How is belief in anatman consistent with rebirth?

If there is no atman/enduring soul to a person, then what is being “reborn?” Doesn’t the notion that one will be reborn if they don’t achieve samsara imply that there is some sort of enduring “self” that is maintained between rebirths?

I feel like I understand the concept of anatman (i.e. what we conceive of as a “self” is an illusion, and that illusion is composed of our thoughts, impulses, behaviors, etc.; those thoughts/impulses/etc. all are not part of a self, but are rather just sort of natural or biological reactions that an individual has to external and internal stimuli). Having said that, my knowledge of Buddhism has always been at an introductory level, and I have always viewed information about Buddhism through a secular lens. I’d be interested to hear answers to this question from people who are much better versed in Buddhist philosophy than I am.

As I type this out, I suppose the answer to my question may be that being reborn is akin to a thought, in that they both, to an unlearned subject, seem like processes that indicate the presence of a self, but really don’t. In other words, the string of human lives that make up one “chain” of reborn people is just as much an illusion as the self-hood of any given person. Though I guess that brings me back to my original question, but phrased differently: what links the people in each “chain” of rebirths together, if not something that can be considered an atman/self?


Thanks for the link to that thread! It’s great food for thought. I’m not done reading it all yet. So far, I’m still not sure what connects people within a “chain of rebirths,” if not something that can be called a soul. To me, it seems like it’s a semantic distinction to say that there’s some sort of construct that connects people within a “chain,” but to refuse to call it a “soul” or “atman.” Though I suppose again that looking at the “chain” as a “non-chain” might accomplish the same function that’s accomplished when one conceives of their “self” as a “non-self,” that function being to make one comprehend their one-ness with the universe.

(Side question: is there a proper Buddhist term for a “chain of rebirths,” or “chain of people within one series of rebirths?”)

Craving links rebirths.

MN149:3.3: And their craving—which leads to future rebirth, mixed up with relishing and greed, looking for enjoyment in various different realms—grows.

On the atman/anatman questions, the Buddha clarified:

SN44.8:3.9: The Realized One doesn’t regard form as self, self as having form, form in self, or self in form. He doesn’t regard feeling … perception … choices … consciousness as self, self as having consciousness, consciousness in self, or self in consciousness. That’s why he doesn’t answer these questions when asked.”

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“Craving links rebirths.” So, let’s say I die tomorrow, and I die while still in a state of craving. How does my craving link me to the person who is reborn as a result of my craving? Is the craving like an immaterial structure that, if not dispelled by Buddhist practice before a creature dies, will then spawn a new creature in its wake? If so, how does craving spawn that next creature in the chain of rebirths? Does the craving just sort of attach itself to another lifeform as it is born, like a parasitic insect looking for a new host after its old one dies? (This actually is a helpful way for me to conceive of my question, this meaning to conceive of craving as some intangible structure to which individual human lives are tied, like a sun giving life to a planet until the sun’s energy is eventually snuffed out and no longer has the energy needed to sustain life)

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Welcome to the Forum @Hierodule!

This is how Ven Nagasena explained rebirth without transmigration of soul to King Milinda.

To illustrate these concepts in a modern context I created this experiment, which might interest you.

A teaser- you ask what connects people in a chain of rebirths. Let me turn it around… what disconnects them? Are two individuals really as separate as they seem?


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When we discuss our self with others, one hears things like, “I like chocolate” or “I dislike fruit cake”. In other words, that self we often discuss would appear to be a rather long list of cravings and aversions. :thinking:

Those who dismiss such cravings and aversions as “self” sometimes favor consciousness as self. Yet upon exploring consciousness itself, we come to the disconcerting conclusion that consciousness is itself yoked to craving and aversion by feeling (i.e., “I plan on making that tasty chocolate cake”). :mindblown:

Can cravings be reborn? Ask any drug addict and the answer will be, “yes.”

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Before i read your two links, i will provide a preliminary answer to this question. All individuals and lifeforms are connected in that they depend on one another functioning harmoniously to proliferate (cases in point: how invasive species can screw up ecosystems, and how humans burning fossil fuels can screw up the whole planet’s ecosystem).

They are disconnected by the implication that not all lives separate belong to the same “chains;” this implication originates in the notion that nirvana has been achieved more than once in the existence of the universe. Actually, it’s funny you ask this, since it brings me to another question that i intend to post in a separate thread: could it be true that all lifeforms that ever existed are all part of the same chain of rebirths, and there is only one instance of nirvana that can possibly ever occur?

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Drug addiction is a phenomenon sourced in the physical functioning of the brain and its neurons in concert with the absence or presence of a particular drug in the body to which that brain is connected. You could substitute “drug addiction” for “a liking of strawberries” and substitute “a particular drug” for “stawberries,” and the statement would be just as true.

The craving for drugs or food a person has is recorded in the physical structure of a person’s brain and nervous system. The notion that craving connects separate organisms, and that craving survives the death of brain activity, suggests that cravings are preserved not only in the brain, but also elsewhere. What is this “elsewhere?” Is it some sort of cosmic plane of existence that serves as something like a ledger of the cravings of a “chain” of reborn persons? (Although it seems to me now that “craving” itself IS literally the “chain of reborn persons,” though that doesn’t answer the question of where that “elsewhere is.”) I suppose me asking this question might be like if I were to ask a physicist, “when I throw a ball into the air, who performs the calculation to figure out when the ball must fall onto the ground, and where is that calculation performed?”

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I’ve now read these two links, which are helpful, but they bring to mind a question. This question might only exist because this analogy, like all analogies, is probably imperfect.

The question is this: can my own craving lead to a rebirth before my physical body dies? The notion that the same lesson existing in a teacher’s mind and a student’s mind could be compared to the same craving being the cause of two separate organism’s existence seems to suggest that my craving can “spread” to another living organism even before I die (since the same lesson can exist in the teacher’s mind and the student’s mind simultaneously). If so, then then the Buddhist concept of rebirth seems more metaphorical than real/metaphysical; It would make it seem like people are connected to one another by the general idea or concept of craving, rather than being connected by a specific person’s own specific instances of craving.

Addicts can enable the addiction of others. That conditioning is the transmission of craving. Genes need not be involved. Indeed, genes are simply one way to transmit information. One might even consider the entire internet as a network of cravings.

But the difficulty here is not really about craving. The difficulty here is the perception of “I am”. The difficulty is the reliance on that imaginary friend called, Self. Indeed, to ask, “Self, how will you be reborn?” starts out with the axiom of Self. Axioms aren’t truth. Axioms are building blocks in conceptual frameworks. Euclidean and hyperbolic geometry differ by a single axiom–the parallel postulate. Buddhism doesn’t rely on the axiom of Self. Hyperbolic geometry doesn’t rely on the parallel postulate.

Abandoning the axiom of Self has many useful consequences. Abandoning the axiom of Self allows suffering to be addressed directly. We can ask, “what causes suffering”. We can ask “what causes suffering to be reborn?”. We can ask, “what is the escape from suffering.” And we can do all that without relying on the axiom of Self.


So is the concept of rebirth just a metaphor for the fact that our own suffering causes us to cause others to suffer (like how one might learn addiction to alcohol by socializing with alcoholics, or how state-sanctioned executions may teach people to justify murder in certain contexts)? In other words, is rebirth just a metaphor for the fact that causing and proliferating suffering is a learned behavior? By extension, is nirvana just a metaphor for a world in which no organism causes any other organism, or itself, to suffer (presumably because organisms had learned not to do this through Buddhist practice)?

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Although some would insist on literal rebirth, those of us who have no memory of past lives will find such literal interpretations personally unverifiable. In contrast, the remarkable phrasing of the suttas does also support metaphorical interpretation, which is indeed subject to personal verification.

Having seen the rebirth of craving within, I find it oddly unsatisfying. And a wonderfully effective perspective that avoids the axiom of Self is:

MN62:8.5: This should be truly seen with right understanding like this: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’

I think that will also work while dying or while working with others for the common good.

What about having observed “the rebirth of craving within” makes the metaphorical interpretation unsatisfying to you?

Personally, the metaphorical interpretation seems satisfying to me. It seems like conceiving of our own suffering as being causally connected to the suffering of others (as whom we will be reborn), and to use the concept of rebirth to sort of “trick” people into thinking they’re helping themselves by helping other people, seems akin to the way other religions function, like how the Christian concept of hell exists to “trick” people into being kind to one another by making them think they will face eternal, cosmic punishment for failing to do so.

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All very excellent questions!

It is helpful when considering these questions to differentiate a sentient being into Matter (The Form aggregate) and Mental processes aka Mind (the Feeling, Perception, Volitional Action and Conciousness aggregates).

To begin with let us consider only the Form aggregate. This is because the Buddha said…

Mendicants, when it comes to this body made up of the four primary elements, an uneducated ordinary person might become disillusioned, dispassionate, and freed. Why is that? This body made up of the four primary elements is seen to accumulate and disperse, to be taken up and laid to rest.

Now, if we practice the Buddha’s recommended meditations on Food and body (especially the first five parts - head hair, body hair, nails, skin and teeth) it becomes quite apparent that the body (Form) is continously being renewed - it is simply a process.

The food we eat comes from the waste products and dead bodies (Form) of other sentient beings, it is transformed for a while into “My” hair, nails, teeth and skin… only to fall off and become “Other”. In that sense, there are no boundaries between my body, that of others and the ecosystem in its totality… it is a constant flow of matter, with “My” body only being an illusion like a whirlpool in a flowing river.

What then gives this collection of matter the unique signature of “Mine”? It is simply the mental processes which are running on it, the act of those processes forming the illusion of Self being called Craving & Clinging.

Can two instances of “Me” run at the same time? Impossible. It is the unique “signature” of those everchanging mental processes running on everchanging Form which is being identified as “Me”. … such a signature cannot coexist simultaneously for any duration of time… just as two IP addresses cannot exist simultaneously.

What happens when “I” die? My Form remains here itself…its constituents break apart and assimilate into other forms, just as they had been doing throughout life… but what about the mental processes?

These mental processes, too have been swirling around from one sentient being to another all throughout life (aren’t thoughts ‘infectious’?)… but I hold onto “My” unique thought patterns (craving)…to see the mental processes as “Not Self” is very difficult. Quoting the Buddha once again…

But when it comes to that which is called ‘mind’ or ‘sentience’ or ‘consciousness’, an uneducated ordinary person is unable to become disillusioned, dispassionate, or freed. Why is that? Because for a long time they’ve been attached to it, thought of it as their own, and mistaken it: ‘This is mine, I am this, this is my self.’ That’s why, when it comes to this mind, an uneducated ordinary person is unable to become disillusioned, dispassionate, and freed.

At the point of Death, because of Craving, the existing Mental processes which are running on this Form do not end (just as the matter making up the body is not destroyed) - they simply rearise in another suitable Body (Form) which is as yet without existing processes… as we have already seen, all Forms within the ecosystem are continuously interconnected. (Think of it as the processes running on Node A simply shifting to Node B in a networked computer system once Node A is offline).

The existing Craving causes another “Self” to be reassembled in the new form, and that new “Signature” of Form and Mental Processes is linked to the previous “Signature” of Form and Mental Processes by virtue of its unique characteristics and craving, which are the common element within this thread of interlinked lives.

This is my present understanding of the topic, simplified as much as possible for easy understanding. Hope it helps!


Mental processes are material, though. The brain is a physical instrument through which humans perceive and experience the world. Memories, feelings, perceptions, desires, and all other mental processes can be explained by the way the brain physically works. One can easily and comprehensively explain how cravings arise in their brain/mind without needing to include in that explanation that they originate, at least in part, from some immaterial plane inhabited by some immaterial structures that transfer cravings from dying brains to newly-formed brains. The material nature of cravings can also be explained without saying that human brains tap into some sort of aether or immaterial plane in which cravings exist and naturally produce new, material brains to inhabit.

What distinguishes the “signature” from traditional notions of a “soul” or “self,” though? Is it purely a semantic distinction?

Thoughts are infectious because they can be physically transferred from one person to another (i.e. a thought is said aloud by person A, and person B’s ears convert that sound into a signal that their brain converts back into the original thought). What is the mechanism by which a craving can move from a dead person’s brain to a newly-formed brain?

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This is wrong as it confuses virtual processes with their physical underpinning. Eg. The process ‘system.exe’ is not the same thing as the computer chip or the electronic potentials running through it.

This assumes the existence of a “Self”. It is exactly the same thing as saying that the computer chip is a physical instrument through which Siri perceives and experiences the world. The personage of Siri does not truly exist, even though it can perceive, analyze and react to its environment.

How do you explain that two genetically identical twins are not mentally identical but react very differently to the same stimuli, even from birth? Identical hardware should produce identical responses, after all. What about ‘Talents’? Where do such complex sensorimotor skills originate, without any prior information input in the present life?

Strawman argument. No such immaterial plane has been proposed.

A continuously changing information processing stream based on 52 bits of individually unique, non persistent mental factors cannot be held to be the same thing as the traditional concept of an unchanging Soul.

The same mechanism by which information created on my device moves to your device…Viz the Network… Samsara.

But now, enough debate friend @Hierodule ! We must remember what the Buddha said…

Bhikkhus, do not engage in disputatious talk, saying: ‘You don’t understand this Dhamma and Discipline. I understand this Dhamma and Discipline. What, you understand this Dhamma and Discipline! You’re practising wrongly, I’m practising rightly. What should have been said before you said after; what should have been said after you said before. I’m consistent, you’re inconsistent. What you took so long to think out has been overturned. Your thesis has been refuted. Go off to rescue your thesis, for you’re defeated, or disentangle yourself if you can.’ For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, this talk is unbeneficial, irrelevant to the fundamentals of the holy life, and does not lead to revulsion, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna.

:smiley: :pray: :sunflower:


Apologies. I also find the metaphorical interpretation satisfying. It is the rebirth of craving that is unsatisfying.



The atman was a specific belief in ancient India which continues to this day in other Indian religions, and other world religions have similar ideas. When Buddhists say things aren’t atman (anatman), they have a specific thing in mind. For example, various philosophers would theorize and try to describe exactly what the atman was. Sometimes they said it was consciousness. Sometimes they said it was the will that chooses to act. Sometimes they said it was a little mote of spirit that floats around in a person’s body. The Buddhists didn’t believe the atman existed at all, so they first defined what made up a person, which very generally is form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness. Then they said none of these things are the atman, nor is anything else atman. They said that to refute all the various theories for atman that existed or could be brought up in a debate.

So, there’s that.

My understanding of rebirth in Buddhism is that it has much more to do with the idea of karma than it has with anything else. It’s karma that drives future rebirth because it was considered impossible that a person could do good or evil deeds and not have results arise from them. Why would some people get away with what they’d done because they died before the karma could bear fruit? So, karma is the real cause of rebirth. Buddhists didn’t consider it necessary for there to be a physical mechanism for this: karma works like fate, essentially. Nor did they think there needed to be a soul that carried karma around from life to life. To them, it’s essentially an impersonal process.

So, materialism and Buddhism just don’t have much of a common set of assumptions to understand each other by. Buddhists were basically taking a philosophical middle ground with their version of rebirth, refusing both the idea of a soul and what they considered to be the nihilism of materialists. Life isn’t an objective mechanism to them; it’s more a moral narrative that every sentient being is living.


The virtual process, system.exe for example, only exists because of the computer chip (let’s call this particular chip “computer chip A”) and its flow electrical potentials, though. If the electrical potentials stop powering computer chip A (like the death of a human body/brain), then that particular instance system.exe will end (like the death or end of a person’s conscious experience, as “produced” by the brain). System.exe will still sort of exist as an intangible concept, since one could input the code of the system.exe program into another computer chip, computer chip B, to be run again. However, moving the code to computer chip B would require a physical action to be taken, i.e. someone needs to input the system.exe code into a computer chip B to run the program again.

Also, the code of system.exe, when it runs on computer chip B, won’t have been changed or affected it any way from having been run on computer chip A in any manner, including a manner that would be comparable to the way that Buddhism posits that a craving is changed or affected by the dead human to whom that craving was formerly attached.

It does not assume the existence of a self. One can explain that the brain is an organ through which an observer perceives the world while also holding the belief that the “observer,” or self, is an illusory concept. Just because a concept is illusory doesn’t mean it isn’t real, in a certain sense. Race is a social construct, and social constructs can be considered illusory, but we can still use the concept of race to make meaningful inferences about human society. The concept of a self is vital to anyone’s understanding of the world, including a Buddhist’s, simply because so many people in the world do strongly believe in the the concept of the self.

Saying that Siri can perceive, analyze, and react to its environment is essentially the same thing as saying that the computer chip (or rather, the iPhone and its processor and its camera and its other inputs, such as its touch screen and buttons) is a physical instrument through which Siri perceives the world. Perhaps the most important difference between Siri and a human consciousness, or self, is that the former is not intelligent enough to be self-aware, whereas the latter is. It’s easy for me to conceive of a future in which our computer programs become so advanced that we can create artificial intelligences, like Siri, that are self-aware in the same way that humans are. After all, the brain is a physical computer, so it doesn’t require particularly wild speculation to believe that an intelligent lifeform could learn to build a computer that operates almost identically to it.

You might ask, “how would we know this theoretical computer is truly self aware and that it’s not just so advanced it can make humans think its self aware by appearing so much to be self aware?” My answer would be that you could make the same argument about any human being. I would go even further and say that the self awareness we humans experience is an illusion; that illusion is a component of anatman.

Twins share the same DNA. That’s not the same as literally sharing the same body, and the body, particularly the body’s brain, is what produces mental processes. Two bodies, even the bodies of identical twins, do not share identical stimuli, even when raised together. During a drive to the grocery store, a mother would seat her twins on opposite sides of the car. The twin sitting on the left side might see a freak incident in which a man gets assaulted on the sidewalk, and that twin might be traumatized by having seen this. Meanwhile, the twin on the right side will never have seen the assault and thus would never have been traumatized by it.

Also, even with the same DNA, there are still differences between bodies that can exist, so the hardware isn’t totally identical. Two craftsmen might use the same blueprint (like DNA) to build a table, but their tables still might come out with very slight differences.

I won’t respond to your comment about talents, as its relevance to this topic eludes me (probably due to my own thickness :slight_smile: )

Where does that “stream” exist, though?

Trying to answer this question reminds me of a question a math teacher I had in high school once posited. That question, paraphrased by myself, is this: If the universe ended tomorrow and all lifeforms in existence disappeared, would the rules of chess still exist? Maybe the “stream” of cravings exists in the same place as the rules of chess. As I see it, that place would be somewhere that one might call an intellectual plane of existence, an aether, or a collective unconscious. However, in my estimation, that aether itself is only an illusion: it seems like it must exist, but it’s only imagined, it’s only an illusion, just like the self. The aether is a useful concept for us to envision a metaphysical home for the ideas we construct, like how the self is a useful concept for us to envision a home for the thoughts, memories, cravings, etc that we perceive. But, if the aether is only an illusion, then craving is also an illusion, since it only exists subjectively. This is where Buddhist rebirth collapses for me: how can the craving of one human, which doesn’t really exist, magically impact the craving of an unrelated human somewhere else in the world? To me, because of this collapse in logic, the metaphorical interpretation of rebirth is the only one that makes sense.

As much as I enjoy discussing philosophy and metaphysics, this is the truth. What’s important is practice, in the end. That’s what produces the positive results that all Buddhists, including secular Buddhists, seek.

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Thanks for providing this historical context. It’s helpful for a materialist like myself to wrap my head around these concepts. Your first sentence here is also important to consider.

Your final sentence, however, is of the utmost importance. I suppose my ultimate view of Buddhism, and perhaps religion in general, is that it is, at the very least, it is a helpful tool that people can use to regulate the morality of their behavior (including by regulating one’s expectations of what they should or will receive from the world around them (including their physical body) and from other beings who also live in the world around them) in order to produce the most positive outcome for all sentient beings.

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