Reincarnation And The Continuity of Consciousness

A close up on the upper part of a female face with her eyes looking slightly up into space.

The cycle of life and death wraps up the entirety of human experience. Consciousness of being conscious distinguishes human beings from other animals, although even among humans the level of consciousness experienced varies.

The belief that life continues after death in a different form has prevailed in most cultures from antiquity up to recent times. Many theories and viewpoints about what happens to consciousness after physical death can be found throughout the world.

The belief in reincarnation is pervasive in Hinduism as well as in most schools of Buddhism. According to the view of dependent relation from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, everything that exists is created by a cause similar to its effect. 

Every action performed by any sentient being produces an imprint that remains in their minds as a potential for being reproduced when conducive circumstances are met.

Table of Contents

What Reincarnates?

For Buddhists, it’s indispensable to understand what exactly a person is if we want to know whether reincarnation is possible. 

Buddhists believe that the mind is what travels from life to life carrying imprints of verbal and physical activity from previous lives which determine the conditions of the next life, such as body, family, environment, and so on. 

Different schools of Buddhism define the mind from a specific perspective according to the capacity of understanding of their adepts.

In the Mahayana texts, we find an exhaustive analysis of the map of the mind related to the teachings on Abhidharma, which lay down the higher training in Wisdom, according to the Middling Scope Aspiration. Wisdom in this context has to do with the analytical investigation of the teachings and the insights gained on that basis.

Historical Context of Buddhist Philosophical Texts

About two hundred years after Shakyamuni Buddha went into parinirvāṇa the third conceal to review how his teachings were being interpreted and passed on was held among the most advanced disciples. 

In this conceal, the ordained sangha did not arrive at a unanimous agreement regarding the exact meaning of the teachings, and four philosophical schools have branched out; the Vaibashika, the Sautantrika, the Cittamatra, and the Madhyamika. The latter flourished in India for the next thousand years, continuing in Tibet until the Chinese invasion in 1959.

Mind According to the Madhyamika School

The essence of the Mahayanist Buddhist view stems from an elaborated epistemological evaluation of Buddha’s teachings by the greatest Buddhist scholars of all time. 

The view expounded in the Madhyamika school in particular distillates the meaning contained in Shakyamuni Buddha’s words and actions with fine detail.

The definition of mind according to the Madhyamika interpretation of the Abhidharma is “(mere) clarity and knowing”, where:

    • Clarity. “refers to the non-material, space-like nature of consciousness, i.e. its being completely devoid of color, shape, form, or material dimension.” (Geshe Rabten)
        • “Mind is like a mirror in that it takes on an aspect/reflection of its object.” (Geshe Tenzin Namdak)

    • Knowing. “Mind always has an object. Mind knows/experiences/is aware of/engages with its object.” (Geshe Tenzin Namdak)

    • Mere. “Mind is merely a cognitive event: giving rise to an object and experiencing it. ‘Mere’ can exclude the need for attentiveness, understanding, evaluation, etc.” (Geshe Tenzin Namdak)

"Mind in Buddhism refers to experience, namely the mere arising and cognitive engaging with the contents of experience. The continuity of experience is known as the mind-stream, or ‘mental-continuum.’ It is always individual, with each moment of experience following from previous moments of experience according to the karmic laws of behavioural cause and effect.”

Alex Berzin

In the Madhyamika school, mind, awareness, consciousness, and knower/cognizer are synonyms.

Karmic Rebirth

According to H.H. Dalai Lama: 

There are two ways in which someone can take rebirth after death: rebirth under the sway of karma and destructive emotions and rebirth through the power of compassion and prayer. 

For unenlightened beings birth is involuntary. We are compelled by the power of previous habituations and their related emotions, whether virtuous and positive, neutral, confused and obscured, or negative and afflicted.

"A small feather depends on the wind to take it up and down and in different directions. You are not free but are carried here and there. This is our real condition, totally dependent on the potentiality of karma."

Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche

Mind is not a substance, its nature is described as clear and cognizing. The mind itself is free of any sort of conditioning or elaboration. 

According to the law of cause and effect (karma), our physical and verbal actions produce a potentiality for their reproduction in the future that can be seen as karmic pathways. This potentiality is not dissipated with physical death, but its momentum propels the mind into the next moment of conditioned existence.

Rebirth, whether karmic or by the power of compassion and prayers doesn’t involve an entity going from life to life like a string passing through a pearl necklace. 

Rebirth is by analogy like irrigation grooves where the water would be the mind, and the grooves would be the karmic imprints. When karmic grooves are not carved any longer there is no more cause for birth to take place.

The Six Realms of Existence

In Buddhist cosmology, there are Six Realms of Existence where the consciousness of migrating beings can be reborn by the power of karma and afflictions. 

The six realms are often depicted as an endless wheel where beings are reborn since beginningless times. The Wheel of Samsara is often found painted on the walls of many Tibetan Buddhist temples.

Although there are extensive explanations in the texts of how causes and conditions created by our actions shape our future existences, karma corresponds to an inconceivably intricate and non-linear reality. 

In a practical sense, every single motion we make and syllable we speak produces a potential that acquires an intelligible definition when our motivation and clarity are taken into consideration. 

The Six Realms of Existence are six possible mental destinations within the Buddhist cosmos. They refer to dimensions where the conditions favor specific appearances, and also to mental and psychological states that can be observed in human beings. The six realms are divided into three lower and three higher realms.

The God Realm

The god realms are dimensions produced by the accumulation of merits, where the consciousness of beings who have accumulated a lot of contaminated virtuous actions and mental stabilizations is born. 

The god realms are described as ethereal states where devas live for countless ages, glorious lives full of all sorts of indulgences. In the deva realm, there’s no trace of the slightest discomfort, their minds are completely absorbed in the intensity of the bliss experienced in their realm. 

There are three realms of devas: the Desire Realm, the Form Realm, and the Formless Realm.

The devas resemble the Greek gods, who are depicted as being extremely powerful but with no compassion or altruistic concern for others, only acting out of their own selfish interest. 

When the merit of the devas is completely worn out by living in the god realm, they die, and are reborn in whatever realm corresponds to the karmic potential that is left. 

Before their karma is completely extinguished, the devas start to grow fearful and paranoid due to their little merit left, passing from the god realm to the asura realm.

The Asura Realm

The asura realm is described as a demigod realm where beings have abundance and power, but can never enjoy what they have due to being ever jealous of beings in the god realm. 

Asuras are always waging wars against the devas, from whom they have terrible disadvantages due to them being seven times bigger, and having self-healing powers that keep the devas from dying unless their head is cut off. When they’re not at war with the devas they battle among themselves.

Asura beings are always concerned with the things they don’t have. The Sanskrit term sura means “god” and a is a negative; asura means “non-god”. 

Their only sense of enjoyment comes from triumphing over others. Asuras live in complete isolation, they’re unable to trust anyone due to their single-minded selfishness that causes them great anxiety.

The Human Realm

Among the six realms, the human realm is the most favorable from the perspective of becoming enlightened and escaping the endless cycle of karma and delusion. 

To be born a human being is the only condition among all six with the right amount of comfort, mental faculties, and suffering necessary for the development of the mind of enlightenment and omniscience.

The mind of enlightenment, bodhicitta, arises out of concern for others’ well-being. Although other animals are capable of caring for their peers, human beings are the only species capable of developing the skilful means necessary in order to help other beings to get out of the compulsive cycle of rebirth in suffering states of existence.

Animal Realm

The Buddhist description of the animal realm is not a romantic one. The freedom and beauty that animals appear to have in some people’s eyes do not correspond with the attributes that define a fortunate existence according to the Buddhist view. 

In the animal realm beings are ignorant and vulnerable to the hardships of living exposed to the elements and constantly afraid of being attacked by each other.

Animals have to go through hunger and thirst, besides having many discomforts and their faculties of cognition not being conducive for the development of superior attributes such as compassion, let alone bodhicitta

Kindness in the animal realm exists, however, it’s instinctive and related to survival instead of a sense of altruism, to which they are indifferent. Animals have no capacity to reflect on their own behavior, their narrow-mindedness only allows them to fulfil their immediate physical necessities.

Hungry Ghost Realm

The hungry ghosts are spirit-like beings consumed by hunger and thirst. In total, there are four classes preta beings. 

Pretas with internal obstacles are artistically depicted as having large bellies and very thin necks, which makes it impossible for them to ever satisfy themselves, even when food or drink is available. 

Pretas with external obstacles never hear of food and drink, and on the rare occasions when they finally get close to the substances they need, either it disappears, someone steals it, or they’re too weak to reach to it.

Pretas with specific obstacles have all sorts of problems to fulfil their needs based on the specific past karma of stinginess and greed that they created.

Pretas who move through space experience various causes of suffering, such as relieving their deaths by sickness or violence, remaining bound by past experiences, and bringing harm to others by visiting them in the other realms.

Hell Realm

The hell realms described in the Buddhist texts are eighteen in total. These realms are described as dimensions of excruciating physical and mental suffering caused by weapons, fire, cold, and many other hellish conditions that sound like coming out of a horror movie masterpiece. 

Rebirth in the hell realms is caused by deliberate aggression, engagement in hateful activity, and the enjoyment of being angry at others. “In hell, there is no space” (Trungpa, 283). Beings born in the hell realms find no truce to their torment until their negative karma is completely extinguished.

Rebirth Accounts

Many people are born with the natural capacity of remembering their previous lives, and some Buddhist practitioners who have attained spiritual realizations can remember their previous lives by will. 

People who are randomly capable of remembering their previous lives have been the object of study for academics in the East as well as in the West. Among the most relevant studies on the subject of past lives memories is the one carried out by the director of the Division of Perceptual Studies of the University of Virginia, Dr. Jim Tucker.

For the past 20 years, Dr. Tucker has gathered accounts of children who remember events and people from their previous lives and verified them. 

This study is considered very relevant in the Buddhist community, since it serves as evidence for the existence of rebirth that interconnects Buddhist and scientific knowledges.

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