WHAT REBIRTH IS
Vol. X, No. 2, 1963
With regard to the question of Rebirth there can be two views; one, that life continues, in some form or other after death; the other, that life ends with death, and that there is nothing left after death. There are many people in the world to-day who hold the latter view and reject the former for the simple reason that there is no direct proof or that it is impossible to demonstrate that life ends in one place, and then manifests itself or is re-born in some other place. Experiments have been made, and are still being made, but scientists have not been able to understand the mysteries in the working of the life-force within the body that is before them. Here some say that animals, which are the victims of their experiments, have no life-force which can continue after death. But what of human beings? Methods of observation have been vastly improved within recent years by medical men and biologists. Yet no light has been thrown on this question of Rebirth.
Turning now the other view, namely, that life ends up with death, and that there is no rebirth, is there any direct proof of this? Has this been demonstrated? There is no such proof, and this has not been demonstrated. This important fact is too often forgotten or over-looked by seekers after truth, by honest materialists and those who, owing to their habit of arguing against the doctrine of Rebirth, casually assume that there is no rebirth. They have no valid proof which would warrant them in coming to such a conclusion.
To explain this fact the following dialogue from Payasi Sutta - III, Digha Nikaya, is cited here:-
Brahmin: Venerable Sir, one day my servants brought a criminal to me and I had him put alive into a big jar. When its mouth had been closed with a piece of wet leather and sealed with clay, it was put into the furnace and the fire was kindled.
When I knew that the criminal was dead I ordered the servants to take out the jar and to unbind its mouth. I watched carefully for the soul to come out. But no soul appeared. From this evidence I concluded that there is no life after death.
Thera: Permit me to question you. Do you remember ever to have dreamt during your siesta that you were enjoying yourself in gardens or in groves?
Brahmin: Yes, Venerable Sir, I can remember such a dream.
Thera: During your siesta were you not surrounded by your attendants'?
Brahmin : Yes, Venerable Sir, they were attending me.
Thera: Did they see your soul leaving your body to go to these gardens or re-entering on its return?
Brahmin: They have not said so, Venerable Sir.
Thera: Then, Sir, if they cannot see your soul either leaving or entering your body while you are still alive, how can you see any other soul at its departure for another life?
Brahmin: Venerable Sir, I shall have reason to retain my view.
Thera: What reason?
Brahmin : Once, Venerable Sir, a felon was brought to me by my ministers. I ordered them first to weigh him, then to strangle him with a string and afterwards to weigh him again. They did so. While he was alive he was light and supple, after his death he became stiffer and heavier. This too concerns my view.
Thera: Suppose, Sir, that you weigh an iron-ball when it is red-hot and again weigh it when it is cool. Tell me when will it be lighter and more plastic.
Brahmin: Venerable Sir, when it is red-hot it will be lighter and more plastic.
Thera: In the same way, Sir, this body, when it has heat, vitality and consciousness, is lighter and more supple than when it is in any other state. You have still no reason to deny the continuance of life after death.
Brahmin: But still I cannot believe that it is possible.
Thera: Have you any other reason for your disbelief?
Brahmin: Yes, Venerable Sir, I have. Once when a criminal was caught and brought to me I ordered my men to kill him by stripping off his skin, flesh and sinews, and even to separate the marrow from the bones. They did so. I watched intently for his soul to leave him but it was of no avail. But now that body had eyes but could not see, it had ears but could not hear, a nose but could not smell, a tongue but could not taste, a body but could not touch proves that the soul neither issues nor remains at death but destroyed, and with it the possibility of future birth.
Thera: Well Sir, I will tell you a parable. Once a trumpeter, taking with him his conch-shell trumpet, went into the country. In the middle of the village, having sounded it three times, he laid it on the ground and seated himself close by. The villagers who had never heard a trumpet before, came and asked what sound that was. He said it was the sound of the conch-shell trumpet. Then, standing the trumpet first on one end and then on the other end, turning it on this side and on that, they struck it and cried, "Speak Sir, trumpet! speak !'
The trumpeter watched their foolish efforts and at last he took it up and blew it thrice. Then they understood that it made sound only in conjunction with three other things, a man, his effort and the air. In the same way this body in union with heat, vitality and consciousness can walk and sit and talk. But without these three it can do nothing. The possibility of the continuance of life in other bodies does not seem to me to be disproved by your arguments.
Brahmin: But still it seems to me, Venerable Sir, that this continuance is impossible.
Thera: What other reason have you for your view?
Brahmin : Once, Venerable Sir, I had a certain felon flayed alive that I might see his soul pass out. But I did not see it when I had his skin, flesh, and nerves stripped off, his bones broken and their marrow extracted. But although he was now certainly dead still I had not seen his soul pass out of his body.
Brahmin : Sir, I will tell you a parable. A fire-worshipper who had to go out on business, asked his pupil, a little boy, to keep up the fire or to rekindle it if it should go out, and he showed him some sticks, a hatchet and the fire drill. Presently the fire went out. Wishing to rekindle it the boy took the hatchet and chopped the sacks at the fire-drill into very small pieces. At last even he powdered them and scattered their dust in the wind, but he got no fire. Meanwhile the fire-worshipper returned and with great surprise saw what had happened. He told the boy that by this method he would never get fire and showed him how to make it. Like that foolish boy, Sir, you are searching for future in vain by means of wrong views which can only bring you suffering and ruin.
What is Death?
According to Buddhism death is "the temporary end of a temporary phenomenon." It is not the complete annihilation of the being, for although the organic life has ceased, the Kammic force which hitherto actuated it is not destroyed. Our forms are only the outward manifestations of the invisible Kammic force. This force carries with it all characteristics which usually lie latent but may rise to the surface at any moment. When the present form perishes another form takes its place according to a good or bad volitional impulse (Kamma that was the most powerful) at the moment just before death.
At death the Kammic force remains entirely undisturbed by the disintegration of the physical body and the passing away of the present consciousness conditions the coming into being of a fresh one in another birth. The stream of consciousness flows on. "Life, then, in the Buddhist view of things, is like an ever-changing river, having its source in birth, its goal in death receiving from the tributary streams of senses constant accretions to its flood, and ever dispensing to the world around it the thought-stuff it has gathered up by the way." (Compendium of Philosophy, p. 12) The continuity of flux at death is unbroken in point of time, and there is no breach in the stream of consciousness and so there is no room whatever for an intermediate stage between this life and the next or between any two lives. The only difference between the passing of one ordinary thought-moment( or one unit of consciousness) to another and of dying thought-moment (consciousness) to the rebirth-consciousness is that in the former case the change is invisible and in the latter case a marked perceptible death is visible. Rebirth takes place immediately.
It may be asked: Is the place always ready to receive their rebirth? The answer is: As a point in the ground is always ready to receive the falling stone, so there is always an appropriate place to receive the rebirth which is conditioned by the natural law of Kamma.
Death being a momentary incident, rebirth is immediate. Some years ago it might have been doubtful about such rapidity in the transmission of the life-force; but in these days of scientific methods of investigation we know of such rapid transmission of energy in wireless telegraphy and telephony. Solid walls do not prevent the radio waves from reaching an appropriate receiving set within a room. The transmission of the life-force from one existence to another may be compared to a receiving set that responds to the particular wave-length sent out from a distance of thousands of miles. It is more like the tuning-fork which vibrates in response to a particular note of a particular wave length in the musical scale. So long as a musical note sets up vibrations in the air, so long will some tuning-fork that is responsive to that particular note, vibrate in unison.
When the vibrations of the musical note cease the tuning-fork will cease to vibrate to that note. And so it is with that restless Kammic force or life-force which continues to bring about births through appropriate germ-plasms or other life-conditions till that restless Kammic force ceases to exist in the peace of Nibbana.
Is the New Being the Same as the Previous One?
In the words of the late Bhikkhu Silacara, "This new being which is the present manifestation of the stream of Kamma-energy is not the same as, and has no identity with the previous one in its line; the aggregate that makes up its composition being different from, and having no identity with, those that make up the being of its predecessor. And yet it is not an entirely different being, since it has the same stream of Kamma-energy, though modified perchance just by having shown itself in that last manifestation, which is now making its presence known in the sense perceptible world as the new being."
If we were to obtain a quick motion picture of any particular individual's life from his birth to his death, the most striking fact that would attract our attention would be the changefulness that we should find running right through the series of pictures. The infant changes to the child, the child to the adult, and the adult to the decrepit old person who collapses to death. This change goes on in every part of the individual's body; and not only that but in the mind also. So that any adult individual who surveys his existence will realise that the child that was, is now no more. That child had a different body, in size as well as in form, different likes and dislikes, and different aspirations. That child is almost a stranger to the present adult individual. And yet the adult individual is responsible for whatever he has done in his childhood because there is a continuity or identity in the process of life-force from childhood to manhood as a child becomes a man.
In exactly the same way the new being has the same stream of Kammic energy or life force as its predecessor, so it is responsible for whatever its predecessor has done. This new being has as much identity with the previous one as the adult individual of to-day has with the child that was; nothing less and nothing more.
This is well expressed in the Milinda Panna. King Milinda asked Arahant Nagasena if he who is reborn remains the same or becomes another. "Neither - the same nor another", was the answer he received.
"Suppose, O King, that a man were to light a lamp, would it burn the night through?
"Yes, it might do so, Venerable Sir".
"Now is it the same flame that burns in the first watch of the night, Sir, and in the second ?"
"No, Venerable Sir."
"Or the same that burns in the second watch and in the third?"
"No, Venerable Sir."
"Then is there one lamp in the first watch, and another in the second, and another in the third ?"
"No, the light comes from the same lamp all the night through".
"Just so, O King, is the continuity of a person or a thing maintained. One passes away, another comes into being; and the rebirth is, as it were, simultaneous. Thus, neither as the same nor as another does a man go on to the last phase of his self-consciousness."
Asked for another illustration, Arahatta Nagasena gives that of milk which, once it is taken from the cow, after a lapse of time, turns first to curds, and then from curds to butter, and then from butter to ghee. Just as it would not be correct to say that the milk was the same thing as the curds, or the butter, or the ghee, but that they are produced out of it, so, he points out, continuity of a person or a thing is maintained in the same way.
There is also the illustration of the wave of water in the lake or the ocean. A certain mass of water is raised up as a wave. As the wave passes on, or seems to pass on, a moment or so later it is not the same mass of water that forms the wave, but a different mass altogether. And yet we speak of the wave "passing on."
The Present being, present existence, is continued by how one faced circumstances in the last, and in all past existences. One's present position in character and circumstances is the result of all that one has been up to the present; but what one will be in the future depends on what one does now in the present. The true Buddhist regards death as a momentary incident between one life and its successor, and views its approach with calmness. His only concern is that his future should be such that the conditions of that life may provide him with better opportunities for perfecting himself. Holding, as he does, the great doctrine of Kamma, he perceives that it is within the power to alter or modify the quality of the life-force that continues in the next birth, and that his future environment will depend entirely on what he does, upon how he behaves, in this and in his previous lives.
Memory of Past Lives
Buddhism teaches that with the practice of concentration and meditation, memory can be trained. By meditation and mind-culture one can acquire the power to see the rebirth as a link or a succession of links, in a chain of births; one also can acquire the power of looking back into one's previous lives. Not only this, but further Buddhism teaches that through enlightenment or true wisdom, one can see the end of this chain of births.
There are on record instances of people who have possessed wonderful memories, some for what they had once read, others for music and so on. Still others there are who have remembered their past lives. The average person's memory is very poor indeed. There are not many, who can recount the day's activities correctly and in detail. How then can they remember their youth, childhood, infancy, foetal life, and their past life before this present one? The fact that they do not remember their past activities, is no proof that they did not exist in the past. We hear of Australian aborigines who can never learn to count more than two; they say "one, two, more", and some of them cannot remember things from one day to another.
What would you think if one of these men were to come to you and say: "There never was a yesterday, for I cannot remember it; and there can be no tomorrow or some of us would have seen one." You would think him very foolish indeed for imagining he could have grown to manhood in one day, and you would probably wonder how he explained the fact that he knows certain things belong to him, and recognises his relatives, his friends and his enemies at sight if he has not seen and known them before today.
It would seem so clear that he brought over the knowledge from the yesterday he cannot remember, and it would seem strange to you that he did not notice how babies grow into children, and children into men and women, since no baby grows into a man or woman in one day.
Now there are people among us, who are very wise in many ways, yet they treat the theory of Rebirth in exactly the same way that the Australian aboriginal treats the, to him, theory of past yesterday. Merely because they cannot remember their past lives, they deny that there can have been any past lives.
To students of Buddhism this seems a very foolish position, for they are taught neither to accept nor reject any teaching until they have examined all the evidence for it, and have experimented with it themselves to see if it is true. Having proved by these means that it is true or untrue, a Buddhist should live accordingly as if he believes or disbelieves; but he must never judge others or be impatient if they can not see things as he sees. He must be tolerant to all, even to the intolerant, and he must always remember that what is proof to one person may not be proof to another. What each needs is experience to see, to hear, to feel for himself; and, having done so, he has no right to ask others to believe before they also have experienced.
It is common to read in the Buddhist literature of the Buddha and many of his disciples speaking not only of their own past lives but those of others also, and often, too, of their future lives. Having attained his final enlightenment and developed higher spiritual powers, the Buddha declares, "I recalled my varied lot in former existences as follows: first one life, then two lives, then three, four, five, ten, twenty up to fifty lives: then a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, and so forth." He also says; "With clairvoyant vision, I perceived beings disappearing from one state of existence and reappearing in another. I beheld the base and the noble, the beautiful and the ugly, the happy and the miserable passing according to their deeds." (Sutta No. 36, Majjhima Nikaya I, 248).
There are several discourses in which the Buddha clearly states that the beings who have done evil are born in woeful states; and those who have done good are born in blissful states. All the Jataka stories which are not only interesting but of psychological importance, deal with the Buddha's previous lives. By following his instructions the Buddha's disciples also developed certain spiritual powers and were able to remember their past lives to a great extent.
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