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Although I have read quite a lot of books about Buddhism, almost all of them were meant for the Western layman so I consider myself to be a beginner compared to most of you here. I hope you can forgive me for possible inaccuracies or inconsistencies in my question. I'm hoping to get answers from Buddhists firmly rooted in the tradition, although of course everyone is most welcome to share their points of view.

I have problems coming to terms with the seeming paradox between reincarnation and anatta. How can there be rebirth (which could also include the remembrance of past lives) when there is no soul or inherent self? When searching online most answers refer to all phenomena being interdependent, empty and transient, which is fine, but basically comes down to a sort of Lion King's Circle of Life analogy (beautiful as this still is).

But this explanation fails to point out why karma also matters in Buddhism in relation to rebirth. If you are born in an animal's body, you are generally considered to have less karma in stock than when you are born in a happy Buddhist household (or in the Pure Land). How do rebirth and karma rhyme with the concept of anatta?

I understand that in your present life you could benefit significantly from pursuing a virtuous life and following the Noble Eightfold Path, and it could have a minute positive change for the world after you're gone, but can you also benefit substantially from living virtuous in your next life after the demise of your current body? If so, how?

I really appreciate the Buddhist tradition, but the above concepts currently seem contradictory to me. I hope someone can show me the way out of my maze.

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  • Hi FrommFrankl, I'd be happy to attempt to help you out of the maze :) But first, I have a question for you! Forget for a moment the idea of reincarnation (or rebirth) from life-to-life and instead concentrate on the situation in this very life and apply the following three concepts: anatta, rebirth (from moment-to-moment), and karma. In your mind, can they coexist together without contradiction? – Yeshe Tenley Mar 21 at 17:27
  • @Yeshe Tenley - please give an answer because I'm intrigued myself! ;-) – NeuroMax Mar 21 at 18:02
  • If you see rebirth only from moment-to-moment I see they can coexist together. If you see rebirth as in being born according to one's karma or remembering past lives I currently don't see them coexisting together logically. – FrommFrankl Mar 21 at 19:25
  • Hi FrommFrankl, I too would attempt to help you out of the maze in touching on all three of the concepts. I have not contributed to this forum in a long time, because I now interpret the dhamma in its third dimension, whereas everyone else in this forum sees dhamma in its second dimension. There is nothing wrong in their interpretation of the three concepts anatta, rebirth and kamma, but since you've found the above concepts seem contradictory to you, I'll try to give you a hint of this other dimension. with metta...🙏🏽🙏🏽🙏🏽... – Saptha Visuddhi Mar 21 at 20:09
  • There's also another topic here -- that question is similar, although without asking about karma as well explicitly. I also found this answer informative (like Yeshe Tenley's answer below). – ChrisW Mar 21 at 21:30
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What exactly is rebirth? And what exactly is death?

Most people take rebirth to be the rebirth of oneself into a new life. If we zoom further into what this means, this is the continuation of the same consciousness that is aware of its surroundings and its thoughts into a new body with a new identity and new life. The same consciousness from birth wandered through life till death, then it continues in a new life after rebirth.

The Buddha did not accept this view in MN 38:

The Blessed One then asked him: “Sāti, is it true that the following pernicious view has arisen in you: ‘As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, it is this same consciousness that runs and wanders through the round of rebirths, not another’?”

“Exactly so, venerable sir. As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, it is this same consciousness that runs and wanders through the round of rebirths, not another.”

“What is that consciousness, Sāti?”

“Venerable sir, it is that which speaks and feels and experiences here and there the result of good and bad actions.”

“Misguided man, to whom have you ever known me to teach the Dhamma in that way? Misguided man, have I not stated in many ways consciousness to be dependently arisen, since without a condition there is no origination of consciousness? But you, misguided man, have misrepresented us by your wrong grasp and injured yourself and stored up much demerit; for this will lead to your harm and suffering for a long time.”

The Buddha taught consciousness to be dependently originated.

This is elaborated further in the same sutta:

“Bhikkhus, consciousness is reckoned by the particular condition dependent upon which it arises. When consciousness arises dependent on the eye and forms, it is reckoned as eye-consciousness; when consciousness arises dependent on the ear and sounds, it is reckoned as ear-consciousness; when consciousness arises dependent on the nose and odours, it is reckoned as nose-consciousness; when consciousness arises dependent on the tongue and flavours, it is reckoned as tongue-consciousness; when consciousness arises dependent on the body and tangibles, it is reckoned as body-consciousness; when consciousness arises dependent on the mind and mind-objects, it is reckoned as mind-consciousness. Just as fire is reckoned by the particular condition dependent on which it burns—when fire burns dependent on logs, it is reckoned as a log fire; when fire burns dependent on faggots, it is reckoned as a faggot fire; when fire burns dependent on grass, it is reckoned as a grass fire; when fire burns dependent on cowdung, it is reckoned as a cowdung fire; when fire burns dependent on chaff, it is reckoned as a chaff fire; when fire burns dependent on rubbish, it is reckoned as a rubbish fire—so too, consciousness is reckoned by the particular condition dependent on which it arises. When consciousness arises dependent on the eye and forms, it is reckoned as eye-consciousness…when consciousness arises dependent on the mind and mind-objects, it is reckoned as mind-consciousness.

Please also see this answer in which Damith explained:

Think of a stream of water. When you look at a single point in the stream, you see many water droplets appear, exist, and disappear. Take a single droplet out of it which passed by that point. If you consider the past, present, and future of that droplet, you'll see a stream. In reality, it's not the same droplet nor another droplet you see in the past, present, and future. Stream of consciousness is analogous to this example.

So MN 38 is a rejection of consciousness as being the eternal unchanging self that moves from life to life. It's not a rejection of the continuity of the stream of consciousness that is conditioned and changing.

So, is there such a thing as rebirth? Yes. But what is it?

It's not the rebirth of oneself, but it's the rebirth of one's self - not one's soul, but one's mental idea of a self (the idea 'I am the thinker' of Snp 4.14). It's not the rebirth of the individual, but it's the rebirth of individuality.

In SN 15.3 (below), the Buddha looks at YOU (the mental idea of self) and tells YOU that YOU have been reborn so many times and grieved the death of so many loved ones (which are more mental ideas classified relative to the mental idea of the self - see this question on papanca), that the volume of tears shed by YOU (the self) is more than the volume of water in all the oceans of the world combined. Also, a beginning to this samsara is inconstruable.

Every time this mental idea of a self is reborn, the situation of rebirth is based on past karma but fueled by craving and clinging. Thoughts, words and actions motivated by clinging and burning with passion, aversion and delusion, will result in negative repercussions, and vice versa. From moment to moment, rebirth of the mental idea of the self is fueled by craving, but the situation of rebirth is based on karma.

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

What is death? Of course, it is also the death of YOU, a self identity.

Then what is Parinibbana?

Well, there is such a thing as clinging aggregates. According to this answer, for a living arahant, when ignorance is uprooted, this breaks dependent origination, that ends craving, clinging and suffering. In the chain of dependent origination, clinging aggregates would also cease.

The living arahant according to Iti 44, attained nibbana with fuel remaining (sa-upadisesa), meaning the non-clinging aggregates are still functioning like glowing embers, although the fires of passion, aversion and delusion have ceased.

Parinibbana is when the non-clinging aggregates stop functioning. This is nibbana without fuel remaining (anupadisesa) according to Iti 44.

What is difference between parinibbana and any other death? In the former, the fires of passion, aversion and delusion have ceased. In the latter, the fires of passion, aversion and delusion keeps burning, the (mental idea of a) self is reborn and suffering continues.

A change of perspective is needed i.e. rebirth, birth, death, and parinibbana should not be linked to any permanent consciousness or identity. The first noble truth is that there is suffering. It's not there is my suffering or your suffering but simply there is suffering. This also relates to anatta (not self).

Also, think about the core teaching, sabbe dhamma anatta - all phenomena is not self. There is no permanent consciousness or identity or individuality or self in all phenomena.

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Alas, the maze you spoke of is large and different people are stuck in different parts. That's why I asked,

"Forget for a moment the idea of reincarnation (or rebirth) from life-to-life and instead concentrate on the situation in this very life and apply the following three concepts: anatta, rebirth (from moment-to-moment), and karma. In your mind, can they coexist together without contradiction?"

to which you replied,

"If you see rebirth only from moment-to-moment I see they can coexist together. If you see rebirth as in being born according to one's karma or remembering past lives I currently don't see them coexisting together logically."

Thanks! This helps to narrow down which part of the maze you are stuck in. I think your answer indicates that you believe there to be a material difference between rebirth from moment-to-moment and rebirth from life-to-life. This is the root of your misconception.

To unravel this misconception, let's look at your questions in the context of rebirth from moment-to-moment.

"How can there be rebirth (which could also include the remembrance of past lives) when there is no soul or inherent self?"

What's the big difference between rebirth from moment-to-moment and rebirth from life-to-life? It is the death and break up of the body, yes? This tells me you are identifying the body as the self. That the body is somehow identified with or acts as a vessel for the soul/inherent-self that passes from moment-to-moment in this very life. That with the break up of the body at death you believe this soul/inherent-self is annihilated right along with the body. That having no more body the soul/self/atman is extinguished.

Believing such, you haven't truly dealt with the implications of anatta which says that no soul/self/atman can be found in the body or dependent upon the body. The truth is that no such soul/self/atman really exists. We perceive that it exists just like a magical illusion. This illusion continues on from moment-to-moment in this very life and it continues on from life-to-life to the very same extent and in the very same manner. If you believe that the illusion dies or is annihilated with the death and break up of the body, then you don't truly understand it to be an illusion at all! Rather, you are regarding the illusion as a real and genuine fact that has died with the break up of the body.

I would encourage you to think and meditate on anatta and rebirth from moment-to-moment and see if you can generate the same perception of a contradiction that you can so readily with rebirth from life-to-life. When you can perceive this seeming contradiction, then I propose you'll be that much closer to understanding the real meaning of anatta. It can be mind blowing :)

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The Dhamma that the Buddha elucidated operate at 3 dimensions or 3 circles. If one fully comprehends all three levels, then one sees the PATH in a whole new light. There is no need to touch on the second dimension as everyone of you are well-versed with it. But in this third dimension, the word “Anatta” takes on a very different meaning.

When one clings to desires born in the mind and attempts to maintain such desires perpetually, such objects will be deep seated in the mind leading to rebirth that comes with afflictions and despair. This is ‘anatta’. “Anatta” means despair or bewilderment and not ‘anatma / not-self’ as in the second dimension. “Anatta” as despair or bewilderment because one is helpless in this rebirth process.

One who considers what has been grasped with raga (desirability/ craving), dvesha (mental discord) and moha (comparisons between the earlier two) as wholesome tumbles in despair and continues with birth after birth in an infinite existence while undergoing unwholesome conditions. Here, ‘anatta’ means one goes adrift like a disoriented person without knowing the correct pathway.

All religions believe in a permanent state of Heaven. According to Buddha there is no permanency in any existences, be it heaven or hell or any of the 31 planes of existence. This is where the concept of Karma gets explained. During one’s lifetime, if one performs immoral and evil deeds, such individuals will be born in future in lower planes of existence, as they do not possess the needed karma energy to enjoy life. They have a huge burden of karma that prevents them from enjoying all the good things in life.

Karma and rebirth are always interconnected as whether you do good karma or bad karma, in both these cases attaining Nibbana will be very much delayed. It is, if that person does not know how to translate good karma into ‘kusala dhamma’, but that's another story.

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  • The description, "helpless in this rebirth process", sounds like what's called Saṃsāra. – ChrisW Mar 21 at 22:02
  • This is another meaning to “Anatta” that I give here. It is seeing Dhamma in a new light. In this “Anatta” means one goes adrift like a disoriented person without knowing the correct pathway. Sabbe dhamma anatta – all phenomena are anatta…. these outcomes are unworthy or meaningless to bring under one’s control since everything transforms inevitably. Samsara means (sam= raga, dvesha and moha; sara= worthy or beneficial). These three tendencies collectively known as ‘kilesa’ bind an individual or a being tenaciously to samsāra. – Saptha Visuddhi Mar 21 at 22:19
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Reincarnation and Karma can be explained in spite of declaring that sabbe Dhamma Anatta.

Reincarnations happen all the time (as Yeshe says from moment to moment). When body disintegrates we say someone has died and when someone manifests as body, we say someone has taken birth. But this is a wrong understanding or ignorance. This idea is at the very root of ignorance. World enjoys and suffers due to this ignorance. Eventual outcome of such a understanding is suffering.

  • With ignorance as condition volitional formations come to be,
  • with volitional formations as condition consciousness comes to be,
  • with consciousness as condition name and form comes to be,
  • with name and form as condition six senses comes to be,
  • with six senses as condition feelings comes to be,
  • with feelings as condition cravings come to be,
  • with craving as condition clinging comes to be,
  • with clinging as condition attachments comes to be,
  • with attachments as condition renewed rebirths come to be (along with pain, sorrow, lamentations, ageing, death, etc).

Therefore we see that it is the ignorance which lead us to the idea of self, birth and death.

Real Buddhists practice the teachings to never return again. That is no reincarnation because if ignorance is removed it becomes immaterial to even judge who gets reincarnated.

In short rebirth follows from ignorance. Remove ignorance and you will understand Anatta.

Karma is part of the game being played under the magnetic powers of ignorance.

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Venerable Thanissaro already has given a definitive answer for this question drawn from the Canon

27. If there’s no self, what gets reborn?

The Buddha never said that there is no self. He never said that there is a self. The whole question of whether or not the self exists was one he put aside.

There’s a common misconception that the Buddha started with the idea that there was no self and, in the context of no self, taught the doctrine of kamma, which makes no sense: If there’s no self, nobody does the kamma and nobody receives the results, so actions and their results wouldn’t matter, because there’s no one choosing to act, and no one to suffer the results. But that’s putting the context backwards. Actually, the Buddha started with the reality of kamma, and then viewed ideas of “self” and “not-self” as types of kamma within that context. This means that he focused on seeing the way we define our sense of self as an action. Then the question becomes, when is the act of identifying things as your self a skillful action, and when is it not? When is the act of identifying things as not-self a skillful action, and when is it not? When a healthy sense of self is needed to be responsible, self-reliant, and heedful of the future, it’s a skillful action. When the perception of not-self helps you not to identify with desires that would lead to harm, it’s a skillful action.

In other words, both “self” and “not-self” are strategies for achieving happiness. They should be used—and mastered—as needed for the sake of true happiness, and abandoned when no longer needed. So instead of getting involved in the tangle of trying to define what a self is and whether it exists, the Buddha advised treating “self” and “not-self” as processes to be mastered, as tools.

Similarly with rebirth: He avoided talking about what gets reborn and instead focused on how it happens, as a process. Because the process is a type of kamma, it’s something you’re responsible for, and it’s also a skill you can master: either with relative skill, reaching a comfortable rebirth, or with consummate skill, learning how not to be reborn at all.

https://www.dhammatalks.org/books/KarmaQ&A/Section0005.html

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Buddha taught a middle way between annihilationism & eternalism, and taught that either view is seriously problematic. The first corresponds to simple materialism, that our life ends completely with the body. The latter to transmigration of an eternal soul.

A well known Buddhist metaphor for rebirth without transmigration:

The king asked: "Venerable Nagasena, is it so that one does not transmigrate and one is reborn?"

"Yes, your majesty, one does not transmigrate and one is reborn."

"How, venerable Nagasena, is it that one does not transmigrate and one is reborn? Give me an analogy."

"Just as, your majesty, if someone kindled one lamp from another, is it indeed so, your majesty, that the lamp would transmigrate from the other lamp?"

"Certainly not, venerable sir."

"Indeed just so, your majesty, one does not transmigrate and one is reborn."

"Give me another analogy."

"Do you remember, your majesty, when you were a boy learning some verse from a teacher?"

"Yes, venerable sir."

"Your majesty, did this verse transmigrate from the teacher?"

"Certainly not, venerable sir."

"Indeed just so, your majesty, one does not transmigrate and one is reborn."

"You are clever, venerable Nagasena."

-from The Questions Of King Melinda, Miln III.5.5. Canonical in Burmese Buddhism but not other traditions, and widely translated and read in the Buddhist world

A way to think about behaving ethically can be drawn from understanding why we are polite. We could see it as motivated by reward: expecting politeness & consideration from others. But among strangers we are very unlikely to see again, we continue to be polite. It is part of manifesting the kind of social world we want to see. And we shift motivation from future reward or condemnation, to the acts themselves, as embodying living the kind of person we want to be. The Eightfold Path is a process of cataloguing and addressing how we live with this same approach, to go from acting for specific results, which tie an action to a time frame, even if one outside of our own lifetimes before it will reach fruition. In the politeness example, it might mean going beyond acting to create the social world we want to be in, to a deeper awareness of how our actions shape our mind, who we are right this moment only (meditation being a key route to deepening that), and so go beyond trying to create the society we can imagine we want, to drawing on deeper guidance, towards manifesting what we cannot imagine, but aligns with who we are becoming.

You say

following the Noble Eightfold Path, and it could have a minute positive change for the world after you're gone

I like this way of phrasing why the doing of things can be it's own purpose:

"When … you realize that you live in, that indeed you are this moment now, and no other, that apart from this there is no past and no future, you must relax and taste to the full, whether it be pleasure or pain. At once it becomes obvious why this universe exists, why conscious beings have been produced, why sensitive organs, why space, time, and change. The whole problem of justifying nature, of trying to make life mean something in terms of its future, disappears utterly. Obviously, it all exists for this moment. It is a dance, and when you are dancing you are not intent on getting somewhere… The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance."

  • Alan Watts, from ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’

We are never isolated individuals, we blurred into existence, as part of someone elses body, cared for through our vulnerability, and absolutely requiring our community-developed language, to even have the word 'self'. We are built out of the lives of others, and others will take up the masks and costumes that we think we are, until we realise we can put them down.

Continuity is a matter of degree, not only with the person who wakes up tomorrow, but each thought, is an expression of a different person than existed before it. The threads that crossed in you will cross again, and a person not different from you will be there. What would you wish to put in their hands? What advice would you give your younger self? In reconciling your own contradictions, and how to live, you help compound those for others, to make what paths you take easier, to make your insights or those you've valued more accessible.

Circumstances themselves, are not the issue. It's how you experience them. Of course pure abodes are easier than the hells. But human balance time for spirituality, with the spur of suffering. Similarly in choosing pur life, we need a middle path. But awakening is beyond karma, beyond suffering, it is unshakeable liberation from them, it is waking up from them to the world as it is.

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Your perplexity is based on the assumption that maybe a world evolves without consciousness and in the world there comes to be what is called mind, consciousness and intellect.

Therefore you wonder how mind having ceased here arises there.

In the Buddhist texts it is explained that the world is conceived & perceived by mind.

A simple analogy is how your brain conceives & perceives an entire dream world when sleeping.

Suppose in a dream you could see with eyes of other people, it won't then surprise you that consciousness having been there arose here because all locations are immediately connected as the system is conceived non-locally and perceived based on a particular location.

In Buddhism the entire world is conceived & perceived by that in the world through which one perceives the world and there is no world outside of that. The mind is also called 'a world'.

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There were no Buddhist books when the Buddha was alive. Buddhism was taught orally by monks.

The scriptures (MN 117) say there are two types of teachings:

(i) teachings about kamma & 'rebirth' related to self acquisition that side with merit

(ii) transcendent teachings, connected with Emptiness, which are part of the Noble Path

The sutta MN 143 makes it clear the transcendent teachings were generally only taught to monks (although we have rare accounts in scripture of them taught to laypeople)

The sutta DN 31 say the duty of a monk is to teach goodness, non-evil and the path to heaven (not Nibbana) to laypeople.

In MN 26, AN 10.95, Dhp 58 and Dhp 174 it is made very clear most people cannot realise anatta. This is why one of the most important words in Buddhism is "puthujjana", as follows"

a worldling (puthujjana), someone with a thick blindfold covering the eye of insight

In summary, the Buddha always taught "a being", "person" or "self" is "reborn" (example SN 42.3). If a self was not "reborn", an individual would have no incentive to do good.

In conclusion, imputing not-self upon the kamma & 'rebirth' teachings renders them ineffective; just as imputing 'rebirth' upon the anatta teachings renders them ineffective.

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  • wow - two downvotes from those who appear to ignore the teachings – Dhammadhatu Mar 22 at 23:36

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