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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 4: Deepening the Understanding of the Path > The Buddhist Explanation of Rebirth > Part One: The Place of Rebirth in Buddhism and the Topic of Mental Continuums

The Buddhist Explanation of Rebirth

Alexander Berzin
Morelia, Mexico, June 2000

[edited course transcript, supplemented with material from courses given in Munich, Germany, October 2000 and Berlin, Germany, February 2001]

Part One: The Place of Rebirth in Buddhism and the Topic of Mental Continuums

The Importance of Rebirth in the Context of Lam-rim

This evening we are going to be talking about rebirth, a topic that is central to Buddhism. I think it is very important to acknowledge that. Why is it important? Let’s examine some of the reasons.

If we look at the lam-rim – the graded path to enlightenment or, more specifically, the graded pathway minds leading to enlightenment – it speaks about the pathway minds of persons of three levels of motivation. The first level motivation is to aim for a fortunate rebirth. If we don’t believe that there is such a thing as rebirth, then why would we possibly aim for a more fortunate one? That wouldn’t make any sense. The second level is to aim for liberation. Liberation from what? Liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, which is what samsara is referring to. So, if we don’t believe that rebirth exists, why would we want to get liberated from it? That wouldn’t be an issue at all. And if we look at the advanced level of motivation, then we are aiming to become a Buddha and we are aiming for that in order to be able to help everybody else overcome and get liberated from uncontrollably recurring rebirth. This is the way the stages of the path are presented in lam-rim and, again, we wouldn’t want to be able to help everybody overcome rebirth if we didn’t believe in rebirth.

Now, some nontraditional Buddhist teachers tend to serve “Dharma-Lite” like “Coca-Cola Lite,” rather than “The Real Thing” Dharma. And so, with Dharma-Lite, we water down these levels of motivation and, instead of aiming for a more fortunate rebirth, we aim for just making things better in this lifetime. And instead of aiming to liberate ourselves from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, we aim to liberate ourselves from all the problems and difficulties we may have in this life. And becoming enlightened is not in order to be able to liberate everybody else from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, but to liberate everybody else from their problems in this life. This is the “Dharma-Lite” version of the three graded levels of motivation in the lam-rim.

[See: “Dharma-Lite” Versus “The Real Thing” Dharma.” See also: Comparison of the “Dharma-Lite” and “Real Thing” Dharma Versions of Lam-rim.]

Some people, of course, prefer “Dharma-Lite,” but it’s not “The Real Thing.” And, although “Dharma-Lite” may be helpful, since certainly we do gain benefits from practicing Buddhism in this way without taking into consideration rebirth, the initial and intermediate levels of motivation tend to resemble therapy, trying to make things better and not to have any problems in this life. Then the “Dharma-Lite” advanced level of motivation comes to resemble social work: “I’m going to go out and help others get rid of their problems in this life.” All of that is very nice, and Buddhism has a lot of very helpful suggestions that can be of benefit in a process of therapy and training for social work, but I think this is really short-changing Buddhism. Buddhism offers much more than this. So, we need to appreciate why it is so important to work on ourselves within the context of rebirth.

The Importance of Rebirth for Appreciating the Precious Human Life

First of all, why would we want to work for a more fortunate rebirth? Buddhism is not talking about aiming to be reborn in heaven as our ultimate goal and that everything there is going to be really nice and wonderful and we will have eternal happiness. That is not the reason for aiming of getting a more fortunate rebirth in Buddhism, and it is not the ultimate goal. But rather, we are working to develop ourselves to the point at which we overcome our problems and shortcomings – and not just those of this lifetime – and realize our fullest potentials, so that ultimately we can benefit everyone to the fullest degree possible. This is going to be a very long process.

Chances are that we are not going to finish this process in this lifetime. So, the spiritual path is something that we would naturally want to continue beyond this life. It is not that we are running a race and we just want to see how far we get before we drop dead; we want to reach the finish line. But, if we don’t think in terms of rebirth, then it is very easy to get quite discouraged as we become older and face our deaths, if we haven’t made terribly much progress. This is because, let’s be honest, most of us are not going to make tremendous progress in our lifetimes, because we are very busy with other things and very few of us can devote twenty-four hours every day for the rest of our life to Dharma practice. Also, when we look at how we make progress, it is never linear: it’s not that it is going to get better every day. Rather, it will always go up and down. This is natural; this is how life is, isn’t it? Some days it goes well; other days we’re in a bad mood and it doesn’t go well at all. That is going to happen all the way until we become free from samsara.

So like this, if we think in terms of rebirth, then it helps us to have a longer perspective and we don’t get so uptight that “I’m not really making fantastic progress now.” If we can continue having what Buddhism calls “precious human rebirths,” then eventually, with enough hard work, we will reach our ultimate goals of liberation and enlightenment. A precious human rebirth is one in which we have a respite from all situations in which we would have no freedom to practice the Dharma and one in which we have all the enriching factors that give us the fullest opportunity to practice. Therefore, the provisional goal we need to aim for first is ensuring that we continue to gain precious human rebirths in all our lifetimes until we become liberated beings.

[See: General Introduction to the Initial Scope Teachings of the Graded Path (Lam-rim): Day One.]

Also, if we look at the teachings on “the four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma,” the first of these, appreciating the precious human life, emphasizes appreciating the difficulty and rarity of gaining such a birth. This not only implies that, in the future, we can take many other types of rebirth besides a precious human one and that we need to build up the causes for such a rebirth; it also implies the existence of past lives. After our immediately preceding life, we could have taken many other types of rebirth, for instance rebirth as a tiny bug. And so we need to appreciate what a wonderful opportunity we now have. It is significant, then, that rebirth is completely essential for this point about appreciating the precious human life, and that it is counted as the first thought that turns the mind to the Dharma.

[See: The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to the Dharma.]

Furthermore, thinking of continuing to gain further precious human lives in the future is very important for tantra as well; otherwise, there’s the danger of self-deception while practicing tantra. The highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga tantra, teaches that it is possible to gain enlightenment in this lifetime. A lot of people are very attracted to that because they think, “Now I don’t even have to consider rebirth because that’s irrelevant in tantra: there’s enlightenment in one lifetime. Great!” This is a big mistake, because even following the most advanced practices of tantra, the chances are that we’re not going to reach enlightenment in this lifetime. It is very, very rare – possible, but incredibly rare.

So, as in sutra practice, if we have the understanding of rebirth, we don’t get discouraged. We think instead, “I’m going to try for enlightenment in this lifetime. But if I don’t reach it in this lifetime, that is not the end of the world, there is rebirth; I’ll keep on trying next time.” As the saying goes, and this actually comes from pre-Buddhist Indian Upanishadic thought: “There is no loss of a beginning once made.” Do you follow that? If we’ve made a beginning, if we’ve made a start of something, it’s not going to get lost, because we’ll be able to continue in future lives. This is general Indian thinking, not just Buddhist, and it’s quite relevant here.

Also, one of the main features of anuttarayoga tantra is purifying, in the sense of ridding ourselves, of samsaric death, bardo and rebirth. Bardo is the in-between state between death and rebirth. Anuttarayoga gives a very detailed analysis of how that process works and it entails practices that imitate death, bardo and rebirth. If we don’t actually believe that rebirth takes place, why would we want to practice purifying death, bardo and rebirth? What in the world are we doing? Without conviction in rebirth, the whole anuttarayoga tantra practice becomes a game. So, all of that is one point.

The Importance of Rebirth for Understanding Karma

The second point concerning why it is so important to think in terms of rebirth is for gaining a proper understanding of karma. That’s because the results of our actions mostly do not ripen in this lifetime. For example, we might practice really hard and meditate every day, do hundreds of thousands of prostrations and all these sort of things, and then we get cancer and die a slow, painful death. Obviously, we can get very discouraged if we expect that the results of our actions are going to ripen in this lifetime.

Then we look at a corrupt official who is cheating everybody and becoming fabulously rich. Such a person might never get caught and live his whole life in extreme wealth and power, so where is karma? It doesn’t have to be a government official, it can be a business person.

Now, of course, some of our actions may ripen in this lifetime, especially when they are done with an extremely strong motivation, whether positive or negative, but most of them ripen in future lives. In fact, most of what we experience in this life is not the result of what we have done in this lifetime, but are the result of what we have done in past lives.

I need to qualify that, though. There are certain things that we do in this lifetime, like stub our toe on a table in the dark, and then we experience our toe turning black and blue and feel intense pain as a result. We shouldn’t think that Buddhism is denying that this type of physical cause and effect doesn’t work during this lifetime. But, we can work very hard to get a good university education and then not find a well-paying job or end up driving a taxi. It doesn’t follow simple cause and effect, does it, that just because we get a good education that we’re going to get a good job? Whether we get a good job or not is dependent on many other karmic factors from previous lives. So, it is very important for the understanding of karma and cause and effect to think in terms of rebirth. It is not that it is merely helpful; it is absolutely necessary. Otherwise, the whole discussion of behavioral cause and effect does not make sense at all.

Without bringing in karma, we are left with a very different view of what happens to us in life. We went to university and then we got a job or maybe we didn’t get a job. Well, what would that have depended on? We might think that it depended on luck or fate, or maybe it depended on God’s will. Buddhism says that there are many problems with each of these proposals. The Buddhist presentation of rebirth and past lives, on the other hand, is a way of explaining what is happening to us now that not only makes sense, but also gives us some way to affect what will happen to us in the future.

We could in fact live thinking that everything that happens is just on the basis of luck, fate or God’s will. There are certainly many societies that think that way. But believing like that doesn’t leave very much room for affecting what happens to us. Will wearing a lucky charm around our necks really change our luck? If everything is in God’s hands, then even if we follow commandments, disaster might still strike us. If that happens, is it satisfactory just to trust in God’s wisdom and accept His will? And if what happens to us is predetermined by fate, there is nothing we can do to change what happens, is there? Buddhism says, on the other hand, that we need to take responsibility ourselves for what happens to us – although the results of our actions might not be visible in this lifetime.

[See: The Mechanism of Karma: The Mahayana Presentation Except for Gelug Prasangika.]

The Importance of Rebirth for Opening Our Hearts Out to All Beings

The next point why rebirth is important concerns the meditations for developing love and compassion, starting with recognizing everybody as our mothers. Now, “The Real Thing” Dharma version is recognizing that all beings have been our mothers in previous lives. The “Dharma-Lite” version is that, well, anybody could take us home and be kind to us and give us a place to stay and feed us like a mother would do. Anybody in this room, anybody on the street, anybody could be like that to us.

There’s no question that this “Dharma-Lite” version is very helpful. It enables us to see that everybody has the possibility to be kind to us and we could be kind like that to anybody as well. We could take anybody home and feed them, as if we were their mother. This type of meditation opens our hearts out to other people. But even within people, it is limited pretty much to grownups. We don’t really feel that the baby could take us home and take care of us and feed us, or that the baby could act like our mother. We might reply, “Well okay, maybe not now, but when the baby grows up, it could act like a mother toward me, and I could certainly take care of any baby now as if it were my own child.” But then what about cockroaches or mosquitoes? It is very difficult to apply this type of meditation to non-humans. Could we sincerely feel that the cockroach could be like a mother to us and take us home and feed us, or that we could be like a mother to the cockroach and take the cockroach home and give it a nice place to sleep and feed it? Any dog could be our pet, but it’s pretty weird to think that this cockroach or mosquito could become our pet, isn’t it?

That is the disadvantage of this “Dharma-Lite” version. Although there is no need to throw away “Dharma-Lite,” it has serious limitations and cannot really get us, by itself, to the full scope of the Buddhist aim of opening our hearts out to all beings, not just to adult humans.

The Importance of Rebirth for Relating Equally to All Others

The next point is that if we think just in terms of this lifetime, we tend to identify quite strongly with our own present situation – that we are whatever age we might be, that we are young, that we are old, that we are a man, that we are a woman, that we are a Mexican, that we are a German, that we are an African, and so on. Identifying with our own situation like that, we would find it is not so easy to empathize with people in other situations. We tend to feel like we can only really relate to other Mexicans, or to other people from our own religious background. Or we feel we can only really relate to people our own age or our own gender or our own sexual orientation. It is absolutely normal that people think like that.

But, if we think in terms of rebirth, then we have been every age. Sometimes we have been young; sometimes we have been old. We have been both male and female. We have been different nationalities. Also, very importantly, we have been different life forms, not always human. Because thinking like this gives us a much broader concept of ourselves, it allows us much more easily to develop compassion for others in situations that are different from what we are experiencing right now. We don’t tend so much to identify solidly with what we are now as our concrete, permanent, absolute identity, because we realize that we have been so many different life forms, etc. This helps us to understand more easily the teachings on voidness (emptiness), that we have no solid permanent identity.

The Importance of Rebirth in Understanding the Nature of Mind

Most significantly, rebirth is really essential for being able to understand the nature of our minds, which is so crucial for our Buddhist development. We need to understand how mind has no beginning and no end, and that necessarily brings in the topic of rebirth, doesn’t it? If we think that our mind only exists in this lifetime, then we have a big problem concerning what is the cause of the mind. Confusion about that issue adversely affects our understanding of voidness – how the mind exists. So, the understanding of rebirth is essential for being able to gain the understanding of voidness in terms of the causes for mind continuing and so on, and how cause and effect work. It is all tied together. We’ll discuss all of that in detail later in this lecture.

For all these many, many reasons, then, the understanding of the Buddhist explanation of rebirth is really very, very central and important for the fullest practice of Buddhism. This is the case despite the fact that some teachers in the West serve “Dharma-Lite” and some Dharma students in the West prefer it as their spiritual drink.

The Importance of Understanding Specifically the Buddhist Explanation of Rebirth

As we have seen, even the very first step of turning our minds to the Dharma – appreciating the precious human life – assumes an acceptance of rebirth. Of course, this means accepting the specifically Buddhist explanation of rebirth, not just some other explanation of it. Many non-Buddhist systems of thought assert rebirth – Hinduism, Jainism, Theosophy, certain ancient Greek philosophers, and even some early Christian sects. The explanations in each of them are different.

Also, as Westerners, we’re not coming from a traditional Buddhist background. If we were, we would, as most Tibetans do, just sort of naturally accept that there is rebirth, like we accept that the earth is round. That doesn’t mean that we would necessarily have a sophisticated understanding of rebirth. Most Tibetans don’t. But they at least accept that there is such a thing as rebirth and, if they are going to study the Dharma, then they are interested in learning the Buddhist explanation.

This point, I think, is very important for us Westerners. It would be quite unfair and forced or artificial to insist that before we can really start to study “The Real Thing” Dharma, we would need to understand and accept rebirth. That is unreasonable to expect. But I think that in order to study “The Real Thing” and not just “Dharma-Lite,” we need to acknowledge the central place of rebirth in Buddhism and not deny it and not say, “Well, I can do without it.” And we need to have interest and the intention to learn about and understand the actual Buddhist explanation of it.

To do all that, we need to exclude all the non-Buddhist explanations of rebirth. In other words, we need to acknowledge that the Buddhist explanation is not talking about a static soul that flies from one body to another. And Buddhism is not talking about how we are being dealt lessons to learn from one lifetime to the next and, until we learn each lesson, we cannot go on to the next lesson – that is not Buddhism. Nor is Buddhism talking about how we are always improving – that our rebirth situation is always getting better and better and we’re going to a higher and higher rebirth. That is not Buddhism. Nor does Buddhism assert that humans can only be reborn as humans, and animals as animals. Also, Buddhism is not saying that there is just one afterlife and that it’s eternal: either you go to heaven or you go to hell – although there may be a purgatory in between – and that’s it, forever.

From the beginning, we need to understand that Buddhism does not assert any of these explanations. It is something else. So, the attitude we need to develop is: “I’d like to understand what Buddhism actually teaches about rebirth. I’m interested and I realize that it’s very important.” I think that with that basis, we can start drinking “The Real Thing” Dharma, without having to be satisfied with “Dharma-Lite.” Then, we progress by thinking: “I will provisionally accept the Buddhist explanation of rebirth and work with it, even if I don’t understand it fully yet, and, as I progress along the path, I’ll try to understand it more deeply.”

Continuums as Successions of Moments of Something

What is the Buddhist understanding of rebirth, then? As in many topics in Buddhism, it is not terribly simple, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to understand. The issue of rebirth in Buddhism is basically an issue of continuity. But, what do we mean by “continuity?” By “continuity,” we mean “an unbroken succession of moments of something.” It is not like the continuity of a road, which is a spatial continuum; but rather, Buddhism is talking about a temporal continuum – the continuous succession of moments of something over time.

A helpful analogy here might perhaps be the continuity of a movie. With rebirth, we are not talking about the continuum of the actual plastic film on which the movie is printed. But rather, we are talking about the continuum of the movie as it is playing – the succession of one moment after another, with only one moment ever playing at a time. It’s possible to see a whole stream of water – or at least a portion of it – we’re not talking about that. But it’s impossible to experience more than one moment at a time.

A succession of moments has to be a succession of moments of something. Here, in the case of rebirth, what does rebirth imply a succession of moments of? It’s a succession of moments of mind, which means a succession of moments of mental activity. We call it a “mental continuum.” It is sometimes called a “mind-stream,” but that image is too spatial. We want a much more time-oriented image.

Four Types of Temporal Continuums

In general, there are four types of temporal continuums.

The first type is a continuum that has both a beginning and an end. For example, this body that we now have has a beginning, when we were conceived, and an end, when we will die. And it continues from moment to moment while we are alive, without any break. That’s easy to understand.

The second type has no beginning, but has an end. This is more difficult to understand. Examples are uncontrollably recurring rebirth – in other words, samsara – and ignorance or unawareness about how we and everything exists. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call that “confusion about reality.” Samsara and confusion about reality, which fuels samsara, have no beginning. But, they can have an end. When that lack of awareness that is perpetuating our samsaric existence is replaced by awareness – in other words, when that confusion is replaced by correct understanding – and perfect concentration is maintained without any break on that correct understanding, then our confusion comes to a true end, and so does our uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Correct understanding and incorrect understanding – knowing and not knowing – cannot coexist at the same moment on one mental continuum.

The third type of temporal continuum is one that has a beginning, but no end. An example would be the disintegration of a glass. When I break a glass, that disintegration, that ending of the glass, has a beginning. It starts when the glass breaks, but it has no end, does it? It is going to go on forever: that glass will always be broken. A million years in the future, that glass will still be broken. It is not going to come back. The disintegration of the glass, then, has a beginning, but no end.

The fourth type is something that has no beginning and no end. A mental continuum is an example of something with no beginning and no end. This is what we need to understand when we are trying to understand the Buddhist teaching on rebirth: we are dealing with a continuum of mental activity that has no beginning and no end.

We need to be careful, here, and make a clear distinction. Any individual mental continuum has no beginning and no end. But, each mental continuum can have two phases. One phase is the samsaric phase, when that mental continuum undergoes uncontrollably recurring rebirth under the influence of confusion about reality, and therefore is filled with the various forms of suffering. This first phase has no beginning, but can have an end. The second phase is the nirvanic or liberated phase, when that mental continuum continues to manifest birth and death, but totally free of confusion about reality, so that it contains no suffering at all.

This second phase will have a beginning, but no end. Different schools of Buddhism offer several interpretations of this second phase. Let us simplify the discussion here and present only one point of view. The nirvanic phase may continue for a limited period as merely being liberated from samsara. During this merely liberated period, the mental activity will still be limited; it will not yet be omniscient. But, eventually, the merely liberated period will come to an end with the attainment of enlightenment and the nirvanic phase will then have an unending period as an omniscient Buddha. And so, if we consider these phases and periods all together, then any individual continuum of mental activity has no beginning and no end.

To understand the Buddhist teaching on rebirth, then, requires understanding what underlies rebirth – the Buddhist explanation of mind.

Mind

What Buddhism means by “mind” is very specific. It refers to a continuum of mental activity – a “mental continuum.” Let’s not go into a detailed explanation of mind here, but rather let’s make it simple. A mental continuum is an unbroken succession of moments of experiencing things. There is a moment of experiencing, followed by another moment of experiencing, and another, and so on. That’s what we’re talking about. And it is an experiencing of things, an experiencing of something. There can’t be experiencing without it being the experiencing of something, just as there can’t be thinking without thinking something.

We’re not talking about a physical or immaterial object that does the experiencing. And we’re not talking about some sort of “tool” that somebody is using to experience things, like a camera to take a photo, or as in: “I’m using my mind to experience this.” It’s not that the mind is some sort of thing that is experiencing something. Because of that, then to understand the Buddhist presentation, it’s perhaps better to use the word mind as little as possible, because it can be confusing. All we’re talking about is the activity alone, the activity of experiencing something. If we want to specify it more, we would have to say it is the “mere, individual, subjective experiencing of things.”

I should add here that we’re not talking about a continuity of experiences that accumulate, so that one person can “have more experiences” than another. We are talking about the mere experiencing of things. “Mere” means that it’s just the simple mental activity of, for instance, seeing, hearing, or thinking something – these are all an experiencing of something. “Mere” also implies that the experiencing of them does not need to be deliberate, as in: “I deliberately went to India to have an experience.” And it doesn’t have to be emotionally moving. Some people think, “If you weren’t moved, you didn’t really experience it.” It’s not that type.

And merely experiencing something doesn’t even have to be conscious, for instance like experiencing unconscious hostility, experiencing being asleep, or even experiencing death. It is just mere experiencing. For Buddhism, the difference between what Western psychology calls “consciously” and “unconsciously” experiencing something is merely a difference in the amount of attention that accompanies the experiencing. So, we need to specify all of this clearly, because we don’t have any word in our Western language that corresponds exactly to the Buddhist concept of “mind.”

[For a more detailed definition of “mind,” see: An Introduction to Mahamudra and Its Practical Application to Life, Chapter Four.]

Furthermore, the experiencing of something is always individual and subjective. Two people could experience seeing the same movie, but their experiencing of it would not be the same: one may like it, the other may not. How they experience the movie depends on many interrelated factors: the mood they’re in, their health, the people that they are with, even their seats in the movie. Are they sitting in the back or close up, is someone’s head blocking part of the screen, are they comfortable, and so on? So everybody’s experiencing of seeing the movie is going to be different. It is individual.

Feeling a Level of Happiness

Moreover, experiencing something is subjective. This is because accompanying every moment of experiencing something is the mental factor of feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness. This mental factor of feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness is defined as the way in which we experience the ripening of our karma. In every moment, we feel some level of happy, unhappy, or neutral. Even when we are asleep, we experience a neutral feeling that is neither happy nor unhappy.

How does feeling relate to the ripening of karma? Buddhism explains that, as the result of our previously committed constructive actions, we experience something with happiness. As the result of our previously committed destructive actions, we experience something with unhappiness. And as the result of our previously committed ethically neutral actions, we experience something with a neutral feeling that is neither happiness nor unhappiness.

Usually, we committed these actions in a previous life, as we’ve discussed earlier. They are not necessarily the actions we committed in the immediately preceding moment or the actions we are currently engaged in. We might be sitting at our desk and looking at the wall, or looking at a photo of a loved one, and experience seeing this with either happiness, unhappiness or a neutral feeling, depending on an enormous number of factors, not all of which can be accounted for by what we have recently experienced.

Individual Beings

When, in Buddhism, we talk about an “individual being,” a “person” (gang-zag, Skt. pudgala), we’re talking about someone with a mental continuum, regardless of their present life form. In each moment of their existence, they experience something individually and subjectively, with feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness. Because of that, an individual being is different from a rock or a computer. Does a rock “experience” being in the rain? A rock may be eroded by the rain; but does that mean that the rock “experienced” the rain? No, it did not experience the rain with feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness. It’s the same with a computer that is processing data. The computer doesn’t experience the data, does it? Is a computer happy when it is running a program that works efficiently, but unhappy when running a program filled with bugs?

Again, our Western words could be confusing here. How do we define individual beings? How do we define beings that experience things? Buddhism says that they are beings that act with intention – even if their actions are not conceptually planned. The worm doesn’t have to conceptually plan that it’s going to crawl over there. It just does it – and it subjectively and individually experiences the immediate and long-term effects of what it does. The worm is an “individual being.”

We could go into a long discussion of whether or not plants and the fungus between our toes are individual beings. This is difficult for many of us to understand, because science classifies plants and fungus as living beings, according to the biological definition of life; but then again, science does not consider ghosts as living beings. Buddhism says the opposite: plants are not individual beings with mental activity, whereas ghosts are. But the bottom line is this: an individual being acts with intention and experiences the results of what it does through the karmic laws of behavioral cause and effect.

This is important because who is undergoing rebirth? It is individual beings, those with intention. They experience things based on intention and experience the results of what they do. Because their experiencing of things – because their doing of things – is different from moment to moment, and because the universe functions according to cause and effect, individual beings are experiencing the results of what they do.

And they are individual. Individual beings, and so mental continuums, interact with each other; but they remain distinct, even in Buddhahood. Remember, Buddhism asserts that these mental continuums have no beginning and no end. Each one consists of an unbroken succession of moments of experiencing things forever. During the phase of an individual mental continuum before it becomes enlightened, the individual being is a “sentient being,” someone with limited awareness, because their experiencing of things is mixed with either both emotional and cognitive obscurations, or with just cognitive obscurations if they are already liberated. During the phase of an individual mental continuum after both sets of obscuration are removed forever and it becomes enlightened, the individual being is no longer a sentient being. But it is still an individual being.

[For an explanation of emotional and cognitive obscurations, see: The Five Pathway Minds (Five Paths) – Basic Presentation.]

As for how an individual being exists and the relationship between an individual being and a mental continuum, that brings in the whole topic of voidness and mental labeling, but let’s skip that for the moment.

Buddhism Does Not Assert a Collective Mind

Buddhism does not assert a collective mind, not even in Buddhahood. There is no concept, as there is in some forms of Hinduism, that in the end, all streams flow into the ocean and become “One.” According to Buddhism, individual beings and mental continuums, each with no beginning and no end, always remain distinct, even in Buddhahood, although they interact with each other.

Now, a lot of people have problems with that point concerning Buddhas being distinct beings, so let me explain a bit further. Shakyamuni Buddha and Maitreya Buddha, although equivalent in their attainments of enlightenment, are not the same person. Each has unique connections with different beings. This accounts for the fact that some individuals can meet and benefit from this Buddha and not from that Buddha. This is because each Buddha is a different person: Shakyamuni is not Maitreya. Before becoming enlightened, each interacted with different beings and did different things on the way to enlightenment. This is the reason why some beings have a karmic connection with this Buddha and some with that Buddha. Some persons can be helped by this Buddha, some by that Buddha. If all Buddhas were the same person, there wouldn’t be that difference.

In short, we all have individual, subjective mental continuums – different movies. That is the easiest image to work with, I think – different movies. The Shakyamuni movie is different from the Maitreya movie. Each of them has a different history; each is benefiting different beings. But they interact; everybody can interact. Being individual and distinct does not mean being isolated and existing on its own, unrelated to anything.