Rebirth, Not Reincarnation

The Buddhist teaching of rebirth is one of what I would say are two of the most highly misunderstood ideas that have propagated through the West in ways that resemble Hinduism much more than Buddhism. Whenever I speak about Buddhism in relation to the subject of the afterlife and such, I use the term rebirth as opposed to reincarnation, since the latter implies that my individual soul is incarnated in a new body, which is not what Buddhism even remotely teaches. Rebirth can apply across my life and subsequent death much more loosely. We can be said to be reborn in a nominal and figurative sense across our lives. Cells die and are replaced, our mind abandons some beliefs for others, building up knowledge, etc. We are reborn metaphorically as we become part of a new community, as we affirm wedding vows or other important events in our lives. And in terms of our death and birth of other entities, there is at the very least a connection that I’ll explain with a few examples.

The idea of virtual rebirth is not so hard for us to accept, since the experience of a radical change in ourselves is commonly described as a rebirth anyway. The Christian idea of being “born again” is explained in a similar fashion. We change into a different person, but are not literally born physically again. The birth is mental, not unlike when I spoke about dependent origination and how we are born and die in a cycle that stems from our minds in “Neither Determinism Nor Destiny” ( Physical renewal is more subtle in that we don’t recognize it explicitly, but beyond the surface, on the cellular level, we retain very little of our original body in a sense, particularly our skin, but other parts of the body as well. So we could easily recognize that we are reborn in one form or another in every moment, be it our body or our minds as we interact with various conditions and causes/effects. The difficult part of rebirth comes with any enumeration of an actual form of the phenomenon.

When most people think of rebirth, there is probably an instinctual association with reincarnation, if only because there tend to be a few basic theories about the afterlife, one of them closer to Buddhism in saying that an individual person basically ceases to be when they die, associated often with atheism. This is not to say that the elements of that person’s body in particular are annihilated, but that the idea of mind is interwoven with the body, so that in a sense, any individual person is not reborn as another person, but a new birth generates a new person by the basic psychology that Buddhism describes in our grasping for things and seeking permanence. There is no strict word in Buddhism that translates directly to rebirth. The closest term that expresses the reality in a larger context is bhava, literally meaning “becoming”. We are always in a state of becoming, not a static being affected by the outside but not changing in any way as individuals. This sort of thinking originates from existential thought in particular. We are not thought of as beings that simply exist in a constant state, but are in fact always in constant change and assailed by choices that we must confront and deal with the results of. In that sense, there is not any sort of nihilism that would come from believing that you essentially die, but in a sense you survive on as a flame passed onto another candle, or as a seed resulting from a tree becomes another tree. They aren’t the same, but they aren’t absolutely different either. I’m not saying that there is necessarily a strictly materialistic explanation, but from my experience, the best explanation for what happens after death is something like the circle of life from The Lion King. We are all connected. This doesn’t mean our consciousness survives in nature, ala Mufasa talking in the stars, but simply that we are all interrelated by death and life. Rebirth is, if nothing else, simpler, but also more mysterious in a sense than the more direct issue of what the soul is and how it survives, etc in that afterlife theory. If reincarnation or resurrection is true, it only changes particular things I believe. At the least I’d be obliged to recognize reincarnation if it could be demonstrated. But with the evidence I have before me, the only conclusion I have is that I will cease to be ultimately when I die and something else will be renewed or supported through dependent origination that connects in some sense to my decaying corpse and its elements; worms to birds to plants to another person, for example. Even if I don’t relate to a newborn, I sustain another person regardless, even if it isn’t technically me.

There is a basic truth to rebirth, but nonetheless people will find various reasons to disbelieve it, many of which I would find delusional or otherwise mistaken. We don’t like to see things without a lens, the harsh reality that exists immanently. We like to put some barrier between us and that presence, so we generate ideas of souls and other realms. One could point out to me that native Buddhists tend to believe the six realms spoken of in traditional Buddhist cosmology are as real as ours, but I consider myself a secular Buddhist. Those realms are reflections of the human condition in all its diversity. Some of us live like gods or devas, some of us live in torturous squalor, like is described in the hell realm. Any of the 31 realms (not always, but in some traditions) that are supposedly enumerated in Buddhist cosmology can correspond to some manifestation of a possible human life. It’s not only simpler, but it’s more relevant to what we can immediately observe about human psychology. Call me anthropocentric, but the life of a cat or dog is hardly the same as a human. But we can learn from them no doubt. I might confront that in the future.

Rebirth is a process of change, as I said before, reflected in the mark of impermanence that permeates existence. It is also demonstrative of dissatisfaction and non-self, since we are not fulfilled in believing people will survive their death, seeing that we look forward to more existence instead of accepting whatever might be the case, and we don’t truly have any abiding soul or aspect of our self that survives our death, contrary to any claims about our ability to think proving a soul exists or the long debunked experiment supposedly showing the weight of a soul. Regeneration goes on every moment in a sense with our mental and physical states, and even as we die there is a revival of sorts, albeit it doesn’t involve a soul. When anything is born (more precisely conceived), there is a reconstitution of various elements and when something dies those elements dissipate. The comparison of one’s rebirths to a flame being passed from one candle to the next is not only relevant but popular as a metaphor, since each flame is different and they aren’t identical to each other completely, but only in qualities that they have. Each person shares some properties, but ultimately we each have different experiences that develop various parts of ourselves. Some are more educated, some are more skilled, etc. Reincarnation is transmigration of a soul, rebirth is transformation of basic elements in something more holistic than reductionistic. Each part is not reducible ultimately, though there are elements of truth to that. To understand rebirth you have to see the forest along with the trees but focus on the former, not the latter. There can still be karma and vipaka, which I’ll speak about next week, even without a soul, since karma and vipaka are intertwined not with the person as some unified self, but as an interdependent web of actions and results. Some results can happen later than others and thus a person’s birth can be affected in other ways by karmic seeds bearing fruit. The karma is not something completely outside us that determines rebirth, but our own habits and behaviors as related to karma. If you develop bad habits, you will have a bad rebirth (not technically “you”, but you for the sake of simplicity). If you develop good habits, you can free yourself from rebirth, a cycle compared to a wheel that continues to spin because of your karmic actions. Rebirth is a reality that may only be escapable in our minds and in gaining serenity as opposed to actually transcending reality and achieving liberation from the cycle in some quasi mystical sense, but it is also something that can reflect badly in our minds, so it must be understood properly. I hope I aided in that process somewhat. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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