What is it that is reborn?

Buddhism argues that there is no permanent soul and that an individual person is just an ever-changing-interdependent-process-of-mind-and-matter. It would seem obvious then to say that the ever-changing-interdependent-process-of-mind-and-matter ends at death. In other words, when a person dies, that is the end.

But Buddhism insists that death is not the end and somehow a person continues on through rebirth either in this realm or one of the other numerous realms. That obviously begs the question, what it it that is it that is reborn?

I think this is a fascinating issue and I look forward to any replies.


Dear DaoYaoTao:

You just bought a ticket on a roller coaster ride… :grinning:


Mil 3.2.1
Mil 3.2.2

Some of the similes used there are a bit weird, and this is not the only possible scenarion how rebirth without a soul can be described, but it is a good starting point.


Ignorance ?

Yes, if you assume that a functioning physical body is the cause for that process that makes perfect sense.

If you assume something else is the cause for that process, then that conclusion may not follow :slight_smile:


Interesting and intriguing. What else could be the cause and could it survive the death of the body?

The interdependent process of mind and matter is the stage of Dependent Origination where designation stops (DN 15). My personal understanding (that is not binding for anyone) is that the higher DO chain links found in so many other Suttas, namely sankhara (as khamma and volition) and ignorance are too weird to be adequately described with our language, because you can’t really wrap your head around how you should describe kammic formation and ignorance could be adequately described if we knew the Four Noble Truth; I would say we have no direct knowledge of them, so description of ignorance is always an approximation for us. Since among the khandhas at least sankharas are not included in vinnana, namarupa, and all lower DO chain links, we can conclude that it is at least the sankharas, i.e. kamma, that are shared between different lifetimes.

Now, if the overwhelming majority of people don’t have any memories of their previous lifetimes and most of the khandhas making up a human being get disrupted at the end of a lifetime (how many precisely remain untouched is a matter of debate, even though I bet on the kammic formations shaped by ignorance), it means the relationship with our future or past lives are not really close. One can always say one doesn’t associate themselves with those lives because they will have no or little memories of this current life. In other words, one can say there is so little conveyed from this lifetime into, say, the hell realm, that one may just as well conceive their ego as annihilated at their next death. For Buddhists, this view inevitably leads to more suffering, even if in this lifetime this annihilist is a very lovely and ethical person, for the simple reason that this atheist will be reborn, i.e. another being will be born due to their actions and cravings in this very life. Anyway, for a non-Buddhist my sankhara-oriented interpretation or rebirth and some interpretations of Parinibbana are pretty close to the atheist doctrine of annihilation, fair enough. In fact, in AN 10.29 the Buddha specifically praised annihilationism as the foremost wrong view.

For the record, this is all conjectural on my part, even though I presume everyone would agree at kamma being preserved between lifetimes, and I think other users can and most probably will present different explanations :slight_smile:


Anything that has the body as a cause cannot survive that cause (the body) being destroyed.

Things that don’t have the body as a cause won’t be affected by the destruction of the body.

According to the early Buddhist texts (EBTs), a physical body is a result of this mind-body process, not a cause. It’s the opposite of materialism basically.

The causal sequence that produces existence and subjective experience is called dependent origination, and is a big deal in the EBTs.

But the point is really just that the assumptions we make about how reality works, decides if something like rebirth or karma makes sense or not.

Rebirth doesn’t make sense if subjective experience is created by the brain [because any process that depends on the brain must cease with the brain]. But with other assumption it does. I think there are other members of this forum who are more qualified than I to go into the details of those assumptions :slight_smile:

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The one thing you can be sure of is that future suffering is going to feel like it’s happening to you, because that suffering will come from that very delusion of ‘this is me’ :slight_smile:


i believe ignorance needs a carrier and in my opinion that would be the sankharas, which are also the agents of the kamma

how they do it, i have no idea


That’s one scenario you’ve described, purely physical mind surely ends with destruction of the body. But if mind is of non-physical origin, then how does it connect to physical body - neurons? We don’t know of any such a connection, yet.

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i think it’s both, the classical case of the hen and the egg, that’s why samsara is represented as a wheel

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The thing is it is pretty tricky to identify yourself as in some identical with this future suffering being. Even amnesiac patients have difficulty re-connecting with their previous lives and personalities, it would be even more difficult for different lifetimes. E.g., what do you have to say about suffering you experienced in your previous lifetime? I personally have nothing to say, because I have no memories about it whatsoever. This future being will likewise have no memories of me and will knoe no people I care about, so it may be difficult for me to regard its suffering as anything of importance for me personally. The ‘real me’ will end at the end of my life according to this viewpoint.

What is important is that this view is wrong because it leads to nothing but new suffering. Sure, it may not bee your suffering, but it still will be suffering. You may spend your whole life thinking like this without being confronted by similarly generated dukkha, but the chances are you will be. I think this is partly why the Right View is the first step of the Noble Eightfold Path: the Right View doesn’t merely help us realize there is rebirth and there is no soul, it means actually caring about our future lives despite there being no soul.

How do particles interact? There’s nothing physical there if we look real close, it’s basically empty space and relationships that we describe with math.

Physical/non-physical interaction isn’t really an issue if we take modern physics into account.

Yeah probably, I can’t claim to understand it deeply, it’s a different story than materialism though I feel I can say that with some confidence :sweat_smile:

Define physical :grin:

My point is that this is already the case. It’s already not our suffering right now, and yet it sucks.

At the very least, if someone doesn’t have a clear understanding about what the self is in the present, how can they make conjectures about what it will be in the future?

Hehe I think I’ll stop here before I send my poor mind into endless mental proliferation :stuck_out_tongue:

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Just a few observations on these issues:

  1. The same questions can be raised about personal identity within a given lifetime. If a human life is a complex system consisting of many, separate causally interacting factors, factors that are continually arising and ceasing over that person’s lifetime, then the explanation of what makes the 57-year old person I take myself to be today just a later stage of the same person who was a 27- year old three decades ago is a complex philosophical issue. For one thing, the material constituents of my body now are not the same material constituents that constituted that 27-year old body 30 years ago. Rather, there seems to be only something like an evolving “pattern” that has been preserved over time, with different material constituents being incorporated into that pattern, and being unincorporated from the pattern, over time. Even the preservation of the pattern isn’t perfect, since both the physical and mental features of the pattern itself continually evolve in time as part of the aging process and the contingencies of life events. But there does seem to be some kind of gradual continuity that is important.

  2. The fundamental philosophical issue doesn’t depend on whether the factors that constitute the long processes we call a “human existence” are all physical, or are in some other way purely mental. Bringing in some kind of purely mental, and non-physical, factors, elements or “stuff” doesn’t answer the question. We can still ask what it is that makes the thoughts, volitions, desires etc. that are arising in the 57-year old me just a later stage of the thoughts, volitions and desires that arose in the 27-year old, no matter what those factors are made of.

  3. So the general problem exists even when we are just considering the ordinary, everyday case of a single human lifetime. We have a psycho-physical process of some kind, generally fairly continuous in space and time, in which a succession of different things in some way go into the composition of a continuing system or pattern that we regard as one single lifetime. The additional special problems about rebirth seem have something to do with the fact that, if rebirth occurs, there are much longer, extended patterns in which different lifetimes of different living beings are in some sense to be regarded as different stages in the long perpetuation of some other kind of unified process, in which those shorter lifetimes are just stages. If I am “reborn” after I die, then presumably there will be some living being many years from now whose lifetime is causally connected with my current lifetime in some peculiarly close and special way, a way different from the ways in which other lifetimes that are taking place at that same time will be causally connected to my current lifetime.

  4. It doesn’t help much to say there is some non-physical mind that somehow floats free of the body at death and then “takes rebirth” somewhere in some physical embryo. Apart from the fact that this mental-physical joining up is utterly mysterious, it also just pushes the question back. Since the Buddha clearly seems to say that there is no single soul or substance that literally “transmigrates” from one body to another, and that minds are just as much a succession of different, but causally interrelated, constituent factors as are bodies, then we have to ask what makes it the case that the mental factors that take rebirth some decades from now are later stages in a single unified psychological process, extended through time, and causally dependent in some uniquely special way with an earlier human existence.

I have already given my own opinion several times that the Buddha’s teachings, when examined down to their deepest layers, are really about destroying the deep and pervasive illusion of, and sense of, a continuing ongoing self, and thereby ending the sufferings that come from the attachments, griefs and anxieties about the future that are connected with this illusion. At that point, one simply doesn’t care about which of these past and future life processes might or might not be earlier or later stages of “me”. One no longer has any desire for any particular future state of being, because one no longer sees any of those future states as a perpetuation of oneself. One doesn’t regard any cessation or passing away of any mental or physical factor as part of the death of oneself, and one doesn’t regard the arising of any new factor as part of the ongoing birth or rebirth of oneself, and so in that sense, one has passed beyond birth and death, and achieved the deathless.


I would love to learn more about your proposed non-physical/physical neoron’s interaction. Does this non-physical entity read the input, process it and return it to the body via neorons?

EDIT: Why is this interaction important issue when it comes to rebirth? If the thing responsible for rebirth is purely physical, then it cannot survive the death of the body. So it must be of non-physical (non organic, that is) origin in order to escape dying body. We are not aware of anything of that sorts being able to connect to the body.

I don’t think the dichotomy of the physical and non-physical is a useful framework for understanding the world, so I don’t know what I can do with that :sweat:

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Hi DaoYaoTao,

“Stupidity,” Ajahn Brahm once told … probably one of his jokes, but I liked his answer.

Your question seems to me quite similar to the questions answered by the Buddha in SN12.35.

With metta,