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. (February 2018)]:

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:

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." (e.g. MN 109.16, SN 22.95) "Self" (atta) is the word that references that which is reborn, so clearly ones viññana is not reborn — this is explictly taught in MN 38. 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 gets a deep enough understanding of 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 (karma) having consequences (karmic results). 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.

More thoughts below on this subject — August 2023

People who have an "immortality project" basically are thinking of a one-to-one rebirth. That is, they assume there was someone who existed and died before they were born that was them; they assume there will be someone who will be born after they die that will also be them. In light of the teachings above, this is untenable.

If you really want rebirth, the best you can have is many-to-one plus one-to-many: There were many beings alive before you were born whose streams of dependently arising actions (karma) have shaped who you are today. There also are many beings who have been alive since you were born whose streams of dependently arising actions have shaped who you are today. This is the many-to-one aspect of rebirth.

Since your birth, you have acted (karma), and in so doing have generated your own streams of dependently arising processes that have impacted people who have been alive since you were born. And it's quite likely that some of the actions you do during your life will continue to impact other beings after you have died. This is the one-to-many aspect of rebirth.

Of course, this understanding of rebirth does not accomplish anyone's "immortality project." But it does have two advantages:

  1. It's congruent with reality — always a useful thing.
  2. It points to the vastly interrelated nature of the universe. This can be very helpful in reducing selfish action — in particular reducing the craving and clinging that can lead to dukkha. Also acting in harmony with this interrelatedness is the only way to address the massive amount of problems currently facing humanity.
Given all this, what are we to make of "remembering past lives" and "seeing being passing away and rearising according to their karma" which occurs multiple times in the suttas? (e.g. DN 2.95-98 & MN 36.38-41) I think Stephan Batchelor said it best on page 302 (Kindle 5057) of his very excellent book After Buddhism:

Dependent Origination and Emptiness Streams Of Dependently Arising Processes Interacting — my free book which discusses most of the suttas mentioned above
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Leigh Brasington / EmailAddr / Revised 30 Aug 23