Ask A Buddhist: Soul & Rebirth

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Guest Column by Ven. Sangye Khadro

I have been doing research into Buddhism for many years and I have a question about your views on the soul. If we have no soul then what do our past lives’ memories attach themselves to. If there is no soul to be passed on then how is it that these memories are retained? I understand that it’s mainly from an egoic standpoint, whereas it makes people feel as though they are important and it’s a limiting concept with the God and creator but I’m not silly enough to believe in a creator. My understandings are not based on things that I cannot prove. My basis for this is to determine what exactly it is that connects our consciousness with our “spirit self.” How are memories, feelings, and other information passed and kept by the mind if no vessel exists to hold them?

This is an important question, and one that many newcomers to Buddhism (as well as more experienced students) wonder about. To understand the answer, it’s helpful to know something about the Buddhist explanation of mind, or consciousness (those two terms are usually used interchangeably).

Each person has a mind. It’s that part of us that experiences things; it includes all our thoughts, memories, emotions, dreams, fantasies, as well as basic perceptions like seeing and hearing. It’s not the same as the brain—in fact it is completely non-material (i.e. not made of cells, molecules, or atoms, and without any physical properties like shape, color, size, etc.), but is a non-physical energy that knows or experiences things. It is also not a fixed thing like a machine inside us that thinks, feels, etc. Instead it is an ever-changing stream of experiences or mental states. Different experiences occur in each moment, and then they immediately disappear, giving rise to the next experiences.

What Takes Rebirth?

The reason I am talking so much about the mind is because that is what takes rebirth after we die. During our life, our mind and body are interconnected and interdependent, but that connection ends with death when the body becomes a lifeless corpse and the mind leaves the body to take a new life.

Where we are born, the type of body we take, the kind of experiences we have, and so on depend on our karma. Karma means action; each time we do an action, an imprint is left on the mind—somewhat like planting a seed in the ground. When the right conditions come together for that karmic seed to ripen, it will bring the different kinds of experiences we have, such as our new rebirth.

You asked about memories. Well, those also depend on the mind. Every day of our life we have millions of experiences—things we see, hear, feel, think, etc.—and those experiences also leave imprints on our mind, enabling us to remember them later. “Later” can mean later in this life, but also in future lives. There are many people who are able to remember experiences they had in past lives. This is because our minds don’t just begin in this life, like a blank slate, but come from previous lives, carrying imprints of all our past experiences.

No Soul?

As you say, Buddhism does not accept the existence of a “soul,” but it’s important to understand why this is so. At the time of Buddha (as is the case today in the world) there were religious teachers and philosophers in India who taught the existence of a soul (atman). This was believed to be something distinct from our body and mind, unchanging, and monolithic (without any parts).

The Buddha knew of this idea, but discovered in his meditation that such a thing did not exist—it was a mere conceptual fabrication—and that believing in such a soul and clinging to it is the main cause of our suffering.

This is a key concept in Buddhism—the absence of such a permanent, objectively existing soul or self. But that doesn’t mean we don’t exist at all! Of course we exist, but as an ever-changing stream of physical and mental components that is simply labeled “person” or “I,” as well as a name, like “Cindy” or “Ken.” If we search through all the components that make us up—all the parts of our body and mind—we cannot find anything we can point to as the “self” or “I.”

But as you say, there must be something that enables people to remember their past lives; something that continues from one life to the next; something that takes rebirth. There are different explanations of this by different Buddhist schools, but generally they say it is our mind, or more precisely, some aspect of our mind. Some say it is the mental consciousness, as opposed to sensory consciousnesses; some say it is a subtle aspect of the mind, known as the clear light mind, that is beneath the level of our everyday awareness and only becomes manifest at the time of death.

How Is that Different?

Then you might wonder: if Buddhism says that our mind continues from life to life, carrying memories and karmic imprints, how is that different from the soul that others believe in?

For one thing, we say the mind is impermanent: it constantly changes and is never the same from one moment to the next. It is not at all like the unchanging, personal soul asserted by non-Buddhist traditions. Also, some of those traditions believe that an all-knowing and all-powerful creator—for example, God or Brahma—produced the soul, whereas Buddhism does not accept that any one person created everything. Instead it is the karma of sentient beings, in combination with physical matter and natural laws, that are responsible for the arising of worlds, beings, and events.

Why Can’t I Remember?

Another question people often ask is: if we have lived before, why don’t we all remember our past lives?

It’s not surprising if we do not have memories of past lives, as there are many things in this life that we do not remember—early childhood experiences, for example, or even what we ate for breakfast last Thursday!

According to Buddhism, the memories of our past lives are there, stored in our mind, but most of us are unable to access them. One reason is because our mind is so cluttered with other things, such as all the thoughts, desires, and fantasies related to this life. Through practicing meditation, the mind can become more clear, enabling memories of past lives to rise to the surface.

Also, one thing I have noticed is that the people who do remember past lives often remember lives in which they died young—as children, teenagers, or in their 20s—and the cause of death was something sudden such as a car accident. The mind of a young person is usually clear and alert, so when it travels to the next life, it may be more likely to recall earlier experiences, compared with the mind of a person in their 80s or 90s who may be suffering from dementia, and who may die in their sleep or a coma. So it seems that the circumstances of death—the age at which one dies, the way death happens (sudden or slow), the state of mind one has at that time (alert or unconscious)—can affect the ability to recall the previous life.

I hope that this answers your questions. If you are interested in further information, you can check out these links:

Ven. Thubten Chodron explains the logical reasonings to prove rebirth in this video talk. (The rebirth teaching begins at 8:01)

Ven. Thubten Chodron teaches on “Body, Mind, Rebirth and Self” in this video:

About Ven. Sangye Khadro

California-born, Ven. Sangye Khadro ordained as a Buddhist nun at Kopan Monastery in 1974, and took the full (bhikshuni) ordination in 1988. She has studied Buddhism with many great masters including Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Lama Yeshe, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, and Khensur Jampa Tegchok. She began teaching in 1979 and was a resident teacher at Amitabha Buddhist Centre in Singapore for 11 years. She has authored several books, including the best-selling, How to Meditate, now in its 17th printing. She is presently visiting as a long-term guest at Sravasti Abbey.

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