What Is Reincarnation?

As with other Indian religions, Buddhism asserts rebirth or reincarnation. The mental continuum of an individual, with its instincts, talents and so on, comes from past lives and goes on into future ones. Depending on one’s actions and the propensities built up by them, an individual may be reborn in any of a wide variety of life forms, better or worse: human, animal, insect, and even ghost and other invisible states. All beings experience uncontrollable rebirth due to the force of their disturbing attitudes, such as attachment, anger and naivety, and their compulsive behavior triggered by them. If one follows the negative impulses that arise in one’s mind due to past behavioral patterns and acts destructively, one will experience as a result suffering and unhappiness. If, on the other hand, one engages in constructive deeds, one will experience happiness. Each individual’s happiness or unhappiness in successive rebirths, then, is not a reward or a punishment, but is created by that person’s previous actions according to the laws of behavioral cause and effect.

How Can We Come to Understand Rebirth?

How do we validly know that anything is true? According to the Buddhist teachings, things can validly be known in two ways: by straightforward perception and by inference. By doing an experiment in a laboratory, we can validate the existence of something through straightforward perception. For example, by looking through a microscope, we know it’s true, simply through our senses, that there are many tiny microbes in a drop of lake water.

Some things, however, can’t be known through straightforward perception. We must rely on logic, reason and inference; for instance, the existence of magnetism by inferring it from the behavior of a magnet and an iron needle. Rebirth is very hard to prove by means of straightforward sense perception. However, there are many examples of people who remember their past lives and who can identify either their personal belongings or people they knew before. We could infer, through that, the existence of rebirth, but some people might doubt this conclusion and suspect a trick.

Leaving aside those accounts of past life memories, we could turn to logic for understanding rebirth. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that if certain points do not correspond to reality, he’s willing for them to be eliminated from Buddhism. This applies to rebirth as well. In fact, he made this statement originally in that context. If scientists can prove that rebirth doesn’t exist, then we must give up believing it to be true. However, if scientists cannot prove it false, then because they follow logic and the scientific method, which is open to understanding new things, they must investigate whether it does exist. To prove that rebirth does not exist, they would have to find its nonexistence. Just saying, “Rebirth doesn’t exist because I don’t see it with my eyes,” is not finding the nonexistence of rebirth. Many things exist that we can’t see with our eyes, like magnetism and gravity.

Ways of Reasoning to Investigate Whether or Not There Is Rebirth

If the scientists cannot prove the nonexistence of rebirth, it then behooves them to investigate if rebirth does in fact exist. The scientific method is to postulate a theory based on certain data and then check if it can be validated. Therefore, we look at the data. For example, we notice that infants are not born like blank cassettes. They have certain habits and personality characteristics observable even when they are very young. Where do these come from?

It makes no sense to say that they come from just the previous continuities of the physical substances of the parents, from the sperm and egg. Not every sperm and egg that come together implant in the womb to grow into a fetus. What makes the difference between when they do become a baby and when they do not? What is actually causing the various habits and instincts in the child? We can say it’s the DNA and the genes. This is the physical side. Nobody is denying that this is the physical aspect of how a baby comes into being. Nevertheless, what about the experiential side? How do we account for mind?

The English word “mind” does not have the same meaning as do the Sanskrit and Tibetan terms that it’s supposed to translate. In the original languages, “mind” refers to mental activity or mental events, rather than to something that is doing that activity. The activity or event is the cognitive arising of certain things – thoughts, sights, sounds, emotions, feelings and so on – and a cognitive involvement with them – seeing them, hearing them, understanding them, and even not understanding them.

Where does this mental activity of the arising and involvement with cognitive objects in an individual being come from? Here, we’re not talking about where the body comes from, for that is obviously from the parents. We’re not talking about intelligence and so on, because we can also give the argument that there is a genetic base for that. However, to say that someone’s preference for chocolate ice cream comes from the person’s genes is stretching it too far.

We can say that some of our interests may be influenced by our families or by the economic or social situations we’re in. These factors definitely have an influence, but it’s difficult to explain absolutely everything we do in that way. For example, why did I become interested in yoga as a child? Nobody in my family or in the society around me was. There were some books available in the area that I lived in, so you could say there was some influence from the society, but why was I interested in that specific book on hatha yoga? Why did I pick it up? That’s another question. Do things happen just by chance and so luck comes into play, or can everything be explained?

Where Does Individual Mental Activity Come From?

Putting all these things aside, let’s return to the major question: where does the activity of the arising of cognitive objects and a cognitive involvement in them come from? Where does this ability to perceive come from? Where does the spark of life come from? What makes this combination of a sperm and an egg actually have life? What makes it become a human being? What is it that allows the arising of thoughts and sights and what causes cognitive involvement with them, which is the experiential side of the chemical and electrical activity of the brain?

It’s difficult to say that the mental activity of an infant comes from the parents because if it did, how does it come from the parents? There has to be some mechanism involved. Does that spark of life – characterized by awareness of things – come from the parents in the same way a sperm and egg do? Does it come with orgasm? With ovulation? Is it in the sperm? The egg? If we cannot come up with a logical, scientific indication of when it comes from the parents, then we have to seek another solution.

Looking with sheer logic, we see that functional phenomena all come from their own continuities, from previous moments of something in the same category of phenomenon. For example, a physical phenomenon, be it matter or energy, comes from the previous moment of that matter or energy. It is a continuum.

Take anger as an example. We can talk of the physical energy we feel when we’re angry, that’s one thing. However, consider the mental activity of experiencing anger – experiencing the arising of the emotion and the conscious or unconscious awareness of it. An individual’s experiencing of anger has its own prior moments of continuity within this lifetime, but where did it come from before that? Either it has to come from the parents, and there seems to be no mechanism to describe how that happens, or it has to come from a creator God. For some people, however, the logical inconsistencies in the explanation of how an omnipotent being creates presents a problem. To avoid these problems, the alternative is that the first moment of anger in anyone’s life comes from its own prior moment of continuity. The theory of rebirth explains just this.

The Analogy of a Movie

We may try to understand rebirth with the analogy of a movie. Just as a movie is a continuity of the frames of film, our mental continuums or mind-streams are continuities of ever-changing moments of awareness of phenomena within a lifetime and from one life to the next. There is not a solid, findable entity, such as “me” or “my mind,” that gets reborn. Rebirth is not like the analogy of a little statue sitting on a conveyor belt, going from one life to the next. Rather, it’s like a movie, something that is constantly changing. Each frame is different, but there’s continuity in it. One frame is related to the next. Similarly, there’s a constantly changing continuity of moments of awareness of phenomena, even if some of those moments are unconscious. Further, just as all movies are not the same movie, although they’re all movies, likewise all mental continuums or “minds” are not one mind. There are a countless number of individual streams of continuity of awareness of phenomena and each one can be labeled a “me” from its own perspective.

These are the lines of reasoning that we start to investigate with regard to the question of rebirth. If a theory makes sense logically, then we can look more seriously at the fact that there are people who remember their previous lives. In this way, we examine the existence of rebirth from a reasoned approach.

What Takes Rebirth?

According to Buddhism, the analogy of rebirth is not that of some soul, like a concrete little statue or person, traveling on a conveyor belt from one lifetime to another. The conveyor belt represents time and the image it implies is of some solid thing, a fixed personality or soul called “me” passing through time: “Now I am young, now I am old; now I am in this life, now I am in that life.” This is not the Buddhist concept of rebirth. Rather, the analogy is like that of a movie. There’s continuity with a movie; the frames form a continuum.

Neither does Buddhism say that I become you, or that we are all one. If we were all one, and I am you, then if we are both hungry, you can wait in the car while I go to eat. It’s not like that. We each have our own individual streams of continuity. The sequence in my movie is not going to turn into your movie, but our lives proceed like movies in the sense that they’re not concrete and fixed. Life goes on from one frame to another. It follows a sequence, according to karma, and thus forms a continuity.

Each continuum is a somebody and can be called a “me”; it’s not that each continuum is a nobody. But just as the title of a movie refers to the entire movie and each frame in it, but cannot be found as something concrete in each frame, similarly “me” refers to an individual mental continuum and each moment of it, but cannot be found as something concrete in any moment either. Nevertheless, there is conventionally a “me,” a “self.” Buddhism is not a nihilistic system.

Are Humans Always Reborn as Humans?

What we are talking about here is mental activity and what are the general factors that characterize our mental activity. What characterizes the human mental activity is intelligence, and that intelligence, as we know, can be on a whole scale from “not very intelligent” to “very intelligent.” But there are other factors that are also part of the mental activity, for instance anger, greed, attachment, distraction, and compulsive behaviors that are brought on by these mental factors. In some people, these factors dominate their mental activity so that they are not using their human intelligence, but instead are operating mostly on the basis of greed, or anger, and so on.

For instance, there are people who have tremendous sexual desire and cruise around in bars, meeting others, and having sex with almost anyone they meet – that person is acting like a dog, don’t you think? A dog will mount any other dog that it meets, at any time; it will exercise no self-control whatsoever. If a human behaves that way, they build up the habit of an animal mentality. So therefore, it is not surprising, if we think in terms of rebirth, that that person’s desire mentality will be the dominant mode of mental activity that they will have in a future life, and they will reincarnate into a body that will be an appropriate basis for that mental activity, that is, an animal rebirth.

So it’s very helpful to examine our behavior: “Am I acting like this or that type of an animal?” Think in terms of a fly. A fly mentality is total mental wandering. A fly cannot stay in one spot for more than a few moments; it’s constantly moving and constantly distracted. Is that the way that our mind is, like a fly’s mind? If so, what do we expect in the next lifetime? Do we expect that we will be intelligent and have good concentration?

These are some of the thoughts that help us to understand that humans are not necessarily reborn as humans. We can be reborn into many different types of life forms, and it goes up and down. If we’ve built up many positive habits as a human, then even if we’re reborn as an animal, nevertheless, when the karmic force of our previous animalistic behavior wears off, our previous positive force can become dominant and we can be reborn as a human again. We are not condemned to have lower rebirths forever.

The point is to understand that there’s nothing intrinsic in mental activity that makes it human mental activity or that makes it male or female or anything like that. It’s simply mental activity. And so the type of rebirth that we have is dependent on karma, on the various habits that we build up by our compulsive behavior. In future lifetimes, we’ll have a body that will function as an appropriate basis for acting out those habits.


When we examine with reason the Buddhist presentation of reincarnation, we need to examine the causal process that perpetuates individual mental continuums: individual continuities of mental activity that never degenerates. Beginingless rebirth is the conclusion we arrive at, with its own previously built-up behavioral habits shaping each lifetime.