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Feb 27th
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Home Teachings Rebirth An Explanation of Rebirth

An Explanation of Rebirth

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Article Index
An Explanation of Rebirth
A Precious Human Rebirth
Rebirth is NOT Reincarnation
Debate of King Milinda
Putting an End to Rebirth
All Pages


What is Rebirth

Buddhists believe in life after death, and this is an important motivation for them to be careful about their actions, speech, and thoughts in this life. Whatever we do with intention is called kamma, which has impetus leading to results (vipāka). When people talk loosely about kamma in the sense of 'fate' they are referring to vipāka, which is the result of kamma, not kamma itself. To understand why and how rebirth takes place, we need to understand about the law of kamma. It is a natural law, not unlike Newton's third law of motion to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. However, the law of kamma operates in the realm of morality, ethics, and psychology, though results often affect the physical realm too.

In Buddhism no Almighty God decides the destiny of beings, but kamma is an almighty force. Nevertheless, it is an extreme, and wrong, view to believe that everything happens because of past kamma. Using the analogy of a plant, past kamma is just the seed, present kamma is like the effort of cultivating the plant. Sunlight, soil, fertiliser, water, pesticides, etc. are also vital to the plant's healthy growth. So past kamma is only responsible for about one sixteenth, the remainder is due to other causes.

The infinite variety of volitional actions (kammas) done by living beings divides them into high and low states: killing and cruelty result in short lives, kindness and compassion lengthen life. Stealing in this life results in poverty in future lives, but generosity leads to wealth. Honour and respect shown to others leads to positions of status and privilege, while disrespect results in the opposite. Jealousy leads to powerlessness, while appreciation of others' abilities leads to influence.

Not every kamma can give its result immediately, and its result is not a fixed quantity, since we can do other kammas afterwards that mitigate or enhance its potency. For example, if we shoot a snooker ball along a table, another ball can alter its course or even reverse its direction. However, if we fire a rifle bullet it is much harder to change its course after it has left the barrel. The potency of kamma depends on its target too. An angry thought directed at a criminal who is trying to kill us would be less potent than anger directed towards, say, our mother who is trying to stop us from doing something shameful. The more pure-hearted the target of our thoughts, the more powerful the kamma will be — and this applies to wholesome kammas too. So generosity shown to saintly persons like the Buddha has enormous potential, whereas equivalent generosity directed towards animals or drug addicts will have less power, though it will still be beneficial. Frequently repeated actions that become habitual also have strong potential.

Death-proximate Kamma

The realm where rebirth takes place depends only on the last moment of consciousness at death, but this last moment is conditioned by actions and thoughts done when death is near. So the Buddhist tradition is to encourage dying persons by reminding them of good deeds they have done. Children should try to be equanimous — if they weep or cling to their dying parents this may lead to unwholesome mental states and unfortunate rebirth. The importance of the final moments is clearly illustrated by the following true story from the time of the Buddha.

A large gang of robbers was caught by Buddhists who offered to spare the life of any one of them who would execute all the others. The robber chief volunteered to do this, executed all his former comrades, and remained in public service as his executioner until his old age. On the day that he was due to die, the executioner met Venerable Sāriputta, the chief disciple of the Buddha, and offered his own meal to him. Venerable Sāriputta tried to teach the executioner, but he could not listen attentively due to remorse over his many evil deeds. Venerable Sāriputta then asked him if he had wanted to kill all the people that he had executed. He replied that he had only done what he had to do. This put his mind at rest so that he could pay attention to Venerable Sāriputta's teaching. By meditating effectively as instructed, the executioner attained a deep stage of insight knowledge close to his death, and when he died he was reborn in a heavenly realm.

This shows how important present actions are, compared to past kammas. Even in the midst of doing evil deeds it is possible to have skilful thoughts such as, "This action that I am doing is very shameful and is liable to lead to evil consequences." Conversely, while doing a good deed we can have many unskilful thoughts such as, "I am a very kind and generous person who only thinks about the benefit of others." The law of kamma is very profound. To predict the results of a given kamma is only within the understanding of a Buddha or someone like him. Nevertheless, we can easily understand that it is vital to cultivate wholesome thoughts, speech, and deeds at every opportunity. We do not need to cultivate unwholesome thoughts, since they grow like weeds without any encouragement. To purify the mind through meditation is crucial, and to straighten out wrong views we must study the Dhamma thoroughly.

The Danger of Wrong Views

Wrong views are very harmful because they mislead people. Everyone does what they think will lead to their own happiness, no one wants to be unhappy. However, due to wrong view people imagine wrong to be right, just like someone lost in the desert who thinks that north is south. The harder they try, the farther astray they go. Three wrong views are particularly blameworthy. The belief that everything that happens to any individual is the will of an almighty god, the belief that everything is due to previous kamma, the belief that there is no cause for anything. All three views deny the importance of one's present actions.

Christians generally believe that God created the world and living beings, but they also believe that they will reap as they sow, so their view is partly right. Those who hold the fatalistic view that everything is due to past kamma are mostly wrong, since only a fraction of the present results are due to past kamma. The third view that there is no cause for anything is totally wrong. Right view holds that every cause gives appropriate effects, and every effect has its corresponding cause. There are four basic causes: kamma, food, climate, and mind.

Many people do not believe that there are other realms of existence such as hell, ghost and demon realms, where evildoers suffer after death. The Buddha taught that such realms do exist, so many people now hold wrong views. One who holds firmly onto such wrong views is opposed to the teaching of the Buddha, and so will be reborn in hell after death.

Cynicism is Not Intelligence

Intelligent people rightly ask, "Why should anyone believe in such realms, since their existence cannot be proved?" The existence of such realms can be known by direct knowledge through very deep concentration like that developed by the Buddha. It can also be logically proved or inferred by a thorough and careful study of the Buddha's teachings, though it cannot be proved by modern science, which relies on measuring material phenomena. It is not yet possible to detect mentality by electronics, though it is possible to tell with some degree of accuracy whether someone is lying. This is done by measuring physical changes caused by emotions like fear or anxiety. These days, those who can gain direct knowledge are very rare. However, an intelligent person can gain firm confidence in the Buddha's teaching by studying the scriptures, or books by learned monks.

How do we know about the existence of atoms? No one can see an atom with the naked eye, nor even with the most powerful optical microscope. Electron microscopes can only show the patterns made by atoms on a screen. Anyone with a good knowledge of science will readily accept that these patterns represent individual atoms. However, someone lacking scientific knowledge would find it very hard to understand what atoms were.

Before Einstein, no one would have given much credence to the equivalence of matter and energy, or to the curvature of space and time, but these abstruse laws of nature are now widely accepted. It took very considerable effort to convince intelligent people about these strange facts. Many ordinary people cannot appreciate the significance of Einstein's theories, and are completely baffled by them.

Those who have neither training in meditation, nor a thorough knowledge of scripture, are ignorant regarding nonhuman realms. Well-educated Buddhists and experienced meditators smile when cynics dismiss such realms and beings as mere superstition.


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