Buddhism A–Z
What is Rebirth (Reincarnation) in Buddhism?
The Illustrated Sutra of Past and Present Karma (Kako genzai e-inga-kyō; Matsunaga Version), Mary Griggs Burke Collection, Gift of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, 2015

Rebirth, often referred to as “reincarnation” in popular terminology, is a fundamental concept in Buddhism. It is the belief that after death, an individual’s consciousness is reborn into a new form of existence. Because of the core principle of non-ego (or no-self, anatta in Pali; anatman in Sanskrit), it is not a fixed self that continues into a new existence but rather an essential form of consciousness. It is not a real self that is reborn but our deluded belief in self-perpetuating itself.

Karma

The process of rebirth is intricately connected with the process of karma (action and its consequences): one’s actions in this and past lives generate karmic consequences that influence future rebirths. Positive actions lead to favorable rebirths, while negative actions lead to less favorable ones.

Samsara

Samsara is the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that individuals are trapped in due to their attachment, desire, and ignorance. The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to break free from this cycle by achieving enlightenment and liberation (nirvana), ending the need for further rebirth. When we free ourselves from karma, we free ourselves from rebirth.

Multiple Realms

Buddhist cosmology includes various realms of existence. These include the human realm, the animal realm, the hungry ghost realm, the hell realm, the jealous god realm, and the god realm. Rebirth can occur in any of these realms based on one’s karma.

Related Reading

How Do We Make Sense of Rebirth?

Questions around rebirth—from how it works to whether it’s even real—have energized and divided Buddhists for millennia. In this excerpt from his book "Rebirth," Roger R. Jackson unpacks the complexity of it all and offers four basic approaches to incorporating it (or not) into our own practice.

Photo of shoes by Jessica May Rita Kohut.

The Case for Rebirth

Guy Armstrong reviews "Rebirth in Early Buddhism and Current Research," by Bhikkhu Analayo. From the Summer 2018 issue of Buddhadharma.

Boy walking into the light.

The Buddhist Teachings on Rebirth

Moment to moment, lifetime to lifetime — death and rebirth are happening all the time. Nine leading Buddhist teachers explain the concept of rebirth.

Do You Only Live Once? The Evidence for Rebirth

What happens after you die? That used to be just a religious question, but science is starting to weigh in. Sam Littlefair looks at the evidence that you’ve lived before.

Do I Have to Believe in Reincarnation to Be a Buddhist?

Are Buddhists forced to believe in something like reincarnation or rebirth even if there is no evidence it is true?

Buddhism A–Z

Explore essential Buddhist terms, concepts, and traditions.