Buddhist Buzzwords: Rebirth

I’m sure we will have our own understanding of what rebirth is, and so far, this is mine.

First and foremost, rebirth is not reincarnation. They may sound quite close, and I think that’s where the confusion begins. Reincarnation, simply, is believed to happen when someone’s soul passes from one host to another.

Rebirth, it is believed, is the continual karmic energy passing from one sentient life to another. Whether it’s a sentient life in the form of an ant, an orangutan, a peacock or a human, the karmic continuum keeps going until one is released from samsara. Which, as we know, only happens once one achieves enlightenment, or the great awakening. It can have a very small bit of essence from a previous life, but rarely is that the case.

I believe rebirth is much more than that though. This “I” or “me” we refer to as ourselves is constantly being reborn. For instance, grab a photo of yourself from when you were 5. Is that you? No, really, is it you? The same person sitting in front of the computer screen reading this? Grab a photo of yourself when you were 10, is this you? Of course, the nucleus of “you” is there, you are sharing the same body as those younger versions of you, but is it really you?

I look back at many rebirths I’ve had, for one, I am now a father. Things changed, and after a (re)birth I became something different. One time, this body was a graphic designer, but now this body installs cable into people’s homes. This body used to love playing like a child, but as this body aged those things became less of an interest. Who knows what will happen next, I do know that constant change is happening, and as I type, I am being reborn.

There is also the way some rebirths are tested, specifically in the Tibetan traditions. Many tulkus and lamas continue to come back, not as a reincarnate, but reborn in a new body. It is believed though, the essence of the previous birth is still there. When monks are sent to find a rebirth, the have tests they give to make sure those that are believed to be a rebirth truly are. The tests are usually done with objects from the rebirths previous birth, such as vajras, walking sticks, malas, etc.

I would love to hear your take on rebirth and reincarnation, especially if I’m wrong. If you have some clarification on something skewed here, feel free to comment.

Rebirth from Wikipedia
Rebirth in Buddhism is the doctrine that the evolving consciousness or stream of consciousness upon death, becomes one of the contributing causes for the arising of a new aggregation. The consciousness in the new person is neither identical to nor entirely different from that in the deceased but the two form a causal continuum or stream.

Reincarnation from Wikipedia
Reincarnation is believed to occur when the soul or spirit, after the death of the body, comes back to Earth in a newborn body. This phenomenon is also known as transmigration of the soul.


  1. “My most Revered Guru of my previous life His Holiness Maharaj Sahab, 3rd Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith had revealed this secret to me during trance like state. HE told me, “Tum Sarkar Sahab Ho” (You are Sarkar Sahab). Sarkar Sahab was one of the most beloved disciple of His Holiness Maharj Sahab. Sarkar Sahab later on became Fourth Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith.

    Since I don’t have any direct realization of it so I can not claim the extent of its correctness. But it seems to be correct. During my previous birth I wanted to sing the song of ‘Infinite’ (Agam Geet yeh gawan chahoon tumhri mauj nihara, mauj hoi to satguru soami karoon supanth vichara) but I could not do so then since I had to leave the mortal frame at a very early age. But through the unbounded Grace and Mercy of my most Revered Guru that desire of my past birth is being fulfilled now.”

  2. Great explanation. I have been pondering the question on the relationship of rebirth and anatman (no self). I was given a translation from the Tibetan Kaygur of a sutra entitled “Sutra in Response to a Query Over What Happens After Death”. One of the teachers at Drepung Loseling in Atlanta translated it. I am still working my way through a good understanding of the concepts but your blog came at just the right moment.

  3. Nate, you are absolutely right that rebirth is not reincarnation. However, just to remark on a few small points, I would say that Tibetans do not test rebirth, because if you understand the actual Buddhist concept of rebirth, then you know it cannot be “tested.” As much as I love the Tibetan tradition, it’s clear they have confused rebirth with reincarnation, and unfortunately, they are not the only Buddhist tradition that does this.

    Secondly, from the Mahayana point of view there is no extinction or ultimate release from suffering. This is why we say “Samsara is Nirvana.” I think this was the Buddha’s original sense of the matter, and there is evidence in the Pali Canon to support this contention.

    While I agree to some extent with Adam that rebirth may ultimately have little to do with one’s present life, I am not too sure we should adopt the view that it has no relevance. The problem is in isolating rebirth from the other correlating concepts. It is just one aspect of the cycle of birth and death, and I think that understanding the cyclic nature of existence contributes greatly to having a broad and comprehensive view of life. No one can say what exactly happens after death, yet even if nothing happens, it is still a mistake to view individual life as a finite thing that stands on its own side.

    Additionally, Buddhadasa Bhikku’s remarks do seem to be a little off the mark, especially in regards to the Buddha’s attitude. Seeing reality as it is, understanding that individual life is part of a process that encompasses all life is critically important to transcending suffering.

  4. I don’t know what happens upon dissolution of the body, and quite frankly, I feel that it has little bearing on my present life. I’ve resigned myself to really never knowing the answer, and that spending any amount of time thinking about it is not much more different than a day dream, something that is distracting from the here and now.

    I subscribe to the “rebirth happens when you cling” school of thought. That what is reborn is an identity that we accept as “real” every time we cling and create kamma. The goal then, is to end the clinging and creation of good/bad kamma, and reach liberation of mind here in this body’s lifetime.

    Even if I never reach that final liberation, the time I’ll spend striving towards it will be worth it.


  5. Nate, thanks, I really appreciate your sharing your perspective on this topic.

    Rebirth is one of the only things that gets me really going in Buddhist philosophy. I am, by nature contemplative as opposed to intellectual re the teachings – however I can’t stay away from this one! Had an interesting conversation with a Zen practitioner and a Tibetan practitioner the other day in the midst of Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s nature of mind instructions. Gotta love the unique and diverse western sangha.

    I also appreciate Buddhadasa Bhikku’s rather secular explanation of paticcasamuppada (dependent origination) where rebirth is explained as the continual arising of the “I” concept, not dissimilar from your description. However, he stops there (no discussion of the continuity of energy from one physical life to the next). He says:

    The Buddha refused to have any dealings with those things which don’t lead to the extinction of Dukkha. Take the question of whether or not there is rebirth. What is reborn? How is it reborn? What is its kammic inheritance? (kamma-is volitional action by means of body, speech or mind.) These questions are not aimed at the extinction of Dukkha. That being so, they are not Buddhist teaching and they are not connected with it. They do not lie in the sphere of Buddhism. Also, one who asks about such matters has no choice but to indiscriminately believe the answer he is given, because the one who answers is not going to be able to produce any proofs, he’s just going to speak according to his memory and feeling. The listener can’t see for himself and so has to blindly believe the other’s words. Little by little the matter strays from Dhamma until its something else altogether, unconnected with the extinction of Dukkha. ( from the Essential points of the Buddhist teachings)

    Buddhadasa Bhikku may be a bit extreme and some might say he even edges toward wrong view, but at least from my perspective, not expending energy on that which we cannot know through direct experience is probably a skillful means most of the time. Clearly there are many Buddhist teachings, so no need to claim so strongly what belongs and what doesn’t. Further, it’s highly likely that the historical Buddha did indeed discuss both rebirth and reincarnation, and maybe more literally than figuratively, because at the very least that was the specific cultural context he was operating in.

    Yes, sadhu, sadhu sadhu.


  6. Thanks for that explanation, that is very interesting. As you might know, in Zen we don’t really discuss rebirth much. Its one of those subjects that is pretty much treated as if it wasn’t there. But I still find it facsinating to read about what others think of it.

  7. I think that this is a really good primer on the concept of rebirth. In the Theravada tradition uses the imagery of a river where the river is made of water but it is never the same from place to play, from time to time. It is an ever evolving process held together only by continuity.

    When the body passes, what is reborn into the new aggregates are dukkha and placed in their new condition by khamma. This is also true of your definition as well. Our actions and level of liberation created the conditions of our lives.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s