Western Buddhist Review

Rebirth and Consciousness

On Mon, 24 March, 2014 - 11:50
Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Dhivan Thomas Jones
Here is another ‘editor’s opinion’ piece. How should Western Buddhists relate to the Buddhist teachings of rebirth? This is a difficult topic, and while some people hold to the traditional views about rebirth, others, like me, are more agnostic. In this piece, however, I try to clarify the question of whether ‘rebirth’, even in the traditional sense, involves the continuity of consciousness. I say no… Of course there are other views on this whole matter, and you can ‘respond’ to this message to share yours.

Did the Buddha teach that consciousness continues after the death of the body? The answer to this question is important for the question of how to relate to the teaching of rebirth, since it affects what we suppose the Buddha was teaching when he taught about rebirth. In a previous post on my personal blog I wrote: ‘From the point of view of empirical science, consciousness depends on physical conditions, namely, the brain. When the brain dies, so consciousness ceases. This in fact is also exactly what the Buddha said.’ I went on to write that the Buddha disagreed with a monk called Sati who said that consciousness (viññāṇa) continued from life to life, just the same;[i] the Buddha told Sati that consciousness is dependently-arisen. Some respondents to this blog post, however, have disagreed with what I had written, saying that it is not correct to take the Buddha’s words to mean that the Buddha believed that consciousness was dependent on the brain. Some people, it would seem, believe that consciousness can somehow exist without a physical basis and hence that it can survive death, and that this is what makes rebirth possible. But did the Buddha teach this?

In conversation with Sati, the Buddha tells the monk: ‘Monks, consciousness is named after whatever condition it arises dependent on. Consciousness that arises dependent on the eye and forms is just called consciousness based on the eye; consciousness that arises dependent on the ear and sounds is just called consciousness based on the ear; consciousness that arises dependent on the nose and smells is just called consciousness based on the nose; consciousness that arises dependent on the tongue and tastes is just called consciousness based on the tongue; consciousness that arises dependent on the body and tangibles is just called consciousness based on the body; consciousness based on the mind and mental objects is just called consciousness based on the mind.’ This does not give us much scope for thinking that the Buddha is saying that consciousness can survive without a body, since consciousness exists dependent on the sense-organs. Admittedly, the Buddha is here characterising consciousness as we presently experience it. But the Buddha did not say we could experience consciousness in any other way.

In the Nagara-sutta,[ii] the Buddha makes his position clearer when he says that ‘When there is name-and-form (nāma-rūpa) then consciousness exists; with name-and-form as condition, there is consciousness.’ Here and elsewhere[iii] the expression ‘name-and-form’ is explained as meaning the body made up of the four elements, and the mental apparatus consisting of feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), volition (cetanā), contact (phassa) and attention (manasikāra). Having said something similar in the Mahānidāna-sutta,[iv] the Buddha makes the point that we can only meaningfully talk about existence when there is consciousness and name-and-form. (The idea that conciousness in this discourse ‘descends’ (okkamati) into a mother’s womb might suggest a somehow pre-existent disembodied consciousness, but such an idea is contradicted by everything else the Buddha says. I suggest translating okkamati as ‘arrives’ in the sense of ‘appears’). As Sariputta says in the Sheaves of Reeds Discourse,[v]consciousness and name-and-form lean on each other like two sheaves of reeds. We see therefore that according to the Buddha’s teaching it is only meaningful to speak of ‘consciousness’ connected with sense-experience and co-arising with the body and mental apparatus.

This way of looking at consciousness is comparable to a modern scientific understanding of consciousness, in which consciousness arises dependent on the physical brain. But just as name-and-form depends on consciousness, so the physical brain is also dependent on consciousness: it appears that the rapid evolution of the human brain was connected with the advantages for survival of consciousness and intelligence. Moreover, in present human experience, it has been shown that conscious activity, like meditation, can cause the modification of neural networks in the brain.

Let us consider the Buddha’s ‘middle way’ in the light of this. Consciousness, this experience of awareness, of being a subjective point of view, arises dependent on physical matter in the form of the brain. There are in fact plenty of scientists and philosophers who are not materialists, because there is in fact no good explanation of how consciousness can be ‘produced’ from matter in the brain.[vi] But it has to be said that, as far as I know, there are no contemporary philosophers who suppose that consciousness can exist without a brain. This brain, however, is also highly dependent on consciousness for its evolution and structure. The materialist view of human consciousness, implying annihilationism, is in this sense not convincing. Moreover, we human beings, who are embodied consciousnesses, having dependently arisen, have minds capable of imagining our past and our future. We can imagine this very consciousness as having existed before and existing afterwards – we can even imagine consciousness as existing in a disembodied state, and as undergoing rebirth. The eternalist view of the substantial spiritual self depends on just this powerful imaginative independence of consciousness. But the Buddha was careful to avoid eternalism, pointing his followers towards the dependent co-arising of consciousness with name-and-form.

It seems, therefore, that the Buddha taught rebirth, but that he did not teach that consciousness could exist independent of its physical basis, which, as we now know, is the brain. He taught that consciousness, like everything else, arises dependent on conditions. Just exactly how we can explain ‘rebirth’ if it does not involve the continuity of consciousness is a problem I’ll leave for others. I’ll conclude with a thought about this teaching of rebirth. Not only was rebirth part of the accepted view of the Buddha’s day, but in those days there was no distinction drawn between what we would call a ‘literal’ teaching about what happens after death and a ‘metaphorical’ teaching. In the absence of any kind of scientific knowledge, knowledge was symbols and stories. The Buddha taught rebirth, but it is reasonable to understand this teaching as a metaphor, a story. For western Buddhists, imbued with the exacting spirit of science, it is less incongruous to hold to rebirth as a form of story-telling, while maintaining a principled agnosticism concerning its literal truth.

[i] In Majjhima-nikāya sutta 38, the Mahātaṇhākkhāya-sutta, the ‘Greater Discourse on the Destruction of Craving’.

[ii] Saṃyutta-nikāya 12:38. Nagara-sutta means ‘The City’.

[iii] In Majjhima-nikāya sutta sutta 9, the Sammā-diṭṭhi-sutta, the ‘Discourse on Right View’. This discourse gives definitions of each of the 12 nidānas, as well as some other important Buddhist terms.

[iv] In Dīgha-nikāya sutta 15, Mahānidāna-sutta, the ‘Great Explanation Discourse’.

[v] Saṃyutta-nikāya sutta 12:67, Nalakalapiya-sutta, ‘Sheaves of Reeds Discourse’.

[vi] See my previous post reviewing Thomas Nagel for an example.

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NIGEL's picture
OM AH HUM. Delightful research. it does open my eyes, ears to hear what the historic buddha had to say about discursive conciousness, conciousness … and so on. The exhalted one was profound in the way he observed and tested everything. The Sugata said of the marks of enlightenment and recollection of past lives. The threefold path of morality(sila), meditation (samadhi) and wisdom (prajna) need to be practiced in order to understand his teachings. There is a distinction between “truths” from the mundane and supermundane.
vidyakaya's picture
Vessantara has eloquently demolished these arguments several times in Shabda and in talks at Adhistahana - i’m not quite clear why our website is promulgating nihilism which is what this piece really amounts to - ‘imbued with the exacting spirit of science’ is a phrase that could only have come from someone who knows nothing about science…..everything is metaphor - including scientific materialism….love Vidyakaya xxxx please read the Master and his Emissary - now THAT is radical - possibly the Fourth Turning of the Wheel….
Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Hi Vidyakaya. Please don’t speak for Vessantara without saying what he says or why. The views I’ve expressed above are an honest and well-informed attempt to represent the Buddha’s teachings in the Pali canon. If you disagree with them, please say why. I would appreciate good quality informed debate on Buddhism. What you’ve written does not give me anything to think about, or any way to enter into a discussion.
vidyakaya's picture
hi Dhivan - i’m not a Pali Scholar - i was simply pointing out that you’ve published this article on our main website without responding to Vessantara’s critique of your exposition - for any one interested this is to be found at http://www.vessantara.net/triratna/more-on-rebirth particularly the following section:

The Buddha’s Discourse with the Monk Sati

Both D. and P. mention the Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta (MN 38) which is sometimes held to support a nihilist position. In it, the monk Sati is rebuked by the Buddha for maintaining that ‘it is this same consciousness that runs and wanders through the round of rebirths, not another’. However, it is clear that Sati’s wrong view is to think of there being an unchanging consciousness that passes from life to life. The Buddha points out that if you have experiences one after another through different sense doors, consciousness is arising dependently in each experience. His argument is that there is no entity, consciousness, that continues moment to moment in this life, so the same applies from life to life. This is very different from stating that there is no rebirth.

The Buddha only takes Sati to task for imagining an unchanging consciousness that goes through the round of rebirths, he doesn’t rebuke him for thinking in terms of rebirth in the first place. Indeed at verse 15 of the same sutta, the Buddha outlines ‘four kinds of nutriment for the maintenance of beings that have already come to be and for the support of those seeking a new existence’. So in his teaching in this sutta he explicitly sanctions the idea that there is more than one existence. (Consciousness, incidentally, is the fourth of these ‘nutriments’ that he mentions.)

Understanding the Buddha’s discussion with Sati in this way, naturally I disagree with what D. wrote about it in his thread. As there are some important Dharma points here, I’d like to look at a few of his statements in detail. He says:

From the point of view of empirical science, consciousness depends on physical conditions, namely, the brain. When the brain dies, so consciousness ceases. This in fact is also exactly what the Buddha said. In conversation with a monk called Sati he emphasised how he teaches that consciousness arises on conditions and ceases when those conditions cease. It does not continue the same after death.

Sati was reifying consciousness, turning it into an entity that continued through different experiences, including from one life to the next. However, there is all the difference in the world between the Buddha’s position – that consciousness doesn’t continue the same after death – and the view of many scientists – that it doesn’t continue at all.

D. also says:

So how did the Buddha explain rebirth? The fact is, he did not explain rebirth. He simply stated that karma or craving or formations continue. The later Buddhist tradition attempted to explain this better, with ideas such as the mental continuum or the storehouse consciousness, but these are obviously speculative ideas. So the Buddha and science agree that consciousness does not continue after death, and apart from that, nobody really knows what happens.

The Buddha and science (if we can talk of ‘science’ as a unitary entity in this way) only agree that consciousness is a dependent arising and doesn’t continue the same after death. Apart from that, they profoundly disagree. And when D. says ‘nobody really knows what happens’, that is to discount the testimony of thousands of Buddhist teachers, yogis and yoginis over 2,500 years, who are unanimous in stating that there is rebirth. Many of them would claim that they weren’t talking from theory but from experience – in some cases from memories of past lives, in others because they had deep meditative experiences that made it clear that awareness would continue to arise after the death of the physical body. They would maintain that they did really know what happens.

Another sutta that is sometimes used as support for the idea that there’s no rebirth is MN 63, the Mahamalunkya Sutta. In this one, the Buddha refuses to answer when Malunkyaputta asks him whether a Tathagata exists or does not exist after death (or both or neither) declaring that the inquiry is unhelpful and doesn’t conduce to Enlightenment. As a Tathagata even when alive cannot be said to exist or not exist, it seems entirely reasonable that the Buddha should refuse to answer a question put in those terms. So his refusal isn’t evidence that death is the end. It just shows the inexpressible depth and mystery of experience. In life, he might be beyond definition, but if everything ceases at death then surely the Buddha would simply have said so.

D. says:

The Buddha repeatedly said that it is impossible to say anything about enlightened beings after the breaking up of their body.

D.’s statement implies that the Buddha never said anything about what happens to him after death, but let’s look at his discussion with the wanderer Vacchagotta (MN 72). Certainly the Buddha refuses to agree to the various suggestions that Vaccha makes to him: that a Tathagata exists, or doesn’t, or both or neither, after death. What else can the Buddha do, when all these categories are based on reifications, on wrong views of existence and non-existence? However, he doesn’t say that nothing can be said. Rather, he asserts that being liberated from reckoning in terms of the five skandhas ‘the Tathagata is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea’. This isn’t any kind of definition, for there is no-one to define, and nothing for them to be defined by, but still as a statement about enlightened beings after death it conveys a tremendous amount.

i that something you’d like to respond to? with metta Vidyakaya

Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Hi Vidyakaya. Many thanks for pointing readers to Vessantara’s excellent article on his website. I didn’t know that he had put it up there. You ask me whether I’d like to respond - yes, of course! My main response is to gently point out to you that Vessantara’s article (from which you’ve shared an extract) comes from February’s Shabda, while my blog post ‘Rebirth and Consciousness’ is from March Shabda - i.e. it is my way of replying to what Vessantara has written. It is my way of pointing out what the Buddha actually says about consciousness in relation to rebirth. I am not aware of a response by Vessantara to my blog post. I certainly don’t think he has ‘demolished’ the arguments, as you put it. In fact, it seems to me that the issue is wide open and in need of debate. Actual proper rational respectful debate please!
Ananda dhamma's picture
Yes, I totally agree with what you are saying, consciousness does not exist independantly of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind and physical matter. I don’t have a problem understanding rebirth not involving the continuity of consciousness, which makes me think “am I missing something?” I would value your opinion on a similar thread http://www.alanpeto.com/buddhism/understanding-reincarnation-rebirth/ where the author is saying “So another way I like to explain about what happens after you die, is that your consciousness (which is not your soul or self) is what does not die but takes some other shape or form” I’m not saying he can’t have this view, I’m saying it contradicts The Buddha’s teaching (apart from the bit in brackets)
Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Hello Ananda Dhamma, many thanks for your comment. I am very interested to learn that you could follow the line of my argument in the ‘opinion piece’, and conclude that nevertheless you are happy to believe in rebirth, knowing that consciousness depends on the senses. I don’t think you are necessarily ‘missing something’, as it might be simply that you are happy to believe in rebirth, though you are careful about how you explain what this belief means, in terms of being true to what the Buddha is reported to have taught. However, it occurs to me that your belief in rebirth might not be a belief that you would suppose could be proved or perhaps even clearly explained - what do you think? I’m more or less agnostic, as I wrote, but my intuition is that rebirth is not really something that can be proved by evidence and that it must remain an aspect of the Buddha’s teaching that we can’t know the truth of.
josvandersterre's picture

Dear brothers,

As this discussion seems to be popping up all the time, and since it seems hard to bridge the gap between the agnostic approach as displayed in the topic, and the more scholarly or ‘understand-it-as-it-has-been-written-in-the-Pali-Canon-approach’, I feel that the agnostic scientiffic materialistic oriented mind probably will never be convinced by any arguments that find no basis in materialistic oriented emperical science. 

If my above stated assumption is correct, this leaves only two options for those who are oriented in the agnostic scientific materialistic thinking only two ways to be convinced of the opposite position - the position that Buddha actually did teach rebirth and that one can arrive at that enlightened point of Being that one actually can remember all previous lives of the ‘mindstream’ that goes his endless round through samsara till liberation is attained. These two options are: 1 Scientific proof of that opposite position and 2 direct knowledge, that the opposite position is in fact the truth, attained by following the teaching of the eightfold path c.q. in meditation.

As it is impossible for anyone person to give direct knowledge to another person I suggest those of the agnostic scientific materialistic position to have a good look at what scientific proof there actually might be available that there opposed position can be the truth. So I invite you, if you are the agnostic materialistic oriented one, to read the book written by Pim van Lommel m.d. named ‘Consciousness beyond life: the Science of Near-Death Experience’. As a second advice I suggest to read the lecture given by the honorable monk Seongcheol which I will paste below. Many see Seongcheol as ‘the second Buddha’, for what it is worth …

I will end this response to the topic with the lecture by Seongcheol. May all find and fully realize our Buddha-nature.

The Word of the Spirit  

(Dharma Lecture, October 30, 1981, Haein-sa)
For hundreds, even thousands of years, man has been debating the issue of the existence of a spirit. Yet the issue is still unresolved. Many scholars, philosophers and religious people have argued for the existence of a spirit while others have argued against it. And the arguing continues even to this day. 
No matter where you look in Buddhist Sutras, whether Theravadin or Mahayanin, you will find the Buddha’s words on the continuing cycle of birth and death, reincarnation. According to this teaching, which is central to Buddhist thought, death as we know it is not the end. One is reborn again in another form according to ones karma. 
The question is, how valid is this teaching? In the modern academic community, many are claiming that a spirit which experiences this cycle of birth and rebirth cannot be explained. And even if a spirit could be explained, how could there be such a thing as reincarnation? Additionally, some people argue that the Buddha used this concept of reincarnation as an expedient even though there is no such thing. They consider reincarnation as an educational means to get people to modify their behavior. 
On the other hand, science is becoming increasingly interested in the non-material, the world of the psyche. And with developments in this area, more scholars are beginning to believe that there is a spirit, that there is reincarnation, and that the principle of cause-and-effect works on the psychological or spiritual level. 
So if there is this cycle of reincarnation, of endless cause-and-effect, how are we supposed to behave in order to be released from the cycle? I’d like to talk about this subject today. Understanding reincarnation is essential to your understanding of Buddhism, and when you come to understand this thoroughly as a follower of the Buddha, you will have the proper attitude in your own personal life, in teaching Buddhism, and in attaining your own enlightenment. Many scholars, scientists and researchers throughout the world today are trying to uncover the mysteries which surround this concept of, or belief in, reincarnation. And they are finding increasing evidence to support this. The method that is gaining the most credence through impartial observation is that of previous life recollection. One of the most interesting discoveries is that of two- or three-year-olds who volunteer information about their former lives. And research into the information given proves them right. Let me give you an example. 
About 25 years ago in southern Turkey, there was a child named Ismail. His family ran a butcher shop. One evening, at the age of about a year-and-a-half, Ismail was lying down with his father when he suddenly told his father that he was going to run away. He claimed that his real home was in a neighboring village and that his name was not Ismail. 
The child then told his father that he had been the owner of the orchard in that village, but that he had died at the age of 50. His wife couldn’t bear children, so he had remarried, fathered four children, and lived quite well. But one day he had had an argument with a worker in the orchard, and the worker had hit him on the head, killing him. The child said that it happened in the stable, and that when he had screamed, his wife and two of the children came running and the worker killed them, too. The child then said that he had come back to be born in that particular house so that he could go and see the other two remaining children that he missed so much. 
The child continued to insist on going to the house with the orchard, but everyone just laughed. And whenever they laughed, he would talk more about his former life. Once his father brought home a watermelon for the family, and he gave the child a big slice, but the child wouldn’t eat it. He said that he wanted to take it to his daughter who used to love watermelon. 
Since the village with the orchard was not far away, people from there occasionally came to Ismail’s village. One day the child spotted a man who had come from the village with the orchard and who was seiling ice cream. The child approached the man and identified himself, but the man was at a loss. The child then identified himself further, and said that the man used to sell fruit and vegetables from the orchard. He also  said that he had circumcised the man when the man was a child. 
Upon investigation, all the facts were proved correct, and rumors began to spread. But Turkey is an Islamic nation, and the idea of reincarnation is rejected. If someone made claims to it, he could be ostracized from the village. So as rumors spread, everyone tried to keep the child quiet. The more they did this, however, the more the child made a fuss. 
Finally, when the child was three, they took him to the house with the orchard in the other village. On the way, the child who had never been to the village kept pointing the way and led everyone right up to the orchard. When they got there, the first wife of the deceased was sitting there, astounded at the sight of a child leeding a large group of people to her. The child called her by name, ran up to her and held on to her. He consoled her about having such a hard life, which baffled her even more. Then the child went on to explain that he had been her former husband, that he had been born again in the other village, and that he had come to see her. 
Then the child saw the deceased man’s children, and calling them by name, ran to them and hugged them as a parent would. The people then took the child to the stable, and he asked about his favorite horse, a brown one, which was nowhere to be seen. He then inquired about the former workers, one by one and by name, and he described them exactly in terms of age, where they came from, and so forth. Everyone was astonished. 
This soon became an international event of sorts, and when the child was six, in the year 1962, a team of scholars, scientists and other experts was formed for an investigation. There were so me Japanese scholars on this team, and there was something which convinced them thoroughly of the validity of the claims. Evidently before the man was killed, he had loaned some money but the borrower had never paid it back. The borrower was called in for an interview. 
Upon seeing the man, the child said that on such-and-such a date he had loaned the man a certain amount of money. He wanted to know why the man hadn’t paid it back to his remaining family. Upon investigation, the date of the loan and the amount of money were both exact, and the somewhat embarrassed man paid it back on the spot. No one had known about the loan at the time except the two men involved, so there was no way that this child could have known about the loan, the date or the amount. The investigators were convinced of the validity of the case, and the final report confirmed all findings. 
There are innumerable documented cases throughout the world, cases such as this story of Ismail. Let me tell you about a couple of others. 
Just a few years ago in Sri Lanka, there was a set of twins aged three years and seven months, twins who kept talking about their former lives. An investigative team took the twins to the village where they claimed to have lived. A crowd of several hundred had gathered there, and the investigators had intentionally included the people who the children had claimed had been their family in a previous life. They then told the children to pick their family members out of this crowd of hundreds. And the children proceeded to pick out each family member. 
There was another case where a three-year-old kept talking about having been a member of a diving team in his former life. When he was asked if he could still dive, he replied that he could, so they took him to a swimming pool where he performed like a professional diver. 
There are lots of children nowadays who are geniuses, prodigies, children who are born with an immense amount of conscious knowledge. For example, there are some children who have never been taught to read but who can read just about anything. But no one has and explanation for this phenomenon. In Buddhism, however, we perceive this ability to read something as being left undisturbed from a previous life. You’ve probably had your own flashes of this type of thing―complete familiarity with a place you have never been before, instant attraction or familiarity with someone you’ve met for the first time, or even a special, unexplainable knack for doing something.
But how many people have this capability of former life recall? While most people don’t have any recollections of past lives, some people have very vague recollections and some have very clear recollections. And in recent decades a number of scholars, specialists, researchers and research organizations have been established to investigate the subject. One of the most famous of these researchers was Professor Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia’s Medical College.
Professor Stevenson established a worldwide network so that people everywhere who claimed to have this recollection ability could be investigated and have their claims either confirmed or refuted. Having investigated over 600 people, Stevenson selected twenty representative cases, and published these in a book called Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. This book presented conclusive evidence of the validity of claims made, validity which cannot be refuted, and the book was translated into numerous foreign languages, becoming a major topic of discussion around the world.
In addition to recollection of past lives, there is a phenomenon called transmigration. One of the best known cases took place in China in 1916, with a report appearing in the Shenchon Jihpao Daily on February 2 th of that year.
According to this report, a certain Ts’ui T’ien-hsuan of Shantong-sheng died at the age 32 from an incurable disease. He was uneducated and had worked as a stone mason. On the day of the funeral, noises started coming from inside the coffin. When the family opened up the coffin, the person was alive. The family was both over-joyed and stunned at the same time. The person who came out of the coffin, however, did not recognize any of the family members, and people could not understand the language he spoke. Everyone thought he must be delirious from the tim he had spent in the coffin.
After a few days, the man had recovered considerably but he sitll did not recognize anyone, and people could not communicate with him. Completely frustrated, the man took an inkstone, ink and a brush, and began writing in beautiful Chinese caligraphy. This was man who was illiterate efore he supposedly died.
He wrote, in perfect calligraphy, that he was from Indochina. He had been ill and his mother had covered him with a heavy blanket to make him sweat. The last thing he remembered was going to sleep. And now he was there in quite unfamiliar surroundings.
The mason had in fact died, but the spirit of a man from Indochina had taken over his body. So we can see from this and other examples that forms of reincarnation are many, and they are not restricted to just rebirth from a female womb. This method of moving from one body to another is what we mean by transmigration.
After the man recovered fully, the family began to teach him spoken Chinese. The man, however, kept on insisting on returning to his home in Indochina. The family finally took the man o Beijing University where he underwent psychological examination and received some form of minor treatment, but he was judged normal. The university sent someone to Indochina to investigate the case and to confirm the existence of this man as well as other details concerning his life and death. Everything that the man had claimed was confirmed. It was concluded that in fact he had been reborn in the body of the mason, Mr. Ts’ui. And the story had a happy ending-the man was given a yearly pension from the government!
In psychotherapy, there is also a method for investigating recollections of previous incarnations. Hypnosis has proved very effective in securing informaion on previous lives. This method is called hypnotic regression, a method in which a person is gradually taken backwards in his life under hypnosis. For example, if a person is brought back to the age of ten, he will describe his activities at that time. People will sing songs from early childhood which they have no conscious recollection of, and if brought back to infancy they usually cry a lot. This hypnotic regression has received increasing recognition as a method of unveiling former lives.
In medicine, increasing support is being given to hypnosis as a form of diagnosis. Sometimes people develop diseases or afflictions for which there is no obvious cause; but under hypnotic regression, the cause can often be uncovered. This regression method has also been used in securing information from spies who refuse to give information. 
How does this apply to reincarnation? A person is brought back to the age of one through the hypnotic regression method, and the person often cries and kicks a lot as a one-year-old would. The person is then asked under continued hypnosis where he was a year before he was born, and the person begins to tell an entirely different story. He takes on a different time, place, name, address, and sometimes even gender. In psychotherapy, this methodology is referred to as a return to previous existence. And often not to just one previous existence―often to two, three or more previous existences. 
Western psychology, on the basis of Freud’s work, divides the human mind into three levels: the conscious, the latent or pre-conscious, and the sub- or unconscious. Freud of course pioneered theories on the unconscious, but it was Sir Alexander Cannon who really did extensive work on the subject. He was knighted in England and he was an outstanding lecturer at institutes in five European nations. Perhaps his greatest contributions were in the investigation of former lives. 
Initially, as a scientist, he had denied the validity of both the spirit and reincarnation but using hypnosis as an investigative method, he consistently came across accounts of previous lives through this hypnotic regression process. He brought some people even as far back as the Roman Empire, and much of what he recorded was proved through historical evidence. On the basis of what he collected from a total of 1,382 patients, he published a book, The Power Within, in 1952. 
His many findings included cases where the cause of an affliction was uncertain and where the affliction did not respond to treatment. Through hypnotic regression, he could discover the cause and consequently provide a cure. It was obvious to him that the affliction had carried over from former lives. 
One interesting example was that of a man who was absolutely terrified of water. He refused to go near the ocean and he would not live near a river. Under hypnosis, the man was taken back to former lives and it was discovered that in one former life he had been an oarsman on a merchant vessel in the Mediterranean Sea. Having committed a crime against one of his mates, he was shackled and tossed into the ocean as punishment. The terror of that event cartied over even into his present life. Based on this information provided through regression, the man was cured of his phobia. 
There was another case, that of acrophobia. The man was terrified of going up a high flight of stairs. Under hypnosis it was discovered that he had been a Chinese general in a former life and had fallen from a cliff to his death. So with growing evidence for the theory of reincarnation, greatly aided by the work of Sir Alexander Cannon, former-life therapy has become increasingly widespread internationally. In the October 3, 1977 issue of TlME magazine, there was an extensive article on the subject, and TlME is hardly a magazine to devote space to nonsense. So there is greatly increasing international recognition and acceptance of both reincarnation and former-life therapy. 
If there is reincarnation, then, what are its principles? Can you reappear as anybody you want to reappear as? In Buddhism, the basic premise is that good actions reap good effects, and misdoings breed suffering. This law of nature is a universal law and it is a Buddhist law. Based on this law, all you have to do is to look around you: those who planted seeds of retribution in former lives are unhappy or unfortunate one way or another in this life, and those who planted seeds of good are comparatively happy in this life. 
In the Lotus Sutra, we find that the Buddha said that if you want to know about your past lives, just look at your present. You are the culmination of everything you have ever been and done. And if you want to look into the future, look at your present―what you are doing now determines your future. In other words, you can tell by the situation in your present life what your past was like, and what you plant today you will reap tomorrow. This law of cause-and-effect is called karma, and the use of this word has proliferated around the world, and increasingly into academic circles. 
There is another man who did a great deal in explaining and illustrating this law of cause-and-effect, an American named Edgar Cayce. Cayce did tremendous work with telepathic diagnosis. People from quite far away would send their names and addresses, and based on this information alone, Cayce could diagnose diseases. He also had tremendous healing powers, and treated over 30,000 people. He was able to diagnose people as far away as Europe. He also had such psychic power that he could tell, given a name, what a person in Europe was doing and where he was at that very moment. A simple phone call would confirm his telepathic accuracy. 
Cayce knew that a great deal of disease had origins in previous forms of existence. But he was a Christian, and Christianity has refuted reincarnation since it was struck from its dogma at the council of constantinople in 553. This religious conflict was too great for Cayce, and due to his religious beliefs he ceased his work. But the people around him urged him to continue and helped him to reconcile his spiritual/religious convictions with his psycho-academic pursuits. 
He finally dispensed with healing and poured himself into investigating former lives. His records cover more than 2,500 cases of former life investigation, and academicians and psychics have been studying these records ever since. Several of Cayce’s publications have been translated into most major languages. 
Cayce had a lot to say about cause-and-effect in relation to former lives. One case study was about a couple who had a very unhappy marriage, and upon hypnotic regression, Cayce discovered that in a former life they had been enemies. In some instances, happily married couples were revealed to have had parent-child relationships in former lives. We find this hard to believe, but this is how cause-and-effect can work. 
There would be no problem if we could just recall former lives, but the average person can’t. However, I think that as more and more scientists become involved in this field of investigation, the more likely they are to agree with the Buddha’s Teachings on cause-and-effect and reincarnation. According to the Teachings, an overly greedy person who ridicules and looks down upon others will return as an exceedingly short person. And one former life investigation confirmed this. So we have another reason to respect and to look up to other people no matter who they may be. 
I think there is already sufficient evidence today to support the Buddha’s Teachings of cause-and-effect in terms of reincarnation, but we can expect the volume of material on these subjects to grow rapidly in the future. As Buddhists, however, we do not have to rely on contemporary scientific evidence for our convictions. As Buddhists, we accept the Teachings of the Buddha. 
It is important for Buddhists to realize that they should not reject this or that Teaching just because they don’t quite understand it. The fact that you don’t understand it is your shortcoming, not the Buddhas. So through your own experience you should try to come to understand the meanings of the Teachings fully.

Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture

Hello josvandersterre, thanks for this. I wasn’t quite sure what exactly your point was here though. Obviously a scientific materialist would not believe in rebirth as such a belief excludes the possibility of an afterlife. I don’t think a scientific materialist would accept that there is rebirth on the basis of the Buddha’s teaching or on the basis of someone claiming to remember past lives either. A scientific materialist would have to abandon being a scientific materialist in order to take seriously the idea of any form of post mortem survival.

What you write seems to me to suggest that the debate about rebirth has to be conducted between the denial of rebirth which scientific materialism implies, and the literal acceptance of rebirth which the Buddhist tradition has often taught. I had wanted to suggest that another approach might be to consider rebirth as a metaphor.

A metaphor for what? Indeed, that is where agnosticism merges into remaining open to the vast mystery of existence. I am most interested in what happens when we stay open, holding to not knowing about what happens to, or perhaps better for, consciousness when the body dies. And how do beliefs about what might happen affect our views, our attitudes, our outlook?

josvandersterre's picture

Thanks for your response dhivan thomas jones and my apologies for responding to it so late. I thought I’d get notified if someone responded but that didn’t happen.

First part of my point is that this topic keeps popping up all the time and everywhere although it is logic to assume that this debate can’t be resolved satisfactory to either the pure scientific materialist (the agnost – because these positions seem to be the same position to your mind as far as this matter is concerned), or for the one who chooses the literal acceptance of rebirth which the Buddhist tradition has often taught. This will remain so for either of them as long as they do not KNOW.

Knowledge for the scientific materialist will only be accepted if there is empirical evidence which cannot be denied – then the scientific materialist accepts something for true. (Does this always imply knowledge beyond any doubt ?)

Knowledge should, on the other hand, come through practicing the eightfold path and right meditation as the Buddha seems to have taught (if one accepts the Buddhist tradition on this point). The right practice will bring the practitioner Direct Knowledge which is a very central issue or even the Ultimate Goal of the Buddhist practice if one takes the tradition for it. If one comes to this Direct Knowledge one KNOWS beyond any doubt the Truth about the issue of this debate – a debate which only is a debate between those who do not know of course!

Even the scientific materialist that would achieve this Direct Knowledge would know beyond doubt the Truth and – maybe - this would not even mean he could no longer be a scientific materialist. It is getting progressively harder for scientific materialists to draw the line between matter and energy - and what is Energy if not the Force that Animates matter to Life?

Even the agnostic that would achieve this Direct Knowledge would then know beyond doubt the Truth, but that for sure would end his agnosticism on this topic since the very essence of being agnostic is ‘not knowing’.

But for all who know through Direct Knowledge the problem remains that there is no way to convince one who does not know beyond any doubt through Direct Knowledge …. Even undeniable proof can be denied by choosing to deny it.

Then the second part of my point: Taking Buddha’s words for metaphors feels to me like mistaking the ocean for solid ground – mistaking a teaching of Wise Advice transmitted by carefully chosen words, for the big mouth advices loudly brought forth by drunk people at the bar.

I agree it is good to stay open minded and to avoid letting some random beliefs guide you.

On the other hand I am a Buddhist. I practice what the tradition offers me; I practice the Path, I will test the truth òr the untruth of the teachings of the Buddha by practicing the Path as Buddha invited everyone to test for himself!

And then still - my words about what I might (get to) KNOW beyond any doubt would be merely words for most ears …. I suddenly think of a saying saying ‘He who has ears – Hear!’

May all find Wisdom - May all find Peace

Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture

Thanks josvandersterre. However, we seem to be talking past each other, so to speak. Good wishes, Dhivan

josvandersterre's picture

Thank you as well dhivan thomas jones. Of course one can only speak ones own words, knowing there are no guarantees someone will listen or hear them. The “I” debating your point of view here does not feel like he’s been lacking attention, nor does he feel he didn’t understand the words you wrote or the point of view they promote.

I would like to end my input to this discussion with a quote from the Janavasabha Sutta:

“For indeed, my lords, the Dhamma is well-proclaimed by the Lord, visible here and now, timeless, inviting inspection, leading onward, to be comprehended by the wise, each one for him or herself, and, too, the doors to the Deathless are open!”

Good wishes to you too dhivan thomas jones.

shivap's picture

Doesn’t consciousness of mind objects need no sense bases to arise? I can be conscious of a mind object while not activating my 5 senses. In that case the consciousness of karmic formations (i.e. mind objects) can continue in a new body at death, when all other 5 consciousnesses depending on the 5 sense bases have stopped arising due to the absence of vitality and contact, right?

I would think that that is how rebirth must work, as Karmic formations that house our cravings creates the will for a new body, and the new body thence has only mind-object consciousness initially, enough to deem it “life” and with “vitality”, and then over time gradually develops the consciousness dependent on the sense bases.

Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture

Hello Shivap. Your comment here is in the general area of the Buddhist explanation of how rebirth occurs, which is explored most thoroughly in Abhidharma literature. FYI, in the suttas and in Abhidharma, mind-consciousness depends on mind-objects (dharmas) and the mind-base (manas). The manas is the ‘organ’ of thought so to speak. But according to all Buddhist traditions, this manas does not continue after death. Also, the karma-formations are not mind-objects necessarily, but rather they are those forces existing as potentialities (like seeds) that determine future rebirth.

shivap's picture

Thanks for the reply. I was a little thrown off, however, as I have been thinking, based on other readings, that thoughts are nothing but mind-objects! Manas as a term is given more generally as “mind”, whatever that means! Since realization is the ultimate and only goal, breaking things into many categories for me becomes a bit confusing. I’m reeling as it is! I like to think that there is Karma stored in the Sankharas aggregate ( same as Karma formations) which manifest as thoughts in consciousness. Attention (property of wakefulness) to these thoughts and discrimination leads to action. The action could be to ignore the thought or to act in some external way. A pure discriminating consciousness leads to a good judgment on the proposed action w.r.t. any clamoring thought. Similarly, impure consciousness leads to bad judgments and thus unwise actions. So “free will” to me is the property of a woke consciousness that “decides” the course of action. The action committed, good or bad, creates more Sankharas, positive or negative respectively, that add to the already stored Sankharas…. and so on. No Sankharas I assume are generated, good or bad, from Self-less action, or a Buddha would be reborn again in a good realm due to his untiring good deeds.

At death, like deep sleep, consciousness is in a weakened state, a sort of simmering state, a state with no discriminating power in normal persons. But as long as there are Karma formations (which we all have plenty of), this consciousness will be present. However, this simmering state can be stronger for an enlightened person, who can then be in a position to guide himself into the next existence in a positive way. I have read of Lamas doing this. Otherwise, in a normal person, the force of unguided Karma formations throws him or her into whatever state results from the dominant force.

So there is no transmigration of an eternal or fixed unchanging soul, but there is continuance of Karma. The new being has the same Karma formations lineup (albeit modified by the transition) plus this base level of consciousness, which grows and becomes stronger with renewed vitality and further inputs.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it! 

On a more contemplative note, I feel that all of this is like us on the ground pointing to a mountain peak high up and parsing the details of the topography of the peak, when the Buddha himself pointed to the base of the mountain and told us the only way was to climb it!!

Of course I’m curious what you think!

steenmillinder's picture


Thanks a lot for this! Some time ago I heard a discourse where the dependent arising of the mind was mentioned and I haven’t been able to find it since and I so wanted to know which sutta’s it came from. 

I’ve spent some time on physics and math and lack the imagination to understand how the complexity of consciousness could exist without a physical matrix to direct and redirect the energies involved.

Due to certain experiences and circumstances in my life i have no fear of death, actually i find comfort in the thought that all that is is the process of now and one day i will no longer be here to know that i have ever been. Endless samsara or the notion of endless heaven terrifies me far more.

To get the most out of it, when i read the suttas, i read the cycle of rebirth not as actual lives but the epochs i my life, i was married a decade and a half ago and it certainly feels like several lives ago already!

About the inability to trace back through ones lives back to the origin makes sense to me in the context that consciousness developed gradually, with my first memories starting to form at age about 4(fx when i got my upper front tooth knocked out age 4), and getting more consistent with time.

One thing though, like paying taxes i will die! enlightened or not, in peace or dragged screaming and kicking into the void. And there is only now and any of the next moments can be my moment of death. This adds pressure, i don’t have a potential eternity to do what needs be done, i might not make it before i die! So about that, think I’ll stop writing and go do my Jhana.

And again, thanks! <3 :)

Antonioprincem's picture

I just read your article on Rebirth and Consciousness, after 8+ years of its publication. To me, this article / essay is outstanding in its support on references and clarity in what Buddha really said versus countless interpretations. 

I have two questions:

1.- If Buddha did not teach on the “transmission of information” including consciousness (as a information concept), how come modern Buddhist believe in identifying and choosing Lamas ? I understand that the search for the reborn Dalai Lama took four years to find the 14th (current) Dalai Lama, Tensin Gyatso. Would this believe have been “approved” by Buddha?

2.- Could you please share your thoughts on Buddha´s teachings, specifically on (1) the “unbreakability”  of the natural forces (ie: miracles do obey natural forces); (2) reincarnation/rebirth does not transmit Human experiences, including consciousness, memories, intentions and past experiences to the newborn or any other subject; 

3.- Could we argue that if the previous two questions discards any dogmatic teachings from Buddha, then there is no support to call Buddha´s teachings as “a non theistic religion”.  If there is no dogma being thought, therefore there is no Religion.

Could you please share any link that could expand my views on the above topics?

Thanks and Regards