5. Rebirth

QUESTION: Where do we humans come from and where are we going?

ANSWER: There are three possible answers to this question. Those who believe in a god or gods usually claims that before individuals are created, they do not exist, then they come into being through the will of a god. They live their lives and then, according to what they believe or do during their lives, they either go to eternal heaven or eternal hell. There are others, humanists and scientists, who claim that the individual comes into being at conception due to natural causes, lives, and then at death, ceases to exist. Buddhism does not accept either of these explanations.

The first gives rise to many ethical problems. If a good god really creates each of us, it is difficult to explain why so many people are born with the most dreadful deformities or why so many babies are miscarried just before birth or are still-born. Another problem with the theistic explanation is that it seems very unjust that a person should suffer eternal pain in hell for what they did in just 60 or 70 years on earth. Sixty or 70 years of non-beliefs or immoral living does not seem to deserve eternal punishment. Likewise, 60 or 70 years of virtuous living seems a very small outlay for eternal bliss in heaven. The second explanation is better than the first and has more scientific evidence to support it but it still leaves important questions unanswered. How can a phenomenon so amazingly complex as human consciousness develop from the simple meeting the sperm and the egg and in just nine months? And now that parapsychology is a recognized branch of science, phenomena like telepathy are increasingly difficult to fit into the materialistic model of the mind.

Buddhism offers the most satisfactory explanation of where humans come from and where they are going. When we die, the mind with all the tendencies, preferences, abilities and characteristics that have been developed and conditioned in this life, re-establishes itself in a fertilized egg. Thus the individual grows, is reborn and develops a personality conditioned both by the mental characteristics that have been carried over from the last life and by the new environment. The personality will change and be modified by conscious effort and conditioning factors like education, parental influence and society and once again at death, re-establish itself in a new fertilized egg. This process of dying and being reborn will continue until the conditions that cause it, craving and ignorance, cease. When they do, instead of being reborn, the mind attains a state called Nirvana and this is the ultimate goal of Buddhism and the purpose of life.

QUESTION: How does the mind go from one body to another?

ANSWER: Think of it as being like radio waves. The radio waves, which are not made up of words and music but energy at different frequencies, are transmitted, move through space, are attracted to and picked up by the receiver from where they are broadcast as words and music. It is similar with the mind. At death, mental energy moves through space, is attracted to and picked up by the fertilized egg. As the embryo grows, it centers itself in the brain from where it later ‘broadcasts’ itself as the new personality.

QUESTION: Isn’t it the soul or the self that passes from one body to another when someone is reborn?

ANSWER: Not according to the Buddha. In fact, he taught that the belief in an eternal soul or self is a delusion created by the ego and which further encourages the ego. When we see that there is no eternal self, egoism, narcissism, conceit and self-centeredness disappear. The individual is not a solid rock but a flowing stream.

QUESTION: That sounds like a contradiction. If there is no self there must also be no identity, and if there is no identity how can you say that we are reborn?

ANSWER: It is like a football team which has been going for 95 years. During that time hundreds of players have joined the team, played with it for five or ten years, left and been replaced by other players. Even though not one of the original players is still in the team or even alive, it is still valid to say that ‘the team’ exists. Its identity is recognizable despite the continual change. The players are hard, solid entities but what is the team’s identity made up of? Its name, memories of its past achievements, the feelings that the players and the supporters have towards it, its esprit de corps, etc. Individuals are the same. Despite the fact that both body and mind are continually changing, it is still valid to say that the person who is reborn is a continuation of the person who died – not because any unchanging self has passed from one to another but because identity persists in memories, dispositions, traits, mental habits and psychological tendencies.

QUESTION: Okay then, if we all lived before, why can’t we remember our former lives?

ANSWER: Some people can, at least during their early childhood. But it is true that most people cannot. There may be several reasons for this. Perhaps the nine months in the womb before birth erases all or most memories. Perhaps the shock of all the new sensory input at birth, after nine months of almost complete sensory deprivation, just wipes out all former memories.

QUESTION: Is one always reborn as a human being?

ANSWER: No, there are several realms in which one can be reborn. Some people are reborn in heaven, some are reborn in hell, some are reborn as hungry spirits and so on. Heaven is not so much a place as a state of existence where one has a subtle body and where the mind experiences mainly pleasure. Like all conditioned states, heaven is impermanent and when one’s life span there is finished, one could well be reborn again as a human. Hell, likewise, is not a place but a state of existence where one has a subtle body and where the mind experiences mainly anxiety and distress. Being reborn as a hungry ghost, again, is a state of being where the body is subtle and where the mind is continually plagued by longing and dissatisfaction. So heavenly beings experience mainly pleasure, hell beings and hungry spirits experience mainly pain and human beings experience usually a mixture of both. The main difference between the human realm and other realms is the body type and the quality of experience.

QUESTION: What decides where a person will be reborn?

ANSWER: The most important factor, but not the only one, influencing where we will be reborn and what sort of life we shall have, is kamma. The word kamma means ‘action’ and refers to our intentional mental, verbal and bodily actions. In other words, what we are is conditioned very much by how we have thought and acted in the past. Likewise, how we think and act now will influence how we will be in the future. The gentle, loving type of person tends to be reborn in a heaven realm or as a human being who has a predominance of pleasant experiences. The anxious, worried or extremely cruel type of person tends to be reborn in a hell realm or as a human being who has a predominance of unpleasant experiences. The person who develops obsessive craving, fierce longings and burning ambitions that can never be satisfied tends to be reborn as a hungry spirit or as a human being frustrated by longing and wanting. Whatever mental habits are strongly developed in this life will simply continue in the next life. Most people, however, are reborn as a human being.

QUESTION: You mentioned hell beings. Don’t tell me you Buddhists actually believe in hell!

ANSWER: If by hell you mean a place where a judgmental god throws all those who did not believe in him so he can punish them for eternity, then no. A Buddhist would say that such an idea could only be the product of a vengeful mind. Niraya and apaya, the Buddhist terms usually translated as hell, actually mean ‘decline’ and ‘loss’. Exceptionally cruel or selfish people create for themselves a mental state, and thus an experience, which is predominantly negative. The Buddha said; “The fool says that hell is under the sea. But I say that hell is a name for painful feeling” (S.IV,206). I will give you an example. A paranoid person sees danger, plots and betrayal everywhere, even though there are none. It is his mindset that makes him continually suspicious, fearful and anxious. No one has judged and then condemned him to a negative existence. He created it for himself. Further, such people always have the possibility of raising themselves out of their negative mindset and thus, according to Buddhism, hell is not eternal. We always have another chance.

QUESTION: So we are not determined by our kamma, we can change it.

ANSWER: Of course we can. That’s the whole purpose of Buddhism! That is why one of the steps on the Noble Eightfold Path is Perfect Effort. It depends on our sincerity, how much energy we exert and how strong the habit is. But it is true that some people simply go through life under the influence of their past habits, without making an effort to change them and falling victim to their unpleasant results. Such people will continue to suffer unless they change their negative habits. The longer the negative habits remain, the more difficult they are to change. The Buddhist understands this and takes advantage of each and every opportunity to break mental habits that have unpleasant results and to develop ones that have pleasant results. Meditation is one of the techniques used to modify the habit patterns of the mind, as are speaking or refraining from speaking and acting or refraining from acting in certain ways. The whole of the Buddhist life is a training to purify and free the mind. For example, if being patient and kind were a pronounced part of your character in your last life, such tendencies would re-emerge in the present life. If they are encouraged and further developed in the present life they will re-emerge even stronger and more pronounced in the future life. This is based upon the simple and observable fact that long established habits tend to be difficult to break. Now, when you are patient and kind, it tends to happen that you are not easily ruffled by others, you don’t hold grudges, people like you and thus your experience tends to be happier.

Take another example. Let us say that you came into life with the tendency to be patient and kind due to your mental habits in the past life. But in the present life you neglect to strengthen and develop such tendencies. They would gradually weaken and die out and perhaps be completely absent in the future life. Patience and kindness being weak in this case, there is a possibility that either in this life or in the next life, a short temper, anger and cruelty could grow and develop, bringing with them all the unpleasant experiences such attitudes create.

We will take one last example. Let us say that due to your mental habits in the last life, you came into the present life with the tendency to be short-tempered and angry and you realize that such habits only cause unpleasantness. If you are only able to weaken such tendencies, they would re-emerge in the next life where with a bit more effort, they could be eliminated completely and you could be free from their unpleasant effects.

QUESTION: So does Buddhism teach that there is free will?

ANSWER: The Buddha said that there are three false views concerning human experience – that everything happens randomly, that everything is due to the will of a supreme god and that everything is caused by past kamma (Anguttara Nikaya I,173). As said before, our kamma conditions us rather than determines us. Human will is like riding a horse. I want the horse to go one way, one speed, to canter or to gallop, and she has her own ideas. If I have the experience and the confidence I can make her do what I want. If the horse senses that I am weak or inexperienced she will take no notice of me and do exactly what she wants, despite my wishes. Further, apart from my wishes the horse has limited capabilities. If I want her to go 50 km an hour but she does not have the strength to go that fast, it will not happen no matter how much I want it or how much I push her. A pleasant ride on a horse is conditioned by multiple factors and it is the same with human will. So you can say we don’t have free will, our will is conditioned, like everything else.

Of course, the more we develop our will, the more patience and persistence we have, the more we can change in positive ways. This is the whole purpose of the Noble Eightfold Path.

QUESTION: Is it possible to come into contact in the next life with the people you have known in this life?

ANSWER: Yes, it is. Once an old gentleman and his wife who had been married for many years and who loved each other deeply, told the Buddha that just as they had ‘beheld’ each other in this life they wanted to do so in the next life too. The Buddha said that if their affinity with each other was strong and if they had a similar level of faith, virtue, generosity and understanding, that this could happen. When two people meet and have an immediate affinity with each other which develops into an enduring and deep friendship or love, a Buddhist would say that it is quite possible that they had a connection in a former life. This is yet another very positive aspect of rebirth – that the bonds between people can endure beyond death.

QUESTION: You have talked a lot about rebirth but is there any proof that we are reborn when we die?

ANSWER: Not only is there scientific evidence to support the Buddhist belief in rebirth, it is the only after-life theory that has any evidence to support it. There is not a scrap of evidence to prove the existence of heaven and of course evidence of annihilation at death must be lacking. But during the last 30 years, parapsychologists have been studying reports that some people have vivid memories of their former lives. For example, in England, a five-year old girl said she could remember her ‘other mother and father’ and she talked vividly about what sounded like the events in the life of another person. Parapsychologists were called in and they asked hundreds of questions to which the girl gave answers. She spoke of living in a particular village in what appeared to be Spain, she gave the name of the village, the name of the street she lived in, her neighbors’ names and details about her everyday life there. She also tearfully spoke of how she had been struck by a car and died of her injuries two days later. When these details were checked, they were found to be accurate. There was a village in Spain with the name the girl had given. There was a house of the type she had described in the street she had named. What is more, it was found that a 23-year old woman living in the house had been killed in a car accident five years before. Now how is it possible for a five-year old girl living in England and who had never been to Spain to know all these details? And of course, this is not the only case of this type. Professor Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia’s Department of Psychology has described dozens of cases of this type in his books. He was an accredited scientist whose 25-year study of people who remember former lives is very strong evidence for the Buddhist teaching of rebirth. (See Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation and Cases of Reincarnation Type, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1975.)

QUESTION: Some people might say that the supposed ability to remember former lives is the work of devils.

ANSWER: You simply cannot dismiss everything that doesn’t fit into your belief as being the work of devils. When cold hard facts are produced to support an idea, you must use rational and logical arguments if you wish to counter them – not irrational and superstitious talk about devils.

QUESTION: You could say that talk about rebirth is a bit superstitious also?

ANSWER: The dictionary defines superstition as ‘a belief which is not based on reason or fact but on an association of ideas, as in magic.’ If you can show me a careful study of the existence of devils written by a scientist I will concede that belief in devils is not superstition. But I have never heard of any research into devils. Scientists simply wouldn’t bother to study such things, so I say there is no evidence for the existence of devils. But as we have just seen, there is evidence which seems to suggest that rebirth does take place. If belief in rebirth is based on at least some facts, it cannot be a superstition.

QUESTION: Well, have there been any scientists who believe in rebirth?

ANSWER: Yes. Thomas Huxley, who was responsible for having science introduced into the British school system in the 19th century and who was the first scientist to defend Darwin’s theories, believed that reincarnation was a very plausible idea. In his famous book, Evolution and Ethics and other Essays, he says:

‘In the doctrine of transmigration, whatever its origin, Brahmanical and Buddhist speculation found, ready to hand, the means of constructing a plausible vindication of the ways of the Cosmos to man … Yet this plea of justification is not less plausible than others; and none but very hasty thinkers will reject it on the ground of inherent absurdity. Like the doctrine of evolution itself, that of transmigration has its roots in the world of reality; and it may claim such support as the great argument from analogy is capable of supplying.’

Professor Gustaf Stromberg, the famous Swedish astronomer, physicist and friend of Einstein also found the idea of rebirth appealing.

Opinions differ whether human souls can be reincarnated on the earth or not. In 1936 a very interesting case was thoroughly investigated and reported by the government authorities in India. A girl (Shanti Devi from Delhi) could accurately describe her previous life (at Muttra, five hundred miles from Delhi) which ended about a year before her “second birth”. She gave the name of her husband and child and described her home and life history. The investigating commission brought her to her former relatives, who verified all her statements. Among the people of India reincarnations are regarded as commonplace; the astonishing thing for them in this case was the great number of facts the girl remembered. This and similar cases can be regarded as additional evidence for the theory of the indestructibility of memory.’

Professor Julian Huxley, the distinguished British scientist who was Director General of UNESCO, believed that rebirth was quite in harmony with scientific thinking.

There is nothing against a permanently surviving spirit-individuality being in some way given off at death, as a definite wireless message is given off by a sending apparatus working in a particular way. But it must be remembered that the wireless message only becomes a message again when it comes in contact with a new, material structure – the receiver. It … would never think or feel unless again ‘embodied’ in some way. Our personalities are so based on body that it is really impossible to think of survival which would be in any true sense personal without a body of sorts … I can think of something being given off which would bear the same relation to men and women as a wireless message to the transmitting apparatus; but in that case ‘the dead’ would, so far as one can see, be nothing but disturbances of different patterns wandering through the universe until … they … came back to actuality of consciousness by making contact with something which could work as a receiving apparatus for mind.’

Even very practical and down-to-earth people like the American industrialist Henry Ford found the idea or rebirth acceptable. Ford was attracted to the idea because it gives one a second chance to develop oneself. Henry Ford said:

I adopted the theory of Reincarnation when I was twenty-six…Religion offered nothing to the point…Even work could not give me complete satisfaction. Work is futile if we cannot utilize the experience we collect in one life in the next. When I discovered Reincarnation it was as if I had found a universal plan. I realized that there was a chance to work out my ideas. Time was no longer limited. I was no longer a slave to the hands of the clock… Genius is experience. Some seem to think that it is a gift or talent, but it is the fruit of long experience in many lives. Some are older souls than others, and so they know more… The discovery of Reincarnation put my mind at ease… If you preserve a record of this conversation, write it so that it puts men’s minds at ease. I would like to communicate to others the calmness that the long view of life gives to us.’

So the Buddhist teaching of rebirth does have some scientific basis, it is logically consistent and it goes a long way to answering some important questions about human destiny. But it is also very comforting. According to Buddha, if you failed to attain Nirvana in this life, you will have the opportunity to try again next time. If you have made mistakes in this life, you will be able to correct yourself in the next life. You will truly be able to learn from your mistakes. Things you were unable to do or achieve in this life may well become possible in the next life. What a wonderful teaching!

QUESTION: Much of what you have said so far is very intellectually satisfying but I must admit that I am still a bit skeptical about rebirth.

ANSWER: That’s okay. Buddhism is not the type of religion you have to sign up to and commit yourself to believing everything it teaches. What is the point of forcing yourself to believe things you just can’t believe? You can still practice those things that you find helpful, accept those ideas that you understand and benefit from them, without believing in rebirth. Who knows! In time you may come to see the truth of rebirth.