Understanding the terms rebirth / reincarnation / re-becoming

The term reincarnation is used, often interchangeably, with rebirth, even by Sangha. I can be convinced by arguments that this term reincarnation can be used but it needs to be explained within a Buddhist context or it is in danger of being confused with the Hindu notion of atman. It is also used by groups like the Rosicrucians, again implying the notion of an inherently permanent ‘self’ transmigrating.
My current position is that the term ‘re-becoming’ is much preferable (Pali: punabbhava). As a final observation, I would consider that we should use the Pali terms for this, and other, Buddhist concepts such as Dhamma, dhamma, kamma, etc., rather than attempt to apply the myriad English renderings any of which all too frequently fail to define the notions.


Hi Trevor,

Yes, these words are often used quite indiscriminately. None of these words in their own right implies a “soul,” as far as I can see, but of course it is usage that matters. You may be right that “reincarnation” is often used when a permanent self is understood to undergo the process, whereas “rebirth” is perhaps more neutral. But in the end it is the context that gives these words their distinct meaning.

As for punabbhava it really means “re-existence,” which is pretty much synonymous with rebirth.


Hi Brahmali,
thank you for your helpful reply. As you rightly suggest, context is important. It is energising to find a forum of discussion such as this and Suttacentral overall is a treasure.

This is an archaic rendering, which has lost favor among translators, and with good reason. First, it basically makes no sense in ordinary English. Second, it simply misrepresents how the Pali is used. Most obviously, bhava is a countable noun (e.g. bhavaṁ aṭṭhamaṁ, “an eighth bhava”), which shows that it cannot be rendered with “becoming”, but must use either “existence” or “life”.

More significant from a doctrinal point of view, bhavataṇhā is not the desire to continually be stuck in a process of “becoming”, of changing and becoming other. It is the desire to be reborn in a permanent state of eternal bliss.

Bhava typically refers to what we normally simply call “life”, in the sense of “future lives and past lives”. Punabhava should be rendered to make this meaning explicit, as it is frequently misrepresented by interpreters who simply don’t realize that this is what it means, in contexts such as the second noble truth. Yāyaṁ taṇhā ponobbhavikā means “the craving that leads to further lives” or “the craving that leads to future existence”, or something like that. Whatever the rendering that is chosen, this meaning must be clear and explicit, as it surely is in the Pali.


Than you, Ajahn. I had felt re-becoming was preferable principally because I’d felt reincarnation, so often used, was so easily confused with transmigration of a ‘self’. The term ‘rebirth’ still carries with it much potential confusion, carrying with it the notion of ‘I’ and ‘my’ rebirth, as in the hope of a favourable rebirth etc., but is widely used among most lay Buddhists, in my experience.

As I remarked in my initial enquiry, I think, at least at this point in my understanding, that with Pali words that are so hard to find a single English equivalent, like dhamma, for example which in the PED has several columns of translation, that perhaps we should simply use the Pali. A clear Pali term for what we call rebirth, once understood fully and comprehensively, would certainly satisfy my own need for clear comprehension of the notion without the use of an English term that has the potential to confuse and miss the point or simply fail to accurately convey the depth of the doctrine.

I personally find useful the expressions “further becoming” and “further states of being,” and in the case of taṇhā, “leading to further becoming,” “leading to further states of being.”

These expressions are being used quite a lot around here (Northern California) with native English speaker practitioners, and there does not seem to be a difficulty with either the language or getting the meaning. “Becoming,” as a process, as “life” is also a process, is being used easily and successfully as a noun.

Wishing the best of the Path to all,
with much gratitude for the resource Sutta Central is providing


I do appreciate these replies to my concerns about finding a translation that allows for a clear understanding and that does not lead to confusion. I look forward to many more discussions.
with metta

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I’ve heard “existence and re-existence” used by some Bhikkhus and I actually tend to prefer that these days as I feel it is a bit more understandable then becoming.

The issue with most of the Pali words is the need for extended explanation to people who are coming across the words and concepts for the first time, simply because the meanings can be wide open to interpretations as I’m finding in my studies these days.

In my own practice I’ve tended to choose and stick with translations that make the most sense to me, taking into consideration both the direct meanings of the words and the context from the suttas.

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Hi Ayya,

Lovely to see you here!

With all due deference to the cultural sensitivities of northern Californians, that would perhaps not be the greatest endorsement! Why? Because it’s all about eternalism, which is, so I’ve heard, quite popular in those circles …

It’s normal for insiders in a linguistic community to develop their own jargon. In religion, words evolve a Formal and Deep Meaning by Using Capitals and Deploying Individuated Precursor Verbalizations Cognizant of Inscrutability. In Pali, they call it gomaya. Not all jargon is gomaya, of course, but a lot of it is. Just saying, the mere fact that a term is used in a community doesn’t mean that it should be. In this case I would suggest that the term “becoming”, adopted from translations that are outdated, persists because it allows us to keep the same kinds of comforting illusions that the translators had. You say:

Is this really true? In secular Buddhist circles, it is quite normal to say that the four noble truths and dependent origination do not mention rebirth, and therefore that it could not be a central Buddhist teaching. But that idea falls apart as soon as you realize that taṇhā ponobbhavikā does not mean “The craving that makes for further becoming …” but “the craving that leads to rebirth”.

Allow me to develop these ideas a little further.

Looking over some of the past translators, I see that “becoming” has been used as far back as TW Rhys Davids in his Digha, and as recently as Walshe and Thanissaro. In the PTS Dictionary the entry on bhava begins:

becoming, (form of) rebirth, (state of) existence, a “life.”

So it’s clear what the word means, but not how “becoming” relates to that. No-one says, “In my next becoming I want to be rich!” You say, “In my next life I want to be rich.” If people are using “becoming” in Buddhist circles, I would wonder what they mean by it. Can you give me a sample sentence or two?

Based on my imperfect recollections, the use of “becoming” was based on an understanding of how the “is” words work in the Indic languages. It was argued that atthi has a connotation of “eternally and essentially exists”, while hoti means “comes to be, emerges, arrives at such a state”.

In the Upaniṣads, for example, we find tad tvam asi, not tad tvam bhavasi. A good example of the difference is in Brihadaranyaka 1.4.10:

ya evaṃ vedāhaṃ brahmāsmīti sa idaṃ sarvaṃ bhavati
One who knows that “I am Brahmā” becomes all this.

That is: your true, essential nature is always and eternally (asmi) that of the divine, but not until you actualize this knowledge do you “become” the cosmos, fully realizing the nature that you had all along.

This is well and good in the context of the Upaniṣads.

However, as is well known, many of the early translators—Caroline Rhys Davids being the most prominent example—aggressively read Upanishadic eternalism into the Pali texts, and deployed “becoming” as a term to distinguish temporal from eternal existence. That is, the Buddha said we should let go of “becoming”, of the ongoing process of change and evolution in samsara, in favor of an eternal existence in Nibbana. This is precisely the Upanishadic doctrine, except it uses nibbāna instead of brahman. Walshe puts it succinctly in his introduction to the Digha:

(Nibbana) does not exist (relatively), but IS.

The fact that Walshe has to use capital letters is a sure sign that gomaya is lurking nearby!

This usage is conventionally defended by quoting the famous Udana passage; but that simply says that a series of negations exist, and cannot sustain a metaphysical interpretation. In the suttas, while the purely linguistic connotations of hoti and atthi are felt to some extent, they carry no metaphysical burden.

If we return to meaning of bhava in doctrinal contexts, bhavataṇhā clearly cannot mean, “craving to be trapped in an ever-changing process of becoming something else”. It must mean, “craving to be born in a future state of existence”. By far the most common form of that is to be reborn in a state of permanent, eternal bliss.

The Buddha’s response is not that you need to aim for a more subtle form of eternal existence, but that all existence is becoming, i.e. all conditions are impermanent, and there is no such thing as eternal existence. To introduce the Upanishadic ontology is to open a door to eternalist interpretations. And I can’t see how it’s necessary, or solves any problems. I’ve been writing and teaching on early Buddhism for a long time now, and I’ve never felt a need to use this kind of terminology.


I would like to thank all venerables for these responses. My search, for years now, as an earnest (albeit struggling) layperson has been about finding words in our own language for this phenomenon we’re discussing that do not lead us along a path that confuses rebirth with a sense of ‘self’, and ‘eternalism’. How the notion of eternalism ever emerges is peculiar because the Buddha was surely at pains to emphasise this view is as erroneous as is nihilism.

If ‘rebirth’ is the more accessible and less likely to be open to the notion of ‘self’, rather than ‘re-becoming’, I can accept that. I remain of the view that the word ‘reincarnation’ should not be used for reasons I’ve already stated, although it persists in many Buddhist circles.

Words being used such as “re-birth/reincarnation/re-becoming” is just a selection of words to say that there is a “cycle of existence” that exist…the law if you like. It really doesn’t matter what words are used, what is important is the message itself. So there is no need to grasp at the words.

Even by understanding the words alone, it will not lead to the escape of samsara. The teaching is via the “middle way” between extremes…which leads to “release”…that which is wisdom…knowing!

After all, why hold on to “labels”?

Dear Bhante,

Well said!

“Craving to be {{trapped}} in an ever-changing process of becoming something else (meanwhile hoping to find myself/peace/lasting satisfaction in it, but somehow never finding it)” sounds exactly like what i understand bhavataṇhā to be all about. :neutral_face:

I see your reply was from quite a while ago, but has come to my inbox today due to some kind of interlinking conditional causation–something like ponobbhavitā–in the e-realm.

Wishing all that serene state of immutable peace & happiness -


“Craving to be {{trapped}} in an ever-changing process of becoming something else …” sounds exactly like what i understand bhavataṇhā to be all about.

But this is tantamount to saying that people crave for impermanence, which flies in the face of everything Buddhist. Or do you mean that people crave for a particular future state, and that this can be called “becoming” because it involves a process of change? In this case I would argue that the craving is not for “becoming” as such, but for the state one is hoping to achieve. And I would further argue that this is best expressed as craving for existence.


the question of context has been raised. To this I would another consideration. I recall the senior lecturer during my religious studies at UNE years ago reminding us that we can never avoid having to view (in the case of Christianity that she was discussing at the time) any philosophical/religious phenomena other than from the prism of our own time and place. It seems like stating the obvious but it was quite startling to me at the time. To the issue of translation, looking at translations of Pali texts from a century ago and comparing those with translations of today seems to reinforce the point. The early PTS translators, for example, could not avoid, in fairness, translating Pali texts other from the cultural context of their own time with all the Victorian value judgements that implies. We must do the same. It is in some ways a limiting process, inevitably. I have felt for some time that once concepts (jhana, for instance) are understood, forget clumsy translations like mental absorption.