Many Buddhist scriptures have the Buddha telling reincarnation stories. Many English speaking Buddhists prefer the word “rebirth” to “reincarnation” because they contend that “reincarnation” implies a non-Buddhist notion of an enduring, unchanging entity like a soul or spirit. Thus instead of a soul, some Buddhists’ rebirth theories describe streams of consciousness playing a role in the newly born person.
But wow, does that subtle distinction really matter? In practical term, I don’t think so. Having observed many lay Buddhists in China, Nepal and Japan, I don’t think the majority of lay practitioners understand nor care about the distinction. (I could be wrong, of course.) Thus before exploring the subtle rebirth theories, I am interested in this post’s more general question — Did the Buddha actually teach traditional reincarnation?
Reincarnation seems to be a large controversy in “Western Buddhism” — I see it discussed on many blogs. Some contemporary Buddhists contend that rebirth or reincarnation in any form is nonsensical and serves as an unnecessary obstacle in spreading Buddhism. But many contemporary Buddhists feel some rebirth model is essential to Buddhism. Thus my academic interest.
The diagram above illustrates how I presently categorize the answer to the question of this post. The paragraphs below elaborate the diagram.
A) YES: The Buddha taught Traditional Reincarnation
- Believed: He actually believed some variant of traditional Hindu concept of reincarnation.
- Only as Expedient: He did not believe in traditional reincarnation but since his listeners were so bought into it, he used it as an expedient means (upaya) to convey much more important pragmatic practices.
B) NO: The Buddha did not Teach Literal Reincarnation
- Rebirth: The Buddha did not belief any traditional version of Hindu Reincarnation because he did not believe in an enduring, unchanging soul or spirit. The Pali scriptures are consistent on this issue.
- Later Addition: The scriptures, written down hundreds of years after the Buddha’s life, are a mix of his actual teachings and later additions. Literal reincarnation stories exist in the scriptures but they are not those of the Buddha but added later by editors.
Caveat: Let me note that these positions are by no means mutually exclusive given the wide variety of Buddhist scriptures and the length of time the Buddha taught. And of course it goes unspoken that we can never really know what the Buddha taught or if he really existed (though I suspect he did).
Question to Readers:
- Do you feel my diagram captures the options? Am I confused? How would you change the diagram?
- Can you understand why I find this interesting from an academic/anthropological perspective?