I’ve heard Culadasa’s teaching that because none of us are “selves” to begin with, there isn’t really rebirth. This teaching makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve also read Practical Dependent Origination by Buddhadassa Bhikku, who teaches that “rebirth” as described by the Buddha is actually the cycle of dependent origination which occurs hundreds or thousands of times in a single day.
However, the suttas don’t seem to always fall in line with these ideas. For example, I was just thinking about how a “Stream Entrant” is described as one with with “7 rebirths at the utmost.” If Buddhadassa was correct in his interpretation, wouldn’t that mean the advancement from Stream Entrant to Arahant would occur in less than a minute?
I haven’t read many suttas yet but they seem to be fraught with the idea of rebirth. It’s kind of frustrating to me because less than a year ago I was an atheist who knew nothing about Buddhism and would not be at all open to this kind of idea, and to some extent that continues to this day.
I’m wondering if anyone here can help me understand this or provide further reading material. Thank you!
This is not a simple thing to sort out, but let’s try. First, some background. In the time of the Buddha, almost everyone believed in a separate non-material Self, or Atta, or Atman, that was reincarnated after death. This endless cycle of re-birth, repeated suffering, and re-death was called Samsara, and the goal of most spiritual paths was to somehow escape this “wheel of suffering.” Then, as now, there were also some people who didn’t believe in endless reincarnation (or an eternal life in heaven or hell), but still believed there was a Self. This is because all people share this deep intuition of the reality of a Self. But this other group believed that the Self is annihilated at death, rather than being reincarnated.Buddha used these popular ideas of rebirth, Samsara, and release from Samsara to teach a much higher, more liberating, and attainable truth. More attainable in that, for reincarnationists, release from Samsara could only be achieved after death. But the Buddha taught liberation from suffering in this very life. This was a radically new idea.
Buddha also taught that it is foolish to ask what happens to the separate Self after death of the body, or to worry about whether the Self is annihilated, reincarnated to suffer all over again, or condemned to an eternal heaven or hell. Because there is no such thing as a separate Self, never was, never will be, and never could be, the very question of what happens to the Self after death is based on a fallacy, a misunderstanding, a false intuition. This teaching was even more radical than his teaching of liberation in this life. And, we might add, much more difficult to grasp. This intuition of being a separate Self that drives our illusions is very, very strong, and is associated with powerful emotions: fear of annihilation vs. dread at the prospect of endless suffering, and existential angst (Why do I exist? What is the meaning and purpose of life?). This intuition of a Self-nature is so strong that it easily trumps reason and rationality. The Buddha taught a systematic path to overcoming that false intuition, and all the other painful illusions it supports.
The belief in reincarnation was not only widespread in the Buddha’s day, but continues to be the dominant belief throughout Asia, right up to modern times. The truth of no-Self is not easy to understand, and so to this day, most lay Buddhists continue to believe in reincarnation. Traditionally, Buddhism has tolerated this widespread belief in reincarnation, just as the Buddha himself did, but at the same time always tries to guide people toward the truth by denying reincarnation and replacing it with the idea of rebirth. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu is particularly upfront about this. But Narada Thera, Walpola Rahula, and many others are examples of teachers who walk a thin line, pointing out that rebirth is not and cannot be reincarnation, but recognizing that many people are not going to be able to understand this difference without some degree of personal realization. But even Buddhist monks often fail to comprehend this most central not-Self teaching of the Buddha’s, so you’ll also find teachers who have obviously mistaken rebirth for reincarnation. This is a clear indication that their understanding is only doctrinal, not experiential. They have knowledge without realization.
What is reborn is not the illusory, separate Self you believe yourself to be. What gets reborn is ignorance, craving, and the suffering that ignorance and craving inevitably lead to. There is no abiding Self to be reincarnated, but ignorance and suffering are reborn every morning when you wake up, and in fact, every moment throughout the day, just as Buddhadasa says.
With complete Awakening (“Enlightenment”), there is a complete and permanent end to ignorance, craving, and suffering, and so these are never again reborn. In the moment of complete Awakening, there is an end to future rebirth. Then it can be said, “This was his last rebirth, he has been liberated from Samsara.” If you achieve complete Awakening on Tuesday, the Awakened being whose body gets out of bed on Wednesday will not be an instance of the rebirth of ignorance and craving. That being wakes up to the world, but the world he or she wakes up to is no longer Samsara. This, by the way, is why the Mahayana say that Samsara and Nirvana are not different.
But that is complete Awakening. There are also the stages of incomplete awakening. In the first of these stages, there is only a partial end to ignorance, and craving continues as before. Therefore, there is only a partial liberation from suffering. From time to time, the “partially Awakened” being temporarily “forgets” what has been realized, enough so that they are “reborn in Samsara,” descending once again into ignorance and suffering – but only for a little while. When the suffering becomes intense enough, they’ll “remember” the truth, and regain their (incompletely) liberated state. This can happen repeatedly, but not a huge number of times. That’s what the number seven represents: multiple rebirths in Samsara, but not some huge number. The Stream Enterer is reborn every morning, and indeed in every moment, but is far less often reborn into the depths of Samsara.
It may take months or even years to reach the next stage of Awakening. But with further realization, the next stage is eventually reached. Craving loses its power, and is fully recognized as the cause of suffering and the enemy of Awakening. The Once Returner intentionally returns to Samara one last time, to finally uproot craving for things of the world once an for all. But because craving is so much weaker, this return to Samsara doesn’t involve anything like the kind of suffering that characterized previous “rebirths.” And this isn’t a momentary rebirth, nor even the rebirth of a single day. This task of uprooting craving can take months or even years to complete. The metaphor of momentary or daily rebirth has served its purpose, and can now be abandoned.
Once the task of the Once Returner has been completed, there is no more craving for things of the world, there is no more return to Samsara. The Non-Returner to Samsara gets up in the morning to greet same world as before, but that world is now a Deva realm that he or she has been reborn into. There is still the conceit “I am,” the feeling of “I,” “me,” and “mine,” and the craving for “being,” but no longer any desire or aversion toward sense objects of any kind, nor any of the suffering that brings. From this Deva-like plane, the final work is done to achieve the complete and total Awakening, where there is no longer any intuitive sense of being a separate Self, no craving of any kind, but only the supreme bliss, wisdom, and compassion of Buddhahood.
I hope this serves to clarify somewhat the confusion around reincarnation and rebirth,. As for further reading, please see the recommended reading list on the Dharma Treasure website.