Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera
Unsatisfied desire for existence and
sensual pleasures is the cause of rebirth.
regard the doctrine of rebirth not as a mere theory but as a verifiable
fact. The belief in rebirth forms a fundamental tenet of Buddhism.
However, the belief in rebirth is not confined to Buddhist; it is also
found in other countries, in other religions, and even among free
thinkers. Pythagoras could remember his previous birth. Plato could
remember a number of his previous lives. According to Plato, man can be
reborn only up to ten times. Plato also believed in the possibility of
rebirth in the animal kingdom. Among the ancient people in Egypt and
China, a common belief was that only well-known personalities like
emperors and kings have rebirths. A well-known Christian authority named
Origen, who lived in 185-254 A.D., believed in rebirth. According to him,
there is no eternal suffering in a hell. Gorana Bruno, who lived in the
sixteenth century, believed that the soul of every man and animal
transmigrates from one being to another. In 1788, a well-known
philosopher, Kant, criticized eternal punishment. Kant also believed in
the possibility of rebirth in other celestial bodies. Schopenhauer
(1788-1860), another great philosopher, said that where the will to live
existed there must be of necessity life. The will to live manifests itself
successively in ever new forms. The Buddha explained this 'will to exist'
as the craving for existence.
It is possible but not
very easy for us to actually verify our past lives. The nature of mind is
such that it does not allow most people the recollection of their previous
lives. Our minds are overpowered by the five hindrances: sensual desire,
ill-will, sloth, restlessness and doubt. Because of these hindrances, our
vision is earth-bound and hence we cannot visualize rebirths. Just as a
mirror does not reflect an image when it is covered with dirt, so the mind
does not allow most people the recollection of previous lives. We cannot
see the stars during daytime, not because they are not there in the sky,
but because they are outshone by the sunlight. Similarly, we cannot
remember our past lives because our mind at present is always
over-burdened with many thoughts in the present, day-to-day events and
A consideration of the
shortness of our life-span on earth will help us to reflect on rebirth. If
we consider life and its ultimate meaning and goal, and all the varied
experience possible for man, we must conclude that in a single life there
is not enough time for man to carry out all that is intended by nature, to
say nothing about what man himself desires to do. The scale of experience
is enormous. There is a vast range of powers latent in man which we see
and can even develop if the opportunity is presented to us. This
especially true today if special investigation is made. We find ourselves
with high aspirations but with no time to attain them. Meanwhile, the
great troop of passions and desires, selfish motives and ambitions, make
war within us and with others. These forces pursue each other to the time
of our death. All these forces must be tried, conquered, subdued and used.
One life is just not enough for all this. To say that we must have but one
life here with such possibilities put before us and impossible to develop
is to make the universe and life a huge and cruel joke.
The Buddha doctrine of
rebirth should be differentiated from the teachings of transmigration and
reincarnation of other religions. Buddhism denies the existence of a
permanent, god-created soul or an unchanging entity that transmigrates
from one life to another.
Just as relative identity
is made possible by causal continuity without a Self or Soul, so death can
issue in rebirth without a transmigrating Soul. In a single life, each
thought-moment flashes in and out of being, giving rise to its successor
with its perishing. Strictly speaking, this momentary rise and fall of
every thought is a birth and death. Thus even in a single life we undergo
countless births and deaths every second. But because the mental process
continues with the support of a single physical body, we regard the
mind-body continuum as constituting a single life.
What we ordinarily mean by
death is the cessation of the body's vital functions. When
the physical body loses its vitality it can no longer support the current
of consciousness, the mental side of the process. But as long as there is
a clinging to life, a desire to go on existing, the current of
consciousness does not come to a stop with the body's loss of life.
Rather, when death takes place, when the body dies away, the mental
current, driven by the thirst for more existence, will spring up again
with the support of a new physical body, one which has just come into
being through the meeting of sperm and egg. Thus, rebirth takes place
immediately after death. The steam of memory may be interrupted and the
sense of identity transferred to the new situation, but the entire
accumulation of experience and disposition has been transmitted to the
newborn being, and the cycle of becoming begins to revolve for still
For Buddhism, therefore,
death does not spell either the entrance to eternal life or complete
annihilation. It is, rather, the portal to a new rebirth which will be
followed by more growth, decay, and then till another death.
At the last
moment, no renewed physical functioning occurs in a dying man's mind. This
is just like a motorist releasing the accelerator before stopping, so that
no more pulling power is given to the engine. Similarly, no more material
qualities of Kamma arise.
Buddhists do not maintain
that the present life is the only life between two eternities of misery
and happiness; nor do they believe angels will carry them to heaven and
leave them there for all eternity. They believe that this present life is
only one of the indefinite numbers of states of being and that this
earthly life is but one episode among many others. They believe that all
beings will be reborn somewhere for a limited period of time as long as
their good and bad Kamma remains in the subconscious mind in the form of
mental energy. The interpretation of the subconscious mind in the Buddhist
context should not be confused with that given by modern psychologists
since the concepts are not exactly synonymous.
What is the cause of
rebirth? The Buddha taught that ignorance produces desires. Unsatisfied
desire is the cause of rebirth. When all unsatisfied desire is
extinguished, then rebirth ceases. To stop rebirth is to extinguish all
desires. To extinguish desire, it is necessary to destroy ignorance. When
ignorance is destroyed, the worthlessness of every such rebirth, is
perceived, as well as the paramount need to adopt a course of life by
which the desire for such repeated births can be abolished.
Ignorance also begets the
illusive and illogical idea that there is only one existence for man, and
the other illusion that this one life is followed by states of eternal
pleasure or torment.
The Buddha taught that
ignorance can be dispelled and sorrow removed by realization of the Four
Noble Truths, and not through any other source. To disperse all ignorance,
one must persevere in the practice of an all-embracing altruism in
conduct, intelligence and wisdom. One must also destroy all desire for the
lower, personal pleasures and selfish desire.
How does rebirth take
place? When this physical body is no more capable of functioning, energies
do not die with it, but continue to take some other shape or form, which
we call another life. The kammic force manifesting itself in the form of a
human being can also manifest itself in the form of an animal. This can
happen if man has no chance to develop his positive kammic forces. This
force, called craving, desire, volition, thirst to live, does not end with
the non-functioning of the body but continues to manifest itself in
another form, producing re-existence which is called rebirth.
Today, there are people in
various countries who have spontaneously developed memory of their past
births. The experiences of these people have been well-documented in
newspapers and periodicals. Some of these people never accepted that there
was such a thing as rebirth until memory fragments of their previous lives
came to them. Much of the information they revealed about their past lives
has been investigated and found to be valid.
Through hypnotism, some
people have managed to reveal information of previous lives. Certain
hypnotic states that penetrate into the subconscious mind make the
recalling of past lives possible.
Rebirth or becoming again
and again is a natural occurrence not created by any particular religion
or god. Belief in rebirth or disbelief does not make any difference to the
process of rebirth or avoiding rebirth. Rebirth takes place as long as
craving for existence and craving for sensual pleasures or attachment
exist in the mind. Those strong mental forces prevail in each and every
living being in this universe. Those who hope and pray that they be not
born again must understand that their wishes will not materialize until
they make earnest efforts to eradicate their craving and attachment.
Having seen and experienced the uncertainty and unsatisfactoriness of life
under worldly conditions, wise people try to rid themselves of these
repeated births and deaths by following the correct path. Those who cannot
reduce their craving and attachment must be prepared to face all
unsatisfactory and uncertain situations associated with rebirth and
becoming again and again.
Another difficult thing to
understand about rebirth is whether the occurrence of rebirth is
simultaneous or not. This is a controversial issue even amongst prominent
Buddhist Scholars. According to Abhidhamma, rebirth (conception) takes
place immediately after the death of a being without any intermediate
state. At the same time, some others believe that a person, after his
death, would evolve into a spirit form for a certain number of days before
rebirth takes place. Another interpretation regarding the same belief is
that it is not the spirit, but the deceased person's consciousness or
mental energy remaining in space, supported by his own mental energies of
craving and attachment. However, sooner or later rebirth must take place.
The spirits (petas), who are beings born in spirit forms, are unfortunate
living beings and their lives in the spirit form is not permanent. It is
also a form of rebirth which is temporary.
Another concept that many
people cannot understand is that in the process of rebirth a man can be
reborn as an animal and an animal can be reborn as a man. The animal
nature of the man's mind and the animal way of life adopted by him can
condition him to be born as an animal. The condition and behavior of the
mind is responsible for the next existence. On the other hand, a person
who is born in animal form, owing to certain mental abuses during a
previous birth, could be reborn as a human being, if that animal has not
committed any serious evil acts. It is a well-known fact that some animals
are very intelligent and understanding. This is a clear evidence to prove
that they are tending towards the human life. A person who is born as an
animal can again be born as a human being when the bad kamma which
conditioned his birth as an animal is expended and the good kamma which
was stored becomes dominant.
In the dying man's
consciousness, there are three types of consciousness (Vinnana)
functioning at the moment of death :rebirth-linking consciousness (patisandhi-citta),
the current of passive consciousness or the current of life-continuum
(bhavanga) and consciousness disconnecting the present life (cuti-citta).
At the last moment of a man's present life the (patisandhi-citta) or
rebirth-linking consciousness arises, having the three signs as its
objects. The patisandhi-citta remains in the course of cognition for five
faint thought-moments Javana and then sinks down into bhavanga. At the end
of bhavanga the cuti-citta arises, disconnecting the present life and
sinks down into bhavanga. At this very moment comes the end of the present
life. At the end of that bhavanga another patisandhi-citta rises up in the
next life and from this very moment the new life begins. This is the
process of death and rebirth according to Buddhism, and only in Buddhism
is the process of these natural phenomena found explained in minute
A Buddhist faces
death not as a crisis in life but as a normal event, for he knows that
whoever is born must suffer, 'decay', and ultimately die. Or, as someone
so aptly puts it, 'Everyone is born with the certificate of death at his
birth.' If we could all look at death such an intelligent and rational
way, we would not cling to life so tenaciously.
This is my final birth and there is no more rebirth for me.
(Dhamma Cakka Sutta).
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