I'm new to Buddhism and I don't think I understand how rebirth actually works. If Buddhism states that we don't have a soul, then what exactly is reborn?
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 moment of consciousness of a being at the time of death immediately conditioning the arising of a new moment of 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.
Dax wrote:This may sound silly, but do animals go through the same cycle? I've heard people say if you're not good in this life, you'll be reborn as an ant or something. But what's so wrong with being an ant?
Yes, in Buddhism, all sentient beings are understood to go through this process of rebirth or 'again becoming' (punabhava
), both in terms of moment-to-moment rebirth of mental states and the arising and ceasing of our sense of self and rebirth in the larger, cosmological context. There's nothing inherently wrong with being anything, but all forms of existence have their pros and cons. And one of the 'cons' of being an ant, or any other animal for that matter, is that they're more constrained by instinct than humans appear to be, which is one of the reasons I think the animal realm is often associated with lower levels of intelligence and self-awareness, as well as rudimentary faculties of volition that don't seem to be as open to being actively developed as ours appear to be.
So from the Buddhist point of view, humans aren't so much superior or better than other animal species as they simply have more developed mental faculties. In fact, that's precisely the definition of the Pali term denoting humans, manussa
, which means 'those who have an uplifted or developed mind' (mano ussannam etesam
) that's capable of practicing the Dhamma and achieving spiritual liberation, which is why obtaining a 'human state' (i.e., an uplifted mind motivated to practicing Dhamma) is such an important thing.
Dax wrote:If this is all governed by kamma, then who or what decided what was good or bad?
In Buddhism, kamma
presented as naturalistic that arises out of more or less naturalistic (and predominately mental) causes. In the Suttas, the Buddha defines kamma as intentional actions of body, speech and mind (AN 6.63
) that have the potential to produce certain results, which, in turn, have the potential to produce pleasant, painful or neutral feelings (AN 4.235
). The word itself simply means 'action.'
The basic premise behind kamma is that there's a cause and effect relationship between our actions and how they're experienced, and the teachings themselves deal specifically with the intentional action of individuals and how the results of those actions are then experienced by said individuals. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu puts it
, "It's simply the fact of action—you do something unskillful, it's going to come back in an unpleasant way." In the same way, if you do something skillful, it's going to come back and be experienced in a pleasant way. That's why the Buddha advises his followers to frequently contemplate
'I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.'
Pragmatically speaking, actions are deemed 'unskillful' (akusala
) if they lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others or to both. Actions that don't lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others or to both are deemed 'skillful' (kusala
) (MN 61
). Therefore, the distinction between skillful and unskillful actions is based upon how their results are experienced—not only by ourselves, but by others as well. (This emphasis on the consequential aspect of actions is similar to Jeremy Bentham's teleological utilitarianism, with John Stuart Mill's idea of higher and lower happiness being similar to the Buddha's distinction between long-term and short-term welfare and happiness.)
Psychologically speaking, however, the quality of the intentions behind the actions is what ultimately determines whether they're unskillful or skillful. (This aspect is closer to Kant's deontological categorical imperative when combined with the Buddhist principle of ahimsa
or harmlessness.) Intentional actions rooted in greed, hatred or delusion produce painful mental feelings "like those of the beings in hell," while intentional actions rooted in non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion produce the opposite ("like those of the Beautiful Black Devas"). Then there are acts rooted in both that bring mixed results "like those of human beings, some devas, and some beings in the lower realms" (AN 4.235
). By bringing kamma to an end, however, the mind is said to become free and undisturbed, eliminating the skillful/unskillful dichotomy altogether and leaving only happiness (Dhp XV
), contentment (Thag 9
), peace (Snp 2.1
), and 'moral perfection' behind (AN 9.7
) is a product of the aggregate of mental formations (sankhara-khandha
). The cause by which kamma comes into play is sensory contact (phassa
). Furthermore, according to Nyanatiloka's Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines
, 'fruit' or 'result,' is "any ... mental phenomenon (e.g. bodily agreeable or painful feeling, sense-consciousness, etc.), which is the result of wholesome or unwholesome volitional action (karma, q.v.) through body, speech or mind, done either in this or some previous life."
Essentially, intentional actions of body, speech and mind produce results that are said to have the potential to ripen during this lifetime, in the next birth or in later births. This can be taken literally (i.e., ripening in the form of a pleasant or unpleasant rebirth in an external realm of existence), or metaphorically (i.e., ripening in the form of various pleasant or unpleasant mental states). In the words of S. Dhammika
According to the Buddha, every intentional action modifies our consciousness, thus building our character and thereby influencing our behaviour, our experience and consequently our destiny. Positive intentional actions (motivated by generosity, love and wisdom) tend towards consequences that are experienced as positive while intentional negative actions (motivated by greed, hatred and delusion) tend towards consequences that are experienced as negative.
Therefore, I think that in certain contexts, it would be appropriate to think of kamma as 'habit energy' in the sense that the potential effects of an action can be to condition and even strengthen certain physical and psychological reactions. This is especially true in regard to psychological reactions considering that vipaka is limited specifically to 'mental phenomena.' Hence there's no 'who' governing this process; it's a self-governing process composed of patterns of conditionality that are characterized by how they're experienced/the results they bring.
(And just for reference, here's an interesting talk I watched dealing with the biological basis for morality: 'Morality: From the Heavens or From Nature?'
Personally, I agree Dr. Thomas that morality is natural in the sense that it comes from the "evolved architecture" of our minds, which is why I believe that, psychologically speaking, the quality of the intentions behind our actions can determine how the results, whether positive or negative, are experienced.)
Linguistics question, why do people use different terms such as karma/kamma, dharma/dhamma, sutra/sutta? Is there a difference? Does it matter?
As others have already mentioned, the only difference is that the former are the Sanskrit versions and the latter are the Pali versions of the same words. There's effectively no difference in terms of meaning.