If we’re empty of an essence, what is it that reincarnates?

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.

2 Replies to “If we’re empty of an essence, what is it that reincarnates?”

  1. I’ve been told that many Buddhists in the East, blessed perhaps without our Western addiction to instant gratification, practice with the aspiration of eventual enlightenment after many (e.g., >500) lifetimes of good practice. The Buddha himself supposedly said something about this regarding his own case.

    The Buddhist notion of actions/intentions-and-their-consequences (karma) is supposed to reach across successive lives, right?

    So, if there is an “accumulation” of something going on here that leads to a greater likelihood of enlightenment after many lifetimes of good practice, then it follows that *something* must carry on through rebirth, no?

  2. It’s absolutely the traditional Buddhist view that we cycle though life after life endlessly (whether we end up enlightened or not), and that what we do in one life affects our character and experiences in the next. So you’re absolutely right there.

    The Buddhist tradition is also clear, however, in saying that there is no unchanging essence that is passed on. A good analogy is a rope. A rope has continuity, but no one fiber runs its entire length. Each fiber may only stretch for a few inches. So there’s continuity, but no identity. It’s like that in the traditional view. Some personality traits may carry on from this life to the next, but personality is malleable, and you may be a radically different person two or three lives down the line.

    Of course I don’t know if rebirth actually happens or not. It’s traditionally held that it does, but I’m afraid I have no direct knowledge of previous lives.

    The mind does tend to want to see things in terms of essences, however. It’s very hard not to think in terms of some “thing” being passed on. The entire purpose of the six element practice (which informs my book, Living as a River) is to break down our tendency to see ourselves and others in static terms, and to liberate us from the subtle but powerful grasping that accompanies that tendency.

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