What Is Rebirth?
Though “rebirth from moment to moment” is very important to understand and should not be overlooked what we are really concerned with here is “rebirth from life to life.” In this connection, two general, somewhat minor points should be made. The term “birth” (jaati) here is not confined to extrusion from a womb, it includes other processes such as the spontaneous appearance of beings in certain states. Birth of the human type is thus simply a particular case. There is also the question of “intermediate states” between births. Some Buddhists, and others, speak of such states. This is really just a question of semantics: in the Theravada view, at least, any such so-called intermediate state between existences of a certain type is itself a “rebirth.”
The reason why rebirth, of whatever kind, takes place is because of the unexpended force of ta.nhaa or craving, conditioned by ignorance. This force of ignorance and craving is comparable to a powerful electric current. To suppose that it just ceases at physical death is actually quite unreasonable, and contradicts the law of conservation of energy. As to the question of the identity of the being that is reborn with the one that died, the best answer is that given by the Venerable Naagasena to King Milinda: “It is neither the same nor different” (na ca so na c’a~n~no). The whole process is really quite impersonal, but seemingly a being exists and is reborn. We can thus make a clear distinction between the terms “Reincarnation” and “Rebirth.”
“Reincarnation” is the term used by those who hold that a real entity (a “soul”) exists and passes on from life to life, occupying successive bodies. Literally, this should only apply to manifestation in “fleshy” bodies, though it is commonly applied to discarnate states as well. “Rebirth” denotes the Buddhist view that while this is indeed what seems to happen, the true process is entirely impersonal. What, therefore, in terms of relative truth appears (and can be experienced by some) as Reincarnation, is in terms of absolute truth Rebirth. The formulation of Dependent Origination (pa.ticca-samuppaada) describes the process as follows: ignorance conditions sankhaaras (the karmic of personality patterns), the sankhaaras condition consciousness, consciousness conditions mind-and-body, and so on. This means that the pattern or “shape” of a person’s character is based on ignorance; this pattern is impressed, like a seal on wax, on the new consciousness arising in the womb (or otherwise), on which the development of a new being (mind-and-body) depends.
The Western assumption that character and mental traits are genetically inherited is not accepted in Buddhism; true, there may be some genetic element, apart from the purely physical side, but essential inheritance here is karmic. The apparent inheritance of mental traits can be explained in many other ways. In part, it is mere assumption. If a child turns out to be musical, people will recall that his uncle George used to play the clarinet, a fact which would have been forgotten had the child been tone-deaf. Parental and other environmental influences can undoubtedly account for much, especially when we allow for unconscious (telepathic) influence. Sir Alister Hardy has even suggested that genes may be capable of being influenced telepathically. Further, the “choice” of one’s parents is bound to be influenced by some affinity, and even by karmic links from the past. By the same token, suggestions that it would be possible to breed a race of “clones” with identical reactions belongs, no doubt very fortunately, strictly to realm of science fiction. Such people even if bred would not be karmically identical, any more than identical twins are. Life is not as mechanical as all that.
Death and the Arahant
For one who has attained full Enlightenment in this life, the death of the body brings with it the end of all individual existence: this at least is the Theravada teaching. This is called anupaadisesa-nibbaana, “Nibbaana without the groups remaining.”
While the final attainment of Nibbaana should not be understood as mere annihilation in the materialistic sense (though some scholars seem to interpret it in this way), nothing positive can be predicated of it. It is not the extinction of self, for that self never was real in the first place, nor is it “entering into Nibbaana,” for there is no being who enters. It is the final cessation, however, of the five aggregates which were the product of greed, hatred and delusion. We may think of it as a state of utter peace, and perhaps we can leave it at that. It is the Deathless State.