Today we are going to continue a theme that we began two weeks ago when we talked about the teaching of karma. We are going to consider the results of karma in the next life, in other words rebirth. But before I begin to consider specifically the Buddhist teaching regarding rebirth, I think we need to spend a little bit of time on the concept of rebirth in general. This is because it is a concept which many people have difficulty with, particularly over the last few decades when we have become increasingly conditioned to think in what passes for scientific terms, in what most people would naively believe to be scientific terms. Thinking in this way has caused many people to discard the idea of rebirth as something that smacks of superstition, that is a part of an old-fashioned way of looking at the world. So I think we need to redress the balance and create a certain amount of openness to the concept of rebirth before we treat specifically the Buddhist teaching on rebirth.
There are a number of approaches that we can take to what we might call outlining the case for the reality of rebirth. One line which we might take would be to recall that in almost all the major cultures of the world, at one time or another, there had been a strong belief in the reality of rebirth. This is particularly true in India where the idea of rebirth can be traced back to the very earliest period of Indian civilization where all the major Indian religions, be they theism or atheism, be they schools of Hinduism or non-Hindu doctrines like Jainism, believe in the reality of rebirth. Similarly, in other cultures there has been a belief in rebirth, as for instance even in the Mediterranean world, there is a lot of evidence that belief in rebirth was quite common before and during the first few centuries of the Common Era. So the belief in rebirth has been an important part of the human way of thinking about one’s situation.
Specifically, within the Buddhist tradition, we have the testimony of the Buddha on the matter of rebirth. On the night of His enlightenment, the Buddha acquired three varieties of knowledge and the first of these was the detailed knowledge of His past lives. He was able to recollect the conditions in which He had been born in His past lives. He was able to remember what His names had been, what His occupations had been and so on. Besides the Buddha’s testimony, His prominent disciples were also able to recollect their past lives. Ananda, for instance, acquired the ability to recollect his past life soon after his ordination. Similarly, throughout the history of Buddhism, saints, scholars and meditators have been able to recollect their past lives.
Nonetheless, neither of these two arguments for rebirth can be expected to be completely convincing in a scientific and rational environment. So perhaps we need to look a bit closer to home so to speak, and here we get help from a very unexpected direction. Most of us may be aware that in the past twenty or thirty years there have been a huge amount of scientific investigations of the question of rebirth and these investigations have been pursued by psychologists and parapsychologists. Gradually through these investigations, we have built up a very convincing case for the reality of rebirth, a case which is developed along scientific lines. There have been many books published in which the details of these investigations have been described and discussed. One scholar who has been particularly active in this area in recent years is Professor Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia, USA. He has published findings on more than twenty cases of rebirth. Some of us may be familiar with the case of the woman who was able to recall her past life more than a hundred years before as Bridey Murphy in a foreign land which she had never visited in her present life. I am not going to go through these specific cases in detail because if one is interested in this scientific evidence for rebirth one can read about it for oneself. Nonetheless, I think we are now at a point where even the most skeptical of us will have to admit that there is a lot of circumstantial evidence in favour of the reality of rebirth.
But in making the case for rebirth, we can look even closer to our own experience, and here we need to recall and examine it in the true Buddhist way to see what meaning we can distil from our own experience. All of us in this room have our own particular capabilities, our own particular likes and dislikes, and I think it is fair to ask whether these are all merely the result of chance. For instance, some of us are more capable at sport than others, some of us have a talent for mathematics, others have a talent for music, some of us like swimming, others are afraid of water. Are all these differences in our abilities and attitudes merely the result of chance? There are incredible peculiarities in the nature of our experiences. Let me take my own case. I was born in a Roman Catholic family in the United States. There was absolutely nothing in my early background to indicate that by the age of twenty I would have travelled to India and that I would spend the next fourteen years of my life predominantly in Asia, and that I would become deeply involved in Buddhist studies.
Then, too, there are those situations in which we sometimes feel a strong presentiment that we have been in a particular place before although we have not visited this place in our present life. Or, sometimes we feel that we have known someone before. Sometimes we meet a person and within a very short space of time we feel that we have known that person thoroughly. Alternatively, sometimes we have known a person for years and yet we are not close to that person. These experiences of feeling that we have been to a place before or have known a person before are so common and universal even in a culture which knows almost nothing of rebirth. There is a particular phrase for this experience, the French words “deja vu” which mean “already seen or experienced”. If we are not dogmatic, when we add up all the evidence of rebirth – the persistent belief in rebirth in many cultures in many different times throughout history, the Buddha’s own testimony, the testimony of His prominent disciples, the evidence presented by scientific investigations, and our own personal intimations that we have been here before — we have to admit that there is at least a good possibility that rebirth is a reality.
In Buddhism, rebirth is part of the continuous process of change. In fact, we are not only reborn at the time of death, we are born and reborn at every moment. This too, like many other Buddhist teachings, is easily verifiable by reference to our own experience and by reference to the teachings of science. For instance, the majority of the cells in the human body die and are replaced many times during the course of one’s life. Even those few cells which last one’s entire life undergo constant internal changes. This is part of the process of birth, death and rebirth. If we look at the mind too, we find that mental states of worry, happiness and so forth are changing every moment. They die and are replaced by new states. So whether we look at the body or the mind, our experience is characterized by continuous birth, death and rebirth.
In Buddhism, it is taught that there are various realms, spheres or dimensions of existence. There are thirty-one planes of existence listed, but for our purposes, we are going to utilize a simpler scheme which enumerates six realms of existence. In general, the six realms may be divided into two groups, one of which is relatively fortunate and the other relatively miserable. The first group includes three of the six realms and they are the realm of the gods, the realm of the demigods and the realm of human beings. Rebirth in these fortunate realms is the result of wholesome karma. The second group includes the three realms that are considered relatively miserable. They are sometimes called the realms of woe, and they are the realm of animals, the realm of hungry ghosts and the realm of hell beings. Rebirth in these states of woe is the result of unwholesome karma.
Let us look at each of these realms individually and starting from the realm at the bottom, let us look at the realm of the hell beings (Niraya). There are various hells in Buddhism, and they are principally eight hot hells and eight cold hells. In the hells, beings suffer incalculable and inexpressible pain. It is said that the suffering experienced as a result of being pierced by three hundred spears in a single day in this life is only a minute fraction of the suffering experienced in hell. The cause of rebirth in hell is continuous, habitual violent actions — habitual killing, cruelty and so forth, actions that are borne of ill-will. Beings born in the hells suffer the pain of hell until their unwholesome karma is exhausted. This is important because we must note that in Buddhism no one suffers eternal damnation. When their unwholesome karma is exhausted, beings in hell are reborn in a more fortunate realm of existence.
The next realm is the realm of the hungry ghosts (Pretas). Beings in this realm suffer chiefly from hunger and thirst, and from heat and cold. They are completely bereft of the objects of their desire. It is said that when the hungry ghosts perceive a mountain of rice or a river of fresh water, and rush towards that vision, they find the mountain of rice is only a heap of pebbles, and the river of fresh water only a ribbon of blue slate. Similarly, it is said that in the summer even the moon is hot, while in the winter even the sun is cold for them. The foremost cause of rebirth as a hungry ghost is avarice and miserliness borne of greed. As with the hells, the beings in this realm are not condemned to eternal existence in the form of hungry ghosts, for when their unwholesome karma is exhausted, they will be reborn in a higher realm.
In the next realm which is the realm of animals (Tiryak), the living beings suffer from a variety of unhappy circumstances. They suffer from the fear and pain that is the result of constantly killing and eating one another. They suffer from the depredations of man who kills them for food or for their hides, horns or teeth. Even if they are not killed, domestic animals are forced to work for man and are driven on by hooks and whips. All these are a source of suffering. The principal cause of rebirth as an animal is ignorance. In other words, the blind, heedless pursuit of one’s animal-like desires, the preoccupation with eating, sleeping and sexual desire, and the disregard of developing one’s mind to the practice of virtue and so forth lead one to be reborn as an animal.
Now when I say for instance that habitual killing is the cause of rebirth in the hells, or that greed is the cause of rebirth in the realm of the hungry ghosts, or that ignorance is the cause of rebirth in the realm of animals, it does not mean that a specific hateful, greedy or ignorant action will result in rebirth amongst the appropriate class of beings – the hells, the realms of hungry ghosts or the realm of animals. What it does mean is that there is a relationship between hatred and rebirth in the hells, and between greed and rebirth in the realm of hungry ghosts, and between ignorance and rebirth in the realm of the animals. If unimpeded, if unbalanced by other virtuous actions, such actions if habitual are likely to result in rebirth in these three states of woe.
I am going to skip the realm of human beings for the moment and go on to the realm of demigods (Asuras). The Asuras are more powerful physically and are more intelligent mentally than human beings. Yet they suffer because of jealousy and conflict. Mythologically, it is said that the Asuras and the gods share a celestial tree. While the gods enjoy the fruits of this celestial tree, the Asuras are custodians of the roots of the tree. The Asuras are envious of the gods and constantly attempt to take the fruits of the tree from the gods. As a result of this, they fight with the gods, and are defeated by the gods and suffer greatly as a consequence. Because of this constant jealousy, envy and conflict, existence amongst the Asuras is unhappy and unfortunate. As with the other realms, there is a cause of rebirth amongst the demigods. On the positive side, the cause is generosity. On the negative side, the causes are anger, envy and jealousy.
The sixth realm, the realm of the gods (Devas) is the happiest amongst the six realms. As a result of having done wholesome actions, of having observed the moral precepts and having practised meditation, living beings are reborn amongst the gods where they enjoy sensual pleasure or spiritual pleasure, or tranquillity depending upon the level within the realm of the gods in which they are born. Nonetheless, the realm of the gods is not to be desired because the happiness of the gods is impermanent. No matter how much they may enjoy their existence as a god, when the force of their karma is exhausted, when the merits of their good conduct and the power of their experience in meditation are exhausted, the gods fall from heaven and are reborn in another realm. At this moment, at the moment of their death, it is said that the gods suffer even more mental anguish than the physical pain suffered by beings in the other realms. The negative factor associated with birth in the realm of the gods is pride.
So here, as you can see, we have an affliction or defilement associated with the five realms – hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, demigods and the gods, and they are ill-will, desire, ignorance, jealousy and pride. Birth in any of these five realms is undesirable. Birth in the three lower realms is undesirable for obvious reasons, because of the intense suffering and because of the total ignorance of the beings who inhabit these realms. Even rebirth in the realms of the demigods and the gods too is undesirable. This is because, although one experiences a certain degree of happiness and power, existence amongst the demigods and gods is impermanent. Besides, because of the distractions and pleasures in these realms, beings there never think of looking for a way out of the cycle of birth and death. This is why it is said that of the six realms, the most fortunate, opportune and favored is the human realm. This is why I have left the human realm to the last.
The human realm (Manushya) is the most favoured of the six realms because as a human being one has the motivation and the opportunity to practise the Dharma and to achieve enlightenment. One has this motivation and opportunity because the conditions conducive to practising the path are present. In the human realm, one experiences both happiness and suffering. The suffering in this realm, though terrible, is not so great as the suffering in the three realms of woe. The pleasure and happiness experienced in the human realm is not so great as the pleasure and happiness experienced in the heavens. As a result, human beings are neither blinded by the intense happiness experienced by the beings in the heavens, nor distracted by the unbearable suffering that beings in the hells experience. Again, unlike the animals, human beings possess sufficient intelligence to recognize the necessity to look for a means to achieve the total end of suffering.
Human birth is difficult to gain from a number of points of view. First of all, it is difficult to gain from the point of view of its cause. Good conduct is the foremost cause of rebirth as a human being, but how rare is truly good conduct. Again, human birth is difficult to gain from the point of view of number, for human beings are only a small fraction of the living beings who inhabit the six realms. Moreover it is not enough simply to be born as a human being because there are countless human beings who do not have the opportunity to practise the Dharma. It is therefore not only necessary to be born as a human being, it is also necessary to have the opportunity to practise the Dharma, to develop one’s qualities of morality, mental development and wisdom.
The Buddha spoke about the rarity and the precious nature of opportune birth amongst human beings. He used a simile to illustrate this point. Suppose the whole world were a vast ocean, and on the surface of this ocean there were a yoke floating about, blown about by the wind, and suppose at the bottom of the ocean there lived a blind tortoise which came to the surface of the ocean once every hundred years. Just as difficult as it would be for that tortoise to place its neck through the opening in that yoke floating about in the ocean, just so difficult is it to attain opportune birth as a human being. Elsewhere, it is said that just as if one were to throw a handful of dried peas against a stone wall, and just as if one of these peas were to stick in a crack in the wall, so to be born as a human being with the opportunity to practise the Dharma is similarly difficult.
It is foolish to waste human existence along with the conducive conditions that we enjoy in free societies, the opportunity that we have to practise the Dharma. It is extremely important that having this opportunity we make use of it. If we fail to practise the Dharma in this life, there is no way of knowing where in the six realms we will be reborn, and when we shall have such a chance again. We must strive to free ourselves from the cycle of rebirth because failing to do so means that we will continue to circle endlessly amongst these six realms of existence. When the karma, wholesome or unwholesome, that causes us to be born in any of the six realms is exhausted, rebirth will occur, and we will find ourselves again in another realm. In fact, it is said that all of us have circled in the these six realms since beginningless time, that if all the skeletons that we have had in our various lives were heaped up, the pile would exceed the height of Mount Sumeru. If all the mothers’ milk that we have drunk throughout our countless existences were collected, the amount would exceed the amount of water in all the oceans. So now that we have the opportunity to practise the Dharma, we must do so without delay.
In recent years, there has been a tendency to interpret the six realms in psychological terms. Some teachers have suggested that the experience of the six realms is available to us in this very life. Undoubtedly, this is true so far as it goes. Those men and women who find themselves in prisons, tortured, killed, and so forth are undoubtedly experiencing a situation similar to that of the hell beings. Similarly, those who are miserly and avaricious experience a state of mind similar to that of the hungry ghosts. And those who are animal-like experience a state of mind similar to that of the animals. Those who are quarrelsome, powerful and jealous experience a state of mind similar to that of the Asuras. Those who are proud, tranquil, serene and exalted experience a state of mind similar to that of the gods. Yet, while it is undoubtedly true that the experience of the six realms is to some extent available to us in this human existence, I think it would be a mistake to assume or to believe that the six realms of existence do not have a reality which is as real as our human experience. The hells, the realm of the hungry ghosts, animals, demigods and gods are as real as our human realm. We will recall that mind is the creator of all mental states. Actions done with a pure mind motivated by generosity, love and so forth result in happy mental states or states of existence like the human realm and the realm of the gods. But actions done with an impure mind affected by greed, ill-will and so forth result in unhappy lives like those of the hungry ghosts and hell beings.
Finally, I would like to distinguish rebirth from transmigration. You may have noticed that in Buddhism, we consistently speak of rebirth and not transmigration. This is because in Buddhism we do not believe in an abiding entity, in a substance that transmigrates. We do not believe in a self that is reborn. This is why when we explain rebirth, we make use of examples which do not require the transmigration of an essence or a substance. For example, when a sprout is born from a seed, there is no substance that transmigrates. The seed and the sprout are not identical. Similarly, when we light one candle from another candle, no substance travels from one to the other, and yet the first is the cause of the second. When one billiard ball strikes another, there is a continuity, the energy and direction of the first ball is imparted to the second. It is the cause of the second billiard ball moving in a particular direction and at a particular speed. When we step twice into a river, it is not the same river and yet there is continuity, the continuity of cause and effect. So there is rebirth, but not transmigration. There is moral responsibility, but not an independent, permanent self. There is the continuity of cause and effect, but not permanence. I want to end with this point because we will be considering the example of the seed and the sprout, and the example of the flame in an oil lamp next week when we discuss dependent origination. And with the help of the teaching of dependent origination, we will understand better how dependent origination makes moral responsibility and notself compatible.
Extract from “Fundamentals of Buddhism”, by Dr. Peter Della Santina.