Rebirth in Buddhism

Rebirth in Buddhism refers to its teaching that the actions of a person lead to a new existence after death, in endless cycles called saṃsāra. This cycle is considered to be dukkha, unsatisfactory and painful. The cycle stops only if liberation is achieved by insight and the extinguishing of desire. Rebirth is one of the foundational doctrines of Buddhism, along with Karma, nirvana and moksha.

The rebirth doctrine in Buddhism, sometimes referred to as reincarnation or metempsychosis, asserts that rebirth does not necessarily take place as another human being, but as an existence in one of the six Gati (realms) called Bhavachakra. The six realms of rebirth include Deva (heavenly), Asura (demigod), Manusya (human), Tiryak (animals), Preta (ghosts), and Naraka (resident of hell). Rebirth, as stated by various Buddhist traditions, is determined by karma, with good realms favored by Kushala (good karma), while a rebirth in evil realms is a consequence of Akushala (bad karma). While Nirvana is the ultimate goal of Buddhist teaching, much of traditional Buddhist practice has been centered on gaining merit and merit transfer, whereby one gains rebirth in the good realms and avoids rebirth in the evil realms.

Buddha Human Man Art Statue Sculpture Faith

Buddha Statue

The rebirth doctrine has been a subject of scholarly studies within Buddhism since ancient times, particularly in reconciling the rebirth doctrine with its Anatman (no self, no soul) doctrine.The Buddhist traditions have disagreed on what it is in a person that is reborn, as well as how quickly the rebirth occurs after each death. Some Buddhist traditions assert that “no self” doctrine means that there is no perduring self, but there is avacya (inexpressible) self which migrates from one life to another. The majority of Buddhist traditions, in contrast, assert that Vijnana (a person’s consciousness) though evolving, exists as a continuum and is the mechanistic basis of what undergoes rebirth, rebecoming and redeath. Some traditions assert that the rebirth occurs immediately, while others such as the Tibetan Buddhism posits an interim state wherein as many of 49 days pass between death and rebirth and this belief drives the local funerary rituals.

Buddhist terminology and doctrine

There is no word corresponding exactly to the English terms “rebirth“, “metempsychosis”, “transmigration” or “reincarnation” in the traditional Buddhist languages of Pāli and Sanskrit. Rebirth is referred to by various terms, representing an essential step in the endless cycle of samsara, terms such as “re-becoming” or “becoming again”(Sanskrit: punarbhava, Pali: punabbhava), re-born (punarjanman), re-death (punarmrityu), or sometimes just “becoming” (Pali/Sanskrit: bhava), while the state one is born into, the individual process of being born or coming into the world in any way, is referred to simply as “birth” (Pali/Sanskrit: jāti). The entire universal process of beings being reborn again and again is called “wandering about” (Pali/Sanskrit: saṃsāra).

Some English-speaking Buddhists prefer the term “rebirth” or “re-becoming” (Sanskrit: punarbhava; Pali: punabbhava) to “reincarnation” as they take the latter to imply an entity (soul) that is reborn. Buddhism denies there is any such soul or self in a living being, but does assert that there is a cycle of transmigration consisting of rebirth and redeath as the fundamental nature of existence.

Historical context

Before the time of the Buddha, many ideas on the nature of existence, birth and death were in vogue. The ancient Indian Vedic and Sramana schools affirmed the idea of soul, karma and cycle of rebirth. The competing Indian materialist schools denied the idea of soul, karma and rebirth, asserting instead that there is just one life, there is no rebirth, and death marks complete annihilation. From these diverse views, Buddha accepted the premises and concepts related to rebirth, but introduced innovations. According to various Buddhist scriptures, Buddha believed in other worlds,

Since there actually is another world (any world other than the present human one, i.e. different rebirth realms), one who holds the view ‘there is no other world’ has wrong view…

— Buddha, Majjhima Nikaya i.402, Apannaka Sutta, translated by Peter Harvey

Buddha also asserted that there is karma, which influences the future suffering through the cycle of rebirth, but added that there is a way to end the cycle of karmic rebirths through nirvana. The Buddha introduced the concept that there is no soul (self) tying the cycle of rebirths, in contrast to themes asserted by various Hindu and Jaina traditions, and this central concept in Buddhism is called anattā; Buddha also affirmed the idea that all compounded things are subject to dissolution at death or anicca. The Buddha’s detailed conception of the connections between action (karma), rebirth and causality is set out in the twelve links of dependent origination.

Ideas of rebirth

There are many references to rebirth in the early Buddhist scriptures. These are some of the more important; Mahakammavibhanga Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 136); Upali Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 56); Kukkuravatika Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 57); Moliyasivaka Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 36.21); Sankha Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 42.8).

The Buddha and Rebirths
The texts report that on the night of his enlightenment the Buddha gained the ability to recall his previous lives. It is said that he remembered not just one or two, but a vast number, together with the details of what his name, caste, profession, and so forth had been in each life. Elsewhere, the Buddha states that he could remember back ‘as far as ninety one eons’ (Majjhima Nikaya i.483), one eon being roughly equal to the lifespan of a solar system.

— Damien Keown, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction

Rebirth is discussed in Buddhist scriptures with various terms, such as Āgati-gatiPunarbhava and others. The term Āgati literally means ‘coming back, return’, while Gati means ‘going away’ and Punarbhava means ‘re-becoming’. Āgati-gati in the sense of rebirth and re-death appears in many places in early Buddhist texts, such as in Samyutta Nikaya III.53, Jataka II.172, Digha Nikaya I. 162, Anguttara III.54-74 and Petavatthu II.9. Punarbhava in the sense of rebirth, similarly appears in many places, such as in Digha II.15, Samyutta I.133 and 4.201, Itivuttaka 62, Sutta-nipata 162, 273, 502, 514 and 733. Numerous other terms for rebirths are found in the Buddhist scriptures, such as Punagamana, Punavasa, PunanivattatiAbhinibbatti, and words with roots of *jati and *rupa.


While all Buddhist traditions except Navayana accept some notion of rebirth, they differ in their theories about rebirth mechanism and precisely how events unfold after the moment of death. The early Buddhist texts suggest that Buddha faced a difficulty in explaining what is reborn and how rebirth occurs, after he innovated the concept that there is “no self” (Anatta). The texts also suggest that the Anicca theory led to difficulties in explaining that there is a permanent consciousness that moves from life to life. Later Buddhist scholars such as Buddhaghosa suggested that the lack of a self or soul does not mean lack of continuity; and the rebirth across different realms of birth – such as heavenly, human, animal, hellish and others – occurs in the same way that a flame is transferred from one candle to another.

The Sautrantika sub-school of the Saravastivada Buddhist tradition, that emerged in 2nd century BCE, and influenced the 4th-century CE Yogacara school of Buddhism, introduced the idea of “transmigrating substratum of consciousness”. It stated that each personal act “perfumes” the individual and leads to the planting of a “seed” that would later germinate as a good or bad karmic result.

The Four planes of liberation

The Four planes of liberation

The Pudgalavada school of early Buddhism accepted the core premise of Buddhism that there is no attā (ātman, soul, self), but asserted that there is a “personal entity” (pudgalapuggala) that retains a karma balance sheet and is mechanistically involved in rebirth; this personal entity, stated Pudgalavada Buddhists, is neither different nor identical to the five aggregates (skandhas). This concept of personal entity to explain rebirth by Pudgalavada Buddhists was polemically attacked by Theravada Buddhists in early 1st millennium CE. The personal entity concept was rejected by the mid-1st millennium CE Pali scholar Buddhaghosa, who attempted to explain rebirth mechanism with “rebirth-linking consciousness” (patisandhi).

The bardo rebirth concept of Tibetan Buddhism, along with Yidam, developed independently in Tibet, and involves forty two peaceful deities, and fifty eight wrathful deities. These ideas led to mechanistic maps on karma and what form of rebirth one takes after death, discussed in texts such as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Some schools conclude that karma continued to exist and adhere to the person until it had worked out its consequences. TheravadaBuddhists assert that rebirth is immediate while the Tibetan schools hold to the notion of a bardo (intermediate state) that can last up to forty-nine days.

Another mechanistic rebirth theory that emerged in Buddhism posits that a being is reborn through “evolving consciousness” (Pali: samvattanika viññana,M.1.256) or “stream of consciousness” (Pali: viññana sotam, D.3.105) that reincarnates. Death dissolves all prior aggregates (Pali: khandhas, Sanskrit: skandhas), and this consciousness stream combined with karma of a being contributes to a new aggregation, which is rebirth. Nirvana is the state that marks the end of this consciousness continuum and the associated karmic cycle of suffering through rebirths and redeaths.

Rebirth realms

In traditional Buddhist cosmology the rebirth, also called reincarnation or metempsychosis, can be in any of six realms. These are called the Gati in cycles of re-becoming, Bhavachakra. The six realms of rebirth include three good realms – Deva (heavenly, god), Asura (demigod), Manusya (human); and three evil realms – Tiryak (animals), Preta (ghosts), and Naraka (hellish). The realm of rebirth is conditioned by the karma (deeds, intent) of current and previous lives; good karmas will yield a happier rebirth into good realm, bad karmas is believed to produce rebirth which is more unhappy and evil .

The release from this endless cycle of rebirths, rebecoming and redeaths is called nirvana (nibbana) in Buddhism, and achievement of nirvana is the ultimate goal of Buddhist teaching. However, much of traditional Buddhist practice has been centered on gaining merit and merit transfer, whereby an individual gains rebirth for oneself or one’s family members in the good realms, and avoids rebirth in the evil realms.

Buddhist arguments for rebirth

Parapsychological evidence

Ancient Buddhists as well as some moderns cite the reports of the Buddha and his disciples of having gained direct knowledge into their own past lives as well as those of other beings through a kind of parapsychological ability or extrasensory perception (termed abhiñña). Likewise, Buddhist philosophers have defended the concept of special yogic perception (yogipratyakṣa) which is able to empirically verify the truth of rebirth.

Modern Buddhists have also pointed to parapsychological phenomena as possible empirical evidence for rebirth, mainly near-death experiences, past life regression, reincarnation research and xenoglossy.

Philosophical arguments

Yoga Buddhism


Besides defending the status of the Buddha as an epistemically authoritative or reliable person (pramāṇa puruṣa), Indian Buddhist philosophers like Dignaga (c. 480–540 CE) and Dharmakirti (fl. c. 6th or 7th century), as well as later commentators on their works, also put forth philosophical arguments in favor of rebirth and especially directed against the reductionist materialist philosophy of the Carvaka school. To defend rebirth, Dharmakirti initially focuses on refuting the materialist doctrine of the Carvaka school, which held that the support (asraya) for cognition is the body and that when the body is destroyed, cognition is destroyed.

According to Richard P. Hayes, Dharmakirti denied that mental events were a mere byproduct of the body, instead holding that “both mental events and physical events can be seen as effects of the same set of causal conditions.” For Dharmakirti, all events are dependent on multiple causes, and they must be preceded by an “antecendent causal condition” of the same class. This means that all mental events must have a previous mental event as part of its causal nexus (presumably stretching back before one’s birth). According to Hayes, Dharmakirti holds therefore that “both physical factors and nonphysical factors play a role in the formation of mental events”, if not there would be no difference between sentient beings and inanimate matter. Eli Franco mentions that for Dharmakirti, the position that cognition “can arise from the body alone, independent of their similar causes” at the moment of birth is irrational. That is, if the mind is not being conditioned by a previous cognitive event, then it cannot arise from inert matter. Dharmakirti also argues that mental events can causally condition physical events, and thus there is no reason to privilege matter as being primary. According to Martin Willson, this kind of argument is the most commonly used in the Tibetan philosophical tradition to establish the truth of rebirth and in its most simple form can be put as follows:

With respect to the knowing (consciousness or mind) of an ordinary being just born:

it is preceded by earlier knowing; because it is knowing.

Willson notes that this relies on two further assumptions, the first is that any mental continuum must have previous causes, the second is that materialism is false and that mind cannot emerge solely from matter (emergentism). Because of this, Indian Buddhist philosophers who argued in this way attempted to disprove the theories of materialists (Carvaka).

Theravada Abhidhamma makes a similar argument. According to the Abhidhamma teacher Nina van Gorkom, physical and mental events (dhammas) both depend on each other and on previous events of the same category (i.e. mental events must also be conditioned by previous mental events, and so on). In Abhidhamma, the mental event (citta) which arises at the first moment of life is called the rebirth consciousness or patisandhi-citta. According to van Gorkom, “there isn’t any citta which arises without conditions, the patisandhi-citta must also have conditions. The patisandhi-citta is the first citta of a new life and thus its cause can only be in the past.”

Pragmatic arguments and wager theories

Various Buddhists and interpreters of the Buddhist texts such as David Kalupahana and Etienne Lamotte, have argued that the Buddha is a kind of pragmatist regarding truth, and that he saw truths as important only when they were soteriologically useful. Thus, the Buddhist position on rebirth could be defended on pragmatic grounds instead of empirical or logical grounds. Some modern Buddhists have taken this position.

The American monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu has argued for the acceptance of the Buddhist idea of rebirth as a type of pragmatic wager argument (Pali: apaṇṇaka, “safe bet” or “guarantee”). Thanissaro argues that “the Buddha stated that it’s a safe wager to assume that actions bear results that can affect not only this lifetime for also lifetimes after this than it is to assume the opposite.” Thanissaro cites Majjhima Nikaya 60 (Apaṇṇaka sutta) where the Buddha says that if there is an afterlife, those who perform bad actions have “made a bad throw twice” (because they are harmed in this world and in the next) while those who perform good actions will not, and thus he calls his teaching a “safe-bet teaching”. According to Thanissaro:

The Buddha’s main pragmatic argument is that if one accepted his teachings, one would be likely to pay careful attention to one’s actions, so as to do no harm. This in and of itself is a worthy activity regardless of whether the rest of the path was true. When applying this argument to the issue of rebirth and karmic results, the Buddha sometimes coupled it with a second pragmatic argument that resembles Pascal’s wager: If one practices the Dhamma, one leads a blameless life in the here-and-now. Even if the afterlife and karmic results do not exist, one has not lost the wager, for the blamelessness of one’s life is a reward in and of itself. If there is an afterlife with karmic results, then one has won a double reward: the blamelessness of one’s life here and now, and the good rewards of one’s actions in the afterlife. These two pragmatic arguments form the central message of this sutta.

Sri Lankan Buddhist philosopher K.N. Jayatilleke writes that the Buddha’s “wager argument” in MN 60 is that a rational person (viññu puriso) would reason as follows:

If p is true If p is not true
We wager p

[atthikavada, rebirth based on moral actions is true]

We are happy
in the next life
We are praised
by the wise in this life
We wager not-p 

[natthikavada, it is false]

We are unhappy
in the next life
We are condemned
by the wise in this life

The Kalama Sutta also contains a similar wager argument towards rebirth, called the “four assurances” or “four consolations”.

Modern naturalistic interpretations

In the 1940s, J.G. Jennings interpreted the teaching of rebirth in a less than literal sense. Believing that the doctrine of anatta (not-self) is incompatible with the view that the actions of one individual can have repercussions for the same individual in a future life, Jennings argued that the doctrine of actual transmigration was an “Indian dogma” that was not part of the original teachings of the Buddha. However, rebirth could instead be understood as the recurrence of our selfish desires which could repeat themselves “in endless succeeding generations”. In this interpretation, our actions do have consequences beyond our present lives, but these are “collective not individual.”

The British Buddhist thinker Stephen Batchelor has recently posited a similar view on the topic:

Regardless of what we believe, our actions will reverberate beyond our deaths. Irrespective of our personal survival, the legacy of our thoughts, words, and deeds will continue through the impressions we leave behind in the lives of those we have influenced or touched in any way.

The Thai modernist Buddhist monk Buddhadāsa (1906–1993) also had an rationalistic or psychological interpretation of rebirth. He argued that since there is no substantial entity or soul (atman),  “there is no one born, there is no one who dies and is reborn. Therefore, the whole question of rebirth is quite foolish and has nothing to do with Buddhism…in the sphere of the Buddhist teachings there is no question of rebirth or reincarnation.” However, Buddhadāsa did not completely reject the rebirth doctrine, he only saw the idea that there is something that gets reborn into a future womb as “trivial”. Instead of this ‘literal’ view, he interpreted the true meaning of rebirth as the re-arising of the sense of self or “I” or “me”, a kind of “self-centredness” which is “a mental event arising out of ignorance, craving, and clinging.” According to Buddhadāsa, this is what “rebirth” truly means on the ultimate level (paramattha) of discourse.

Comparison with rebirth doctrines in Hinduism and Jainism

The rebirth theories in different traditions within Hinduism rely on their foundational assumption that soul exists (Atman, attā), in contrast to Buddhist assumption that there is no soul. Hindu traditions consider soul to be the unchanging eternal essence of a living being, and in many of its theistic and non-theistic traditions the soul asserted to be identical with Brahman, the ultimate reality. Thus while both Buddhism and Hinduism accept the karma and rebirth doctrine, and both focus on ethics in this life as well as liberation from rebirth and suffering as the ultimate spiritual pursuit, they have a very different view on whether a self or soul exists, which impacts the details of their respective rebirth theories.

Rebirth and karma doctrine in Jainism differ from those in Buddhism, even though both are non-theistic Sramana traditions. Jainism, in contrast to Buddhism, accepts the foundational assumption that soul exists (Jiva) and is involved in the rebirth mechanism. Further, Jainism considers that the rebirth has a start, that rebirth and redeath cycle is a part of a progression of a soul, karmic dust particles emanate from ethical or unethical intent and actions, these karmic particles stick to the soul which determines the next birth. Jainism, further asserts that some souls can never achieve liberation, that ethical living such as Ahimsa (non-violence) and asceticism are means to liberation for those who can attain liberation, and that liberated souls reach the eternal siddha (enlightened state) that ends their rebirth cycles. Jainism, like Buddhism, also believes in realms of birth and is symbolized by its emblematic Swastika sign, with ethical and moral theories of its lay practices focussing on obtaining good rebirth.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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