What Is Reincarnated? Do We Have A Soul?

Dear Sumitta,

If there is no soul, what is being reincarnated?

Dhamma Follower,

The concept of soul in Buddhism is tricky. The Buddha did not force us to have a definitive answer. That is because there is so much rationalization about it. Our bodies do use an “I” concept in everyday living, but not as an absolute truth (which most people believe) but as a convenience of interaction with the world.The Soul: a permanent sense of “I”

What “I” do you have? Again, are you “YOU” from an embryo? Of course not. We all know that we are not the people we were 5, 10, 30 years ago. So what is this “I”?

With no fixed sense of “I” then the argument for “soul” falls apart, because in most definitions, the soul is a permanent sense of “me” that lives forever and is permanent. As Buddhists, we know that nothing is impermanent.We use the concept of “mine, I, self” to engage with the world, but we should always be mindful that these are illusions of convenience and not truths.

Reincarnation: A process not a continuation

Think of an apple seed. It comes from an apple, but it is not the recreation of the apple. What is continued then? Not just the genetic code, but the continuation of process. A sweet apple will surely be likely to produce sweet apple seeds, unless the conditions in which that seed grows in are poor. And if that seeds conditions are poor and produces a less sweet apple, how soon before its seeds and their seeds end up yielding poor apples.At the same time if a sweet apple seed is planted in good conditions and thrives there, the fruit may become even sweeter for the animals to eat and spread those seeds farther.

The same is true in many aspects of our lives. Just as we give birth to children, who are from us, but not a part of us— we give rebirth to the process that is created by us but not us. Our dukkha and khamma are continued.

To give another example, think of your finger. When you were an embryo your finger looked very different than it does now. Is that the same finger? The cells are all new. The finger is a different size and shape. There is nothing of the original material, shape, or form to that finger– but there is a continuity between that finger and the one that was there in the beginning. It has changed and yet it has a history.

This too is also a consideration of who rebirth works.

The mental shift we must make is this— we are the five aggregates. Our personality is bound and limited by them. When we die and decay so does the illusion convention of “I” as a personality and person. Nevertheless, realizing this, we can see that we are not an “I” person but a “process of dukkha driven by khamma and awareness.”

Like the seed, good conditions and choices create the future conditions of our lives and our rebirths. Like the finger, the body (as well as its personality) end, but the process your life is participating in continues until complete liberation is achieved.

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Categories: Buddha, Dharma, Kharma, Mahayana, New Age, Philosophy, Theravada, Tibet, Virajana

Author:Sumitta

Born Joshua Hudson, Reverend Sumitta (his ordained name) finished a twenty-year career as a military photo-journalist, and became a Licensed Social Worker with continuing studies in Mental Health, Healthcare Advocate, and Buddhist Minister. Currently, he works as the Director of Psychological Health and Primary Prevention of Violence for the U.S. Air Force. Previously, he served as the healthcare patient advocate for the Veterans Healthcare Administration, and is a License Clinical Social Worker, with a Master’s in Clinical Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh, working as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor, public speaker, trainer and personal/family advisor. His dharma name "Sumitta," which translates to "Good Friend" in Pali.

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