The Buddhist concept Anattā is both easy and impossible to understand. It’s roughly translated at not self. You could also say no self, though the concept lives on the philosophical edge where zero and infinity are equivalently incomprehensible. You both don’t exist and exist everywhere all at once. It doesn’t fit into words, but why would eternal truth fit into monkey grunts?
I’ve taken Philosophy of Mind courses in limited Western philosophy. They ask all these questions about what a self is (I think therefore I am) and have thought experiments about what it isn’t (the Chinese box), but the Buddhist answer is simply No. Given the general indifference of the universe, I think this is the most probable. You will never find a definition of self because it doesn’t exist like that. The self is an illusion, like the word that or the domain name indi.ca. Very useful for acting on, but fundamentally imaginary. You don’t need to take my word for it. Just close your eyes and look at your self closely. What is it? What separates it from other things? If you walk to the edge of a country you don’t see a border. We make that shit up. It’s the same with the borders we put around ourselves. The map is not the territory.
I won’t belabor the point of Anattā because I’m using it to get to rebirth. If you believe in Anattā, my point is that rebirth naturally follows. For now just take Anattā as an assumption and let’s move on.
I never understood rebirth as a Buddhist. When I (extremely briefly) studied under a monk (Bhante Gunaratna) as a teenager I asked him about the subject. He simply said that he had seen rebirth in his meditations but offered no opinion about the general veracity of the thing. It’s not a belief in that sense. Among lay Buddhists it can be, and we tell Jataka rebirth stories to our children, but in practice it’s an observation.
I am extremely out of practice as a Buddhist, but as I read more (not the path to enlightenment, but entertaining enough) I can see it. I can understand rebirth in my own way, which is what I think Bhante G was getting to. You have to go your own way. Even the Buddha left only a map, and the map is not the territory.
If you understand rebirth in terms of a fixed self (this self) it doesn’t make sense, but if you understand it based on the assumption of Anattā it does. Remember that Anattā is not self, not no self. It doesn’t deny the ‘existence’ of the self we’re all attached to, it simply says that this is not all. That just one illusion among many, just one way of filing the myriad realms of existence. As I said, it’s that point where zero is infinity. You have no self and infinite selves. If you gave God a multiple choice test on existence, she’d answer A, B, none, and all of the above.
Hence if you are not one self, you are also infinite selves. And if you have infinite selves, of course they go on. And have been going on. This is scientifically observable as well. I am physically the product of 100 generations between now and the Gautama Buddha, and 2,000 back to the end of the last ice age, and so on. Scientists call this reproduction, but that’s an incorrect capitalist word. Humans are not ‘produced’ in factories, we are literally born and reborn.
If there is not one canonical self, then of course the myriad forms are reborn. I spend a fair bit of time in the graveyard, and I know what’s going on. When I die a trillion bacteria and bugs will feed on me and carry on their life processes through my matter. Or I’ll go up a chimney and get remixed into the more basic elements, all of which are recycled. Even the energy in me is neither created nor destroyed, by the first law of thermodynamics. As Celine Dion said, “Near, far, wherever you are I believe that the heart does go on.” And it does. Either some creature eats your heart or it becomes chemicals that biology remixes soon enough.
In this sense rebirth is obvious. Evolution began by relatively pristine rebirth (microbes copying one-to-one) and proceeded to more lossy sexual reproduction (two become one, as the Spice Girls said, and baby makes three). As the Dao De Jing says:
The Way produces the One.
The One produces two.
Two produces three.
Three produces the myriad creatures.
To repeat, evolution proceeded asexually, then sexually, the orgiastically. We are right now just one manifestation of the myriad creatures and to the myriad creatures we return. We come from a billion place and to a billion places we go. When I die I will be reborn fractionally — ie part of me gets eaten, part remembered, and part just vibes — but mathematically I am certainly reborn. No one can practically do the math connecting me back to space dust and the future heat death of the universe, but the math is true. And we can feel that it’s true. This can be revealed through both meditation and rumination because it’s the same underlying truth. And we can observe this in the most mundane ways.
I have already been reborn twice and I can observe this because they scream at me in the morning. I have two children. Both through nature and nurture whatever I am goes on. Is it exactly me? Well, what exactly am I? If you look beyond the confines of a government form, you’ll find that the question is meaningless. We are families, we are lovers, we are clans, we are nations, we are bacterial colonies, we are the myriad creatures, not our bank accounts. We have been here since the beginning of life and when we die we’ll both physically and ideologically go on.
Can a person remember these experiences? Can you know past rebirths? It’s an arrogant question. We can’t remember what happens when we sleep, where we spend 1/3 of our lifetimes. Why is it any surprise we can’t remember the time beyond that. It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
Your existence was never constrained to this one random ape body. Whatever energy and DNA and soul is in you has been born and reborn a million times before. This is just facts whether you get the faxed memo or not. We don’t just have multiple existences across time, we each have multiple existences right now. Mother, father, son, Manchester United fan. These are all just different name-tags put on the roaring stream of existence.
Someone who drops self-view is called a stream enterer in Buddhism, but we are all in the stream regardless, just dumb as rocks. As Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers said, “Islands in the stream, That is what we are, No one in between. How can we be wrong.” We cling onto whatever identity we have while we have it, but soon enough we don’t. Life goes on.
The disbelief in rebirth comes from the attachment to one particular self, as if being reborn in this ape body is the most important thing that has ever happened. And it’s just not. I’ve literally been there in some combination since the beginning of life and the universe, this is not even my most interesting incarnation. Did Indi Samarajiva exist as a swan in some king’s garden 10,000 years ago? I mean, yeah, probably but not as Indi Samarajiva. As Shakesperera said, what’s in a name?
A name is really only as important as a pointer, like the word this or that. It’s a temporary label. Useful enough, but quickly torn off and forgotten. Indeed, ‘Indi Samarajiva’ is not even my name. Living in South Asia I use a dozen names (Appa, Anna, Putha, Sir, Indi, Jit, Indrajit) on a daily basis. The word ‘Indi’ was completely made up by me when I was 18 and thought it sounded cool in the context of Montreal. My family doesn’t call me that at all and, indeed, we’re not supposed to use proper names much at all. Whenever I was at my grandmother’s funeral I was confused as to who they were talking about. I’d never heard her government name before. And why would I? She was just Achchi and I worshiped at her feet. That’s what was important. All names are ultimately relational, which is something people forget in lonely West. As the Dao opens:
A Way that can be followed is not a constant Way.
A name that can be named is not a constant name.
Nameless, it is the beginning of Heaven and Earth;
Named, it is the mother of the myriad creatures.
I digress, but the point is that if you abandon the attachment to one self, then the existence (and non-existence) of multiple selves flows natural. You can see this in the natural world, where cell-borders are just temporary and all life flows into other life, forever backwards and forwards, beyond the definition of life itself which, I increasingly suspect is just energy. And as the first commandment of physics says, that is neither created nor destroyed, just re-formed.
Thus out of Anattā (not self) flows the concept of rebirth of multiple selves (why not). If you have no/infinite selves, then you can have no/infinite selves in the past and future. Indeed, why wouldn’t you? Why would existence be limited to one random ape body? It obviously isn’t, because this party was going before you were born and it goes on after you die.
So that’s how I believe in rebirth. Should you believe in it? I dunno. Bhante G told me his experience over 20 years ago and I didn’t get it till now. I’m telling you and when/how that congeals in your brain I dunno. This is just my experience. I am not one creature, I am myriad creatures. And so in myriad ways, I am constantly reborn.