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Reflecting on Rebirth: An Understanding That Can Go Beyond Faith and Theory

I hope Peter and Ajahn Brahmali don’t mind…but I thought this little exchange too lovely to be left languishing at the end of a thread that is getting older and longer…

While I’m basing this OP in the words of others, I would like to set some ground rules. This is not a debate thread. This topic is for sharing. If you would like to share how this View impacts your life, your Practice or anything else, please feel free and safe to do so here.

With metta and appreciation for everyone’s tolerance and acceptance

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I think Ven. @brahmali touches on an important point:

I think there is a critical and prevalent issue with many peoples’ understanding of rebirth—even amongst Buddhists—which creates a number of problems. The common issue is that, in one form or another, and in varying degrees, rebirth is incorrectly equated to reincarnation. Even if not verbalized, it seems like there is some kind of underlying belief that you are reborn as yourself, or that “there is something after we die.”

This is particularly detrimental for a number of reasons. Contrary to someone who believes that there is nothing after we die, someone who misunderstands rebirth might waist the time that is available to him/her. Some with a similar understanding might actually be happy that there is rebirth—a bit as if rebirth is a way to live eternally.

However, all these are incorrect understandings of rebirth. Rebirth is merely the start of new life, with one’s kamma as the seed. We don’t keep our personalities, our knowledge, or our memories; there is only a start of a new life based on conditions that were brought forth from the previous life. If you were to view rebirth as a percentage, what goes from one life to the next probably approximates to only 1%.

Now, with a correct understanding of rebirth, it is possible to see that rebirth creates problems on two fronts. One being that since life is basically and intrinsically a potential for suffering, if one is to be reborn countless times, then you are to experience incessant and unbearable amounts of suffering. On the second front, if there were no rebirth and nothing after death, reaching Enlightenment wouldn’t be something we would need to be preoccupied with—it would be pointless, since simply waiting to die would be an escape from suffering (this being the reason why rebirth is such a central teaching in Buddhism). Due to rebirth, you can’t simply “wait it out”—and because of this, we have only two options available to us: to reach Nibbāna or to continually suffer from birth to birth in saṃsāra.

Either way, not much of who we are is reborn anyway, but who wants to learn how to walk and eat, grow old and die painful deaths countless times? :slight_smile:

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I did write what may have been the longest “comment” in history on the thread started by Ajahn Brahmali - the aim of which was to share my thoughts and experiences on this, so you might not think I had more to share! The thing is, once one accepts rebirth into one’s world view, one stops thinking about how it impacts one’s life, one’s just aware that it does; it’s just implicitly there in the background. So now that people have been asking this question (about how an acceptance of rebirth into one’s views impacts life/Practice), and having made myself attempt to answer it, I’m now finding more and more ways in which an acceptance of rebirth informs my life, my hopes and my imagination both for myself and other beings. So this question has been useful in clarifying and making things more explicit in my own mind.

I’m sure most of us are familiar with this saying: “You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” Often this is literally impossible and we need to call on our imagination or invite others to do so if we want to share our understandings on life, in effect, if we want to foster empathy between each other, if we want to open loving windows into each other’s lives. So that’s what this thread is about. An opportunity to help each other imagine how and why an acceptance of Rebirth can positively impact our lives and indeed, our planet.

I’m looking forward to the extra motivation to Practice after reading what may be shared here :slight_smile: . Thank you @samseva for kicking things off!


So here’s more from me!

Rebirth, it’s often been stated, impacts the depth of our virtue and the motivation to develop it. But what of those of high integrity who already have a highly developed sense of compassion?

Well, I suggest that, aside from whatever conditioning they experienced in this life, that they are also conditoned by their kamma from past lives. That they may have brought their inclination towards morality from what they cultivated in another life. I suggest, that perhaps, in their past life, they even believed in rebirth and cultivated virtue based on this belief!!

So using this assumption as a basis, I would like to play a little game of “let’s imagine”. Let’s imagine that a Buddhism without Rebirth gained popularity in the world. The current generation of highly moral, kind hearted people, faded away from this life and moved on to the next. As the generations pass, the notion of one life only, begins to sink into the Buddhist population more solidly, and with the passing of the older generations (who were unknowingly conditioned by their views/practices from past lives as well - even though they actively sought to make such notions seem redundant) their successors, growing up without the conditioning that the oldies had from past lives gone, increasingly start questioning their faith - why should they be quite so good? Maybe it’s best not to be quite so strict - after all, isn’t it all about “letting go”. Fast forward 1000 years, the teaching on rebirth is all but gone from the popular conscience - all over the world - and the teachings on morality have faded, Buddhism has become an intellectual past time for those who can be bothered pondering it’s teachings as a means of asserting their intelligence or their pessimistic outlooks. Meditation has become a pleasant tool used by the medical profession. Transformation is relegated to legend and story and toothless metaphor.

Coming back to now…

This is another reason why I think it’s important to share this radical notion that rebirth is important. Even if you want to argue with it (not on this thread…start your own! :slight_smile: :cherry_blossom:) those arguments will put something there into your mind/heart; so at the moment of death, regardless of your current view, this conditioning will be there - at least to some degree.

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For me, this is the crux of the matter: considering rebirth as probable really changed some of my priorities in life, because the consequences of such a notion are so great and terrifying.

When I was younger, I was referring to myself as an agnostic. I still am agnostic in a sense, because I don’t know if rebirth exists or not, I did not experience it for myself yet. But the big difference is that before, deep down, I did not believe in rebirth, devas, kamma etc… while now, deep down, I consider it as a real possibility. And it makes a huge difference to how I see life and what my priorities are.

What is being reborn exactly, how it works, the presence of a true self or not, I put it aside for now, apparently this is beyond our understanding, hence the endless debates about it. But the fact that it is stated that will experience the results of our actions and possibly remember past lives remains, and therefore considering rebirth as a real possibility is critical for me.

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Without Rebirth, the whole theme of Kamma can not exist.

Kamma is such a fundamental plank in Buddhism.

Rebirth also is the larger cycle within daily arising and passing of conditioned phenomena. Hence, it seems that without it, the entire notion of impermanence becomes shallow instead of deep.

That is the logic of it, from my perspective anyway.

Being raised within a traditional western view of the world, and being from a scientific background, I never believed in re-birth… it was too far removed from my experience, and also I had a very very very stereo-typical understanding of it. This stereo-type was basically that ones SELF was re-born. Which I then thought was ridiculous - unsupportable.

It was only when I came to understand non-self, that my mind was free enough to believe/know about rebirth. This more or less happened naturally, the more I implemented the N8FP in my life.

Now rebirth is part of my understanding of the way things truly are. It gives me a wonderful feeling of peace. I have no doubt, that cultivating ones mind continuously is what enables liberation from suffering. Even if only one small step towards that goal is achieved, then that is worth it. I know that if I continue to live/practice the Dhamma, then sooner or later the ultimate goal of Nibbanna will come to pass.

Rebirth takes the pressure off. I find it counteracts the craving and pursuit of spiritual attainments. Because it is a journey, and as long as I stay on the path I am moving forward - it will happen when it will happen.

I’m very content in this place, neither madly rejoicing at progress, nor despondent at set backs.

Anyway, that’s where I am at this time and place… All I know is that this too will change… :slight_smile:

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Just a reminder:

The OP is quite specific and assumes - quite openly - an acceptance of rebirth into one’s view. Please feel free to start your own thread and take this up there. Thank you DKervick.


EDIT: Thank you for deleting your post. :slight_smile: :pray:t6:

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These few lines make it clear that acceptance of rebirth, even though it seems to go against all conventional modes of thought is of paramount importance. When the entrenched views in our minds that have been accumulated over years and decades are shaken, it is natural to be disconcerted.

But, the purity of the Dhamma is like fresh mountain air in a world of polluted tempests that sway us. The main thing is to remember that holding the wrong end of the snake and become strident defenders of the Teaching, rather than develop internal composure, is just harmful. I have done my share of shrill argumentation and I regret all of that now. Maybe it was just a way to gain self-confidence when the raft was not proceeding smoothly, but it is foolish to think that renunciation is going to be a rosy path.

With rebirth, the menacing tone in suttas like Asivisa Sutta become clear. To me, that sutta is the most disturbing one that I have read so far. It paints a picture that is just extraordinarily bleak. But, I can relate to it deeply simply because nothing has gone right in my life so far. All the misfortunes, quarrels, diseases, loneliness, weariness, ache, vanity and the sheer exhaustion of getting through this world. How futile and pointless all the struggle in life looks like when we lose the innocence of childhood, the wantonness of youth and reach the age where discerning thought becomes a possibility.

Monks, there are these two conditions for the arising of right view. Which two? The voice of another and appropriate attention. These are the two conditions for the arising of right view.

I am grateful to Ven. Brahmali for being a voice that cuts through the doubt and confusion in my mind.

May beings find peace in their lives…

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For me the understanding of rebirth was a paradigm shift, but not in an intellectual way. It was more like a sudden change in perspective, like I saw the world in 3D for the first time. It wasn’t anything dramatic: it just happened. But over 20 years later I can still remember the exact time, day, and place where I was.

It’s such a unique thing it’s hard to describe. But it’s like I saw a bigger perspective for the first time. There was a sense of connection, of a larger meaning. It’s been with me for so long now, I guess I take it for granted.

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Hi Bhante @sujato

If at some point you would try and describe that which is hard, in greater detail, it would be interesting and possibly beneficial.

For me the understanding of rebirth was a paradigm shift, but not in an intellectual way.

This is something I can relate to much more readily than attempts to align/understand rebirth with prevailing systems of understanding.

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When I set out on the Buddhist path over 30 years ago the notion of rebirth was totally unfamiliar to me. What I decided straight away was to just leave it to one side until the understanding would become clearer to me and I could either accept or dismiss it. I didn’t know at the time that this is exactly the advise the Buddha gives.

As years went by the idea of rebirth became more and more plausible to me, much more plausible than just a materialistic or rather “annihilationist” view. And this went along with acquiring some understanding of non-self as well.

Listening to different talks by Ajahn @brahmali on the topic was very decisive in bringing my understanding to a deeper level. Many times I had my hair standing on end when listening to this kind of talks! But still it is a gradual process for me, and a sudden paradigm shift as mentioned by Bhante @sujato is maybe still to come…

What I feel is the deeper my understanding of this matter goes the more it fuels my determination for the practise - and if I look at that, actually, it feels as if it is only fairly on the surface! Even if the notion of rebirth is very important and indispensable for my outlook on life it still feels to me that it is rather shallow and has to deepen a lot!!

As always, very nice thread you’ve started, @Kay! :bird: :heartpulse:

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Dear Sujith,

Thanks so much for your heartfelt, honest comment. :pray:t6:

Also thank you for posting the link back to the older thread; I hadn’t realised that there was more to the conversation between Ajahn Brahmali and Peter!

I particularly liked these bits:

and @samseva’s very practical follow up question which led to:

My emphasis. This, for me, is the most important reason for having a more open attitude to the possibility of rebirth. In the most practical way, this is the most important way in which an openness to rebirth will impact a Buddhist’s Practice. It’s almost like an act of mental kamma - this openness and acceptance - which will eventually fruit in this most beautiful of ways.

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After much reflection and replying to many previous threads on rebirth, I thought it is time to share my experiences with rebirth. Though born into a ‘Buddhist’ family in Sri Lanka, I wasn’t necessarily prepared to accept rebirth. I heard many stories over the years about children recounting rebirth stories. I always kept open the possibility and never rejected the idea of rebirth as there seemed some anecdotal ‘evidence’ in the form of rebirth stories, which I couldn’t quite satisfactorily explain away.

Then later when I started meditating I remembering intentionally regressing back to when I was the age of a baby and feeling this big round body with baby fat, which I couldn’t quite control. I found that I could regress to the womb, and beyond… The last memory of what was my last birth was seeing my feet, pointing upwards, in a jungle. It was at an angle so it seemed that I was lying supine. It was entirely a visual experience. There was no body sensations. It later dawned on me that I might have been dying at that point. Regressing further I see ‘me’ as a Bhikkhu living in the forest in what felt was Sri Lanka- though I couldn’t be certain. I see myself as the most senior monk in what is a monastery teaching student monks. Before that I see myself as a layperson going to the forest shaving my hair and approaching a monk, requesting to be ordained. I also see myself as a monk, gazing into the sunset thinking mistakenly (turns out!), that I was an arahanth. Regressing further I can see myself as a man with wife and children possibly in Africa. It’s possible to keep cycling back like this, and it is really without beginning. Each life is different with some similarities. None of them are particularly glamorous, except perhaps the last one, from my perspective, now. My response to this is sadness (for having to keep going through them) and fear + samvega (for seeing the reality of this abyss-like samsaric cycle). It clearly sets out before me the work that is required. It’s not just a bit of happiness I’m trying to find. It’s the end of suffering. It also helps me to understand that what ever pain I have now, I have faced it in the past and whatever pleasure I seek I have experienced it in the past. Nothing is new - just forgotten. I guess even as a monk I had no real insight or true letting go. It’s of course very complex and haven’t processed it completely. I’m putting this out there just so someone might benefit. It’s been helpful to think about this experience, so thanks @Kay for starting this thread.

With metta

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I have had similar experiences to what you have shared mat. I had remembered being in the womb and birth. And also a death in a previous life. These experiences were during a meditation retreat many years ago.

I have also been with people who are/have entered the process of dying and just after death which were also very intense experience.

My feeling now are that everything I perceive myself to be an identify with will end at death. This view is founded on observation of my own body and mind. How they are so intertwined etc and interdependent. Also from seeing how the faculties fall away as death approaches. This however does not negate an openness to rebirth. Rather it means I have some idea of what it is not.

Hope this is not too confused :thinking:

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Looking back, I had inklings of rebirth based on some childhood experiences. Specifically, when I was a kid, mainly ages 4-8, I developed a unusual preoccupation with World War 1. This happened by seeing images in books in a library or classroom from the war. I immediately was fixated on it. Although a generally sensitive child, I had no problem seeing, and wanting to see images of trench warfare, explosions, gas attacks, no man’s land, etc. I had a strong fear of sudden popping sounds. All I can describe it as is a sense of familiarity or connection. Eventually that faded but I always chalked it up as a strange experience I couldn’t quite make heads or tails of.

As I began meditating, this re-emerged as a subject in the form of images and experiences which further outlined this memory with me as some kind of low level officer in World War 1. I recall being fanatically in favor of the war, finding it exciting and thrilling, even going so far as forcing people to fight who objected, even when the situation was clearly futile, but then eventually became remorseful of what I saw and did. On the upside, I did also rescue some people and save some lives and had a strong self-sacrificing tendency. I died years later, alone in a small bed.

I think when I came to understand rebirth as a truth, it was following a process, but the realization of that process was encapsulated in a single moment when I began to feel what is described as samvega. But when I say samvega, I do mean in the sense of terror-- being in a situation-- trapped-- that I wanted to get out of. The idea of doing “this” forever was frightening but also clarifying and transformative.

I wouldn’t say that I ever decided to believe in rebirth. I would say that experiences with meditation, and correlating of my life experiences showed me that it was true.

Thanks all for this interesting and meaningful thread. I enjoy the thought that we may have all crossed paths in the world before meeting again on SC :slight_smile:

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Dear @Mat,

Thank you for the extraordinary generosity, courage and vulnerability you have shown in sharing! :pray:t6: :pray:t6: :pray:t6:

With much metta :hibiscus: :heartpulse: :hibiscus:


No, not at all, it’s awesome (and not in the usual sense in which the word “awesome” is used these days). Thanks Peter!!! :pray:t6: :heartpulse: :pray:t6: :heartpulse: :pray:t6:


@dharmacorps…wow!..just WOW!!! Thanks so much for sharing this!!! :heartpulse: :pray:t6: :pray:t6: :hibiscus: :pray:t6: :pray:t6: :heartpulse:

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Beautifully put Yasoja :hibiscus:

I’m reminded of the Danda Sutta SN 15.9 and the similie of the stick. We can try and incline ourselves towards wholesomeness and try and weight the good kamma side of the stick, but when it’s thrown in the air, it can land on either end, or in the middle…


Yes, it doesn’t make sense to talk about, or make a big deal of, kamma without rebirth.

Thanks so much for sharing your perspective!! :pray:t6:


Much mudita :heartpulse: for being able to listen in person! This shows why it’s so important to hear such teachers in person. My favourite teachers are both long term monastic Practitioners and also scholars of Pali and the EBTs. :slight_smile:

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Thank you Kay, for starting this post. It is a refreshing approach to the topic and one I am glad to see happening :slightly_smiling_face:

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I’ve been reflecting on this lately and just wanted to pop back and say thanks!! What a brilliantly useful way of imagining you’ve shared. :hibiscus: :anjal: :hibiscus:

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My experience is similar. I didn’t just decide one day, “OK, now I believe in rebirth.” I didn’t weigh the merits of one view vs. another view. I didn’t debate with others about it. It just naturally developed on its own with practice and study. I can’t even point out exactly when I became firm about it except to say that it was some time after taking refuge and committing myself to understanding the Buddha’s teachings.

Quite likely, and more intimately at that. :wink:

At Savatthi. There the Blessed One said: "From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. A being who has not been your mother at one time in the past is not easy to find… A being who has not been your father… your brother… your sister… your son… your daughter at one time in the past is not easy to find.

"Why is that? From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. Long have you thus experienced stress, experienced pain, experienced loss, swelling the cemeteries — enough to become disenchanted with all fabricated things, enough to become dispassionate, enough to be released."
SN 15.14-19

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Which just points to another consequence of being open to rebirth. :slight_smile: It’s a useful reflection for developing karuna and metta. :slight_smile:

Thanks so much for this Mkoll! :hibiscus: :heartpulse: :hibiscus:


I am starting to see a clearer distinction between experiencing Rebirth as a Truth and using an open acceptance of Rebirth as a strategy or skillful means which can have an active and energising impact on our lives and Practice. I’m deeply grateful to you all for sharing your feelings, stories, journeys and personal experiences. :pray:t6: I hope you keep them coming. :hibiscus:

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