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Buddhism and Survival of Death. The Four Noble Truths . Although “Buddhism” refers to a varied set of religious beliefs and practices, there are four important truths or doctrines (dharma) expressed in all the streams of Buddhist thought. Suffering “Dukkha”.

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The Four Noble Truths

Although “Buddhism” refers to a varied set of religious beliefs and practices, there are four important truths or doctrines (dharma) expressed in all the streams of Buddhist thought.




“Life is suffering.” Broadly understood in the Pali canon to include physical and psychological pain. Lack of satisfaction. Disappointment. Suffering is inevitable. It is a general claim about all human life, not a claim that every moment is suffering.


The origin of suffering is attachment to or the desire for transient or impermanent things. Desire + impermanence = suffering. Desire is closely connected to individuality, for desire presupposes a subject-object duality. No individual can be free from desire.

The third noble truth of Buddhism teaches the cessation of craving or desire as the means of overcoming suffering. If desire is the cause of suffering, remove desire and you remove suffering. Absolute cessation of desire is called Nirvana (“to be blown out”). This is roughly equivalent to Moksha in Hinduism.


The Path

The path to Nirvana is in actions and thoughts that lie in between excessive indulgence and excessive self-denial. This is expressed in the eightfold path toward enlightenment.

nirvana the ultimate state
Nirvana: The Ultimate State

Nirvana means literally “to be blown out.”

What is blown out?

“A man comes to believe in his essential nature, to know that what exists is the erroneous activity of the mind and that the world of objects in front of him is non-existent. . .this is called gaining nirvana.” ~ Asvaghosa (2nd century CE Buddhist philosopher)

Nirvana is “an indefinable state, independent of all worldly ties, beyond all earthly passion, freedom from all egotistical, false ideas, - in short, it is the exact opposite of everything known to the conditioned, individual existence between birth and death.”~ Von Glasenapp, modern Buddhist commentator


Nirvana does not mean unqualified cessation of existence, annihilation, or extinction.

Nirvana is best interpreted as the annihilation of ego-consciousness, the death of the cravings that define myself as an individual and that tether it to the world sense experience.

Nirvana, then, means the “blowing out” of self only in this specific sense, a blowing out of the desires that constitute ego-consciousness.


Nirvana or Rebirth

If at death a person does not enter Nirvana, then there is rebirth as a human or as some other life form, either on earth or in some other realm of conditioned, finite existence.


Buddhist Conception of Reality

The Buddhist conception of rebirth presupposes the Buddhist conception of reality.

In Buddhism, reality is conceived of as a flow of multiple momentary, impersonal mutually conditioned events called dharmas.

Buddhist metaphysics may be characterized as anti- or non-substantialist. It does not conceptualize reality as consisting of substances (things with properties), but as a flow of dharmic events or as dynamic processes.

Not even nirvana – the ultimate state - can be thought of as a thing, for it can only be spoken of by way of negation, by denying of it what is true of finite, conditioned reality.

personhood in buddhism
Personhood in Buddhism

Buddhism maintains that a person is a dynamic aggregation of five different elements (skandhas), together called Nama-Rupa






Dispositions or Tendencies


Perception or recognition of sensation


Feelings or Sensations


The Physical Body


The Five Elements (skandhas) constitute “the individual person,” though not in any substantial sense. “Self” is simply a name given to the aggregate of skandhas.

There is no soul or permanent self residing in or behind the skandhas. There is no Hindu “atman” or “jiva soul.”

Buddhaghosa, 5th century CE Buddhist Philosopher

“The words ‘living entity’ or ‘ego’ are but a mode of expression for the presence of the five aggregates, but when we come to examine the elements one by one, we discover that, in the absolute sense, there is no ‘living entity’ there to form the basis for such figments as ‘I am’ or ‘I’’ in other words, that in the absolute sense, there is only Nama and Rupa.” ~ Buddhaghosa

Buddhaghosa considers it a “confusion” to suppose that rebirth involves a “being’s transmigration to another incarnation. . . .a lasting being’s manifestation in a new body.” (Buddhaghosa, Visuddhimagga 17.113-114)

physical death
Physical Death

The skandhas, which together constitute an individual personality, are severally and collectively impermanent. Hence, they cannot survive death, individually or collectively.

At the time of death, the nama-rupa disintegrates. The individual psycho-physical person that once existed, no longer exists.


First Approximation

One’s individual karma survives the death of the self, and provides the basis for the emergence of a new personality.

What is reborn is a cluster of dispositions or tendencies that constituted the character of the formerly living person. The person has ceased to exist with death, but his or her character persists and becomes integrated with a new psycho-physical person.


"There is rebirth of character, but no transmigration of a self. Thy thought-forms reappear, but there is no ego-entity transferred. The stanza uttered by a teacher is reborn in the scholar who repeats the words” ~ Buddha, The Gospel


Refining the Buddhist Concept of Rebirth

Karma is not a substance or thing that transmigrates from life to life. Karma “passes” from one life to another only in a figurative sense.

Karma conditions dispositions and consciousness in subsequent sets of skandhas.

G. Karma

B. Karma

A. Karma

Mohandas Gandhi’s life b. 1869, d. 1948

John Bonham’s Life b. 1948, d. 1980

Christina Aguilera’s Life b. 1980 – present

There is no identity between sets of skandhas. There is only causal continuity between sets of skandhas.


Rebirth Analogy. . .



As one fire lights another fire, so one set of skandhas conditions another, but nothing passes between them.


Consciousness and Rebirth. . . .

The Buddha called that which is reborn vinnana (consciousness), but he was explicit that what is reborn is neither the same as nor different from the person who died in a former existence.

Resolution. . . .

Buddhaghosa spoke of a “rebirth-linking consciousness” (patisandhi vinnana), the first stirring of consciousness in a fetus contingent on the karmic deposit of a former life and conditioned by a person’s last moment of consciousness before death.


Past Life Memories and Rebirth. . . .

The Buddha claimed to have remembered many past lives.

Does this not imply that “memories” pass from a prior life to a subsequent life?


Just as consciousness from one life may condition the consciousness of a subsequent life, memorial states (a form of consciousness) may be conditioned by past consciousness. Memories as well as dispositions may be effects caused by the karmic deposit of a particular life and its skandhas, rather than things passed on from one life to the next.


The Process of Rebirth






Unsatisfied desires produce rebirth in accordance with the flow of one’s built up karmic energy.

“Karma is like the field, craving like the moisture, and the stream of consciousness like the seed. When beings are blinded by delusion and fettered with craving, the stream of consciousness becomes established, and rebirth of a new seed (consciousness) takes place.” ~ Buddha


Rebirth Realms

As in Hinduism, Buddhism does not confine rebirth to earth or the human species. Rebirth may take place in different realms and in different species.







World of




All realms are temporary.

Only the human and heavenly realms are desirable. The rest are unhappy and undesirable.

Karma can only be accumulated or altered in the human realm.


Substantialist Tendencies in Buddhism

Nikaya Buddhists regarded vinnana (consciousness) as a substratum that wonders from one existence to another.

Puggalavadin Buddhists posited a transmigrating person or agent of action (puggala) in order to account for continuity between lives. The puggala is neither identical with nor different from the skandhas.

Theravadin Buddhists were strongly critical of the Puggalavadan conception of rebirth. They believed it was indistinguishable from the Hindu atman or soul doctrine and thus incompatible with the Buddhist an-atta teaching.

buddhism and hinduism comparison
Buddhism and Hinduism Comparison

Like Hinduism, Buddhism accepts the related ideas of karma and samsara.

However, Buddhism denies the existence of atman, a substantial, unchanging, self.

There is no deeper or higher self behind the changing empirical self that can be reborn.

In Hinduism the finite self (jiva) is the infinite self (atman) enveloped in various finite sheaths or bodies.

In Buddhism, the finite self (nama-rupa) is simply another one in a changing cluster of states of consciousness connected by karma.


Rebirth Contrasts: Hinduism and Buddhism

Although some streams of Buddhism present a view of rebirth very similar to the more sophisticated view of rebirth in Hinduism, where they diverge it tends to be along the following lines:

Hinduism: Some substance transmigrates, whether atman, jiva, or subtle body. So there is some thing that grounds the continuity between distinct lives.

Buddhism: Nothing transmigrates. There is only a continuity of a causal sequence of dharmic events, a series of modifications to distinct skandhas.

In both Buddhism and Hinduism, karmic conditioning of subsequent lives is recognized.




Substance Metaphysics

What Persists?

No Thing Persists

Causal Continuity


Person A shapes the skandhas

of Person B

Classical Buddhist View

What Persists?

Mental Dispositions

or Aspects of the

Unconscious Mind

Vedanta Hinduism

What Persists?

Complete Conscious,

Character and Memory

Bearing Self

“Vulgar Conception”

In eastern and western

religion and philosophy

No Soul


Immaterial Substance

Substratum for Consciousness or Mental Life