Reincarnation in Buddhism

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Reincarnation or rebirth is a widely accepted doctrine in Buddhism. Buddhists differ, however, on the explanation of the processes of reincarnation. The main reason for the diversity of opinion arises from the core doctrine of No-Self (anatta; Skt: anatma), which posits that there is no enduring self that transfers from one life to another. The self is a temporary aggregation of five factors (skandhas) which dissolves upon death.

Without a self, what is it that reincarnates? Theravada Buddhism usually explains the process according to the Pali Canon, such as the “Questions of King Milinda,” where the rebirth process is compared to the lightning from one candle to another candle. The first candle did not transfer to the second one, but at the same time has the qualities (flame) of the first one.

Because of the unsatisfactory nature of such analogies, some schools of Buddhism introduced subsidiary concepts to explain the transference of memory and selfhood from one body to another. The Pudgalavada school introduced the concept of a pudgala or a personality, which is similar to the skandhas of traditional Buddhism. The Yogacara school of Asanga and Vasubandhu introduced the concept of alaya-vijnana, which is a storehouse of consciousness. These entities, whether pudgala or alaya-vijnana are considered as temporary and will be transcended when one attains nirvana.

Although Buddhism denies the existence of an unchanging, substantial soul or self—as against the notion of the atman it teaches the concept of anatman (Pali: anatta; “non-self”)—it holds to a belief in the transmigration of the karma that is accumulated by an individual in life. The individual is a composition of five ever-changing psycho-physical elements and states, or skandhas (“bundles”)—i.e., form, sensations, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness—and terminates with death. The karma of the deceased, however, persists and becomes a vijnana (“germ of consciousness”) in the womb of a mother. The vijnana is that aspect of consciousness that is reborn in a new individual. By gaining a state of complete passiveness through discipline and meditation, one can achieve nivana, the state of the extinction of desires and liberation (moksha) from bondage to samsara by karma. (Encyclopedia Britannica, “Reincarnation”)

Tibetan Buddhism seem to take the idea of transference of an entity from one body to another more literally. See the full article by the 14th Dalai Lama on reincarnation.

There are so many references to rebirth in Buddhist scriptures that the following are just selections.

  1. Pali Canon
  2. Jataka Tales
  3. Pudgalavada
  4. Yogacara
  5. Tibetan Buddhism

Pali Canon

Four misfortunes befall the reckless man who consorts with another’s wife: acquisition of demerit, disturbed sleep, ill-repute, and (rebirth in) states of woe. Such a man acquires demerit and an unhappy birth in the future. Brief is the pleasure of the frightened man and woman, and the king imposes heavy punishment. Hence, let no man consort with another’s wife. (Dhammapada 309-10)

When a man is sluggish and gluttonous, sleeping and rolling around in bed like a fat domestic pig, that sluggard undergoes rebirth again and again. (Dhammapada 325)

Let go of the past, let go of the future, let go of the present, and cross over to the farther shore of existence. With mind wholly liberated, you shall come no more to birth and death. (Dhammapada 348)

He who knows his former births, who sees heaven and hell, who has reached the end of births and attained to the perfection of insight, the sage who has reached the summit of spiritual excellence — him do I call a holy man. (Dhammapada 423)

Men have, O young man, deeds as their very own, they are inheritors of deeds, deeds are their matrix, deeds are their kith and kin, and deeds are their support. It is deeds that classify men into high or low status (Majjhima Nikaya 135,4)

With his mind thus concentrated, purified, & bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, he directs & inclines it to knowledge of the recollection of past lives (lit: previous homes). He recollects his manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two births, three births, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, one hundred, one thousand, one hundred thousand, many aeons of cosmic contraction, many aeons of cosmic expansion, many aeons of cosmic contraction & expansion, [recollecting], ‘There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. (Lohicca Sutta)

From an inconceivable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. (Samyutta Nikaya 15.3)

Householders, it is by reason of conduct not in accordance with the Dhamma, by reason of unrighteous conduct, that beings here on the dissolution of the body, after death, reappear in states of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, even in hell. It is by reason of conduct in accordance with the Dhamma, by reason of righteous conduct, that some beings here on the dissolution of the body, after death, reappear in a happy destination, even in the heavenly world. (Saleyyaka Sutta, 5)

Jataka Tales

[The Jataka tales refer the many stories about the earlier lives of Gautama Buddha, in animal and human forms. A sample collection of some of the tales may be found in many websites, such as the following:


Yogacara School

As a silkworm constructs a cocoon, binding itself by its own doing, so too does [ālaya] consciousness construct a body to bind itself. It will then abandon that body and transfer into a new body as the next requital. Because of a flower seed, there will be a new plant with colorful and fragrant flowers. Likewise, after [ālaya] consciousness has abandoned a body, wherever it goes, along with it goes the dharma realm, including faculties and sensory reception. Wherever a wish-fulfilling jewel is, it is accompanied by pleasing objects. Wherever the sun is, it is accompanied by bright light. Likewise, wherever consciousness transfers to, it is accompanied by the dharma realm, including sensory reception and perception. After abandoning a body, [ālaya] consciousness, without a body of flesh and bones, takes the cause of form as its body. It has faculties, sensory reception, and subtle thinking, and can grasp good or evil. (Mahayana Sutra of Consciousness, 18)

Tibetan Buddhism