placebo23 wrote:I'm new to theravada buddhsim in general and I have question about rebirth.
What exactly does it mean when it is said that there is no rebirth after awakening (nirvana). I know (conceptual) from reading that the state of nirvana cannot be described but at least it is uttered that rebirth ends.
At this point, what does rebirth mean? Does it really mean, that there is no new physical formation of a body or are we talking here about the formation of a new ego-sense (a false self so to speak) ?
Or to formulate the question in a different way: Does the "end of rebirth" mean, that the ongoing process of the five aggregates comes to an end ?
I'm of the opinion that, assuming the causes of a mindstream are solely afflictive*, it potentially means both, i.e., the end/cessation of rebirth (punabhava
, literally 'again becoming') in both the cosmological and the psychological sense.
On one level, rebirth and kamma
deal with the framework of morality and ethical conduct in general. In this sense, I understand rebirth to signify the Buddha's observation that there's a type of continuity that underlies experience in the form of our actions and their results — one that doesn't necessarily end at death — and kamma to represent the intentional element of our psyche that goes into experience. This corresponds to what the Buddha called "right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in the acquisitions [of becoming]" (MN 117
). Here, morality and ethical conduct are associated with intentional actions and their corresponding results — which aren't just limited to those within the present lifetime — and the continuous cycle of birth and death.
On another level, rebirth and kamma deal with the framework of what I'd call psychological processes, which corresponds to what the Buddha called "noble right view, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path" (MN 117
). Here, rebirth still signifies the Buddha's observation that there's a type of continuity that underlies experience in the form of our actions and their results, and kamma still represents the intentional element of our psyche that goes into experience, but they're placed within the context of the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path.
In this context, the emphasis is on things such as recognizing and understanding the mental processes by which we construct our sense of self, in what the Buddha called the process of 'I-making' and 'my-making' (ahankara-mamankara
), as well as how to utilize those processes in more skillful ways. And if we can learn to be more aware of these mental processes, we can learn to master them through a combination of mindfulness training and other contemplative techniques.
The point where I think the cosmological and psychological models or processes primarily converge is becoming (bhava
). In SN 12.2
, for example, becoming is defined as "sensual becoming, form becoming, & formless becoming." In AN 3.76
, however, becoming is treated slightly differently, and Thanissaro Bhikkhu notes at the bottom of his translation that:
Notice that the Buddha, instead of giving a definition of becoming (bhava) in response to this question, simply notes that becoming occurs on three levels. Nowhere in the suttas does he define the term becoming, but a survey of how he uses the term in different contexts suggests that it means a sense of identity in a particular world of experience: your sense of what you are, focused on a particular desire, in your personal sense of the world as related to that desire. In other words, it is both a psychological and a cosmological concept. For more on this topic, see The Paradox of Becoming, Introduction and Chapter One.
Becoming, then, is a mental process that has the potential to lead to "renewed becoming in the future," which can be understood in both a psychological and cosmological sense, i.e., acting as a condition for the birth, ageing, and death (or arising, changing, and disappearance as per AN 3.47
) of the conceit 'I am,' which occurs innumerable times throughout one's life (think of the imagery of SN 12.61
), as well as a condition for birth, ageing, and death in the broader sense.
When it comes to dependent co-arising specifically, most of the descriptions appear to be more geared towards the cosmological or life-to-life model in the Suttas; but there are place like MN 140
where I think both are illustrated in tandem, with the psychological aspects of becoming (the arising and ceasing of self-identity view) being placed within the broader, cosmological framework.
The reason I personally think the psychological aspects are so important is because that's where the work of the meditator is done, where we can observe these processes taking place in the present. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu puts it in "A Verb for Nirvana
," "Samsara is a process of creating places, even whole worlds, (this is called becoming) and then wandering through them (this is called birth). Nirvana is the end of this process." And this process (along with the that of the continuous arising and ceasing of suffering) is primarily a mental one.
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* It should be noted that, from the Mahayanin perspective, there's nothing stopping a Buddha from 'popping back' into samsara
, especially considering that, for them, the distinction between samsara and nirvana is little more than an illusion when viewed from the ultimate standpoint of the Dharmakaya . Moreover, their conception of causality allows for the continuation of the mindstream after the breakup of the body. As Namdrol from E-Sangha once explained it to me:
If the causes of a mindstream were solely afflictive, then with the exhaustion of the karmic share that sustains the life force of the body, and thus the life of a Buddha or an arhat, I might be inclined to agree that the mind stream of a Buddha or an arhat would cease at death, since all causes for its continuance would be exhausted too. However there is a slight problem with this: if the mindstream's causes were solely afflictive, why does the mind not cease with nirvana in toto? Why does the mind continue after the eradication of all afflictions in a Buddha and an arhat? And if the mind continues after the eradication of the afflictions of a Buddha, etc., why could it not continue after the breakup of the body of a Buddha, etc., albeit in a non-afflicted state? In fact, Peter Harvey's interesting book, The Selfless Mind, makes this very suggestion on page 250 where he summerizes all of his arguments and findings.
In other words, not only does bodhicitta
act as a cause to help keep a bodhisattva on the path to buddhahood throughout their innumerable lives, it acts as a positive, non-afflictive cause for the continuation of the enlightened being/mindstream as well. And this is perfectly logical and consistent within Mahayana's own understanding of itself, which includes certain terms that Theravada understands differently.
For example, the Theravada standpoint is that the cause of said mindstream (as well as the body) is kamma, both skillful and unskillful, although I'm not entirely sure if this corresponds to afflictive and non-afflictive in Mahayana. Nevertheless, in the Pali Canon, the noble eightfold path is said to be the kamma that leads to the ending of kamma (AN 4.235
When it comes to the standard explanation of why the mind and body don't [always] cease with that attainment of nirvana, it's said that as long as the lifespan of the aggregates isn't completely exhausted — which itself depends upon the amount of input remaining from past kamma — the mind and body of an arahant will continue. When this input from past kamma is exhausted, there's said to be complete cessation of both mind and body.
A Mahayanaist would probably disagree with this in an ultimate sense, however, saying that this is only how it appears from the point of view of samsara (think relativity here), but not from the point of view of high-level Bodhisattvas and fully enlightened Buddhas.