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Whenever I examine the concept of rebirth in Buddhism, I cannot help it but feel great skepticism.

To put it in my own clumsy words, we have many fears and one of the greatest is to cease to exist. The solution that I have found in Buddhist teachings is to outgrow that fear in particular and fear as whole, while you're at it.

In contrast to that, religions commonly introduce some concept of life after death. Which I think is a just a very comfortable delusion, self-induced to cope with this primordial fear and with the loss of loved ones.

What strikes me is that "Buddhists" talk quite a lot about rebirth and will actually give extremely precise and concrete responses to questions on rebirth, that can quite obviously not be challenged by the examining mind. It is my (limited) understanding though at its very core (if such a thing exists) Buddhism generally denies to answer any questions that cannot actually be challenged and particularly denies to answer this question.

I feel that much is to be gained from the concept of rebirth if explored as a metaphor, but it is my impression that believing it literally is diverting attention from the here and now and more practical aspects of Buddhist practice, thus ultimately being harmful. It seems to me like failure to remove the poisoned arrow.

At the same time it makes me nervous that I cannot see any truth in more physical and concrete notions of rebirth, because it's far more likely that I am just blind, rather than everybody else being deluded. So: what is it that I am missing? What do I gain if I embrace the belief that "I" will roam this world in a new body once this one dies?

  • Your question sort of implies that you're considering the persistence of consciousness in rebirth, but I'm not entirely certain that's what you intended, or am I off a bit in reading it? – Tim Post Jun 18 '14 at 10:25
  • @TimPost: I'm not that certain either. But I am less concerned with the "how" of rebirth as to "why" I would actually explore any such notion. To me it seems to divert attention from the here and now and to give an excuse for postponing living. But quite possibly it adds another quality and that's what I am seeking to find out about. – back2dos Jun 18 '14 at 10:37
  • Is this a question or an answer disguised as question? ;) – Andrei Volkov Jun 18 '14 at 15:34
  • @zvolkov: No, it is a question. I see that I probably spent too much time describing my view on things, but I wanted to draw the line between what I do gain from the concept of rebirth as opposed to the things that elude me (which is what I want to learn about). Also it was an invitation to criticism of what I believe to "understand" thus far, which Sankha Kulathantille accepted. – back2dos Jun 19 '14 at 8:10
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    Maybe changing the title to "What's the value of belief in rebirth?" or some such thing. Good if you can clean up the question a bit... do you really need so much background just to ask the question? – yuttadhammo Jun 30 '14 at 22:11
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I think you're right to question the importance of rebirth; the Buddha himself didn't seem to dwell on the concept, though remembering one's past lives does have obvious practical benefits - lots more experience to draw upon :)

Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote a couple of things about the subject you might find interesting:

As he says in the first link,

If we suspend our own predilections for the moment and instead go directly to our sources, we come upon the indisputable fact that the Buddha himself taught rebirth and taught it as a basic tenet of his teaching. Viewed in their totality, the Buddha's discourses show us that far from being a mere concession to the outlook prevalent in his time or an Asiatic cultural contrivance, the doctrine of rebirth has tremendous implications for the entire course of Dhamma practice, affecting both the aim with which the practice is taken up and the motivation with which it is followed through to completion.

I've talked about the subject before myself, and the conclusion I make is that it's not that Buddhists believe in rebirth, it's that we don't believe in death - the latter being merely a concept referring to the change from one set of experiences to another. True death only occurs either at every moment or at the experience of nibbana.

In any case, as useful as rebirth may be in reminding us of what's really at stake in our dhamma practice, far more useful is an understanding of the present moment, something that really has little to do with past or future lives.

  • amazing question and answer:). This is what we expect from this forum. – kalan Jun 29 '14 at 6:04
  • I guess my question is just poor to get the answer I seek. But this one is great none the less. Particularly "True death only occurs either at every moment or at the experience of nibbana." nails it for me ;) – back2dos Jul 1 '14 at 10:12
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If you are into Vipassana meditation, you must have noticed that experiences rise and cease one after the other. When one experience ceases, another will arise. It doesn't stop! Likewise, death is also another experience in reality. It doesn't prevent the next experience from arising as long as the causes for arising haven't been eliminated. I recommend you to go through the "rebirth/reincarnation" Q&A section at http://video.sirimangalo.org.

Some questions are unanswered in Buddhism for several reasons:

  1. It doesn't lead to end of suffering.
  2. The question is based on a false hypothesis. So the question itself becomes meaningless or false.
  3. Only a fully enlightened Buddha can realize the truth of it.

"Becoming one with the world" can be misleading as it can imply the Hindu concept of the universal soul. The Buddhist teaching is that you are just another process of causes and effects which are impermanent, subjected to suffering and devoid of any self or inherent value. Just like everything else in the universe.

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    Thank you @Sankha Kulathantille, I will pay attention to your answers from now on :) – Andrei Volkov Jun 18 '14 at 15:38
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The Buddha said never to accept something just because it was said, but to seek an answer to these questions yourself.

If you don't know for sure either way. There is no need to believe anything either way.

  • I understand that there is no need. Still I am interested in what I could gain from embracing such a belief. – back2dos Jul 14 '14 at 14:26
  • Belief is attachment. Questions like whether rebirth is true or not are red herrings on the path to truth. What primarily matters is not the truth of such a question, but your relationship to the question, and whether that relationship is based in REALITY in you. – user319 Jul 16 '14 at 5:55
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If I understand your question correctly, maybe the following notes may be of concern:

Buddhism as a philosophical current or religion evolved out of an ascetic movement that was very much concerned with personal salvation, the so-called śramaṇa-movement. Apart from buddhism, the relics of this movement is the Jaina religion and historically a religion/philosophy called Ājīvika, which died out only about a thousand years ago. But also the mainstream orthodox Hindu schools of philosophy owe very much to this movement. Stories of wandering ascetics questioning the Buddha about his doctrine, arguing with him or stories of the Buddha, who at the sight of ascetics warns or teaches to his followers abound.

In this movement, rebirth was more or less totally taken for granted (some exceptions, the materialists for example, exist), it was common sense. That is why in Buddhism you can find the same attitude. People critized and attacked the Buddha on grounds of his specific doctrines (most notably rebirth without soul - anattā/anātman) but they hardly ever or never doubt rebirth as a concept. Since the Buddhist scriptures very much reflect the philosophical discussions of the time of the Buddha (and after), there was just no need, to give reasons, explanations, proof for rebirth.

In the Samaññaphalasutta a lot of rival views are examined by the Buddha, you might check there, if the materialists are quoted denying rebirth and what the answer of the Buddha was and whether he actually defended the concept of rebirth in any way.

This can be summed up by quoting from Yuttadhammo's answer:

it's not that Buddhists believe in rebirth, it's that we don't believe in death

Concerning the unanswered questions, I guess the one in concern would be, whether the tathāgata lives on after death. This, though refers to an enlightened being, someone who has attained nirvāṇa and so has left the cycle of rebirth. So, strictly speaking, it is not a question about rebirth. And by the way, as far as I understand the scriptures, the Buddha denied to answer these questions or simply remained silent, when asked, because the question cannot be answered correctly in words. Other questions were refused to answer, because the Buddha did not intend metaphysics or anything that was not considered conducive to salvation, liberation.

Now, to conclude, the notion of rebirth is totally central to Buddhism, since Buddhism essentially is a response to the perceived fact of rebirth, that has, as has all life, the characteristic of being laden with (within the bounds of the samsaric cycle) unescapable sorrow. Essentially, the Buddha didn't teach a happier mode of life, but that all life is bound to be miserable and the way out is the way out of life (which in this case does not mean death, but nirvāṇa).

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