Revised August 3, 2016; revised March 27, 2018 (especially #12)
First, reincarnation is a Hindu concept, where the “āthma” or the soul remains the same but just takes a different form. In the Rigveda it is compared to a person discarding an old suit and wearing a new suit.
- In Buddha Dhamma it is rebirth, since there is no soul to reincarnate. In our long journey through sansara, we have accumulated many “kamma seeds” (kamma beeja) which contain various “habits” and “character” (called “gathi”); see, “Sankhara, Kamma, Kamma Beeja, Kamma Vipaka“.
- At death, the kammic energy of the kamma seed for the present life is exhausted, and a new life starts off with a 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).
1. The pancakkhandha (see, “The Five Aggregates (Pancakkhandha)” for a details) or the five heaps (khandas) that makes a being and “its world” can be thought of as two inter-dependent entities: one is rupa (form) and the other is citta (pronounced chiththa).
- Citta can be crudely called thoughts, but a thought that we experience has billions of cittas in it; see, “What is a Thought?“.
- Rupa can be divided into two main categories of internal and external. The external rupa constitutes one’s external world. The internal rupa are not the physical body, but the very fine pasada rupa (cakkhu, sota, ghana, jivha, and kaya) which actually do the “sensing” are located 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.
2. The combination of the two streams of citta and internal rupa can be called a “lifestream”; a lifestream is in constant re-generation moment-to-moment: The cittas re-generate very fast (billions in a second), and each citta has the other four heaps (vedana, sanna, sankhara, vinnana) associated with it. So rupa and citta basically represent the pancakkhanda (rupa, vedana, sanna, sankhara, vinnana). I am simplifying this a bit to make it not too complicated.
- In simpler terms, both internal rupa (which are very fine; all external rupa change only gradually) and citta are re-generated billion times a second, but of course visually appreciable “changes” occur over months or even years.
- All external rupa are “one’s whole world”. They arise and decay according to their nature, and not at a fast rate like citta or internal rupa; see, “Does any Object (Rupa) Last only 17 Thought Moments?“.
- A citta rises and disappears in less than a billionth of a second; but there is a mental factor in each citta called manasikara that “remembers the contents in previous citta”. The two mental factors of manasikara and cetana 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 rupa also change rapidly; this is why it is said that we change moment-to-moment.
- But the external rupa 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 at some point in the future. Our Solar system has a lifetime of less than five billion years.
4. As mentioned in #1, internal pasada rupa 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 rupa and citta for the new life contain brand new rupa, vedana, sanna, sankhara, vinnana (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 “gathi” of that lifestream, and even those are in constant re-generation; 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 an instantaneous large change).
- Let us take an example: A man has a physical body, which is part of his rupakkandha (we will make this as simple as possible); other four skhandha determine his mental state (vedana, sanna, sankhara, vinnana), where vinnana is roughly consciousness. Suppose he dies and is born as an elephant. Now all five kandhas die and the lifestream gets a new set of kandhas: the “new” physical body is different (external rupa are different too in the sense that it has a more restricted “world” which is only a part of the human world), 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“).
6. Sometimes a lifestream changes its rupa kandha while in the same physical location. One example is the evolution of a butterfly from a caterpillar. A butterfly egg is laid by a female butterfly. 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 the 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 life stream. This 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 rupa kandhas defining their physical bodies are obviously 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” being picked for a new life in a rare statistical event.
8. If there is anything that is carried from life-to-life that is one’s habits (gathi) that mold one’s character and the mental impurities (kilesa); of course these 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. This is another reason why the Buddha rejected “no-self” as well as “self” or “soul”.
- There is nothing that remains the same (i.e., not “self”), but we cannot say “no-self” either, because there is an “identity” in the form of one’s gathi (and asava and kilesa) that survives in the next life; see, “Habits, Goals, and Character (Gathi)“, “Sansaric Habits, Character (Gathi), and Cravings (Asava)“, and “Ditthi (Wrong Views), Samma Ditthi (Good/Correct Views)“.
9. The kamma seeds (and associated gathi) of a given lifestream can be changed 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“), in most other realms (especially those below the human realm), the mind has much less capability, if at all, and thus it is very difficult to get rid of bad kamma seeds and cultivate good ones. Thus one should make the utmost effort to get rid of the bad seeds and to cultivate 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 left more kammic potential, a human can be reborn a human again and again until that kammic potential is exhausted; see, “Bhava and Jati – 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. This is why some can recall recent past lives: “Evidence for Rebirth“.
10. Rebirth process is filled with 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 Nibbana.
- Nibbana is attained NOT by getting rid of all kamma seeds; that is not necessary. Nibbana is approached by removing the “the tendency to grab things in this world (upadana)” by following the Noble Eightfold Path, and by lessening of this grabbing power in four stages.
- Thus an Arahant will have many good and less potent 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 remove as many “bad seeds” as possible, and to cultivate as many “good seeds” as possible, since that will make it more probable of NOT getting a bad birth when we die; it will also make easier to attain Nibbana in a future life without being born in a bad realm (in case we do not make it in this life). See the “Moral Living” section on how to get started.
- I have made this complex process probably too simple. But I think it will help one to get the basic idea.
- The concept of a ever-changing lifestream is also discussed in ““Self” and “no-self”: A Simple Analysis“.
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. This requires a detailed explanation, but let me just give a brief summary.
- Only “star systems” like our Solar system (Sun is our star), are destroyed in several billion years; these are call supernova in modern science. Even then, higher lying rupa realms and arupa realms are not destroyed, and all living beings are “pushed up” into those higher realms as the “material Earth” (and other planets as well as the Sun) is destroyed.
- After many billions of years, the “material Solar system” is reborn, and most of those living beings come back to the Earth as humans with very fine bodies like brahmas. With time, they evolve into humans with “denser bodies” as well animals. This is actually a reverse evolution process compared to the 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 life stream 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”? This is why “there is no discernible beginning”.
- Thoughts are more complex than described above; see, “Vinnana, Thoughts, and the Subconscious“.
- It is not possible to provide the “whole picture” in an a post or even several. You can use the “Search” box on the top right to locate posts on key words.
- For a more detailed discussion, see, “Gandhabba (Manomaya Kaya)- Introduction“, and the follow-up posts.
- See, also, “What is Mind? How do we Experience the Outside World?“
- One may wonder where one’s memory is stored: see, “Memory, Brain, Mind, Nama Loka, Kamma Bhava, Kamma Vipaka“.
Next, “Recent Evidence for Unbroken Memory Records (HSAM)“, ………