In discussions on Buddhist term consciousness (viññāna) with non-Buddhists, it's imperative to start with talking about life in general because---to my understanding---life after all is the physical body we possess with consciousness, i.e., we wouldn't call a physical body without consciousness a life form.

Some non-Buddhists I talked with define life as simply an arbitrary biological phenomena. For example, we humans have sensors, sensor signals are interpreted by a complicated neural network in the brain, decisions and interpretations made as a result are conveyed around the body accordingly, and the motor actions take care of the rest. That's with regard to actions. Thinking is simply a neurological decision process made in the brain. Also, according to them the birth is a result of a sperm and an egg and death 'cos the heart stops.

All fair explanations. But, before even introducing the concept of this continuous consciousness that continues from one life form to another, all is understood biologically. Life is birth + (actions + thinking) + death. All done.

The continuous consciousness that I'm addressing here (that I want to explain to others) is what I have learnt to be what continues whatever the life form we take till Nibbana.


How would you initiate one to step out of the above box of reasoning and get 'em to think of consciousness? What would be your line of reasoning to counter the above biological reasoning?

1. Feel free to change the question if you think its wording is not exact or not understandable.
2. The counter arguments I requested are purely for the sake of explanation. I've no personal interest in engaging in word-fights!
3. Consider all sub questions in Question above as one question.

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    So are you trying to explain rebirth in terms of consciousness, but are running into an issue because people assume a materialistic basis for consciousness (in the form of the physical body), which they can't square with rebirth? That is, belief that consciousness is tied to the physical body explicitly rejects the notion that a consciousness could migrate to a different one? This -- coupled with the mechanisms of birth causing consciousness to emerge -- could lead to a rejection of the possibility that a previous consciousness could inhabit a body. Is this correct?
    – R. Barzell
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 18:36
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    I'm not sure what you mean by "continuous" consciousness, but Sāti was admonished by the Buddha for saying "it is this same consciousness that runs and wanders through the rounds of rebirths" MN 38
    – user382
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 20:21
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    Maybe you're trying to explain rebirth (saying that "consciousness" is the answer to the question, "what is reborn?"), so you might find the answers to this question useful: Is rebirth a delusional belief?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 22:30
  • The best scientific proof of existence of consciousness is rebirth. Look at this link reluctant-messenger.com/reincarnation-proof.htm. Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 20:07
  • Continous consciousness implies continuity in its structure not just time wise. Think of consciousness which manifests itself (lets say as a human) as a wave in the ocean. The wave in the ocean arise and sink. As it progresses it looks like the same wave but it is not the same wave. So consciousness is a seamless super structure which manifests time and again(Nam-rupa) but it is not a single entity. This arising and fall of entities is a mixed phenomenon. That is why Sati was admonished by the Buddha. Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 20:15

2 Answers 2


It sounds like you're trying to explain consciousness within a framework that supports rebirth to people who understand consciousness in a (materialistic) framework that won't allow for rebirth. Seeing consciousness as tied to an organism and the development of consciousness in an organism leaves no room for the "migration" of consciousness required for rebirth to work.

Am I correct in understanding this difficulty?

If so, you could try the following...

  1. Get people to abandon materialism. For many, this is the same as asking them to abandon science.

  2. Explain rebirth in a materialistic framework. If consciousness is a property of structure, rather than organism then a rebirth mechanism exists by simply having the same structure arise in the future. Karmic imprints could be explained by neuro-plasticity (which is said to be affected by meditation). Still, they may ask what happens if this structure is replicated now (and why wouldn't it be, given how much life we have?).

An alternative is to look at the big picture. If you are trying to introduce people to Buddhism, why mention rebirth? The Buddhist path is identical, whether or not one believes in rebirth. Further, many are attracted to Buddhism (or at least it's secularized variant popular in the west) precisely because of its less supernatural nature. Introducing rebirth therefore might cause them to abandon Buddhism. For many, if it's a choice between Buddhism and Science, then Science will win, no contest.

  • The difficulty in explaining one about consciousness came about in discussions on Buddhist philosophy. It's unavoidable to talk about consciousness when talking about Buddhist philosophy. So, I'm certain about my question. My difficulty is to introduce the concept of consciousness reasonably well. It's not important that I drive home the argument or whether they accept/reject my explanation.
    – mlomailom
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 17:55
  • @mlomailom I understand, but consciousness has nothing to do with Darwinism, etc... so why did you mention them? If you rephrase your question, maybe I can help. I've been studying and practicing Buddhism for over a decade and I've read quite a bit on consciousness, yet I can't even understand your question. I think that's an indication that the problem is your question and not the people you are talking to (no offense intended). Could it be that you're asking about the "hard" problem of consciousness rather than something like the information theory of consciousness?
    – R. Barzell
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 17:59
  • I edited the question to the best of my ability. If it's still confusing, then I guess we're thinking inside completely different, mutually exclusive realms :) However, I'm sure you get the gist of what I ask for. In that case, I'm totally fine if you moderate my question.
    – mlomailom
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 18:12
  • @mlomailom Ok, I think I have a better idea of what you're asking. Could you clarify "continuous consciousness" in your question? It seems that the question hinges on that, as this is the concept you are trying to get them to understand. It's also something that confuses many Buddhists who ask how that squares with anatta. Thanks!
    – R. Barzell
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 18:34

First of all Lord Buddha did not talk about a viññāna that goes from life to life continuously.That kind of explanation is exactly same with the "soul" mentioned in many religions.Lord Buddha dumped that theory and directly said there is no soul.

What you have misunderstood is the energy released from a dying person which act as the backup of his or her memories and karma.so there is no continuous viññāna.

This is like "Dark energy and Dark matter"


Because both above concepts are understood in one way and that is by discovering the effects of their functioning.Just like the process in, Buddhism none of the theories mentioned above can be proved wrong with materialistic evidence.

Explain me this biologically

If you go to a physician and ask to be hypnotized so he could ask about your past he could take you back years into your childhood.But when he reach the very beginning of you life's past things get interesting.If he continue to ask you to go back even before your birth you start to talk about a life that you consciously couldn't remember.He can keep going and you will keep telling him about more and more lives.And the best part is if you do this again even a decade after you will recall the same lives and same events.

Many studies were done all around the world and even in my country about the reality of these "Past life memories" and many events were confirmed to be true,and the people who told the stories had no idea what happened in those places and the events they described predated their birth.These studies proved that these memories are not imaginations or illusions.Google it and you will see.

My conclusion.

We as Buddhists do not believe in an eternal soul or reincarnation. But just like science there are some things that can only be proven by studying a lot of related fields (like the example i gave -Dark matter) It doesn't matter if we like it or not everything can't be proven by materialistic evidence,But if you want to find it there are many other ways.Just have an open mind and keep searching.

May triple Gems bless you!

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