Workshop 1: Mythbusting—Buddhist Library video 5 of 5


Hi Sujato, during this Workshop I think that you mentioned somewhere that humans, usually, are reborn in the human realm. Also I think that e.g. in your Blog on Paul Williams you mentioned something similar. I have come across several Suttas talking about human rebirth, but I have now also come across the Five destinations repetition series in the Saccasamyutta at the very end of SN (SN 56.102 to SN 56.131). These say that only an infinitesimal fraction of humans will be reborn in the human realm. The rest will be reborn as animals, ghosts or in the hell realms. These Suttas in a sense can be inspiring as they make us really value our present life and encourage us to make the most of it, but at the same time they can be quite scary.
So my question is: how are we to reconcile these two apparently contradictory descriptions of where we are reborn after death?
Also, in these Suttas it is said that people are reborn in lower realms because they have not ‘seen’ the Four Noble Truths. Does seeing the Four Noble Truths mean becoming Stream Enterers? Or simply seeing that the Four Noble Truths make sense and trying to follow the Eightfold Path?


I’ve read some (obviously very rough) estimates that the human population of the Earth around the time of the Buddha was 100 million. So there’s definately about 50-100 times more wombs around to enter. :slight_smile:

Also, I think human lives have become a lot less brutal during the last 2500 years, so that might have something to do with it. Most (none, in this forum hopefully) of us don’t even kill our own food, not to mention sacrificing other humans or animals to a deity, fighting in wars etc.

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Venerable Sujato, could you please elaborate a bit on myth no 10. You ran over it very quickly in the dhammanet video, and I still haven’t had the chance to catch the second half of the workshop with Ajahn Brahmali.

A friend of mine recently asked me about the Buddha’s position on the time of the stream of conciousness entering the womb and the best I could tell him is that it happens somewhere between the fertilization of the egg and birth. I also remembered a case in the suttas where the Buddha counted the 6 months a man had spent in the womb so he’d be of a legal age to ordain, but later started to think that he arrived at this number because that’s the amount of time the man was missing. Is it your learned oppinion that nothing happens to the cells without the gandhabba present or that some sort of a rudimentary nervous system has to be in place in order for it to enter?


This is discussed in some more detail in the BSWA w/shop. It’s a big question, which I have addressed in numerous places, but I’ll attempt a few answers here.

Okay, first I’d rather not talk in terms of the gandhabba: this is a dubious term, adopted in one passage from a brahmanical idea, and is not really very Buddhist. So let’s speak of consciousness.

Consciousness is of course complex, conditioned, and ever-changing. It’s difficult to generalize about how processes of consciousness work even when looking directly at your own mind, how much more so when thinking of something like the time of conception?

One thing we do know, however, is that consciousness operates on a very wide spectrum. There are many different kinds of consciousness, some of which you and I can experience every day, others developed in meditation, and still others found in the animal and (possibly) other realms.

So when we speak of consciousness involved in conception, it doesn’t mean a thinking, waking, self-aware consciousness like you or I have. It may be very rudimentary; and we simply do not know how far down the chain of life consciousness goes.

These days i tend to think of conception as a process involving the gradual engagement of consciousness. Consciousness doesn’t just move as a single entity from one body to another; it shifts attention and attachments, and bit by bit, in variable and unpredictable ways, it shifts its primary locus.

What is the underlying mechanism? We don’t know, any more than physicists know the underlying mechanism of gravity. But we can measure the effects of consciousness, just as we measure the effects of gravity. There certainly does seem to be the presence of some form of consciousness in the womb at a fairly early time, while cannot be explained by genetics + environment (I am thinking of studies done on identical twins in utero).

Rather than thinking of conscious as being present or not present, I prefer to think of it as moving house. It’s a long, slow, uncertain process, and it’s not really possible to define exactly when is the moment when one has “moved house”. But there’s no doubt the moving takes place.


I got interested in meditation and subsequently buddhism after a period of experimenting with psychedelic mushrooms (not promoting, just stating a fact). While I’ve given up all mind altering substances now, there was a period of crossover when I meditated on shrooms every couple of months.

At one time, I noticed that my conciousness wasn’t localized at all, but kept popping out all over the place - one moment I was me in my bed, the next moment I was my sister’s new puppy sleeping peacefully in another house, the next moment I was the feeling of joy - it was very hard to make sense of it all, but a common theme was, that a sense of Self, I guess, was always present. I perceived the experience as not thinking about those things but actually becoming those things.

That whole experience got me wondering wether I’m really in my body at all, or if that’s just a mistaken perception I’ve got attached to, because that has been my usual vantage point in the world. So I guess that could correlate with what you were saying about the stream of conciousness gradually attaching to a certain location.

Anyway, thank you very much for your explanation and may you be at ease in all your endeavours.


I think that drug experiences often work by dropping or weakening barriers in the brain, which correspond with the normal categories of thought and ideation. Our experience is normally channeled and organized according to what has worked in the past, which is functional, but not very creative. So drugs can erase some of these boundaries for a time, hence the kinds of experiences you describe. The problem is, those boundaries are actually useful for the 99% of the time when you do need to function.

Meditation, I think, is similar in that it allows us to transcend the barriers in the mind; but it does so in a natural and organic way, by evolution beyond them, not simply by erasing them. So there is normally no problem returning to a normal functional state. (I say “normally”, because, especially when starting, it often takes a period of time to readjust from an intense meditation experience back into normal life.)


I totally agree. At best, drugs can be a way of opening your eyes to new possibilities, but they also have a lot of drawbacks, so daily (sober) meditation is definitely the way to go.

But since I already brought up the subject, I’d like to share one other interesting observation, that might also tie in with kamma and rebirth. Just a few years ago I was a capitalistically minded atheist with a bachelors degree in engineering. I was a control freak and felt intellectually superior to most people. I had my own small business that was becoming pretty successful, I had lots of free time but I wasn’t happy and got more and more depressed.

I drank alcohol and smoked weed pretty regularly and after experimenting with harder drugs I settled on shrooms as something more natural. I soon realized that it was much more interesting to turn my attention inwards while under the influence and while I didn’t know anything about meditation, things kinda happened all by themselves when I closed my eyes and lied still.

Soon after, I had a few “visions” about being an animal. In the first one, I was a rat - I know because there was another rat walking in front of me in a dark tight space and when it looked back at me, it felt like it was lovingly checking if I was still there. The second vision was just of me moving through grass, a couple of centimeters off the ground. While it was very interesting, I didn’t think much of it.

After that, I started to get interested in meditation and my very first google search led me to Ajahn Brahm. After a couple of talks, I realized that buddhism is exactly what I’ve been looking for and I got into it pretty hard. So about a year later, after hundreds of hours of brainwashing by Ajahn Brahm, reading the suttas, meditating daily and working on my virtue, I had another vision while tripping with some close friends.

I saw a square covered with old stone tiles on top of a hill. For some reason they looked like the ruins of an old Greek temple maybe with several broken columns to the left of me. At first I thought “the camera” was moving to the center of the square, but when it got there, I realized that I was the camera. When I reached the center, I either turned into a stone pillar or solidified on top of one and started radiating bright white light in every direction. The whole experience lasted for a few seconds but I remember feeling: “Aaaaahhhh…I’m never going to have to move again…”

So, long story short, I’ve started to think these may have been glimpses of previous lives, or at least indicators of states of rebirth my habitual kamma was geared towards.

Ok, I think that’s enough of drug related talk and sorry if this is totally the wrong place for this.


Hi Raivo sorry about the delay, I am taking the week off, partly to meditate :smile: so i don t have a regular connection. I am not sure that your first argument helps, since if there are 50-100 times more wombs to enter, there are also 50-100 times people dying and being reborn, so the ratio does not change much…
Concerning the second argument it s hard to say, because at the same time there were many more spiritually advanced people too than today I think. I remember Ajahn Chah likening them to balloons ready to burst when they heard the word of the Buddha. Also say in Greece that was the time, culturally speaking, of the Greek miracle. I remember the first time i had a deep meditation my mind was filled with light and the only experience that I recalled afterwards that remotely echoed it was experiencing some great ancient Greek art from 6th-5th century bc. So I tend to think that in the time of the Buddha people were much more advanced than us spiritually speaking, though you are right that there was also a lot of brutality

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Hi Stef!

My first point was really more of a sidenote than an argument. Since we have no idea how many beings are out there, roaming Samsara, there’s no way to tell if even a thousandfold increase in the human population would have any significant effect on the overall picture. All we really can say, is that there is a little more capacity in the human realm and a lot less capacity in the “higher” animal realm (deforestation, overfishing and polluting the ocean) on our planet.

But anyway, I don’t remember the Buddha ever saying the amount of humans played any role, so it all has to come down to our conduct. In at least one talk, Ajahn Brahmali mentioned that the prerequisite for being born as a human was keeping the five precepts. Perhaps a better way to phrase it, would be that our habitual kamma has to be in line with these principles.

While people have become more humane in the last 2500 years, I don’t think the change has been dramatic enough to say most humans get reborn as humans. I actually think the opposite is still true. I don’t have time to rewatch the video right now, but perhaps Bhante Sujato was only talking about how habitual kamma plays the biggest role in the rebirth process. I guess he’ll have to comment on it himself…

With metta,

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Dear Bhante

Re: Myth 11 and in light of what was said in the video…

It would seem there is a link between the spreading of loving kindness and directing merit. Especially since, as I understand it, “merit” refers to our “happiness”. Actually, perhaps, I shouldn’t restrict myself to just mentioning metta, but include all 4 Brahma Viharas in this.

Perhaps it depends upon how open a being is to receiving such energy? For instance, my cat is highly open to kindness and insists upon climbing me and licking me and purring loudly if I start sending her loving energy.

Though perhaps it’s not about being open so much as it is about not being closed. For if one just is, one might still notice loving energy and then make a choice to enjoy it and focus on it more. But if one is actively closed to it, then there’s less chance one can enjoy it, even if one does grudgingly note it. For instance, if a couple have an arguement…and one trys to be reconciliatory but the other isn’t ready for this yet, the latter may remain closed to any attempts by the former to send him/her kindness!


Hi Kay,
just read you message and I find what you say about your cat really interesting. Does that mean that she has a faculty of directly sensing when you send her loving kindness? And that this is definitely not due to your external behaviour or visible expression when you do that (so that she would actually see external, visible signs and interpret them as loving kindness) but that she directly senses your ‘energy’? (ie to make an example, if you are sitting and meditating in another room, if you do breath meditation she does not do anything, but if you do loving kindness towards her she comes into the room and climb on you and shows you the signs of affection that you describe?)


Hi Stef

Thanks for your response. Okay…shall try and answer as best I can :smiley_cat: :slight_smile:

Hmm…don’t know if she has a faculty for directly sensing loving kindness as such. I just assume she’s loves love and kindness and affection like, well, I assume all beings do. And she notices it.

(I see her with her brother and sometimes, they just look at each other in a certain way and then give each other a wide berth…bless them but they’re rather territorial and can be rather grumpy with each other. So they do use body language and the like to communicate with each other.)

It’s possible she picks up external (and perhaps subtle) body language that I’m unaware of expressing. Most of their language with each other seems to be body language and certainly, we are, after having lived with them for a long time, able to work out their moods and usually even requests, from their body language. (We’ve certainly worked out what particular sounds mean now!)

However, in the instances I’ve described in my previous post, I believe she picks up on the energy. As generally, I will sit quite still and just think, “love, love, love” and be “sending it her way”. Usually she’s in the room and makes a bee line for me and usually she begins purring very very loudly and insists upon getting as close to me as possible! Not always comfortable as she’s not the lightest kitty cat in the world!

Sometimes, I’m holding her and looking at her and I’ll do this either in my head or out loud and her entire mood will shift to one that is totally affectionate.

I remember the first time i tried this with a cat was at my first longish retreat and there was this grumpy grey cat that was sitting nearby and was basically rudely ignoring me. Cat lovers will know exactly what I mean! Anyway, after about 15-20 minutes, she wouldn’t leave me alone. Kept nuzzling and rubbing her sides on me repeatedly and from memory, became a little vocal too. It was a real revelation to me, that episode. I can say I was sitting quietly on some steps, not moving and not looking at her.

Hope this helps. Best wishes.


I’ve just remembered something else…

My other cat will, more often than not, come up and want to interact with me, the minute I start getting really really peaceful in meditation. Which is why, I rarely sit with a cat in the room! But occasionally - and foolishly! - I’ve sat down in front of a youtube meditation session and the cat looks as if he’s fast asleep…so I think I’m safe and I don’t want to wake him up either…well…I end up having to decide whether to keep meditating and just ignore his ever insistent nudgings or simply give up! I was usually just doing letting go or breath in those cases…I think…he felt the peace and felt very safe and that made him feel really good…I think he was able to work out where in the room that was coming from and so came to me. Perhaps in a similar way to how we know where a light or a sense of heat is emanating from?

I should also clarify, that I wasn’t doing formal metta meditation with the cat I was talking of before. I was just playing around and having a bit of fun and mainly, just feeling a lot of love and care for this dear animal friend. Reflecting further, I think it’s as simple as noting how sensitive we can be to a genuine, warm, smile directed our way…in terms of sensitivity to metta.

Thanks for your question and best wishes.

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Hi Kay,
thanks so much for having taken the time to recount all this, which is really fascinating! :slight_smile:
With metta


Dear Stef, dear all,

just in case you are interested, here a related topic. Some time ago, I came across some research that had been done at Princeton University. They studied the effect of intention on the probability distribution of random processes in the PEAR project (Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research).

They produced some amazing results, but the results were not generally accepted in the scientific community. Just look at the video and maybe read the intro of the most recent review article that was written just before the project was shutdown after 28 years. If they use all their results, the cummulatice likelihood that the observed behavior is just chance is about one in a trillion. (On comparison the likelihood of chance of seeing an energetic maximum at 126 GeV in the LHC of one in a million was enough for the Physics community to proclaim the Higgs particle was found.) Also, on a wikipedia site to the project you find critical voices and links to critical articles. I wrote a short summary, which is still work in progress:

Research on Mind Matter Interaction by Princeton PEAR Project_v2.pdf (288.7 KB)

It is important that this is about random processes (not deterministic ones). Every random process involves some kind of unstable equilibrium, where a minimal force is needed to decide whether the process will go one direction or the other. Just imagine a ping pong ball perfectly balanced on the tip of a needle. The smallest air current, or the smallest vibration would push it one side or the other. Usually, in many trials these tiny influences cancel out and the process shows random behaviour. So, if even an untrained mind can exert a certain small force on material objects (telekinesis), then random processes are particularly amenable to study such phenomena.

I also bought an electronic Random Event Generator (REG) from Psyleron (a spin-off of the PEAR project), just to play with it. I did my own data analysis in Excel and the baseline experiments (running the device fresh as it came out of the box with minimal interaction) show that the device yields about the expected binomial distribution. However, when I focus on the trend of the random events on the screen or when I just focus strongly on the device the variation becomes significantly larger. I just did a few experiments so far, because I do not want to teach my mind to become a control freak. I do not want to develop a strong habit of meditating and controlling things afterwards. After all, the purpose of meditation to me is about a much more important goal. Also, I only want to do these experiments, when I feel confident that it will work today, to stay on a confident and positive learning curve.
Nevertheless, so far, I see that especially after meditation my mind influences the device to produce an output that has patterns which are completely different from anything I have recorded in the baseline sessions. At the moment, I would not say that I can reliably influence the direction of the trend (e.g. influence the trend to yield statistically more zeors or more ones than the 50% mean), but to some degree even that was possible.
Also here the mind seems to have to learn trial by trial to find a way to interact with the machine. My current guess is also, that the five hindrances have an effect on the degree of success. This point makes it particularly difficult to convince people of these experiments, who reject that this is possible at all (extreme doubt). For them the chance of success is nearly NIL and they will say that it is not reproducible and that you must have cheated… However, you cannot isolate the general state of the mind from this process - it would even be foolish to think that the mood of the mind or self-confidence would not play a role.

With much mettaa,

ADDED 2015-03-02

The document I had posted above “Research on Mind Matter Interaction by Princeton PEAR Project_v2.pdf” was really just a collection of some personal ideas and not meant for publication. Especially the part, where I try to assess the effort necessary to cause a change in output of the Random Event Generator (REG) compared to what is necessary to influence a microbalance is more the result of some brainstorming and by no means meant as an in depth analyzis. Some explanations / further thoughts on that:

  • When trying to measure a weight at the scale of the weight of an atom then thermal vibrations of the material of the balance, momentum transfer from any surrounding medium and energy exchange through radiation with the environment would have a significant influence (I guess). Since these influences usually have a random nature (e.g. velocity distribution of molecules in a gas) the result of the measurement would have a random nature. (I am not sure if it is theoretically possible to do a measurement at the scale of the weight of an atom and get a more or less constant measurement result - at least one would have to cool the whole device down close to absolute zero point, evacuate it and shield off any radiation.)

  • Since I have no detailed idea about the layout of the circuitry of the REG which I am using (I only know that semiconductors are involved. I think I read somewhere the design was based on Z-diods), it is not very promising to try to develop a detailed mechanistic model. It would be much simpler just to look at it in terms of an energy balance as a first go:

    Energy input by mind = Energy to make the signal change 

The idea is, that the mind adds a very small energetic contribution, which is just large enough to make an internal fluctuation that would usually result in a “0” yield a “1” instead. If the original fluctuation is just at the borderline, where just a tiny amount of additional energy leads to a “1” instead of a “0”, then the energetic contribution of the mind can be very small (the random process should have an unstable equilibrium at its core where a very small energetic contribution has a large effect on the outcome). There is also no need for the formula E = m*c^2 here. The energy of formation of an electron (from vacuum) is gigantic compared to the energy I have in mind.


Hi Robert, wow this looks fascinating. I will look at it in detail when I have a bit of time. And yes I can understand that other scientists did not take the work seriuosly. I remember when I did my PhD in physics at Cambridge there was a Professor who had got a Nobel prize for his PhD, so he obviously was quite brilliant, and he then became interested in investigating the effect of mind on matter (he is actually quoted in one of J Tucker’s books). I remember many people were ridiculing him, though I think partly because they thought that what he was doing was useless rather than false (this was Britain after the Thatcher years…). Anyway I look forward to reading all this! All the best, Stef


Hi Stef,
great to hear this is of interest to you and that you will have a look at it. Please do not forget that I am an engineer and not a physicist and that my little scribbled note is work in progress. Especially the part where I try to compare the effort necessary to influence a micro-scale (what some critics demand) to what is necessary to influence the electron distribution in a semiconductor (what seems to happen in an electronic REG) might give you a good laugh. I just tried to get an idea of the different orders of magnitudes involved (just for the sake of the argument that this is really not a fair comparison by the critics) and, yes, I know that in a semiconductor we are looking at charged particles in an electric field… If you can overlook these things, maybe, there is perhaps still something interesting in that note for you.

I would also be very interested to learn what you make of it all, once you had a look yourslef. :smile:

With much mettaa,


Great to see a physicist and an engineer discussing such matters! Are you familiar with the work of Rupert Sheldrake?

Here is an article he published on a semi- related topic, telepathic emails:

ISLIS_Vol32.pdf (4.0 MB)


Dear Bhante,

many thanks for the paper. I did not know about this work and it is indeed a closely related topic.

The Suttas seem to have the position, that “paranormal abilities” are not very reliable, unless one has developed them through deep meditation. I wonder why so many people, who never even meditated in their life, seem to have such abilities with a significant success rate. I do not think, that I would personally do well in such tests, but I am sure two friends of mine - two sisters - would score very highly (well, they are also both very devoted meditators).

Anyways, I will play a bit with this and next time I will try to guess who is calling, before I look at the display. :smile:

Thanks again and with much mettaa,