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Do Buddhist teachings of selflessness contradict the doctrine of reincarnation?

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Sleeping Muse, Constantin Brâncuşi, 1910
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

In the years that I’ve been involved with various Buddhist communities, I’ve heard versions of this question many times. The Buddha taught that all things are without a permanent, abiding self. But many Buddhists also believe in reincarnation. How can both be true? Does reincarnation not imply the existence of something like a soul, or an eternally-abiding essence of the person?

I do not subscribe to the doctrine of reincarnation. However, from the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, I don’t believe this is an actual contradiction, because the self that reincarnates is a phenomenon like any other, persisting for as long as the causes and conditions that keep it going continue.

Most Buddhist schools teach that everything lacks a self. There is no permanently-abiding table any more than there is an eternally-abiding blogger writing these words. But that does not mean there is no table there – it simply means that the table doesn’t have the kind of persistence that it appears to have, at first glance.

We don’t need to appeal to metaphysical speculation to establish the selflessness of the table, we simply have to look closely at it and try to find its essence. By a process of reasoning and analysis, we can determine that it has none.

There is no invisible line around the table that separates it from the floor and the air, there is only a semi-stable lattice of particles interacting with its environment. If you crank up the electron microscope and really look hard at the thing, you’ll find that what we think of as the bits that make it up are themselves almost entirely empty space – atoms are simply tiny flashes of energy orbiting an equally-tiny nucleus in a vast gulf. If an average atom’s nucleus were the size of a basketball, an orbiting electron would be nearly 8 miles away.

So where is the solid table that we imagine? The table that we experience is a collection of perceptions and ideas all mixed together, and by the time we have an image of it in our consciousness, the concept of what things are like has gotten so mixed up with the perception of the table that there’s no disentangling them. In the language of one epistemological tradition within Buddhism, the conceptual image, or meaning-generality, of the table, is fused with the sense impression of the table itself.

The table exists from one moment to the next as long as the causes and conditions that go into arranging that particular configuration of matter and energy into something we can call a table persist. Once the causes and conditions cease, the table will cease. If, for example, we turn the heat up a few thousand degrees, poof! No more table.

No Abiding Self
Daniel-Henry Kahnweiter, Pablo Picasso, 1910
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

From the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, the self that reincarnates is like the table. The fact that it continues after the time of death is immaterial (no pun intended). Minds continue to exist in basically the same sense that tables still exist. They are conventional phenomena that abide for as long as the causes and conditions that sustain them abide.

One can ask other questions of reincarnation, though, and I think they should be asked. Let’s take the issue of mind/body dualism.

The term “dualism” in philosophy is used in different ways, but it frequently refers to the mind/body distinction posited by René Descartes. Descartes believed that the mind and the body are two different kinds of things, which fundamentally distinct in their character. I think his model basically affirmed what most people assumed to be true, based largely on the Christian belief in the persistence of a personal soul after the time of death.

You will often hear it claimed that Buddhism is a nondualistic tradition that rejects the mind/body split. It seems to me that nothing could be further from the truth. Buddhist philosophy traditionally makes a sharp distinction between the mind and physical matter. In the language of early Buddhist ontology, for example, the world is divided into different constituent elements, called aggregates, which include mind, perceptions, and perceptible objects or forms. These aggregates are of different ontological types, much as in Descartes’ distinction between res cogitans and res extensa.

One contemporary Tibetan scholar-yogi put it thusly:

Mind and body, though associated, are not inseparably linked; they have different substantial causes. That this is so means that the increase and development of the mind is not limited to that of the body; though the continuum of the body ceases at death, that of the mind does not. This difference stems from the fact that whereas the body is composed of matter and as such is anatomically established, mind is not. It is an impermanent phenomenon … changing in each moment, and having the nature of clear light. (1)

One could not ask for a clearer statement of mind/body dualism.

From the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, generally speaking, the mind does not have intrinsic existence, and so it has no eternally-abiding self. However, it does have a different substantial basis from material phenomena, and as such, it does not depend on the body for its continued existence. In the Gelukpa tradition, represented in the quote above, the substantial cause of each moment of the mind’s existence is the preceding moment of the mind’s existence, and nothing further is needed to sustain it.

I do not have a problem reconciling an eternally-abiding mind with the doctrine of emptiness, but I do have a problem with mind/body dualism, and with the idea that the mind is constituted of a mysterious, self-perpetuating stream of some sort. After all, we have learned a little about the mind in the last 2500 years, and I do not see how the existence of the mind can be differentiated from the behavior of the brain at this late date.

1) Lati Rinbochay and Napper E. Mind in Tibetan Buddhism. Snow Lion Press. 1980. pg. 11.


Written by Mesocosm

April 3, 2012 at 12:31 pm

4 Responses

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  1. I’ve lately been enjoying reading with the interpretation in mind that what is ‘reborn’ as the ‘self’ is the perceiving entity, as created by each sense-impression — which, similarly, ‘dies’ with that perception. Call it semio-phenomenological-buddhism.

    The whole reincarnation thing associated with some Buddhism (itself similarly difficult to claim is monolithic, as I’m sure you’d agree!) thus becomes a misinterpretation akin to the later Christian misinterpretation of Christ’s take on marriage and sexuality.

    The success of this reading varies with lineage, but it’s fun.


    April 3, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    • I am not aware of any Indian tradition of Buddhism that does not literally posit an eternally-existing mind that persists either until liberation is achieved, or forever.

      I have thought about different ways to read reincarnation as a metaphor – for a while I saw it as a symbolic projection of the principle of complementarity, distinguishing between the diachronic (samsara) and synchronic (nirvana). But I grew weary of attempts to find sympathetic interpretations over the years, as I gradually became convinced that these were my own efforts to find a palatable reading of a doctrine that, in truth, I simply couldn’t accept. As far as I can tell, the vast majority of Buddhists throughout history have read these doctrines in a very literal way.

      I’ve been forced to conclude that most Buddhist schools have elements of substantialism. This is perhaps less so of Ch’an and Zen, but I won’t be the first to argue that those schools owe as much or more to Taoism as to Indian Buddhism.

      This can be difficult for those of us who are drawn to Buddhism’s anti-essentialism to accept, and, as Claude Levi-Strauss said, dissonance gives rise to hermeneutics. I’ve seen all kinds of creative attempts to get around Buddhist substantialism.

      The least-substantialist reading I’ve found is probably to be found in an area of Gelukpa doctrine known as the “unique tenets of the Prasangika-Madhyamika school.” They have a very interesting doctrine dealing with a concept of “disintegratedness,” whereby the mere fact of an action having ceased can, in itself, serve as the cause of future events. This is one way to try to get around substantialism and preserve the doctrine of karma.


      April 3, 2012 at 1:07 pm

  2. “We don’t need to appeal to metaphysical speculation to establish the selflessness of the table, we simply have to look closely at it and try to find its essence. By a process of reasoning and analysis, we can determine that it has none.”

    It seems to me that the same can be said of our human mind-matter phenomenon or process — by looking closely at it, either in meditation or with the help of MRI, and trying to find an essence, a core, an identifiable “I,” we don’t find one. It’s hard to prove a negative, but after a while, the search appears fruitless.

    In this way we discover the truth of no-self doctrine.

    So if there’s no self, then what reincarnates would have to be the mind-process, the stream of thoughts, which isn’t something to identify with; it’s just a process. Given what science has discovered about neurobiology, I think the causes and conditions that keep the mind going are all bound up with the aliveness of the body in which the mind-process is happening, and for that reason, I also don’t subscribe to the doctrine of reincarnation, at least not on a literal level.

    However, if we assume that the mind-process self-perpetuates — that one thought/reaction leads to another, and that if there’s a thought/reaction happening at the moment of death, then it will necessarily be transmitted to the next stage of existence (in the form of continued existence as a physical or celestial “being”) — it still strikes me as intellectually awkward to construe that as “reincarnation.” Talking about it this way, and in terms of “my past and future lives,” seems to me to suggest a continuous identity and personal identification with the mind-stream, which seems to me to fly in the face of the dis-identification process of objective observation of the mind-process from the perspective of the “observer self.” It seems like this would mean that it’s the mind that gets reincarnated, not the observer self, which seems like an invitation to identify with the mind-process (i.e., call it “I”) rather than sitting in the emptiness of the observer self. What am I missing here? I practice in a tradition that invites students to simply set aside theoretical teachings that don’t work for us, as long as we follow the practical instructions, so most of the time I tend to just ignore these (to me) apparent contradictions.

    I’m a fan of Stephen Batchelor’s *Buddhism Without Beliefs*, which I think is a pretty good attempt to extract the practical elements of general Buddhist teachings for application by modern lay Westerners, while leaving culturally based metaphysical attitudes to the side. I agree with SB that a lot of the karma and reincarnation stuff was probably just so basic to the prevailing worldview of India at the time of the Buddha that it was simply assumed as a given; it wasn’t his innovation and it isn’t the essence of Buddhism.


    CoEvolve Coaching

    April 4, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    • Most of the special insight meditations with which I am acquainted involve formulating all the conceivable ways a self could exist, and then examining them one by one. When the self is not found in each alternative, that “not-finding” becomes the object of meditation. Gradually, certitude develops, and there is a process by which, eventually, the mind moves from this inferential perception of emptiness to a direct perception of emptiness.

      The fact that the I of the person, like the I of the table, cannot be found by analysis, is precisely the point I was trying to make, of course – I hope it came across.

      But the philosophical point I’m trying to make is that the self, while lacking inherent existence, does have a conventional existence. It exists, that is to say, from the perspective of the ordinary worldly perspective. Because there is a self there, right? If I call you Janet, that is an error, or a misdesignation.

      The self is not refuted by analytical meditation on emptiness – only the inherently-existed self is refuted. The purpose of vipassana meditation is to refute specific misconceptions about the way things exist, not to refute existence altogether. Therefore, it seems to me – and certainly this is so from the perspective of most Buddhist tradition – that emptiness has nothing to do with reincarnation. The conventionally-existent I is what takes rebirth.

      Consider it this way – from the conventional perspective, I identify with my body, as well, and I am not wrong to do so. It is only if I believe that my body truly is my Self with a capital S that this is an error.

      It may be the case that karma and reincarnation were part of Buddha’s milieu, as Batchelor says, but no one actually knows. Have a look at this brief post on problems of dating Indian material from that time.

      The dates are extremely uncertain, including the dates of Buddha’s life, and the composition of all of the texts written in the first millennium. That problem is severely compounded by the fact that the first Buddhist scriptures were written centuries after Buddha died, and our earliest copies of those texts date to more than a thousand years after that. Our picture of what India was like at that time is extremely cloudy, and Buddhism was actually an extremely early religious doctrine with respect to ascetic practices aimed at liberation from rebirth. It’s actually possible it was one of the first.

      In other words, Batchelor has joined an extremely old tradition of identifying those aspects of Buddhism that he finds agreeable or persuasive, and saying that this is the “real Buddhism.” I don’t believe I’ve ever studied a school of Buddhism that didn’t have an argument for why they are the genuine tradition.


      April 4, 2012 at 5:58 pm

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