Rebirth and Consciousness

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Did the Buddha teach that consciousness continues after the death of the body? The answer to this question is important for the question of how to relate to the teaching of rebirth, since it affects what we suppose the Buddha was teaching when he taught about rebirth. In a previous blog I wrote: ‘From the point of view of empirical science, consciousness depends on physical conditions, namely, the brain. When the brain dies, so consciousness ceases. This in fact is also exactly what the Buddha said.’ I went on to write that the Buddha disagreed with a monk called Sati who said that consciousness (viññāṇa) continued from life to life, just the same;[i] the Buddha told Sati that consciousness is dependently-arisen. Some respondents to this blog post, however, have disagreed with what I had written, saying that it is not correct to take the Buddha’s words to mean that the Buddha believed that consciousness was dependent on the brain. Some people, it would seem, believe that consciousness can somehow exist without a physical basis and hence that it can survive death, and that this is what makes rebirth possible. But did the Buddha teach this?

In conversation with Sati, the Buddha tells the monk: ‘Monks, consciousness is named after whatever condition it arises dependent on. Consciousness that arises dependent on the eye and forms is just called consciousness based on the eye; consciousness that arises dependent on the ear and sounds is just called consciousness based on the ear; consciousness that arises dependent on the nose and smells is just called consciousness based on the nose; consciousness that arises dependent on the tongue and tastes is just called consciousness based on the tongue; consciousness that arises dependent on the body and tangibles is just called consciousness based on the body; consciousness based on the mind and mental objects is just called consciousness based on the mind.’ This does not give us much scope for thinking that the Buddha is saying that consciousness can survive without a body, since consciousness exists dependent on the sense-organs. Admittedly, the Buddha is here characterising consciousness as we presently experience it. But the Buddha did not say we could experience consciousness in any other way.

In the Nagara-sutta,[ii] the Buddha makes his position clearer when he says that ‘When there is name-and-form (nāma-rūpa) then consciousness exists; with name-and-form as condition, there is consciousness.’ Here and elsewhere[iii] the expression ‘name-and-form’ is explained as meaning the body made up of the four elements, and the mental apparatus consisting of feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), volition (cetanā), contact (phassa) and attention (manasikāra). Having said something similar in the Mahānidāna-sutta,[iv] the Buddha makes the point that we can only meaningfully talk about existence when there is consciousness and name-and-form. (The idea that conciousness in this discourse ‘descends’ (okkamati) into a mother’s womb might suggest a somehow pre-existent disembodied consciousness, but such an idea is contradicted by everything else the Buddha says. I suggest translating okkamati as ‘arrives’ in the sense of ‘appears’). As Sariputta says in the Sheaves of Reeds Discourse,[v] consciousness and name-and-form lean on each other like two sheaves of reeds. We see therefore that according to the Buddha’s teaching it is only meaningful to speak of ‘consciousness’ connected with sense-experience and co-arising with the body and mental apparatus.

This way of looking at consciousness is comparable to a modern scientific understanding of consciousness, in which consciousness arises dependent on the physical brain. But just as name-and-form depends on consciousness, so the physical brain is also dependent on consciousness: it appears that the rapid evolution of the human brain was connected with the advantages for survival of consciousness and intelligence. Moreover, in present human experience, it has been shown that conscious activity, like meditation, can cause the modification of neural networks in the brain.

Let us consider the Buddha’s ‘middle way’ in the light of this. Consciousness, this experience of awareness, of being a subjective point of view, arises dependent on physical matter in the form of the brain. There are in fact plenty of scientists and philosophers who are not materialists, because there is in fact no good explanation of how consciousness can be ‘produced’ from matter in the brain.[vi] But it has to be said that, as far as I know, there are no contemporary philosophers who suppose that consciousness can exist without a brain. This brain, however, is also highly dependent on consciousness for its evolution and structure. The materialist view of human consciousness, implying annihilationism, is in this sense not convincing. Moreover, we human beings, who are embodied consciousnesses, having dependently arisen, have minds capable of imagining our past and our future. We can imagine this very consciousness as having existed before and existing afterwards – we can even imagine consciousness as existing in a disembodied state, and as undergoing rebirth. The eternalist view of the substantial spiritual self depends on just this powerful imaginative independence of consciousness. But the Buddha was careful to avoid eternalism, pointing his followers towards the dependent co-arising of consciousness with name-and-form.

It seems, therefore, that the Buddha taught rebirth, but that he did not teach that consciousness could exist independent of its physical basis, which, as we now know, is the brain. He taught that consciousness, like everything else, arises dependent on conditions. Just exactly how we can explain ‘rebirth’ if it does not involve the continuity of consciousness is a problem I’ll leave for others. I’ll conclude with a thought about this teaching of rebirth. Not only was rebirth part of the accepted view of the Buddha’s day, but in those days there was no distinction drawn between what we would call a ‘literal’ teaching about what happens after death and a ‘metaphorical’ teaching. In the absence of any kind of scientific knowledge, knowledge was symbols and stories. The Buddha taught rebirth, but it is reasonable to understand this teaching as a metaphor, a story. For western Buddhists, imbued with the exacting spirit of science, it is less incongruous to hold to rebirth as a form of story-telling, while maintaining a principled agnosticism concerning its literal truth.

[i] In Majjhima-nikāya sutta 38, the Mahātaṇhākkhāya-sutta, the ‘Greater Discourse on the Destruction of Craving’.

[ii] Saṃyutta-nikāya 12:38. Nagara-sutta means ‘The City’.

[iii] In Majjhima-nikāya sutta sutta 9, the Sammā-diṭṭhi-sutta, the ‘Discourse on Right View’. This discourse gives definitions of each of the 12 nidānas, as well as some other important Buddhist terms.

[iv] In Dīgha-nikāya sutta 15, Mahānidāna-sutta, the ‘Great Explanation Discourse’.

[v] Saṃyutta-nikāya sutta 12:67, Nalakalapiya-sutta, ‘Sheaves of Reeds Discourse’.

[vi] See my previous blog post reviewing Thomas Nagel for an example.

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9 thoughts on “Rebirth and Consciousness

  1. Thanks for this, Dhivan. The element you don’t consider, but is very important for the place of rebirth in the Discourses, is the presence of spirits of various sorts: yakhshas, devas, brahmas etc. I am wary of philosophical discussions of this subject that remove it from a social context and, as depicted in the Discourses, concern with rebirth is bound up with a sense of the presence of the spirit world. If you believe in spirits you believe that consciousness can exist independently of a physical body – explaining this leads to the idea of rupa, which can be a non-physical bases for consciousness. And if you believe in ghosts, you believe in rebirth.

    This was central to the Buddha’s social role: capacity to see beings past and future births (the second of the tevijja that marked his awakening) is an important part of his place in society as we see it depicted in the Discourses. And typically, when the Buddha tells people about the post-mortem designations of their relatives he says they have been reborn as spirits of sort or another.

    This shifts the discussion to asking what we think of the spirit world, rather than rebirth. It also highlights the difference between the relationship to rebirth of premodern people, for whom the spirit world is an important part of the world they construct and experience, and modern or postmodern people for whom it isn’t. As modern and postmodern followers of a tradition that evolved in premodern society, rebirth is bound to be problematic. We need to acknowledge that the modes of thought within which rebirth makes immediate sense are not easily available to us.

  2. Thanks Vishvapani for bringing up this really important topic. Of course you’re right that the Buddhist Discourses are replete with stories and discussions of non-human beings, mainly devas, yakshas, and other kinds of spirits, but also beings made of light, guardians of hell and so on. And this wide range of colourful kinds of beings are all part of samsara, each subject to rebirth. How then can we understand the relation of our philosophical discussion of how rebirth is possible, given the Buddha’s analysis of the interdependence of consciousness and name-and-form, with the lively narratives of many-fold non-human rebirth?

    To my mind this highlights the degree to which rebirth in the time of the Buddha was part of the popularly accepted world-view, a world-view which was populated with all sorts of spirits and ghosts and non-physical beings. And the Buddha seemed to accept this world-view just as much as anyone else. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a philosophical rigour to many of the Buddha’s teachings, which puts aside the imaginative productions of folk-belief, and asks more probing questions.

    We see this very clearly I think in the topic of how consciousness and name-and-form depend upon each other. I would guess that most human beings, especially in traditional cultures, hold to a kind of common-sense (or common-nonsense) dualism, supposing that consciousness and body can be separated. When you die, off your soul floats to the other world. At birth, down a soul comes again. Souls that get a bit stuck end up as ghosts and spirits. Trees and mountains have souls, which personify as spirits, which need to be propitiated or may help you. All this is just the normal stuff of ordinary human experience. But it is noticeable that the Buddha never (I have only found one minor exception) presents consciousness and body as a duality. On the contrary, again and again he makes the point to whoever is serious about understanding reality that consciousness and name-and-form arise dependent on each other.

    The outcome of this, I think, is that, yes, the Buddhist world view is full of the same kind of spirits and disembodied consciousnesses that every developed traditional worldview is full of. The human mind seems naturally to discover and experience these beings, shifting between the vague worlds of night and light, into bodies and back. The generally accepted rebirth cosmology of Buddhism involves narratives of rebirth among all these kinds of beings. But if you start to inquire into what rebirth means, if you start to question what is reborn, you quickly discover that the Buddha’s more rigorous teaching on these matters is not at all vague or inexplicable, but is a highly philosophical middle way.

    • The theory of karma lies behind this. As taught in vipassana the age old habit of reacting of mind ,whether it be aversion or craving.. In one lifetime , our subconscious mind reacts to every signal recieved from physical senses and through mind. this reaction gives rise to action or karmas. the cycle goes on and on. Our subconscious stores the reactions . these reactions when crop up needs to be eradicated by practise of vipassana. when not eradicated, these reactions which are nothing but just energies, are not destroyed and again comes to the share of that person in next life only to get eradicated. but due to ignorance the same are not eradicated and thus the repetation of their arousal takes plac. This present life has occured as a chance to eradicate them which are stored in past lives and not to create new reactions, in order to avoid their again occurence and thus becoming cause of nextlife/birth. If the karmic layers are finished/emptyied , our pure self state of consiousness arises which can be called as god, superconsciousness,universal consiousness etc. To finish the karmic layers/reactions practice of vipassana is the only means. A very good book Art of Living by William Harts is available which scientifically clears the funda.

  3. Thanks for keeping this debate alive Dhivan,

    I wonder where the Buddha’s 13th and 14th unanswerable questions fit in here? The Jiva or life force is at least analogous to the continuous noun that we normally refer top as consciousness. (as opposed to the fleeting consciousnesses related to the sense bases). Especially in the contemporary discussion as to whether it is dependant or even emergent upon the physical or can exist without the support of the material?

    Dharmakara

    • Hi Dharmakara. Thanks for this, it’s an interesting perspective and one that I hadn’t thought of. The 5th and 6th unanswered questions are, is the soul (jīva) the same as the body (kāya), or are the soul and body different? And the Buddha doesn’t answer, saying that such questions are not relevant to the living of the spiritual life. Yes, we would normally suppose that the soul (jīva) is in some sense connected with consciousness, or that consciousness is dependent on, or is a part of, the soul. And the Buddha deliberately warns us off the question! And yet on the other hand the Buddha did often teach the interdependence of consciousness and name-and-form. I wonder how these two matters relate? I am not quite sure.

      • I wonder if the Buddha’s unanswearable questions are at least a warning against us assuming that a definitive answer is possible so that us enquiring creatures will allow ourselves a break or admit defeat. The Buddha taught the nidana chain repeatedly. Usually as a response to questions that requested answers that could only predicate eternal or nihilistic statements. Maybe the ‘jiva’ question isalso saying that we can’t resolve the sequence of the consciousness/name and form links? I find the wheatsheaf analogy only partly satisfying as of course wheatsheaves are made of the same thing and materiality and consciousness seem fundamentally different.They also rarely prop each other up by accident but need a further act of design to do so. But to look for a better metaphor might be to ignore the Buddha’s advice!

  4. Thank you Dhivan for another stimulating blog post. You start by posing the question as to whether the Buddha taught that consciousness “continues after the death of the body?”. But you then go on to argue that “From the point of view of empirical science, consciousness depends on physical conditions, namely, the brain. When the brain dies, so consciousness ceases”. Unfortunately I find this sort of physiological reductionism a wholly unsatisfactory way to think about consciousness. (And as you also rightly point out later in the same post – physiological reductionism is no real explanation as to how consciousness is generated in the first place). The more I have contemplated my own experience of consciousness the more I have come to the conclusion that consciousness is as equally involved with my social interaction with others outside of me as it is an purely internal process going on inside my head. To try to flesh this out a little more just try the following hypothetical thought experiment. Suppose that a physically fully formed human is spontaneously created by some super being (such as a god) in a word that is identical to ours except that it has no humans in it. The poor creature would then experience nothing but a mad confusion of splodges of colour with his eyes; hear an incoherent cacophony of sound with his ears and a jumbled confection of tastes and smells with his mouth and nose. Now in what way can such a “consciousness” be compared to ours? I would argue that it would be almost completely unrecognizable as anything human. He would not even be able to contemplate the very situation he is in as the tools of thought – language and logic – are acquired though social interaction. (Throughout my example I have referred to my hypothetical creature as a “him” but in fact “he” would not even be aware of himself as such, as gender itself is, at least in part, socially given). Therefore consciousness cannot simply be just a matter of one’s own physiology. It is in equal measure a result of our social nexus, social history and social interaction.

    A better way to think about consciousness, I would suggest, is by way of the Hegelian dialectical category of form-and-content. Then we can argue that (in a somewhat oversimplified way) that physiology contributes to an understanding of consciousness as form and our social nexus contributes to our understanding of consciousness as content. However both aspects are necessary to understand consciousness in its totality. And more so, they have to be understood in their inseparable interconnection as a unity of opposites.

    Now, of course, we can never be completely clear about what the Buddha means when he uses certain terms, especially at this more higher level of Buddhist philosophical thought, as we now have no (or very little) access how the terminology of his day was used in its technical philosophical sense. He analyses consciousness in what he terms narma-rupa: or name-and-form as you point out. Now it is interesting to note that the notion of “name” is meaningless outside of a social context, it only exists to identify something in its particularity by others and outside of this usage it has no meaning. On the other hand the term rupa or form is analyzed by traditional Buddhism by way of the four elements: air, earth, fire and water – again with a clear reference to the physicality of the world. I would certainly hesitate to suggest that the Buddha was understanding consciousness in Hegelian terms; but at the same time it is interesting to speculate that there are clear parallels between the two!

    The central teaching of the Buddha is pratticca-samutpada and one of the effects of this teaching is to undermine our fixed belief in the “thingness” of things. And as a corollary, a sense that things as such have no absolute existence – they are intelligible only in their relationship to other things. If we thus start from the point of view of thinking of beings-in-relationship instead of just simply beings in isolation from each other, then clearly some aspects of consciousness survive death as the relationship of the deceased person is continued (albeit in a change form) with the others that knew them. This I believe is a modern way of understanding the Buddha’s middle way philosophy. Consciousness does not completely die with the body, as if we were all separate individual isolates. But neither is consciousness to be understood as a perpetuation of a self-contained ideality, devoid of any reference to the materiality of its context. Thus consciousness is here understood in processual terms, that changes and evolves over time; not as a static, permanent entity. This too I see as being fully consistent with the Buddha’s teaching.

  5. Thanks for this, Dhivan.

    What a fascinating topic! I drafted a response last night but since then Dharmakara and Padmadipa have said in different words most of the things I wanted to say – mainly a warning about try ing to find a definitive answer and an innate caution about falling into an excessively materialist, reductionist view.

    Clearly a lot of people have trouble with the notion of post-mortem survival. As I’ve argued before, and as you seem to agree, we can just see “rebirth” as the repetitive reinforcement of the delusional view of a fixed and permanent self at the core. Even the continuance of this within a lifetime implies some sort of re-linking mechanism which, to my knowledge, was not explained by the Buddha. And if this continuity happens within a lifetime I personally don’t particularly see a problem with it happening between lifetimes. At the end of the day we can’t know either way for ourselves until we die – or unless we find a dead person we can ask!

    The brahminical view espoused by Sati assumes that there is a soul within the body which migrates on to another body. However, if such a soul cannot be found “incarnate” in a body then by definition it cannot be re-incarnated. That kind if egoic consciousness is completely dependent on the fleeting interaction of sense organs and sense objects.That to me is what the Buddha was asserting in his corrective remarks to Sati.

    However I always like to allow for the traditionalist “religious” view so I would not be so convinced that the Buddha did not teach that there was any other view of consciousness than as one of the 5 aggregates and thus dependently arisen.

    In fact there are various references scattered around to the discourses to some sort of trans personal or supra personal consciousness which is outside of the scope of conditionality – i.e. not dependent on a brain or body. A few examples: vinnanam anidassanam (consciousness without boundaries or limits and luminous all round) found in DN11 and MN49. These seem to be related to the image (in SN12) of nibanna as akin to a form of consciousness which “does not land” like the light coming through a window which doesn’t find a surface. There is also the celebrated passage in the Udana about there being an unconditioned, without which there could be no escape from suffering.

    Admittedly the Buddha didn’t go into a huge amount of detail about nibbana but surely there is a long tradition of the ultimate goal being the realisation of the supramundane state of anupadisesa nibanna dhatu, which is not dependent on a physical body.

    So the view that “there is only dependent arising” (like the view that the Buddha “only” taught the end of suffering) might need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

    In fact you could even go so far as to say that all Mahayana Buddhism has in some way or another asserted the existence of some kind of Nibbanic dimension as an awareness which is beyond the personal consciousness. (e.g. the Unborn, pure awareness, the uncreated, the indestructible heart essence etc.). Though they have sometimes been rounded on by Theravada critics there is at least one Theravada tradition that would very much lean that way – the Thai Forest tradition, which is all about resting in the heart and staying with “the one who knows” (beyond this body and mind). (see Ajahn Amaro’s The Island for an anthology that represents this leaning).

    I would also throw in the anecdotal evidence of people with near death experiences where the brain effectively seems to die but awareness in some shape or form continues. Large numbers of people who have had these experiences are confident of a life beyond this time and this personal self.

    My concern in all this is that as the secular/ materialist mode seems to becoming the norm among many of the more “thinking” Western Buddhists (i.e. those not just following traditional Asian or Asian trained teachers) it seems often in practice to lead to nihilism – a belief that this life is all there is, from which it is a short step to rampant or subdued hedonism and a cutting adrift from all other spiritual traditions. Of course some materialists, with their abhorrence of all forms of religion or transcendence, would positively welcome this. But I think a world where materialism takes over and we are all just living for this life would probably be a very bleak place – or so history would suggest.

    I think we can trade texts or argue positions till the cows come home but at the end of the day we make up our minds on the basis of our own experience and intuition (with all the attendant risks of rationalisation). I’ve heard it said that all unenlightened beings will tend to lean towards eternalism or nihilism and part of our task is to bring awareness to our temperaments and conditioning in a way that encourages us to find the Middle Way in terms of our own experience. Maybe there is a lot about consciousness which will remain inherently mysterious, however far neuroscience progresses.

    Right – I’ll bung that lot in before there are any more inputs and go back and re-read the whole lot!

    Love and peace

    Michael

    • Thanks for this Michael. It is a nice kind of summing up of the issues regarding rebirth and consciousness which I think have started to reveal themselves as we discuss them. Here is my summary of what those issues are: (i) Western Buddhists have different kinds of intuitions and experiences regarding consciousness and rebirth, inclining them to different hunches or convictions. On the one side are the somewhat materialist ones (like me) who suppose that consciousness is caused by the brain. On the other side are the more mentalist or spiritual ones who hold that there is just too much that cannot be explained by the necessary reductionism of materialism. (ii) There are different ways of reading the early Buddhist teachings, either in terms of consciousness in some sense passing on between lives, in accordance with dependent-arising, but not implying a continuous self, or in terms of consciousness being dependently arisen, and rebirth being an unexplained re-arising of kamma or craving or grasping, the whole sticky mess of psychic identity somehow rolling on.

      For myself, I think I need to weigh up what is involved in these two kinds of issues. Is it all subjective emotional conviction? Do we need to decide what a proper Buddhist doctrine on the matter is? What difference do the various differences make?

      And thanks Padmadipa for your contribution. It is a reminder that in fact the question of rebirth and consciousness might be a kind of mistake, and that our simplified concept of consciousness might just be wrong or too simple, hence making any solution to the question of rebirth and consciousness impossible on this simple level.

      Thanks all commenters for your thoughtfulness and for taking the time to reply. We will meet again no doubt on another blog post!

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