I find it difficult to assign a meaning to the word 'rebirth'.

Here are some hints that rebirth might not be real:

  • Views regarding one's past and future existence are included in the "62 false beliefs"
  • Those views are ascribed to non-Buddhist ascetics
  • Views regarding the future of the Tathagata (after death) are in the 10 or 14 "unanswered questions"
  • The Buddhist doctrine of "anatta" (there is no self?) and "anicca" (self is impermanent?) seem to me to be saying that, if (it is believed that) there is rebirth, that 'rebirth' is fairly meaningless, i.e. it is a rebirth of nothing in particular: why not just call it a "birth" instead of a rebirth?
  • If rebirth happens that seems difficult to prove by personal experience; is it an article of faith, not something one can verify by direct experience? If so isn't that (faith instead of experience) unusual in Buddhist doctrine (isn't doctrine meant to be measurable against one's experience of the world)? Or if it is experience, what kind of experience (of other lives) is it, how are you supposed to know that so-called experience is not just a dream?
  • This web site (which seems to be Thai) says that rebirth is a "parable" for "simple village folks living during the time of the Buddha". It says that "Reincarnation is not a simple physical birth of a person" and "This notion of the transmigration of the soul definitely does not exist in Buddhism." The end of that page suggest that people "lower themselves into hell" or "rise to the Enlightened state of the Buddha" in this life.

I think I remember reading, sometime in the distant past, than when someone asked the Buddha about the afterlife, he replied "I'm not here to talk to you about the afterlife: I'm here to talk to you about this life."

Is it OK to believe, is it OK to say that a belief in rebirth isn't important to Buddhism? Not a big part of the historical Buddha's teaching? That when he mentioned it at all, it was to say that it didn't exist ("anatta" and "anicca"), that he didn't expect to be doing it himself, and that it wasn't worth talking about?

And/or is it a non-core part of Buddhism: something which some Buddhists believe and other Buddhists don't, a local/cultural viewpoint?

The article Two Main Schools of Buddhism says,

The areas of agreement between the two schools are as follows:

  • Both accept Sakyamuni Buddha as the Teacher.
  • The Four Noble Truths are exactly the same in both schools.
  • The Eightfold Path is exactly the same in both schools.
  • The Pattica-Samuppada or teaching on Dependent Origination is the same in both schools.
  • Both reject the idea of a supreme being who created and governed this world.
  • Both accept Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta and Sila, Samadhi, Panna without any difference.

A belief in rebirth (even Karma) isn't especially on this list.

I think I agree that the above are essential: that the historical Buddha talked about them, and that they're a necessary part of Buddhist belief.

I agree that tales of rebirth and of other lives feature in some Buddhist literature, e.g. Mahayana literature seems to have the Buddha being reborn.

I don't know a lot about Buddhism so, please, if you answer with a paraphrase of scripture, please include the name of the scripture you're quoting so that I could look it up.

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    I have not been very inclined to upvote your question due to the conravertiona content but +1 for the research effort behind it. – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena Sep 11 '14 at 6:49
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    The cause of this question is presumably my 'wrong view'. That "rebirth" may be part of the doctrine, is part of some preconceptions about Buddhism (i.e. that 'rebirth' is an element of Buddhist faith); and (incredulity or prejudice against a belief in "reincarnation") a reason why some people might reject the Buddhist teachings entirely without close examination. So this seemed to me to be an important question even though it's controversial. I hoped I could ask it without causing offence; thank you for your answer. – ChrisW Sep 11 '14 at 10:59
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    @ChrisW Most traditions take the view that the essential permanent self is either extinguished, elevated, or damned at death. The Buddhist viewpoint rejects the idea of the self as an illusion (and a cause of great suffering) so to talk about its fate is meaningless. We are prone to organise experiences by individuals, but that is not reality. This is how cause leads to effect, -- good to good, bad to bad, and so on, -- and also all experience and reality, skipping through an entire unity, not owned by a person and not unduly interrupted by death... – Dan Sheppard Sep 17 '14 at 0:04
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    @ChrisW ... I have found that once you really come to know that as experientailly true, and the way the world truly is, it seems to me that something akin rebirth as it is described in scriptures becomes the default, prima facie case for reality. It is the view which most satisfies Occam's Razor. But remember that we are helpless in death. I write these comments as I was in a similar position to you once and practice dissolved the problem, as you suspect it would. I'm no expert, though, so it's not a "proper" answer. Keep going! – Dan Sheppard Sep 17 '14 at 0:07
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    @ChrisW Thank you! I'm not a scholar at heart, so I read things and listen to things, and try to put them into practice, but I soon forget who was speaking or what I was reading. Which is why I was hoping a more studious person would answer this question (and why I came to this question in the first place, for instruction, :-) !). I will try to look back, though, and find where I found this. – Dan Sheppard Sep 17 '14 at 0:50

14 Answers 14

up vote 32 down vote accepted

"Views regarding one's past and future existence are included in the "62 false beliefs""

A little context: I assume the 62's mentioned above are the same as found in DN 1 (Brahmajāla Sutta) translated as "The sixty-two kinds of wrong views" by Walshe (MN 102 also develops on these wrong views).

Now, "wrong view" is understood as either "not according to the damma" or simply "not in accordance with reality". In this sutta, we read the Buddha say:

There are, monks, some ascetics and Brahmins who are speculators about the past, having fixed views about the past, and who put forward various speculative theories about the past, in eighteen different ways [...]

And he proceeds explaining the many ways in which a person may mislead him/herself into concluding something false about the past. The first, for example, is this:

Here, monks, a certain ascetic or Brahmin has by means of effort, extortion, application, earnestness and right attention attained to such a state of mental concentration that he thereby recalls past existences -- one birth, two births, ... ten births, a hundred births, a thousand births [...] Thus he remembers various past lives, their conditions and details. And he says "the self and the world are eternal, barren like a mountain-peal, set firmly as a post. There beings rush round, circulate, pass away and re-arise, but this remains eternally. Why so? I have by means of effort, extortion, attained to such a state of mental concentration that I have thereby recalled various past existences...That is how I know the self and the world are eternal"

Above he is denouncing the fragile leap of conclusion: a person remembered many past lives [and contractions and expansions of the universe] and without identifying an origin, he/she concludes there is none, "so it is eternal". Now, the buddha, when confronted with this particular question, simply declares there is no discernible beginning (SN 15:3) -- something very different from "it is eternal" and "it is not eternal".

Another example of misleading conclusion:

Here, a certain ascetic or Brahmin is a logician, a reasoner. Hammering it out by reason, following his own line of thought, he argues: "The self and the world are eternal"

In these ways, he alerts about the delicate trap of drawing wrong conclusions based on what one believes to be careful examinations (either by some experience or by some abstract reasoning) but that weren't careful enough. Moreover, he illustrates flaws using as example contemporary theories (eternalism, annihilationism, and the spectrum in between) pushed by other sects.

With these things in mind, he did not claim rebirth or views/knowledge of past existence to be false. Quite the opposite, he declares himself to have the ability to recall his past existences (and often describes episodes from them). Finally, exploring this ability is also part of an often-repeated formula for arahantship (and arahants are also described developing this ability). In MN 39, after exposing the Fourth Jhana:

"With his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to knowledge of the recollection of past lives. He recollects his manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two births, three births, [...], many aeons of cosmic contraction, many aeons of cosmic expansion, many aeons of cosmic contraction and expansion, [recollecting], 'There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance

Furthermore, he used to announce the rebirth of disciples who have died -- though not of the ones who reached the supreme goal (SN 44.9).

"Views regarding the future of the Tathagata (after death) are in the 10 or 14 "unanswered questions""

Yes. But it is important to emphasize it is "unanswered"; not a negative or positive. Even if we put aside the fact that this is a question about a Buddha, it is hard to use this to develop a trust on either view.

"The Buddhist doctrine of "anatta" (there is no self?) and "anicca" (self is impermanent?) seem to me to be saying that, if (it is believed that) there is rebirth, that 'rebirth' is fairly meaningless, i.e. it is a rebirth of nothing in particular: why not just call it a "birth" instead of a rebirth?"

As far as I can tell, in the [pali] canon it is not said "there is no self". Rather, mostly we read instructions to observe several [conditioned] things in order to directly see "this [the thing] is not self". Additionally, we read declarations such as "All phenomena are non-self" ("sabbe dhammā anattā" -- AN 3.134).

An important point to consider is that it appears something very particular is meant by "self" which does not fit well with our common understanding of this word. In SN 22:59:

Bhikkhus, form is nonself. For if, bhikkhus, form were self, this form would not lead to affliction, and it would be possible to have it of form: 'Let my form be thus; let my form not be thus.'

And:

Is what is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change fit to be regarded thus: 'This is mine, this I am, this is myself? -- No, venerable sir.

Often times, when a challenger debates with the buddha claiming a self/eternalist view, he is debunked with questions such as "if that is so, can you change your form?". Therefore, I guess we need to, first, understand what is meant by "self" from propositions extracted from such discourses.

As for "birth" instead of "rebirth", though it's not clear to our reasoning "what re-borns" (all things above considered), the minimum takeaway of the use of this word in the discourses is that it denotes continuity.

"If rebirth happens that seems difficult to prove by personal experience"

Difficult indeed. But the texts support the possibility of personally testify it.

"is it an article of faith, not something one can verify by direct experience? If so isn't that (faith instead of experience) unusual in Buddhist doctrine (isn't doctrine meant to be measurable against one's experience of the world)?"

I guess it depends on what you mean by faith. I find it difficult to recall important claims made by the buddha that weren't suppose to be verified by one's effort in this lifetime -- so, as far as my knowledge goes, yes it would be unusual. From the canon alone, I wouldn't say this is a matter of faith in the devotional or "Belief" way, where one just take it as it is and assign a special value to it, often developing an emotional dependency towards it -- the clinging buddha frequently alerted about.

But faith as in a trust we give to something or someone while we are applying ourselves to personally verify it, I think it fits pretty well with everything else.

"Or if it is experience, what kind of experience (of other lives) is it, how are you supposed to know that so-called experience is not just a dream?"

I honestly don't know how I would proceed to scrutinize an experience of recalling my past lives.

"is it OK to believe, is it OK to say that a belief in rebirth isn't important to Buddhism? Not a big part of the historical Buddha's teaching? That when he mentioned it at all, it was to say that it didn't exist ("anatta" and "anicca"), that he didn't expect to be doing it himself, and that it wasn't worth talking about?"

One thing we can see explicitly in the texts is that he discouraged speculations, and this subject draws speculations easily, giving its such a puzzle for reasoning and concerns the mystery of our future. Having said that, I think its safe to say it wouldn't make much sense for him to require listeners to believe and internalize "the fact of rebirth", to consider it something central to the training (if it was that important, he could have made an extra noble truth out of it :).

There are a lot of aspects of the Dhamma that receive special attention and frequent emphasis. Urging people to believe rebirth as some sort of requirement or at face value is not something I've seen (MN 60 illustrates how the buddha approached this specific matter).

Now to the specific question: from the canon alone, rebirth is important (though, arguably not an urgent concern in the most practical sense). And, to say the least, the Buddha apparently considered worth talking about, so widespread this subject appears in the suttas, fulfilling roles therein, either as an aspect of the Dhamma, providing a broader exposition of our condition, or simply used to inspire and help us take the road to do something about it, etc. In the case of Dhamma, and this is significant, "no rebirth" does feature in wrong view.

But again, one thing is saying rebirth is important in buddhism. Other is saying (the belief of) rebirth is important to the practice. Other is saying rebirth is important to some buddhists ...


Edited to include a few more references (thank you @Unrul3r) and provide more direct answers to the questions

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    Great effort. Keep up the good work. +1 – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena Sep 11 '14 at 5:37
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    Indeed, good answer. In case you want to complement it further, here are some additional references concerning this issue that are worth reading: MN 60, MN 120, SN 12.19, SN 44.9. – Unrul3r Sep 11 '14 at 8:56
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    thank you! I did some minor clean up (two questions I didn't directly elaborated on) and took the opportunity to add a few more references. – Thiago Sep 12 '14 at 4:02
  • @ThiagoSilva Looking to see more participation on the site. Very good content indeed! – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena Sep 16 '14 at 4:50
  • In the case of Dhamma, and this is significant, "no rebirth" does feature in wrong view it appears this is found in Apannaka Sutta, e.g. here and here. – avatar Korra May 17 at 4:11

Rebirth is a metaphor. There is no literal rebirth (of the same person). This hope for literal rebirth is really a hidden attachment to "I", the desire to continue. Let go. It's Ok, you will die -- and never exist again. In fact, "you" do not exist even now, as a separate being. It is just wrong understanding that is called "I". The world is continuous global process of matter/energy/information transformation, with no rigid boundaries in space nor in time. The boundaries are imputed by the analytic mind, they are concepts, abstractions, simplifications. It is attachment to concepts that we liberate from in Buddhism. Attachment to concepts is what leads to fear and suffering, because the concepts always fall behind the ever changing world. When your idea of how something is "supposed to be" mismatches your idea of "how it is" -- hereby is suffering. But the world is always there, behind ideas, infinitely more nuanced and multifaceted than any conceptual model.

Rebirth is a metaphor for the continuity of information and influences. Nothing ever goes away completely. Nothing ever stays the same. Something transforms, something splits apart, something joins with something else, something pushes something. These chains of causes and effects go on like this, infinitely forking and joining. This is what rebirth is. My existence did not start when I was born, it goes way into past. My consciousness did not start when I was born. I inherited it gradually (not in one piece!) from mother and father, from books, from people, -- and they inherited it from each other and from the past. The sea of consciousness goes on like this, having its roots in the basic relationships, of fundamental patterns of the universe.

This is the part of the "rebirth" metaphor that is useful: that things are fluid and have continuity. Crude materialists assume that things completely disappear, like person disappears when it dies. But it does not disappear, it just looses its solidness, its togetherness. The knot unties, but the threads are still here. The truth is, this solidness was mostly a fiction anyway. Did you think you actually were a source of your decisions? Where do you think your desires came from, your preferences came from?

When most people think of "self" they think of some abstract core that is the subject of all experience and the agent of all actions. Buddha taught (and modern cognitive science tends to agree) that upon careful examination there is no such single core. Instead experiences result from interactions of multiple perceptory functions. Similarly, our actions are performed by a conglomerate of functions, without a single agent responsible for all choices.

When the notion of individual rebirth exists as an unexamined belief, it depends on this unexamined notion of "self" as its necessary foundation. Once practitioner is free from illusion of self (in practice, not just conceptually), the notion of individual birth/death/rebirth no longer applies. From this perspective, rebirth is a byproduct of attachment to a (substantial) self.

But because karma at large still continues to function (after Awakening), the infinitely forking/joining threads of causation that once were the subject of attachment continue to participate in activity and serve as causes for subsequent effects. In this sense, rebirth as principle goes on continuously whether we posit an individual or not.

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    To reference scripture, perhaps a description of Skandhas, which I once saw translated into English as (five separate) "heaps", help to explain what is meant by the self's not being a "single core". – ChrisW Sep 11 '14 at 16:12
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    That's right! Also, the Twelve-Nidanas are about attachment to self and letting go of attachment to self. The notion of my death depends on the notion of my birth. The notion of my birth depends on identification with a living being. Identification with a living being depends on ignorance (via some intermediate steps). – Andrei Volkov Sep 11 '14 at 16:32
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    I'm surprised I can't find the word "ego" anywhere on this page. – sss4r Jun 12 '15 at 1:32
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    I am extremely sympathetic to this view. However, I want to note that I think there is probably daylight between this answer and what many in our tradition of Tibetan-Buddhism believe. In other words, to believe this I think is equivalent to saying that the teaching of the truth of rebirth in the first turning of the wheel of dharma was a skillful means of the Buddha. Agree? – Yeshe Tenley Apr 21 at 14:20
  • Yes of course. Well, I don't think it's only a useful fiction, I just think it's a major simplification. There's certainly such thing as "past lives" and "future lives" they are just not exactly mine or yours, they are "our lives". – Andrei Volkov Apr 23 at 6:15

I'm a secular Buddhist who takes Mahayana as my starting point. What you are discussing is the cosmology-- the idea that there are six realms, maybe one or more pure lands, and places you can go after you die.

In Glenn Wallis's book "Basic Teachings of the Buddha," I think he persuasively argued that the historical Buddha was an extinctionalist and had no use for the hindu cosmology, but everywhere he went, that is what people wanted to talk about and hear about. So he recast his basic teachings in the jargon and images of the religious beliefs around him.

As a secular believer, I have to look at the various ideas that don't square with science, or as you observe, don't square with a lot of statement you find about Buddhism, an decide what to do with it. Is it a metaphor? Is it a useful one?

The central realization in Buddhism is that we naively think we have a permanent self (or soul) that will always be with us. One re-formulation of reincarnation to illustrate this is that, essentially every second I change and the me of a second ago is dead and gone, but there is a new one, right now. The only connection is the cause and effect of this chain of phenomena that naively looks like a permanent person or soul or self. So every second I die and am reborn into a new person, somewhat connected to the old.

This illustrates some central Buddhist themes but breaks down when we get to the point where we die. At that point, we are just dead. We live on in our actions in the people and world that survive us, but that really is stretching the metaphor.

Another point to remember about Buddhism is that there are many version of it and within each version you generally can find a sophisticated version, focused on things like philosophical questions (do we have a permanent self, what are the consequences of the answer), mediation, maybe ethics, and there is another for lay consumption, that involves devotion, magic for this worldly benefit and a keen interest in where we go after we die.

Personally, this all works for me. I don't have to worry about where I go after I die because the thing I wanted to survive my death (my eternal self, soul or what have you) was an illusion all along.

That said, there are many forms of Buddhism, which find it mandatory to retain a Hindu-style reincarnation, or literal heavens and hells and sometimes they have very interesting mental gymnastics to square how we can come back to life after we die or make it to a pure land, despite annata being such central theme in historical Buddhism.

I know too little to have an opinion on this matter, but here is an article where Thanissaro Bhikkhu argues that rebirth is "an important working hypothesis in following the path all the way to the end of suffering", that is, that the belief in rebirth is an important part of practising Buddhism.

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/truth_of_rebirth.html

"Anatta" does not mean "no-self". It means "not-self". Therefore, the Buddha did not deny the arising of the "self" concept in the mind. In fact, the Buddha taught extensively about how the idea of "self" leads to suffering (refer to Nakulapita Sutta).

The work "birth" ("jati") can mean the birth of the "self" idea or self-identity. In this context, you may refer to the Parileyyaka Sutta, which explains very simply.

Clinging to experiences as "self" is inherent to the operation of karma (action) & its results (vipaka). The enlightenment of the eight fold path ends karma (refer to Nibbedhika Sutta) since there is no more "self" attachment to create karma & obsess about its results.

The teachings of good & bad karma are called mundane or worldly teachings and are not related to enlightenment (refer to MN 117). Therefore, unenlightened people still have the belief in "self" and when they do karma, they rejoice in a personal way about the results of their good karma and suffer in a personal way about the results of their bad karma.

Therefore, whatever the unenlightened person does, be it good or bad, "self-view" keeps arising in relation to their karma.

This re-arising of "self-view" is one interpretation of "rebirth".

Try this essay: ANATTĀ & REBIRTH by Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu

  • The hyperlink in your answer was 404 (not found) now, so I changed the link -- I hope (you might check that) I'm still linking to the same document as the one you meant to reference. – ChrisW Nov 15 at 9:21

Can their be rebirth or death if what one believes will be born or die turns out to be a deception? Being under the influence of karma and this deception of identity is a result of believing in a self that one believes is an aggregate, that is born into form, that grows and changes, that dies and decomposes. Attachment is not to matter, but to a belief that we are matter or we are in matter and must get out of it, or we are somehow under the influence of matter and must get free of that. If you have a dream that you are a child lost in the wilderness and you are starving to death, what happens to that child when you wake up? Does it go away or does it disappear because it never had any existence in the first place? That is what karma is. Of course there can be seeds from previous interactions. I am not saying that one can just say a magic word and karma has no effect. But when we do not feed it on a daily basis, it withers like a weed that is without water. Zen practice of Dogen diminished the role of death as of little importance.

In every society some children gain spontaneous recollection of their past birth. Many authors have investigated such stories and found them correct. Read 'Twenty suggestive cases of reincarnation' written by psychiatrist Ian Stevenson on the phenomena of what he calls spontaneous recall of information about previous lives by young children and some adults through hypnotism.

Read Edgar Cacy's stories about rebirth.He had discovered many stories of rebirth through self hypnosis. Rebirth is a natural phenomenon discovered by many Brahmins in India long before Load Buddha's enlightenment. Your next birth depends on the Karmic force for which the person concern is responsible for. How those man and the woman became your parents? How do some people become experts in some fields. How those people become your children? These relationships occur life after life according to the power of love and cravings. However, whether you like it or not you will be reborn some day after this life. However, no one cannot explain this philosophy in a short message like this.

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    I've read this 'skeptical' article about Ian Stevenson's work, which says "There is nothing that could be discovered by this method that could ever falsify the reincarnation hypothesis." IOW Stevenson spent a lifetime looking for stories which he couldn't prove to be false, and found some. – ChrisW Sep 15 '14 at 20:29
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    The type of rebirth stated here The Buddha debunked as extremely rare, he says "In the same way, monks, few are the beings who, on passing away from the human realm, are reborn among human beings" (Pansu Sutta). It's really rare for anyone after death as a human to be reborn as a human in their next existence again, it's more common that they go to the other destinations (hell, the animal realm, the realm of ghosts, heavenly world). When The Buddha speaks of people as humans in their previous existences he's not talking about their immediate past existence just some existence in the past – MischievousSage Oct 14 '16 at 15:46

Rebirth is real and eventually will be proven, as is the afterlife (with heavenly and hellish worlds).

As The Buddha explained:

"Sariputta, there are these five destinations. What are the five? Hell, the animal realm, the realm of ghosts, human beings and devas." - MN 12

"Secular Buddhism" and other modern day forms of Buddhism are heretical and fit into wrong views:

"And what is wrong view? 'There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed. There is no fruit or result of good or bad actions. There is no this world, no next world, no mother, no father, no spontaneously reborn beings; no brahmans or contemplatives who, faring rightly & practicing rightly, proclaim this world & the next after having directly known & realized it for themselves.' This is wrong view" - MN 117 (recurs many times over and over again in the Pali canons)

Secular Buddhism and other modern day forms of Buddhism were predicted by The Buddha:

"In the same way, in the course of the future there will be monks who won't listen when discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — are being recited. They won't lend ear, won't set their hearts on knowing them, won't regard these teachings as worth grasping or mastering.

But they will listen when discourses that are literary works — the works of poets, elegant in sound, elegant in rhetoric, the work of outsiders, words of disciples — are recited. They will lend ear and set their hearts on knowing them. They will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.

In this way the disappearance of the discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — will come about." - Ani Sutta (SN 20.7)

We see that outsiders and disciples have come to replace Buddhism with new fundamentally different forms of Buddhism, so different how can they be Buddhism?

These new type of Buddhists teach people to cling to views, become attached to ideas, and use incredulity rather than trying to observe the truth.

Looks like Buddhism is almost already exterminated!

If you achieve higher states your wrong views will naturally automatically disappear and you will see that it's really true that re-birth or re-existence really is true.

The Buddha explained how many births there are:

What do you think, monks: Which is 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 — or the water in the four great oceans?"

"As we understand the Dhamma taught to us by the Blessed One, this is the greater: the tears we 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."

"Excellent, monks. Excellent. It is excellent that you thus understand the Dhamma taught by me.

"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.....

"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." - Assu Sutta

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    So why the down votes? Is it because many realize that what's happening to Buddhism strikingly matches into the prediction in the Ani Sutta? Or is it because many disagree with the assertion that rebirth is really literally real? Soon in the future Buddhism will be completely exterminated, by new, replaced teachings. – MischievousSage Oct 14 '16 at 14:53

This is dependent of the meaning of rebirth.

Taking one meaning rebirth happens from moment to moment as one set of Kalapas pass away and a new set of Kalapas arise. In this context we can reason about it through Vipassana as it all happens within this lifetime. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebirth_(Buddhism)#Rebirth_as_cycle_of_consciousness)

If it takes the meaning of Patisandhi still it is subjected to the same flow.

The bhavanga-citta is the same type of citta as the first citta in life, the patisandhi-citta (rebirth-consciousness). When the patisandhi-citta falls away it conditions the next citta to arise which is the second citta in that life. This citta is the first bhavanga-citta in life.

(source: Chapter 12 of Abhidhamma in daily life by Nina Van Gorkom)

By understanding mind matter process in this life you can understand it's working over many lives also. So the Dhamma the Buddha preached was verifiable in this life: Sandiṭṭhiko. Hence for your practice the fact that there is rebirth or not is not very relevant. From the time of birth you would have experienced stress some for or the other as per in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.

Also developing Abhijñā you can verify rebirth by your self. Even this is not perfect hence can lead to wrong views. Many non Buddhist also had these abilities but this lead to wrong views (or a dilutional view in some cases).

One does not have absolute control over ones rebirth hence Annatha.

Rebirth is the one of the main reasons to practice Buddhism otherwise you are just following nihilism, just kill yourself and its done. It will not match the concept of dependent origination or the middle way. Its no included in the agreements of the Theravada and Mahayana because it is not part of practice and also assumed knowledge, if you go to a Buddhist country and ask a Buddhist about rebirth they will undoubtedly believe it but they might not know the four noble truth. In the same way both schools recognize there are Gods,Asuras, Animals, Hells why not add it too?

  • I was wondering whether it was a contemporary belief but not a necessary piece of Buddhist doctrine ... whether it's possible to understand Buddhism without understanding what "rebirth" supposedly means. I find it difficult to understand that doctrine for the reasons stated in the OP (it seems to contradict other bits of doctrine), so I was wondering if I could, wondering if it would be better to, stop trying to understand it. – ChrisW Oct 17 '16 at 12:36
  • Not all people believed in Rebirth back in the day including several prominent Sramana Religions who were Materialistic/Atheist that the Buddha heavily criticizes. – O_O Oct 18 '16 at 6:21
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    IMO the Buddha criticizes the view that "There is no fruit or result of good or bad actions" (e.g. here). – ChrisW Oct 18 '16 at 9:06
  • I agreed. Im from buddhist country. There’re some places we can practices to prove and understand about this. – b.ben May 18 at 14:38
  • @ChrisW I’d agree that it’s not necessary to understand.But I’m not agree not to belief this. It’s the only core of why Buddhist exist. – b.ben May 18 at 14:40

Persistence of experience, in a continuous event during the time we are alive gives the mistaken impression that, if we pay insufficient attention, we may reach the conclusion that we who experience do not change, and are something other than the changing physical animal we are. Insight into the error of supposing an essence which sustains experience and endures beyond it is the benefit of learning the truth of the principle of Anatman or Anatta.

The desire for such a continuity and endurance may lead us to affirm it and find reasons to promise and explain it, and this is what led to doctrines of essentialism and also to the teachings of rebirth in Buddhism. Taken as a metaphor, we are reborn each and every day upon waking in the sense that, using the raw materials of memory and the rudiments of our character, we reconstruct once more reflecting on the actions (karma) attributed to our cause the glamour of being a particular person with unchanging features, when in fact what is happening is the resumption of our attachment to this narrative and the particular character it preserves.

The same metaphor allows for an interpretation of the quality of past, present, or future experiences as 'heaven(ly)' or 'hell(ish)', yet need not have anything to do with experience which occurs after we die.

In consideration of dreams versus waking experience, the former are of a different character and conform to different principles. Dreams are less enduring and rational, are dependent solely on imagination for their content, whereas the waking world is far more consistent and has a physical basis of function and endurance. Knowledge of the latter is easy to acquire and just involves careful reflection and testing. Departure from this functional basis is one of the clearest indicators of being in a dreamstate.

The expansive significance of refusing to comment on what is not currently operative (gods or demons being present or absent, death presenting a continuity or discontinuity of experience, for examples) allows us also to refuse to comment upon what The Buddha did or did not say or do in any particular event.

Outside the confines of a sangha wherein doctrines are outlined as practical platforms from which one may benefit in supposing their veracity, believing or ceasing to believe things is inconsequential, save that it informs one's own motivation and response. This will have bearing on what steps will be taken to participate in or catalyze one's own realization, and so decisions of this type can become crucial in following the Path, abandoning it, or becoming lost in delusion.

Within the foregoing it might be transparent that certain conventions are supposed effective or authentic, such as the existence of the Path or Marga, the efficacy at least in part of the sangha or congregation of aspirants in walking this Path, and most importantly, the possibility of realization and insight which might arise from walking it.

The only warnings i have repeatedly received relating to beliefs or doctrines have in fact pertained to essentiality, and were characterized as Essentialism and Nihilism, these being coupled as twin errors of extremity. Whether one's ideas adhere to main schools, if one's beliefs could be identified as core to Buddhism so-called, or even if the Four Noble Truths or Eight-Fold Path were defined differently, this seemed far less problematic than to suppose there exists a central substance from which all of reality arises which itself does not change, or to suppose that the constantly changing quality of the cosmos indicates that nothing exists at all.

  • Nihilism is the view a 'self' ends at 'death' (rather than the view there is no new life after the termination of life). Refer to Iti 49, DN 1 & SN 22.85. Regards – Dhammadhatu Jan 28 '17 at 13:22
  • I'd thought it cosmology rather than to personal interruption or continuity. For example: "Nāgārjuna suggests that to regard something as existent amounts to eternalism and to regard as non-existent amounts to nihilism. So a wise person should avoid both the ontological commitments, positive and negative, of the forms 'something exists' and 'something does not exist' respectively." -- academia.edu/1436237/Essentialism_Eternalism_and_Buddhism Is this primarily a Mahayana vs. Theravada discernment, then? – Troll Jan 28 '17 at 22:48
  • Nagarjuna's views are different to Buddha. For Buddha, eternalism & nihilism are 'self-views'. 'Self' means 'ego'. For example, a tree, rock, car, house, cloud, etc, is not a self or ego. – Dhammadhatu Jan 29 '17 at 0:09

I am fairly new to this forum and came across this question via another question where my answer was controversial. I was surprised it was controversial on this forum and wanted to explain why in a calm and reasoned way. I hope this is a good place to do so.

I'm a student in the Gelug branch of Tibetan Buddhism where fostering a healthy faith in rebirth is considered core to the Buddhist path. In fact, rebirth is taught by my teachers - including His Holiness the Dalai Lama - to be a phenomena the truth of which can be known with certainty through reasoning alone although I still struggle to understand how.

However, I'm also a westerner and a skeptic who has a fairly hard time with the doctrine of rebirth in my tradition. In particular, it seems to me that rebirth is a matter of faith and I have a difficult time understanding how it can be known definitively through reason alone as taught in my tradition. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm (relative to my tradition) considered a skeptic about rebirth.

One thing I am not skeptical at all about is that the historical Buddha taught a doctrine of literal rebirth. That is to say, while I have some doubt about the doctrine of rebirth I find it hard to understand how anyone could doubt that the Buddha taught this doctrine. The doctrine of rebirth is laced throughout the Sutras. And not just the Mahayana Sutras either, but the Theravada as well.

As a purely factual matter, I just don't see how the notion that the Buddha did not teach the doctrine of rebirth can be entertained. The Pali canon is suffused through and through with the Buddha speaking about rebirth.

This is a great resource, rounding up many of the places in the Sutras where the Buddha taught rebirth: The Truth of Rebirth And Why it Matters for Buddhist Practice by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

Consider this:

"There are, headman, some contemplatives & brahmans who hold a doctrine & view like this: 'All those who kill living beings experience pain & distress in the here-&-now. All those who take what is not given... who engage in illicit sex... who tell lies experience pain & distress in the here-&-now.'

"Now there is the case where a certain person is seen garlanded & adorned, freshly bathed & groomed, with hair & beard trimmed, enjoying the sensualities of women as if he were a king. They ask about him: 'My good man, what has this man done that he has been garlanded & adorned... as if he were a king?' They answer: 'My good man, this man attacked the king's enemy and took his life. The king, gratified with him, rewarded him. That is why he is garlanded & adorned... as if he were a king.'

"Then there is the case where a certain person is seen bound with a stout rope with his arms pinned tightly against his back, his head shaved bald, marched to a harsh-sounding drum from street to street, crossroads to crossroads, evicted through the south gate, and beheaded to the south of the city. They ask about him: 'My good man, what has this man done that he is bound with a stout rope... and beheaded to the south of the city?' They answer: 'My good man, this man, an enemy of the king, has taken the life of a man or a woman. That is why the rulers, having had him seized, inflicted such a punishment upon him.'

[The Buddha then cites similar cases where some people are rewarded for stealing, engaging in illicit sex, and lying, whereas other people are punished.]

"Now, what do you think, headman: Have you ever seen or heard of such a case?"

"I have seen this, lord, have heard of it, and will hear of it [again in the future]."

"So, headman, when those contemplatives & brahmans who hold a doctrine & view like this say: 'All those who kill living beings [etc.] experience pain & distress in the here-&-now,' do they speak truthfully or falsely?"

"Falsely, lord."

"And those who babble empty falsehood: Are they moral or immoral?"

"Immoral, lord."

"And those who are immoral and of evil character: Are they practicing wrongly or rightly?"

"Wrongly, lord."

"And those who are practicing wrongly: Do they hold wrong view or right view?"

"Wrong view, lord."

"And is it proper to place confidence in those who hold wrong view?"

"No, lord."

— SN 42.13

I just don't see how you can square the above or many, many, many other places where the Buddha teaches about the truth of rebirth with the notion that the Buddha did not teach about the truth of rebirth.

Now, many skeptical about rebirth - like me - would point out that the Buddha often used skillful (upaya) means to help others. They might argue that Sutras like the one above and many of the other places are simply instances of the Buddha using skillful means to those who come to the Dharma already having great faith in the truth of rebirth. I can respect and understand that viewpoint even if I don't necessarily agree with it.

Another thing that skeptics say about rebirth say is that perhaps the Buddha was just wrong about this. I also have to respect this viewpoint even if I don't necessarily agree with it.

Another option is to just deny the authenticity or validity of the Sutras where the Buddha speaks about rebirth, but this would leave so many Sutras cut from the canon that I just don't know how you could intellectually justify that. It sounds like motivated reasoning: denying authenticity of only those Sutras that explicitly talk about a doctrine you have a hard time believing or understanding. Maybe there is a way to honestly justify it, but I don't see how.

These are the reasons I was so surprised that my answer was controversial. It could be that I am just wrong and completely misunderstanding something, but I just wanted to explain my reasoning.

Many answers here. I will not surprise if mine was ignored.

My perception come from what I have saw all over my life.

My practitioners, A numbers people around me. All of those can recall past life.

Can know the future.

Can see heaven hell, even some can see Nirvana. Can know karma.

Can know what ever someone thought in real-time.

Can even see what happened in from far places.

Can control, Not just a dream.

I can completely say that whatever Buddha teach was no metaphor to make us confuse.

And I can guarantee that these abilities can be intentionally practised. Not happened randomly.

And I also know how to practice even though I’m not currently success. And there are so many ways to practice.

So I will conclude the very short answer here.

Except you’re seeing rebirth as metaphor, It would be nonsense if when the Buddha teaches was unprovable -- Buddhism would be no different than theist religions.

So there are 40 meditation subjects. A couple of them can make these abilities happen. One of those abilities is divine eyes. And it happened for everyone who have successfully practised. Not just random.

Those subjects are

  1. Light Kasina
  2. White Kasina

Also what I saw in my life these abilities can be practised in shortcut ways, easy way that most people can practice.

Even it’s not perfect as Kasina at first, but can make people prove how rebirth, hell, heaven, karma is actually real. No metaphor here.

Please don’t get me wrong here.

I’m not saying that we need those super natural abilities.

I don’t think we necessary need these if people already walked in the ways Buddha teach.

But it really need for the one who’re with very high scepticism and does not belief things easily.

My intention is these will clarify everything you doubt, and the really true reason why to practice in Buddhism.

Just like an apple falls from a tree to the ground because of gravity, in the same way beings are born because of ignorance.

And what ignorance?

Not knowing the cause of suffering.

By not knowing the cause, beings search an end to suffering.

While searching for an end, beings do activities. Activities like:

"This is me."

"This is mine."

"I am this and that and that."

"When I die, I'll go to heaven."

"When I die, I'll be reborn."

"I wish I had a better life."

"I want that!"

"That is what would make me happy."

"Oh I'm miserable! Let me be better."

etc.

These same activities in the moment of our death are the cause of rebirth.

Activities is karma. Karma in the present, which defines our future. Karma from the past, which defines our present. Karma which gives us form over and over again. Which propels our births.

In most beings activities arise because of not knowing an end to suffering.

And how to see all this for yourself?

Close your eyes and let go.

Let go even of the perception of the object of meditation.

Let go even of the perception that you let go of the object of meditation.

Let go of everything.

...

In this very same "state" truth can be realized by asking yourself the question "who am I?"

By doing this, and asking yourself the question "who am I" a path will be entered.

"Who am I?", observe and let go.

Observe. Let go.

Learning will occur. New knowledge will be gained.

Many questions will be asked.

Many answered.

One will lead to the next naturally.

Just like an experienced detective drills to the motive of a murder, in the same way you will drill to the cause of suffering.

This path will lead you to the end of suffering. Along it, the truth about reincarnation will be realized too.

  • If I'm reading this answer correctly, I think that the only thing you say about 'rebirth' in this answer is that "These same activities in the moment of our death are the cause of rebirth"? That was the subject of another question, Last thought before death?. – ChrisW Oct 14 '16 at 21:33
  • Yes. But even more important, the answer to your question must be experienced. Observe carefully and it will be seen. – beginner Oct 15 '16 at 6:44

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