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Rebirth in Buddhism refers to its teaching that the actions of a person lead to a new existence after death, in endless cycles called saṃsāra. This cycle is considered to be dukkha, unsatisfactory and painful. The cycle stops only if liberation is achieved by insight and the extinguishing of desire. Rebirth is one of the foundational doctrines of Buddhism, along with Karma, nirvana and moksha.
The rebirth doctrine in Buddhism, sometimes referred to as reincarnation or metempsychosis, asserts that rebirth does not necessarily take place as another human being, but as an existence in one of the six Gati (realms) called Bhavachakra. The six realms of rebirth include Deva (heavenly), Asura (demigod), Manusya (human), Tiryak (animals), Preta (ghosts), and Naraka (resident of hell).[note 1] This rebirth, state Buddhism traditions, is determined by karma, with good realms favored by Kushala (good karma), while a rebirth in evil realms is a consequence of Akushala (bad karma). While Nirvana is the ultimate goal of Buddhist teaching, much of traditional Buddhist practice has been centered on gaining merit and merit transfer, whereby one gains rebirth in the good realms and avoids rebirth in the evil realms.[note 2]
The rebirth doctrine has been a subject of scholarly studies within Buddhism since ancient times, particularly in reconciling the rebirth doctrine with its Anatman (no self, no soul) doctrine. The Buddhist traditions have disagreed on what it is in a person that is reborn, as well as how quickly the rebirth occurs after each death. Some Buddhist traditions assert that "no self" doctrine means that there is no perduring self, but there is avacya (inexpressible) self which migrates from one life to another. The majority of Buddhist traditions, in contrast, assert that Vijnana (a person's consciousness) though evolving, exists as a continuum and is the mechanistic basis of what undergoes rebirth, rebecoming and redeath. Some traditions assert that the rebirth occurs immediately, while others such as the Tibetan Buddhism posits an interim state wherein as many of 49 days pass between death and rebirth and this belief drives the local funerary rituals.
Buddhist terminology and doctrine
There is no word corresponding exactly to the English terms "rebirth", "metempsychosis", "transmigration" or "reincarnation" in the traditional Buddhist languages of Pāli and Sanskrit. Rebirth is referred to by various terms, representing an essential step in the endless cycle of samsara, terms such as "re-becoming" or "becoming again"(Sanskrit: punarbhava, Pali: punabbhava), re-born (punarjanman), re-death (punarmrityu), or sometimes just "becoming" (Pali/Sanskrit: bhava), while the state one is born into, the individual process of being born or coming into the world in any way, is referred to simply as "birth" (Pali/Sanskrit: jāti). The entire universal process of beings being reborn again and again is called "wandering about" (Pali/Sanskrit: saṃsāra).
Some English-speaking Buddhists prefer the term "rebirth" or "re-becoming" (Sanskrit: punarbhava; Pali: punabbhava) to "reincarnation" as they take the latter to imply an entity (soul) that is reborn. Buddhism denies there is any such soul or self in a living being, but does assert that there is a cycle of transmigration consisting of rebirth and redeath as the fundamental nature of existence.
Before the time of the Buddha, many ideas on the nature of existence, birth and death were in vogue. The ancient Indian Vedic and Sramana schools affirmed the idea of soul, karma and cycle of rebirth. The competing Indian materialist schools denied the idea of soul, karma and rebirth, asserting instead that there is just one life, there is no rebirth, and death marks complete annihilation. From these diverse views, Buddha accepted the premises and concepts related to rebirth, but introduced innovations. According to various Buddhist scriptures, Buddha believed in other worlds,
Since there actually is another world (any world other than the present human one, i.e. different rebirth realms), one who holds the view 'there is no other world' has wrong view...— Buddha, Majjhima Nikaya i.402, Apannaka Sutta, translated by Peter Harvey
Buddha also asserted that there is karma, which influences the future suffering through the cycle of rebirth, but added that there is a way to end the cycle of karmic rebirths through nirvana. The Buddha introduced the concept that there is no soul (self) tying the cycle of rebirths, in contrast to themes asserted by various Hindu and Jaina traditions, and this central concept in Buddhism is called anattā; Buddha also affirmed the idea that all compounded things are subject to dissolution at death or anicca. The Buddha's detailed conception of the connections between action (karma), rebirth and causality is set out in the twelve links of dependent origination.
Ideas of rebirth
There are many references to rebirth in the early Buddhist scriptures. These are some of the more important; Mahakammavibhanga Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 136); Upali Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 56); Kukkuravatika Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 57); Moliyasivaka Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 36.21); Sankha Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 42.8).
The texts report that on the night of his enlightenment the Buddha gained the ability to recall his previous lives. It is said that he remembered not just one or two, but a vast number, together with the details of what his name, caste, profession, and so forth had been in each life. Elsewhere, the Buddha states that he could remember back 'as far as ninety one eons' (Majjhima Nikaya i.483), one eon being roughly equal to the lifespan of a solar system.
Rebirth is discussed in Buddhist scriptures with various terms, such as Āgati-gati, Punarbhava and others. The term Āgati literally means 'coming back, return', while Gati means 'going away' and Punarbhava means 're-becoming'. Āgati-gati in the sense of rebirth and re-death appears in many places in early Buddhist texts, such as in Samyutta Nikaya III.53, Jataka II.172, Digha Nikaya I. 162, Anguttara III.54-74 and Petavatthu II.9. Punarbhava in the sense of rebirth, similarly appears in many places, such as in Digha II.15, Samyutta I.133 and 4.201, Itivuttaka 62, Sutta-nipata 162, 273, 502, 514 and 733. Numerous other terms for rebirths are found in the Buddhist scriptures, such as Punagamana, Punavasa, Punanivattati, Abhinibbatti, and words with roots of *jati and *rupa.
While all Buddhist traditions except Navayana accept some notion of rebirth, they differ in their theories about rebirth mechanism and precisely how events unfold after the moment of death. The early Buddhist texts suggest that Buddha faced a difficulty in explaining what is reborn and how rebirth occurs, after he innovated the concept that there is "no self" (Anatta). The texts also suggest that the Anicca theory led to difficulties in explaining that there is a permanent consciousness that moves from life to life. Later Buddhist scholars such as Buddhaghosa suggested that the lack of a self or soul does not mean lack of continuity; and the rebirth across different realms of birth – such as heavenly, human, animal, hellish and others – occurs in the same way that a flame is transferred from one candle to another.
The Sautrantika sub-school of the Saravastivada Buddhist tradition, that emerged in 2nd century BCE, and influenced the 4th-century CE Yogacara school of Buddhism, introduced the idea of "transmigrating substratum of consciousness". It stated that each personal act "perfumes" the individual and leads to the planting of a "seed" that would later germinate as a good or bad karmic result.
The Pudgalavada school of early Buddhism accepted the core premise of Buddhism that there is no attā (ātman, soul, self), but asserted that there is a "personal entity" (pudgala, puggala) that retains a karma balance sheet and is mechanistically involved in rebirth; this personal entity, stated Pudgalavada Buddhists, is neither different nor identical to the five aggregates (skandhas). This concept of personal entity to explain rebirth by Pudgalavada Buddhists was polemically attacked by Theravada Buddhists in early 1st millennium CE. The personal entity concept was rejected by the mid-1st millennium CE Pali scholar Buddhaghosa, who attempted to explain rebirth mechanism with "rebirth-linking consciousness" (patisandhi).
1. identity view (Anatman)
up to seven rebirths in
once more as
4. sensual desire
once more in
6. material-rebirth desire
Some schools conclude that karma continued to exist and adhere to the person until it had worked out its consequences. Theravada Buddhists assert that rebirth is immediate while the Tibetan schools hold to the notion of a bardo (intermediate state) that can last up to forty-nine days.
The bardo rebirth concept of Tibetan Buddhism, along with Yidam, developed independently in Tibet, and involves forty two peaceful deities, and fifty eight wrathful deities. These ideas led to mechanistic maps on karma and what form of rebirth one takes after death, discussed in texts such as The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Another mechanistic rebirth theory that emerged in Buddhism posits that a being is reborn through "evolving consciousness" (Pali: samvattanika viññana, M.1.256) or "stream of consciousness" (Pali: viññana sotam, D.3.105) that reincarnates. Death dissolves all prior aggregates (Pali: khandhas, Sanskrit: skandhas), and this consciousness stream combined with karma of a being contributes to a new aggregation, which is rebirth. Nirvana is the state that marks the end of this consciousness continuum and the associated karmic cycle of suffering through rebirths and redeaths.
In traditional Buddhist cosmology the rebirth, also called reincarnation or metempsychosis, can be in any of six realms. These are called the Gati in cycles of re-becoming, Bhavachakra. The six realms of rebirth include three good realms – Deva (heavenly, god), Asura (demigod), Manusya (human); and three evil realms – Tiryak (animals), Preta (ghosts), and Naraka (hellish). The realm of rebirth is conditioned by the karma (deeds, intent) of current and previous lives; good karmas will yield a happier rebirth into good realm, bad karmas is believed to produce rebirth which is more unhappy and evil .
The release from this endless cycle of rebirths, rebecoming and redeaths is called nirvana (nibbana) in Buddhism, and achievement of nirvana is the ultimate goal of Buddhist teaching.[note 4][note 5] However, much of traditional Buddhist practice has been centered on gaining merit and merit transfer, whereby an individual gains rebirth for oneself or one's family members in the good realms, and avoids rebirth in the evil realms.
Comparison with rebirth doctrines in Hinduism and Jainism
The rebirth theories in different traditions within Hinduism rely on their foundational assumption that soul exists (Atman, attā), in contrast to Buddhist assumption that there is no soul. Hindu traditions consider soul to be the unchanging eternal essence of a living being, and in many of its theistic and non-theistic traditions the soul asserted to be identical with Brahman, the ultimate reality. Thus while both Buddhism and Hinduism accept the karma and rebirth doctrine, and both focus on ethics in this life as well as liberation from rebirth and suffering as the ultimate spiritual pursuit, they have a very different view on whether a self or soul exists, which impacts the details of their respective rebirth theories.
Rebirth and karma doctrine in Jainism differ from those in Buddhism, even though both are non-theistic Sramana traditions. Jainism, in contrast to Buddhism, accepts the foundational assumption that soul exists (Jiva) and is involved in the rebirth mechanism. Further, Jainism considers that the rebirth has a start, that rebirth and redeath cycle is a part of a progression of a soul, karmic dust particles emanate from ethical or unethical intent and actions, these karmic particles stick to the soul which determines the next birth. Jainism, further asserts that some souls can never achieve liberation, that ethical living such as Ahimsa (non-violence) and asceticism are means to liberation for those who can attain liberation, and that liberated souls reach the eternal siddha (enlightened state) that ends their rebirth cycles. Jainism, like Buddhism, also believes in realms of birth[note 6] and is symbolized by its emblematic Swastika sign, with ethical and moral theories of its lay practices focussing on obtaining good rebirth.
- This is discussed in many Suttas of different Nikayas. See, for example, Devaduta Sutta in Majjhima Nikaya (iii.178).
- This merit gaining may be on the behalf of one's family members.
- It is unclear when Majjhima Nikaya was written down. For the historicity of rebirth, samsara in early texts, see Carol Anderson;
Ronald Davidson: "While most scholars agree that there was a rough body of sacred literature (disputed)(sic) that a relatively early community (disputed)(sic) maintained and transmitted, we have little confidence that much, if any, of surviving Buddhist scripture is actually the word of the historic Buddha."
Richard Gombrich: "I have the greatest difficulty in accepting that the main edifice is not the work of a single genius. By "the main edifice" I mean the collections of the main body of sermons, the four Nikāyas, and of the main body of monastic rules."
- On samsara, rebirth and redeath:
* Paul Williams: "All rebirth is due to karma and is impermanent. Short of attaining enlightenment, in each rebirth one is born and dies, to be reborn elsewhere in accordance with the completely impersonal causal nature of one's own karma. The endless cycle of birth, rebirth, and redeath, is samsara."
* Buswell and Lopez on "rebirth": "An English term that does not have an exact correlate in Buddhist languages, rendered instead by a range of technical terms, such as the Sanskrit PUNARJANMAN (lit. "birth again") and PUNABHAVAN (lit. "re-becoming"), and, less commonly, the related PUNARMRTYU (lit. "redeath")."
See also Perry Schmidt-Leukel (2006) pages 32-34, John J. Makransky (1997) p.27.
- Graham Harvey: "Siddhartha Gautama found an end to rebirth in this world of suffering. His teachings, known as the dharma in Buddhism, can be summarized in the Four Noble truths." Geoffrey Samuel (2008): "The Four Noble Truths [...] describe the knowledge needed to set out on the path to liberation from rebirth." See also [web 1][web 2]
The Theravada tradition holds that insight into these four truths is liberating in itself. This is reflected in the Pali canon. According to Donald Lopez, "The Buddha stated in his first sermon that when he gained absolute and intuitive knowledge of the four truths, he achieved complete enlightenment and freedom from future rebirth."[web 1]
The Maha-parinibbana Sutta also refers to this liberation.[web 3] Carol Anderson: "The second passage where the four truths appear in the Vinaya-pitaka is also found in the Mahaparinibbana-sutta (D II 90-91). Here, the Buddha explains that it is by not understanding the four truths that rebirth continues."
On the meaning of moksha as liberation from rebirth, see Patrick Olivelle in the Encyclopædia Britannica.[web 4]
- Jainism posits that there are four realms, in contrast to six of Buddhism; the Jaina realms are heavenly deities, human, non-human living beings (animal, plants), and hellish beings. Within the human realms, Jainism asserts that rebirth lineage and gender depends on karma in the past lives.
- Peter Harvey (2012). An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge University Press. pp. 32–33, 38–39, 46–49. ISBN 978-0-521-85942-4.
- Norman C. McClelland (2010). Encyclopedia of Reincarnation and Karma. McFarland. pp. 226–228. ISBN 978-0-7864-5675-8.
- Robert E. Buswell Jr.; Donald S. Lopez Jr. (2013). The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press. pp. 708–709. ISBN 978-1-4008-4805-8.
- Edward Craig (1998). Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Routledge. p. 402. ISBN 978-0-415-18715-2.
- Obeyesekere, Gananath (2005). Karma and Rebirth: A Cross Cultural Study. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 127. ISBN 978-8120826090.
- Nanamoli Bhikkhu; Bhikkhu Bodhi (2005). The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Simon Schuster. pp. 1029–1038. ISBN 978-0-86171-982-2.
- William H. Swatos; Peter Kivisto (1998). Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Rowman Altamira. p. 66. ISBN 978-0-7619-8956-1.
- Ronald Wesley Neufeldt (1986). Karma and Rebirth: Post Classical Developments. State University of New York Press. pp. 123–131. ISBN 978-0-87395-990-2.
- Wendy Doniger (1999). Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions. Merriam-Webster. p. 148. ISBN 978-0-87779-044-0.
- Williams 2002, pp. 74-75.
- "Post-Classical Developments in the Concepts of Karma and Rebirth in Theravada Buddhism." by Bruce Matthews. in Karma and Rebirth: Post-Classical Developments State Univ of New York Press: 1986 ISBN 0-87395-990-6 pg 125;
Collins, Steven. Selfless persons: imagery and thought in Theravāda Buddhism Cambridge University Press, 1990. ISBN 0-521-39726-X pg 215
- Buswell & Lopez 2003, pp. 49-50.
- Harvey 2013, pp. 71-73.
- [a] Anatta, Encyclopædia Britannica (2013), Quote: "Anatta in Buddhism, the doctrine that there is in humans no permanent, underlying soul. The concept of anatta, or anatman, is a departure from the Hindu belief in atman (“the self”).";
[b] Steven Collins (1994), Religion and Practical Reason (Editors: Frank Reynolds, David Tracy), State Univ of New York Press, ISBN 978-0791422175, page 64; "Central to Buddhist soteriology is the doctrine of not-self (Pali: anattā, Sanskrit: anātman, the opposed doctrine of ātman is central to Brahmanical thought). Put very briefly, this is the [Buddhist] doctrine that human beings have no soul, no self, no unchanging essence.";
[c] Edward Roer (Translator), Shankara's Introduction, p. 2, at Google Books to Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad, pages 2-4;
[d] Katie Javanaud (2013), Is The Buddhist ‘No-Self’ Doctrine Compatible With Pursuing Nirvana?, Philosophy Now;
[e] David Loy (1982), Enlightenment in Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta: Are Nirvana and Moksha the Same?, International Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 23, Issue 1, pages 65-74;
[f] KN Jayatilleke (2010), Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, ISBN 978-8120806191, pages 246-249, from note 385 onwards;
- Kalupahana 1992, pp. 38-43, 138-140.
- Buswell & Lopez 2003, p. 708.
- Arvind Sharma's review of Hajime Nakamura's A History of Early Vedanta Philosophy, Philosophy East and West, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Jul., 1987), page 330.
- Keown 2000, p. 32.
- Anderson 1999, pp. 1-48.
- Davidson 2003, p. 147.
- Gombrich 1997.
- Thomas William Rhys Davids; William Stede (1921). Pali-English Dictionary. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 94–95, 281–282, 294–295, 467, 499. ISBN 978-81-208-1144-7.
- Peter Harvey (2013). The Selfless Mind: Personality, Consciousness and Nirvana in Early Buddhism. Routledge. pp. 95–97. ISBN 978-1-136-78329-6.
- David J. Kalupahana (1975). Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. University Press of Hawaii. pp. 115–119. ISBN 978-0-8248-0298-1.
- David J. Kalupahana (1975). Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. University Press of Hawaii. p. 83. ISBN 978-0-8248-0298-1.
- William H. Swatos; Peter Kivisto (1998). Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Rowman Altamira. p. 66. ISBN 978-0-7619-8956-1.
- Sautrāntika, Encyclopædia Britannica
- James McDermott (1980). Wendy Doniger, ed. Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions. University of California Press. pp. 168–170. ISBN 978-0-520-03923-0.
- Bruce Mathews (1986). Ronald Wesley Neufeldt, ed. Karma and Rebirth: Post Classical Developments. State University of New York Press. pp. 123–126. ISBN 978-0-87395-990-2.
- See, for instance, the "Snake-Simile Discourse" (MN 22), where the Buddha states:
"Monks, this Teaching so well proclaimed by me, is plain, open, explicit, free of patchwork. In this Teaching that is so well proclaimed by me and is plain, open, explicit and free of patchwork; for those who are arahants, free of taints, who have accomplished and completed their task, have laid down the burden, achieved their aim, severed the fetters binding to existence, who are liberated by full knowledge, there is no (future) round of existence that can be ascribed to them. – Majjhima Nikaya i.130 ¶ 42, Translated by Nyanaponika Thera (Nyanaponika, 2006)
- The "fruit" (Pali: phala) is the culmination of the "path" (magga). Thus, for example, the "stream-enterer" is the fruit for one on the "stream-entry" path; more specifically, the stream-enterer has abandoned the first three fetters, while one on the path of stream-entry strives to abandon these fetters.
- Both the stream-enterer and the once-returner abandon the first three fetters. What distinguishes these stages is that the once-returner additionally attenuates lust, hate and delusion, and will necessarily be reborn only once more.
- Buswell & Lopez 2003, pp. 49-50, 708-709.
- Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. 1, p. 377
- The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, Bhikkhu Bodhi, translator. Wisdom Publications. Sutta 44.9
- Karma-gliṅ-pa; Chogyam Trungpa; Francesca Fremantle (2000). The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo. Shambhala Publications. pp. xi, xvii–xxiii. ISBN 978-1-57062-747-7.
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- Kevin Trainor (2004). Buddhism: The Illustrated Guide. Oxford University Press. pp. 210–211. ISBN 978-0-19-517398-7.
- "Post-Classical Developments in the Concepts of Karma and Rebirth in Theravada Buddhism." by Bruce Matthews. in Karma and Rebirth: Post-Classical Developments State Univ of New York Press: 1986 ISBN 0-87395-990-6 pg 125 
- Collins, Steven. Selfless persons: imagery and thought in Theravāda Buddhism Cambridge University Press, 1990. ISBN 0-521-39726-X pg 215
- "Post-Classical Developments in the Concepts of Karma and Rebirth in Theravada Buddhism. by Bruce Matthews. in Karma and Rebirth: Post-Classical Developments State Univ of New York Press: 1986 ISBN 0-87395-990-6 pg 125 
- Peter Harvey (2012). An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge University Press. pp. 71–75. ISBN 978-0-521-85942-4.
- Obeyesekere, Gananath (2005). Karma and Rebirth: A Cross Cultural Study. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 127. ISBN 978-8120826090.
- Schmidt-Leukel 2006, p. 32-34.
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- Harvey 2016.
- Samuel 2008, p. 136.
- Spiro 1982, p. 42.
- Makransky 1997, p. 27-28.
- Lopez 2009, p. 147.
- Kingsland 2016, p. 286.
- Carter 1987, p. 3179.
- Anderson 2013.
- Anderson 2013, p. 162 with note 38, for context see pages 1-3.
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[b] Brian Morris (2006). Religion and Anthropology: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge University Press. p. 51. ISBN 978-0-521-85241-8., Quote: "(...) anatta is the doctrine of non-self, and is an extreme empiricist doctrine that holds that the notion of an unchanging permanent self is a fiction and has no reality. According to Buddhist doctrine, the individual person consists of five skandhas or heaps - the body, feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness. The belief in a self or soul, over these five skandhas, is illusory and the cause of suffering."
[c] Richard Gombrich (2006). Theravada Buddhism. Routledge. p. 47. ISBN 978-1-134-90352-8., Quote: "(...) Buddha's teaching that beings have no soul, no abiding essence. This 'no-soul doctrine' (anatta-vada) he expounded in his second sermon."
- John C. Plott et al (2000), Global History of Philosophy: The Axial Age, Volume 1, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120801585, page 63, Quote: "The Buddhist schools reject any Ātman concept. As we have already observed, this is the basic and ineradicable distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism".
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- Vicki MacKenzie, Reborn in the West, HarperCollins, 1997. ISBN 0-7225-3443-4
- Tom Shroder, Old Souls: Scientific Search for Proof of Past Lives, Simon and Schuster, 2001. ISBN 0-684-85193-8
- Francis Story, Rebirth as Doctrine and Experience: Essays and Case Studies, Buddhist Publication Society, 1975. ISBN 955-24-0176-3
- Robert A.F. Thurman (trans.), The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Liberation Through Understanding in the Between, HarperCollins, 1998. ISBN 1-85538-412-4
- Martin Willson, Rebirth and the Western Buddhist, Wisdom Publications, 1987. ISBN 0-86171-215-3
- Nagapriya, Exploring Karma and Rebirth, Windhorse Publications, Birmingham 2004. ISBN 1-899579-61-3