Rebirth As Expounded In Buddhism


(By Desamanya K.H.J. Wijayadasa; former Secretary to the President)

Rebirth is a fundamental tenet of Buddhism

As far as Buddhists are concerned, rebirth is not a mere theory but a fact verifiable by evidence and constitutes a fundamental tenet of Buddhism. It is on record that this belief in rebirth viewed as a transmigration or reincarnation was accepted by great philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato. However, the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth is different from transmigration or reincarnation of other religions because Buddhism does not accept the existence of a transmigrating permanent soul created by god.

According to Buddhist teachings it is Kamma or Action that conditions rebirth. Past Kamma conditions the present birth and present Kamma in combination with past Kamma conditions the future. Thus the present is the off spring of the past and becomes in turn the parent of the future. The law of Kamma explains the incidence of suffering, the mystery of the so called fate and predestination of some religions and above all the inequality of mankind. Thus, to an ordinary Buddhist Kamma serves as a deterrent, while to an intellectual it serves as an incentive to do good. Interestingly, what constitutes Kamma are our thoughts, words and deeds. They pass from life to life exalting and degrading us in the course of our wanderings in Samsara.

Buddhist scholars are of the view that the Buddha is the greatest authority on rebirth. On the very night of his enlightenment, during the first watch, the Buddha had developed retro-cognitive knowledge which enabled him to read his past lives. During the second watch the Buddha with clairvoyant vision perceived beings disappearing from one state of existence and reappearing in another. In general discourses the Buddha clearly states that beings having done evil are after death, born in woeful states; and beings having done good are born in blissful states.

There are numerous instances of ordinary people in hypnotic states who have related experiences of their past lives. There are some unbelievable stories about the miraculous revelations of infant prodigies which have baffled many a scientist. It is an irrefutable fact that Kamma and Rebirth are two sides of the same coin. The concept of Kamma and Rebirth explicitly explains the inequality of mankind, the problem of endless suffering, the dissimilarities among children of the same family and above all, the arising of omniscient and super perfect spiritual teachers like the Buddhas who possess incomparable physical, mental and intellectual characteristics.

The Buddhist Doctrine of Rebirth

Professor K.N. Jayatillake, one of the greatest exponents of rebirth has not only proved beyond any reasonable doubt that rebirth is a distinct reality but also cleared several misconceptions woven around the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth and Kamma as expounded in the early texts of Theravada Buddhism. He has pointed out that rebirth or survival after death has its origin in the enlightenment of the Buddha itself and not in traditional Indian belief. By way of further clarification he has said that “it was on the night of his enlightenment that the Buddha acquired the capacity to know his past lives. It was when his mind was composed, clear, cleansed and without blemish, free from adventitious defilements, pliant and flexible, steadfast and undisturbed that he acquired the fabulous capacity to recall hundreds of thousands of prior lives and pre-history of the universe; going, back through immensely long periods of the expansions and contractions of the oscillating universe”.

This is the first item of knowledge which broke through the veil of ignorance (ayam pathama vijja). The second important item of knowledge (dutiya vijja) was obtained via the faculty of clairvoyance (dibba chakkhu) with which the Buddha was able to see among other things; the survival of beings in various states of existence, the operation of Kamma, galactic systems, clusters of galactic systems and the vast cosmos.

The Buddhist texts are emphatic regarding five states of existence; namely, lower world or niraya, animal world or tirachchana, spirit world or peta, human beings or manussa and higher beings or devas. Professor K.N. Jayatillake has stated that it is possible for a human being to be reborn as a spirit, come back to earth as a human being or go still higher and become a deity or deva. It is also possible to regress to animal or sub-human forms of existence. This happens not by any form of determinism or fatalism. According to Buddhism Kamma is only one of the five major causal laws. The other four are; physical laws, biological laws, psychological laws and laws pertaining to spiritual phenomena. Professor K.N. Jayatillake was of view that Kammic laws are tendencies rather than inevitable consequences.

Professor K.N. Jayatillake found enough material in the early Buddhist texts to show that the Buddhist doctrines of Kamma and Rebirth are not dogmas but were verifiable truths. For verification he relied on research studies of modern philosophers, psychologists and psychiatrists. He has critically reexamined their findings on memory and the relationship between mind and body. In order to find plausible evidence acceptable to modern society on rebirth he classified evidence into two groups namely experimental and spontaneous. Experimental evidence is factual testimony obtained by means of age regression under hypnosis and the like.

Spontaneous evidence emanated from revelations made by people who claimed to remember their previous lives. Of course, both types of evidence depended on memory. Another argument advanced in favour of rebirth is the presence in people of skills and talents obviously not acquired in the present life. After making a scholarly study of the scientific literature on memory and the mind-body relationship he concluded that “conscious mental and cognitive phenomena function in dependence on its physical bases”. On the mind and body relationship Professor K.N. Jayatillake made the following observations. “None of the modern findings with regard to the mind and its relation to the brain nor the assertions of modern brain physiologists in any way preclude the empirical possibility of survival after death; it is an open possibility to be proved or disproved in the light of evidence”.

The Buddhist doctrine of rebirth rests on the fact that each individual is a conflux of mind and body. There is no permanent entity here; no soul. There is only mind and body, a dynamic flux, energized by stimuli and material food without and thought food within. It is presumed that mind and body constitute a force. No force is ever lost. There is no reason to believe that the force manifested in each being as mind and body is ever lost. This force is changing every moment of our lives; however it is not lost at death. The vitalizing mind is merely reset. It is the resetting of this vital flux in fresh conditions which is rebirth. Thus, each individual reborn starts with a unique set of latent potentialities. These are the accumulated experiences of past births. This is why characters differ, endowments differ and fortunes vary.

Investigations and Research into Rebirth

Following on the revival and resurgence of Buddhism in the 19th century, scholars and scientists throughout the world have engaged themselves in investigations and research into the doctrine of rebirth as expounded in Buddhism. The first reported cases of rebirth were from India and Myanmar involving children who remembered their last lives as human beings. Fielding Hall a member of the Indian Civil Service had recorded several cases of rebirth in his “Soul of the People”. He had ample power and opportunity to verify the veracity of the cases which were brought to his attention. He had made personal investigations and was satisfied that these were genuine instances of memory of past lives.

Dr. Cassius A. Perera (later Bikkhu Kassapa) writing to the Ceylon Observer of Sunday October 10, 1937 had described the previous life story of a boy from Myanmar as follows. “This child, born to simple village parents, when three years old, revealed unusual mastery of Pali texts; and an ability to expound Buddhist psychology, rivaling that of learned elder monks. Gradually the Memory faded and he became a normal child with great aptitude for the study of Pali. He entered the Buddhist order early and at age eighteen won the first place for all Myanmar for scholarship in Buddhist psychology.

Dr. Cassius Perera has placed on record the story of a little girl in India who remembered her last life, the place where she dwelt, her husband and relatives of that life and other details of property and money matters. The case was investigated and its truth had been proved beyond doubt. Other than rebirth, there is no reasonable explanation for the existence of infant prodigies in diverse fields such as music, mathematics and letters. Dr. H.S.S. Nissanka’s case study on rebirth entitled “The girl who was Reborn” appeared in the Ceylon Daily News of November 23, 1965. Martin Wickremasinghe, scholar, novelist and rationalist reviewed this article and said that, “the theory of rebirth was just an animistic survival, inherited from the primitive pre-Buddhistic culture of India and Sri Lanka and that it is incompatible with the Buddhist doctrine of Anatta”.

Professor K.N. Jayatillake who championed the existence of rebirth entered into a lively debate with Martin Wickremasinghe which went on for more than three months in the Ceylon Daily News and made some astounding revelations on the mystery of rebirth.

Nibbana; the only way out of Rebirth

It is a fundamental tenet of Buddhism that mankind is eternally in the throes of suffering and sorrow. The world is beset with extreme poverty, desease and squalor. Pestilence comes in the most dramatic and disastrous form and style. While earthquakes, drought and famine wreak havoc, fire, flood and storm take toll. The so- called omnipotent power is in eternal slumber and does not intervene to prevent them or to minimize the impact. It is man’s skill and enterprise and man’s sacrifice and painfully wrested knowledge that fights these calamities. Other than Buddhism almost all religions consider this mayhem as God’s vengeance. The Buddhist sees this as a reign of natural law powered by unending cause and effect.

Consequently, birth follows death as surely as death follows birth. The Buddhist concept of deliverance is Nibbana, signifying escape from the ever recurring cycle of life and death; not merely escape from sin and hell. Nibbana is also explained as extinction of the forces of lust (lobha), hatred (dosa) and delusion (moha). Nibbana is also the ultimate achievement and the final goal of Buddhism. It is not something to be set down in print, nor is it a subject to be grasped by intellect alone. It is a super mundane state (lokuttara dhamma); to be realized only by intuitive wisdom.

It is indeed paradoxical that Nibbana; the ultimate goal of Buddhism is beyond the scope of logic. However, reflecting on the positive and negative aspects of life, the logical conclusion emerges that in contradistinction to a conditioned phenomenal existence, there must exist a sorrowless, deathless, non-conditioned state. When all forms of craving are eradicated reproductive Karmic forces cease to operate and one attains Nibbana by escaping the cycle of life and death.



Thank you

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