Reincarnation according budhism
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
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
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little more than an outdated early sect.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.
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
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"
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 &
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
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;
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.
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I wish to thank Chris Canter and Rudolf H. Smit for their
6533 RT Nijmegen