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