What the Buddha Probably Meant by ‘Rebirth’

Nature is a Repeating Cycle

Throughout the 5000 or so Buddhist texts – the Buddha states that when enlightenment is realised, it is understood that the concept of ‘rebirth’ is an ‘illusion’ and does not exist in reality. Rebirth (but not ‘reincarnation’) seems to occur prior to enlightenment, whilst the mind exists in the unenlightened state, and the Buddha often spends much time explaining to lay-people elaborate rebirth schemata that incorporate gods (and other realms) that are not known even within Hinduism! What was he doing? Well, firstly the concept of rebirth and reincarnation (not strictly the same) were quite prevalent during his lifetime, and formed part of the common religious thinking of the time. Secondly, the Buddha had to present his ‘Dharma’ within the cultural milieu as it existed at the time, in a manner that appealed to the masses in a manner that was familiar. He seems to use rebirth as a moral ‘threat’ as a means to control the masses and encourage them to alter and change the manner in which their minds function and their lives were lived. He seems to be using the fiction of rebirth as a popular myth to propagate his own teachings. In-short, the Buddha uses rebirth to overcome rebirth. 

Examining how the Ordained Buddhist Sangha are educated with regards to this concept would support this idea of ‘expedient’ teaching. When talking to ordained Buddhist monks and nuns, I have been told that ‘rebirth’ is not taken literally, but refers to each single ‘moment’ which passes before our awareness. It is ‘each new moment’ that a) comes into being, b) assumes a manifestation of its own, and c) dissolves. Each moment is ‘born’ ‘exists’ and ‘passes away’- this is what is meant by ‘rebirth’ as interpreted in the Abhidhamma (Pali). It has nothing to do with literal rebirth between lifetimes. All we can know for sure is the endless experience of the ‘present moment’, that is all. We can know nothing else about reality with certainty (in the subjective sense). When we die, it may be that the last moment of this body transitions into a new moment of some other existence – but we cannot know this from where we are now – but we can train our minds to ‘attentive’ here and now. This is the essence of Dzogchen, Zen, Ch’an, Son and many other Buddhist paths. It also seems to be the essence of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, etc. 

There is no metaphysical speculation in the Buddha’s path. Attention must be directed to assessing the stream of thought that traverses the surface of the mind, so that which seems to a continuous stream of conscious thought, is in fact endless ‘moments’ of isolated thoughts which possess ‘gaps’ between them. It is these gaps which we must become aware of and penetrate with meditative insight. It is through these gaps that we realise the underlying empty mind ground and ‘still’ all thoughts in the mind. All thoughts emerge from this empty psychic fabric – and return to it once the conditioned (karmic) habit-energy is used up. By getting to the root of all six senses, all the root karmic energy that manifests greed, hatred and delusion is broken and thoroughly used up.  The ‘rebirth’ of one out of control moment into a new out of control moment comes to an end. This being the case, the aggregates that combine to form a human body dissolve and fall away at death. Conscious awareness of this process lasts as long as the physical body continues to function, but ultimately ‘falls away’ as the Buddha taught. To understand the Buddha’s rebirth theory, you must look into the present moment here and now… 

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