Blanche Hartman, Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, and Narayan Helen Liebenson.

Ask the Teachers: “If there is no self, who is it that keeps getting reincarnated?”

Doesn’t the idea of reincarnation imply that there is a thing or self that can be referred to as existing, which passes from one life to the next?

By Lion’s Roar

Blanche Hartman, Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, and Narayan Helen Liebenson.

Question: In Zen Master Hakuin’s Chant in Praise of Zazen, he says:

And if we turn inward and prove our True-nature—
that True-self is no-self,
our own Self is no-self—
we go beyond ego and past clever words.

My question is, if there is no self, who is it that keeps getting reincarnated? Doesn’t the idea of reincarnation imply that there is some integrated thing or self that can be referred to as existing, and which passes from one life to the next?

Narayan Liebenson Grady: It’s my understanding that the Buddha taught rebirth, not reincarnation. Reincarnation generally means that a permanent, intact entity passes from one body into the next, while rebirth reflects the changing nature of experience. A common metaphor for describing the process of rebirth is that of a flame of a candle lighting the wick of another candle; the flame of the second candle conditions the qualities of the first candle, and yet it is a different flame. The process of rebirth is conditioned by mental factors that have been cultivated, either consciously or unconsciously. These qualities of mind, such as desire, generosity, anger and loving-kindness, then condition the energy and form of the next birth.

We can see this process of conditioning at work in this life without necessarily believing in rebirth. If we are mindful and pay careful attention to our lives in the here and now, we can see the power of past conditioning and how it shapes our experience in the present moment. Understanding the limits and burdens of conditioning can inspire us to practice toward realizing inner freedom and the unconditioned in this very lifetime.

From an ultimate point of view, there is no self to be reborn. As Ajahn Chah says, “We must go beyond self and no self, beyond birth and death. To see a self to be reborn is the real trouble of the world.”

Zenkei Blanche Hartman: As you might imagine, many of us have wrestled with this question. I believe the Buddha declined to discuss it. As I recall, when he was asked, he said that it was speculation which was not conducive to liberation. I myself cannot answer this question, but I will respond to it as best I can.

You know, I cannot even say what is being referred to by this personal pronoun, “I,” which I keep using because I don’t know how to compose a sentence without a subject. I confess to being agnostic about past and future lives, though I have read many accounts, particularly from the Vajrayana tradition, which sound rather compelling. But I must respond to your sincere question with only my actual experience, and not with speculation.

Someone once asked a Zen master, “What happens when you die?”

The Zen master responded, “I don’t know.”

The person then said, “What do you mean, you don’t know? Aren’t you a Zen master?”

He replied, “Yes, but I’m not a dead one.”

Before we become too concerned with what continues life after life, we need to ask, what is it that continues moment after moment? What is this “self” that we think we are? Can you find it? Can you show it to me? What is it? Where is it? Is there anything apart from the five skandhas—form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness—that can be pointed to? This is what Hakuin Zenji is speaking about in his poem.

Can you find any integrated thing that can be referred to as existing? Or is the arising and passing away of everything in each moment dependent on the causes and conditions present in that moment?

The founder of Soto Zen in Japan, Dogen Zenji, said in Genjo Koan, “To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be awakened by all things.”

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said, “You exist as an idea in your mind.” To me it actually seems that I exist as a whole cluster of ideas in my mind, which includes all the ways in which I identify myself. When I don’t limit this whatever-it-is with any definition, it may be possible to experience the unlimited vastness of just this one, which includes the whole universe.

When a student once asked Trungpa Rinpoche, “What continues life after life?” Rinpoche replied, “Your bad habits.” In fact, as I understand the functioning of karma (which is simply the Sanskrit word for volitional action), what continues is all habit energy, “good” or “bad.” If one believes in rebirth and the teaching that all actions have consequences in this life or subsequent lives, one will strive to live a life of nonharm, which will be of benefit to oneself and to all. So even if you are wrong, everyone benefits. On the other hand, if one believes that there is no rebirth and that there may be actions for which there will be no consequences, one may be tempted to act in ways that seem to be beneficial to oneself, even if harmful to others. If we are wrong, there may be dire consequences for us.

Therefore, it is prudent to live a moral life, and as though there were, in fact, future lives in which beings will in some way experience the consequences of actions in this life.

Tulku Thondup: I know little about Zen or the writings of Master Hakuin. Without knowing the substance, trying to answer a question is like trying to shoot an arrow without seeing the target. But if you ask a question, an answer is expected, just as when you beat a drum—a reverberation is natural, whether the sound be pleasant or unpleasant. So here is my proposed response to the question.

According to Mahayana Buddhism, in absolute truth, nothing exists as real—either as existing, not existing, both or neither. This is what is known as “no self.” Existence of “self” is merely a concept fabricated by our mind, like an illusion. As soon as our mind apprehends anything as having a “self”—a truly existing entity in any one of the four extremes: existing, not existing, both or neither—the delusion of dualistic conception begins. Dualistic fabrications, in turn, set in motion the wheel of karmic and habitual causation fueled by emotions of liking and disliking, and feelings of pain and excitement. This motion results in endless rebirths with cycles of pain and excitement, like dreams.

So “self” is merely a designation of our mind; and rebirth, too, is a delusion derived from the belief in a “self.”

Thankfully, there are many meditations that ease the grip of grasping at “self.” These meditations are essential to improving our lives and moving toward the realization of “no self.” When we finally realize the true meaning of “no self,” rebirth, too, with its experiences of happiness and suffering, will dissolve into the ultimate peace and joy, which is buddhahood. As the great master Shantideva writes:

All the violence, fear and suffering
That exists in the world
Comes from grasping at “self.”
What use is this great evil monster to you?
If you do not let go of the “self,”
There will never be an end to your suffering.
Just as, if you do not let go of a flame with your hand,
You can’t stop it from burning your hand.

Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

Lion’s Roar is the website of Lion’s Roar magazine (formerly the Shambhala Sun) and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, with exclusive Buddhist news, teachings, art, and commentary. Sign up for the Lion’s Roar weekly newsletter and follow Lion’s Roar on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.