As a follow-on from Dhammadhatu's answer here, if it's alright to ask this, do we know, how do we know that the suttas talk about "past lives"?
Here is a translation of the formula which Ahmed quoted from MN 36 and which also appears in MN 4:
— Knowledge of the recollection of former living places —
This is the stock formula describing the first of the three vijjās attainable on the basis of the fourth jhāna, which consists in remembering one's past lives
So aneka·vihitaṃ pubbe·nivāsaṃ anussarati,
He recollects many former living places,
seyyathidaṃ: ekam·pi jātiṃ dve·pi jātiyo
that is to say: one birth, two births,
Translations of nivāsa
The buddha-vacana.org dictionary translates nivāsa as:
nivāsa: residence, dwelling, abode, place of residence (w. ref. to past lives)
The PTS dictionary translates it as:
Nivāsa [fr. nivasati2] stopping, dwelling, resting -- place, abode; living, sheltering J i.115 (˚ŋ kappeti to put up); ii.110; PvA 76, 78. Usually in phrase pubbe -- nivāsaŋ anussarati "to remember one's former abode or place of existence (in a former life)," characterising the faculty of remembering one's former birth
Translations of jāti
jāti: birth, i.e. the entire process from conception to parturition. Jāti is defined by the Buddha at SN 12.2. For some beings, the birth is not immediate and requires a maturation in the mother's body, as it is the case for humans and animals; for some other beings, the birth is immediate: those are called opapātiko.
Jāti is the eleventh link of paṭicca-samuppāda, conditioned by bhava and giving rise to jarā-maraṇa.
If I look at its translation of SN 12.2 it says,
And what, bhikkhus, is jāti? For the various beings in the various classes of beings, jāti, the birth, the descent [into the womb], the arising [in the world], the appearance, the apparition of the khandhas, the acquisition of the āyatanas. This, bhikkhus, is called jāti.
The PTS dictionary quotes the same passage from SN 12.2 as the definition of jāti. I note that sañjāti (translated as "birth" in that translation of SN 12.2) is alternatively translated as "origin" or "outcome".
Dhammadhatu's theory/answer was that "birth" meant "a time in the Buddha's life when he believed something to be 'him' or 'his'".
If I look at the Pali (beware that I'm not even a novice, let alone a scholar) I don't see anything to necessarily contradict that. So my questions are:
When people translate nivāsa why do they translate that as "former lives" instead of as, for example, "former living places" or "former homes", or maybe "former conditions" or something?
For example, Thanissaro Bhikkhu's translation of MN 36 says,
I recollected my manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two, etc.
When people translate jāti why do they translate that as "birth" instead of as, "appearing", "coming into being", "consolidation", "becoming aware of the khandhas"?
Is the Pali is more ambiguous, perhaps deliberately more ambiguous, than the English?
There seems to be two views among Buddhists: one that Buddhist doctrine is literally about "previous lives", and the other that Buddhist doctrine is about a non-continuity of oneself within this/one life. Does the Pali support either or both these views; and does it require either or both these views, i.e. would it contradict the scripture to not subscribe to one of these views?
Is there further evidence (for one view or the other) within the Pali text?
Is there further evidence (for one view or the other) outside the text, e.g. is there a separate commentary where it's stated unambiguously? I guess it's part of the teacher-to-student lineage.
To the extent that there is ambiguity or uncertainty, is the ambiguity or uncertainty known and even accepted by scholars and monks? Or are 'they' sure that it's supposed to mean one or the other?
It's true to say, isn't it, that a belief in "rebirth" was a feature of the beliefs of non-Buddhists at the time. For example, Wikipedia says,
Reincarnation is the philosophical or religious concept that a living being can begin a new life in a different body after biological death. This is also called rebirth or transmigration, and is a part of the Saṃsāra doctrine of cyclic existence. It is a central tenet of all major Indian religions, namely Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism. The idea of reincarnation is found in many ancient cultures, and a belief in rebirth that was held by such historic figures as Pythagoras, Plato, and Socrates.
Is it possible that Buddhist doctrine is expressed in a way which doesn't contradict these beliefs (i.e. it would be understood as "not annihilationist" by an audience which already held that belief), yet also doesn't require such a belief?