Hierarchy of Beings according to Jain Thought
but also applicable to Hindu, Buddhist Thought
Reincarnation is the transmigration of the soul from one life form to another. It doesn’t just apply to humans but to all creatures and some non-living things too. Transmigration of the soul can take place from a human or creature into another human or creature up or down a scale based on good and evil deeds (See Karma Below). If a person has lived a virtuous life he moves up the scale, say, from a low caste to a high caste. If a person has lived an unworthy life he moves down the scale, say, from a low caste to a rat.

Reincarnation is a belief found in most Asian religions and is a cornerstone of all the major religions found in India except Islam. Buddhist ideas about of reincarnation grew out of the Hindu concept of reincarnation, which first appeared in the Upanishads and is believed to have originated in the Ganges Plain and was absorbed b the Aryan-centered Hinduism as the Aryans moved into the Ganges Plain. Beliefs in reincarnation are not just found in India and Asia but are found in tribal cultures all over the world and were held by the ancient Greeks, Vikings and other groups in the West. Ideas about reincarnation are probably very old and were held by people who lived in Neolithic times.

Reincarnation is viewed as a never-ending set of cycles. “Karma” determines what a person is reincarnated as. Escape from the weary cycle of reincarnation can be achieved through escape into nirvana. Karma (which can also mean "deed") is a foundation of both Hinduism and Buddhism. In terms of samsara — the cycle of death and rebirth, reincarnation — karma is what determines the quality of each rebirth. At its most fundamental level, karma is the natural law of cause and effect that is inherent in the structure of the world. It is a cumulative system in which good acts produce positive results and bad acts produce negative results. [Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018, Encyclopedia.com]

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion

Reincarnation and Buddhism

Through constant rebirths, Buddhists believe they can escape the Wheel of Life and ascend to nirvana. In Theravada Buddhism a person can be reborn in one of three level of existence: 1) the world, 2) the hells below, and 3) the heavens above. Buddhists believe in “karmic energy” rather than souls. Followers respond to life in their own self interest rather than out of allegiance to a god or creator. Since only humans can break out of the cycle of reincarnation, human life is seen as opportunity that must seized upon to improve one’s fate and effort towards transcendence. The Hindu idea of reincarnation is roughly the same regardless of which Hindu god an individual venerates most.

According to Buddhist theology an an internal self or soul dwells in each person as a kind of cosmic energy that exists beyond worldly reality and karma and doesn’t require good deeds or prayers to improve on itself. The problem is that few creatures can tune into their self and thus require deeds and prayer to help them establish their place in the world. Reincarnation helps them do this and evolve to reach closer to their soul.

The cycles of birth and death are perceived a continuations of the disintegrating force of Creation while transmigration of the soul from one life to another is viewed a perpetuation of the separation of the individual from the unifying force of existence. The aim of the individual is to "get off the wheel," to escape the cycle and merge finally with the Oneness that was there before Creation began. into the original One. Methods used on the path of escaping reincarnation include yoga, meditation, and charity. Since the chances of escaping it are quite low people are encouraged to work to achieve a better position in their next life by doing good deeds, living simply and praying a lot.

Influence of Hinduism on Buddhist Views of Reincarnation

Underlying virtually all of Buddhism is the basic doctrine of samsara, which Buddhism shares with Hinduism. Samsara is a fundamental worldview that holds all beings, including animals, are part of an endless cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. [Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018, Encyclopedia.com]


According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The propositions of Buddhism were articulated originally in the context of traditional Indian cosmology in the first several centuries B.C. In the early Indian worldview all human beings are destined to be reborn in other forms, human and nonhuman, over vast stretches of space and time; the process of reincarnation is without beginning or end; and life takes six forms, listed here in hierarchical order: 1) gods; 2) demigods; 3) human beings; 4) animals; 5) hungry ghosts, who wander in search of food and water yet are unable to eat or drink; and 6) hell beings — denizens of the various hells suffering a battery of tortures but who will all eventually die and be reborn again. [Source: “Buddhism: The ‘Imported’ Tradition” from the “The Spirits of Chinese Religion,” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia]

The wisdom to which buddhas awaken is to see that this cycle of existence (sasara in Sanskrit, comprising birth, death, and rebirth) is marked by 1) impermanence — because all things, whether physical objects, psychological states, or philosophical ideas, undergo change; they are brought into existence by preceding conditions at a particular point in time, and they eventually will become extinct.; 2) unsatisfactoriness — in the sense that not only do sentient beings experience physical pain, they also face continual disappointment when the people and things they wish to maintain invariably change; and 3) lack of a permanent self (or “no self”), which has a long and complicated history of exegesis in Buddhism. In China the idea of “no-self” (Sanskrit: anatman) was often placed in creative tension with the concept of repeated rebirth. [Source: “Buddhism: The ‘Imported’ Tradition” from the “The Spirits of Chinese Religion,” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia]

“The Buddha provided an analysis of the ills of human existence and a prescription for curing them. Those ills were caused by the tendency of sentient beings to grasp, to cling to evanescent things in the vain hope that they remain permanent. In this view, the very act of clinging contributes to the perpetuation of desires from one incarnation to the next. Grasping, then, is both a cause and a result of being committed to a permanent self.

Karma and Merit

Beliefs in reincarnation incorporates the doctrine of karma, which holds that, through the working of a just, automatic, and impersonal cosmic law, one's actions in this incarnation and in all previous ones will determine which position in the hierarchy of living things one will occupy in the next incarnation. An individual's karma can be improved through certain acts and omissions. By following the five precepts or commandments, a Buddhist can better his or her karma. These commandments are: do not kill, do not steal, do not indulge in forbidden sexual pleasures, do not tell lies, and do not take intoxicants or stupefying drugs or liquors. [Library of Congress *]

Karma is the means in which a person controls his or her destiny through good or evil deeds. Defined by some scholars as “the whole ethical consequences of one's actions," it is a moral force that survives death, determines one's existence in future lives and has defined existence in past lives. Karma determines where one will be reborn. Every deed has a result: morally good acts lead to good consequences, and the commission of evil has a bad result. Applied to the life of the individual, the law of karma means that the circumstances an individual faces are the result of prior actions. Karma is the regulating idea of a wide range of good works and other Buddhist practices. [Source: “Buddhism: The ‘Imported’ Tradition” from the “The Spirits of Chinese Religion,” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia]

The most effective way to work actively to improve one's karma is to earn merit. Any act of benevolence or generosity can gain merit for the doer. Theravada Buddhists tend to regard opportunities for earning merit as primarily connected with interaction with the sangha (monks), contributing to its support through money, goods, and labor, and participating in its activities. Some of the favorite ways for a male to earn merit are to enter the sangha as a monk (after the age of twenty) or as a novice, or to live in the wat as a temple servant; in the case of a female (usually the elderly), the favorite way is to become a nun. Other activities that gain merit include sponsoring a monk or novice, contributing to a wat, feeding members of the sangha at a public meal, and providing food for either of the two daily meals of the sangha. *

Reincarnation, Rebirth and Samsara (Cycle of Life and Death)


On Samsara, the Hindu-Buddhist cycle of life, death and rebirth, The Buddha said: “Which do you think is the more: the flood of tears, which weeping and wailing you have shed upon this long way- hurrying and hastening through this round of rebirths, united with the undesired, separated from the desired- this, or the waters of the four oceans? . . . But how is this possible? Inconceivable is the beginning of this Samsara; not to be discovered is any first beginning of beings, who, obstructed by ignorance, and ensnared by craving, are hurrying and hastening through this round of rebirths. And thus have you long time undergone suffering, undergone torment, undergone misfortune, and filled the graveyards full; verily, long enough to be dissatisfied with all the forms of existence, long enough to turn away, and free yourselves from them all.” [Source: Mario Bussagli, “5000 Years of the Art of India” (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., n.d.). Internet Archive, from CCNY]

Sanskrit scholar R.P. Hayes wrote: “The Buddha remembered clearly many of His past lives. Even today, many Buddhist monks, nuns and others also remember their past lives. Such a strong memory is a result of deep meditation. For those who remember their past life, Rebirth is an established fact which puts this life in a meaningful perspective. The Law of Kamma can only be understood in the framework of many lifetimes, because it sometimes takes this long for Kamma to bear its fruit. Thus Kamma and Rebirth offer a plausible explanation to the obvious inequalities of birth; why some are born into great wealth whereas others are born into pathetic poverty; why some children enter this world healthy and full-limbed whereas others enter deformed and diseased... The fruits of bad Kamma are not regarded as a punishment for evil deeds but as lessons from which to learn, for example, how much better to learn about the need for generosity than to be reborn among the poor! [Source: R.P. Hayes, Buddhist Society of Western Australia, Buddha Sasana =|=]

“Rebirth takes place not only within this human realm. The Buddha pointed out that the realm of human beings is but one among many. There are many separate heavenly realms and grim lower realms, too, realms of the animals and realms of the ghosts. Not only can human beings go to any of these realms in the next life, but we can come from any of these realms into our present life. This explains a common objection against Rebirth that argues "How can there be Rebirth when there are 10 times as many people alive today than there were 50 years ago?" The answer is that people alive today have come from many different realms. Understanding that we can come and go between these different realms, gives us more respect and compassion for the beings in these realms. It is unlikely, for example, that one would exploit animals when one has seen the link of Rebirth that connects them with us.” =|=

In a lecture, Dr. Granville Dharmawardena, University of Colombo, said: “Reincarnation may be defined as the re-embodiment of an immaterial part of a person after a short or a long interval after death, in a new body whence it proceeds to lead a new life in the new body more or less unconscious of its past existences, but containing within itself the "essence" of the results of its past lives, which experience goes to make up its new character or personality. Thus, infancy brings to earth not a blank scroll for the beginning of a new earthly record, but it is inscribed with ancestral histories, some like the present scene, most of them unlike it and stretching back into the remote past. [Source: Dr. Granville Dharmawardena, University of Colombo, Based on a Scientific paper presented at the 52nd Annual Sessions of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science, November 1996]

Reincarnation, a Scientifically Acceptable Phenomenon?

In a lecture, Dr. Granville Dharmawardena, University of Colombo, said: “Scientists now have the professional clearence to scientifically investigate reincarnation...If reincarnation is to be examined from an unbiased scientific point of view, it is necessary first of all to find a way of bypassing such unscientific barriers as religious bias. This can be done by considering the standard procedure used at present for the acceptance of any modern scientific theory and testing reincarnation by following the same procedure. [Source: Dr. Granville Dharmawardena, University of Colombo, Based on a Scientific paper presented at the 52nd Annual Sessions of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science, November 1996 ==]

Jain view of gati (existences)

“Geremy Hayward has described how one ventures to deal with a new theory. He describes this procedure as a four step scientific process as follows: a) study the relevant phenomenon; b) formulate the new theory; c) use the theory to predict observations that we should be able to make if the theory is correct, and; d) look for these predicted observations. Richard Feynman, Noble Laureate for Physics, describes this process in detail. He combines steps "a" and "b" and describes it as a three step process. ==

“If the observations made in the last step do not agree with the predictions of the earlier step the proposed theory is not acceptable. If they agree the theory becomes acceptable. If more and more observations show agreement the theory receives stronger scientific acceptance. Once a theory becomes scientifically accepted by this test it remains so unless someone finds reliable new data to prove its unacceptability. ==

“Reincarnation is a very old belief and a large fraction of the world population believes it...Hence the phenomenon of reincarnation is already known and therefore the steps "a" and "b" are already there. In examining the scientific acceptability of reincarnation therefore one has only to go through the last two steps of the above scientific process. If this is done successfully the scientific acceptability of reincarnation is proved in the way any other theory of modern science is proved. ==

“There are two possible scenarios, No-Reincarnation scenario and Reincarnation scenario that can be considered. Human being is composed of the body and an immaterial part. The body which is the material part is well understood because it fell within the Classical Science realm of Res Extensa and was extensively studied by scientists. The immaterial part has not been studied by scientists because it fell within the Classical Science realm of Res Cogitans.” ==

“Evidence” That Reincarnation is a Scientifically Acceptable Phenomenon?

Dr. Dharmawardena went on to say “In the No-Reincarnation scenario death is something like the Event Horizon of a black hole. Crossing the event horizon is a one way journey and after crossing it nothing can come back, not even light. Here the body disintegrates after death and the immaterial part either annihilates or gets into a scientifically unknown state and remains there for ever, ie. each individual is borne, lives one life time and at the end of it passes the event horizon of death to a state of no return. [Source: Dr. Granville Dharmawardena, University of Colombo, Based on a Scientific paper presented at the 52nd Annual Sessions of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science, November 1996 ==]

“In the Reincarnation scenario death is not an event horizon because only the body, the material part, disintegrates and goes into a state of no return. The immaterial part enters into a scientifically unknown state and reappears, after a period. The above description of the phenomenon of reincarnation constitute steps "a" and "b" of the scientific process. The next step of the scientific process is looking for observations that can be predicted assuming the existence of this phenomenon, observations that have a reasonable chance of being practically examined. ==

“Abilities of individuals to carry memories of past events differ widely from individual to individual. Some people can remember events and experiences of long past whereas some easily forget things within a few years. Most people vividly remember special events such as tragic happenings for a very long time, even up to death. Under hypnosis people recollect events which they had completely forgotten. Some people have the exceptional ability to recall knowledge and experiences gathered long ago and use them when necessary. For example a friend of mine who had been discussing Advanced Level Physics with me when he was studying for the GCE AL exam long time ago, but never did any science there after escaped injury in the Central bank bomb blast by instantaneously recalling his memories discussing AL Physics. But others who had studied Physics more recently lost their eyes because that memory didn't flash back to their rescue at the time of impending disaster. As soon as my friend saw the flash of the bomb blast from his window , AL Physics flashed back to his mind and prompted to him that the shock wave comes a little while after the flash. Instantaneously he threw himself back flat on the floor before the shock wave blasted the window glasses. ==

“If reincarnation as defined earlier is true it should be possible to extend some of the above human capabilities, which result from immaterial aspects of the human being, beyond birth to the previous life and even beyond to earlier lives. Some people should be able to remember events in their past lives. Hypnosis must enhance this ability. Some must be able to make use of knowledge and experiences of past lives.

With these predictions we can move on to the last stage of the scientific process, to look for these predicted observations. A large amount of data has been accumulated by research workers around the world on matters relating to reincarnation: 1) spontaneous recall of past lives, 2) past life therapy, 3) child prodigies and others who can make use of knowledge and experience gathered in their past lives are some of the aspects that have been subjected to much research and investigation. The observations made on the above areas agree with the predictions made in the third stage of the scientific process thereby successfully completing the four step test for scientific acceptability. No scientifically acceptable data that can go to prove the scientific unacceptability of reincarnation have appeared in scientific literature so far. On the basis of these tests it is concluded that the scientific acceptability of the phenomenon of reincarnation is proven at least on three counts in terms of the accepted principles of modern science.

A science minded person often finds it difficult to accept reincarnation because he/she had failed to perceive a reincarnation mechanism that is intelligible within the outdated Decartes' classical science frame work. But Modern Science, specifically Quantum Mechanics, has compelled us to accept unintelligible mechanisms of natural phenomena like the behaviour of electrons and we do not hesitate to accept them. Likewise with the data available we are compelled to accept reincarnation as a reality. Austrian Scientist Rudolf Steiner says, "Just as an age was once ready to receive the Copernican theory of the universe, so is our age ready for the idea of reincarnation to be brought into the general consciousness of humanity".

Yama, the Lord of Death, holding the Wheel of Life

Buddhism, Death, Suicide and Autopsies

T.T Thich Nguyen, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk from Co Lam Temple said: “All Buddhists do meditation. One of the meditations done is on death. Everyday, through meditation, we recall our death and so we do not worry about dying. When a Buddhist person is dying, the family may think, "What can we do for the dying person?" They will invite a monk to see the dying person and to do chanting. In Buddhism, the word chanting is used instead of prayer. As a person is dying we chant in permanency of the life. We do this for two reasons. First, we want to make the person happy before they die. Second, we want to make the family understand that death is a part of our life. It is because of our birth that we have to accept our death. Death is not unusual. That is the Buddhist point of view. So, everyday, when we finish our normal regular prayer, we do some meditation on death. That is why the Buddhist is not afraid to die, and also why the family is ready to accept the death. [Source: Christine Wilson Owens, Kim Lundgreen, CCM, University of Washington, June 1, 2002]

On suicide, T.T Thich Nguyen said: “The first important thing to know is that Buddhists do not agree with the act. Suicide goes against Buddhism. Many people use the term "vows" for what we call "precepts" in Buddhism. The first precept is to refrain from killing. As suicide is the act of killing yourself, it is considered bad. Practically and socially, if someone commits suicide, the Buddhist society does not value that death. Buddhists condemn the action while still doing what they can for that person. They do not praise the action, but still do all the traditional prayers for the dead body. On funeral occasions for a suicide death, as a monk, I criticize the action and advise to those present that this is not the answer to a problem nor is it a brave action. This is the Buddhist point of view. Suicide is a very bad, lower choice. This belief is common in every Buddhist society and for the Vietnamese too.

Autopsy is not prohibited by Buddhist law. On autopsies, one Vietnamese-American medical expert said, “The time of death is a tough period for everyone. It is important to talk directly to the immediate family in a very nice way to let them know what happened and if an autopsy needs to be done. Explain why an autopsy needs to be done and the family will likely understand. Recognize that for the Vietnamese, we don't believe in opening the body to get tissues or organs, neither for autopsy nor organ donation. We believe that we were born with everything and we will die with everything. Very seldom is it that the family members will agree with you to open the dead body, however if you explain the necessity in a manner that is respectful, they will understand. Recently, the Vietnamese who have come to the U.S. have learned about the law here. It will depend on the family whether they agree with autopsy or not. When talking about the Vietnamese community's acceptance of the practice of autopsy, limited is probably a better word to use than prohibited.

A medical examiner in Washington state said: “We work under legal authority. At some point it becomes our legal responsibility to do an autopsy. We will always work with the family up to a certain point, and advise of other options if we can forego an autopsy and still learn the cause of death in another way. In a homicide situation, the purpose of the autopsy is to benefit the entire community so the death can be explained. To do the autopsy becomes a matter that transcends the interests of the family or any one group. We are forced to perform the autopsy when there is a homicide. There may be other options to autopsy in some instances, however these alternatives may not be any more suitable as they present some time delays. We always try to do things as quickly as possible so we can return the body back to the family and avoid delays. The best course of action, as we see it, is to try and let us do what we need to do, and in that way we can avoid delays.

The twelve nidanas explain the rebirth / reincarnation mechanism in Buddhism. Starting with Avidya (ignorance, misconception) as first. The 12 nidanas are often shown in wheel of life's outer rim (above) in the traditional bhavachakra. This is a derivative work on File:Traditional bhavachakra wall mural of Yama holding the wheel of life, Buddha pointing the way out.

Buddhist Enlightenment, Nirvana and Salvation

“Nirvana” is , the ultimate goal of every Buddhist, to bring the cycle of rebirth to an end. It has been described various ways, including: 1) "a cosmic state that pervades the universe which everyone must link up with"; 2) "the permanent unconditioned being"; 3) "a state of bliss that one reaches when they escape from the bonds of the material world"; and 4) "the result of transmigration of the soul from the self and the state of suffering into oneness with the universe."

Hinduism promised "samsara” (Sanskrit for migration) — escape from the endless round of "life everlasting" by "disappearance of the individual into an unchanging anonymous Absolute." For Buddhists nirvana offered the escape for the "weary reiteration" of life.

Jacob Kinnard wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: One of the things that makes the theory and practice of ethics (sila) particularly interesting in the Buddhist context is the tension that exists, right on the surface, between the individual's responsibility for his or her own salvation — as exemplified by the Buddha's advice that one must be one's own island (atta dipa), dependent on no one other than one's self for salvation — and the individual's connection with social life, as governed by the collective nature of karma. This is perhaps most dramatically illustrated by the Buddha's own life story. For instance, in The Buddhacarita, or, Acts of the Buddha, the young Siddhartha's wife, Yashodhara, when she hears that Siddhartha has abandoned her, falls upon the ground "like a Brahminy duck without its mate" — a common symbol of lifelong marital partnership, such that one duck will die of remorse upon the death of the other. Likewise, his son is described as "poor Rahula," who is fated "never to be dandled in his father's lap" (pp. viii, 58). [Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018, Encyclopedia.com]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org, Asia for Educators, Columbia University; Asia Society Museum “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 5 East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1993); BBC, Wikipedia, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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