Reincarnation in Buddhism

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Gautama Buddha

Gautama Buddha taught that there is no permanent self or soul. Therefore some have concluded that he did not teach reincarnation. “If the self is not permanent, what is there to reincarnate?” they ask.

In actuality, Buddha’s intent in teaching this doctrine was not to deny reincarnation but to draw people’s attention to the changing nature of the individual. He taught that when we see ourselves as permanent, we are bonding our souls to our egos. The concept of a permanent self, in the words of scholar Kenneth Ch’en, “breeds attachment, attachment breeds egoism, and egoism breeds craving for existence, pleasure, fame, and fortune, all of which keep one tied to the round of existence.”[1]

What is it that reincarnates?

Reincarnation does exist in Buddhism but it differs by a philosophical hair from reincarnation in Hinduism. Buddhists believe that when one being dies, a new being comes into existence who, Ch’en says, “inherits the karma of the past.” This being is “not the same as the one just passed away, but not different either.” It is connected with the past life by a “life stream.”[2]

To illustrate this concept, the Buddhist sage Nagasena used the image of a river. It has the same banks and curves from day to day but has not one drop of water today that it had yesterday. So a reincarnated person, while of different substance than the former self, yet has the same tendencies and patterns of relating that the former self did.

Is a reincarnated person the same as the one who died? “Neither the same one nor another one!” said Nagasena. Why? Because, as Lama Anagarika Govinda, a German Buddhist monk explains it, “we ourselves are never exactly the same from one moment to the next.”[3]

So even if we cannot speak of a soul in Buddhism, we can speak of a self that reincarnates, changing from year to year as well as from lifetime to lifetime. Reincarnation has sometimes been called the transmigration of souls. Govinda suggested that rather than transmigration, the Buddhist teaching could be called the “transformation” of souls.

The jiva as the soul

The confusion concerning the Buddhist concept of reincarnation may have come from a misinterpretation of the Hindu concept of Atman. Most Western scholars translate Atman as “soul.” As the imperishable, undecaying core of man, Atman should be translated as “Spirit.” Atman is identical with Brahman. Atman, therefore, cannot be the soul because the soul, by definition, has descended into the realm of matter and become enmeshed in karma, while Atman, by definition, belongs to the realm of pure Spirit.

The Hindu concept that most closely resembles the Western idea of soul is jiva. It is the self that inhabits the body, identifies with mind and personality, form and senses, and mingles with ignorance and evil. In one of his sermons, Buddha advised us to identify with the Atman rather than with the character traits associated with the jiva. The jiva contains the Atman but cannot become permanent unless it unites with Atman. The jiva, or soul, then, is the nonpermanent self that reincarnates. I think many Buddhists might agree with the definition of the soul as jiva.

Lama Govinda disagrees with those Buddhists who claim that it is impossible to speak of a soul in Buddhism:

It is just here that many Western Buddhists are in difficulties. They want to speak of “rebirth without a soul.” But that is just as illogical as it would be to speak of “psychology without a psyche.” Let us finally make an end of the prejudice of the early European Buddhists, who equated the “soul” with the idea of a separate, unchanging ego or self, thereby robbing us of a word as beautiful as it is profound, and which, like the Greek psyche, denotes the totality and organic wholeness of all the spiritual powers that work and grow within us.

Govinda points out that karma and rebirth are logical necessities for Buddhism because they provide a continuity from life to life and a purpose to our actions. Without them, he writes,

The Buddhist teaching becomes senseless, because death would then automatically mean total obliteration and extinction, which would render all striving pointless.[4]

Why Gautama Buddha did not teach about the soul

Gautama explains why he did not reveal the teaching on the soul as we have it today from the ascended masters:

Some of you have thought that there was a discrepancy between the teaching that I gave twenty-five hundred years ago and the teaching which I give today. In those days it was dangerous for individuals to engage in a metaphysical speculation or in a hierarchy or in a cosmos of beings beyond themselves. For they were emerging from the traditions of total dependence upon a priesthood in the state of decay and degeneration. I sought, then, to give them the very essentials, as you would give to a child the very basics of mathematics. And therefore I was silent on the point of the soul and the Spirit, on the point of life after death and immortality, lest my disciples should take the teaching as an excuse for their acceptance of the lie of procrastination or of the lie of predetermination.
Rather it was my role, outlined by Lord Sanat Kumara and the Lords of Karma, to present a very practical teaching based upon a code of ethics, a code of morality, an eightfold path, all the while teaching them the law of desire and of all of suffering that is caused by desire, that there is a way out of desire, that the desire can be transformed in the transmutative action that is the daily ritual of following the Eightfold Path.
In this day and age, through the evolution of consciousness, the Brotherhood has released to the chelas the understanding of the soul and its potential to realize God, the knowledge of the I AM Presence and the violet flame. These are dispensations which could not be given in that era, given the then current evolution of those who were a part of the mandala, in the East, of the Buddha.[5]

See also

Reincarnation

Soul

Sources

Elizabeth Clare Prophet with Erin L. Prophet, Reincarnation: The Missing Link in Christianty, pp. 334–36.

  1. Kenneth Ch’en, Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964), p. 8.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Lama Anagarika Govinda, Insights of a Himalayan Pilgrim (Berkeley, Calif.: Dharma Publishing, 1991), p. 108.
  4. Lama Anagarika Govinda, A Living Buddhism for the West, trans. Maurice Walshe (Boston: Shambhala, 1990), p. 48.
  5. Gautama Buddha, “Reinforcement to All Who Would Become the Buddha,” Pearls of Wisdom, vol. 57, no. 1, January 1, 2014.