A friend on Facebook just asked me the question above. Although in some ways it’s not at all related to my book because Living as a River doesn’t ever mention rebirth, in other ways it’s absolutely central. So I thought I’d copy the question and my reply from Facebook to this blog.
Here’s my reply:
That’s a good (and classic) question. I have to say that first of all I’m agnostic about rebirth: I don’t have any direct evidence that it actually happens, although it seems extremely likely, from the texts we have, that the Buddha believed that it happened.
Now that’s out of the way, here’s an analogy. When you light one candle from another candle, there’s no essence passed from one flame to another. The chemical activity in one candle leads to similar activity in the other. It’s supposed to be similar with rebirth. There’s no “substance” passed across, but (speaking very loosely) the “energy” from one life leads to similar energy taking place in the next. It’s like the candle analogy, except that you’re lighting a new candle with one that’s just going out.
This, by the way, is why Buddhists talk about “rebirth” rather than “reincarnation.” The term reincarnation suggests something permanent that “takes flesh again” (the literal meaning of re-in-carnate), while the Buddhist term rebirth merely suggests continuity, but no identity.
In a way, all this is what my book’s about, although I never mention rebirth. What I do is talk about how this process takes place right here in this life.