Latest post:

(6/12) Reincarnation without soul
November 15th, 2018 (November 17th, 2018)

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

(6/12) Reincarnation without soul

(intro to the series at
Question 6, and its answer provided by the spam:
If there is no transcendent “self” or “soul”, how do we transcend this life in order for reincarnation to be possible?

If reincarnation is true, it makes sense something of our true identity would move from one life to the next. What is this “something” if not a soul? Who (or what) moves on from this life to the next?

Oh well! Buddhism does not teach "reincarnation", but "rebirth"… and there exist two different words, because they're not the same notion!
I could just stop here, couldn't I? This is a typical "straw man" logical fallacy, misrepresenting a position in order to attack it more easily…

Or let's be kinder, and review how rebirth differs from reincarnation…

Hopefully, the answer (cf. for 5/12 in the series will provide most of the necessary requisite on consciousness, and therefore doesn't need to be repeated.

"If reincarnation is true, it makes sense something of our true identity would move from one life to the next" ?
Sure, but this is Hinduism then! There's a soul (atman) and the soul transmigrates from body to body, keeping some 'true' identity: basically bodies are like clothes, that you can change without affecting one's core. But that's not what Buddhism teaches!

There's no soul in Buddhism! There's a conventionally real but ultimately illusory self…

Such a self is found neither in the body, nor in the perceptions, nor in the feelings (like/dislike), nor in the mental fabrications (opinions, beliefs, views, preferences, habits, certainties…), nor in the consciousness. All of these aggregates are causally dependent on other 'external' phenomena, and cannot be the ground for a 'fixed' identity.
And such a self is not found separate from the 5 'aggregates' listed, either!
Instead, it's a combination of what an ignorant mind graps as either 'mine' or 'myself'. But such a mind is ignorant because it places arbitrary limits on mine vs. others', limits which don't sustain proper examination!

And most importantly, such a 'self' arises as an idea, a mental object for a consciousness. If the consciousness stops its activity of 'naming' / 'labeling' / 'separating foreground from background' (cf. post 5/12 in this series), if it attains nirvāṇa, then in that moment of cessation there's no 'self' left, and yet there still are the five aggregates (in Theravāda doctrine, we'd talk of "nirvana with (karmic) residue": sa-upādisesa-nibbāna in Pāḷi or sopadhiśeṣa-nirvāṇa in Sanskrit).

One way to understand rebirth might be to consider what happens over deep sleep (but it could just as well be during an intense moment of concentration, or an orgasm…). The higher level of 'consciousness' falls away, in that moment, you're not concerned with your past from several years ago, or even with your name! And yet, your entire situation (environment / context / circumstances / conditions) allows you to pick these elements of identity back up, in the future. You don't need to keep repeating your name in your head not to forget it, the information is 'stored' in the whole situation (encoded in your brain, but also on identity papers, and in the brain of people who know you…).
But you cannot assume your name is inherent, or your past (your CV) is. In case of accident (stroke, shock to the head…), you might forget it all. In case of neurodegenerative disease, you might not only forget it all but be unable of even being reminded of it!
You may also realise that nobody calls you by your supposed name; maybe locals simply cannot pronounce 'it' right, after you relocated. Or you may find that no one agrees with you on your past either (e.g. maybe you see yourself as a victim, 'forced' into something, so your ego can avoid the burden of responsibility for a 'bad' deed… while others just see you as a guilty perpetrator, and would therefore contest whatever you see as your identity! And their experience is as legitimate as yours, and they're many while you're alone).

So… long story short, you have a conventional 'self', and you attach a narrative (of a past, of an identity, of who you are) to this illusory 'self' to try to make it more substantial, more real, stronger.
And yet it all fails. You pretend you keep a fixed identity through change of body, through change of ideas and opinions and values, through change of preferences, through coma, lapses in judgement, moments of absence! As a believer in one of the Abrahamic religions or in Hinduism , you pretend you keep a fixed identity through death even!
You pretend all this, but there's nothing you can show for it! Identity is powerless at explaining the past or predicting the future. To use scientific vocabulary, it's unfalsifiable (which you might think is great, but is actually weak: it cannot be proven or disproven, because it has no explanatory or predictive power to show. It's as useful and 'real' as unicorns or Father Christmas: it's a story, a narrative, it might cheaply reassure a childish mind —or a mind burdened by existential anguish— but it fundamentally is just a useless mental fabrication).

Your sense of self perpetually re-arises though a mind ignorantly grasping a situation as 'mine' ('ignorantly', as in the mind embodies a tendency according to which it ought to know who/what it is, it ought to define itself, it ought to label itself, it ought to discern and separate itself from other phenomena).
And, sure enough, there's an apparent continuity for such a 'self'… because all intertwined processes defining the situation, continuously unfolds, and the easiest (thus the likiest) narrative to grasp (as 'your' identity) is the one which was just 'imprinted' in, and was just shaping, reality in the previous moment!
The untrained mind has a tendency to lazily pick up what's easiest to grasp in order to to define itself (and create a representation, a 'self', as a result). This is a key aspect of 'ignorance' (leading to unsatisfactoriness; 'ignorance' as Buddhism defines it, not some lack of knowledge about some facts): the untrained mind experiences anguish and anxiety when it doesn't know, it seeks a reassurance of control through predictability, and first and foremost it seeks a reassurance of knowing "how I should act" (and thus "who I am").
The untrained mind thus prefers creating a narrative about who we are, from whatever disparate elements it can pick up, and then cling to this narrative in order to pretend 'knowing', than facing the unknown and the responsibility of having to figure out the most appropriate and wisest response from moment to moment.
And yet this is just pretending: people regularly 'betray' their supposed core values (when they're too inconvenient), people regularly "don't recognise themselves" in behaviours they've embodied but are not proud of and therefore seek to disown, people cannot predict which thought they'll have next… They don't know themselves, and this is logical: there's no inherent, fixed identity! There's some causal continuity, and a mere appearance of identity through that continuity, but there's no firm ground for this appearance: the situation evolves, the sense of identity evolves, therefore what the identity supposedly points to evolves as well.

OK, and to conclude about the notion of 'self' in Buddhism, then let's make clear that although the self is ultimately an illusion, it is nonetheless conventionally real.
What could 'real' mean thus?
As long as you believe the illusion to be more real than it actually is, this belief itself will seriously bias your judgement, your response to whatever comes into your perception, your preferences, etc. Thus the illusion has consequences in acts (acts in body, in speech, in mind). In this sense, the illusion is real, even if its object is not!
It's just like a lie: if you believe a lie which was told to you, then probably your thoughts, your feelings, your words, your acts will (in good faith, and willingly) be different from what they would be if you didn't believe the lie. The lie didn't change reality directly (so it's an illusion), but it may affect how things will unfold from there (and thus shape the reality to come): it ultimately unreal but conventionally real, and conventions do affect decisions (i.e. conventions act as causes), which in turn have consequences.

So, after revisiting how Buddhism sees the 'self', i.e. as an appearance, possibly giving rise to a convention, a name, a story attached (although the story will evolve… by addition and suppression… and by rewriting, reframing and reinterpretating), rather than as tied to some inherent 'identity' (which cannot be found and has no explanatory or predictive power), now let's look at rebirth.

If you define yourself by whatever you just picked up from the situation as 'yours', then nothing prevents another stream of consciousness (arising from the interplay of phenomena) from defining itself as 'you'.

True, such a simultaneous 'arising' is unlikely to occur in your face… partly because both these 'you' would immediately believe that identity is unique and would immediately reject any other 'you' as an impostor, as not-you!
Neither of 'you' would believe you're the same, but that's because you're both trying to stay internally consistent with the lie that you have a separate 'you', which is inherently 'yours' (cannot be grasped by another), etc.
You're basically denying how this 'you' comes to be in the first place, how it codependently arises by grasping phenomena, discerning apparent 'entities' within a continuum of interdependent processes, and trying to appropriate some discerned elements as 'me' and to dismiss the rest as 'not me'.

When you die though, by definition, you won't be there anymore to contest any claim by another 'you' arising next… who would, just like you did until then, simply grasp at the situation, discern apparent 'entities' within a continuum of interdependent processes, and appropriate some discerned elements as 'me' and to dismiss the rest as 'not me'.
At the time of death, for a moment, there's no "exclusion" mechanism between various streams of consciousness, competing to define —and thus reassure— themselves (as existing as sentient beings 'separate' from others).
Then another 'you' thus arises, from the exact situation/reality you just left (as a result of all your previous contributions, wholesome or not, to the world… and identifying this 'inherited' world as "this is my world, my life"), and from this moment this new 'you' will re-establish some delusional claim of 'identity' and ensure a basic exclusion mechanism (basic, as asylums nonetheless do offer the sight of people believing they're some historical figure or another… thus the intuition of some exclusion mechanism is the way the ego reassures itself, but it's also delusional!).
Rebirth has occurred, and yet no soul needed to travel from an embodiment to the next!

Some people try to reassure themselves at this point, by asserting a nihilistic "well, this future 'me' will not 'really' be me then… so I don't need to live a virtuous life, for his/her benefits… I can ignore rebirth."
That's just a reassurance tainted by a belief that your current 'me' is real and separate.
That's blind to the fact that already you're seeing your existence as 'yours', that you're appropriating the situation you live in as 'your' situation, that you taken things personally… i.e. that you're already appropriating a world as 'yours' even though you're also clear it's been massively shaped prior your birth! You appropriate e.g. 'national' narratives as yours, you appropriate opinions about yourself born from hearing others' opinions about you (possibly by projections on 'your' race, 'your' family…), you appropriate ideas (incl. about how the world 'should' be) which you didn't particularly contribute to shape, etc.
That's also blind to the fact that the future 'me' will totally identify and believe to be 'me'… just like you're currently doing! And so this future 'me' will suffer from a crap world, if this present 'me' creates a crap world (it's irrelevant whether it's a future in this lifetime, or a 'next' one!)… and it's fundamentally a mind believing in the same 'me' as its 'identity', arising moment to moment, from what it grasps as 'me', based on what was left as reality a moment ago!
You'll have the experience of being you, at any point! There's no moment where this stops and becomes another identity… and so rebirth occurs… unless you cease the identification process, unless you stop believing the lie, unless you take a step back and see how the ego arises as an illusion and a form of ignorance seriously biaising the mind's responses (to whatever arises) toward selfish responses, defensiveness, struggles and stress (i.e. the opposite of the "peace" of nirvāṇa).
Rebirth occurs, unless you drop craving and appropriating… notably it occurs unless you drop craving for existence (one of the "ten fetters"). But no, it's not mystical, and it doesn't need a soul to transmigrate. It only needs the usual tendency of the ordinary mind to induce duality, by the unwise discernment of interdependent processes as distinct entities, grasping at fictitious certainties (to reassure itself and pretend things are understood, labelled, put in convenient little boxes, predictable and therefore mostly under control)!

#Buddhism #Dharma
PS: cf. also the "karmic continuation" series (I: capitalism) (II: dualistic views) (III: "the end justifies the means") (IV: arms race) (V: news (Newtown, MA))
[and a follow-up (child marriage)]