Rebirth - Questions and Answers
In India, approximately 2,500 years ago, the Buddha taught that we go through beginningless lifetimes in an endless succession. After death there follows a kind of intermediate state (Tib. bardo), and then we are born again into a new life. Death is therefore not an end point, but an intermediate one.
Rebirth is not exactly the same as reincarnation, and these two are often confused. In reincarnation it is assumed that an unchanging soul transfers from one body to another, as is taught in Hinduism. In Buddhism, however, it is taught that the mind is a constant state of flux, constantly moving and consisting of multiple levels. At death, the grosser parts of the mind are released, and only the subtlest aspect of the (ever-changing) mind continues.
In what kind of situation and in what kind of body we are born again depends upon our individual karma. The more good deeds - good karma - you have created, the more auspicious rebirth you will achieve. With rebirth we speak of a causal relationship between one life and the next life because the karmic bonds determine the next life. Performing a lot of negative deeds, like killing, stealing and lying are bound to cause us a lot of problems in our next life.
- Below are some frequently asked questions about rebirth and some concise answers:
- What is Rebirth?
- How did our minds begin? Who or what created the mind?
- What connects one life to the next? Is there a soul, atman, or real personality that passes from one life to another?
- Where does the world come from?
- Why can't we remember our past lives?
- Is it important to remember our past lives?
What is Rebirth?
Rebirth refers to one's mind inhabiting one body after another. Body and mind are considered separate phenomena: the body is matter and made up of atoms, whereas the mind, which refers to all our emotional and intellectual experiences, is formless or matterless. When body and mind are connected we are alive, but when we die they separate again. The body then becomes a corpse and the mind moves on to another body.
How did our minds begin? Who or what created the mind?
Every current moment of mind is a continuation of the previous one: who we are, what we think and feel is based on who we were yesterday. Our present mind is a continuation of yesterday's. Therefore, we can remember what happened to us in the past. The one moment of mind is thus caused by the preceding moment of mind. This continuity goes back to our childhood and even to when we were a fetus in the womb. From the Buddhist perspective, even before conception, our mindstream already existed: the preceding moments of this mindstream were simply connected to a different body.
There is actually no beginning to our mind. Why should there be a beginning? Our mind is beginningless and infinite. This may be a bit difficult to grasp at first, but when we look at a number sequence, for example, it becomes much easier. If we look to the left from the zero point, there is no absolute first negative number. Similarly, if we look to the right there is no last highest number because an additional number can always be added. In the same way, our mindstream has neither a beginning nor an end. We have all had countless past lives and our minds will live on ad infinitum. However, by working in this life with our mind, we can ensure that our future lives will be better than our present life.
According to Buddhism, every moment of mind is caused by the preceding moment of consciousness. If there were a beginning, it would mean that the first moment of mind would either have no cause or that it would have been caused by something other than a preceding moment of mind. But neither of these possibilities makes sense, for mind can only be produced by a preceding mind moment in its own continuum. According to Buddhism, the brain is therefore not the cause of our consciousness, but at most a part of the body where the mind temporarily manifests itself.
What connects one life to the next? Is there a soul, atman, self or real personality that passes from one life to another?
Our mind has both gross and subtle levels. There are the sense consciousnesses that see, hear, smell, taste and feel, and the gross mental consciousness, which is always so busy thinking about everything and functions very actively during our lives. The moment we die the gross consciousness ceases to function and is absorbed into the subtle mental consciousness. This subtle mental consciousness contains all the impressions of the things we have ever done (karma).
It is this subtle mind that leaves one body, enters the intermediate stage (bardo) and is finally reborn in another body. After the subtle mind unites with the new body during conception, the gross sense consciousness and gross mental consciousness reappear so that that person can see, hear, think, etc. once again. This subtle mind, which moves from one life to another is constantly changing and therefore it is not considered a soul, atman (immutable), self or real, permanently existing self. Instead, the Buddha taught the doctrine of selflessness so that we don't cling to the idea of an unchanging, permanently existing self.
Where does the world come from?
Everything that exists arises from the causes and conditions that were able to produce it. Something cannot be created out of nothing. The material world (form) has emerged from previous moments of matter/energy. In Buddhism, it is said that even the entire universe goes through a kind of rebirth. Science may one day discover what the Buddha has already taught: that at the inception of our universe there were subtler physical elements (energy) from which our current universe has emerged. These more subtle physical elements, in turn, were a continuation of universes that existed before our present universe. In this way we can trace the continuity of matter and energy back to infinity. So in Buddhism, there is no creator or God that is said to have created the universe out of nothing. Instead, the universe also experiences cycles of creation and decay, or in other words, a kind of rebirth.
Why can't we remember our past lives?
The reason we usually cannot remember our past lives is because we are normally only aware of the grosser aspects of our mind, which does not contain past life memories. When we learn to see the subtler aspects of our mind, memories from past lives can also come back.
Right now, our minds are obscured by ignorance, making it difficult to remember the past with any clarity. We can scarcely remember what we did just a few years ago, or what we had for dinner last month. Moreover, when we die and are born again, many changes in body and mind take place that make memories of previous lives difficult. Just because we don't remember something doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Sometimes we don't even remember where we put our keys ten minutes ago.
However, there are people who remember their past lives, especially if this is accepted in the culture, such as in India for example.
In the Tibetan community there is even a system by which one recognizes the reincarnations of highly realized masters. It is quite common that, as young children, these former masters recognize their friends or possessions from a past life. Even ordinary people sometimes remember a past life through meditation or hypnosis. However, a Buddha has transcended all ignorance, and therefore can remember each of their countless past lives.
Is it important to remember our past lives?
From the Buddhist perspective, nothing in life is new, as we have pretty much been everything and done everything in our many past lives in this beginningless cycle of existence. It is now important that we no longer create additional negative energy, and that we try to purify our accumulated negative energy. We should make an effort in this life to gather positive energy and develop our good qualities.
There is a Tibetan saying, "If you want to know what your past life was like, look at your present circumstances. If you want to know what your future life will be like, look at your present mind."
Our present rebirth is the result of past activities (karma). Our current human rebirth is a fortunate rebirth and the reason for this is that we adhered to a strict moral discipline in past lives. On the other hand, our future rebirths will be determined by the activities we perform now, and it is our own mind that dictates all of our activities. So by looking at whether our motivations and current behaviors are positive or negative, we can form an idea of the kind of rebirth we will experience in the future. We don't have to go to a fortune teller to find out how we will fare: we can simply look at what we think and do, and what impressions we leave behind on our mind stream.
See the next page: Love, compassion and the enlightenment spirit