However, Buddhists often speak of "rebirth." If there is no soul or permanent self, what is it that is "reborn"?
What Is the Self?
The Buddha taught that what we think of as our "self" -- our ego, self-consciousness and personality -- is a creation of the skandhas. Very simply, our bodies, physical and emotional sensations, conceptualizations, ideas and beliefs, and consciousness work together to create the illusion of a permanent, distinctive "me."
The Buddha said, “Oh, Bhikshu, every moment you are born, decay, and die.” He meant that, every moment, the illusion of "me" renews itself. Not only is nothing carried over from one life to the next; nothing is carried over from one moment to the next.
This takes us to the Three Marks of Existence, in particular anicca, "impermanence." The Buddha taught that all phenomena, including beings, are in a constant state of flux -- always changing, always becoming, always dying.
What Is Reborn?
In his book What the Buddha Taught (1959), Theravada scholar Walpola Rahula asked,
"If we can understand that in this life we can continue without a permanent, unchanging substance like Self or Soul, why can't we understand that those forces themselves can continue without a Self or Soul behind them after the non-functioning of the body?
"When this physical body is no more capable of functioning, energies do not die with it, but continue to take some other shape or form, which we call another life. ... Physical and mental energies which constitute the so-called being have within themselves the power to take a new form, and grow gradually and gather force to the full."
Zen teacher John Daido Loori said,
"... the Buddha’s experience was that when you go beyond the skandhas, beyond the aggregates, what remains is nothing. The self is an idea, a mental construct. That is not only the Buddha’s experience, but the experience of each realized Buddhist man and woman from 2,500 years ago to the present day. That being the case, what is it that dies? There is no question that when this physical body is no longer capable of functioning, the energies within it, the atoms and molecules it is made up of, don’t die with it. They take on another form, another shape. You can call that another life, but as there is no permanent, unchanging substance, nothing passes from one moment to the next. Quite obviously, nothing permanent or unchanging can pass or transmigrate from one life to the next. Being born and dying continues unbroken but changes every moment."
Thought Moment to Thought Moment
The teachers tell us that "me" is a series of thought-moments. Each thought-moment conditions the next thought-moment. In the same way, the last thought-moment of one life conditions the first thought-moment of another life, which is the continuation of a series. "The person who dies here and is reborn elsewhere is neither the same person, nor another," Walpola Rahula wrote.
This is not easy to understand, and cannot be fully understood with intellect alone. For this reason, many schools of Buddhism emphasize a meditation practice that enables intimate realization of the illusion of self.
Karma and Rebirth
The force that propels this continuity is karma. Karma is another Asian concept that Westerners (and, for that matter, a lot of Easterners) often misunderstand. Karma is not fate, but simple action and reaction, cause and effect. Any thought, word or deed conditioned by desire, hate, passion and illusion create karma. When the effects of karma reach across lifetimes, karma brings about rebirth.
The Persistence of Belief in Reincarnation
There is no question that many Buddhists, East and West, continue to believe in individual reincarnation. Parables from the sutras and "teaching aids" like the Tibetan Wheel of Life tend to reinforce this belief.
The Rev. Takashi Tsuji, a Jodo Shinshu priest, wrote about belief in reincarnation:
"It is said that the Buddha left 84,000 teachings; the symbolic figure represents the diverse backgrounds characteristics, tastes, etc. of the people. The Buddha taught according to the mental and spiritual capacity of each individual. For the simple village folks living during the time of the Buddha, the doctrine of reincarnation was a powerful moral lesson. Fear of birth into the animal world must have frightened many people from acting like animals in this life. If we take this teaching literally today we are confused because we cannot understand it rationally.
"...A parable, when taken literally, does not make sense to the modern mind. Therefore we must learn to differentiate the parables and myths from actuality."
What's the Point?
People often turn to religion for doctrines that provide simple answers to difficult questions. Buddhism doesn't work that way. Merely believing in some doctrine about reincarnation or rebirth has no purpose. Buddhism is a practice that enables experiencing illusion as illusion and reality as reality.
The Buddha taught that our delusional belief in "me" causes our many dissatisfactions with life (dukkha). When the illusion is experienced as illusion, we are liberated.
Karma: The Sanskrit word karma means "volitional act" or "deed." The law of karma is a law of cause and effect, or an understanding that every deed produces fruit.
Karma is created by the intentional acts of body, speech, and mind. Only acts pure of desire, hate and delusion do not produce karmic effects. Once set in motion, karma tends to continue in many directions, like ripples on a pond.
Karma is not mysterious or hidden. Once you understand what it is, you can observe it all around you. For example, let's say a man gets into an argument at work. He drives home in an angry mood, cutting off someone at an intersection. The driver cut off is now angry, and when she gets home she yells at her daughter. This is karma in action -- one angry act has touched off many more.
However, if the man who argued had the mental discipline to let go of his anger, the karma would have stopped with him.
Rebirth: Very basically, when the effects of karma continue across lifetimes it causes rebirth. But in light of the doctrine of no-self, what exactly is reborn?
The classical Hindu understanding of reincarnation is that a soul, or atman, is reborn many times. But the Buddha taught the doctrine of anatman -- no soul, or no-self. The various schools of Buddhism approach this question in somewhat different ways.
One way to explain rebirth is to think of all existence as one big ocean. An individual is a phenomenon of existence in the same way a wave is a phenomenon of ocean. A wave begins, moves across the surface of the water, then dissipates. While it exists, a wave is distinct from ocean yet is never separate from ocean. In the same way, that which is reborn is not the same person, yet is not separate from the same person.
Three Marks of Existence: The Buddha taught that everything in the physical world, including mental activity and psychological experience, is marked with three characteristics -- impermanence, suffering and egolessness. Thorough examination and awareness of these marks helps us abandon the grasping and clinging that bind us.
1. Suffering (Dukkha)
The Pali word dukkha is most often translated as "suffering," but it also means "unsatisfactory" or "imperfect." Everything material and mental that begins and ends, is composed of the five skandhas, and has not been liberated to Nirvana, is dukkha. Thus, even beautiful things and pleasant experiences are dukkha.
2. Impermanence (Anicca)
Impermanence is the fundamental property of everything that is conditioned. All conditioned things are impermanent and are in a constant state of flux. Because all conditioned things are constantly in flux, liberation is possible.
3. Egolessness (Anatta)
Anatta (anatman in Sanskrit) is also translated as nonself or nonessentiality. This is the teaching that "you" are not an integral, autonomous entity. The individual self, or what we might call the ego, is more correctly thought of as a by-product of the skandhas.
Wheel of Life: The rich iconography of the Wheel of Life can be interpreted on several levels. The six major sections represent the Six Realms. These realms can be understood as forms of existence, or states of mind, into which beings are born according to their karma. The realms also can be viewed as situations in life or even personality types -- hungry ghosts are addicts; devas are privileged; hell beings have anger issues.
In each of the realms the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara appears to show the way to liberation from the Wheel. But liberation is possible only in the human realm. From there, those who realize enlightenment find their way out of the Wheel to Nirvana.