Reincarnation Without Souls?

Explaining the Rebirth Doctrine of Buddhism

Ocean Waves
© Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Sometimes people trying to "catch" Buddhists in a logical fallacy will ask how the facts of human population growth can accommodate the doctrine of reincarnation. Here is the question paraphrased from a recent discussion about the rebirths of Tibetan lamas:

"When I was born there were slightly more than 2.5 billion people in the world.  Now there are nearly 7.5 billion, or nearly three times more. Where did we get 5 billion additional 'souls'?"

Those of you who are familiar  with the Buddha's teaching will know the answer to this, but here is an article for those who aren't.

And the answer is: The Buddha explicitly taught that human (or other) bodies are not inhabited by individual souls. This is the doctrine of anatman (Sanskrit) or anatta (Pali), one of the major differences between Buddhism and other religions that developed in ancient India.

Both Hinduism and Jainism use the Sanskrit word atman to describe the individual self or soul, which is thought to be eternal. Some schools of Hinduism think of the atman as the essence of Brahman that inhabits all beings. Reincarnation in these traditions is the transmigration of the atman of a dead individual into a new body.

The Buddha explicitly said that there is no atman, however. The German scholar Helmuth von Glasenapp, in a comparative study of Vedanta (a major branch of Hinduism) and Buddhism (Akademie der Wissenschaften and Literatur, 1950), explained this distinction clearly:

"The Atman doctrine of the Vedanta and the Dharma theory of Buddhism exclude each other. The Vedanta tries to establish an Atman as the basis of everything, whilst Buddhism maintains that everything in the empirical world is only a stream of passing Dharmas (impersonal and evanescent processes) which therefore has to be characterized as Anatta, i.e., being without a persisting self, without independent existence."

The Buddha rejected an "eternalist" view, which in the Buddhist sense means a belief in an individual, eternal soul that survives death. But he also rejected the nihilist view that there is no existence for any of us beyond this one (see "The Middle Way"). And this brings us to the Buddhist understanding of reincarnation.

How Buddhist Rebirth "Works"

Understanding the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth rests upon understanding how Buddhists view the self.  The Buddha taught that the perception that we are all distinct, stand-alone people-units is an illusion and the chief cause of our problems. Instead, we inter-exist, finding our individual identities within the web of our relationships.

Read More: Self, No Self, What's a Self?

Here's one crude way to think of this inter-existence: Individual beings are to life what a wave is to the ocean. Each wave is a separate phenomenon that depends on many conditions for its existence, but a wave is not separable from the ocean. The waves are perpetually arising and ceasing, and the energy created by waves (representing karma) causes more waves to form. And because this ocean is boundless, there is no limit to the number of waves that might be created.

And as waves arise and cease, the ocean remains.

What does the ocean in our little allegory represent? Many schools of Buddhism teach that there is a subtle consciousness, sometimes called a "mind stream" or luminous mind, that is not subject to birth and death. This is not the same as our daily self-aware consciousness, but it may be experienced in deep meditative states.

The ocean might also represent the dharmakaya, which is the unity of all things and beings.

It may be helpful also to know that the Sanskrit/Pali word translated as "birth," jati, doesn't necessarily refer to expulsion from a womb or egg. It can mean that, but it can also refer to a transformation to a different state.

Rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism is sometimes criticized even by other schools of Buddhism for its tradition of recognizing reborn masters, because this suggests that a soul, or some distinctive essence of a particular individual, was reborn.

I confess I have struggled to understand this myself, and I am probably not the best person to explain it.  But I'll do my best.

Some sources suggest that the rebirth is directed by the previous person's vows or intentions. Strong bodhicitta is essential. Some reborn masters are considered to be emanations of various transcendent buddhas and bodhisattvas.

The important point is that even in the case of a reborn lama, it is not a "soul" that is "reborn."

Read More: Reincarnation in Buddhism: What the Buddha Didn't Teach