If There Is Not a Self, What Gets Reborn?

[The various schools of Buddhism teach various views on what happens to me when I die. Someone asked about this on Facebook and my reply-comment got a bit long winded.]:

The Buddha himself said when Ven. Kaccayana asked about Right View, "One with Right View does not take a stand about 'my atta' (my soul, my self)." Instead one should view the world from a perspective of dependent origination. [This teaching can be found in the discourse at SN 12.15 - http://leighb.com/sn12_15.htm]

This teaching basically means one should recognize that everything arises dependent on other things, nothing stand by itself. Or as I personally like to phrase it, there are nothing but Streams Of Dependently Arising Processes Interacting (SODAPI).

Once one groks this, then the following passage answers your question:

“Bhikkhus, knowing and seeing in this way, would you run back to the past thus: ‘Were we in the past? Were we not in the past? What were we in the past? How were we in the past? Having been what, what did we become in the past?’?”—“No, venerable sir.”—“Knowing and seeing in this way, would you run forward to the future thus: ‘Shall we be in the future? Shall we not be in the future? What shall we be in the future? How shall we be in the future? Having been what, what shall we become in the future?’?”—“No, venerable sir.”—“Knowing and seeing in this way, would you now be inwardly perplexed about the present thus: ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where will it go?’?”—“No, venerable sir.” MN 38 - https://suttacentral.net/en/mn38

In other words, the question "What happens to me when I die?" no longer makes any sense (just like asking "which way does the fire go when it goes out?"). The idea of "me" (and sense of "me" for a fully awakened one) disappears into SODAPI.

[Sorry if this is difficult to understand - the Buddha recognized this difficulty: "This Dhamma that I have attained is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise." MN 26 - http://leighb.com/mn26_19.htm Keep practicing, keep investigating how everything arises dependent on other things, be patient. The path is not swift, but the journey is very rewarding all along the way.]


How can I understand the Anatta related to the viññana? What is reborn if even the consciousness lacks self sufficient existence? Is the self 'grasped' to consciousness and when anatta is experienced all vanish?

Many times the Buddha teaches "viññana is not self." "Self" (atta) is the word that references that which is reborn, so clearly ones viññana is not reborn. The very oft asked question "If there is not a self, what gets reborn?" presupposes there is a something that gets reborn. But once one full groks dependent origination and all its implications, the whole idea of a 'something' fades away - there are only interacting processes and the consequences of those interactions. All the nouns of our experience are just attempts to conceptualize slow moving verbs. Once one fully lets go of the idea of a self, then the quote from MN 38 above makes sense and the question about not-self+rebirth disappears into the same space as "Which way does the fire go when it goes out?"

So are you saying that there is no rebirth?

If by rebirth you mean the means by which you accomplish your immortality project, then yep. But if you can step back from any idea of separate entities, then all that is happening is actions having consequences. You -- the relative self -- are just the intersection of a bunch of streams of dependently arising processes interacting. You are essentially a valve - you are taking in input from the environment and transforming it into actions that are just more of these dependently arising processes which go on to interact with more such processes. Step out of an egocentric view of the universe and experience the huge unfolding flow of interacting processes. In truth, "you" are being reborn with every action that "you" do.


Back to Essays
Back to Leigh's Home Page Site Map                   Site Search 


Permalink http://leighb.com/notselfrebirth.htm [] Hosted by Host
Leigh Brasington / EmailAddr / Revised 08 Feb 18