Rebirth (Buddhism)

Rebirth in Buddhism is the doctrine that the evolving consciousness (Pali: samvattanika-viññana)[1][2] or stream of consciousness (Pali: viññana-sotam,[3] Sanskrit: vijñāna-srotām, vijñāna-santāna, or citta-santāna) upon death (or "the dissolution of the aggregates" (P. khandhas, S. skandhas)), becomes one of the contributing causes for the arising of a new aggregation. The consciousness in the new person is neither identical nor entirely different from that in the deceased but the two form a causal continuum or stream.

In traditional Buddhist cosmology these lives can be in any of a large number of states of being including the human, any kind of animal and several types of supernatural being. Rebirth is conditioned by the karmas (actions of body, speech and mind) of previous lives; good karmas will yield a happier rebirth, bad karmas will produce one which is more unhappy. The basic cause for this is the abiding of consciousness in ignorance (Pali: avijja, Sanskrit: avidya): when ignorance is uprooted, rebirth ceases. One of the analogies used to describe what happens then is that of a ray of light that never lands.[4]


  • Buddhist terminology and doctrine 1
  • Historical context 2
  • Ideas of rebirth 3
    • Rebirth as cycle of consciousness 3.1
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5
  • Sources 6
  • Commentaries 7
  • External links 8

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: the entire process of change from one life to the next is called "becoming again"(Sanskrit: punarbhava, Pali: punabbhava), or more briefly "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).

Within one life and across multiple lives, the empirical, changing self not only objectively affects its surrounding external world, but also generates (consciously and unconsciously) its own subjective image of this world, which it then lives in as 'reality'. It lives in a world of its own making in various ways. It "tunes in" to a particular level of consciousness (by meditation or the rebirth it attains through its karma) which has a particular range of objects - a world - available to it. It furthermore selectively notices from among such objects, and then processes what has been sensed to form a distorted interpretive model of reality: a model in which the 'I am' conceit is a crucial reference point. When nirvana is experienced, though, all such models are transcended: the world stops 'in this fathom-long carcase'.[5]

Historical context

The Buddha lived at a time of great philosophical creativity in India when many conceptions of the nature of life and death were proposed. Some were materialist, holding that there was no existence and that the self is annihilated upon death. Others believed in a form of cyclic existence, where a being is born, lives, dies and then is reborn, but in the context of a type of determinism or fatalism in which karma played no role. Others were "eternalists", postulating an eternally existent self or soul comparable to that in Christianity: the ātman survives death and reincarnates as another living being, based on its karmic inheritance. This is the idea that has become dominant (with certain modifications) in modern Hinduism.

The Buddha's concept was distinct, consistent with the common notion of a sequence of lives over a very long time but constrained by two core concepts: that there is no irreducible self tying these lives together (anattā) and that all compounded things are subject to dissolution, including all the components of the human person and personality (anicca). The story of the Buddha's life presented in the early texts does not allude to the idea of rebirth prior to his enlightenment, leading some to suggest that he discovered it for himself.[6] 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

Supra-mundane stages, fetters and rebirths
(according to the Sutta Piaka[7])



until suffering's end

stream-enterer 1. identity view
2. doubt
3. ritual attachment
up to seven more times as
a human or in a heaven
once-returner[9] once more as
a human
non-returner 4. sensual desire
5. ill will
once more in
a pure abode
arahant 6. material-rebirth lust
7. immaterial-rebirth lust
8. conceit
9. restlessness
10. ignorance
Source: Ñāṇamoli & Bodhi (2001), Middle-Length Discourses, pp. 41-43.

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).

Some English-speaking Buddhists prefer the term "rebirth" or "re-becoming" (Sanskrit: punarbhava; Pali: punabbhava) to "reincarnation" as they take the latter to imply a fixed entity that is reborn.[10] It is said to be the "evolving consciousness" (Pali: samvattanika viññana, M.1.256)[11][12] or "stream of consciousness" (Pali: viññana sotam, D.3.105) [13] that reincarnates. The early Buddhist texts make it clear that there is no permanent consciousness that moves from life to life.[14] The lack of a fixed self does not mean lack of continuity. In the same way that a flame is transferred from one candle to another, there is a conditioned relationship between one life and the next: they are neither identical nor completely distinct.

While all Buddhist traditions seem to accept some notion of rebirth, there is no unified view about precisely how events unfold after the moment of death. The medieval Pali scholar Buddhaghosa labeled the consciousness that constitutes the condition for a new birth as described in the early texts "rebirth-linking consciousness" (patisandhi). Some schools conclude that karma continued to exist and adhere to the person until it had worked out its consequences. For the Sautrantika school each act "perfumed" the individual and led to the planting of a "seed" that would later germinate as a good or bad karmic result. Theravada Buddhism generally asserts 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. This has led to the development of a unique 'science' of death and rebirth, a good deal of which is set down in what is popularly known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Theravada Buddhism generally denies there is an intermediate state, though some early Buddhist texts seem to support it.[15][16] There are zero teachings about this state found in the Agamas/Nikayas of the early schools, only vague references to said state that are open to interpretation. Among the thousands of suttas there is not a single one that gives any instruction on how one could influence one's rebirth in some kind of in between stage, just a handful of passages that could imply that there is some kind of interval between death and birth. There are some passages that imply one could reach Nibbana/Nirvana in this between state [17] but as mentioned above there is zero instruction on how to do so. Therefore it's just as likely that the practices allowing one to reach Nibbana/Nirvana in this state are totally unrelated to the state itself and instead would simply be the end result of the standard practices laid out in the Agamas/Nikayas (as opposed to being the result of some kind of practice similar to the Tibetan Bardo practice). One school that adopted the view of possibly influencing ones rebirth while in the in between state was the Sarvastivada, who believed that between death and rebirth there is a sort of limbo in which beings do not yet reap the consequences of their previous actions but may still influence their rebirth. The death process and this intermediate state were believed to offer a uniquely favourable opportunity for spiritual awakening. There are zero teachings about this state found in the Agamas/Nikayas of the early schools. Only vague references to said state.

Rebirth as cycle of consciousness

Another view of rebirth describes the cycle of death and birth in the context of consciousness rather than the birth and death of the body. In this view, remaining impure aggregates, skandhas, reform consciousness.

Buddhist meditation teachers suggest that observation reveals consciousness as a sequence of conscious moments rather than a continuum of awareness.[18] Each moment is an experience of an individual mind-state such as a thought, a memory, a feeling or a perception. A mind-state arises, exists and, being impermanent, ceases, following which the next mind-state arises. Thus the consciousness of a sentient being can be seen as a continuous series of birth and death of these mind-states. Rebirth is the persistence of this process.

See also


  1. ^ "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
  2. ^ Collins, Steven. Selfless persons: imagery and thought in Theravāda Buddhism Cambridge University Press, 1990. ISBN 0-521-39726-X pg 215[1]
  3. ^ "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
  4. ^ Thanissaro Bhikkhu, [2].
  5. ^ Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind. Curzon Press 1995, page 247.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ See, for instance, the "Snake-Simile Discourse" (MN 22), where the Buddha states:
    '... [F]or 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.... [T]hose monks who have abandoned the five lower fetters will all be reborn spontaneously (in the Pure Abodes) and there they will pass away finally, no more returning from that world.... [T]hose monks who have abandoned three fetters and have reduced greed, hatred and delusion, are all once-returners, and, returning only once to this world, will then make an end of suffering.... [T]hose monks who have abandoned three fetters, are all stream-enterers, no more liable to downfall, assured, and headed for full Enlightenment.' (Nyanaponika, 2006)
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ "Reincarnation in Buddhism: What the Buddha Didn't Teach" By Barbara O'Brien,[3]]
  11. ^ "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 [4]
  12. ^ Collins, Steven. Selfless persons: imagery and thought in Theravāda Buddhism Cambridge University Press, 1990. ISBN 0-521-39726-X pg 215[5]
  13. ^ "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 [6]
  14. ^ For an explicit rejection of this view in the early texts see David J. Kalupahana, Causality--the central philosophy of Buddhism. University Press of Hawaii, 1975, page 119.
  15. ^ Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. 1, p. 377
  16. ^ The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Translator. Wisdom Publications. Sutta 44.9
  17. ^ Samyutta Nikaya 46.3
  18. ^ See for example Sayadaw, Mahasi. "A Discourse on Paticcasamuppada". Binh Anson. Retrieved 25 October 2014. : "Before death the stream of consciousness depends on the physical body and is continuous with one unit following the other uninterruptedly. After death, the body disintegrates and the stream of consciousness shifts to the physical process in another abode. This may be likened to the continuous appearance of light in an electric bulb through the ceaseless generation of electricity. When the bulb is burnt up, the light goes out but the potential electric energy keeps on coming. Light reappears when the old bulb is replaced with a new one. Here, the bulb, energy and light are all changing physical processes and we should be mindful of their impermanent character."


  • Ñāamoli, Bhikkhu (trans.) and Bodhi, Bhikkhu (ed.) (2001). The Middle-Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-072-X.
  • Nyanaponika Thera (trans.) (1974). Alagaddupama Sutta: The Snake Simile (MN 22). Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society. Retrieved 15 Aug. 2010 from "Access to Insight" (2006) at .


  • Steven Collins, Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravada Buddhism, Cambridge, 1982. ISBN 0-521-39726-X
  • Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind: Personality, Consciousness and Nirvana in Early Buddhism, Curzon, 1995. ISBN 0-7007-0338-1
  • Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully: The Profound Practice of Transference of Consciousness, Tharpa, 1999. ISBN 81-7822-058-X
  • Glenn H. Mullin, Death and Dying: The Tibetan Tradition, Arkana, 1986. ISBN 0-14-019013-9.
  • Mullin, Glenn, H. (1998). Living in the Face of Death: The Tibetan Tradition. 2008 reprint: Snow Lion Publications, Ithica, New York. ISBN 978-1-55939-310-2.
  • 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

External links

  • A Buddhist Ethic Without Karmic Rebirth? Article by Winston L. King
  • Dhamma Without Rebirth? Essay by Bhikkhu Bodhi
  • Does Rebirth Make Sense? Essay by Bhikkhu Bodhi
  • Causal Relationship An analysis of Paṭiccasamuppāda in the Nikāyas
  • BuddhaNet Questions and Answers about Rebirth by Bhante Shravasti Dhammika.