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    I’ve heard Culadasa’s teaching that because none of us are selves to begin with, there isn’t really rebirth. This teaching makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve also read Practical Dependent Origination by Buddhadassa Bhikku, who teaches that “rebirth” as described by the Buddha is actually the cycle of dependent origination which occurs hundreds or thousands of times in a single day.

    However, the suttas don’t seem to always fall in line with these ideas. For example, I was just thinking about how a “Stream Entrant” is described as one with with “7 rebirths at the utmost.” If Buddhadassa was correct in his interpretation, wouldn’t that mean the advancement from Stream Entrant to Arahant would occur in less than a minute?

    I haven’t read many suttas yet but they seem to be fraught with the idea of rebirth. It’s kind of frustrating to me because less than a year ago I was an atheist who knew nothing about Buddhism and would not be at all open to this kind of idea, and to some extent that continues to this day.

    I’m wondering if anyone here can help me understand this or provide further reading material. Thank you!


    Blake Barton

    Hi Paul,

    I think Culadasa covered some of these ideas in a recent teaching retreat entitled “What the Buddha Thought”. The handout from that retreat can be found here

    At the retreat he explained that some of the talk about rebirth may have been added to the suttas later.

    Hope this helps,


    Jordan Hill

    I agree– a lot of the discussion of rebirth never sat too well with me (beyond a metaphorical interpretation). Culadasa’s take on the matter is one of the aspects of his teaching that very much appeals to me. As he’s put it before, given interconnectedness, every single being (past/present/and future) could be considered a “past life” for each of us.

    Also, while this doesn’t address the interesting point you raise about interpretations of “rebirth” relative to the terms used for stages of enlightenment (7 times returner, once returner, etc.), I did just want to share one interesting point about the terms in Culadasa’s teaching. The ways that I’ve heard him discuss the stages, he seems to make a metaphorical interpretation of their titles. He talks about the 7 times returning of a stream entrant as referring to the idea that someone in this initial stage of enlightenment is likely to “return to samsara” multiple times by acting out of habitual patterns rather than the insights that they have achieved. By the time they become a “once returner”, this single return could be interpreted as one last intentional dive back into samsara in order to rustle up, confront, and uproot craving as fully as possible (which is entirely, according to the Suttas at least).



    Blake Barton

    Hi Paul,

    The following is posted on behalf of Upasaka Culadasa. He was having some technical difficulties logging in, so he asked me to post it for him.

    This is not a simple thing to sort out, but let’s try. First, some background. In the time of the Buddha, almost everyone believed in a separate non-material Self, or Atta, or Atman, that was reincarnated after death. This endless cycle of re-birth, repeated suffering, and re-death was called Samsara, and the goal of most spiritual paths was to somehow escape this “wheel of suffering.” Then, as now, there were also some people who didn’t believe in endless reincarnation (or an eternal life in heaven or hell), but still believed there was a Self. This is because all people share this deep intuition of the reality of a Self. But this other group believed that the Self is annihilated at death, rather than being reincarnated.

    Buddha used these popular ideas of rebirth, Samsara, and release from Samsara to teach a much higher, more liberating, and attainable truth. More attainable in that, for reincarnationists, release from Samsara could only be achieved after death. But the Buddha taught liberation from suffering in this very life. This was a radically new idea.

    Buddha also taught that it is foolish to ask what happens to the separate Self after death of the body, or to worry about whether the Self is annihilated, reincarnated to suffer all over again, or condemned to an eternal heaven or hell. Because there is no such thing as a separate Self, never was, never will be, and never could be, the very question of what happens to the Self after death is based on a fallacy, a misunderstanding, a false intuition. This teaching was even more radical than his teaching of liberation in this life. And, we might add, much more difficult to grasp. This intuition of being a separate Self that drives our illusions is very, very strong, and is associated with powerful emotions: fear of annihilation vs. dread at the prospect of endless suffering, and existential angst (Why do I exist? What is the meaning and purpose of life?). This intuition of a Self-nature is so strong that it easily trumps reason and rationality. The Buddha taught a systematic path to overcoming that false intuition, and all the other painful illusions it supports.

    The belief in reincarnation was not only widespread in the Buddha’s day, but continues to be the dominant belief throughout Asia, right up to modern times. The truth of no-Self is not easy to understand, and so to this day, most lay Buddhists continue to believe in reincarnation. Traditionally, Buddhism has tolerated this widespread belief in reincarnation, just as the Buddha himself did, but at the same time always tries to guide people toward the truth by denying reincarnation and replacing it with the idea of rebirth. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu is particularly upfront about this. But Narada Thera, Walpola Rahula, and many others are examples of teachers who walk a thin line, pointing out that rebirth is not and cannot be reincarnation, but recognizing that many people are not going to be able to understand this difference without some degree of personal realization. But even Buddhist monks often fail to comprehend this most central not-Self teaching of the Buddha’s, so you’ll also find teachers who have obviously mistaken rebirth for reincarnation. This is a clear indication that their understanding is only doctrinal, not experiential. They have knowledge without realization.

    What is reborn is not the illusory, separate Self you believe yourself to be. What gets reborn is ignorance, craving, and the suffering that ignorance and craving inevitably lead to. There is no abiding Self to be reincarnated, but ignorance and suffering are reborn every morning when you wake up, and in fact, every moment throughout the day, just as Buddhadasa says.

    With complete Awakening (“Enlightenment”), there is a complete and permanent end to ignorance, craving, and suffering, and so these are never again reborn. In the moment of complete Awakening, there is an end to future rebirth. Then it can be said, “This was his last rebirth, he has been liberated from Samsara.” If you achieve complete Awakening on Tuesday, the Awakened being whose body gets out of bed on Wednesday will not be an instance of the rebirth of ignorance and craving. That being wakes up to the world, but the world he or she wakes up to is no longer Samsara. This, by the way, is why the Mahayana say that Samsara and Nirvana are not different.

    But that is complete Awakening. There are also the stages of incomplete awakening. In the first of these stages, there is only a partial end to ignorance, and craving continues as before. Therefore, there is only a partial liberation from suffering. From time to time, the “partially Awakened” being temporarily “forgets” what has been realized, enough so that they are “reborn in Samsara,” descending once again into ignorance and suffering – but only for a little while. When the suffering becomes intense enough, they’ll “remember” the truth, and regain their (incompletely) liberated state. This can happen repeatedly, but not a huge number of times. That’s what the number seven represents: multiple rebirths in Samsara, but not some huge number. The Stream Enterer is reborn every morning, and indeed in every moment, but is far less often reborn into the depths of Samsara.

    It may take months or even years to reach the next stage of Awakening. But with further realization, the next stage is eventually reached. Craving loses its power, and is fully recognized as the cause of suffering and the enemy of Awakening. The Once Returner intentionally returns to Samara one last time, to finally uproot craving for things of the world once an for all. But because craving is so much weaker, this return to Samsara doesn’t involve anything like the kind of suffering that characterized previous “rebirths.” And this isn’t a momentary rebirth, nor even the rebirth of a single day. This task of uprooting craving can take months or even years to complete. The metaphor of momentary or daily rebirth has served its purpose, and can now be abandoned.

    Once the task of the Once Returner has been completed, there is no more craving for things of the world, there is no more return to Samsara. The Non-Returner to Samsara gets up in the morning to greet same world as before, but that world is now a Deva realm that he or she has been reborn into. There is still the conceit “I am,” the feeling of “I,” “me,” and “mine,” and the craving for “being,” but no longer any desire or aversion toward sense objects of any kind, nor any of the suffering that brings. From this Deva-like plane, the final work is done to achieve the complete and total Awakening, where there is no longer any intuitive sense of being a separate Self, no craving of any kind, but only the supreme bliss, wisdom, and compassion of Buddhahood.

    I hope this serves to clarify somewhat the confusion around reincarnation and rebirth,. As for further reading, please see the recommended reading list on the Dharma Treasure website.




    Thank you everyone for your very helpful responses! I’ve been thinking about this issue more and it seems to me that the Buddha may have been conflicted about how to teach back in his time. On the one hand if he refrained from using words like “rebirth,” “karma,” etc. which were part of the Hindu religion, he would have avoided ambiguity and misunderstanding. But on the other hand if he did not use these words, and instead said “there is no rebirth, there is no karma,” his ideas would probably have seemed so radical and offensive that he may not have gained many followers. So instead he decided to continue using the words rebirth and karma, but modified their meaning to reflect the truth. When he used the word “karma” he meant one’s intentions, and when he used the word “rebirth” he meant the rebirth of ignorance, craving, and suffering, rather than reincarnation of the body. It was a compromise that probably needed to be made for the sake of spreading the Dharma. But it is a shame that most people reading these words centuries after the Buddha’s passing take the Hindu meaning rather than the Buddhist meaning. It really hinders the power of Buddhism because the Hindu interpretation renders Buddhism a logically inconsistent religion fraught with magical thinking which is why many people like myself rejected the religion before having a chance to understand it. It was only after starting a secular meditation practice that I took a second look at Buddhism, and I believe without discovering this Dharma Treasure website I would have already rejected it a second time. I am extremely grateful to Culadasa and everyone in this sangha for spreading the Dharma, and I hope to do so as well as I make progress on the Path.




    Okay, so I love this, and honestly it makes the most sense to me. But I am confused about one thing, so just to clear, using this model for the Buddha’s teaching on rebirth, we really only have this one chance for awakening, this one lifetime? Once we die, and our body is breaking down in a coffin 6 feet under, it’s done and over. No matter the work we’ve done in this life in working toward awakening, none of that carries over in any way with some type of karmic stream or ocean. Is this the case? Or is there some type of rebirth after death that allows some other being to inherit the work that’s been done in this life? I realize that there is no self and never was, but I think you know what I’m asking here. Basically just is this it? Eliminate suffering here and now and get as close as possible and then you die and it doesn’t matter anymore anyways because the suffering resulting from this form is ended regardless. For some reason I feel like I’m missing something but I just want to make sure.



    I am of the opinion that SOMETHING of the person persists after physical death, and I might describe that as the patterns of thinking, being, feeling, behaving, etc. that have built up in this life (and previous lives) and that already persist in some form outside time and space. Those patterns don’t belong to anyone, as there is no core self, but the greater, transcendent mind has an interest in conserving them and continuing the experiment in future human beings.

    Thus, if I awaken in this life, the template of my awakening story could help some future person who is born with a similar makeup to mine and shares my patterns of suffering. That person won’t be “me,” but he will be so much like me that he might even have access to memories of this life. Even if I die unawakened, it seems “right” that whatever spiritual refinement I manage to achieve in this life will benefit whoever inherits my patterns. The downside is that my negative qualities will also get passed along. The poor slob deserves compassion.

    Again, this is just my opinion. I’m trying to reconcile the no-self teaching with the massive anecdotal evidence that something persists between lives.


    Blake Barton

    Hi JimiSommer,

    Even though we tend to view ourselves as separate, we are actually part of a vast interconnected system. A good analogy might be waves on the ocean. We think of ourselves as separate “waves”, but in actuality we are part of the same ocean. As you awaken in this life, the system is becoming a little more awakened. There is also the positive benefit that awakened beings can have on others and the system. Just think of the impact the Buddha has had on the world. So the effort is not wasted when “you” die.

    Our natural tendency is to want our efforts to benefit this eternal self. This is one way that the idea of reincarnation can solidify the sense of self.

    Hope this helps,

    Blake – Dharma Treasure Teacher


    Michael Dunn

    Hello, Jimi

    I also have a very strong tendency to identify myself with my body and thus when my body dies, then I also die. However, if you’ll forgive me for summarizing some of the great and important dharma teachings in a hurry, we can see another way to look at this.

    A consideration of the “I” to start. Who am I? What am I? What if I take away the things I think of as me, do I remain? What yogis (philosophers) have come to realize is that we are not our body, but the reified “I” can in fact be more mental, as in pure consciousness or awareness, timeless and without space.

    Next, the principles of causality explains how things happen in our world – (either everything in our world is purely random, caused by an omnipotent being, or caused by something like ourselves). Causality says that all things are caused and these causes need to be stored somewhere or else everything would all happen simultaneously. Some traditions believe these causes or karmic seeds are stored in your mindstream or consciousness, and at the time of death, your consciousness and all of the seeds/causes from this life are carried into your next life.

    This occurs independently of a body. When you see a car on the side of the road do you assume the driver is dead? Can you imagine a state of mind without the body? If so, where does the mind reside? What is the mind/consciousness? As stated above it may be nowhere and everywhere because it is not a single thing but a series of interconnected processes.

    Some Buddhist schools state that we create our next moment of mind/life because of the causes we create and store in this life, and it is self-perpetuating moment-after-moment-after-moment until the causes to see your body in this world are exhausted. Then you have other causes creating results that may be the same or different from this current world.

    Therefore the work you do in this life does create your future and you do carry it with you. Working to end your suffering along the path of the 4 Truths of Buddhism does impact your future. If you were a real schmuck in this life murdering loads of beings, you would create causes for more suffering in your future lives. If you work to reduce the suffering of yourself and others in this life you create the causes for less suffering in your future lives. If there were no payback or results of your actions in this life, then why do anything but what you want (other than cultural laws which may land you in jail). This is all due to the simple laws of causality – in fact, we create our entire world.

    Some say life is beginningless and endless, your past actions are the causes for your current mindstream which then create your future mind as well. The suffering you are trying to stop can be more than just physical, in fact, much of our suffering is mental, right? Physical death doesn’t end suffering, it is a simple, common moment in one’s infinite life, your body has died countless times and still suffers now, right? All that you do in this life does count.

    Lastly, when you say there is no self, then who are you? Of course there is a self, but very likely not the self you thought you had, that’s all. Think laterally- if there is not the self that I spent my whole life reifying, then what could that self be? Don’t be a nihilist and deny a self – who created those words and typed them in, who is reading this? Mr. Noself? It doesn’t mean that you don’t exist – you absolutely do!


    Michael Dunn
    DT Teacher in Training


    Blake Barton

    Hi Michael,

    I do not quite understand the following statement “Causality says that all things are caused and these causes need to be stored somewhere or else everything would all happen simultaneously.”

    I could see this being true if you are talking about causality from one life to the next, but if we are talking about causality in this life is a storage system necessary?

    The following essay by Culadasa and Matthew might be helpful for this conversation.



    Michael Dunn

    Hi, Blake

    It becomes clear that as we create causes/karmic potentials constantly through our actions of body, speech, and mind there is a vast amount of ‘data’ being generated (I’ve heard varying figures from 50 – 80 per second). These causes create results/our world just as fast – but what is the order to all of this? I may be generous in one second but a thief steals from me the second. Did my generosity cause me to lose something the next moment? Did the causes for my loss come from a different action? When did I create the cause for the loss and where was it all this time? Can one actually control which results will happen/karma to ripen at a certain time?

    If the results don’t happen simultaneous to the cause then it must be stored somewhere. This ‘where’ could well be the mindstream of the individual (as distinct from the physical being which rots at death). These ideas come from the Yogacara school, which assert that the fundamental store-house consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna), stores the impressions (vasanas) of previous experiences, which form the seeds (bija) of future karma in this life and in the next after rebirth. (Wikipedia)

    This definition clearly refers to this life, not just in future lives. I would say that at any moment along the apparent continuum of time these ideas are relevant and possible.

    Re Jimi’s post: The important thing is that every moment in this life we can create the causes for the reduction of suffering, and at death, these efforts/causes are not lost. In this model of consciousness and causality, we now take personal responsibility for our own and others happiness (reduction of suffering) not only in this life but in future lives too. So what we do now is important. In fact, we have the chance for awakening in every moment in every life we take (some forms are more conducive to this than others). We are not done when we are 6 feet under, as he says, the “we” that is our mindstream with the alaya-vijnana continues to our own future lives.

    The “other being” that Jimi refers to inheriting his life’s karma is, in fact, himself, in a very different physical form! 🙂



    Blake Barton

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for your clarification. It seems we are using different models of causality and Karma. I have been strongly influenced by Culadasa’s views on Karma, as described in the article above, because they seem to resonate with me.

    I don’t believe Culadasa’s model requires any sort of external storage system outside of each individual’s mind, and the physical universe. For example, if we harm someone the person or a friend or relative might seek retribution.




    Slightly different question but on the same topic. If our “true self” or “true nature” is the source, or the one (the Self, Brahman, God). Nirvana being the experience of knowing there’s no longer a separate self and that everything is just impermanence, dukkha, and emptiness/form. Why is there a seeker that seeks to discover true nature? Is it just to reduce the suffering of this lifetime for this particular “person”? Or is the spiritual aspirant, just another play of consciousness, another story?

    So maybe, prior to the intuitive recognition of no-self, the aspirant living in the relative world exists as a egoic self, identifying with the body, and potentially is bound to karma, reincarnation, and samsara. So past lives exist in the relative sense. Which is why the dhamma always speaks in a relative manner using terms like: free will, choice, skill vs unskillful action, and repercussions to each action. So for example, a sufferer who commits suicide will continue to suffer in future lives because of the clinging to a self, however with self-realization, the ego itself is dissolved so there is no more suffering for future lives. And one realizes, they have always been the absolute and that there was never a doer to begin with.

    So if one has merged with the eternal, that which is not born, nor dies. That same “one”, however continues manifestation in other forms and continues with endless suffering through other beings. Doesn’t this cycle just repeat itself indefinitely even if one or several individuals attained enlightenment? Considering the source is ground zero, infinite, and cannot be added or subtracted to.

    • This reply was modified 7 months, 2 weeks ago by  Peter.

    Alex K

    The problem is the teaching on kamma and rebirth is so fundamental to the teaching’s of the Buddha its impossible to either remove it or reformulate it, so that doesn’t offend modern sensibilities, without completely distorting and /or reducing the Dhamma to an ancient treatment for modern neurosis.

    For a in-depth and rigorous discussion on why rebirth matters in the Dhamma:

    Excerpts from ‘The Truth of Rebirth’ by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

    Writers who reject the idea that the Buddha is talking about the rebirth of a person in these two noble truths tend to argue in one of two ways: Either that the references to birth don’t imply rebirth; or that they refer to rebirth on the micro level of momentary mind-states, and not on the macro level of beings or persons over time. Neither interpretation, however, does full justice to what the Buddha had to say.

    Writers in the first group have made much of the fact that the Buddha used the word “birth” rather than “rebirth” in the first noble truth, concluding that rebirth is not necessarily meant here. This conclusion, though, ignores the relationship of the first truth to the others. All the forms of suffering listed in the first truth are caused by the second truth, and brought to an end by the fourth. If birth were a one-shot affair, there would be—for a person already born—no point in looking for the causes of the suffering of birth, and no way that the
    fourth truth could put an end to them.

    This point is especially clear when we look at the Buddha’s own account of how he explored the causes of suffering after having seen, in his first two knowledges, the sufferings caused by repeated birth. He looked into the possible causes of birth and traced them deep into the mind:

    “Monks, before my awakening, when I was still just an unawakened bodhisatta, the realization came to me: ‘How this world has fallen on
    difficulty! It is born, it ages, it dies, it falls away & rearises, but it does not discern the escape from this stress, from this aging & death. O when will it discern the escape from this stress, from this aging & death?’

    “Then the thought occurred to me, ‘Aging & death exist when what exists? From what as a requisite condition come aging & death?’ From my
    appropriate attention there came the breakthrough of discernment: ‘Aging & death exist when birth exists. From birth as a requisite condition comes aging & death.’

    Then the thought occurred to me, ‘Birth exists when what exists? From what as a requisite condition comes birth?’ From my appropriate attention there came the breakthrough of discernment: ‘Birth exists when becoming exists. From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth….

    “Becoming exists when what exists?…
    “Clinging/sustenance exists when what exists?…
    “Craving exists when what exists?…
    “Feeling exists when what exists?…
    “Contact exists when what exists?…
    “The six sense media exist when what exists?…

    ‘Name-&-form exists when what exists? From what as a requisite condition is there name-&-form?’ From my appropriate attention there
    came the breakthrough of discernment: ‘Name-&-form exists when consciousness exists. From consciousness as a requisite condition comes
    name-&-form.’ Then the thought occurred to me, ‘Consciousness exists when what exists? From what as a requisite condition comes
    consciousness?’ From my appropriate attention there came the breakthrough of discernment: ‘Consciousness exists when name-&-form
    exists. From name-&-form as a requisite condition comes consciousness.’

    “Then the thought occurred to me, ‘This consciousness turns back at name-&-form, and goes no farther. It is to this extent that there is birth, aging, death, falling away, & reappearing, i.e., from name-&-form as a requisite condition comes consciousness, from consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-&-form. From name-&-form as a requisite condition come the six sense media…. Thus is the origination of this entire mass of stress. Origination, origination.’ Vision arose, clear knowing arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before.” — SN 12:65

    Had the Buddha assumed that birth were a one-time affair, he wouldn’t have explored its causes through becoming, clinging, and on down to name-&-form. He would have stopped his analysis of the causes of suffering at the realization: ‘Aging & death exist when birth exists. From birth as a requisite condition comes aging & death.’ He thus would have limited his analysis of the origination of suffering to what happens after birth. Only because he saw that birth was a repeated process did he probe into the causes of birth and trace them through the factors that he later taught in his description of dependent co-arising.

    In other words, if the Buddha hadn’t assumed rebirth, he never would have discovered or taught the central tenets of his teaching: the four noble truths and dependent co-arising. His analysis of suffering and its causes would have been much more limited in scope.

    The fact that the Buddha gained release by discovering a process that held constant across many levels of scale was reflected in the way he taught, often switching scales in the course of his discussions and refusing to be pinned down to one scale or another. Sometimes he talked about “beings” in the standard sense of the word, and sometimes as attachments (SN 23:2), i.e., as processes on the mental level. And in particular with dependent co-arising: The teaching is always presented as a process without a fixed reference to where—on the level of scale in the world or in the individual—the factors of the process are playing out.

    In the same way, it’s a mistake to limit the Buddha’s teachings on birth/rebirth to just one level of scale. To limit them just to the micro level is to underestimate the potential for mental events in the present to create long-term suffering, and the radical nature of the cure needed to put an end to that suffering. To limit his teachings just to the macro level makes it impossible to observe directly in the present how birth and its attendant sufferings come about and can be brought to an end. To get the most out of these teachings, it’s best to drop any insistence, in line with one’s metaphysical assumptions, that they apply to one level and not another. Instead, it’s better to look at the processes as processes—true across many scales—and use this way of framing the issue as part of the strategy to put an end to suffering.

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