The Buddhist Concepts of Rebirth and Release

Buddhism begins and ends with Buddha’s enlightenment experience, for this the ultimate source of Buddhist teachings and there are a mean towards moral and spititual development culminating in a Buddha like experience. At his enlightenment, the Buddha gained direct knowledge of rebirth, karma, and the four holy truths (Harvey, 1990, p. 32).

In the first public teaching (known as the “turning of the wheel of dharma”) Siddhartha Gautam, the historical Buddha is said to have set out the fundamentals of Buddhist doctrine and practice and then proceeded to outline the four noble truths- the kernels of Buddhist doctrine which are duhkha, trsna, nirvana and the way to achieve nirvana. Birth, old age, sickness and death which give duhkha (sadness) are unsatisfactory, and the cause of this unsatisfatoriness gives rise to craving (trsna). End to this unsatisfactory state of mind can be achieved through nirvana.

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The eight steps to the path of nirvana involve the development of appropriate view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and finally appropriate meditative concentration. This Buddhist doctrine constitutes the essence of the Buddhist world view and provides the basis and context of all subsequent Buddhist philosophical reflection (King, 1999, p. 76). After six years of meditation, Buddha attained spiritual enlightenment or nirvana. Budha preached for forty five years and died at the age of ninety years.
Buddhist enlightenment is related to the attainment of the five supernatural powers, but their attainment is not, the Buddha concluded, in itself the realisation of enlightenment (Iizuka, 1995, p. 151). The action and interest of those who attain nirvana are completely detached from all images and sound. However, internally the mind is in a condition of most intense activity. Since the person has reached the fullest stretch of his mental and spiritual capacity, and at a level of highest transcendental consciousness, he is infinitely at peace with himself (Iizuka, 153).
According to Buddha, duhkha happens everywhere all the time because nothing is perfect in this world. Every life has the kamma (force) from the person’s previous lives, and being reborn means that everyone always suffers from the force of their previous lives. This means no life is perfect and only when people have reached nirvana will they be able to overcome duhkha. Duhkha according to Buddha is caused by selfishness and all our sufferings are caused by this selfishness. The ultimate goal of the people should be to break from this never ending cycle of rebirth.
By stopping greed and selfishness, one can break out of the rebirth cycle, which brings perfect freedom in the form of nirvana (Penney, p. 14). The Buddhist believe that the ultimate goal of meditation is nirvana, liberation from samsara, liberation from the ever repeated cycle of death and rebirth conditioned by Karma, in which all deluded beings are caught up. The doctrine of rebirth formed an essential part of the world view which the Buddha inherited. Thus, the Buddha accepted that the goal of all spiritual striving was nirvana, release from rebirth.
Consequently, he interpreted his own experience of enlightenment as the attainment of that goal (Bucknell, and Fox, 1983). Rebirth in Buddhism is seen both as a process which takes place after death, and also as a process taking place during life. This means, we are constantly changing during life, ‘reborn’ as a ‘different’ person according to our mood, the task we are involved in, or the people we are relating to. We may experience ‘heavenly’ or hellish state of mind depending on how we act.
According to Buddhist philosophy, it is reasonable to suppose that this process of change, determined by the nature of our actions, does not abruptly stop at death, but carries on (Harvey, p. 45). Our present form and circumstances of life are part of an uninterrupted series of separate existences that streak back into the distance past and will continue on into the interminable future. A constant and uninterrupted flow of beings living in the different stratified levels and passing on from one to another was the very essence of the world view called samsara.
The schemes of things, rewards and punishments, human conditions in high or low states, all had their reasons for existence in this cosmic flux of inter-connected events and states. The conclusive evidence of Sakyamuni Buddha’s supreme enlightenment confirmed and endorsed the essential elements of the processes of samsara and rebirth (Cheetham, 1994, p. 9). Rebirth is a casual link between one life and the next, and not a soul reincarnating. Only a casual connection links one life to another, so our karmic accumulation conditions our next life.
Contemplating rebirth helps us accept our own death without falling into the two extremes of eternalism or nihilism. The positive side of this rebirth concept is focussing an individual’s attention and energy to the present and make the most of one’s life. This constructive aspect of Buddhism while makes one realise about the transient nature of life, give them scope for improving the same to be able to rise to a higher realm (Halls, 2003, p. 54 ). The realm a being is born is determined by karma which is a ‘beings’ intentional actions of body, speech and mind, whatever is done, said or even just thought with intention or purpose.
Though, rebirth in the lower realms is considered to be the result of relatively unwholesome or bad karma, rebirth in the higher realms is the result of relatively wholesome or good karma. Correspondingly, the lower the realm, the more unpleasant and unhappy is one’s condition; the higher the realm the more pleasant, happy, tranquil and refined one’s condition is. This rebirth hierarchy does not however constitute a simple ladder to climb and passing out at the top into nirvana or release.
Nirvana or release may be obtained from any of the realms, from the human to the highest of the pure abodes and the four formless realms but not from the four lowest realms. Yet, rather than attaining nirvana or release, human beings generally rise and fall through the various realms which are precisely the nature of the samsara, i. e. wandering from life to life with no particular direction or purpose (Gethin, 1998, p. 119). The cycle of rebirth is thus seen as involving innumerable lives over vast stretches of time.
If the cycle only involved human rebirths, it would have been difficult for a Buddhist to explain the population explosion. However, the cycle is seen to involve many other forms of life, such as animals so that readjustments between populations are made possible. This introduces the idea of different realms of rebirth. The first two of these realms are those of humans and animals kingdom. The latter includes sentient creatures as simple as insects. Plants are not included, although they are seen as having a very rudimentary consciousness, in the form of sensitivity to the touch.
There are also realms of beings that are not normally visible, such as the realms of ‘petas’ or departed. As these are seen as having made of ‘subtle matters’, such a rebirth does not involve re-incarnation, that is getting a gross physical body again. In Buddhist painting of life cycle and rebirth, petas are seen as frustrated ghostly beings that frequent human world due to their strong earthly attachments (Harvey, 1990, p. 33). The Buddhist although believe in rebirth, do not accept that there is any substantial entity of self (atman) being reborn in this process.
There is simply the process itself. Buddhist philosophical texts tend to represent rebirth using analogies of dynamic and ever changing processes, such as the flowing of a river or the flickering flame of a candle. Thus to talk about identity or the difference between life in this Buddhist cycle of rebirth is inappropriate (King, 1999, p. 81). Nirvana is a difficult concept but traditional Buddhist understanding of Nirvana is quite clear. Literally nirvana means ‘blowing out’ or ‘extinguishing’, although Buddhist like to explain it as ‘the absence of craving’.
When a being reaches a state of nirvana, the defilements of greed, hatred, and delusion no longer arise in his or her mind, since they have been thoroughly rooted out. Yet, like the Buddha, any person who attains nirvana does not remain thereafter forever absorbed in some transcendental state of mind. On the contrary, he or she continues to live in this world, with the difference that his thoughts and deeds are completely free of the motivations of greed, aversion and delusion and motivated instead entirely by generosity, friendliness and wisdom.
This condition of extinguishing the defilement can be termed nirvana with the remainder of life. Eventually, the reminder of life, like all beings, such a person must die. But unlike other beings, who have not experienced nirvana, he or she will not be reborn into some new life. Instead of being reborn, the person attains parinirvanas, which means that the five aggregates of physical and mental phenomena that constitute a being cease to occur (Gethin, 1998, p. 75). Persons with various deluded mind will not attain nirvana or release and these views are called prapanca.
When one gains insight into and realises the dharmakaya, which in effect is the noble truth of cessation with respect to any or all form of prapanca, or self view, one attains the Buddha nature. It is the theories of self and attachment to self that bind us. Buddha nature thought, like the rest of Buddhism, aims to release us from this bondage. The Dharmakaya or Buddha nature, as the truth of cessation represents the active releasing from bondage that constitutes the Buddha way. Hence Buddha nature is not a substantive entity, not a self mind, but the cessation of all self views (King, 1991, p.
95). The Buddha’s noble eighth fold path to liberation from suffering emphasized practical discipline and direct experience to countermand the human tendency to theorize about spiritual life and reify rather than to encounter it directly. The eight member of the noble eighth-fold path termed “samyak Samadhi” consists of eight stages of meditative practices known as jhana in Pali, for the purpose of transcending individuated consciousness and leading to enlightenment or nirvana (Whicher, 1998, P. 313).
One of the central images of Buddhism is that of crossing the ocean of samsara and arriving at the other shore of nirvana or enlightenment, which is journey from the troubling world to the world as Buddha land. In Buddhism, this path or crossing to nirvana is the most difficult one, and there is no guarantee of completion of this path. The ocean of life is full of turbulence and this turbulent nature of life’s ocean is an intimate function of our own intentions or karma which we create through actions motivated by our likings and disliking.
Since these troubles are our own creation, we must undo the trouble as well. Buddhist salvation is not breaking away from the world but about freeing all things by undoing the dualistic knot of our karma and the stranglehold of our habitually held likes and dislikes (Hershock, 1999, p. 111). In Buddhism, denial of the reality of the self in man is called absolute anatta. The anatta doctrine of the Buddhist philosophy has been from early times a pillar of Buddha dogma, together with all pervading impermanence and suffering.
This doctrine is consistently propounded by orthodox Buddhists as one of the most outstanding characteristics of their system. The anatta doctrine raises many questions such as the reality of the moral agent and the existence and nature of moral responsibility, the continuity of individuality in the rebirth cycle, the nature of kamma, and the way it works and the relation of nirbana to the individual who attain it. However, Buddha refuses to answer the question whether the liberated man exists or does not exist after death.
However, most of the Buddhist text implies that the liberated man is the personification of all reality (Ramon, 1980, p. 1-2). To conclude, the essence of life according to Buddhism is karma. Karma is called the law of cause and effect, which means every action we undertake creates a cause that will have in some point of time- even in rebirth have an effect. Our bad action in life will bring negative results and good actions will be rewarded with positive results. This is the ethical way how karma operates. This will keep in check our negative traits, and help us behave mindfully.
The wheels of life in Buddhism signify through different symbolism the causes for this cycle of rebirth. Three animals at the center of the wheel symbolises endless cycles of sufferings with one negative action causing the next. The pig depicts the erroneous perception about the world and cock signifies ignorance about our own existence, giving rise to craving, lust, and desire. The ultimate negativism arising out of wrong perception of life is hatred and anger, symbolised in the wheel in the form of snake.
The picture of Buddha at the top let of the picture symbolises liberation from ignorance, desire and hatred which are causes of all our sufferings. Thus liberation of the soul can be realised by following Buddha path and the ultimate attainment of nirvana (Halls, 2003, p. 50). References Bucknell, R. S and Fox, M. X (1983) The ‘three knowledges’ of Buddhism: Implications of Buddhadasa’s interpretation of rebirth, Religion, Volume 13, Issue 2, pp. 99-112 Cheetham, E (1994) Fundamentals of Mainstream Buddhism, Charles E Turtle company Inc, USA
Gethin, R (1998) The Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press, NY Halls, G. F (2003) the Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Buddhist Wisdom, Octopus Publishing Groups Harvey, B. P (1990) An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices, Cambridge University Press Hershock, P. D (1999) Reinventing the wheel: A Buddhist response to the information age, Sunny Series of Philosophy and Biology, Albany, State University of New York Press IIzuka, T (1995) The Quest for life: Zen in business and life, New York University Press.
King, R (1999) Indian Philosophy: An introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought, Edinburg University Press King, S. B (1991) Buddha Nature, Albany State University of New York Press Penney, S (1995) Buddhism, Core edition, Heinmann Educational Publishers, P. 48 Ramon, J. P (1980) Self and non-self in early Buddhism, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, N. Y. Whicher, Y (1998) The Integrity of Yoga Darsana: A reconsideration of the classical yoga, Sun series in religious studies, Albany, State University of New York Press

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