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A question of terms: “rebirth” vs “reincarnation”

Is there any meaningful reason to describe the position of the Buddha as “rebirth” as opposed to “reincarnation”?

There’s a line of thought I encounter sometimes states something along the lines of, “‘reincarnation’ means there’s a soul taking a new incarnation. Buddhists believe in rebirth.” Thich Naht Hanh makes that argument HERE, for example.

It strikes me as a differentiation without much difference , to be honest, and one that doesn’t immediately solve anything - it seems like either word works perfectly fine to me - but I thought I’d get some other opinions.

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This is sort of an inherent problem in any effort to translate an ancient language into a modern vernacular. Linguistically speaking, “rebirth” and “reincarnation” do imply different concepts.

The concept of birth is often associated with an organism coming to life subsequent to reproductive acts of those organisms immediately preceding it. However, in everyday language the concept of birth takes on metaphorical qualities, e.g., an idea “giving birth” to an invention.

The concept of reincarnation in the English language, etymologically speaking, involves something taking a new physical form, inasmuch as the word originates in the Latin carn- meaning “flesh” (hence a carnivorous animal is a flesh-eating one).

So, in a strict sense, and with their linguistic origins in mind, there would appear to be different implications for speaking in terms of rebirth versus reincarnation. But again, here is where the problem resides in trying to find the best words when translating a term that was originally described in an ancient language that is no longer used in an everyday setting.

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Reincarnation is akin to emptying the content of one glass into another empty glass. The content remains the same while the glass has changed.

Rebirth is akin to lighting one candle with the flame of another. There is continuity of the flame, but neither the flame nor the wax are ever the same.

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So, that’s essentially the argument I hear made, @Bundokji, but I’m not so clear that it’s a sound one.

Obviously you’re correctly stating Buddhist doctrine, and how it differs from the beliefs of the Buddha’s contemporaries, but there doesn’t seem (to me) to be this objective difference between the words rebirth and reincarnation that ought to be prompting people to insist that “Buddha taught rebirth, not reincarnation.”

It seems very arbitrary to me, this semantic distinction, not necessarily accurate, and possibly just a muddying of the waters (especially with teachers like Ajahn Brahm and the Dalai Lama using the word “reincarnation”).

But I’m no linguist, or translator, or much of an academic at all, so I’m wondering if there might be something I’m missing.

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The purpose of a metaphor is to express ideas in possibly clearer ways than descriptive statements. Why do you assume the purpose to be providing an objective difference?

DISCLAIMER: I don’t know Pali or Sanskrit.

I think you have to go back to the Pali and Sanskrit words, and see how they are used, to know for sure. I believe the Pali word translated as “rebirth” is usually punabbhava. It seems that the Sanskrit word (or one of them) for reincarnation is punarjanma. According to this website (I have no idea how accurate it is) Punarjanma: 4 definitions it says:

It is the theory that the soul of a man is born again after his death.

Anyway, I’m sure someone more knowledgeable will come along soon and know the precise Pali and Sanskrit words.

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Strictly speaking, they refer to the same thing. Rebirth is a bit more literal as a translation from Chinese texts.

I think the reason translators avoid reincarnation is because it assumes a dichotomy of soul and flesh used by theistic belief systems like Hinduism and Christianity (though Christianity decided early on that the idea of rebirth was a heresy). There’s quite a bit of this word avoidance in English translation for cultural or political reasons.

As another example, I’d be loathe to use the word “sin” in a translation rather than “misdeed” or “offense” for the same reasons. People associate sin with Christianity and assume it implies a deity who’ll pass judgement. But the words all mean basically the same thing on the surface.

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Do we know if later Hindu texts use a Sanskrit word that is totally different from the Pali or the Sanskrit word the Chinese translated from? It would be interesting to know if a different word was used when an atman was implied as part of the process.

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The word ‘Punar’ means ‘again’. ‘janam’ means birth. The word ‘punarjanma’ means ‘to take birth again’. As such, it carries connotations of some intrinsic essence being carried over eg the poor young man who dies with duties unfulfilled, asks God for a second chance and is then born again in a super rich family … so the closest English fit is actually the word ‘reincarnation’.

The Pali ‘bhava’ is a mixture of ‘existence/becoming/acquired form’. So punarbhava means ‘to come into existence again’ with the connotation of this being a new yet linked entity eg the new mango that comes from the mango which was planted earlier. So the closest English fit is ‘rebirth’.

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Cool. Thanks. I had a feeling that the original words might themselves have different connotations.

I’ve seen both these expression in Chinese Agamas. Punarbhava most often I’ve seen in the stock passage for realizing liberation (“I truly know I won’t be subject to another existence”). Punarjanma is the more common term, translated as either “future birth” or “departing-then-born (again).”

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It could just be because reincarnation is more widely used in non-Buddhist contexts, so certain authors prefer to use rebirth to highlight how the Buddhist concept is not the same. Since the actual meaning of the English words are not that radically different (after all, one could still be led to ask “what is it that gets reincarnated/reborn?”) the problem of actually explaining what rebirth is remains either way.

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Indeed.

True, but there are many words for it in Indic languages, as there are in English. Metempsychosis anyone?

Indeed.

My take on it is that the supposed doctrinal difference between the two is an artifact of a less mature time in understanding Buddhism, when Europeans were having to push back against theosophy. Unfortunately such distinctions all too readily become reified as linguistic fundamentalism. And that tendency is a major factor in Theravada in particular. So I want to push back on that.

The difference between this case and “sin” to me is that “sin” comes from an entirely different set of linguistic and cultural contexts, whereas the words for rebirth are all part of the same linguistic and cultural context.

Everyone in Indian philosophy knew of these different takes on rebirth, and frequently argued about them. But so far as i know, no-one in 2,500 years argued that the different philosophies ought be distinguished by ascribing fixed senses to slightly different linguistic forms.

Not using reincarnation has a cost. We either keep reusing the same English word for different Indic words, thus sanding down the linguistic richness; or we use some other, vaguer word, which will inevitably be divorced from the context of rebirth entirely.

The problem we face in 2021 is not so much that people are mistaking Buddhist rebirth theories for the Hindu ones. Sure, that still happens, but for most people the difference—a conceptually important but philosophically subtle distinction—is not really of practical import. The real issue is that people are stripping rebirth from the suttas altogether. And this has been enabled by generations of translations that have rendered Pali terms in unnecessarily vague ways, like “becoming” for bhava.

tl;dr: better have a philosophically imperfect understanding of rebirth than none at all.

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Deeply appreciate your chiming in on this, Bhante @sujato, and everyone else as well. This was interesting.

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Yes.

From always there are quite bhikkus and scholars using “rebirth” instead another word. With enough reasons.

Re-incarnation means incarnation again. Re-birth means birth again.

The Incarnation notion need of something previous. In->carnation: something entering inside the flesh. This is the ethymology and meaning of “carnation”, becoming flesh. Like “the Word of God made flesh”.

The Rebirth term is a clean word without pressupositions except its recurrence. It is an open word able to include any type of rebirth. A Rebirth could be understood like a case of Incarnation, Transmigration, Metempsychosis and others. All these notions needs of a Rebirth while Rebirth can be any of these.

In the buddhist case, the succesive births happens without need of a previous entity. The Buddhist rebirth is more closer to a Palingenesis notion, despite not fully applicable.

Incarnation or Transmigration needs of a previous entity protagonizing that recurrence. Without a notion of individuality, soul, essence, etc… there is no possible incarnation or migration therefore no reincarnation or transmigration…

Rebirth can mean only a birth happening again. For this reason this word is compatible with the Buddhist teaching, while others no.

Still more important, the Rebirth is the only term compatible with the philosofical depth of patticasamuppada. Rebirth in Buddhism is not only the biographical event of a new babe who is born but it can include the metaphysical explanation about how the individuation arise moment after moment, in where the biographical birth it is only another place to find the recurrence which goes beyond the delusion of biographical birth and death.

Incarnation and trasnmigration are not compatible with patticasamuppada.

Maybe we know these buddhist issues. However, the importance of choosing the word can depend of the reach we can gift to others, be readers or hearers. With the “Rebirth” word there is a depth to explore inside the Buddhist teaching without final confussion. While other terms like reincarnation or transmigration can create confussion and add more difficulty, because these are not compatible with the buddhist philosophy of kamma neither PS.

Btw, Suttacentral is plenty of the “transmigration” word. Time ago I wrote a message warning about this.

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@Bundokji … isn’t it real?

We just born into a different body in a different or same realm while the ego/will/trauma/etc still memorized deeply in our subconsciousness or unconsciousness or DNA or whatever the concept are?

In r/Buddhism, there’s some people who take up the semantic correction. To me, I just stick to rebirth. I don’t bother much about the semantics. When I post rebirth evidences, and people click, they read: reincarnation evidences, I don’t mind. Cause those evidences are from external (non-Buddhist) sources.

When people argue that it’s for reincarnation, not rebirth, I tell them that both are the same when you look at it from external evidence wise. They only differ in philosophical explanation of the phenomenon. Reincarnation typically connotes an immortal soul. Rebirth without soul, you’ll have to go deep into dependent origination etc.

But functionally, they are the same. Reincarnation people just didn’t properly study non-self if they believe in a soul. If you take two lifetimes, linked directly via rebirth, you can see many things (memory/kamma/ ignorance/ birthmark-to-fatal-wound) are passed on to the next life. So, if the perspective is limited to this, people naturally take what’s the same as the soul.

However, when you expand to many many lifetimes (beginning-less in Buddhism), not 1 thing remains the same throughout the rebirth going to the lowest realms, insects, spiders, to humans, to the highest gods, Sakka, Mara, Brahmas, even formless realms. We all had been there before, and given even only 1% change for each rebirth, all of the 5 aggregates for everyone had completely changed countless times since beginningless rebirth. No immortal unchanging soul is found in this picture.

Most people are only concerned with their immediate next life. Functionally, there seems to be no difference.

Those who are too averse to the soul idea (which can be a useful shortcut to collect what’s being passed on in rebirth), they may also reject certain things in Buddhism, like the in-between states, after death, before rebirth, which the EBT supports, but Theravada don’t. Cause the in-between person sounds too much like the soul. They rather think of them as rebirth in peta realm. This is not supported as anagami (who cannot be reborn in lower realms) can attain to final liberation in the in-between states.

Some people reject rebirth, by saying that literal rebirth is reincarnation, but they believe in rebirth, which is something different and they totally ignore the rebirth/reincarnation evidences. They are actually siding with secular Buddhism on no literal rebirth.

Yes, I think that the stronger battle ground is to get Buddhists to reply with rebirth evidences to those doubters of rebirth/reincarnation rather than to have semantic correction.

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To the extent that theories with explanatory power are considered real. We argue about them, and in many cases we justify our actions through them. Metaphysics, whether denied or affirmed are central to group thinking and the formation of communities. Our thirst for knowing as well as the intensity of feelings certain notions can trigger contribute to what we perceive as real.

SN56.41 comes to mind:

“Once upon a time, mendicants, a certain person left Rājagaha, thinking ‘I’ll speculate about the world.’ They went to the Sumāgadhā lotus pond and sat down on the bank speculating about the world. Then that person saw an army of four divisions enter a lotus stalk. When he saw this he thought, ‘I’ve gone mad, really, I’ve lost my mind! I’m seeing things that don’t exist in the world.’

Then that person entered the city and informed a large crowd, ‘I’ve gone mad, really, I’ve lost my mind! I’m seeing things that don’t exist in the world.’

‘But how is it that you’re mad? How have you lost your mind? And what have you seen that doesn’t exist in the world?’

‘Sirs, I left Rājagaha, thinking “I’ll speculate about the world.” I went to the Sumāgadhā lotus pond and sat down on the bank speculating about the world. Then I saw an army of four divisions enter a lotus stalk. That’s why I’m mad, that’s why I’ve lost my mind. And that’s what I’ve seen that doesn’t exist in the world.’

‘Well, mister, you’re definitely mad, you’ve definitely lost your mind. And you’re seeing things that don’t exist in the world.’

But what that person saw was in fact real, not unreal. Once upon a time, a battle was fought between the gods and the demons. In that battle the gods won and the demons lost. The defeated and terrified demons entered the demon city through the lotus stalk only to confuse the gods.

yes, this type of thoughts and reflections can arise because Rebirth, and it can condition the contemplation of Reality and give to the person a different position in the existence, more powerful to understand dukkha and also the importance to be free. All aligned with the Buddha teaching.

The wrong view of non-rebirth deny all that, despite that type of contemplation is essential to the Buddha teaching. Historically, the non-rebirth was a new belief which started imposed by the force in later times, although it was strange to all the human kind which mostly observed a continuity under different beliefs.

As the cultural and educative device in the West still is under the effects of both theists and coarse materialists, we are in 2021 and still we should see the effects of that collective brainwashing of the past started in 4th century ace. Most of people believes the manifestation of the live and oneself is a magic trick; something arising from a nothingness and vanishing in the nowhere. Like a rabbit being pulled out of the hat in some spectacle for the children.

When the Buddha in the EBT’s talks about people being reborn in the heavens or the hells, he doesn’t qualify that by saying it’s only a metaphor, or by saying that only their five aggregates are affected, etc. And when he recalls thousands of past lives, they are his past lives, not the past lives of some material abstraction that wasn’t really him. It seems like the EBT’s themselves are not so evasive about the matter.

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