Did the Buddha teach Traditional Reincarnation?

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

  1. Believed:  He actually believed some variant of traditional Hindu concept of reincarnation.
  2. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

42 responses to “Did the Buddha teach Traditional Reincarnation?

  1. Your diagram does capture the options I’ve seen discussed on this issue. The only thing I might add in is that a more consistant definition/translation/interpretation of “re-birth” would be “re-becoming”.

    And yes, I certainly do see your interest in this subject. Right now I’m reading a book on the Jataka tales, and I couldn’t care less if they are ‘true’ or not, because they are beautiful, wonderful tales. 😉

  2. Rich Griese

    There most likely was no historical Buddha.

  3. @ Adam
    Great. “re-becoming” is interesting English word option! What version of the Jataka tales are you reading? Your kid(s) are still too young for them, right? Is the version you are reading something kids would like?

    @ Rich
    Could you give me a link (not a long cut and paste, please) to something talking about the Buddha being non-historical? (don’t want to hijack this thread)

  4. Rich Griese

    @Sabio Lantz,

    Read “The Masks of God” by Joseph Campbell
    Book 2 “Oriental Mythology”, Chapter 5 Buddhist India.
    [Thx Rich, I added links etc…]

  5. @Sabio – Yes, I think he did teach rebirth, but like you point out, because the people of that time understood it and bought into it. So very much Upaya. However, I’ve also seen it as, since there is no abiding self, in each moment, everything is just a bit different, including ourselves and our thoughts. In each moment, it could be seen as a rebirth of sorts.

  6. @ Kyle

    Let me see if I can rephrase some version of what you said using the terms above and the diagram (for clarification purposes):

    A2) Some scripture record The Buddha teaching traditional reincarnation reincarnation but he did not believe it and only used it as Upaya.

    B1) So the Buddha did not actually teach traditional reincarnation to many of his disciples, but instead he taught a form of ‘rebirth’ that he felt was coherent his his view of no enduring self.

    Or do you just believe A2 and you grab B1 so you can still read the scriptures and feel OK about them?

  7. @Sabio

    No definitely A2. Even in the Dhammapada he uses Hindu metaphors throughout. It is quite obvious in the earliest sutra’s he was playing towards a Hindu crowd, but only as a means of explaining what he was getting at. Not even the most conservative traditionalists really believe when he talked about Indra and such that it wasn’t just a metaphor.

    It is merely my opinion that rebirth can be seen as metaphor for no abiding self, and the anicca in each moment. In every moment, we rebuild the illusion of self, and that even that illusion continues to change. Another way to see it is in fact the only that doesn’t change is the belief in the illusion of self. That is until one understands emptiness, and really sees nothing outside the skanhda compile self. But seeing anatta is more of a passing on or moving on, rather than a rebirth.

    Ok, now I’m just rambling. 🙂

  8. Anirudh Kumar Satsangi

    [ Hindu spam — deleted]
    [“reincarnation posts invites this stuff ! ;-)]

  9. Lovely and simple, though I would add two more options, the first of which being “Yes AND No”, based upon a teaching I heard by a Tibetan lama (not sure which school of Tibetan Buddhism, btw). He described reincarnation in the *Buddhist* sense as best illustrated by a wave passing through the ocean: a wave arises, it is comprised of a shared material/energy of “Ocean” but also has its own characteristics (shape, duration, etc). Literal? Traditional? er, sort of…

    The second option I’d offer would be the Zen option of “Not Yes, and Not No.” 😉

  10. @ mama p:
    The “Wave Analogy” is used both in Hinduism and Buddhism. I have heard it used to explain both traditional reincarnation and rebirth (no self). As with all analogies, their are highly malleable. But for the purposes of this discussion, I am going to stay away from contradictions as they allow all possibilities and thus no progress in the dialogue.

    As my post says, though, perhaps sometime he taught reincarnation to please those who believed in it, but he personally did not believe in it himself. That is a “Yes and No” without contradiction.

  11. Well it’s kind of an interesting question… but can it be answered? I see lot’s of opinions, but could you outline the criteria whereby you would make a distinction between the options, or a decision on which was the right one? What evidence are you assessing and by what criteria? The whole question seems to lack rigour.

    Given that Western debates have spurred the question, what kinds of evidence and criteria do you think might affect the debate amongst Western Buddhists?

  12. @ Jayarava

    I agree – it can’t be answered. But people march about as if it can. And people spin out implications for others on this issue. So, we can’t answer it, but …

    But as you say, if the belief (true or not) is used well perhaps we can ignore its “truth value”. I agree with that in part and illustrate it here and here in posts on using traditional reincarnation stories to help the mind.

    But, if the method of allowing and propagating such claims also comes with a burden beyond the known value, then the end result may be more complex than imagined. That is what I am exploring.

    Being a Dad and working full time, my “rigour” will always be very poor. Heck, without even those weak excuses, I doubt my quality would improve much. Doing the best I can. 🙂
    But if you have suggestions, they are always appreciated.

    For Western Buddhists, I see a humility and lack of attachment to the idea of rebirth as a fine option. Prescriptivists on either end may be a bit narrow.

  13. @Sabio
    I’m currently reading a new book titled “Endless Path” in which the author links 10 Jataka tales to the 10 paramitas. And yes, my kids are still too young for stories such as these but I will add them to the collection of tales along with some of Aesop’s fables that I’ve found.

    And yes, I think “re-becoming” is more in-line with what the Buddha taught, more so than reincarnation or rebirth, especially when taking into consideration the effect of present karma on the process of enlightenment (and the path leading to it). Karma as I understand it binds us to samsara, and it isn’t enough to merely create good karma, but we must work toward trancending karma so that the tie is severed and there is no more “becoming” or “re-becoming”.

  14. Thanx Adam — I added it to my Amazon list. I think I will try reading them to my kids. Have you read any other Jataka stories you think kids would enjoy (mine are 8 and 10 yo, so adult versions may be good too)? thanks for the title

  15. @Sabio – sorry for the late response. I’ve read a couple of other ones here and there, but sadly I don’t have any links or more info. I’ve seen quite a few on Amazon in the past though, and decent priced used ones.

  16. Pingback: Good Governance preached by Buddha « Dr Ko Ko Gyi’s Blog

  17. See the blog:
    titled, Buddhism does not need rebirth, which discusses the early Buddhist sermons and shows that there is no evidence for the use of the Brahminic concept of rebirth in them.

  18. As a Christian, Rebirth is a solely Spiritual Experience, and requires no striving.After Rebirth, one is required to Obey the teachings of God and Jesus Christ—which all told are very similar to the 8-fold Way—with elaboration and specifics—but failure to do so perfectly is not only going to be the reality of it all, but does not bar entrance to the Eternal, Perfect life.
    Reincarnation requries perfect behavior with one try or hundreds, which does not in any way mirror the obvious imperfection that we are all fated to reflect due to our Divine Construction. If God the Creator wanted all of Mankind to be Perfect, He would have made each and every one of us to be born Sinless. Only happened once.

  19. @ Caroline
    I hear no interaction with this post. All I hear is a sermon. If you respond, I will keep it, otherwise, I will delete this comment.

  20. I am with Kyle on the A2 interpretation. If you followed me around in my kindergarten and recorded my conversations with 5 year old kids who talk about their grampas in heaven, you might wrongly conclude, based on your recordings of these conversations, that I believe in heaven. My purpose is to listen and connect, and hopefully reassure the kids, not to teach them anything about my views. Upaya in action.

    Similarly when reading/studying the Nikayas, it’s valuable to consider to whom the Buddha is speaking.

  21. @ Dan Gurney
    If you followed me around the hospitals and clinics I work at, and saw how I speak to all the patients who hope for the Lord’s help during the times of their illnesses or sufferings, you’d swear I was a believer in a human-favoring deity too. I don’t know if I’d call it “Upaya” but I’d call it “thoughtful”.

    If the Buddha taught it or not, matters not to me, but how we use ideas does matter. I think we agree on that.

    Thanx for poppin’ in Dan !

  22. Pingback: As Atheist as I Want to Be ( 1 ) « Bobster’s House

  23. My belief of Buddha’s teachings are very simple – we tend to make mountains out of molehills. Buddha want us to end our suffering and by this not to be reborn. What happens to you when you die is simple too! the material elements go back to whence they came from and you, or whatever you call your consciousness/soul, falls like a tear drop back into the ocean of the universal consciousness. They is no me, no self, just the one!

  24. Bodhi

    As mentioned in my blog:
    life is a continual process of mental and bodily states (nama and roopa) which form, grow, decay and die. This is the process of rebirth that is essential to the account given in the first four sermons. It need not be
    extended beyond `physical death’.
    The Brahminic or traditional re-birth (or re-incarnation) model can be added on by those who believe it. Then they have to assume some soul or consciousness which maintains its identity from one `birth’ to another. W ether you believe in that is merely your ontological problem – Buddhism of the early sermons does not need such a doctrine as I have explained in my blog.

  25. Buddhism is better off without rebirth beyond physical death.

  26. Oh, Robert, but I don’t believe in “fall[ing] like a tear drop back into the ocean of the universal consciousness”.
    But if that is similar to falling out of consciousness and rotting and decaying like every other organic organism, then we agree there too.

  27. Excellent! but I must remind you that we still feel in our little world the beginning of this universe; likewise, we are made up of many different materials and the majority of the action that takes place in the body is electrical. And those signals, or that created message, lives on once you once you take a dirt-nap…. now, the question is: Is there any relationship between the existing electrical waves you created when you were body and flesh and your consciousness?

  28. Before anyone give the answer of reincarnation, let me ask you:
    What do you think? How and why have you got your mind-set that particularly makes that you feel really YOU? Because we feel really it’s me not the thinkings of others. Who made your mind? How is it possible we feel our mind that works our life?

  29. Hmmm, “bhutan”, seems you are just trolling for reincarnation posts but not really interacting with the. Just like positing God as the creator solves no problem, so your pet “reincarnation” does not solve the questions you posit. Next time, try interacting with the post instead of just pasting mindlessly — use your reincarnated mind! 🙂

  30. Dear sabio,
    I was just beginning to learn by asking question. I try my best to use my reincarnated mind to allow the full volume of wisdom in learning the true fact of life from all of you.
    I asked question casually but it actually relates to what the reincarnation should have the root of all nature which the spirits are believing in its true philosophy.
    In my opinion yes Buddha should have taught about rebirth/reincarnation. Since he is so practical in life, he must have thought, taking an example of cloud, where it can turn to rain, snow, ice and finally melts to water and again vaporise to form white cloud. Our human being’s spirits are like cloud, one is born, getting old, then dying and finally reborn. Our mind never dies just like cloud and it only change bodily forms at different times and seasons.

  31. OK, Bhutan, I understand your opinion. We differ. Thank you for visiting.

  32. Paul

    This is 3 years old but I had some thoughts about this matter. Anyone listening at this juncture?

  33. I am always listening here, Paul.

  34. Dorji Wongchu

    Found this when looking into thoughts on reincarnation – and the Gautama Buddha’s original teachings thereon – after reading about the continuing controversy regarding the 17th Karmapa: two reincarnations, each apparently discovered, “enthroned” and currently recognized by various Karma Kagyu tradition masters, Rinpoches, and monasteries. Their various means of discovery/recognition include the child’s recollection of deceased associates and teachers, as well as being able to select past personal items from an assorted collection. In the Kagyu tradition, self-recognition can also occur. Now, what the Buddha did teach, according to Nargarjuna, Chandrakirti (Indoduction to the Middle Way) and Tsongkapa (The Harmony of Emptiness and Dependent Arising), is the nature of emptiness. Emptiness includes empty of self. The self, along with everything around the self, has no inherent existence. The realization of such emptiness leads to liberation from the suffering, or dukha, of samsara – or continuous circles and cycles of clinging and rejecting, which are always related to clinging to the concept of a permanent self, without which one feels completely lost. So, the query is, if the self is non-existent, how can it be reborn, re-incarnated? Recycled, perhaps? Re-imaged? Any thoughts?

  35. Hung Dang

    Without the teaching of rebirth the universal law of Karma is broken. There is no point in arguing about this topic. The only way to proof this is when we die. After you body dies and you still have consciousness and aware of your surrounding then you will know that there’s no end to the cycle of birth and death. Buddha Shows us the way to end that cycle and through believing in Amida Buddha, be mindful of him and to vow to be reborn to his Pureland will you be free from rebirth. Remember, Buddha doesn’t not utter a single word that is not true, even when he uses parable it is based on truth because there is no word to describe what he want to say.
    Namo Amida Buddha.

  36. We understand, Hung — you are a believer. You must realize though, that every dogmatic believer in every faith talks just like you:
    “Everything my teacher says is true”
    “When you die, you will find out that what my teacher says is true.”
    “There is no point in arguing [reasoning]”
    “God/Buddha Bless you !”

  37. Hung Dang

    @ sabio: sorry that you feel that way and must think I’m a religious fanatic. Unfortunate I’m not and would wish I have more will power to devote myself but life is just too distracting. Buddhism is not about blind faith, you have to practice and experience for yourself to know what Buddha taught was true. Many recorded historic events and even to modern day said that many people knew in advance their day of death (rebirth to Pureland) and shows signs after death. I believe because I was involved and seen that what Buddha and the old masters taught about Amida Buddha was true.

  38. Hung Dang

    everyone have their opinion and believe, but If there’s no rebirth or migration of the consciousness then there’s no purpose of practicing at all because there’s nothing after death. And the question still remains: where do we go after death? Also the concept of rebirth, to me are in line with science and conservation of energy.
    Our body is full of energy, when we die where does all that energy go? Here is an comprehensive article regarding rebirth. It’s very long but worth a look if you’re interested in rebirth. Just keep an open mind.

  39. You are right, Hung Dang
    If “practice” is merely for the purpose of escaping rebirth (or heaven, or some afterlife goal) and there is no afterlife, then such a practice is silly.
    Well, unless that practice offers all sorts of other benefits.
    Like the satisfaction that you are doing the right thing.

  40. Hung Dang

    All of Buddha’s teaching is about ending suffering. The cycle of samsara is the worse of suffering because sentient being are drowning/burning and they don’t even know it. Practicing Buddhism is not about escaping samsara for your own pleasure, because once you have been free from samsara that’s when you have the means to help all sentient beings. If you can’t swim don’t try to rescue a drowning person, both will end in death. All of Buddha’s path will lead to Amida Pureland, it’s Just a matter of time before we all reach our destination. Buddha already given us the quickest way out of samsara, why not open up your heart and give it a try. Buddha already poured out his heart and even all Buddha in the ten directions gave their praises in the Sutra on The Buddha of Infinite Life. You must be a well learned person, why not take some time and read through the Sutra on Amida and Buddha of Infinite Life and experience the utmost compassion and sincerity of Sakyamuni Buddha prompting many time to his students to believe and take vow to be reborn to Amida’s Pureland.
    Namo Amida Buddha

  41. Paul Lanzon

    The Pali scriptures were not written by Buddha just as the Christian Gospels were not written by Jesus. Some or most of the scribes would have had a strong belief in rebirth and therefore would be keen to make it look as if Buddha shared their view and so they took every opportunity to make Buddha endorse it on numerous occasions. Even if rebirth were an irrefutable fact, it is doubtful the Buddha would have put any emphasis on it, It would be so easy for those who wrote the suttas to insert their own views when they thought it necessary. However, the Buddha’s essential message is there in the suttas, and it shines out despite any unnecessary accretions. I believe that Buddha’s most devoted followers would have memorized the teachings and passed them on to the next generation, and that much note-taking took place over the generations, until some kind of syndicate eventually got together and put all the material into a more organized form. However,I may be completely mistaken.

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