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There are stories of people who claim to remember their past lives. Such stories have been investigated by researchers such as Ian Stevenson and Jim Tucker.

These accounts lend themselves nicely to Jewish and Hindu understanding of transmigration of souls. How do they fit into the Buddhist understanding of rebirth?

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    Welcome to the site. I'd just like to mention that, you ask about "the Buddhist understanding of rebirth", but maybe different people or different traditions have different views on that subject. If there are several answers they might say different things. So far as I know, it's Tibetan Buddhism that has the strongest tradition (or which has evolved a tradition) of "reincarnation" (see e.g. Dalai Lama's Message on Reincarnation). – ChrisW Oct 30 '16 at 21:11
  • This statement from the Dalai Lama, linked above, would appear to provide one answer to my question: – Adam Hrankowski Oct 30 '16 at 22:22
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    I didn't hope to answer this question, but only to comment that there might be diverse answers even though you asked for "the" Buddhist understanding. – ChrisW Oct 30 '16 at 23:25
  • I've adjusted the question from 'the' to 'some' to allow for the fact that Buddhism is not monolithic. – Adam Hrankowski Oct 30 '16 at 23:57
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An answer to this question is in the Khajjanīya Sutta. The Khajjanīya Sutta explains life is comprised of five aggregates, namely: (i) body; (ii) feelings; (iii) perceptions; (iv) mental formations; & (v) sense consciousness. Mental stories about so-called or imaginary 'past lives' are 'mental formations', similar to dreams the mind constructs or manufactures in sleep.

The Khajjanīya Sutta states 'mental formations' about the past should be interpreted as follows:

Any kind of mental formations whatsoever … whether past, future or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, all mental formations should be seen as it really is with correct wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’


As for 'rebirth', the Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta explains 'birth' ('jati') is the mental generation of the mental idea, view or 'assumption' of 'beings' ('satta').

SN 5.10 explains that, apart from 'view' or 'conceptual thought' (which are mental formations), there are no 'beings' to be found. SN 5.10 also states the idea of a 'being' (or 'soul') is a view held by Mara (Satan).

It follows, as explained in SN 22.85, each time the mind gives birth to the 'self' idea & believes it is a 'self', that is 'birth' ('jati'). To quote:

There is the case where an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person — who has no regard for noble ones, is not well-versed or disciplined in their Dhamma; who has no regard for men of integrity, is not well-versed or disciplined in their Dhamma — assumes the body, feeling, perception, mental fabrication &/or consciousness to be a 'self'. That assumption (of 'self') is a fabrication. Now what is the cause, what is the origination, what is the birth (jati), what is the coming-into-existence of that fabrication? To an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person, touched by that which is felt born of contact with ignorance, craving arises. That fabrication (of 'self') is born of that.

If the 'self' fabrication keeps arising in the mind, each new fabrication of the 'self' idea is a new 'becoming', a new birth or 'rebirth'.


Most importantly, regardless of how the words 'birth' ('jati') & the myriad terms translated as 'rebirth' are interpreted, the most salient feature of Buddhist rebirth is it is always connected to the results of kamma (actions), i.e., productive of happiness ('heaven') & unhappiness ('hell'). To quote a stock phrase:

'These beings — who were endowed with bad conduct of body, speech & mind, who reviled noble ones, held wrong views and undertook actions under the influence of wrong views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell. But these beings — who were endowed with good conduct of body, speech, & mind, who did not revile noble ones, who held right views and undertook actions under the influence of right views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the good destinations, in the heavenly world.'

Unlike the Hindu reincarnation found in the Bhagavada Gita, which states the soul (atman) will always enter a new physical body at death, the idea of 'rebirth' in Buddhism is always connected to the results of kamma or moral efficiency.

Therefore, in Buddhism, unlike Hinduism & unlike the heretical branches of Judaism, 'rebirth' in Buddhism is not 'meta-physics' but, instead, 'morality' about results of kamma.

In other words, even Buddhists that do not believe in life after death still must believe in 'results of kamma' or 'moral rebirth' in order to have right view.

The language used in the Pali scriptures accommodates both views about 'rebirth' since terms such as 'beings' ('satta'), 'death' ('marana'), 'body' ('kaya'), etc, have dual meanings.

As previously stated & quoted, in the older Pali suttas, the predominant view about 'rebirth' is good kamma leads to 'heaven' & bad kamma leads to 'hell'. It seems only in later teachings did the idea of returning as a human being start.


In general, Buddhism teaches all things whatsoever are 'not-self' or, if using Hindu terminology, 'not-soul' ('anatta'). Therefore, Buddhism is contrary to Hindu & later-day-Jewish ideas about transmigration of souls. The Jewish Encyclopedia states:

'Transmigration' of souls (metempsychosis)...This doctrine was foreign to Judaism until about the eighth century, when, under the influence of the Mohammedan mystics, it was adopted by the Karaites and other Jewish dissenters.

As for the pseudo-science of Ian Stevenson and Jim Tucker, since their claims arise from the studies of literally few children from billions, their claims can be debunked with explanations such as: (i) the child was conditioned by is parents; (ii) the child has a mental disposition or psychic power that can absorbs external ideas; and (iii) mystics with psychic powers are controlling the mind of the child.

For example, the failure of many so-called reincarnate Tibetan lamas, such as Tenzin Ösel Hita, shows such ideas about the reincarnation of souls are spurious or tenuous. In the case of Ösel Hita, it seemed to be not 'transmigration' but child abuse. To quote Ösel Hita:

"At 14 months I was recognized and taken to India. They dressed me in a yellow hat, they sat me on a throne, people worshipped me ... They took me away from my family and put me in a medieval situation in which I suffered a lot. It was like living a lie."

If we all were really reincarnated souls then we would all remember our past lives or we would all be born with knowledge & experience from our past lives. But, unfortunately, we are all born ignorant, like a blank slate with some natural instincts, and we all must learn how to live & survive in life, as though we all started out anew & fresh.

Some translators of old Buddhist scriptures use the word "transmigration" but this is just a mistranslation.

Similar to the Jewish dissenters, later-day Buddhists created many ideas about reincarnation & even ideas about how 'consciousness' (which is mere sense cognition) is reborn, which probably explains why Buddhism become extinct in India, since it became the same as Hinduism.

Even in the Pali suttas, there are maybe a dozen suttas from thousands (such as the Chariot Maker sutta) that state the Buddha had a literal past life. These suttas are questionable as to their authenticity given they contradict the Khajjanīya Sutta.


In summary, original Buddhism taught the idea of 'self' is merely a mental formation/fabrication born from ignorance and that, in ultimate reality, there is no 'self' to be found. Therefore, the idea that 'my soul transmigrated' or the idea that "I" had a past life is contrary to original Buddhism.

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There are stories of people who claim to remember their past lives. Such stories have been investigated by researchers such as Ian Stevenson and Jim Tucker.

I read Dr. Weiss's "Many Lives Many Masters" before I start learning Bhuddhism. As I re-digest the content, many questions: a) Why every turn of a rebirth the character recalled she/he a human being? For there are 6 main scopes of lifeforms. A rebirth, on account of Karma, one could be Celestial beings, Asura, Man, Animal, Ghost, Hell beings. According to Tibetan tradition, almost only a Saint could return consecutively 7 times a man. b) Why many of them claimed they were Egyptians in their past lives? Etc. I can't comment IS and JT since I've not read any of their works. I intuit theirs will be similar to Dr. Weiss's.

These accounts lend themselves nicely to Jewish and Hindu understanding of transmigration of souls. How do they fit into the Buddhist understanding of rebirth?

Therefore I would tend to acknowledge that your mentioned "Jewish and Hindu understanding of transmigration of souls" is different from the Buddhist. In Buddhist teaching, there isn't a "soul", or permanent "self" that brings along it's memories and karma etc and jumped into another body, and lives again. In Buddhist, this "living" is like fire, passing from one log to another, that's "rebirth", if one may call it. But we cannot say this fire is the same fire that burnt log A, now is burning log B, for we cannot consolidate a fire, preserve it, give it an identity. Fire is the phenomena. In every fickle of millisecond (chana), the fire is no longer the same as the previous one, however so appeared the same in our impression. This is the analogy of our impression of there is a "me", "self" independently resided in certain body, which is not. But the Karma (the energy of the fire, all the attributes) will pass on milliseconds after milliseconds, and also interacting with the next conditions to produce new tendency.

It's not easy to describe this concept, and as a student my ability to explain/ to understand is not perfect.

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Bhumishu makes a great analogy to fire leaping from one log to the next. In my studies and understanding, consciousness is often referred to in this way as the “mindstream” in Buddhism. The mindstream does not have a beginning nor an end as a either would suggest an independent existence of the consciousness apart from reality which would start to head down the road of the nature of a self/soul, etc., which is self-contradictory and an illusion.

Instead, according to Mahayana and Vajrayana/Tantrayana Buddhism (which I believe is the evolved form of Buddhist thought personally), consciousness as mindstream can be viewed as an ocean and that individual manifestations of it, i.e. you and me, are like waves in the ocean that rise and fall. We can also see it when we look at the impermanence of our own lives - for example, we are not the same person we were 10 years ago, 20 years ago, or even five minutes ago. In this sense we are born and die moment to moment, millisecond to millisecond. Buddhism strongly advocates that the idea of a soul (or atman) is nonsensical and is a grasping for permanence in an impermanent existence. In this light, no, there is no such thing as rebirth or reincarnation as the "self" one supposes will be "reborn" doesn't exist in the first place – however, the energies that make up an individual’s sense of awareness/consciousness may indeed pass on to another “existence” or “rebirth”.

This type of thinking quickly leads to a discussion of karma. Karma is not a sense of fate or some mystical magical hippie fairy dust (although I think there may be some mystical aspects to it, but that is purely subjective). It is simply cause and effect. The things you do and even think affect you which can affect others and your environment, etc., akin to the Butterfly Effect. In this way, karma can carry on a person's energies (if you will) to other lives beyond their death. In concrete terms, how your parents raise you and interact with you throughout your life carries on past their death in your own conventional sense of personality and behavior.

On a more mystical level, karma, in Buddhism, leaves an imprint on the eternal mindstream. Thus, there are aspects of your life as you know it that will, on a subtle level, make "memories" in the mindstream that can carry over to the next life. In this sense, yes, Buddhism supports a notion of rebirth.

Further down this discussion is what Buddhism refers to as "appreciation for the preciousness of life" or something along those lines. In a nutshell, this is a meditation on the appreciation of our current life situation - we are born in a human body that can contemplate life and happiness, etc. We enjoy the comforts of technology improvements both physically and development of freedom and philosophical/rational/scientific thought. This is in contrast to being born as an animal or in a situation of intense suffering or intense pleasure (perhaps oppressed by slavery or being born in extreme wealth and power). All of these things enable us to be grateful that we can study Buddhism and ask these kinds of questions. When we talk about rebirth in this area, the expectation is that the fragments of our consciousness that "return" (if you will) to the mindstream after death may indeed form as a part of consciousness in a future life. This is not rebirth of the self but merely part of the energy we all possess in the form of memories, etc., but (in Buddhism) these are likely not to be reborn in this human existence but perhaps as an animal or an alien in another galaxy, who knows (although human rebirth can happen and later Buddhism does believe in reincarnation of enlightened beings - i.e. beings that gain enlightenment to the point that they can "traverse" the mindstream to a future human life after death like the Dali Lama or Lama Yeshe reincarnating as Ösel Hita as mentioned in another comment – although I disagree with the assessment of Ösel Hita in that comment). All this said, most of us (or at least most of our sense of awareness or consciousness) will not be reborn as a human but will be mixed in with the larger ocean of consciousness and will end up as part of an animal or something else, perhaps even part of humanity's emergent global consciousness or whatnot, but this is purely speculation.

So, long story short, Buddhism believes in rebirth and it doesn’t. If you argue that Buddhism is strictly the Hinayana/Theravada school of thought (which I don't believe) then, as Dhammadhatu mentioned, rebirth is largely disputed. If, however, you view Buddhism as merely a label to a particular type of evolving Vedic thought that began as Hinayana (enlightenment only for monks) and evolved along with broader human thought to include enlightenment for everyone and following Buddhist logic rationally to conclusions beyond Hinayana (as I do) then rebirth is definitely a thriving concept in Buddhism.

On a scientific level, one can look at rebirth as the conservation of energy. Where does our conscious energy go after death? It is certainly not destroyed but somehow dispersed. On a Buddhist level, one can also do what the Buddha taught even back in the days of the Theravada school. That is, go and find out yourself. Meditate on your memories and walk back through them as far back into your childhood as you can. Once you get there, sit for a while and absorb the experience. I think you will start to answer your own questions that way - religious dogma is not necessary to tell you what to do or think or believe; your rational mind can explore for itself if you develop the skills of concentration, patience, and wisdom. This to me is the true beauty of Buddhism – that is, there are foundational tenants but not really any dogmatic thinking by and large. It is a process, belief, and philosophy of the discovery of reality in all its forms.

Hope that helps!

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