Jan 12, 2018 in Informative

Reincarnation in Buddhism

The question of human destiny after death has bothered humanity throughout the whole process of the evolution.  Various cultures and races of the world have been seeking for the answers to this critical question. This is the reason why almost all communities in the world have some form of myths about it.  Additionally, almost all of the major religions try to explain this and the existence of the supernatural power that control human lives both prior and after death.

On the other hand, physics explained long time ago that energy can neither be destroyed nor created; it is only transformed from one form to another or stored.  This analogy has also entered into discussions about human life. A good number of communities believe that soul is eternal and separated from physical world. Others believe that it is capable of moving from one body to another. Various cultures of the modern world have some forms of belief about this. Such include the Igbo people of West Africa, the Native Americans, the people of Amazon, and some Asians. However, majority of Abrahamic religions dispute this apart from a few groups within this aggregation.

Hinduism and Buddhism are some of the religions in the word that believe in rebirth. Buddhism refers to this process in many areas of its doctrines and beliefs. However, it is crucial to note that the term rebirth described in this religion is very far in meaning from the English meaning.  In fact, there is no English word that directly translates to the term described in Buddhism. In English, there are terms such as transmigration of soul among others. These in English refer to movement of the soul from one body to the other after physical death.  This in many communities may mean that when one ceases to exist as one form, say a human, he begins to exist as another form, may be as a human, and animal or a plant.  In some communities, such as the Igbo of West Africa, they believe, that one is reborn in the same lineage as a human.

In Buddhism the story is a little bit different. This is unlike some common belief that people die and get reborn as other organisms. In Buddhism, a reincarnation is recognized as the process by which substances obtained from termination of one aggregate are used in the conception of another. Like the law of concerning heat transfer, noprocess of energy transformation is one hundred per cent efficient, some energy is lost and some used up. In this belief of Buddhism, the new aggregate formed is neither a hundred per cent similar nor a hundred per cent different to the previous one.

The general belief in some communities is that one will be reborn as a different creature.  In Buddhism, the process of physical change of attitude and one’s action is emphasized. Therefore, one does not necessarily have to die to be reborn, the whole process of transformation can occur in one human being and also in one life. This happens through the process or the principle referred to as karma.

Buddhism recognizes that human beings are very complex and privileged creatures.  They are able to influence what comes in their future through their attitude and action today.  According to karma, human beings are continuously releasing some either physical or spiritual force into the environment. Sometimes, this force can be freed through actions, speech and attitude or other forms of expression of human mind. As expressed earlier, man always releases some force through action speech and behaviour.

As one of the laws of motion states; for every action force, there is equal and opposite reaction force, this is also what karma says.  The energy that a man releases into the environment comes back to him. If a man releases positive energy such as kindness and compassion, this always comes back to him. The opposite is also true; if a man exerts negative force into the environment, they also follow him. The process of rebirth occurs through this karma.

In Buddhism, rebirth is not accompanied by physical death.. This occurs through continuously releasing positive energy to the environment which elevates one to levels almost next to Buddha. It is crucial to note that this is without having to physically die. Some people through releasing positive energy become elevated to the level of Buddha but still choose to remain on earth to enlighten others.

In Buddhism, a man is ranked as fifth in the ten ranks (levels) that exist.  At the top of this rank is Buddha and at the bottom are hellish creatures.  In one’s life, one can either choose to develop and be reborn upward or down ward. In Buddhism for instance, a person who is driven purely by the desires of his organs lowers himself to the level of beast. Expression of total ruthlessness, selfishness and other vices lower humans to the level of hell creatures. Other groups recognize other forms of reincarnation that differs from the view of Buddhism. This is the group in which reincarnation occurs only after death. The other unique characteristic of this form of reincarnation is that the soul migrates from one body to another after death.   This reincarnation involves movement of the soul between all creatures. It is important to note that these other groups recognize the existence of soul and self.

Other groups that recognize reincarnation have a different belief. Spiritism is one of the religions existing in the world today that recognizes reincarnation. Though this religion uses the Bible as its reference book like Abrahamic religions, it has a rather different approach to translation of such scriptures. Most of the followers of Abrahamic faith such as Christians, Muslims and followers of Judaism agree that neither the Bible nor Quran make any reference to reincarnation.  On the other hand, spiritists believe it does.

Spiritists believe that human spirits exist indefinitely through various generations. They claim that human souls  are continuously transferred to the next generation. They believe that the whole period of existence of mankind has been a process of soul evolution that is, however, a form of refinement that is meant to make them better as they move to different bodies.  The human soul according to them is imperfect but the process of life will improve it. Either consciously or not, the soul will be getting perfect to the level acceptable to Christ someday in the future.

With the spiritists, reincarnation has to occur with the physical death and the spirit of the deceased will inhabit the new body. The new individual can refine this soul consciously and better the soul through various actions that are advised in this religion. According to spiritists, the spirit just gets better over the time regardless of whether or not the individual is consciously developing it.

Another group that believes in reincarnation is the Igbo people of Nigeria in West Africa. According to this group, they believe that the spirit of the dead members of the families especially the deceased parents live again in the young ones born in the family. This is a very common belief in that part of the world. Additionally, they use this to explain why traits are distinct in various family lines.  This belief is very common among many groups in Africa and explains why names are passed down the family lines. 

Beliefs of these two groups concerning reincarnation differ distinctly from those associated with the same in Buddhism.  However, there are a few similarities in between any of the three groups, Buddhist’s and Spiritist’s reincarnation has a potential to change the human soul.  The difference is that Buddhism suggests the two way change. However, the West Africans’ belief is different from both as does not result into changes in the soul.

Many people consider the idea of reincarnation as a superstitious one. However, there are sufficient scientific evidences that reincarnation does occur.  Dr. Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia has done extensive research concerning reincarnation. His research has gone beyond hypnosis and is more direct. Instead of using hypnosis to get children to remember the past life, he listened to children’s first memories of the previous life. After words, he sought the deceased person and verified the information given by the child against facts in the deceased life. His research went up to 3000 files. Of all these cases, the memories that such kids gave were compared to factual evidence such as medical records and were found to match.

Some children remembered their names in their previous life, occupation and even circumstances leading to their death. Some were found with birthmarks that resembled deformities on the deceased person’s body. The methods used to verify this were strict and ensured that there were no chances that this could have been coincidental.  For instance, Dr. Stevenson did not rely only on relatives’ information about the scars and deformities on the deceased person. On the contrary, he verified this using the medical records and other verifiable information.  In some instances, some children were able to remember the circumstances under which they had died. Dr. Stevenson had sort authorities for verification of such information.

Another scientific evidence of reincarnation is the use of hypnosis. This process is used to extract the memories from the previous lives. It was initially puzzling to note that some children had memories of adult life at very young age.  This is a very crucial proof as it is impossible for a child to have memories of adulthood unless they had lived before. 

Another astounding scientific evidence of reincarnation is children being able to speak languages they have not learned or been exposed to with very high articulation and even capturing the specific dialects’ accent.  A child as well as anyone is expected to speak the languages they have learned. However, some people have been found to speak languages they have not been taught or exposed to whatsoever. This indicates that such people could have had another life in which they learned the language.  .  Research to establish whether such children have been exposed to the languages has given negative results. This leaves the only possibility that such a person may have had another life.

Reincarnation relates very well and closely to another concept of Buddhism. However, as seen earlier, the kind of reincarnation referred to in Buddhism is not transmigration of spirit from one body to the other after the death. To further understand the whole concept of reincarnation in Buddhism, it is crucial to go through an example from Buddha. Buddha put it down clearly that he had acknowledged all the preceding lives. It is like meaning that he had lived from first to last of them. On the other hand, it is known in Buddhism that nothing goes from one life to the next. These two statements can cause some contradictions, but they shed more light to Buddhism reincarnation.

As discussed earlier, it is the aggregates of one’s life that are utilized in formulation of another. This can also be expounded further by the Buddhist understanding of self.  Buddha taught about the human understanding of self which is also the personality or the ego. According to Buddha, the whole concept of self consciousness as formations is called skandhas.  This is explained further as  a human body, it’s emotional plus physical sensations combined with people’s beliefs and ideas generates an illusion of a distinctive personality. Buddha stated further that any time a body dies and another one is born, the self or the logic of ‘me’ renovates itself.  This expounds his explanation that there is nothing carried out from one moment to the next. It can only be said that there is nothing that moves to the next life.

The concept of reincarnation in Buddhism can be seen as the transfer of energy from one billiard ball to the next one after a collision. Using this analogy, the energy that is passed to the second billiard is straightforwardly comparative to the energy possessed by the initial ball.  This analogy demonstrates better the idea of reincarnation in Buddhism as a different concept from the commonly known reincarnation in which a movement of the spirit occurs. This special form of Buddhist reincarnation is best described using the term rebirth.

Rebirth is a very crucial aspect of other concepts of Buddhism as a religion or a lifestyle. It is particularly crucial due to the cyclic nature of life. This is symbolized in Buddhism as a wheel.  This is contrary to many western cultures that have viewed life as linear.  This wheel is referred to as samara.  The cycle of human life according to Buddhist is composed of birth followed by life and finally death. However, the cycle begins again after this revolution of the wheel. Due to this, rebirth is very crucial as life after death will only take place through rebirth.  For this reason, the concept of rebirth is very closely related or integrated with the samara.

 Another concept of Buddhism that relates closely to rebirth is karma which basically means action. This is rather simple to explain using the law of action and reaction in physics.  Karma helps people, especially the followers of Buddhism, to understand the cause and effect of nature on the world. According to karma, each human action is caused by the desire which originates from a human deliberation.  Whatever man does is a form of a force that is released to his environment. Karma emphasizes that this force triggers equal force toward the doer. It can be related closely to the Christian principle from the bible,“a person reaps what he or she sows”.  Although karma is a Sanskrit ideology that existed long before Buddhism, it is readily accepted and integrated in Buddhism.  All actions in Buddhism are related to similar consequences which can be in current or the next life. This makes rebirth to be strategically associated with karma.

The ethical scope of Buddhism is also intimately associated with reincarnation.  In Buddhism, all actions can be described as either non-objectionable or objectionable and the same is done with consequences. One has to account for any unwholesome action. Due to causative relationship between thought, intention, will and deed, people are advised to control their thoughts. However, Buddhism recognizes that some people have a higher ability to discern and are more likely to do a good act than others.

Buddhism also recognizes that defilements twist human view and are the reason for confusion in a person or a group.  Defilements in Buddhism vary but the most referred to include gluttony, delusion and hatred.  The levels of these defilements determine the level of skillfulness of and individual.  They also distinguish between a good and a bad action. Defiled people act unskillfully and produce bad action while non-defiled people act skillfully and hence accomplish good ones.

There is a specific definition of good and bad and perfections in Buddhists.  These are also expounded and expressed in the Buddhist principles and further clarify on what is skillful and unskillful.  Skills are of particular importance as they control thoughts, will and action.  In Buddhism, all things are integrated together as can be seen in eightfold path.  This path is also intimately connected with the noble truths of Buddhism which are four.  This combination includes karma and the whole concept of rebirth.

The symbolism of Buddhism is expressive of reincarnation and other concepts such as karma. This includes the Buddhist Mandala that shows transition to higher levels of enlightenment. This shows the movement of a person to the inner level through the circles.   This symbolism also shows the importance of movement of a person to higher levels of enlightenment. The higher level of enlightenment in the Buddhist Mandala is a small circle in the middle of the large circle.  The space around the high level is filled with circles that symbolize paths of transition to the middle part. Although Buddha did not consider himself exalted above people, he emphasized on the importance of enlightenment.

Buddha did not want to be worshipped but the paths indicated are the rebirth. One has to be transformed in the life in order to attain a higher level of Buddha. The means of propulsion needed in this movement are regulated or karma.  Positive action moves a person forward while negative actions will push a person backwards. For this reason, a person who consistently does negative action will not reach the higher level of enlightenment.  According to Buddhism, the concept of self is delusional and misguiding.  

There is no self according to Buddhism as this is generated by both emotional and physical feelings.  In Europe, the movements of soul from one individual to another were thought to be possible.  The Buddhist concept is profoundly different but a bit similar to that of India as all of them deny the existence of self or even soul. There is no enduring unit that can be referred to as self as this is delusional and generated by human perception. Buddhism appreciates that the body is mortal as all people of the world do. Moreover, all its activities including the ones of the mind cease upon the death of an individual.  Given that self or soul is created by the perception of the body and the mind, the death of the above leads to the death of the self.

This idea can be clarified further by expressing that `the soul is a conservatory of the self which according to Buddhism, some people assert that it is an eternal form of personality. Some people suppose further that it goes past bodily death which is contrary to the believes and the concepts that they have. They refute existence of such a form and self is not permanent.  According to Buddhism, the whole idea of eternal soul is deceptive as the reasoning that generates such conclusion is not knowledgeable or enlightened and is used to portray an occurrence of conscious humans.  Other parts of the world as well as other human populations had viewed the soul as a component that is detached from the body, time and other physical phenomenon that is probably the reason why it was thought to be eternal and detached.  Buddhism  views this as a totally physical and mental state of mind. However, they recognize the complexity of human consciences which they see as either a self or a non-self.

Due to this, the process of transformation of a self or rebirth in Buddhism can occur in one life. Additionally, several to multiple rebirths can occur without the physical death of the body. This is a very big deviation from the general understanding of reincarnation the world has. Additionally, the concept of soul absence is well integrated within the rebirth concept. As there is no movement of one soul from one body to the next, rebirth in Buddhism (reincarnation) occurs in the course of physical life.

In conclusion, Buddha said that he had lived through all other levels and afterwards said that there was no soul or self. This meant that he had been reborn through the six levels without physical death. This sheds a new light on the unique understanding of reincarnation that Buddhists have.  In addition, this concept of reincarnation relates very directly to all other aspects of Buddhism.  The concept of reincarnation is well interconnected in various aspects and some processes cannot occur successfully without it. It is a very important component of the belief system of the Buddhists.

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