alfa wrote:If there's no self, what is it that reincarnates? Or, do I understand this to mean that the self exists but since it keeps changing all the time, it's almost as if it doesn't exist?
The question often arises, If Buddhism doesn't posit a self or soul, what gets reborn? From the Theravadin point of view (or at least from the point of view of those in Theravada who accept the idea of postmortem rebirth), rebirth
is viewed as the continuation of a process—nothing 'remains,' nothing 'transmigrates,' there are merely fleeting phenomena that condition other fleeting phenomena in the interdependent process we call life.
One way to look at it is that a casual process can be self-sustaining, with causes creating effects, and effect acting as causes, creating feedback loops. And if you admit the possibility of immaterial causes and not just material ones (assuming that a clear distinction between the two can even be made), then the continuation of said process isn't limited by or to a single material body. And if you believe Bertrand Russell, the more we understand about matter (i.e., energy), the more the word itself becomes "no more than a conventional shorthand for stating causal laws concerning events" (An Outline of Philosophy
Here, consciousness isn't seen as a static things going from life to life, but simply as one link or event in a complex causal chain, i.e., moments of consciousness arising and ceasing in rapid succession, with the last consciousness of a being at the time of death immediately conditioning the arising of a new consciousness due to the presence of craving (kind of like 'spooky action at a distance
' where two entangled particles communicate with each other instantaneously, even over great distances). It's almost better to think of it as a transmission of information rather than the transmigration of some thing
Thus, in Buddhism, there can theoretically be continuity between lives without having to posit some type of permanent, unchanging consciousness or soul that travels from life to life. That's why the Pali term vinnanasota
or 'stream of consciousness' is often used to describe the flow of conscious events, even when presented within the context of rebirth. (Similarly with terms like bhavangasota
(stream of becoming), found in Snp 3.12
, and samvattanikamvinnanam
(evolving consciousness), found in MN 106
Unfortunately, there are no suttas that give a detailed explanation of this process, and the detailed workings of this process are to be found in the Abhidhamma and Pali commentaries. While many people reject the Abhidhamma and commentaries as reliable sources of information regarding what the Buddha taught, I don't think the views of the Buddha and the ancient commentators such as Buddhaghosa are necessarily mutually exclusive.
As for the teachings on not-self (anatta
), the basic idea is that whatever is inconstant (anicca
) is stressful (dukkha
), and whatever is stressful is not-self, since whatever is inconstant, subject to change, and not fully under our control isn't fit to be called 'me' or 'mine' (SN 22.59
). Practically speaking, to hold onto anything that's inconstant, subject to change, break-up and dissolution as self is a cause for mental stress and suffering; therefore, the teachings on not-self are designed to help one let go of what isn't self (i.e., the five aggregates
) in order to free the mind from the suffering engendered by clinging to ephemeral phenomena.