Kamma, Rebirth and Nibanna —

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Qualities of the Dharma
The Four Noble Truths
The Noble Eightfold Path
The True Nature of Existence
  The Five Aggregates of Clinging
  Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta
  Dependent Arising
  Kamma, Nibbana and Rebirth


The Sangha
The Buddhist Sangha



Nowadays it has become fashionable to dismiss the question of human destiny after death as unimportant. But if we reflect on the extent to which our views influence our action we will see that it is quite essential to gain some understanding of the complete context in which our lives unfold.  Moreover, our views on the afterlife will determine what we regard as important in this present life.

In this lesson you explore the place of rebirth on the path of liberation. You will also learn about the relationship between dependent arising and rebirth.

Human destiny after death

The three possible positions that can be taken on human destiny after death are:

  • Materialism, which denies that there is an afterlife. It holds that the human being consists of organic matter. It regards mind as a byproduct of organic matter, and after death, with the break up of the  physical body, all consciousness comes to an end and the life process is completely  extinguished.
  • Western theistic religions in their orthodox forms believe in an eternal afterlife. We live a single life on earth and  after death we live eternally in some state of existence determined by our present beliefs  and conduct.
  • The idea of rebirth, prevalent in the religions of the East, Hinduism and Buddhism. The present life is only a simple link in a chain of lives that extends back into the past and forward into the future. This chain of lives is called samsara.

What is the place of rebirth in the Buddha’s teachings? >>> Dhamma Without Rebirth?

Repeated occurrence of existence

The suffering from which liberation is needed is the suffering of bondage to samsara, the round of repeated birth and death.

The word samsara means literally "continuing on" or "wandering on." It signifies the repetitive cycle of  birth, ageing, death and rebirth. Buddhism sees rebirth as the repeated occurrence of the process of existence. While there is no soul, no permanent entity which transmigrates from one life to another, there is a continuity, a transmission of influence, a causal connection between one life and another.

The onward flow of consciousness

Individual identity in a single lifetime, the Buddha teaches, is a functionally unified combination of five aggregates made up of a material process, a current of material energy, and a mental process, a current of mental happenings. These currents consist of factors that are subject to momentary arising and passing away.

The mind is a series of mental acts (cittas) made up of feelings, perceptions, mental formations  and consciousness. Each citta arises, breaks up and passes away. When a citta falls away, its perceptions, emotions and volitional force are passed on to the next citta. In this way all experiences we undergo leave their imprint on the onward flow of consciousness. This causal continuity gives us our continued identity. We remain the same person through the whole lifetime because of this continuity.

Simile of a candle

Now suppose that as the flame reaches the bottom of the candle, we put the wick of a new candle to the flame of the old candle and catch the flame from the old candle to the new one, The flame on the old candle goes out and the flame has now been transmitted to the new candle. Is it the same flame or a different flame? From one angle we can say it is the same flame because it follows in continuity, it belongs to the same series. But now the flame is burning with a new physical base, with a new candle as its support. It is burning up new particles of air, new pieces of wax, a new section of wick. We say it is the same flame as the flame of the old candle because it caught fire from that and it continues the succession. But there is no absolute identity of one flame with the other, because of the conditions contributing to that flame. But we can't say that it is a different flame. To call it a different flames would not be in conformity with conventional usage.

Applying the simile