According to Buddhism, there is a cycle of death and rebirth that can be transcended by the practice of the Eightfold Path.
Within Buddhism, the term rebirth or re-becoming (Sanskrit: punarbhava) is preferred to "reincarnation", as the latter is taken to imply there is a fixed entity that is reborn. However, this still leaves the question as to what exactly it is that is reborn.
The lack of a fixed self does not mean lack of continuity. One of the metaphors used to illustrate this is that of fire. For example, a flame is transferred from one candle to another, or a fire spreads from one field to another. In the same way that it depends on the original fire, there is a conditioned relationship between one life and the next; they are not identical but neither are they completely distinct. The early Buddhist texts make it clear that there is no permanent consciousness that moves from life to life.
It is sometimes said that it is our saṃskāras, or volitional tendencies, that are reborn. According to this view, we have tendencies to act and think in particular ways. But again, how is it that saṃskāras can be transferred from one being to another? Perhaps still more difficult to understand is how a being in one life can reap the consequences of the conduct of another who is now dead.
These questions were problematic for the early Buddhists, and they came up with many theories to respond to them. The Puggalavāda school believed in a personal entity (puggala) that transmigrates from life to life to provide the link of personal continuity that allows for karma to act on an individual over time. The medieval Pali scholar Buddhaghosa posited a `rebirth-linking consciousness' (patisaṅdhi), which connected the arising of a new life with the moment of death, but how one life came to be associated with another was still not made clear. Some schools were led to the conclusion that karma continued to exist in some sense and adhere to a particular person until it had worked out its consequences. Another school, the Sautrantika, made use of a more poetic model to account for the process of karmic continuity. For them, each act `perfumed' the individual and led to the planting of a `seed' that would later germinate as a good or bad karmic result.
While all Buddhist traditions seem to accept some notion of rebirth, there is no unified view about precisely how events unfold after the moment of death. Theravada Buddhism generally asserts that rebirth is immediate. The Tibetan schools, on the other hand, hold to the notion of a bardo (intermediate state) which can last up to forty-nine days, and this has led to the development of a unique `science' of death and rebirth, a good deal of which is set down in what is popularly known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
While Theravada Buddhism generally denies there is an intermediate state, some early Buddhist texts seem to support it. One school that adopted this view was the Sarvāstivāda, who believed that between death and rebirth there is a sort of limbo in which beings do not yet reap the consequences of their previous actions but in which they may still influence their rebirth. The death process and this intermediate state were believed to offer a uniquely favourable opportunity for spiritual awakening.
The being in this intermediate state was known as a gandhabba (Sanskrit gandharva), and for pregnancy to occur a gandhabba is propelled towards rebirth through its desire for sex. The gandhabba witnesses its potential father and mother in sexual union and (if it is male) experiences lust for his mother and hatred towards the father, whom he sees as a rival (and vice versa). (Modern technologies, such as in vitro fertilization and cloning, would seem difficult to accommodate into this account.) Through its desire for sex, the gandhabba interposes itself between the parents. It then installs itself in the womb until birth takes place. Not all gandhabbas are conscious of their actions, for example, it might enter the womb to shelter from a chaotic storm.
There are many references to rebirth in the early Buddhist scriptures. These are some of the more important: Mahakammavibhanga Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 136); Upali Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 56); Kukkuravatika Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 57); Moliyasivaka Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 36.21); Sankha Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 42.8)
Steven Collins, Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravada Buddhism, Cambridge, 1982. ISBN 052139726X
Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind: Personality, Consciousness and Nirvana in Early Buddhism, Curzon, 1995. ISBN 0700703381
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully: The Profound Practice of Transference of Consciousness, Tharpa, 1999. ISBN 817822058X
Glenn H. Mullin, Death and Dying: The Tibetan Tradition, Arkana, 1986. ISBN 0140190139
Vicki MacKenzie, Reborn in the West, HarperCollins, 1997. ISBN 0722534434
Tom Shroder, Old Souls: Scientific Search for Proof of Past Lives, Simon and Schuster, 2001. ISBN 0684851938
Francis Story, Rebirth as Doctrine and Experience: Essays and Case Studies, Buddhist Publication Society, 1975. ISBN 9552401763
Robert A.F. Thurman (trans.), The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Liberation Through Understanding in the Between, HarperCollins, 1998. ISBN 1855384124
Martin Willson, Rebirth and the Western Buddhist, Wisdom Publications, 1987. ISBN 0861712153
Nagapriya, Exploring Karma and Rebirth, Windhorse Publications, Birmingham 2004. ISBN 1899579613
- Dhamma Without Rebirth? (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/bps/news/essay06.html)
Sources that identify rebirth with reincarnation
- BuddhaNet (http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/qanda05.htm)