What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream

Revised August 3, 2016; revised March 27, 2018; September 6, 2019; November 12, 2019

Reincarnation Versus Rebirth

Reincarnation is a Hindu concept, where the “ātma” 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.

  • In Buddha Dhamma, it is a rebirth, since there is no soul to reincarnate. We have accumulated many “kamma seeds” (kamma beeja) which contain various “habits” and “character” (called “gati”) In our long journey through sansara. Those lead to different types of rebirths; see, “Sankhara, Kamma, Kamma Beeja, 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.
Pancakkhandha – Not The Physical Physical Body

1. The pancakkhandha or the five heaps (khandhas) that makes a being and “its world” are two inter-dependent entities. One is rūpa (form), and the other is citta (pronounced chiththa). See, “The Five Aggregates (Pancakkhandha)” for details.

  • Citta can be crudely called a thought, but a thought that we experience has billions of cittas in it; see, “What is a Thought?“.
  • Rūpa is divided into two main categories of internal and external. The external rūpa constitutes one’s outer world. The internal rūpa includes the physical body, as well as the very fine pasada rūpa (cakkhu, sōta, ghāna, jivhā, and kāya) which do the actual “sensing. ” Pasada rūpa cannot function without physical eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and the physical body.
  • the very fine pasada rūpa are in the “mental body” or the gandhabba: “Manomaya Kaya (Gandhabba) and the Physical Body.” The physical eye, ear, etc. are like physical instruments that help gather data from outside;  see, “Gandhabba (Manomaya Kaya)” section for details.  
Concept of a “Lifestream”

2. The combination of the two streams of citta and internal rūpa can be called a “lifestream.” A lifestream is in constant regeneration, moment-to-moment. The cittas re-generate very fast (billions in a second), and each citta has the other four heaps (vedanā, saññā, sankhāra, viññāna) associated with it. So rūpa and citta represent the pancakkhandha (rūpa, vedanā, saññā, sankhāra, viññāna). I am simplifying this a bit to make it not too complicated.

  • In simpler terms, both internal rūpa and citta are re-generated billion times a second. But of course visually appreciable “changes” occur over months or even years.
  • All external rūpa are “one’s whole world.” They arise and decay according to their nature, and not at a fast rate like citta or internal rūpa; see, “Does any Object (Rupa) Last only 17 Thought Moments?“.
  • A  citta arises and disappears in less than a billionth of a second, but there is a mental factor in each citta called manasikāra that “remembers the contents in the previous citta.” The two psychological factors of manasikāra and cetanā are responsible for providing a sense of a “person” who remembers the past; see, “Memory, Brain, Mind, Nama Loka, Kamma Bhava, Kamma Vipaka.”
  • Our memories have been kept intact from the beginning-less time. Recently, evidence has started emerging that some people can remember astoundingly detailed accounts of their memories from many years back. See, “Recent Evidence for Unbroken Memory Records (HSAM)“.
  • It is not possible to “store” all that information in the brain.

3. Citta flow like a river (many billions a second), and are in discrete packets (like quanta in quantum theory; in fact, these are the smallest quanta anywhere in this world). Our internal rūpa also changes rapidly; this is why we change even moment-to-moment.

  • But the external rūpa change at different rates, some lasting very long times (a gold bar, for example), while some change very fast.
  • But NOTHING in the world remains the same over long times; even our universe came into existence some 14 billion years ago and will fade away in billions of years. Our Solar system has a lifetime of about five billion years.
A New Existence Can Be Very Different

4. As mentioned in #1, internal pasada rūpa and thoughts for the present life run non-stop until the death (with some exceptions, like in the asañña realm). At the last thought-moment (called cuti citta, pronounced “chuthi chiththa”),  a new kamma seed comes into play; see, “Sankhara, Kamma, Kamma Beeja, Kamma Vipaka“. Now both the rūpa and citta for the new life contain brand new rūpa, vedanā, saññā, sankhāra, viññāna (i.e., a new pancakkhandha); it is a “being” that may look different, with its own “world.” For example, a “deva world” is very different from what we experience.

  • The only things that are carried over to the new life are those kamma seeds, which contain the “character” or “gati” of that lifestream. Even those are in constant regeneration. At any moment, they could significantly change if the underlying conditions change.

5. Thus, at the moment of death, pancakkhandha makes a quantum jump (meaning a sizeable instantaneous change).

  • Let us take an example. A man has a physical body, which is part of his rupakkhandha (we will make this as simple as possible). Other four khandha determine his mental state (vedanā, saññā, sankhāra, viññāna), where viññāna is roughly consciousness. Suppose he dies and is born as an elephant. Now the lifestream gets a new viññāna. The “new” physical body is different, and his “new” consciousness level is much lower than a human’s, now at the base level of an elephant.
  • But the set of kamma seeds (kamma beeja) all got transferred to this new existence (bhava). Thus if there are many “good kamma seeds” there, there could later be a birth in a human or even higher realm.
  • Normally, the rebirth takes place in a physically different location (New scientific evidence for such “actions at a distance” are discussed in “Quantum Entanglement – We Are All Connected“).
Caterpillar and Butterfly – Not the Same

6. Sometimes a lifestream changes its rūpa khandha while in the same physical location. One example is the evolution of a butterfly from a caterpillar. A female butterfly lays an egg. The egg hatches and a caterpillar is born. It eats leaves and metamorphosis into a pupa that hangs like a small sack. The final stage is a butterfly that emerges from that sack.

  • Now this butterfly is definitely not the pupa or the caterpillar or the egg. But it is not different from any of the above either. It is the same lifestream. That is why both “soul” and “no-soul” (or “self” and “no-self”) are wrong views. Many people incorrectly translate “anatta” as “no-self” with the meaning of “no-soul,” which is WRONG; see, “Anatta and Dukkha – True Meanings.”

7. Let us look at the caterpillar and the butterfly. The rūpa khandhas defining their physical bodies are different. Their cittas are different too. One thinks about eating leaves, and the other thinks about drinking nectar. The only commonality between the two lies in the kamma seeds (which also keep evolving in a given life).

  • Now that lifestream may have kamma seeds for a human, deva, or a brahma too. But none of those got “selected,” probably because they were less potent. So, a butterfly is likely to be born in lower realms for very, very long times, before a less probable “human seed” picked for a new life in a rare statistical event.
Only Gati are Carried to the Next Existence

8. If there is anything that is carried from life-to-life, that is one’s habits (gati) that mold one’s character and the mental impurities (kilesa). Of course, those also keep changing even during a lifetime. I call this the “dynamic personality” of a lifestream in the sense that it is in constant flux. That is another reason why the Buddha rejected “no-self” as well as “self” or “soul.”

9. The kamma seeds (and associated gati) of a given lifestream can change significantly during a human life. A human can change his/her destiny, but an animal cannot.

  • Out of the 31 realms of existence (see, “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma“), the mind has much less capability in most other realms. Thus, it is very difficult to get rid of bad kamma seeds and cultivate good ones while in realms other than the human. Therefore, one should make the utmost effort to get rid of the bad seeds and to develop “good seeds” during this short life span of 100 years or so.
  • Also, physical death does not necessarily mean the end of human rebirth. If the kamma seed that led to his human life has more kammic potential left, a human can be reborn a human again and again. That stops when kammic potential is exhausted; see, “Bhava and Jāti – States of Existence and Births Therein“).
  • It is a rare event to get a human existence (bhava) for a living being; see, “How the Buddha Described the Chance of Rebirth in the Human Realm.” But during a given human bhava, there could be many rebirths. That is why some can recall recent past lives: “Evidence for Rebirth.”
Most Suffering in the Rebirth Process Is In Apāyā

10. Rebirth process has so much suffering mainly because a given living being is mostly born in the lowest four realms (apayas). Thus is the need to get out of the rebirth process by attaining Nibbāna.

  • Nibbāna is attained NOT by getting rid of all kamma seeds. Getting rid of kamma seeds is not necessary. What we need to do is to reduce “the tendency to crave for things in this world (upadana)” by following the Noble Eightfold Path.
  • An Arahant may still have bad kamma seeds left. But his/her mind WILL NOT hold onto any of those at the dying moment (this happens when one truly comprehends the futility of staying in this world or craving for anything in this world); see, “Anicca – True Meaning“, and “Why is Correct Interpretation of Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta so Important?“). Thus, he/she will not be reborn “in this world.”

11. Still one would want to stop accumulating “bad seeds” and to cultivate as many “good seeds” as possible. That will make it more probable of NOT getting a bad birth when one dies. That will also make it easier to attain Nibbāna in a future life without being born in a bad realm (in case one does not make it in this life). See the “Moral Living” section on how to get started.

No “Discernible Beginning” to the Rebirth Process

12. It is also important to realize that any lifestream does not have a “discernible beginning,” as the Buddha said. Thus each one of us has been going through this process from “beginning-less time.”

  • In Buddha Dhamma — unlike in the “Big Bang Theory” of current science — our whole universe did not come to existence some 14 billion years ago. That requires a detailed explanation, but let me give a summary.
  • Stars like our Sun have lifetimes of several billion years. At the end of their lifetimes, some of them blow up. Those explosions are supernovae in modern science. Even then, higher-lying rūpa realms and arūpa realms survive. All living beings move to higher realms before the destruction of the Earth.
  • After many billions of years, the “material Solar system” re-forms. Then most of those living beings come back to the Earth as humans with very light “bodies” like brahmas. With time, those “early humans” evolve into humans and animals with “denser bodies.” That is a reverse evolution process, compared to Darwin’s theory.
  • Those details are in the Agganna Sutta, and of course, current translations are way off. At some point, we will discuss it in detail. What is important for now is that the beginning of any lifestream has “no discernible beginning.”

13. In Buddha Dhamma (as well as in science) nothing happens without a cause: cause and effect. If there was a beginning, who or what gave rise to that beginning? And then what caused “that”? That is why “there is no discernible beginning.”

More details in the new section on, “Origin of Life

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