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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh on Rebirth

At first, we might think of reincarnation as a soul entering a body. The body is seen as impermanent and the soul as permanent, and when we get rid of one body, we re-enter another. You might be surprised to know that people in Buddhist Asia are not fond of reincarnation. They want the circle of birth and death to end because they know it represents suffering without end.

The Buddha taught that a so-called "person" is really just five elements (skandhas) that come together for a limited period of time: our body, feelings, perceptions, mental states and consciousness. These five elements are, in fact, changing all the time. Not a single element remains the same for two consecutive moments.

Not only is our body impermanent, but our so-called soul is also impermanent. It, too, is comprised only of elements like feelings, perceptions, mental states, and consciousness. When the idea of an immortal soul is replaced, our understanding of reincarnation gets closer to the truth.

But if we observe the things around us, we find that nothing comes from nothing. Before its so-called birth, the flower already existed in other forms -- clouds, sunshine, seeds, soil, and many other elements. Rather than birth and rebirth, it is more accurate to say "manifestation" (vij├▒apti) and "remanifestation." The so-called birthday of the flower is really a day of its remanifestation. It has already been here in other forms, and now it has made an effort to remanifest.

Manifestation means its constituents have always been here in some form, and now, since conditions are sufficient, it is capable of manifesting itself as a flower. When things have manifested, we commonly say they are born, but in fact, they are not. When conditions are no longer sufficient and the flower ceases to manifest, we say the flower has died, but that is not correct either. Its constituents have merely transformed themselves into other elements, like compost and soul.

-Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995), pp 133-135 (Source:

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hewhoisdom said...

It's very common to misinterpret this concept. It basically requires the outright obliteration of a preconception and the building of a new understanding from the ground up. Often reincarnation is bound together with beliefs in an eternal soul and rebirth in some new form or in some other place like Heaven or Hell. Then there is the mystery of death itself. The term would be meaningless really if it weren't for people like Thich Nhat Hanh who so eloquently provide the guidance we in the West need. In this explanation I find it especially helpful that an alternative to the concept of soul is offered. While it may be a challenge, only through this reinterpretation may we better grasp the concept of reincarnation.

Bic Tran said...

Something much closer at hand: how can you nail down the birth date and the death date of your car?My conclusion after a deep meditation on a long road to a camp: there is none, only arbitrary dates for each person involved.

They call him James Ure said...

@hewhoisdom...well said.

@Bic Tran...I like that example of the car. Thanks for sharing!!

rhys1949 said...

Please note that there is a serious error in the quote from Thay's book. The last word should be "soil" NOT "soul" (as per the original book).

Chudong Tuchu said...

According to the Buddhist literature,
did the Buddha escape the cycle of births and deaths as the result of his perfect enlightenment? And if so, where did he escape to?

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