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Imagine a human being born in 1982 weighing a few pounds at birth and labeled 'Melinda' by her parents. This little human being grows up - as little human beings tend to do - and by 2020 we imagine her as an adult no longer called 'Melinda', but rather change her name to 'Abigail.' If we examine the bodies of Melinda and Abigail down to the atom and perform a thorough and exact accounting we find that Melinda and Abigail do not share even one atom in common. Their brains are composed of entirely different atoms.

Is the rupa skandha of Melinda and Abigail the same or different? Has it been reborn? What was the manner of its rebirth? How did it occur? How many times did it occur between 1982 to 2020? Is the same true of the other skandhas... have they been reborn? Are they reborn due to 'identification' with an 'I' or due to physical laws or some combination?

Did 'Melinda' die sometime between 1982 and 2020 and get utterly annihilated? Was Abigail born for the first time from scratch between 1982 and 2020 and just pop into existence from nothing?

How is it possible that beings are reborn from moment-to-moment? In what manner and to what extent? What did the Buddha teach?

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Imagine a camp fire that started in 1982. The original fuel has burned down but new fuel is regularly added. The overall shape and configuration of the fire in 2020 is somewhat reminiscent of the original 1982 fire but of course none of the material is the same.

Now if we were to analytically separate the fire into several categories (skandhas) we would find wood, ash, heat, light, oxygen, and smoke - all playing their roles in the maintenance (upadana) of fire.

Is it the same fire staying or is the fire "reborn" moment to moment? It's neither and both, these are just concepts to explain the working of causal continuity.

One important mistake in the worldview underlying your original question: it assumes that "the fire" starts when a new human is born. But this is not so. The fire has been continuously burning through generations. "The beginning point is not evident". A new human is just another tongue of flame.

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Is the rupa skhanda of Melinda and Abigail the same or different?

The teachings say the khandhas alter, change (SN 22.1), are impermanent (SN 22.59).

Has it been reborn?

No. The Pali words translated as 'reborn' are associated with "kamma" or "volition". The change & alteration of the rupa khandha over the lifetime is not related to volition (apart from volitionally produced change, such as from eating too much or having plastic surgery).

What was the manner of its rebirth?

Its not reborn. Only identity towards the rupa khandha is 'reborn'.

Are they reborn due to 'identification' with an 'I' or due to physical laws or some combination?

Reborn due to 'identification' with an 'I'

Did 'Melinda' die sometime between 1982 and 2020 and get utterly annihilated?

Yes, it seems so. In the Pali suttas (DN 1; Iti 49; etc) the term "annihilation" refers to the annihilation of a "self-view" or "existent being".

Was Abigail born for the first time from scratch between 1982 and 2020 and just pop into existence from nothing?

Yes. But not from nothing. Abligail was born from ignorance & craving.

How is it possible that beings are reborn from moment-to-moment? In what manner and to what extent? What did the Buddha teach?

SN 12.2 defines "jati" or "birth" as a "category of beings produced by the manifestation of their aggregates and the acquisition of their sense bases (of identification)".

For example, Abigail craves to be attractive, manifests her aggregates by wearing make up and sex clothing and mental behaving in certain seductive ways. She identifies herself within the category of "sexy women". If men don't pay attention to her, sorrow arises. If other sexy women look more sexy than her, despair arises. Sorrow & despair arise with the "aging & death" of her fragile identity. Despite these setbacks, her repetition of such sexualising behaviour is "rebirthing" or "upapajjati".

The word "upapatti/upapajjati" ("rebirth/reborn") appears not related to the word "jati" ("birth"). 'Upapajjati' is 'upa + pad + ya'; where the root 'pad' appears to mean 'to walk; to move' and the suffix 'upa' means 'close to' or 'near'. 'Jati' appears to be a noun from the verb root 'jan'; which appears to mean "bring forth'.

Therefore, "jati" appears to mean "bring forth" and "upapajjati" appears to mean "to continue/be in a similar manner as before".

For example, SN 12.10, includes both "jati" & "upapajjati", where the word "jayati" is the "verb" for the noun "jati", as follows:

Mendicants, before my awakening — when I was still unawakened but intent on awakening— I thought:

Pubbeva me, bhikkhave, sambodhā anabhisambuddhassa bodhisattasseva sato etadahosi:

‘Alas, this world has fallen into trouble. It is born, grows old, dies, passes away, and is reborn [continues in the same manner as before]...

‘kicchaṃ vatāyaṃ loko āpanno jāyati ca jīyati ca mīyati ca cavati ca upapajjati ca.

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OP: Are the Skandha's reborn from moment-to-moment?

Yes.

Viññāṇapaccayā nāma-rūpaṃ, “dependent on consciousness arises mentality-materiality.” The term nāma here stands for the mental states (cetasika), in other words, the three mental groups: namely, feeling (vedanākkhandha), perception (saññākkhandha), and volitional or mental formations (saṅkhārakkhandha).

The so called “being” (satta, Skt. sattva) is composed of five aggregates or groups (pañcakkhandha); namely, physical body, feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness (rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā and viññāṇa). If consciousness is taken as the mind, then feeling, perceptions and volitional formations are the concomitants or factors of that mind. Now when we say dependent on consciousness arises nāma-rūpa, mentality-materiality, materiality means the physical body, its organs, faculties, and functions. Mentality means the factors of the mind mentioned above. In other words, viññāṇa-paccayā nāma-rūpaṃ means dependent on consciousness arise the three mental concomitants (feeling, perception, and volitional formations) that compose mentality, along with the conascent material body in its first embryonic stage.

Consciousness and its factors (citta-cetasika) are always interrelated and interdependent. Consciousness cannot arise and function independently of its factors, nor can the factors arise and function without consciousness. They arise simultaneously (sahajāta-paccaya) and have no independent existence.

The function of viññāṇa, consciousness, is varied. The third factor of the chain is made known to us as viññāṇa; now here again we hear of a sixth base, manāyatana, which is identical with consciousness. But here by manāyatana different types of consciousness are meant. It should be borne in mind that consciousness is not something that is permanent and everlasting. It undergoes change, not remaining the same for two consecutive moments; it comes into being and immediately passes away yielding place to a new consciousness. “These mental phenomena are, as it were, only the different aspects of those units of consciousness which like lightning every moment flash up and immediately thereafter disappear forever.

Source: Dependent Origination (Paṭicca Samuppāda) by Piyadassi Thera

OP: Is the rupa skhanda of Melinda and Abigail the same or different?

This is neither the same nor different. There is not core which is transmitted but each series of Skandas are a product of same DO process.

OP: Has it been reborn?

Yes. They die and recreated as the wheel of DO roles forward.

There are three kinds of death: death as cutting off, momentary death, and conventional death. Death as cutting off belongs to those whose cankers are exhausted (and are Arahants). Momentary death is that of each consciousness of the cognitive series beginning with life-continuum consciousness, which arise each immediately on the cessation of the one preceding. Conventional death is that of all (so-called) living beings. Mine will be conventional death.

Introduction to The Path of Purification Visuddhimagga

OP: What was the manner of its rebirth? How did it occur?

Past conditioning gives rise to the consciousness, mind and matter and 6 sense bases for the monetary experience. The craving towards the feelings is the fuel which keeps the cycle going.

OP: How many times did it occur between 1982 to 2020?

Rūpa also arises and dissolves at a tremendous rate of more than 58 billion times per second. So for such a long period, it is difficult to say.

The Life-Time of Citta

Citta (consciousness) arises and dissolves in a person at a tremendous rate of more than a thousand billion times per eye-wink and there are about 250 eye-winks in a second. So, the life-time of a citta is less than one-thousand billionth of a second.

The life-time or duration of a citta is measured by three short instants, characterising the distinct features in the arising and passing of the citta. These are: (i) uppāda- the arising instant, (ii) ṭhiti- the presence or existing instant and (iii) bhanga- the dissolving instant. These three short instants (khaṇas) are said to be “one moment of consciousness” or “one conscious moment” (cittakkhaṇa). So, the lifetime of a citta is equal to the three short instants of arising, existing and dissolving of citta, i.e. it is equal to one conscious moment (cittakkhaṇa).

The Life-Time of Matter-Rūpa

The life-time of matter or Rūpa is 17 times longer than that of citta. So, we can say that the life-time of rūpa is equal to 17 cittakkhaṇas, or 17 conscious moments, or 51 short instants (17X3 = 51); as there are 3 short instants in a moment of consciousness.

Thus, rūpa also arises and dissolves at a tremendous rate of more than 58 billion times per second. The difference between citta and rūpa is as follows: citta arise one after another, whereas rūpa arise by manifesting as thousands of units in a small instant and it goes on constantly arising at every small instant in time. Therefore, rūpa may accumulate to become large masses that are visible to the naked eye, whereas the fleeting stream of consciousnesses is invisible to the naked eye.

Process of Consciousness and Matter by Rewata Dhamma

OP: Is the same true of the other skhandas... have they been reborn?

Yes.

OP: Are they reborn due to 'identification' with an 'I' or due to physical laws or some combination?

This is due to conditioning fueled by craving. Self-identification leads to craving. See this, this and this answer.

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My interpretation, is that when Buddha stated, "birth is ended," he meant that the physical act of birth is ended. No matter what. If you experience birth again, then birth is not ended. I don't mean moment-to-moment rebirth. I mean physical birth.

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I think that "birth" is part of the doctrine on Dependent Origination.

DO includes "contact" and I don't think it's applicable to a single skandha.

The doctrine about skandhas are a way to deconstruct a being -- they're mentioned in the first two suttas, i.e. as "aggregates of attachment" in the second noble truth, and in the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta -- whereas DO is a deconstruction (analysis) of becoming.

Instead the question, about the identity of the body (and further deconstructing it into atoms), reminds me more of what (little) I know of the sunyata doctrine.

I don't remember a lot of doctrine about "moment-to-moment" in the suttas, except maybe being calm and heedful. But the Abhidhamma has doctrine about "thought-moments", cetasikas.

If you're wondering how rebirth continues across the death of the body, apparently that like was a frequently-asked question -- and one (at least one) early Buddhist school developed the "store-house consciousness" doctrine to explain that.

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After looking at all the answers - many of which are noble - I think the best answer is a synthesis of the answers proffered here with a few minor tweaks.

I think Andrei comes very close to a complete answer and there is nothing per se that I find disagreeable, but I think more can and should be said. Likewise, Suminda's answer is straightforward and seems largely correct to me and I appreciate how direct it is.

Some of the answers dwell on the word 'reborn' which exists only by convention without one iota of inherent meaning. I don't think dwelling on the particular translation of the words in the Pali having to do with 'birth' and 'rebirth' and 'reborn' is revealing in this case. Often times I think dwelling on the translations of suttas and getting attached to and wrapped in the meaning of words as if they have inherent meaning can act as a hindrance to true understanding of the Dharma. It is not that definitions of words or accuracy in translation is unimportant - indeed it often is crucial! - but getting hung up on them can also be problematic in some contexts.

So here goes an attempted synthesis...

Is the rupa skandha of Melinda and Abigail the same or different?

Different! But only conventionally so. It is stated right in the hypothetical that no two atoms are the same. Insofar as you believe in the quantum theory of matter, then you have to grant that they are different. However, this is only conventionally so because both utterly lack inherent existence.

Has it been reborn?

Sure! That's an applicable use of the word 'reborn' in this context in that I think it is useful and conveys meaning as both Andrei and Suminda similarly attest. What do we mean?

That the skhanda is in a state of constant change and flux. The body is ever changing. You can not find any two moments - of any duration whatosever - where no distinction can be made between them. In this sense, the body is 'reborn' continuously from moment-to-moment.

Of course, you could object and say that we don't normally use the word 'reborn' in this context, ie, that it is not conventionally used this way... and sure I'd grant that, but the fact that both Andrei and Suminda understood leads me to believe this convention is of course subject to change ;)

What was the manner of its rebirth? How did it occur?

It was reborn due to being impermanent and in a state of constant flux. All conditioned things are such and the manner is such and occurs because of the utter lack of inherent being in these phenomena.

How many times did it occur between 1982 to 2020?

It is impossible to find two moments - of any duration whatsoever - where no distinction can be made between the rupa skandha of one and the other.

Is the same true of the other skandhas... have they been reborn?

Yes.

Are they reborn due to 'identification' with an 'I' or due to physical laws or some combination?

They are inanimate and not sentient and have no capacity for 'identification' with an 'I' no more than fire does as Andrei rightly points out. It is our identification with them and ignorance of them - as sentient beings - that mistakes these phenomena that exist only by convention and mistakes them for real and substantial phenomena. They utterly are not.

Did 'Melinda' die sometime between 1982 and 2020 and get utterly annihilated?

No! We don't say conventionally that 'Melinda' died, but rather say that she changed her name to 'Abigail'. Of course, we could change the convention to say that someone 'dies' when there name is changed. That's up to us as shared creators of our conventions.

However, to think that she was utterly annihilated is to posit that 'Melinda' existed in some real and substantial way when she utterly did not. 'Melinda' was just a label that we attached by convention and we simply changed it to 'Abigail'... This is really, really, important to understand. Thinking that anything was utterly annihilated is making the error in assuming that there was something real and substantial before! There never was!!

Was Abigail born for the first time from scratch between 1982 and 2020 and just pop into existence from nothing?

Nope! All that happened was we changed the entirely conventional label 'Melinda' to 'Abigail' and we don't call this being 'born' ... although if we all got together and started to do this ... ie, change the convention ... we could! In other words, there is nothing inherently existing about the word 'born' here that would preclude it from being used affirmatively in this situation. We just don't happen to do that as a convention. But conventions change of course. Can anyone guess why conventions can change? Because they don't have one iota of inherent existence of course! :)

It is entirely another thing to think that something real and substantial would miraculously pop into existence with the simple act of changing a name. It is entirely because there is nothing real and substantial about a name that allows us to change it. It is just a mere convention. Like all phenomena.

How is it possible that beings are reborn from moment-to-moment? In what manner and to what extent?

In the exact same way and in the exact same manner as Melinda/Abigail's rupa skandha and in the exact same way and exact same manner as all phenomena: due to the utter lack of inherent existence in any existing thing. Because all things only exist conventionally without one bit of inherent being whatsoever. If things had even a small piece of inherent being, then change would be impossible and these things would not be 'reborn.' Fortunately, this is an impossible mode of existence and hence things are reborn from moment-to-moment aka they change and are in a constant state of flux.

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Rebirth requires craving.

SN12.23:4.6: I say that rebirth has a vital condition. And what is it? You should say: ‘Continued existence.’ I say that continued existence has a vital condition. And what is it? You should say: ‘Grasping.’ I say that grasping has a vital condition. And what is it? You should say: ‘Craving.’

If Melinda wishes to be called Abigail, then after some time she gradually becomes known as Abigail. Then Abigail dies. Oddly, others will eventually also wish to name and be named "Abigail." The wish perpetuates, but who is Abigail?

Stepping back from wishes, we can also understand that there are conditions that are connected in arising.

SN12.21:1.8: When this exists, that is; due to the arising of this, that arises.

And we can understand that there are conditions connected in cessation.

SN12.21:1.9: When this doesn’t exist, that is not; due to the cessation of this, that ceases.

So if Melinda wishes to be Abigail, Abigail arises. Then Abigail dies. Or Melinda could study the Noble Eightfold Path and be done with rebirth. Wishes are conditioned. And so is the Noble Eightfold Path. Perhaps Melinda should consider what Melinda wishes for...

SN12.21:1.13: When ignorance fades away and ceases with nothing left over, choices cease. When choices cease, consciousness ceases. … That is how this entire mass of suffering ceases.”

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  • Jati does not mean rebirth. The translation is wrong. Kind regards – Dhammadhatu Feb 29 at 1:21
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    Please discuss this point with Bhante Sujato. It is not good that we should disagree on the Dhamma. Your disagreement also extends to the New Pali English Concise Dictionary, which is concerning. – OyaMist Feb 29 at 15:02

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