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Monday, September 14, 2009

Rebirth, Karma, Radio Waves, Supernovae and Electromagnetic Fields.

A lot of the questions that I hear most often from non-Buddhists, new Buddhists and/or skeptical westerners is about rebirth and how it happens. To begin this post I'd like to talk about my personal beliefs toward rebirth. I believe in rebirth because even from just a scientific perspective one can see that there is an order, structure and meaning behind the Universe and the patterns of life. On a more subtle level science has proved that nothing disappears but rather it simply changes form. The same applies to energy; Energy cannot be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another.

A radio in a car is run by the energy produced by the engine, which is run by the energy of gasoline, which came from the energy of pressure and heat converting decomposing organic matter into oil. The organic matter (mostly plants and animals including dinosaurs) was fueled by the radiation from the sun (plants) and other organic matter (plants being eaten by animals and dinosaurs). Before that the potential organic energy in plants formed as a result of carbon dioxide energy released by other plants and animals, which transformed into chlorophyll that fed the plants via photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is a process fueled by the transformation of the sun's energy into sunlight. The sun's energy and mass was likely the result of a dying star, which created a supernovae (stellar explosion). This expelled massive amounts of energy and matter, which was reborn as our Sun. So our Sun is nothing more than the rebirth of a star.

Ultimately the energy of all super bodies in the Universe resulted from the powerful, trans-formative energy produced by the Big Bang itself, which is my view was the result of collapsing/dying Universe that existed before the current incarnation of our Universe. This would have been achieved through something called the, "cyclic model" which is basically a model where the Universe goes through an infinite number of self-sustaining cycles or Big Bangs and Big Crunches or collapses.

It's not unlike the energy created as an accordion expands and contracts in the form of sound waves. The power, which fuels our galactic accordion is said to be that of a substance known as "dark energy" which would solve the entropy build up problem and be in keeping with the second law of thermodynamics. I could get even more in-depth with the "cyclic theory" but I'm worried I'll lose you. Thus, if you're interested in reading about it further I'd suggest reading this page and the book mentioned within. So finally, there you have the massive cycle of an infinite number of deaths and rebirths of energy and matter occurring upon our Earth and within our Universe. So seeing how we are literally made from the guts of stars exploding their matter and energy; why would we humans be exempt from that paradigm of cycles, which even the giant, celestial bodies must adhere to?

The same is true of the seasons, which was the first cycle I contemplated that led me toward believing the birth, life, death and rebirth theory. Spring (birth), Summer (mid-life), fall (old age and sickness), Winter (death) and it would seem to end there if rebirth wasn't real or possible. However, it doesn't stop there as we know Spring is reborn anew and the cycle continues until the cycle of Earth's life ends. Then when Earth is absorbed one day by our dying sun before it explodes via new supernovae to expel the seeds and energy needed to be reborn anew as another planet or star somewhere else in our vast Universe. The cycle continues. So again, why would the rebirth of our energy into a new form of being not be possible? The potential energy of the body is absorbed into the earth, air, water and fire of our planet to be reborn as a flower, a tree or a mushroom, which would be eaten by a living being.

However, what of the energy left over in the mind upon the death of the body? In my view, that energy of our mind is nothing less than our karma but how does that karmic energy released find it's way into a new form? This often baffles many western, science based Buddhists. At this point I'd like to borrow an explanation of this from the Venerable S. Dhammika at Buddhanet:

Think of it being like radio waves. The radio waves, which are not made up of words and music but energy at different frequencies, are transmitted, travel through space, are attracted to and picked up by the receiver from where they are broadcast as words and music. It is the same with the mind. At death, mental energy travels through space, is attracted to and picked up by the fertilized egg [or receiver]. As the embryo grows, it centers itself in the brain from where it later "broadcasts" itself as the new personality.
James: The question then arises, "Why does that karmic energy get picked up by a particular egg/embryo?" To answer that I'd refer back to our example of our Solar System.
According to the nebula hypothesis, the Solar System began as a nebula, an area in the Milky Way Galaxy that was a swirling concentration of cold gas and dust. Due to some perturbation, possibly from a nearby supernova, this cloud of gas and dust began to condense, or pull together under the force of its own gravity. Condensation was slow at first, but increased in speed as more material was drawn toward the center of the nebula. This made gravity strong, making condensation faster.
As we saw earlier, supernovae are the expulsion of energy from a dying star. So imagine the supernovae as being the karmic energy of the mind being dispersed upon the death of the body. In our example the swirling spiral arms of the galaxy where all this takes place is the womb (called star nurseries). The dust particles within these nursery clouds are the tiny, unfertilized eggs while the gas is the sperm. This swirling, growing star cloud (now an embryo) is then charged with blasts of superheated energy (karma) from the supernovae (dying mind) thus infusing it with the energy (karma) of the former star (deceased body/mind). The energy released by a supernova is trapped by the gravitational pull of these star clouds (embryos) and converted into new stars (new birth). In this "new life" example the gravitational pull is similar to that from the karmic pull of the parents of our next life. They say that like energy attracts similar energy. So given that understanding it's no wonder that the Great Buddhist Masters teach us that our next rebirth will depend in part upon the karmic energy of our future parents. We will be attracted to the karmic energy that mirrors what our karmic energy demands.

Another possible explanation is electromagnetism. Electromagnetism pervades everything and everyone. It's not unlike an uncountable number of intersecting energy grids of infinite sizes, which permeates and connects all things to the power station (our sun) and to each other's homes (minds). It's possible that our karma travels from old body to whatever new birth occurs via the electromagnetic field that acts like a true Indra's net. The brain is charged with electromagnetic neurotransmitters, which act as pathways for the energy created to reach every cell in our body. Our brains are basically organic batteries and could very easily be emitting energy waves that can be received by a new life form or other type of entity when the death of the body occurs via the electromagnetic field/grid. We certainly know that our brains are good conductors of traditional electricity!!

I'll end with something to keep in mind about rebirth. There are many things like electricity and radio waves, which we can not see but we accept that they are real because we see their effects. Just because we can not see the exact details of rebirth doesn't mean that it we don't see it's effects and thus its reality. Why are some of us born with traits and characteristics that don't seem traceable to the genes or behavior of immediate family members? Why are we born with a fear of water for example and our siblings are not? These could very likely be the effects of karma fueled rebirth. My examples might not fully explain the process but I think they come close and at least show that rebirth is very, very likely.

UPDATE: I will admit whole-heartedly that my examples and ideas are by no means definitive. If rebirth is real then there has to be a missing puzzle piece to bring it all together. I welcome new science to help us fill in the blanks a bit. I have faith in the end that this process is true but it's not blind, unflinching faith. I'm not married to it. I could very well just die and that's it. I have no problem with that scenario. I don't fear annihilation of the body and mind though it's hard to square that with the central Buddhist teachings that nothing every really goes away but that (as science explains) it simiply changes for. Perhaps though the most likely change is on a more subtle level of our ashes become apart of a patch of flowers being fueled by the minerals in our ashes. I am open to many interpretations, which I think Buddhism embraces as a whole unlike many religions, which is partly what attracted me to it in the first place.

~Peace to all beings~

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Adam said...

James, I love you.

Just kidding. But seriously this is something that I've been wrestling with for quite some time, and you've reconciled here quite nicely. I find this to be a much more reasonable response to life than what is currently offered out there. Many thanks for this post. I'll be sure to check out the Princeton article soon.

Reymiland said...

We perceive such a tiny fraction of the energy that is "out there". Our eyes see a tiny section of the true infinitude of radiation. There is far more in the Universe (meaning the totality of everything) than we can possibly imagine. I hope that when we die we become a "truer" (more knowing) part of that immensity.

They call him James Ure said...


I welcome the love. Nothing wrong with with love one bit. :) I'm no genius but I'm happy that my thoughts and examples helped you reconcile some of this. I thought awhile about this when I was first getting into Buddhism and these examples came to mind after many deep, concentrated meditations. As well as some science homework!!


Indeed. Radiation is an amazing conductor of energy waves. I hope we learn even more too. I love learning and contemplating upon the beauty and awesomeness of it all.

One thing I thought of after reading it now a third time is that our brains are so sensitive. They are so susceptible to the smallest variation.

So the bombardments of radiation and electromagnetism going on non-stop outside our skulls must be having an effect on our minds now and upon our death.

If radiation lasts well after the detonation of a A-bomb then surely it's possible that karmic energy could do the same thing.

Jamie G. said...

It goes against my skeptical self who greatly respects the likes of Michael Shermer and James Randy, but I have to say that rebirth makes a lot of sense to me, too.

If not for the possibilities offered in quantum physics and the like, I think of all the crap I see on my job and the kind of people I deal with convinces me of karma and rebirth.

Maybe I'm just seeing what I want to see, but a Buddhist worldview jives better with me and what I see than having a Christian worldview, like I once did.

And although it would only be anecdotal, I could give story after story after story of why rebirth just makes sense.

If anything, and maybe the reason it matters, is that it makes me pursue compassion with greater intensity, because if we are all really on this big wheel that keeps going round and round... damn, I sure want to get off!

Café Zen said...

Thanks for the post. Really, isn't re-birth happening every instant? Like the cosmos, we're constantly in the state of becoming which means we're dying from one moment into the next. Cast another way, we could say we're being born from one moment into the next. This is easily proven on a molecular/atomic level. The question for me is: Can I come to know more and more intimately that which is never born and never dies?

Charles Anderson said...

Your suggestions are interesting, particularly in their attempt to take rebirth and kharma out of the supernatural and into the natural world. I'd like your take on a few questions that occur to me.

For a start, all the examples you gave of energy transference include an element of information loss (from the laws of thermodynamics). Yet for rebirth and kharma to work, you'd need to have perfect transfer from dying person to newly conceived embryo.

Also, something like a half to two thirds of human embryos spontaneously miscarry, usually quite early on in a pregnancy. This would result in a person possibly having to be reborn several times before hitting an embryo that comes to term, making it that much more likely that the original 'signal' from the dying person is degraded.

There's also the problem of how the signal from the deceased finds the target embryo. If it radiates outwards in all directions (as, for instance, the energy of a supernova does), then it could hit multiple targets. Of course, we're assuming that there's a suitable embryo around at the time of death to receive the signal.

Finally, we're left with the problem of explaining how rebirth fits in with the fact of increasing human population. Either a lot of people are being born for the first time, or non-human beings are getting reborn as humans just to fill up all the new vacancies.

I believed in rebirth for many years, but it was problems like these that finally convinced me that it's most likely untrue.

Mountain Humanist said...

Great post, James. This will no doubt stir discussion on an issue that continues to fascinate Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.

While I agree that energy continues to be reused in various forms throughout the universe, I can't see any factual basis to this claim:

"Think of it being like radio waves. The radio waves, which are not made up of words and music but energy at different frequencies, are transmitted, travel through space, are attracted to and picked up by the receiver from where they are broadcast as words and music. It is the same with the mind. At death, mental energy travels through space, is attracted to and picked up by the fertilized egg [or receiver]. As the embryo grows, it centers itself in the brain from where it later "broadcasts" itself as the new personality."

If this priest (or lama) wants to view this as a poetical, metaphorical fancy, that's one thing. If he's stating this is how the universe operates, my response is: please provide factual proof.

While all embryos obviously arise from the energy available within the universe, there is no evidence that "mental energy" exists (beyond electrochemical impulses in the brain). There is even less evidence that embryos are some kind of cosmic antennae.

When I (or the collection of processes I conveniently refer to as a "self" was born (although I don't remember it), the baby they called me represented millions of year of cosmology, evolution and human karma (i.e. the genetics, habits, social mores of my family and their wider community).

When I die (as far as we can currently observe), the form that we call "me" will simply cease. The karma of my actions (my kids, my work, the beneficial and unbeneficial things I performed) will continue to radiate. But I see no evidence that suggests a specific wave of "me" energy will grab on to an embryo. Certainly, if my children have kids, that will be a karmic radiation.

I see my life as a battery. It has stored and transmitted energy for years.

When conditions no longer arise such that my body functions, it will cease and, like a battery, it will hold no energy except that energy it expends in decay. At some point, it will simply be a scattering atoms. Those atoms will be around until the universe collapses and after that, who knows?

I'm sure the Ven. lama had benevolent intentions when he wrote that passage but I'm not sure how it benefits our path to be awake here and now. When people start talking about concepts for which no empirical evidence exists, it seems like a muddying of the waters. Let's deal with reality as it is (or at least seems to be) for now. If new understandings based on evidence arise, we can re-adjust our view. Until then, my view on rebirth remains simple, energy exists and arises and changes form dependent on a myriad of factors. I don't know how this universe came into being (beyond a few indicators). I don't know if it was created or just happened (although if it were created, who created the creator).

A final note: Please understand I am writing this comment in a spirit of benevolence and without anger or rancor. My intention is simply to raise a red flag to the fallacy of wishful thinking or mental construction that lack evidence.

"Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it." --Buddha

By the way, the word verification I had to type on this comment is "rearchum." That has to be a Beavis and Butthead moment. He he He he ...he said "rear."

They call him James Ure said...

Great points by all so far. I'm certainly no scientist and I certainly don't think that my examples and ideas are air-tight and the full truth. I still wrestle with the idea of rebirth from time to time in the respect to how (if at all) it happens.

Granted, this is an academic exercise but it also is something to the why rebirth is taught and how it would work given the little bit of information we have currently through science and amateur observations.

I will say that unlike many religions; Buddhism embraces skepticism and various conclusions as seen in the many sects. It allows a person to have faith in something such as rebirth without having to ditch the raft of science. That's rare in a religion to be sure.

Despite all the science I used as analogies I admit that it does come down to faith. Faith, however, is asked of Buddhists (especially Zen Buddhists) less than most religions I'd say. That's not to say that there isn't much science, logic and reason based understanding embraced by Buddhism.

Cafe Zen: Well said on rebirth in the present moment. Yes we are constantly being born and reborn in each instant in my view. Perhaps that is where rebirth is best understand and helpful. Rather than a more cerebral discussion of it involving scientific ideas. And I readily admit to not being well-versed in each detail of scientific principles.

For myself though there is enough science for me to fill in the blanks with faith in believing rebirth than the HUGE leaps of faith that are constantly asked for in many other religions.


As for a perfect transfer of information I agree that there are some holes in that theory. I will admit whole-heartedly that my examples and ideas are by no means definitive. If rebirth is real then there has to be a missing puzzle piece to bring it all together.

I have faith in the end that this process is true. Yet I'm not married to it. I could very well just die and that's it. I have no problem with that scenario. If it happens, it happens and no more cycle of suffering in samsara.

I am open to many interpretations, which I think Buddhism embraces as a whole unlike many religions, which is in part what attracted me to it in the first place.

As for the increasing number of humans being born I have a theory on that as well, which again I readily admit is based upon faith. I believe that there are other worlds out there in our vast universe as Buddha did.

I believe that part of the increasing population is in relation to more non-human beings being reborn on Earth. In addition to many of the billions of insects and other animals being reborn in the human realm.

Mountain Humanist:

I agree with you that rebirth isn't the most important idea--especially in Zen. Don't concern yourself too much with the future. However, I'm an academic by education, which has it's benefits but it also comes with the curse of thinking too much. ;)

Adam said...

James, did you see this post over at Integral Options? Still trying to wrap my head around it. Currently it is wrapping itself around my head and squeezing tight....

They call him James Ure said...


Far out. Very cool stuff to think about. So our Universe is a bubble connected to other bubbles through these membranes floating on an infinite see of change and potentiality. I've heard something similar. It would fit well with Buddhism in that such a collection of bubbles are interconnected and interdependent.

Lorem Ipsum said...

James, this is a very interesting post and it's certainly got me scratching my head, thinking hard. I have a couple of questions for you, which I hope does not come across as a 'spoilers'. My understanding is that kamma (karma) as described by the Buddha was tied in very strongly to the Hindu cosmology - different realms, different levels of Gods - which in some accounts (not ones I subscribe to) translates into ideas off heaven and hell? In other words, was it a metaphor devised to fit its time? As Buddhists in this day and age, do you think it behoves us to rethink karma and hence rebirth in a more modern context - is this what you intend in this post?

My next question is perhaps more fundamental. What is it exactly that is being reborn? You mention the mind and body. Is this another way of reframing the notion of a self and, if so, how does that square with the central concept of anatta, expressed so powerfully in the Heart Sutra, among other texts?

I hope these questions are helpful.

Peaceful regards

Brian said...

Hello James -

Very interesting reflection on re-birth. As a devout Roman Catholic, I also believe in a re-birth - but this new birth would be of Eternal Life.

I was and am a big George Harrison fan. George wrote a beautiful song which you may know "Give me love."
One of the lines in the song "keep me free from birth" is very interesting. Geroge, who was raised a Catholic, decided to convert to Hinduism. If I am correct, the Hindu belief is ongoing reincarnation - until one is purified where this "birth" is no longer necessary.

It is amazing how God offers so many different paths to Himself.

Just awesome!

Blessings to you...

They call him James Ure said...


Glad I got you thinking and a scratching. I like to think and scratch--probably too much for a Buddhist but I'm cursed with being a writer lol.

Part of what I intended with this post was exactly what you said. I wanted to put a modern spin on karma and rebirth to maybe help it seem more understandable to some more science based folks. Though I must admit I'm no scientist and I'm no Buddhist master lol.

I think of the fantastical and mythological claims about karma and regarding heavens and hells to be metaphors. I think it was easier to understand for people in a world without science.

I personally take a more Zen approach where I should be worrying about the consequences of my actions and thoughts in my life RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW more than after I die. If I live right in this present moment I don't have to worry too much about what happens upon my death.

I was merely doing a bit of a "thinking out loud" experiment with this post. I was (and still am) trying to figure out how scientifically one would explain the idea of karma affecting rebirth. It's just one of my hobbies to think that way; though I should use that time more to meditate than do thought experiments lol.

Now, onto your other question. This example might sound a bit odd and perhaps create more questions but it's what came to mind so here goes:

I think "we" are just variations of "the one" source infinitely experiencing itself in various forms.

I'd like to add onto the wave example used by Thich Nhat Hanh and others. We are each a wave, which thinks it's separate from the other waves yet is connected to them all despite vast distances via "the one source" which in this example is water/the vast ocean body.

So when we die that's just like waves dying after crashing onto shore or dying out mid-ocean. Depending upon the height of the wave, the wind speed and wind shear affecting it when it was alive the old, dead, wave will be reborn anew in a wave form different than the appearance and properties it had in it's previous form.

These factors (wind speed, wind shear and the height and length of the wave, etc.) are for me like karma effecting us as we live out our lives as "waves" here on Earth (our ocean). Or whatever planet beings might be found living on.

That was probably more confusing than my post, huh? Even though I'm a writer and I love words they sure are terrible at describing things like these subjects within Buddhism.


Thanks for your comments.

Diane Meier said...

Thank you for posting this topic. I read it carefully and I really like your explanation of how rebirth takes place. There's so much to think about here, but I believe you may be right about how this takes place. For those who need scientific proof, they will just have to wait until that happens in the future. I'm comfortable with your ideas you've presented and do not need proof. I find it very reassuring. Thank you!

Lorem Ipsum said...

James, you are absolutely right that as 'Buddhists' we should concentrate on the here and now. However, it is interesting to think about rebirth and, as you say, it is something that people tend to wrinkle their brows over. Thanks for the response, which was not confusing in the slightest. I guess the use of the term 'one source' implies that your opinion is that there is something in us that is essential, ie eternal, as opposed to impermanent. My own view of this subject is obviously limited and unclear but I think your use of the ocean analogy is apt insofar as it suggests one the Buddha used himself, alongside the question of the dead fire: where has the form of the fire gone now that the flames have been extinguished?

They call him James Ure said...


Thank-you very much.


Yes, I do believe that all things are impermanent but the energy never completely dissipates. It simply changes form until Nirvana, which seems to be beyond scientific explanation and the limits of human understanding right now.

Yeah the ocean analogy is one of the best teachings on rebirth and karma that I've heard from Buddha. No matter how defined one gets though in explaning rebirth there is an element of faith to it.

Though there are indicators that it happens in science on minute levels. Possibly too small for our instruments to see right now.

In regard to how it actually takes place and what is it that is reborn. I hope some day to learn it in more depth. Until then I keep chopping wood and carrying water.

Reymiland said...

Quote:"It simply changes form until Nirvana, which seems to be beyond scientific explanation and the limits of human understanding right now."

~Until the human mind can understand the truth of the infinite it will never understand the ability of Nirvana.

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Stella said...

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