At times I receive e-mail asking me to explain some point of the Buddha's teachings. One of the most common questions posed to all Buddhist teachers is "If there is no self, who or what gets reborn?" Hopefully you will find the series of questions and answers below on this topic useful.

Are we either the victims of circumstances or engineers of our destiny or both?

I think Both. I would phrase it that we are carried along by karma and its resultants, some of which we are obviously responsible for and some of which are too difficult for us to figure out. But none of it is random, or fate; it is just the Universe unfolding according to cause and effect.

I do not really understand the notion of rebirth. According to Buddhism, we are supposed to be reborn in a form of life that corresponds with the type of actions committed in this or a previous life.

This is the standard teaching. This is the belief held by the majority of people at the time of the Buddha. The disagreement at that time was over what actions mattered. The Brahmins said sacrifice and other rituals such as bathing were all that mattered. The Buddha pointed out that wholesome and unwholesome is what matters. He also taught at a deeper level than the superficial one you mention above.

It is a clever way to make people responsible for ethical behaviors and to emphasize the necessity for morality in society?

It is that - but it also runs much deeper.

I don't believe it is truth or untruth. I don't know.

Since I have no idea of what happens after death, I have no idea if it is true or not either - at least the simple interpretation.

I would like to know what it is exactly that is reborn.

Yep, this is the big question for sure! When they asked Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, he supposedly replied "Your bad habits!"

On one hand, Buddhism denies the existence of an intrinsic, permanent self that will continue to live after death (as Christians believe).


Buddhists even say that the notion of self is the culprit when it comes to craving and suffering.

Also correct.

However, how can we accord the notion of not self with rebirth, which obviously requires the existence of something that survives death.

Not "obviously" but "apparently".

What is that something? I read a lot about mental consciousness going from one person to another. But when does it happen, immediately after death? Where is it going? How does it enter another person's body? It sounds more as a speculation than an assertion.

Take a look at Majjhima Nikaya #38 The Greater Discourse on the Destruction of Craving. Briefly, the Buddha has a monk named Sati who thinks that the same consciousness transmigrates from life to life. The Buddha reprimands him with a lengthy discourse on dependent origination showing how all phenomena of existence arise and cease according to conditions.

So the Buddha would answer your questions above by saying they were wrong views and would set you straight by talking about how things are dependently arisen - that things arise because of prior actions.

Do you believe in rebirth?

I don't know what happens after death, so I don't believe or disbelieve anything about that - I just don't know and leave it at that. One way to look at it is that either this is it or we do arrive someplace after death. If this is all there is, I better live a "full" life. If I'm going to arrive someplace afterwards, all the religions agree that the quality of that life will be dependent on how "upright" I lead my life here. So if I lead a full, upright life, I've covered both bases - and the question of life after death has no bearing on my behavior - making it rather unimportant - just idle speculation about something I can't determine right now. [This is a modified form of "Pascal's Wager" that I came to long before studying Buddhism or hearing of "Pascal's Wager".]

I do believe in moment-to-moment rebirth. What gets reborn moment-to-moment is our ego, our sense of self. That is actually fairly easy to observe. And for me this is the rebirth that matters most - because it is happening now.

It would make more sense to simply believe that the karma we do in our life and the legacy we leave with it will last through the impact both had in the lives of those we interacted with. That should be enough.

That IS enough. And that is what the Buddha taught - see Majjhima Nikaya #38.

The crux of the matter is that there are no separate selves, there are actually only causes (actions) and their resultants. Our sense of self is the result of actions - specifically the sense of self is a by-product of perception. When the mind breaks the holistic input of a sense organ into individual objects, it simultaneously generates a subject which is perceiving those objects - ME.

So as you say, there are actions and their results - their is karma and its resultants. And that is all there is. Joseph Goldstein says we should view ourselves as verbs rather than nouns; I would go even further and say that there really are no nouns, only slow verbs!

Why claim that something will continue after death? This business of rebirth cannot be proven or unproven. It belongs to the domain of the unknown like everything else when it comes to life after death.

You are absolutely correct.

So we are left with what?

Karma and it resultants. That's all there is and that's all that will come in the future. But since we are not separate selves - in the absolute sense, there is the only the holistic universe unfolding. But that unfolding depends on the actions that happen within it. And those actions are the ones we do. So the future of the universe depends on our current actions (among other things - we don't get to make ALL the determinations). All that we can do is help steer the ship towards the wholesome since wholesome actions are what generate the kind of universe that we all are seeking.

Not Self - another series of questions and answers on a related topic
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