Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

Reincarnation according budhism

Expand Messages
  • Paulo Dias
    http://members.lycos.nl/Kritisch/personalreincarnation.html The Journal of Religion and Psychical Research, Vol. 28, Number 4, 226-233, October 2005.
    Message 1 of 1 , May 6, 2006

      The Journal of Religion and Psychical Research, Vol. 28, Number 4,
      226-233, October 2005. (Republished online with permission from the
      Editor, Dr. Don Morse)

      Rebirth and Personal identity: Is Reincarnation an Intrinsically
      Impersonal Concept?

      by Titus Rivas

      You should know that in my previous life I was already the very same
      person I am now! 'Kees', a Dutch boy with reincarnation memories

      Some Westerners associate the concept of reincarnation with the loss
      of personal identity. This is an oversimplification resulting from a
      strong influence of the Buddhist anatta-doctrine on contemporary
      Western spirituality. The notion of reincarnation can indeed be
      reconciled with a personalist philosophy. Spiritual personalists may
      benefit a lot from reincarnation research. Rather than giving up on
      their personalism, they could extend it to the notion of a truly
      personal evolution over several lives on earth.

      Some spiritualists, Swedenborgians, Christians, Muslims and others
      appear to regard reincarnation research as a threat to a realistic
      and positive perspective on personal survival after death. It seems
      that in their view, reincarnation theory could only be compatible
      with an impersonalist stand on personal identity. Accordingly,
      reincarnation would imply that death is followed by a radical
      disintegration of personality, or loss of self. Only certain
      memories, personality traits and skills would be 'recycled' during
      the formation of a fundamentally new person. In a sense, the theory
      of reincarnation would be remarkably similar to the materialist
      theory of extinction after death in that the person as such would
      really be irreversibly destroyed. The consolation offered by
      reincarnation for the eternal loss of a person would be very bleak
      indeed, adding a new bizarre dimension to life rather than taking
      away the apparent absurdity of death. However, this particular
      concept is not the only rationally conceivable perspective on

      Impersonal rebirth
      Most Buddhist views about personal identity can be summarised by the
      Pali term anatta, which literally means 'no soul' (Sanskrit an-
      atman). There used to be a minor Buddhist current that did accept
      some type of personal survival after death (known as Vatsiputriya or
      Pudgalavada), but nowadays most Buddhists consider this school as
      little more than an outdated early sect. [Addition of May 1st 2006:
      However, there are a few Buddhist scholars who believe the original
      teachings of the Buddha were not impersonalist, see this site].
      The Buddhist teaching of anatta has to a considerable extent
      influenced contemporary Western spiritual theory. This doctrine
      teaches that there cannot even be a real personal identity during a
      physical lifetime as there is no constant, substantial self. In this
      ontological anti-substantialism, Buddhism is quite close to the
      fashionable so-called process-metaphysics in the West, of scholars
      such as Alfred North Whitehead. The (mainstream) Buddhist position on
      personal identity implies that reincarnation cannot be a personal
      process, as there never is a real substantial self in the first
      place. For a Buddhist, rebirth is ultimately just as non-personal as
      any human life itself.

      Forms of substantialism
      Popular as process-metaphysics may be, substantialism is not rejected
      by all serious contemporary philosophers. In general, substantialism
      is the theory that there are one or more things in reality, known as
      substances, which cannot be reduced to events or processes.
      Substances in this ontological (rather than chemical) sense remain
      constant in their ultimate, irreducible and un-analysable identity
      with themselves (their essence), although they may change in their
      temporal properties or actions (their existence). For
      substantialists, substances are the ontological realms within which
      events or processes take place, whereas supporters of process
      metaphysics deny that we need any such substantial ground for events
      and processes. Traditional examples of things or entities that are
      believed to be substances are: a God or gods, human beings or animals
      in general, subjective experients or selves, physical atoms, matter,
      or the universe. Both in the East and in the West, a great many
      educated persons, including the author of this paper, continue to
      endorse some form of substantialism, as they believe the reasons for
      it remain more valid than the arguments offered for process-
      metaphysics. Generally speaking, there are three major ontological
      positions that involve a notion of a substantial self. One of these
      is the holistic type of personalism, which holds that a person is an
      indivisible whole consisting of a body and mind or personality.
      Except for the possibilities of a literal resurrection of the 'total
      person'(which is part of the creed of Jehova's witnesses; see: Morse,
      2000, p. 267) and of (divine) emancipation of the emergent soul from
      its body (William Hasker, personal communication), this holistic or
      emergentist personalism typically seems incompatible with personal
      survival after bodily death, let alone personal reincarnation.
      Holistic or emergent personalism is related to the Aristotelian view,
      see Morse (2000, p. 203): "For Aristotle, as the soul is an intricate
      materialistic part of the body, when a person dies, the soul dies as
      A second type of substantialism also accepts that there is a
      substantial self, but claims that this self is ultimately not
      personal, but transpersonal. This theory is often expressed by the
      equation Atman (soul) = Brahman (God), and it amounts to the
      assumption that our real Selves - which would go beyond our
      individual personalities - would all be identical and consist of one
      single divine spiritual essence or soul (noetic monism). The theory
      is typical for certain currents within Hinduism such as Advaita. It
      is compatible with a notion of 'personal' reincarnation, in that both
      the transpersonal Atman and the individual personality dependent on
      it (jivatman) may be assumed to survive death and be reborn. Certain
      Western authors such as Aldous Huxley have clearly been influenced by
      this transpersonalist type of substantialism. More recently echoes of
      this theory can be found in the literature of channelling, e.g. in
      the books about the entity named "Seth", channelled through Jane
      A third type of substantialism amounts to the theory that there is a
      plurality of ultimately irreducible individual souls rather than just
      a single divine one. There is a personal conscious subject, self
      or "I" who sees, thinks, feels, wants, etc. The physical body is not
      part of the real person in this spiritual sense and personal identity
      of the personal self cannot be affected by bodily death. Also, as the
      personal self is substantial, even radical inner change (of its
      existence) will never be able to disintegrate it (in the essential
      sense) into more than one personal experient.

      Spiritual personalism
      Within Indian philosophy, this position, which may be termed
      spiritual personalism, is supported by the Dvaita interpretation of
      Vedanta and other pluralistic currents such as Jainism or the logical
      realism of Nyaya-philosophy. Within European or more generally
      Western thought it is defended in the Monadology of Leibniz and in
      Athanasia by Bernhard Bolzano, and also by major Christian and modern
      thinkers such as Augustine, Descartes, Oesterreich (1910), John
      Foster (1991), the Jewish mystical movements of Kabbalah and
      Hassidism (Morse, 2000) (and the present author) (Rivas, 2003a,
      2005). Don Morse (2000) even traces it back to Socrates and
      Plato; 'Socrates stated that the soul was substance and could not
      vanish but merely changed form. He stated that all substances are
      indestructible, but their forms can change.'(p. 200) and "Plato said
      that the soul is neither created nor destroyed. Every soul has been
      here forever and will exist for eternity." (p. 202).
      Applied to the context of previous lives, spiritual personalism can
      only make sense of rebirth if it is conceived of as a truly personal
      phenomenon. There is even a whole spiritualist (or perhaps more
      accurately spiritist) movement, Kardecism, which accepts personal
      reincarnation and is based on the writings of Hippolyte Léon
      Dénizarth Rivail, better known by his pseudonym Allan Kardec (1804-
      1869). Don Morse (2000, p. 292) writes about Kardecism: "It differs
      in that with each incarnation, the spirit retains its individuality
      and spirits always evolve."
      It is important to note that a personal self should be conceptually
      distinguished from its personality. A personality may be seen as an
      acquired (existential) pattern of psychological structures, attitudes
      and skills of a substantial personal self, which (essentially) always
      remains identical to itself. A personality is dynamic and changes
      over time, and in certain pathological cases a personal self may
      possess several personalities simultaneously though it can only be
      conscious in one personality at a time. Thus, changes of personality
      and even dissociation are fully compatible with the notion of a
      substantial personal self.
      In the context of reincarnation we will expect certain changes of
      personality through the processes of death, rebirth and childhood,
      but this does not mean those changes imply a new or different
      personal self. We would remain ourselves just as much as we remain
      ourselves in the course of a single earthly lifetime. During one life
      we start off as children and after about two decades we normally
      become adults, which we remain until as a consequence of
      reincarnation we become children again, though hopefully at a
      somewhat 'higher (dispositional) level' of personal evolution.
      The reader will not be surprised to learn that spiritual personalism
      is also the author's position.

      Other positions reconcilable with some kind of personal reincarnation
      Recently, a fourth approach to personal identity is proposed by Peter
      Novak (1997).
      It was partially adopted by Donald Morse (2000) during the
      development of his own personal theory of survival after death
      (chapter 15). However, Morse acknowledges "there are certain aspects
      of the theory that are difficult to reconcile with existing beliefs"
      (p. 331).
      Novak defends what might be termed a kind of mental dualism, which he
      traces back to ancient theories of the kind found in the Gnostic
      literature. A personal mind would be composed of two distinct parts
      that may be identified as an individual conscious spirit and
      unconscious soul. In a sense, we might also term this
      position 'spiritual holism' in that a person would be non-physical
      and consist of two clearly distinguishable spiritual components. The
      difference with mind-body holism lies in the idea that after death
      the two parts of the personal mind may both survive separately and
      ultimately reunite. A person's conscious part or spirit would
      reincarnate without recollections of its previous life, whereas the
      unconscious portion or soul would contain memories of one's past
      Yet another, fifth approach was recently presented by Geoffrey Read.
      It is in fact an exponent of process-metaphysics in that it does not
      accept the validity of the concept of ontological substances.
      However, Read is convinced that human survival and reincarnation are
      personal, due to the 'individuation' of the psyche; "the higher [more
      complex] the species of the developing organism, and the longer it
      survives, the less the likelihood of the associated psyche being
      replaced by another. In short, this psyche is now in command of a new
      organism. We say that it has reincarnated." (Hewitt, 2003, p.351).

      Summing up, apart from holistic personalism and other non-
      reincarnationist positions, only Buddhist anatta-doctrine and its
      Western counterparts (with the exception of Geoffrey Read's specific
      brand of process metaphysics) are by definition incompatible with any
      type of personal rebirth. Therefore, it is incorrect to assume that
      the idea of reincarnation would automatically have to imply
      destruction of a personal soul or ultimate loss of personal identity.
      If we accept that we are spiritual entities, which are not identical
      with our bodies and irreducible to ultimately impersonal events or
      processes, personal reincarnation turns out to be a coherent notion.
      The author is a supporter of the third position (traditional
      spiritual personalism), but accepts that personalism concerning
      reincarnation may also manifest in other ways.

      Empirical support for impersonalism or personalism?
      The main empirical evidence for reincarnation consists of cases of
      young children who claim to recall their previous lives (Stevenson,
      1987; Rivas, 2003b). It is sometimes assumed that this type of cases
      shows the validity of the anatta-theory of rebirth. The children
      involved would never completely retain their previous personality,
      which would demonstrate that only fragments of a personality are
      reborn and integrated into a whole new psychophysical 'person' as
      defined by Buddhism. On the other hand, personalists may point out
      that the children themselves clearly claim to be spiritually
      identical to the persons whose lives they seem to remember. It would
      seem far-fetched to believe they are correct about the accuracy of
      their imaged memories and at the same time radically misinterpret
      their origin. Similarly, memories of an intermission period between
      two incarnations suggest that there is a continuity of individual
      consciousness ranging from one physical life to another (Rawat &
      Rivas, 2005).
      However, empirical findings should primarily be interpreted within an
      ontological context rather than the other way around, because the
      categories used in our empirical theories ultimately depend on a more
      general, metaphysical analysis, which precedes empirical research.
      This metaphysical analysis may in principle be corrected by logical
      argumentation, but never by 'raw' empirical data, as such data can
      only make a theoretical difference after they have been categorised
      ontologically. Thus, all the empirical data collected by
      reincarnation researchers can in principle be covered by both
      impersonalist and personalist conceptualizations of rebirth. The
      question of which theory should be regarded as the right
      interpretation has to be treated as part of a more general problem of
      personal identity within the philosophy of mind, rather than tackled
      ad hoc in the special context of reincarnation research.
      For instance, once we accept the philosophical, analytical arguments
      in favour of anatta, no amount of empirical data will be able to
      falsify them conclusively. Similarly, for a personalist, it is
      possible to interpret the apparent reduced level of mental
      functioning in infants in terms of a personal soul's (temporary)
      functional regression related to an immature brain, rather than in
      terms of basic psychological disintegration, let alone substantial
      loss of personal identity. Similarly, the absence of conscious
      recollections after the maturation of the brain in many of us can be
      explained by a process of amnesia caused by the temporary functional
      regression. Also, the presence of memories of a previous incarnation
      in young children can be regarded as the result of specific
      psychological characteristics of those memories that stimulate their
      recollection as soon as the brain allows this.
      Purported empirical evidence against the indivisibility of the
      conscious subject, such as data from multiple personality cases or
      split-brain experiments, falls short of demonstrating that when a
      person's psychological functioning becomes somehow partially
      dissociated, the conscious subject will be divided as well.
      Consciousness (in the sense of subjective awareness) is a private and
      personal phenomenon, whose presence cannot be directly established by
      others. Therefore, any behaviour shown by a person could in principle
      be caused both by conscious and non-conscious psychological
      processes. More importantly, the literal, ontological (rather than
      functional) division of a non-holistic, irreducible conscious subject
      is not a coherent notion, because one of the main aspects of the
      concept of such a substantial self is precisely that it is elementary
      and indivisible. In other words, either the 'self' is an impersonal
      or emergent phenomenon and therefore it could be split or destroyed,
      or it is a (non-emergent) substance and then any evidence for its
      supposed ontological divisibility (or destruction) must a priori be
      interpreted differently. Empirical data cannot be conclusive here,
      because, as said above, the real debate about personal identity and
      the substantiality of the self is not an empirical, but a
      philosophical (ontological) issue that can be decided by analytical
      argumentation alone.
      Similarly, Buddhists commonly accept evidence for consciousness after
      death and before rebirth. Tibetan Buddhists have even developed a
      theory of several so-called Bardos (intermediate states), which shows
      that they do not so much reject data that suggest personal survival
      as reinterpret them in the light of anatta-doctrine.
      In other words, it is possible to agree on the evidential strength
      and scope of certain empirical data in the field of reincarnation
      research, and at the same time to disagree fundamentally about the
      ontological framework needed to interpret these findings.
      It is sometimes supposed that general consensus is the main criterion
      by which to judge the maturity of a specific scholarly field. This
      criterion is certainly misguided in this particular case, and both
      impersonalist and personalist theoretical traditions within
      reincarnation research could be further developed in a sophisticated
      spirit of mutual tolerance and friendly empirical cooperation. For
      instance, data about the evolution of personality traits, skills,
      capacities, attitudes, etc., in the course of more than one physical
      lifetime, can be gathered and shared despite fundamental theoretical
      differences. The same data that would show an evolution of impersonal
      karma according to most Buddhists may also be used within a spiritual
      personalist theory of a truly personal evolution (Prasad, 1993;
      Rivas, 2005).

      Spiritual personalists may benefit a lot from reincarnation research.
      Rather than giving up on our personalism, we could extend it to the
      notion of a personal evolution over several lives on earth. Losing
      one's present physical body and adopting a new one may be accompanied
      by changes in one's psychological functioning, but this should not be
      confused with an ultimate disintegration or loss of personal identity.

      - Bolzano, B. (1970). Athanasia oder Gründe fuer die Unsterblichkeit
      der Seele (Reprint of book published in 1838). Frankfurt am Main:
      - Foster, J. (1991). The Immaterial Self: A Defence of the Cartesian
      Dualist Conception of the Mind. London: Routledge.
      - Hewitt, P. (2003). The Coherent Universe. An Introduction to
      Geoffrey Read's New Fundamental Theory of Matter, Life and Mind.
      Richmond: Linden House.
      - Huxley, A. (1970). The Perennial Philosophy. New York: Harper
      - Morse, D. (2000). Searching for Eternity: A Scientist's Spiritual
      Journey to Overcome Death Anxiety. Memphis: Eagle Wing Books.
      - Novak, P. (1997). The Division of Consciousness: The Secret
      Afterlife of the Human Psyche. Hampton Roads.
      - Oesterreich, T.K. (1910). Die Phaenomenologie des Ich in ihren
      Grundproblemen. Leipzig.
      - Prasad, J. (1993). New Dimensions in Reincarnation Researches.
      Allahabad: Dr. Jamuna Prasad.
      - Rawat, K.S., & Rivas, T. (2005). The Life Beyond: Through the Eyes
      of Children who Claim to Remember Previous Lives. The Journal of
      Religion and Psychical Research, 28, 3, 126-136.
      - Rivas, T. (2003a). Geesten met of zonder lichaam: Pleidooi voor een
      personalistisch dualisme. Delft: Koopman & Kraaijenbrink.
      - Rivas, T. (2003b). Three Cases of the Reincarnation Type in the
      Netherlands. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 3, 527-532.
      - Rivas, T. (2005). Reïncarnatie, persoonlijke evolutie en bijzondere
      kinderen. Prana, 148, 47-53.
      - Roberts, J. (1994). Seth Speaks: The Eternal Validity of the Soul.
      Amber-Allen Publishing.
      - Stevenson, I. (1987). Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A
      Question of Reincarnation. Charlottesville: University Press of
      - Whitehead, A. N. (1982). An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of
      Natural Knowledge. New York: Kraus Reprints.

      I wish to thank Chris Canter and Rudolf H. Smit for their
      constructive comments.


      Titus Rivas
      Athanasia Foundation
      Darrenhof 9
      6533 RT Nijmegen
      The Netherlands
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.