What is it that is re-born?
A part from mind (nama ) and matter (rupa ), which
constitute this so-called being, Buddhism does not
assert the existence of an immortal soul, or an eternal
age, which man has obtained in a mysterious way from an
equally mysterious source.
A soul which is eternal must necessarily remain so
always the same without any change whatsoever. If the
soul which is supposed to be the essence of man is
eternal, there could be neither a rise nor a fall. Nor
could one explain why ‘different souls are so variously
constituted at the outset.’
To justify the existence of endless felicity in an
eternal heaven and unending torment in an eternal hell,
it is absolutely necessary to postulate an immortal
If nothing in the form of a spirit or soul passes from
this life to the other, what is it that is re-born?
In this question it is taken for granted that there is
something to be re-born.
A few centuries ago it was argued - “Cogite ergo sum” -
“I think, therefore I am.”
True, but first it has to be proved that there is an “I’
We say that the sun rises in the East and sets in the
West, although we know for certain that actually it is
not so. We have to admit that one cannot strike an
identical place twice although to all appearance one has
Everything changes so. for no consecutive moments are we
identically the same.
Watsen, a distinguished psychologist, states.
“No one has ever touched a soul, or has seen one in a
test tube, or has in any way come into relationship with
it as he has with the other objects of his daily
Nevertheless to doubt its existence is to become a
heretic, and once might possibly even had led to the
loss of one’s head. Even today a man holding a public
position dare not question it.”
Dealing with this question of soul, Professor William
“This soul-theory is a complete superfluity, so far as
accounting for the actually verified facts of conscious
experience goes, so far no one can be compelled to
subscribe to it for definite scientific reasons”.
“And in this book the provisional solution which we have
reached must be the final word: The thoughts themselves
are the thinkers .”
And this is an echo of the very words of the Buddha from
2500 years ago in the valley of the Ganges.
Buddhism, teaching a psychology without a psyche,
resolves the living being into mind and matter (nama-rupa).
Matter consists of forces and qualities and mind or
consciousness consists of fleeting mental states. One’s
individuality is the combination of these two
fundamental factors which change with lighting rapidity.
We see a vast expanse of water in the sea, but the water
of the ocean consists of countless drops.
An infinite number of particles of sand constitute the
sea-beach, but it appears as one long sheet.
Waves rise and dash against the sore, but, strictly
speaking, no single wave comes from the deep blue sea to
lose its identity on the shore. In the cinematograph we
see a moving scene, but to represent that motion a
series of momentary pictures must appear on the screen.
One cannot say that the perfume of a flower depends on
the petal or on the pistil or on the colour, for the
perfume, is in the flower.
In the same way one’s individuality is the combination
of mind and matter (nama-rupa) .
The whole process of these psycho-physical phenomena
which are constantly becoming and passing away, is at
times called, in conventional terms, the self or atta by
the Buddha; but it is a process, and not an identity
that is thus termed. Buddhism does not totally deny the
existence of a personality in an empirical sense. It
denies, in an ultimate sense (paramattha saccena ) an
identical being or a permanent entity, but it does not
deny a continuity in process. The Buddhist philosophical
term for an individual is santati , that is, a flux or
This uninterrupted flux or continuity of psycho-physical
phenomena, conditioned by Kamma, having no perceptible
source in the beginningless past nor any
end to its continuation in the future, except by the
Noble Eightfold Path, is the Buddhist substitute for the
permanent age or eternal soul in other religious
How is rebirth possible without a soul to be re-born?
Birth, according to Buddhism, is the arising of the
Khandhas, the five aggregates or groups (khandhanam
patubhave), namely, matter (rupa) , feeling (vedana ),
perception (sanna ), mental states (samkhara) , and
consciousness (vinnana ).
Just as the arising of a physical state is conditioned
by a preceding state as its cause, so the appearance of
these psycho-physical phenomena is conditioned by cause
anterior to its birth. The present process of becoming
is the result of the craving for becoming in the
previous birth, and the present instinctive craving
conditions life in a future birth.
As the process of one life-span is possible without a
permanent entity passing from one thought moment to
another, so a series of life-processes is possible
without anything to transmigrate from one existence to
The Buddhist doctrine of re-birth should be
differentiated from the theory of re-incarnation which
implies the transmigration of a soul and its invariable
(Courtesy- Buddhist Annual 1970)