As I discussed in my previous blog entry, the Buddhist religion maintains that not only is there no eternal Creator God, but also no such thing as an eternal soul. If that is so, many non-Buddhists wonder, then just exactly what reincarnates?
The basic Buddhist idea is that the “soul” (or any sort of enduring core “self”) simply does not exist, per se, and is really nothing more than an artificial construct.
According to Buddhism, what we think of (and call) the “self” or “soul” — as if it were a permanent “thing” — is actually nothing more than a fleeting combination of constantly changing qualities and characteristics (awareness, emotions, memories, attitudes, ideas, preferences, etc.), a merely temporary and loose assembly of ingredients that are themselves in constant change, and constantly coming and going.
This temporary and constantly changing aggregate of qualities and characteristics has no more solidity, stability, permanence, or even identity than, say, a swirling cloud of gnats. There simply is no “solid core” to such a swirling cloud; nor likewise is there any sort of bedrock foundation to the “self” or “soul.”
These “gnats,” like our own personal qualities and human characteristics, are in constant motion, with each one of them also constantly changing, and with many of them coming and going all of the time, so that this “cloud” which they constitute is not really even the “same” cloud from instant to instant. Yet superficially, we look upon it and perceive what seems to be a somewhat stable, enduring, and even identifiable “cloud of gnats” (or an enduring “self” or an eternal “soul”).
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t really a swirling cloud of gnats (or of qualities and characteristics) there — it certainly exists — but it does mean that such a cloud is by no means some sort of inherently stable and unchanging permanent self or enduring eternal soul, per se.
None of these individual qualities or characteristics are themselves permanent or unchanging, and none of them individually or even collectively constitutes a “soul.” Nor do they have any sort of solid or stable central core or “kernel” around which they congregate or orbit, which one might take for a soul, either. There’s just nothing there which is truly at all substantial, or enduring. It’s “empty,” as Buddhists say.
This can be a slippery concept to wrap one’s mind around at first, so let it all sink in a bit. Remember, all of those multiple component features and elements which make up the personality (which I’m here comparing with an insubstantial and unstable swirling cloud of gnats) are themselves also in constant change — a merely temporary aggregation or momentary conglomeration of so many separate and distinct qualities and characteristics, each of which is also itself individually likewise in constant change.
We are thus literally not the same person even from moment to moment, insofar as we are in a constant state of change, however subtle it might be over shorter spans of time (although it becomes quite obvious just how radically we really do change when we look at ourselves over longer spans of time — in what sense is the infant I once was still really “me”?). It’s kind of like the old adage about how you can never really step into the “same” stream twice, because all of the water will always be different, replaced every instant by fresh water constantly flowing downstream. And so “we” at least seem to endure, as our “selves,” across time. But do “we” really?
Now, how does all of this relate to the question as to what reincarnates? Well, since even such a constantly changing and ultimately “hollow” cloud of gnats, or a similarly unstable and temporary aggregate of human qualities and personal characteristics, does at least superficially persist as such (and seemingly as the “same” cloud, though of course it really isn’t, since its components are always coming, going, and changing themselves) from instant to instant, moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year, and even decade to decade, then why not also from lifetime to lifetime — or from rebirth to rebirth? Where is the disconnect here?
Viewed thusly, rebirth across successive lifetimes or “reincarnations” can occur as surely as we seem to persist as “ourselves” merely from moment to moment or year to year, even though (according to Buddhism) no “soul” is involved, and no fixed, permanent, enduring core “self” actually exists.
It’s a tricky concept. But understanding it is key to correctly understanding Buddhism.