I'm confused over Buddhism's lack of afterlife, yet belief in rebirth.

From reading answers given on this site, there is no rebirth of the self or consciousness. Logically then any concern of either suffering from bad karma in a next life, or being reborn as an animal is unwarranted.

Although apparently death leads to rebirth, Nirvana appears futile as life will continue to reproduce unhindered. Life is far more effective at producing more life than death is.

What does Nirvana offer that death does not? It would seem they both lead to oblivion.

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    It's not that Buddhists believe in rebirth, it's that Buddhists don't believe in death. Aug 20, 2015 at 16:42

5 Answers 5


The question of what happens to a tathāgata after death is said to be avyākata or "unexplained". We know, negatively, that they do not undergo rebirth, since that is explicit, but we have no positive knowledge.

The question of how rebirth can work with no medium of continuity is not a trivial one. It has consumed Buddhist philosophers for centuries and we still debate the finer points.

For example, an orthodox Theravādin would say that each moment of mental activity is short lived and acts as a condition for the next moment. The last moment of mental activity (cuticitta) gives rise to a moment of consciousness somewhere else (paṭisandhicitta). But the Sarvāstivādins pointed out that the transition could not be instantaneous. The Theravādins had to insist it was instantaneous because any break in the stream would prevent the connection of causes to effects. The Sarvāstivādins had to invent a kind of interim realm (anatarābhava) which was not a rebirth, but which could account for the time it took for the citta to get from one to the next body). Unfortunately neither theory really explains rebirth. In the end there is no Buddhist description of conditionality that is entirely compatible with rebirth.

So you have hit upon a real weakness in Buddhist doctrine. And what we see is that in Buddhists texts where the message is about morality, a quite explicit personal continuity is implied that is quite at odds with the metaphysics of dependent arising. In fact Buddhists seem to switch back and forth between denying continuity and stressing the consequences of actions without noticing the howling contradiction.

The question of the five aggregates is also non-trivial. These have typically been seen as summing up all the physical and mental phenomena of existence (Nyanatiloka, Buddhist Dictionary). An important contribution to understanding the khandhas was made by Dr Sue Hamilton in two Books, the most accessible of which is Early Buddhism: A New Approach. In these books Dr Hamilton shared the results of studying every reference to khandhas in the Pāḷi suttas. Firstly they seemed to have nothing to do with existence. Dr Hamilton argued that the khandhas were more like the factors of experience. Indeed she influentially argued that Buddhist texts in general were commenting on experience rather than existence (or reality).

It can be useful to ask what the Buddhist texts refer to when they say that "things arise independence on causes". What is meant by things. A careful reading of Buddhist texts shows that was is mainly meant is dhammas - the objects of the mind sense (manas). Sometimes this is metaphorically linked to the world (loka), meaning "the world of experience" and sometimes to dukkha, which in this case is equivalent to unenlightened experience.

Now the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15) says of this world of experience that talking about it in terms of existence (atthi) or non-existence (n'atthi). when experiences arise, it's not that experience exists or doesn't. It arises and it passes away. We have an experience and then it's gone. What was it that could have existed? Since the khandhas are just the factors, or even processes that make up experience, they have the same characteristics. The don't exist while you have an experience, or cease to exist when the experience stops. Experience is presence without substance. This is why experience is likened to a soap bubble, a dream, etc.

Nirvāṇa only really makes sense in an intellectual milieu in which rebirth is a given and seen as something to be avoided. But as prof. Richard Hayes once said:

“And if there is no rebirth, then the very goal of attaining nirvāṇa, understood as the cessation of rebirth, becomes almost perfectly meaningless. Or rather, nirvāṇa comes automatically to every living being that dies, regardless of how that being has lived.” (Hayes 1993: 13)*

For many of us who are engaged with both tradition and modernity this poses a major problem. It is apparent that there can be no rebirth under the known natural laws of universe. And yet this statement appears to disembowel traditional Buddhism and make it meaningless. And yet in the face of this theoretical argument, many people find Buddhist practices very helpful in many different kinds of ways. Whether or not there is rebirth, the practice of meditation, puja, mantra chanting, etc remains. As yet there is no very good way of explaining why we would still call this Buddhism. Maybe in the future we won't. Some people who think like this call themselves Secular Buddhists. Other labels are being tried.

  • Hayes, Richard (1993). ‘Dharmakīrti on punarbhava’ In Egaku Maeda (ed), Studies in Original Buddhism and Mahayāna Buddhism. Kyōto: Nagata Bunshodo. Volume One, p. 111–30.

"No afterlife" means, from a Buddhist perspective, that there is no ego-centered identity to experience that afterlife. After life, the ego entity created by the human mind is no more but the consciousness in which that individual was operating in never dies.

As Andrei_Volkov answered, the Buddhist perspective likens consciousness to a vast ocean. The Five Aggregates are what happens as consciousness becomes embroiled and enmeshed in straits and currents, like tidepools on the coastline where water can be "trapped". If it mixes with pollutants here, it will still contain them if swallowed by a stork or channeled elsewhere. This is karma and it is a causative process stretching infinitely.

The human brain reasons and automates judgement which can blind one and veil true causation and the true nature of things. For instance, the human brain contains two dedicated regions in the parietal lobe: one to keep track of the body's boundaries ("elbow: check! nose: check! right arm: check!..." and another to keep track of the body in space. These regions greatly contribute to the human sense of ego or I-ness or self. There is no afterlife for this sense of self that is delimited by skin and bound in space. However, consciousness channeled through the eddies of the individual will forever return to the ocean (rebirth) carrying the traces of its course (the five aggregates).

Nirvana, the great blowing or washing out, is only possible when the water returns to its pure and primordial state. Death will always accompany life, and to the Buddhist death is only a turning point on a great wheel of eternity. Nirvana refers to the complete freedom, beyond conception. Nirvana is not a possibility only after death. Despite the rendering of the phrase "to enter Nirvana", it is not an "arrival" like you die and you go there instead of somewhere else. It is freedom from the perspective that otherwise glues consciousness to life, but in an ultimate sense - not a temporary conceptualization within an individual mind's understanding.

To explicitly answer your question, Nirvana offers nothing -- and death doesn't exist -- it begets more life. Like night and day, they are just vantages from a stationary point on the rotating earth. The sun just shines and gravity just propels and it makes a whole horse-and-pony show out of next to nothing. Again, Nirvana offers nothing.

  • Hi and welcome to Buddhism SE. We have put together a Guide and a Resource section for new users that you might find useful.
    – user2424
    Aug 21, 2015 at 1:58

From Buddhist perspective, consciousness is not an entity. Instead, life is like the sea, with currents mixing and separating all the time. In that sea of life, there is rebirth of hangups (pathological preconceptions) - and with them comes the rebirth of suffering patterns. That's the perspective.

Nirvana is better than death because

  • A. you can be free from suffering while still alive, and
  • B. the lives downstream will not inherit your share of ignorance-suffering and will hopefully inherit some wisdom-freedom.

When it looks as though someone has died, the someone is really just experiencing another change and then is changed(rebirth). Death and rebirth is just change. When we are alive, we die and are reborn ever moment in the form of changes in the mind-body. Nirvana means you have let go of everything, even your desire to exist or not to exist. So the difference between Nibbana and death is that one has to desire to understand the reality of the body and mind's experience to achieve Nibbana because otherwise we will desire to go on existing and dying. The only requirement for death is birth.


The Buddha never ever taught the concept of " emptiness" (all phenomena is empty of inherent existence). This concept was added by later Buddhist schools hundreds of years after the Buddha died. The Buddha taught that all phenomenon is empty of self because the self transcends all phenomenon. If this were not so, then the self woul be temporal and we would all be up s creek without a paddle.This realization is Nirvana, and because Nirvana exists, you have hope of escape from eternal suffering of samsara and this life is not a tale told by an idiot.

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