Consciousness and Rebirth

Well, you may be happy to hear, I am becoming more and more convinced that the rebirth the Buddha taught is actual rebirth. I guess you could say I never really doubted that, but my issues stemmed from another source.

Every time rebirth is spoken about, it has this idea of consciousness glued to it. The idea that each person is endowed in some way with a consciousness that is unique unto them. Now of course I’m not saying that everyone thinks this way, it’s just the way that rebirth has always been presented to me.

I’ve been reading some of the suttas, like SN12.38 and DN15. These two in particular give me a different perspective. It sounds more to me like consciousness is more of a potential that is always there, in anything; and it’s just when the right conditions come together that it is able to appear or arise. So it’s not that a person has a particular consciousness, but that the right conditions arise in them for it to appear.

In SN12.38, it says tendency toward something is the basis for the maintenance for consciousness, but I was wondering if there’s another way of translating that. Tendency sounds more intentional or volitional like the sutta has been translated to be called, but I think of tendency more as conditional or causal, just like gravity causes objects in the air to have a tendency toward falling to the ground.

The whole point of this is that I am inclined toward a temporary acceptance of rebirth (until I can actual see it for myself), but only in more complex way than what has been explained to me previously. Which is that there is a consciousness element at death that conditions the next consciousness element at the beginning of the next rebirth, and then namarupa forms around that element of consciousness or something like that. This way of thinking about rebirth seems only to have an interpretive basis in the suttas, an interpretation that just doesn’t seem right to me.

The moment of death conditioning the beginning moment of rebirth, that I see, but as soon as you get into the technical details of consciousness, you start to lose me. Not because I don’t understand, but because I just don’t see where that comes from. I think that the concept of consciousness already existing in a subtle but general way, and then the necessary conditions arising to allow it to become established in a being, or gain a footing as it says in DN15, makes just as much sense, if not more. Also, this is not a cosmic self, far from it, this is just another way of interpreting the suttas explanation of consciousness.

Of course, this idea is far from matured, but something like this seems more likely than the way I’ve heard it explained before. I think a big problem when it comes to rebirth is that people get too technical when trying to explain it. If the inner working are left a little broader and maybe even more vague, then, at least to me, it starts to sound a lot more reasonable. And not because it has to be totally rational in a scientific sense, but just because it only works off of exactly what the Buddha says in the text and no more. Any thoughts?


Children’s memories of past lives helped to convince me of rebirth:

The Journal of the American Medical Association referred to Stevenson’s Cases of the Reincarnation Type (1975) as a “painstaking and unemotional” collection of cases that were “difficult to explain on any assumption other than reincarnation.”[26] In September 1977, the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease devoted most of one issue to Stevenson’s research.[27] Writing in the journal, the psychiatrist Harold Lief described Stevenson as a methodical investigator and added, “Either he is making a colossal mistake, or he will be known (I have said as much to him) as ‘the Galileo of the 20th century’.”[28] The issue proved popular: the journal’s editor, the psychiatrist Eugene Brody, said he had received 300–400 requests for reprints.[26]

As did Walpola Rahula:

As there is no permanent, unchanging substance, nothing passes from one moment to the next. So quite obviously, nothing permanent or unchanging can pass or transmigrate from one life to the next. It is a series that continues unbroken, but changes every moment. The series is, really speaking, nothing but movement. It is like a flame that burns through the night: it is not the same flame nor it is another. A child grows up to be a man of sixty. Certainly the man of sixty is not the same as the child of sixty years ago, nor is he another person. Similarly, a person who dies here and is reborn elsewhere is neither the same person, nor another (na ca so na ca añño). It is the continuity of the same series. The difference between death and birth is only a thought-moment: the last thought-moment in this life conditions the first thought-moment in the so-called next life, which, in fact, is the continuity of the same series. During this life itself, too, one thought-moment conditions the next thought-moment. So from the Buddhist point of view, the question of life after death is not a great mystery, and a Buddhist is never worried about this problem.


Yeah I like that description, it’s just when people get too deeply into the technicalities of rebirth that they start to lose me. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, but often the theories that are presented don’t make much sense to me, or seem like what the Buddha taught.

It’s interesting that, while Dr. Ian Stevenson provided evidence for past life memories, he never attempted to provide a mechanism which explains rebirth. Maybe some questions are best left unanswered, as the Buddha taught in the parable of the poisoned arrow.

I came to a higher level of confidence via these suttas and similar understanding. From that point it allowed me to investigate these ideas through my practice. So happy practicing!


@Kensho, maybe this will be interesting to you. Dr. Jim Tucker at the University of Virgina has continued Dr. Stevenson’s research and there is a strong department within this august university devoted to research around rebirth and other related issues.


Thank you. Very interesting.

This is not inline with Buddha’s teaching.
I was listening to a Buddhist monk who talk exactly this way of thinking.
May be this is true in ultimate sense.
Consciousness is not a fixed element it is arising due to causes and conditions.


This is actually a common misconception of quantum mechanics. Waves do not collapse into particles because of observation. In fact, observation in the perceptual sense has nothing to do with it. Whether a quantum system is a wave or a particle is an intrinsic aspect of the system itself.

When you measure things at the quantum level, the scale is so small that the techniques required to measure it (at least the ones available to us today) cannot be prevented from interfering with the quantum system. It is this interference of measurement that flips the quantum system from particle to wave, or from wave to particle, depending on what it was at the onset of the measurement; and it is the measurement you choose that decides. If you choose to measure wave, you get wave, and if you choose to measure particle, you get particle. If it was already wave and you measure wave, you still get wave, it doesn’t change. Same for particle.

Now, to be totally fair, this is all being thrown into question because of a relatively recent manifesting of a thought experiment called Wheeler’s delayed choice. It’s extremely complex, but essentially the question was posed, if you delayed the choice of whether you measure particle or wave until after it has passed through the screen with which you measure it, will it still change accordingly. What they found was that when a quantum system is forced to reveal its particle/wave duality simultaneously in this way, it is actual able to; meaning, there isn’t necessarily a particle quantum system that can change into a wave system or vice versa, but instead, each and every quantum system is somehow both a particle and a wave at the same time, and whatever you measure for makes itself apparent. That’s why when you measure for both in the Wheeler experiment, it actual shows both.

The point of explaining all of this though, is that observation has no effect on a quantum system, none whatsoever, ever. It is the act of measurement that has consequence, and only because of the nature of quantum systems. This is also why you are only able to accurately measure the transient location or the acceleration of elementary particles, and never both at the same time. This is why quantum systems are probabilistic. We can only give a list of probable exact locations with either highly accurate temporary location measurements, or highly accurate acceleration measurements.


@jimisommer have you listened to Ajahn Brahm discuss DN15?

His experience as a physicist might interest you. It’s a 2 part talk available on the website

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Thank you, I’ll definitely have to check that out.

What you are describing is coming from a particular interpretation of quantum physics, which (as far as I’m aware) has not be demonstrated empirically. There are several other possible interpretations: Von Neumann believed that “consciousness causes collapse.” Of course, that interpretation is highly problematic from the standpoint of modern materialism - it doesn’t fit their world view at all. It might be akin to believing in rebirth!

That “science of reincarnation” picture is not at all correct, neither from a buddhist point neither from a scientifical one.

First, quantum physics has evolved quite a lot since the days only the double slit experiment was known and funky theories could exist about it. Now we have the quantum eraser experiment and other more advanced ones. What we know today is: for the wave function to break down, we don’t need a consciousness getting in contact with that. What we need is the posibility for a consciousness to ever get in contact with that. For example if you do not look behind your back, the tree or car that is there still exists even without anyone looking at it. Why ? Because there is the possibility of a consciousness getting in contact with that maybe 1 week later.

The next points are wrong too. Consciousness does require a brain to support it, same as science and Buddha have been saying all along.

The solution here is not this kind of theories. What we need is to find the right angle of looking at the problem. We might look at a thing from one angle and we might understand it better or not understand it at all. Finding the correct angle of looking at something is very important.

In my opinion, the angle is looking at conditionality. What is matter after all ? It is a set of conditions, it is part of this big web of conditionality that makes up Samsara, this conditioned world. Matter provides the conditions for what can be experienced, it’s like a field of possibilities. Buddha always compared a current incarnation to a field too.

What is the only possible link between matter and consciousness ? It is conditionality. If we are looking for some kind of monism thing that links them all, that is conditionality. Imagine it like a web that makes up all that exists, all samsara. Samsara is the conditioned world. Between matter, consciousness, volition, perception etc. - the link is conditionality and the rules that govern how this conditionality works. This matter (and other factors) might condition the appearence of this eye-consciousness at 22:45, or it might condition the appearence of a particular ear-consciousness at 22:58. Volition might condition the appearence of a particular mind-consciousness at 23:02, etc.

The reason there appears to be such a sharp divide between material and non-material things is because of our distorted perception of matter. As long as we see matter as somewhat “solid”, rebirth will look strange to us. But the more we think about it and get familiar with the findings of quantum physics, we will start to see it more like a string of conditions, a web of conditions.

By matter not being “solid” I’m not trying to say it’s not respecting rules of physics or things like that. What I am trying to say is that consciousness and non-material things also respect rules of nature to perfection but we don’t really perceive them as solid. Our perception is different. Both matter and non-matterial things are 100% “solid” in the sense of being predictable and respecting rules of physics and of conditionality but our perception of them is different.


What I described isn’t an interpretation, it is the basis for it all. It has been shown empirically, but what it all means as far as how our reality actually works is still up for interpretation. Also the Von Neumann-Wigner interpretation has long been refuted within the quantum mechanical community, not to mention, Wigner eventually abandoned their original postulation after Von Neumann had already passed away, as a lot of new data had been gathered and it was quite clear that conscious observation had nothing to do with quantum wave function collapse. It should also be said that the delayed choice quantum eraser experiment has been most often used to refute “consciousness causes collapse,” although there are very few who have attempted to argue the opposite.

The problem with this distorted perception of special solidity when it comes to matter is important. Take for example the conditionality between volition and consciousness, or between perception and feeling. We don’t really ask too much questions about how the conditionality between them works, because we have the same perception of “not solid” about them.

When it comes to matter, we expect the connection between this string of conditionality that makes up matter and the string of conditionality that makes up consciousness to be something special. It looks strange that any conditionality can exist at all because our distorted perception of “solid” and “not solid” makes it look strange. Whatever explanation we might provide regarding this conditionality connection, it will look strange, more strange than conditionality between feeling and perception.

This is why things like neuroplasticy or the placebo effect look so strange. How can an immaterial thing such as a simple opinion condition something so “solid” as matter to behave differently ?


When will the spiritual community finally put the quantum physics infatuation into the grave? Let the quantum physicists come to a consensus about consciousness first. Or let us first come to a consensus about what consciousness is. Like @jimisommer described a machine can ‘observe’ a quantum field and thus force a state upon it. A specific interference is the key here, not consciousness.

But I think that meditators can actually help with a science of consciousness a lot. It would have to be a ‘dependent’ description of consciousness. Depending on where the observing system is the objects take a specific shape (in jhana this is observed, when being in love that, when in infinite consciousness that…).

On the other hand certain objects can force a relocation of consciousness on us (a beautiful voice, trance music, drunk people yelling at each other while I meditate…).

Many building blocks are found in the EBT, but I don’t think we can say that we have a complete model of consciousness in the texts. It’s not their purpose either.

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Good point.
But again it is gradual training.
I wasted countless number of hours investigating quantum physics.
It is a good knowledge to have it but we have flush it down them in the toilet once you reach its limits.

Thanks Jimi - I’m no expert (far from it) but there are people who accept the Von Neumann interpretation and even built on it (Henry Stapp for one). And yes, it is an interpretation - all the quantum people as far as I know believe that measurement is responsible for “collapse,” but there is disagreement on where the measurement chain ends. Obviously, no information about a quantum system can be known without bringing the observer into the equation, so it seems to me very difficult to genuinely disprove the hypothesis. Apparently, most physicists don’t subscribe to Von Neumann interpretation - but might this have something to do with the fact that it would call into serious questions most of their basic assumptions about how the world works?

In any event, quantum mechanics, while interesting and perhaps quite relevant, will not end suffering, whether consciousness causes collapse or not.

Bravo. Any knowledge of “the world”, without having knowledge of the one who knows, nor knowing what “knowing” itself is, is truthfully no knowledge at all.

I believe the best (and most beautifully concise) understanding of rebirth was given by Chuang-Tzu:

"The other day I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes - a butterfly. Now I do not know if I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or if I am even now a butterfly dreaming I am a man. This is the nature of the transformation of all things. "

This is very interesting, I actually was going to ask about this eventually. Do you really think there are different “forms” of consciousness depending on the causes, or is there one singular form of consciousness that is then shaded by the different causes. For some reason, I am inclined to think the latter. That consciousness is a singular potential, and that when it arises, its appearance depends on what it arises in conjunction with.