Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Rebirth without a Soul

One question many newbies like to ask is: what is it that is reincarnated or reborn when Buddhists deny the existence of a soul. Why do Buddhists say there is no soul? Because a soul means there is a spirit in you that never changes. In the Buddhist understanding of rebirth, there is no such unchanging soul that goes from life to life. There is only a changing mind-stream that appears and disappears according to karma. Like an old candle that is used to light another new candle, can you say the flame of the first candle is the same as the second candle? It is obviously not the same flame, but the new flame owes its existence to the old one. The common qualities of all candle flames, like being hot, being bright, being able to burn things are inherited. We can neither say the new flame is same as the old one, nor can we say they are different. It is the same with the mind. The mind of this life owes its existence to the mind of the previous life. It inherits all the qualities of the previous mind, yet it has become a new mind altogether. Likewise, the mind that arises in another life is different from the mind of the previous life. Only a relationship of cause and effect links the new and old minds together, nothing more. So where can one find any soul?

Some people may also ask: if rebirth is real, why is it then I cannot remember my past lives, why is it that some people can? Past-life memories depends on how aware you are in your mind when you die, not on a soul that stores them. Those who die with clear awareness will be able to recall the cause and effect that link them to the previous existence when they are reborn. The quality of awareness appears and disappears along with the mind when you die and are reborn.

Let me give you another simile. It is like a mirror and its ability to reflect images. If you melt down an old mirror, its ability to reflect is also temporarily gone. But if you re-mold it into a new mirror, then the ability to reflect is there again. Depending on the conditions during re-molding, the clarity of reflection might be better, or might be worse than the previous mirror. In the same way, how far back one can remember will also depends on the conditions during rebirth. Because most of us are heavy with defilements, we can't even remember events that happened when we were babies, what more for events that took place in the previous life? However, if a person keeps polishing the dull mirror that is his mind, it will become clearer and clearer, such that it would be able to remember very very far back - 1 life, 2 lives, 10s, 100s, 1000s, millions of lives. And that is only one of the abilities of our mind-mirror. How does one polish this mirror? Through the practice of samatha-vipassana meditation as taught by the Noble Ones.

For example, ghosts tend to remember their previous life more than humans. Why is that so? Because of clinging. People who die with strong clinging to craving or anger are reborn as ghosts. This is almost like a state of deep concentration, but on wrong thoughts. Because of the very same quality, they cannot forget their previous life and although it makes them remember, it also brings them great suffering.

As for most beings reborn as humans, their clinging is light and their mind unfocused, so memories of good and bad fade through the process of rebirth, in the same way that we cannot remember past events if they are not very significant.

There are those experienced meditators, who by focusing their minds into Jhana at the point of death, are able to remember their previous lives after they are reborn as humans or devas. This is because their mind is clear and their awareness deep and powerful. As I mentioned previously, the level of awareness determines whether one can remember or not.

What about the enlightened ones, whose outflows are already cut off? For them, their minds are are constantly in Jhana, whether they are close to death or not. But although they attain the Jhanas, they do not abide in these states like the worldly meditators. That's why they are no longer reborn in the heaven realms or anywhere else. That which is non-abiding is the deathless quality, the realm of Nibbana. When you can find this quality within your own mind, then "birth is ended, death is ended, the holy life is fulfilled and there is nothing left to be done."

5 comments:

dipankara said...

good dhamma

dipankara said...

hi wayne,

can i hv your email

ken

jeff said...

well say, sadhu! sadhu!

Anonymous said...

After Buddha's enlightenment it was recorded that he said

"I have traveled through so many long times
To discover the House Maker
As I could not find you

I have been reborn again and again
Now I have caught you, the House Maker

After this you can never produce the house for me

All that belong to you are destroyed by me

My mind is totally liberated"

When a person dies, according to tibetan buddhism, the mind instinctively create a body. When the mind is no more then no body - physical or energetic will be created.

But one also can't help that Buddha also talked of "I" as the person who saw the "House Maker".

There's no permanent I or self or soul but there's an ever changing self or soul or consciousness that move from lifetime to lifetime.

When liberation is gained this consciousness become a universal consciousness that pervades all of space.

fred said...

Just as when we are living normally we like to remember good experiences from our past and not bad experiences.... so one who can recall past lives can only recall existences as a human or deva and not as animals or in the hell realms.