One topic that confuses me is that of rebirth, and how individuality may relate to it.

I've heard/read that the buddhist concept of rebirth is different than the popular concept of reincarnation, though I haven't found a clear explanation of the difference.

One metaphor that I've seem more than once is that of the flame in a candle, that can be transmitted to another candle, the idea being that of a certain continuity.

However, I think that poses a challenge to the idea of individuality. For instance, a flame may be transmitted to another candle, and still exist simultaneously in the first candle. The equivalent in terms of human life would be some content of the mind of Joe being somehow transmitted to another person (or multiple individuals) while still existing in the mind of Joe (that is, during his lifetime).

Also, a flame can be formed from 2 or more sources, for instance, we might use match and a lighter to light a single candle. Conversely, one candle can transmit its flame to several other candles or objects. In terms of humans, that would be like the contents of the mind, or the karma, of Joe, being transmitted to Peter, Mary and Jeff after Joe's death. In that case, if Joe's karma is a mix of good/bad actions, presumably some of his "heirs" could get a good or bad portion of the karma by sheer luck. Also, we might imagine that the karma, or the contents of the minds of three different people, Peter, Mary and Jeff, combine after their deaths and then "land" on a newborn baby, Joe. In that case, If, say, Jeff was a really bad person, but Mary and Peter were really good, then Joe might receive a good "inheritance", and, in that sense, Jeff's bad karma would have been "diluted" by those of Mary and Peter.

What I'm getting at here is that, the way the candle metaphor is presented, it seems to be incompatible with the idea of individuality.

On the other hand, if we think that the karma of Joe will be transferred to some individual being or entity or person after Joe's death, and that Joe's present conditions are affected by the karma of only a single being in the past (as opposed to being the amalgamation of 2 or more karmas), then in this case individuality is preserved. But in that case, how does the concept of rebirth differs or is incompatible with the popular concepts of reincarnation and soul?

If Joe's karma gets transmitted after his death to Jeff, and after Jeff's death his karma gets transmitted to Mary, etc, isn't that tantamount to the idea of a soul? I think some people might object and say that the soul is like a "thing" that has infinite existence, while in the buddhist view there's a constant change, and constant creation of karma. But, to use another metaphor, wouldn't that be like comparing a tree, from the seed stage to a full grown tree? We might say that the full tree is not really the sapling, and the sapling is not the seed it once was, and that is true in one sense, but in another sense, the tree is still the same "being" as the seed. One seed will not generate 2 or more trees, and 2 or more seeds will not combine to form a single tree. Regardless of the definition of "continuity" that we choose, there's clearly a sense of individuality.

Where does buddhism stand on that?

  • I think this topic is a duplicate of If there is no soul, how can there be rebirth?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 16:43
  • You are attempting to answer your own question disguised as "example" rather than using a clear, concise question format. Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 17:43
  • @Bonnie Topits. Not really. I used examples to clarify two different situations, explain why they are different and mutually exclusive in my understanding, and ask which of the two is the Buddhist view
    – Southbob
    Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 19:15

5 Answers 5


The flame analogy is not logical to me since, to me, a flame must depend on the fuel & wick, similar to how the mind must depend on the physical body & food. Imo, a flame cannot be 'disembodied', just as a mind cannot be disembodied. For example, when sparks spread fire (say in a forest fire), the sparks of fire are attached to some physical matter, such as leaves.

Similarly, the Pali suttas appear to state in many places (such a MN 38, SN 22.53 & SN 12.67) that there can be no arising of consciousness without a physical body & sense organs.

I have only read about a dozen or so places in the Pali suttas from around 8,000 suttas that teach about literal reincarnation (eg. AN 3.15, MN 143, MN 50, MN 81, etc). Since these contradict the main teachings, particularly SN 22.79 (which is about 'past dwellings' rather than 'past lives' & states all recollections of the past are not a 'self'), the impression arises these literal reincarnation suttas are later additions rather than the words of the Buddha.

The Pali suttas appear to explain the word 'birth' ('jati') as the mental generation of the mental idea, view or 'assumption' of 'beings' ('satta') or 'self-identity' ('sakkaya'); that, apart from 'view' or 'conceptual thought', there are no 'beings' to be found. It seems each time the mind believes it is a 'self', that is another 'birth' or 'rebirth'.

The impression of Buddhism I have is, as Buddhism grew in India, the clergy, keen to expand Buddhism, introduced reincarnation teachings (which are very appealing to many people), the most prominent being the Jataka Tales about the Buddha's past lives & similar suttas in the Digha Nikaya.

On face value, my personal view is the core teachings of the Buddha do not include life-to-life physical rebirth.


The Five Aggregates of Attachment are the five ways in which people attach themselves to the world and to the Self. Basically, there are five factors in the human person, all of which are constantly changing, and which make up the illusion of the human Self.

What the Buddha is trying to say is that the sum of these five parts does not make up a greater whole called the Self; all that exists are the parts. The Buddha wanted to remove the notion of the Self because he believed that the idea of the Self is the root of all suffering. It is your desire for self-satisfaction, self-existence, and self-advancement that create pain. If you remove the Self (realise there never was such a thing) suffering will go away. Since there is no soul or You, then there is no reincarnation. Buddha instead taught Rebirth. Rebirth does not involve getting a new body for an old soul (as taught in Hinduism). Instead, it is the continuation of the Five Aggregates in a long chain of cause and effect. Buddha taught that prior “sensations”, “perceptions”, and “mental formations” determine the “sensations”, “perceptions”, and “mental formations” of the next life; death does not end this chain.

  • 1
    Rightly it should be said as "the five aggregates of clinging". Only an Arahant (an enlightened being) would have the five aggregates only - void of the clinging. Commented Jun 15, 2016 at 2:06
  • Noted that there is a difference between the Theravada and the Vajrayana understanding of the Five Aggregates Commented Jun 15, 2016 at 4:38
  • But in those 5 aggregates, there are some that, combined, could be equivalent to the idea of a soul. For instance, the rupa or material form is not important in this case and could be separated, and maybe feeling and perception as well. But if consciousness and mental formations stay together, meaning, they determine the next life conditions of a single being, instead of possibly separating and influencing the formation of more than 1 being, then this idea is equivalent to that of a soul.
    – Southbob
    Commented Jun 15, 2016 at 12:56
  • @Southbob, why not ask this as a question, as it is a good one. 'Comment' space is too short for this. You are partly right, the two need each other. One cannot exist without the other. Also remember that there are six vinnana. Eye consciousness; Ear consciousness; Nose consciousness; Mouth consciousness; Body consciousness; Mind consciousness. With Nama & Rupa as condition, Sense Gates arises. With Nāmarūpa as condition, Salāyatana arises. Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 1:20
  • @Saptha Visuddhi. I basically rephrased my original question. But thanks for the clarification.
    – Southbob
    Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 2:06

You are right about a difference between the secular concept of rebirth and the Buddhist concept. Any secular definition will equate rebirth and reincarnation as the same thing. Within Tibetan Buddhism, it is the consciousness that is transferred from one life to the next, consciousness being one of the five aggregates that make up human existence; and more specifically subjective awareness. This process begins at death. It does not occur during the course of "Joe's" lifetime.

Karma belongs ONLY to the individual that generates it. That is cause and effect. I am not saying that in the secular world it does not appear that what I do cannot effect others, but within the definition of Buddhist karma, good or bad, it only applies to the person who generates it. In my experience, this concept is often misunderstood. "Joe" cannot pass on his karmic seeds to ripen in "Jeff".

I thoroughly agree with Dharmadhatu that the candle metaphor is bad as you interpret it. It should be dismissed entirely since it appears to be compromising your understanding.

Now as to individuality,it is that which distinguishes us for other human beings, our unique qualities. Given the correct understanding of rebirth (transfer of consciousness) and karma (individual cause and effect of actions), I see no challenge to the individuality of each person, other than the ramifications of their virtuous and unvirtuous deeds.


Buddhism is the middle way, between eternalism and nihilism, between an immortal soul and everything ends at death. The candle metaphor as I understand it comes from:

The king asked: "Venerable Nagasena, is it so that one does not transmigrate and one is reborn?"

"Yes, your majesty, one does not transmigrate and one is reborn."

"How, venerable Nagasena, is it that one does not transmigrate and one is reborn? Give me an analogy."

"Just as, your majesty, if someone kindled one lamp from another, is it indeed so, your majesty, that the lamp would transmigrate from the other lamp?"

"Certainly not, venerable sir."

"Indeed just so, your majesty, one does not transmigrate and one is reborn."

"Give me another analogy."

"Do you remember, your majesty, when you were a boy learning some verse from a teacher?"

"Yes, venerable sir."

"Your majesty, did this verse transmigrate from the teacher?"

"Certainly not, venerable sir."

"Indeed just so, your majesty, one does not transmigrate and one is reborn."

"You are clever, venerable Nagasena."

-from The Questions Of King Melinda, Miln III.5.5. Canonical in Burmese Buddhism, a shortened version in some Mahayana cannon, and widely translated and read in the Buddhist world. Dates to 100-200AD, & said to be about events 200 years before

My understanding of the Tibetan Buddhist stance, is that even though the Dalai Lama is an emanation of Avalokitesvara, other true genuine emanations have been recognised as existing at the same time.

What is the self? We require interactions with others, from DNA, to gestation, to nurturing, to education, and especially induction into community-developed & practiced language, just to get to the point we can say and understand: 'self'. So they are nested prerequisites, within this idea of being an individual.

Indra's Net is a powerful metaphor for dependent origination, for how we depend on interaction, reflection, of these other networks, and through our minds activity we help constitute others.

A modern term for this is intersubjectivity, the way we speak and show in ways that invite people to imagine or participate in our own subjectivity. This is the basis of physical-visual learning (mirror neurons), of communication, of morality. Our intelligence is fundamentally, intersubjective.

So we create something together. Is it a hive-mind, or a godhead? No. It is constituted of subjectivities, that can only see what one mind can see. In fact, there is no truly objective reality, because no one can ever experience that, we only have this network of minds, seeing things from their local, limited, subjective points of view.

I see 'attachments', as the things which we have not resolved in our own lives. Desires for more than we had. Contradictions we did not reconcile. Vengeance or justice which was not served. These are reborn. But not into cosmic soup. Into someone in particular's subjectivity. To recognise that reborn as connected, there has to be that mix of dilemmas & contradictions that makes you 'you', however you define yourself. It has to be pretty abstract though, because how much can you identify of your past lives has shaped you? Only that much goes on to sgape someone else.

But you were never your attachments anyway! You were Buddha all along. So who's attachments are reborn? No one's, only the attachments themselves. Until they get resolved, reconciled, let go of, extinguished. Whenever we do that, end suffering, it is for all beings, we empty the hells, make wherever we are more like the Pure Lands.


Sabbe dhamma anatta - all phenomena is not self.

What does that mean? What exactly is a "self"?

It turns out that what you call "individuality" is exactly what the Buddha called the "self". It may be pegged to consciousness or body or mind or anything else, but that's what it is.

The self or individuality is an emergent and temporary phenomena that doesn't exist absolutely or permanently.

Then what is rebirth in Buddhism? It's the rebirth of suffering, the rebirth of the self and the rebirth of individuality.

Do you see what I mean?

It's not the rebirth of the individual, but it's the rebirth of individuality.

  • while "rebirth" certainly is a rebirth of "individuality"; this appears not the purpose of the "rebirth" teachings, which appear to be about moral efficacy. The rebirth of individuality occurs due to clinging to the results of past kamma. Commented Feb 17, 2021 at 2:05

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