi, which is one of the (strong) dasa akusala, that makes a birth in the apāyā (four lowest realms of existence) possible. Believing rebirth at once is unnecessary; one should at least leave that as a possibility. What is critical is not to have niyata (established) micchā diṭṭhi.
- Faith in Buddha Dhamma differs from other religions; belief in rebirth or Nibbāna are not tenets. One either believes in them or does not; see, “Is Buddha Dhamma (Buddhism) a Religion?“. One MAY change one’s view after looking at the facts, especially if one can experience the release from one kind of suffering; see “Starting on the Path without Belief in Rebirth.”
Sorting Through Many Interpretations
6. Finally, it will take a real effort to sort through all the different versions of “Buddhism” out there. Over two thousand five hundred years, just like now, people have tried to “mold” Buddha Dhamma into a form they like, which is why we have so many versions. But when that is done, the uniqueness, the real message, gets lost. We need to keep intact this unique message, with the understanding that not everyone comprehends it right away.
- The key is to discard any version or aspect that does not provide a consistent picture. Buddha Dhamma describes the laws of nature, and there cannot be any inconsistencies. That is what I am trying to do with this website. If you see something inconsistent on the website, please let me know.
- I use the Tipiṭaka (Pāli Canon) as the basis. It was written over two thousand years ago (by Arahants who had experienced Nibbāna) and is the oldest document encompassing the three central teachings: Suttā, Vinaya, and Abhidhamma.
- I have documented the flaws in Mahāyāna and (to a lesser extent) in current Theravāda books by pointing out the inconsistencies with the Tipiṭaka. Also, I show that everything is self-consistent, which is the scientific basis to illustrate the validity of a theory. Newton’s theory of gravity had to be modified because they were inconsistent with finer measurements.
7. It does not matter what we believe personally. We need to find the actual laws of nature that the Buddha discovered. Laws of nature, like gravity or laws of motion, do not care about our beliefs; see “Why it is Critical to Find the Pure Buddha Dhamma.”
- Just like in modern science, one needs to discard any inconsistent interpretations. See “Buddha Dhamma: Non-Perceivability and Self-Consistency.” Many current interpretations, even within the Theravāda tradition, have numerous inconsistencies; see “Elephants in the Room.” However, the existing Tipiṭaka is fully self-consistent if the correct meanings of keywords like viññāna, saṅkhāra, anicca, anatta, etc. are adopted as explained there.
- Buddha Dhamma (in its pure form) has withstood all tests; see “Dhamma and Science – Introduction.” Both current Mahāyāna and Theravāda teachings must be revised back to the original. It can be proven that there are self-contradictions within both sects and contradictions with the teachings of the Buddha. A series of posts point out these “problem areas,” starting with “Key Problems with Mahāyāna Teachings.”
- Having established that rebirth and Nibbāna are the “lifeblood” of Buddha Dhamma, we can now turn to the following question: What evidence is there to “prove” rebirth? What is the big deal about Nibbāna, which sounds so esoteric?
8. I have summarized some of the existing evidence for rebirth; see “Evidence for Rebirth.” I am unsure what will qualify as “proof,” but one thing is obvious: A strong case can be made for it. There is evidence from many different areas consistent with the Buddha’s other teachings, for example, the existence of a manōmaya kāya; see “Manomaya Kaya (Gandhabba) and the Physical Body.”
- If a person can believe even a SINGLE piece of evidence presented there, it is not possible to explain that without accepting that there is a link between such two lives. Since there is no physical connection between the two lives (many miles apart), the connection must be outside the physical realm, i.e., the mental energy. There is new evidence from “quantum entanglement” consistent with the presumption that everything in this world is interconnected; see “Quantum Entanglement – We Are All Connected.”
- However, one can verify the rebirth process by developing abhiññā powers via developing the fourth jhāna. One can then “see” one’s previous lives; see “Power of the Human Mind – Introduction” and the follow-up posts. And some have developed such abhiññā powers, and this number can be expected to grow. When many people can verify the rebirth process, it will be accepted. Today, not everyone has traveled outside their own country. But everyone accepts that all those countries exist because they believe the accounts of those who have visited.
- And recent evidence confirms that there is indeed an unbroken memory record, at least in this life; see “Recent Evidence for Unbroken Memory Records (HSAM).”
- An insightful article by Bhikkhu Bodhi: “Does Rebirth Make Sense?“
9. “Bāna” in Pāli and Sinhala means “bondage”; thus, Nibbāna means becoming free of bondage (to this world). We are bound to the unending cycle of rebirths via ten fetters called “sanyōjana = “san+yōjana“; see, “What is “San”? Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)“; yōjana means bond. Sanyōjana rhymes like saṃyojana, and that is how it is usually written.
- The ten saṃyojana are removed via the four stages of Nibbāna: three at the Sōtapanna stage, two reduced at the Sakadāgāmi stage and removed at the Anāgāmi stage, and the remaining five removed at the Arahant stage.
- Removal of the ten saṃyojana also removes greed, hate, and ignorance from our minds; the nirāmisa sukha increases step-wise at each of the four stages, and the “cooling down” or “nivana” becomes complete; see “How to Taste Nibbāna.” There are many synonyms for Nibbāna, and nivana (or niveema) is one of them. The Sanskrit name “nirvana” does not convey any of these meanings.
10. When the mind becomes pure, a being is not reborn anywhere in the 31 realms. The mind has attained full release and unconditioned happiness called nirāmisa sukha. Thus Nibbāna is stopping the rebirth process; the suffering stops. it is as simple as that. That mind cannot grasp an existence anywhere in “the 31 realms”. The mind becomes free of a body subject to decay and death (suffering). That is Nibbāna.
- The terminology of “this world” cannot describe the Nibbānic experience; it is transcendental or “lōkuttara” beyond “this world”; see, “Nibbāna “Exists”, but Not in This World.”
- Also, all we can say about what happens to an Arahant at his/her death is that he/she will not be reborn in “this world” of 31 realms. There is no more suffering. The mind is free of bondage to a physical body that leads to so much suffering.
- Many say, “What suffering? I do not feel that much suffering”. But the real suffering is in the lowest four realms, so the complete picture of the 31 realms of existence is essential. Furthermore, there is much suffering that is masked, especially when one is young. As one age, one will inevitably start experiencing suffering at a higher degree and then face death. Here is a video that illustrates this point:
11. That happens to all of us. However, the point is NOT to get depressed about this inevitability. Some people get depressed thinking about old age and try to “give up” everything to follow the Path of the Buddha.
- Someone unfamiliar with Buddha Dhamma can’t start working on attaining Arahanthood immediately, and it is not advised either. It needs to be done with understanding. As one follows the Path and learns Dhamma, one could start feeling the early stages of Nibbānic pleasure (nirāmisa sukha) and thus will start having fact-based faith on concepts like rebirth and Nibbāna: see “Is It Necessary for a Buddhist to Eliminate Sensual Desires?” and “Three Kinds of Happiness – What is Niramisa Sukha?“.
- Have you seen any depressed Buddhist monks? They have given up worldly pleasures voluntarily, NOT with the mindset of a depressed person. Depression leads to hate; “giving up” is done with wisdom.
Buddha’s key message was that this 100-year life could only be compared to a “drop of water in a huge ocean,” a cycle of rebirths filled with suffering. Thus one should at least critically examine the evidence to see whether that message needs to be taken seriously. All these are described in detail with supporting evidence on this website.