Can someone explain the difference between reincarnation and rebirth? I've read the tags and am a little confused. Is the goal of buddhism to cease to exist? If people aren't reincarnated, then how does the cycle of suffering continue.

  • I don’t think this is a good question for this site. It seems nearly every person on the site has a different idea or way of explaining it. ChrisW does an admirable job below in trying to summarize, but I doubt a comprehensive answer can be found. Would advise to meditate on this and to look to some good books to see what noted teachers say. Most everyone on this site are Buddhist patzers anyway, right?
    – user13375
    Commented Jun 17, 2018 at 14:40
  • The question is certainly on-topic, allowable -- the Moderation policies for Questions doesn't suggest closing/forbidding it (unless it were a duplicate of a question already asked and answered). Do you have any suggestions for how to perhaps improve this question, @YesheTenley? If there are multiple answers (if a topic is controversial) then a suggestion for how to answer is to outline the controversy in the answer.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 17, 2018 at 16:16
  • Was not suggesting moderation. Don’t have any suggestions other than to note that OP might want to seek answers to this elsewhere.
    – user13375
    Commented Jun 17, 2018 at 20:30
  • @YesheTenley Maybe you could answer then with a recommendation of specific good books (preferably even, if you know any, books which answer the OP's question)?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 17, 2018 at 21:11
  • That suggestion would depend upon the tradition that Hudo might be following. Otherwise, my recommendation would be the same as here: buddhism.stackexchange.com/a/26383/13375
    – user13375
    Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 14:56

7 Answers 7


The problem with Buddhism, there is no single accepted interpretation of just about anything. On the other hand, that's what makes it fun. Buddhism today is like mirror shattered in a thousand pieces. I have spent more than two decades trying to get to truth and I think I'm 99% clear about it now.

Most people thinking about past and future lives assume that something (some very important part of them, may be consciousness) stays alive after death and goes on to "other worlds" and maybe spends some time in an intermediate state to eventually obtain a new body. This is what's usually called "reincarnation".

The Buddhist view (of course I will say the only right Buddhist view - but you don't have to believe) is to view life as a continuous and not discrete phenomenon, both space- and time-wise. In this view everything is interconnected and made from millions of causal/conditional influences contributing to a particular configuration in a particular timespace locality. There are no individual "objects" let alone "people" or "souls" - that would seem to exist in a static world. Instead, the world is a dynamic system of constantly flowing influences, deterministically unfolding from their interactions.

The most important aspect of all these causes/conditions/influences that interact to compose everything, is information. Natural world with its variety of species is first and foremost an informational process, shaped by the principle of natural selection. As Richard Dawkins correctly explained the main subject of evolution is gene - essentially a sequence of information - with body being a physical manifestation of gene's tendency to replicate itself and pass itself on.

Likewise, the human culture can be seen as evolution of informational forms - memes (which was a term coined by Dawkins to expand the idea of gene as informational subject of natural selection beyond its one type known as the DNA). In this view, primates are media for memetic evolution, with our culture being a manifestation of memes' tendencies to replicate and pass themselves on, just like a body of biological organism is a manifestation of gene. Makes sense so far?

Our mind (what we call "our" "minds" - but which in fact should probably be called "The Mind" - because it's not "many") is an informational phenomenon made possible by a flow and interaction of information, an evolved kind of the same information that manifested the natural world, passing between different kinds of media. These media include primates' brains as well as various artifacts of human culture - primarily books and these days the digital medium of computers-and-the-internet. In this view the subjective experience or consciousness is no longer a mystery but rather a very natural property of information to re-present (to reflect, to model, to remember) other stuff. Any possible object or configuration or system of relationships found in the natural world can be re-presented with information. When this re-presentation gets robust enough it is called "experience" or "consciousness" or "sentience".

So now to get back to Buddhism. Because our lives and our minds are understood to be manifestations of, and 100% shaped by, informational processes (both at the material as well as the subjective levels), these processes operating contiguously & non-descrete-ly across the utterly complex combinations of various media capable of re-presentation; because in Buddhism we (supposedly) have a very clear understanding of all of the above -- we no longer see humans as separate blobs of matter (with or without "soul") getting born and dying. In this view, there is no birth and death, there is continuous trans-form-ation. The mind of a person does not start with death, but comes together gradually over time from various sources. All of those sources trace back to something that existed (events that happened) long before this particular human was born. In this sense there is no new person having been born. The person is an assembly or a manifestation of multiple threads of information transformation. The birds-eye perspective on this that looks at the entire human civilization (as well as the pre-human evolution) will see a graph of interconnected causation/information/transformation rolling forward like a stream. The entire thing is contiguous and highly interconnected, with no discrete entities to be found.

Then as the human child grows up, he or she develops ability to delineate and differentiate "objects". I don't have room to go over this here in much detail, but this ability is something Mahayana Buddhists call "objectification" or "reification". In this ability to designate discrete entities lies the biggest power and the biggest vulnerability of sentient mind. Since mind is nothing but dynamically interacting system of re-presentations, there is no way for it to know that its models (the discrete objects it delineates) are not the reality but only a rough (simplified) re-presentation of reality. This results in mind absolutizing and clinging to its models as all-correct and all-important, and developing attachment to some configurations and aversion to others, based on its simplistic re-presentation of the world. This attachment, aversion and confusion lead to conflict and suffering when our models mismatch other similar but incompatible models (harbored by other people) and also when our simplistic models inevitably mismatch reality.

When Buddhism talks about Enlightenment it talks about clearly understanding all of the above (this is my claim anyway). When Buddhism talks about liberation from suffering, it talks about the above. When Buddhism talks about no-self and no-rebirth, it talks about the above.

Is the goal of buddhism to cease to exist? If people aren't reincarnated, then how does the cycle of suffering continue.

Now we have all the tools we need to answer your question, aren't we? The goal of Buddhism is to transcend the naive model we have that "to exists" means "to exist as a separate object". Transcending this model leads to the notion of death (as well as re-incarnation of an individual soul) becoming utterly naive and irrelevant.

The cycle of suffering continues with each generation passing the objectification/reification on to the next generation. Each new child is born and learns to see the world as a collection of separate objects, him- or herself one such object among others. (The exact process of how this separation unfolds is explained in Buddhist teaching of Twelve Nidanas aka Paticcasamuppada aka Pratitya-samutpada). This naive reification/objectification in turn leads to suffering, because of the conflict between the model and reality or one model and another model. Growing in the civilization shaped by the incorrect understanding, we humans internalize the reified world as the only possible cognitive framework and pass it on to the next generation, continuing the cycle of suffering.

This answer getting too long I have to stop here - but this should give you the big picture. All of the Buddhism's teaching and practice with its various schools can be explained nicely in terms of the above.

  • That (i.e. "memes and genes") is a description of reality -- and maybe a "selfless" one (although its origin is a book titled The Selfish Gene, by an infamously anti-religious author fwiw). Someone described the theory to me once in passing, I haven't read the book. I didn't like the sound of it at the time, so didn't look to find out more about it. The theory seemed to me to be descriptive -- but not predictive nor even falisfiable, so maybe not a scientific theory or a useful model. It's not prescriptive, nor practicable (practical). And not moral.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 17, 2018 at 18:49
  • Buddhism's identifying a link between suffering and craving seems more obviously useful, predictive, prescriptive, humane. I suppose you're right at least that meme-and-gene is a model that doesn't especially feature (or privilege the view of) individuals and life and death. Reification is maybe not the same theory as the meme-and-gene theory -- the reification theory maybe is interesting, prescriptive and practical. I'm slightly suspicious of its being dualistic ("true reality" versus "misconceived reification"), reminiscent of the object/subject duality which I think is a preoccupation of...
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 17, 2018 at 18:55
  • ... western philosophy, and which I think Buddhism does well to ignore (by a focus on, instead, shared subjective experience). But maybe "reification" is like "attachment" (if only to a view), so it isn't a non-Buddhist model.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 17, 2018 at 18:57
  • The Selfish Gene is not a bad book on the topic of evolution - firmly established in the popular science genre with only a very occasional sarcastic gesture towards the creationists, I recommend checking it out. You are correct that it features more of a descriptive view than a prescriptive (just like the theory of evolution itself) by attempting to clarify the exact identity of "the subject" of the evolutionary process. Is that useful despite being "descriptive"? In my opinion, yes - it enhances clarity in an area that is complex and prone to confusion - which looks useful in my eyes...
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Jun 17, 2018 at 19:18
  • As we both know by now, Buddhism is often descriptive and non-prescriptive as well. It provides descriptions of psychological processes: how exactly the suffering and the self-view emerge, and what actions would lead to reversal of that. I agree Buddhism supplies a prescriptive component as well, by setting up the hierarchy of "virtuous" goals and activities, with Enlightenment/Nirvana as the summum bonum.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Jun 17, 2018 at 19:23

I've read the tags and am a little confused.

I agree with the other two answers (Sankha's and Medhiṇī).

I'd add that some people understand it as a repeated (but each only temporary) arising of various "self-views", views like for example "this body is me", instances or instants of some kind of egoism ... for example here:

Dependent arising is a phenomenon that lasts an instant; it is impermanent. Therefore, Birth and Death must be explained as phenomena within the process of dependent arising in everyday life of ordinary people. Right Mindfulness is lost during contacts of the Roots and surroundings. Thereafter, when vexation due to greed, anger, and ignorance is experienced, the ego has already been born. It is considered as one “birth.” The “birth” that originates from the mother’s womb used in everyday language is not the “birth” meant in the doctrine of dependent origination. The meaning of birth in everyday language obstructs our understanding of the doctrine. We should instead direct our attention on possible “future births” [emergence of the ego] at the moment. This is certainly far better than not knowing in what state the “future birth” of everyday language will deliver us.

I think some people have argued about, criticised each other about, how it should be interpreted.

  • People who say it means successive births or lives might be criticised as "materialist" (because they see one body as a whole life)
  • People who say it means successive ego-views within one body's life-time might be criticised as "extinctionist" (because are they saying that everything ends with no further birth when the body dies?)

Anyway some people get quite insistent, that their view is orthodox, or that other people's interpretation of the doctrine is mistaken. I say this to warn that you might find that different answers or explanations are mutually contradictory.

Ironically, I wonder whether the very act of attaching to and arguing for a fixed or single view on this subject might itself be an example of attaching to a view-of-self, an example of "becoming".

Is the goal of buddhism to cease to exist?

I don't think so: I think the goal (or a goal) is to cease to "suffer" (and to help other people who may be suffering, and to live a "holy life" with that intention).

The problem is that various views of self might contribute to suffering, for example:

  • "He beat me, he hurt me, he robbed me, he insulted me!"
  • "Alas, I'm going to die!"
  • "Alas, my beloved (parent, child, spouse, friend, teacher, pet) is going to die!"
  • "Alas, my lovely possessions or property won't last, and/or I can't take them with me!"

Having views like these is maybe not just a result of suffering but a cause of suffering.

So having these "views of self" is criticised as being unwise: and a reason for that is because that view results in suffering.

Another argument is that the body isn't "worthy" of being viewed as self -- a body is temporary (and maybe a bit ugly and so on too), so it doesn't deserve your saying about it "this body is me and I'm sad that it will die".

Sometimes Buddhism analyses things into the "five heaps" -- none of which should be viewed as self -- and so e.g. you shouldn't say "this body is me!", nor "this sensation is me!", nor "this perception is me!", etc.

You can extend that further or to anything, to saying for example "my name isn't me" (or "this name isn't me"), and "this job isn't me", "this house isn't me", and so on.

And it's not just that self-view is unwise (because it results in suffering), or "unworthy", it's also literally true -- e.g. "this house" and so on genuinely isn't me.

The doctrine warns that views-of-self can arise as a result of unwise attention: for example if you experience a sensation, wise attention to that sensation might recognise "that is or was a mere sensation" whereas unwise attention might say "that's me!" or "that sensation is me!".

Views of self also cause social problems (or suffering as a result of social contact), e.g. "Alas, he's richer than me!" and so on. So Buddhism teaches the "Brahmaviharas" as being the right attitude to have towards "other people" (i.e. social contact).

Then you get doctrine talking about the difference between the conventional or worldly view -- according to which "the person" exist, in which people or beings have and/or are a name, a body, friends and family, skills and knowledge and habits and preferences -- and an ultimate view in which the worldly view isn't clung to, i.e. in which you aren't attached to (or constrained by, or where you're liberated from) self-views.

Another attempt to explain this is the allegory of the chariot -- i.e. "there isn't really such a thing as a chariot, what we call 'a chariot' is just an assemblage of different bits -- e.g. wheels and axle and a yoke and so on."

If people aren't reincarnated, then how does the cycle of suffering continue.

I find the four noble truths more lucid than the Paticcasamuppada.

I suppose the doctrine of the five skandhas is an attempt to explain "the self doesn't really exist", instead there's just these five heaps (none of which should be viewed as self).

I put the Paticcasamuppada in a similar category, some people think it makes a perfect and precise sense (and argue and fuss with each other about what it means exactly), but the message I get from it is similar to the skandhas, i.e. "the self doesn't really exist, instead it's merely a system or cycle of these twelve nidanas".

(To be fair, the Paticcasamuppada does some have further value, e.g. in explaining or predicting or introducing the role of "guarding the senses" as a means of interrupting the "cycle of becoming").

But anyway I think the four noble truths are maybe the best or simplest explanation: i.e. suffering is conditioned by craving, suffering continues when craving continues, when attachment to the aggregates continues.


OP: Is the goal of buddhism to cease to exist?

The Buddha (Tathagata) became free from suffering. Does he no longer exist after physical death? Or does he exist? Or does he neither exist nor not exist?

The answer to this comes in SN 44.6:

"But, my friend, would there another line of reasoning, in line with which that has not been declared by the Blessed One?"

"There would, my friend. "For one who loves becoming, who is fond of becoming, who cherishes becoming, who does not know or see, as it actually is present, the cessation of becoming, there occurs the thought, 'The Tathagata exists after death' or 'The Tathagata does not exist after death' or 'The Tathagata both exists and does not exist after death' or 'The Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist after death.'

"But for one who doesn't love becoming, who isn't fond of becoming, who doesn't cherish becoming, who knows & sees, as it actually is present, the cessation of becoming, the thought, 'The Tathagata exists after death' or 'The Tathagata does not exist after death' or 'The Tathagata both exists and does not exist after death' or 'The Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist after death' doesn't occur.

"This, too, is a line of reasoning in line with which that has not been declared by the Blessed One."

In other words, if someone is fond of becoming, that is, becoming someone, living a life, being a person etc. then he would be concerned whether the enlightened one exists or not exists after death. The craving of becoming is known in Pali as "bhava tanha".

The one who is not fond of becoming, would not be concerned whether the enlightened one exists or not, after death. It would not be important to him.

Even this craving of becoming, is a source of suffering, not just the craving for sensual enjoyments ("kama tanha").

The goal of Buddhism is to end suffering, by ending craving.

Ironically, you can also crave to not become. This is known as "vibhava tanha". One outcome of this craving is suicide, which does not end suffering, due to rebirth.

Freedom from suffering is not about ceasing to exist, becoming or unbecoming. It is simply freedom from suffering, by becoming enlightened from ignorance of truth and reality.

Also, please see this answer. I have an analogy there that would help you understand this better.


Can someone explain the difference between reincarnation and rebirth?

The first is an english word of thirteen letters and begins with an 'r' and ends with an 'n'. The second is an english word of seven letters beginning with 'r' and ending with 'h'. Notably, both begin with the same two letters. There is no definitive meaning or difference between them. Some people use them in exactly the same way, some people use them in slightly different ways and some other people use them in entirely different ways.

Is the goal of buddhism to cease to exist?


If people aren't reincarnated, then how does the cycle of suffering continue.

Sentient beings are subject to endless cycles of rebirth in samsara. This is unsatisfactory and suffering exists.

Those are not “true buddhist” answers nor necessarily majority views. If you are looking for a poll or majority answers, then I recommend you look elsewhere. Alternatively, there are a number of questions/answers on this site about rebirth and reincarnation and what these terms mean and the nature of existence. Feel free to peruse and if anything needs clarification feel free to ask specific questions.


Reincarnation is a meta-physical idea, namely, the mind leaves a physical body and enters a new physical body.

Rebirth is a kammic or moral principle, namely, the quality of actions dictate the quality of mind in the future.

For example, in the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, it is taught the soul is reincarnated into a new physical body therefore it is OK to engage in and lose one's life in a war.

Where as Buddhist rebirth teaches engaging in war leads to rebirth as an animal or in hell.


The word 'reincarnation' usually implies an unchanging soul that goes from life to life. The word 'rebirth' does not necessarily imply a soul. In Buddhism, it is taught that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent. So the word 'rebirth' is more suitable to use in a Buddhist context.

The goal of Buddhism is to end suffering. Birth is a part of suffering. Read the Paticcasamuppada to know about how the cycle continues.

  • Why is birth considered part of suffering. I tried reading Paticcasamuppada, but it was lot to dive in without prior knowledge of anything on this religion.
    – Hudo
    Commented Jun 17, 2018 at 5:28
  • 1
    Being stuck inside a womb for 9 month is suffering. It also leads to all the suffering one has to endure in life. Technically speaking, arising of the five aggregates is suffering. Commented Jun 17, 2018 at 6:32

Although I agree with Sankha, I would add that both terms are not really suitable, imho. There is no-one or nothing to re-anything. There is no 're', just an ongoing stream of one state of consciousness after the other, with or without the combination of matter (depends on the realm).

Btw., we are talking about an experiential frame of reference. In experience there is no person. In experience there is just matter (hard, soft, cold, warm...), perception, affect of the experience, reaction to and awareness of the experience; aka. the aggregates. It might help to look at it in this context (the context of the aggregates of experience) and 're' doesn't really come into play.

A last thing to add might be that suffering is not only limited to humans, if we talk in conceptual language. So, if there were no persons left, then there would still be enough other beings left to suffer.

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