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Rethinking “re-birth”

Recently I was trying to explain the difference between re-becoming and re-birth, as I understand the terms. The latter term, in my opinion, is from a misunderstanding of the Buddha’s teaching, but it has become generally accepted, without reflection. The Paali term in question is “punabbhava”. You will not find the Buddha talking about “puna-jaati” at all in the Paali Canon. These days you can search the whole text for particular words or phrases using digital copies. Puna-jaati would be the Paali translation of “re-birth”. Punabbhava on the other hand, is often spoken about by the Buddha in the Paali texts and I think would be best translated “re-becoming”.

Due to all conditioned things being impermanent, it is impossible that something could experience the same birth again. No, each birth is different, or the being born each time, is different. Therefore a being could not have a “re-birth”. Of course one could be born as a human, angel, demon etcetera many times, but one would be (the birth would be) different each time.

If we understand “becoming” as a process which leads to birth, each time a different birth, we could see that the process of becoming could be the same each time. Therefore we can undergo the process many times, again and again, thus “re-becoming” or “again-becoming” leading to a different birth each time.

This can be likened to the process of cooking a cake. The process has to be repeated each time one wants to cook a cake. The ingredients may change a little depending on the type of cake one wanted, but even if we wanted to cook a banana cake every time, the resulting cake would never be the same as the one before. Though of course there would be basic similarities, otherwise we couldn’t call it a “banana” cake.

Thus we would have “re-becoming” leading to a different birth each time and many births [and deaths] in the cycling within Sa.msaara.

The common “translation” of the three knowledges includes such terms as “re-birth” and “past lives.” (See my previous post.) We should look closely at the text and put aside extra ideas, avoid reading our interpretations into the text. This is what a translator tries to avoid. When we avoid doing that we will see that “re-“ is not mentioned regarding “birth” and “lives” is not mentioned at all. Making such (minor?) changes or adjustments is very dangerous, because the Buddha said his teaching is very subtle. It is certainly not correct to translate the idea of “many past births”, which the Buddha spoke of in the first of the three knowledges, as “many past lives”. Even a renowned Paali scholar uses the term “re-birth” in translations dated 2005.

I’d encourage you all to stop practising Parrot Buddhism and start making a “thorough investigation” as the Buddha encouraged intelligent people to do. Of course, we may generally be doing so, but slip up on certain occasions, but if we have a highly respected position we must be very careful, as we could easily mislead people. Thus, I think it is always best to keep in mind, that we are not experts in Dhamma, even if we have PhD’s, until we are fully enlightened. Even then, the discourses say that those on the path only take the Buddha as the teacher. That leaves all the rest, including ourselves as good friends helping each other to understand the Buddha’s teaching.


2 responses

  1. As I try to become that expert in Dhamma, I have come to discover many things for myself…. for the cancelled ATBU conference I wrote on teaching dependent-origination to my boys – I use a story of becoming… as like: little boys see TV and a superhero (pick one!) is on… and they copy the actions, and pretend they are the HERO. In their minds they have ‘become’ the HERO, and they remain the hero until bored, and revert back to their conventional self – of course changed due to the new HERO experience. There is a continual processes of becoming and death. I teach (me as the father has died), I go home and become the father and husband (the teacher has died), sleep-wake-arrive at MCU as teacher (father/husband has died)… and the cycle of becoming continues… BUDDHISM, thus operates in the here-and-now circumstance…. –this is my perspective.

    March 22, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    • dhammadarsa

      Hi Dion

      Thanks for sharing your persective. I don’t see it quite the way you do, but generally yes. For me becoming is from when they determine to “be” the hero, then they gather the necessary things, like a cape and mask. When in their mind they have “become the hero” that for me is “birth” (becoming leads to birth) and it lasts, as you say, as long as they identify with (“being”) the hero (which include such “I am” conceit statements as “I’m the hero x”). I agree there is a continual process of becoming, that LEADS to BIRTH and DEATH, I don’t say there is a continual process of simply “becoming and death”.

      I only see the other examples you give as becoming and birth, IF there is identification with one’s behaviour/role, that is, “I am the father”, “I am the teacher (and you are the student, so you should listen to me…. etc)”. If one does not identify and sees it just as a role or behaviour, then one is psychologically open and can respond in an open way, not the fixed way “as a father”, “as a teacher” etc with all the limits or expectations one associates with those ways of being… “I should be like this, to be a good father” etc…

      Kind Regars

      March 22, 2012 at 8:05 pm

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