The Buddha's Answer on Someone's Rebirth Place

There are people (*) who say that the Buddha did not believe in rebirth. They claim the ‘evidence’ is that the Buddha mentioned rebirth only to lay people but never to his disciples. I think the reason these people are confused is that they don’t know the difference between mundane right view and supramundane/transcendent right view. (To those who understand the four noble truths and dependent co-arising, the Buddha did not even need to mention rebirth.)

If my memory is right, there were suttas in which someone dies and the disciples ask the Buddha where the person gets reborn and the Buddha gives them the answer. Does someone remember which suttas they were? I think such a sutta might help those (*) realize their confusion.

There are plenty of suttas with such theme:

MN 140
MN 145
MN 91
SN 55.3
SN 55.8, SN 55.9, SN 55.10

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Thank you very much!!! :smiling_face: :pray:

When people make such obviously wrong arguments, it’s usually not enough to just point out that it is wrong. Anyone familiar with the suttas would immediately know how silly that is. Yet to them it means something.

Underlying this is a clash of views. Typically it happens when people believe two things:

  • In a purely materialistic interpretation of modern science.
  • That the Buddha was enlightened.

If the Buddha taught rebirth, then in their eyes, this conflicts with the evidence of modern science, and forces the unpalatable inference that the Buddha was not enlightened. Reluctant to accept that, they then make various arguments against the idea the Buddha taught rebirth, all of which founder on the obvious fact that rebirth is literally everywhere in the early texts.

This is why it’s usually impossible to convince people who have made up their mind. Now, if someone is still exploring that’s different. But if they’re committed to the view, they’ll just shift their ground or cite some authority or whatever. This is no longer a rational and civil discussion that can have a useful outcome. The more they are challenged, the more defensive they’ll get and the less amenable to reason.

And driving all this is a fundamental craving: the fear of death. We all cope with this in our own ways, by reassuring ourselves that we understand and know what will happen. People sometimes argue that religions offer an idea of another world to stave off fear of death, as if believing in nothing was brave and real. But this misunderstands the psychology. Most religions, and certainly Buddhism, don’t present rebirth as an unalloyed comfort. On the contrary, the Buddha went to great lengths to make it appear as scary as hell. Literally!

The comfort comes from a sense of knowing. Knowing what comes next, or what does not come next. Having the idea that you are not facing an abyss of uncertainty. And so “knowing” there is no rebirth is just as much, or as little, of a comfort as “knowing” there is rebirth.

The crucial thing, I think, is to recognize that such views distort science just as much as they distort religion. Science cannot say whether there is rebirth or not, or whether everything can be reduced to matter. That is an inference, an interpretation, and it belongs to the philosophy of science rather than to science itself. There are plenty of scientists who believe in rebirth (or some other non-scientific views) and it is usually the non-scientists who insist on materialism. Scientists are well aware of the limits of their methods.

So how to proceed? Well, start by recognizing that when people insist on views that are contrary to the facts, it is not because they are stupid (I mean, they might be!), but because they have some sort of emotional or spiritual need, some lack. So begin with empathy. Listen to them. Acknowledge their views. Find a connection. Give them the space to relax and feel unthreatened. When they finish the conversation, no matter what they say they believe, what they will remember is the feeling they had. And if the feeling is one of compassion and understanding, their walls will start to melt.

Once I was part of a panel of religious leaders from several faiths; we did a Q&A at a school. One kid asked, “what happens after we die?” The priest said, “I don’t really know, but this is what my church teaches”. And the rabbi said the same, and the imam said the same, and the pastor said the same, and I said the same. When you have confidence in your heart, you don’t have to be defensive. And so the kids went away from that meeting knowing that a deep religious faith does not require you to be dogmatic about your beliefs.


It seems the term, samsara (rebirth), is not found in the early texts of the four noble truths/conditioned arising?

But only the meaning of rebirth is implied in the teachings of the four noble truths.

OMG. Dear Bhante Sujato, I cannot thank you enough for having created such a wonderful site like this and also for trying to give your answers to as many questions as possible. I deeply appreciate the time and effort people put here to inform one another. It is a prototytical act of pure mettā.

When I run into self-professed Buddhists who make arguments contradicting the EBT, I feel heart-broken in a way. So I tend to focus on letting them realize their contradictions. But I realize thanks to you that it may be as much clinging on my end as their clinging.

I will remember your advice.


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Hi Bhante, Thanks for the interesting observations.

Do you (or others) have any comment on what mindset drives the variation of the argument where rebirth is argued to be “mundane/tainted right view” and so is something only for puthujjanas, not ariyas? It’s not so clear to me that that argument is driven by a materialistic interpretation.

One can answer the question from many angles. Firstly you can just say that they have a wrong view.

Or you can just say that they are unwise not wise, muddleheaded and confused. For example they seem to recognise the distinction between ariya and puthujjana, but basic description of certain ariya, namely sotapanna contains information that he has to be born again at most seven times. One can hold certain wrong ideas, because he is not well informed - doesn’t known Suttas. But in the case of one who knows them and who holds views evidently contradictory to Suttas and doesn’t perceive the contradiction, lack of wisdom (I choose more polite negative description then the positive one: he is …) is a good explanation.

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TBH I’m not familiar with that argument. I’m sure there can be other drivers for views, I was only focusing on that case. It just seems, regardless of whether or not someone explicitly says so, the whole fact that the debate exists is because of the encounter between Buddhism and modernity.

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I think the basic (doctrinal) argument here is that mundane right view is clearly spelled out to include rebirth, while supermundane right view is more equated with anattā.

This kind of view tends to be espoused by American Vipassanā teachers who find teaching rebirth to Americans a “losing battle” anyway. So, if Vipassanā practice and Stream Entry only require anattā, then why bother trying to get people to mundane right view, when we can just “jump” straight to the supermundane?

Could you say a bit more about where this view comes from?

I’m not sure where it comes from, but you can see it implied on various Buddhist forums, including this one. This is a not particularly well thought out example.

karma - How is the doctrine of no-self compatible with reincarnation? - Buddhism Stack Exchange
‘Not-self’ is for enlightenment & reincarnation is a teaching to keep ordinary people (puthujjana) moral. These two teachings & their purpose are clearly delineated in MN 117, which states:

Right view, I tell you, is of two sorts: There is right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions [of becoming]; there is right view that is noble, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path.

In some cases such arguments refer to Ajahn Buddhadasa’s book Paticcasamuppada - Practical Dependent Origination and quote passages such as this:

When teaching morality, it is necessary to speak as if sentient beings existed, as if persons, selves, and even the Tathagata, existed. It is even necessary, in teaching morality, to go so far as to teach that people should make merit, so that when they die they will receive the results of that merit. But when teaching the ultimate truth, the Buddha spoke as if sentient beings, persons, even the Tathagata himself, did not exist. There are only those interdependent events which arise for a moment and then pass away. Each of those events is called paticca-samup-panna-dhamma (events which arise by reason of the law of conditionally) and are called Paticcasamuppada when they are connected together in a chain or string of events. There is no way to say “who” or “self” in any of those moments, even the present one, so there is no one born and no one to die and receive the results of past deeds (karma), as in the case of the theory of eternalism. Moreover, it is not a matter of dying and disappearing altogether, as in the theory of annihilationism (uccheda-dilthi), because there is no one to be annihilated after this moment. Being here now is Dependent Origination of the middle way of ultimate truth, and it goes together with the noble eightfold path—the middle way which can be used even in matters of morality.

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Thank you for those.

Certainly, except for the arahant with perfect right view, there is rebirth/subsequent existence.

I suppose that for noble ones such as stream enterers, etc that attain arahantship in that same life, it’s their final existence as well.

Yes, sure, but as I said, I sometimes come across a kind of “bypassing” argument on Internet forums that rebirth is a puthujjana view, so should be dropped.


Thank you for the clarification.

I guess I (or some one) got it backwards, thinking that there is rebirth because of a puthujjana’s views. :wink:

Yes, that’s my understanding - that a puthujjana has wrong view and so remains trapped. However, as I understand it, liberation doesn’t happen by simply deciding to have the right view of an arahant.

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