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  1. Was rebirth introduced in the First or Second Turnings, and why did the Buddha teach it? E.g. was it necessary to understand emptiness, causality, etc.? For example, I imagine that some "reasons why" might include:

    • Maybe it helps deemphasize a person's current lifetime, highlighting its impermanence, so that one does not cling to it or themselves.
    • On the other hand, for some, it seems to be a source of inspiration to persevere on the Path, for a "good rebirth".
  2. Would any of the Buddhist doctrines, excluding karma and rebirth, fail to make sense without rebirth?

  • The Buddha taught only facts and fundamental concepts, i.e. Re-birth. Could you give some examples where avoiding the teaching/concept of rebirth make more sense in certain doctrines? – Krizalid_13190 May 14 '18 at 6:41
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    There must be a bunch of questions on this already... Did you search? – Andrei Volkov May 14 '18 at 9:07
  • It appears rebirth has been discussed at length on tricycle, however, many of the links are dead. – avatar Korra May 16 '18 at 3:26
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    @AndreiVolkov searched before, but did not find any answers to the question on why rebirth was taught by the Buddha. – avatar Korra May 16 '18 at 3:31
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The Truth of Rebirth seems to be one of the larger points of dispute between participants on this site. See here and here for similar questions and answers. I guess this is not all that surprising to me since the site seems heavily represented by Western practitioners. In my experience it seems that westerners have (and I definitely include myself here) a particularly difficult time with the Truth of Rebirth as taught by the Buddha. Here is what Venerable Thanissaro Bhikkhu has to say about this:

Yet as these Buddhist religions have come to the West, they have run into a barrier from modern Western culture: Of all the Buddha's teachings, rebirth has been one of the hardest for modern Westerners to accept. Part of this resistance comes from the fact that none of the dominant world-views of Western culture, religious or materialistic, contain anything corresponding to the idea of repeated rebirth. Plato taught it, but — aside from an esoteric fringe — few in the modern West have treated this side of his teaching as anything more than a myth.

For people who have felt burned or repelled by the faith demands of Western religion, there is the added barrier that the teaching on rebirth is something that — for the unawakened — has to be taken on faith. They would prefer a Buddhism that makes no faith demands, focusing its attention solely on the benefits it can bring in this life.

There seem to be many approaches on this site:

  1. Simply denying outright that the Buddha taught rebirth.
  2. The Buddha taught the reality of rebirth as a (re)birth that takes place in this very life whenever self-views of "I" and "mine" occur. No "afterlife" concept of rebirth was taught or acknowledged by the Buddha.
  3. Admitting he taught it, but insisting it was just skillful means.
  4. Rebirth as a combination of metaphor and upaya.
  5. Those who take rebirth at face value, but insist that mere experience can end.
  6. Like above, but do not posit an end to this mere experience.
  7. Those who think rebirth (generally) can be known incontrovertibly through reason alone.
  8. Those who think rebirth requires a dose of faith to be known (generally).

And probably a number of other views that I've missed completely or misunderstood. Myself, I'm somewhere between 6, 7, and 8, I guess, but I struggle with this.

Was rebirth introduced in the First or Second Turnings, and why did the Buddha teach it?

To my mind, unquestionably it was taught and introduced. I think the Buddha taught it because it was/is a conventional truth and the Buddha taught the truth.

Would any of the Buddhist doctrines, excluding karma and rebirth, fail to make sense without rebirth?

Yes, I think there are obvious logical problems and inconsistencies that present if you deny the truth of rebirth. For instance, as BodhiWalker mentions above one could seek the end of suffering by merely ending this current life. Even more problematic, one could "liberate" others from suffering by murdering sentient beings painlessly. That's monstrous and I want nothing to do with it. I want to make quite clear, I'm sure this is not what others have in mind when denying or glossing the truth of rebirth. I'm emphatically not concluding that those who deny or gloss the truth of rebirth are murderous monsters, just that denying or glossing the truth of rebirth presents logical problems that I don't see a way around.

Anyway, I think Venerable Thanissaro Bhikkhu's article above is excellent and highly recommend reading it many times and contemplating these questions.

  • I scored this answer down because it did not once mention the reality of rebirth. – Dhammadhatu May 15 '18 at 12:30
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    @Dhammadhatu can you explain what you mean by "the reality of rebirth?" I really would like to understand what you are saying – Yeshe Tenley May 15 '18 at 12:45
  • What kind of edit would you suggest to the answer to improve it? – Yeshe Tenley May 15 '18 at 12:52
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    @YesheTenley Indeed. Dhammadhatu points to "pubbenivāsa" which is used in that phrase, and says that should be translated as "past abodes" rather than like "past lives", and that it's about self-views. One of his habits on this site is to say so, whenever the topic of rebirth comes up, and to downvote every answer which doesn't say the same. See also these topics, and/or he recommended this essay. – ChrisW May 15 '18 at 13:45
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    @avatarKorra You might ask a separate question. Currently you're asking, "how (if it all) does rebirth (or a lack of faith in rebirth) affect one's understanding of the three characteristics?" A slightly separate question (but which might be closer to the question you want to ask) is, "Is it possible to understand and benefit from the doctrine of the three characteristics, without holding a belief in rebirth?" I guess the answers are, "Yes, faith in rebirth has some effects on the doctrines, and, yes it's possible to (many people do) also make sense of the doctrine even without that belief." – ChrisW May 16 '18 at 8:59
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The concept of rebirth is an axiomatic corolary of 'Karma'.

Also if rebirth does not exist then nibbana i.e. 'blowing out' doesn't make sense.

For e.g. without rebirth and without afterlife in heaven or hell you will be essentially 'blown out' nibbanafied without doing anything.

So nibbana makes sense only because rebirth exist, because in rebirth the flame continues.

Also, murdering sentient beings (in a painless way) would also be equivalent to liberating them from suffering if rebirth does not exist.

So it is a pretty central doctrine, even if you don't emphasize on Karma.

  • Not really. If you get born in another realm due to your bad deeds in this life, then it makes sense to "strive" for nibbana. The 4 noble truths do not mention rebirth at all (nor does the noble eightfold path), but just that suffering exists and that it can be ceased. Now the 4 Noble Truths are higher teachings and most people I would assume haven't realized them.. – Val May 14 '18 at 8:50
  • @Val sorry i dont see exactly wherr are you contradicting my point. Yes it makes sense to strive for nirvana only because u are reborn in another realm. Also 4 noble truth and 8 fold path dont mention rebirth but they lead us to understanding of Karma through 'right action' and Rebirth is just extension of Karma. – user13135 May 14 '18 at 9:17
  • @Val I would dispute that the Buddha did not teach rebirth or karma when he taught the 4NT. Both are implicit in dependent origination. See here: The Noble Truth of Rebirth – Yeshe Tenley May 14 '18 at 10:55
  • @BodhiWalker you could even add that murdering sentient beings (in a painless way) would also be equivalent to liberating them from suffering if rebirth does not exist – Yeshe Tenley May 14 '18 at 12:26
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    There are Buddhist traditions that do not require belief in rebirth. So Nibbana apparently makes sense. See this article. – avatar Korra May 24 '18 at 0:34
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OP: Was rebirth introduced in the First or Second Turnings?

Rebirth has been around since the Earth first started turning on its axis. And perhaps much.. much.. longer than that.

The Buddha stated in the Assu Sutta:

"This is the greater: the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — not the water in the four great oceans.

"Long have you (repeatedly) experienced the death of a mother. The tears you have shed over the death of a mother while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — are greater than the water in the four great oceans.

"Long have you (repeatedly) experienced the death of a father... the death of a brother... the death of a sister... the death of a son... the death of a daughter... loss with regard to relatives... loss with regard to wealth... loss with regard to disease. The tears you have shed over loss with regard to disease while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — are greater than the water in the four great oceans.

"Why is that? From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. Long have you thus experienced stress, experienced pain, experienced loss, swelling the cemeteries — enough to become disenchanted with all fabricated things, enough to become dispassionate, enough to be released."

Based on the sutta above, I made a calculation in this answer that every person has been reborn at least 20 quintillion (20 x 1018) times. But I'm guessing that it's a lot longer than that.

OP: why did the Buddha teach it? E.g. was it necessary to understand emptiness, causality, etc.?

The Buddha taught it because this was what he realized to be true, and this knowledge is also useful to understand two things. The first is that suffering has happened since forever. The second is that it is not possible to escape suffering through death. Only ending craving and the ten fetters would result in freedom from suffering.

According to the Dvedhavitakka Sutta:

"When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of recollecting my past lives. I recollected my manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two... five, ten... fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction & expansion: 'There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.' Thus I remembered my manifold past lives in their modes & details.

"This was the first knowledge I attained in the first watch of the night. Ignorance was destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed; light arose — as happens in one who is heedful, ardent, & resolute.

"When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the passing away & reappearance of beings. I saw — by means of the divine eye, purified & surpassing the human — beings passing away & re-appearing, and I discerned how they are inferior & superior, beautiful & ugly, fortunate & unfortunate in accordance with their kamma: 'These beings — who were endowed with bad conduct of body, speech & mind, who reviled the 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 the 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.' Thus — by means of the divine eye, purified & surpassing the human — I saw beings passing away & re-appearing, and I discerned how they are inferior & superior, beautiful & ugly, fortunate & unfortunate in accordance with their kamma.

Since the Buddha made speaking the truth a very important precept, it is obvious that he couldn't be lying when he said that he saw with his divine eye, the truth of rebirth, where, with the break-up of the body, after death, beings reappear in other destinations. The phrase "break-up of the body" shows that it is not a metaphorical death.

OP: Would any of the Buddhist doctrines, excluding karma and rebirth, fail to make sense without rebirth?

If it is possible to escape suffering through death, the Buddha would have taught suicide. Basically, the Noble Eightfold Path becomes redundant without rebirth.

Rebirth is actually not the important point. The important point is that it is not possible to become free from suffering through death.

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    its kind of funny that you made a literal calculation. – user13135 May 15 '18 at 0:04
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    @avatarKorra The Assu Sutta states that every individual has cried more tears in all their lives than the combined volume of water of all the Earth's oceans. The Mata Sutta states that all individuals are related to each other based on their relationships in all their past lives. Also many suttas talk about rebirth of individuals including the phrase "reappearing in other destinations after death, after the breakup of the body". – ruben2020 May 17 '18 at 6:34
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    @avatarKorra Also, please see this question, where I have provided a long list of suttas from all nikayas with phrases supporting literal rebirth. – ruben2020 May 17 '18 at 6:40
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    Thank you @ruben2020. Your answers, and this one have helped me. – avatar Korra May 18 '18 at 1:46
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    @avatarKorra Also take a look at AN 6.57. "When their body breaks up, after death, they’re reborn in a place of loss, a bad place, the underworld, hell." "So kāyena duccaritaṃ caritvā, vācāya duccaritaṃ caritvā, manasā duccaritaṃ caritvā kāyassa bhedā paraṃ maraṇā apāyaṃ duggatiṃ vinipātaṃ nirayaṃ upapajjati." And "When their body breaks up, after death, they’re reborn in a good place, a heavenly realm." "So kāyena sucaritaṃ caritvā, vācāya sucaritaṃ caritvā, manasā sucaritaṃ caritvā kāyassa bhedā paraṃ maraṇā sugatiṃ saggaṃ lokaṃ upapajjati. " – ruben2020 May 19 '18 at 4:06
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Was rebirth introduced in the First or Second Turnings, and why did the Buddha teach it?

I think the idea of rebirth preceded (predated, already existed earlier than) the Buddha's doctrine:

Early Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism

The idea of reincarnation has early roots in the Vedic period (c. 1500 – c. 500 BCE), predating the Buddha and the Mahavira.

I think that, therefore, the question[s] which the Buddhist doctrine had to answer included, "Is the 'rebirth' doctrine true, to what extent is it true (how does it fit with other Buddhist doctrines), what does it mean exactly, how does it work, what is kamma?" and similar questions.

Would any of the Buddhist doctrines, excluding karma and rebirth, fail to make sense without rebirth?

I don't know, maybe some of these might be affected:

  • Stages of enlightenment -- that perhaps you won't be enlightened in this life, but even so that's not too late (and that effort is always even though immediate result may seem impossible)
  • An incentive (albeit "siding with merit and resulting in acquisition") for morality: including, both, generosity and harmlessness
  • The concept of merit may affect the relationship between lay society and the sangha
  • The three characteristics:

    • anatta e.g. as explained in this answer -- if rebirth doesn't exist, does that mean that we live and die, and if so isn't that identifying with the aggregates?
    • anicca -- so you're saying that death is permanent, not impermanent?
    • dukkha -- without the doctrine of rebirth, some people may develop strange or wrong ideas around killing or suicide as being an escape from dukkha ... also the doctrine that "craving to live (or, for becoming)" and "craving to die (or, for cessation)" are, both, forms of craving
  • The superiority (super-humanity) of the Buddha (not according to the suttas, necessarily, but e.g. the Jataka tales and the Mahāvaṃsa)

  • Combining cyclic cosmology with the dhamma's being timeless (previous and future Buddhas)
  • Atheism -- no sense in worshipping the Gods too much, they too are subject to rebirth
  • Hope or optimism -- no matter how bad things seem now, etc.
  • Some sense in which dhamma is called timeless (akalika)
  • What do you mean by “hope or optimism”? The doctrine of rebirth seems much more pessimistic than materialism – there needs to be a lot of effort over numerous lives to achieve something that a materialist takes for granted as happening at the end of every single life. – michau May 14 '18 at 13:48
  • More opportunities for a precious human birth in which to be fortunate, to hear the dhamma, to make some progress towards enlightenment, to help ... and more scope for agency (as opposed to e.g. helplessness) e.g. no "we are all predestined to die, so nothing we can do matters". – ChrisW May 14 '18 at 13:56
  • Other people might hope that their deceased beloved might have a favourable rebirth. Not everyone sees rebirth, or life, as nothing but a disaster (to be pessimistic of), even if that is one of the messages in the suttas. – ChrisW May 14 '18 at 20:08
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I do not think the Buddha taught that it was necessary to assume rebirth. Take this from the Kalama Sutta:

"'Suppose there is a hereafter and there is a fruit, result, of deeds done well or ill. Then it is possible that at the dissolution of the body after death, I shall arise in the heavenly world, which is possessed of the state of bliss.' This is the first solace found by him.

"'Suppose there is no hereafter and there is no fruit, no result, of deeds done well or ill. Yet in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from malice, safe and sound, and happy, I keep myself.' This is the second solace found by him.

Clearly, any of the meditative practices the Buddha taught focus attention on the rebirth that happens in this moment, here and now.

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First Noble Truth: saṃkhittena pañc·upādāna·k·khandhā dukkhā - In short, the five aggregates of clinging is suffering.

If all mental activities cease at death, there will be no craving after death as it is clearly a mental activity. If that's the case, apart from craving, the second noble truth should include things like breathing, eating, drinking, checking for vehicles before crossing the road and pretty much anything else that keeps you alive.

The third noble truth(s) would be both Nibbana and death.

Apart from the noble eightfold path that one needs to practice with years of dedication, the fourth noble truth(s) would include hanging yourself, shooting yourself, drowning, starving to death, death by lethal injection, sleeping on a railway, jumping from a skyscraper or pretty much doing whatever you like until you end up dead.

Imagine a criminal with such a belief saying "I became a serial killer so the government would make me enlightened by capital punishment."

Such a religion would mainly provide laughter to people instead of being taken seriously. :)

  • Maybe the Buddha knew that death is too painful and fearsome to consider - even if it did lead to cessation - so Buddhism gives us the possibility of an alternative path to liberation from suffering. In this lifetime. Without needing to rely on belief in a next one. – avatar Korra May 16 '18 at 1:20
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    What's the point of such a colllosal effort if natural death leads to cessation of suffering? – Sankha Kulathantille May 16 '18 at 2:19
  • Because ending suffering in this lifetime is better than the alternative of death. – avatar Korra May 16 '18 at 3:35
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    The notion that the Buddha preached the Dhamma for 45 years and created a system of Sangha who have to follow 227+ vinaya rules and meditate for years with difficulty just to have enlightenment few years in advance is comical at best. Why not use a painless method of suicide? :) – Sankha Kulathantille May 16 '18 at 3:46
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    @avatarKorra it may be because of the fear of uncertainty even though they like to believe that it ends at death. Not willing to end experiencing of sensual pleasures etc. – Sankha Kulathantille May 17 '18 at 4:30
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Why buddha teach rebirth?

Because highest goal of buddhism is to avoid rebirth.

In reality even buddha teach or doesn’t, Rebirth mechanism is still there.

And it’s the origin of every suffer.

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The Buddha taught karma and rebirth under mundane right view -

Right view, I say, is twofold: there is right view that is affected by influxes, partaking of merit, ripening in the acquisitions; and there is right view that is noble, free of influxes, supramundane, a factor of the path.

AN 6.63

and as Bhikku Bodhi goes on to write in The Buddha's Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony

“Right view affected by influxes” implies that even as we attempt to see and act in accord with the Dharma, we are still affected by the delusion of self. “Partaking of merit” is using Buddhist practice for what we perceive as our own benefit. “Ripening in the acquisitions” means becoming or acquiring a self. These are mundane or worldly ways.

Since this mundane right view is still "affected by influxes", with notions of self, not only is rebirth unnecessary to understand not-self, it may in fact be incompatible, as further explained in this answer.

This may be why the Buddha taught superior right view. It is this right view which leads to liberation, as Bhikku Bodhi writes -

This superior right view leading to liberation is the understanding of the Four Noble Truths. It is this right view that figures as the first factor of the Noble Eightfold Path in the proper sense: as the noble right view. Thus the Buddha defines the path factor of right view expressly in terms of the four truths: “What now is right view? It is understanding of suffering (dukkha), understanding of the origin of suffering, understanding of the cessation of suffering, understanding of the way leading to the cessation of suffering

Belief in rebirth (as reincarnation) is also unnecessary in regards to ethics and morality, as Bhikku Bodhi further writes -

Several texts testify that the Buddha himself seems to have recognized that morality can be established on the basis of self- reflection and ethical reasoning without requiring a belief in personal survival of death.

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The Buddha taught rebirth because it is something real that is related to the arising of suffering; namely, the re-arising of the delusion of "self" as a result of the emotions created by kamma (actions). Whenever the idea of "I" or "mine" arises as a result of an action, this is "rebirth".

Discerning an absence of rebirth in the mind is necessary to understand emptiness. Also, rebirth (kamma & results) is one example of causality.

A Buddhist doctrine that make sense without rebirth is the Three Characteristics. Seeing the Three Characteristics is unrelated to rebirth.

Knowing Nirvana is also unrelated to rebirth although, similar to Emptiness, knowing Nirvana coincides with knowing an absence of rebirth in the mind.

As for a rebirth as an "afterlife", this is an unknowable unproveable primitive superstition. Any claims there is a "Truth of Afterlife Rebirth" is obviously a lie or falsehood because there is no evidence for this belief. It is only a "belief" but not a "truth".

  • "obviously a lie or falsehood" is problematic and I think you should remove this. It is disparaging others and impolite and does not reflect patience for others understanding even if you think that "understanding" is a misunderstanding or confusion. – Yeshe Tenley May 15 '18 at 13:53
  • Thinking that all mental activities end at death is the unsubstantiated, unskillful, primitive, superstitious belief. :) – Sankha Kulathantille May 15 '18 at 17:59
  • Read my answer. – b.ben May 19 '18 at 16:58

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