Agnostic Buddhists steer of a position about past lives, past dwellings or a single life. Nobody really knows. I just get on with my practice. These unresolved latent tendencies explain the differences between siblings, such as twins with vastly different behavioural patterns, despite being brought up in a very similar environment and treated equally. Those who accept rebirth assert we pass through birth and death repeatedly while those who reject rebirth believe the self only takes birth once and only dies once.
What can be pointed to that shows a self? If the pointer had any kind of self-existence, not formed of conditions, nor needing them, then such a self would be forever pointing — an immortal, eternal pointer to a secondary self different from the pointer. The Buddha employed a careful language that neither denies nor accepts rebirth, nor sits on the fence with regard to rebirth. He kept true to his teaching of dependent arising rather than grasp onto views about a self that suffers extinction at death or is reborn in the future.
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The consistent problem of belief in rebirth also shows itself at the point of death and the point of birth. What continues, if anything, after death? Some Buddhists believe that that final thought of life acts as the spur to trigger an influence in conception of the next life. This bizarre view puts enormous pressure on practitioners to die with a very calm and clear moment in the very last thought of their life.
Such pressure could rob a Buddhist of any peace of mind in the last second of their existence. What if the person died snoring in their sleep? Some Buddhists will compare rebirth to one candle flame lighting another candle flame or the force under one wave in the ocean influencing another wave. It is not the same candle or wave that is reborn but it also not different.
The Buddha did not use such language or metaphors. He simply referred to his former dwellings and rebecoming in the process of unresolved cycles. I recollected numerous former dwellings, one past dwellings, two dwelling, three dwelling, four dwelling , five dwelling, ten dwelling , twenty dwelling , thirty dwelling , forty dwelling , fifty dwelling, a hundred dwelling , a thousand dwellings, a hundred thousand dwellings, aeons of expansion and contraction. In SN He stated that a meditator recollects many places of settling upon through the five compositions aggregates of a human being.
Polls reveal that one in four people believe in some kind of future life after they die.
The Decline & Rebirth of Philosophy
Perhaps the thought that death brings total extinction seems too much to bear. Belief in a future life, such as rebirth or going to heaven for eternity to be with their God make the transition from death to rebirth or from death to eternal life easier. It is seen as a reward for a good life or a life of faith and devotion. There are those who dismiss rebirth and belief in eternal life. They believe without a shadow of doubts that the self has a single life. They claim that religious views to support rebirth only offer compensation to the harsh reality that life is short, a single birth, a single death, and only the void before and after.
Some express relief in the view that they will never have to live again regardless of the circumstances of their life. The Buddha declined to take up an optimistic or pessimistic view of the rebirth or extinction of the self but simply referred to rebecoming puna bhava or again becoming.
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If the Buddha had referred to rebirth, he would have said puna jati. The Buddha kept trust with his teaching on the process of rebecoming, namely what remains outstanding or unresolved from the past. Such processes keep dependently arising until there is realisation about such dynamics. The language of past lives and future rebirth belongs to the Buddhist tradition bearing little relevance to the voice of the Buddha.
He regarded this as an annihilationist view. The Buddha made it clear that an eternalist view or an annihilationist view confirm the standpoints of extremists. As such being precedes being. At the moment of conception it is past kamma that conditions the initial consciousness that vitalizes the fetus.
It is this invisible kammic energy, generated from the past birth that produces mental phenomena and the phenomenon of life in an already extant physical phenomenon, to complete the trio that constitutes man. For a being to be born here a being must die somewhere. The birth of a being, which strictly means the arising of the five aggregates or psycho-physical phenomena in this present life, corresponds to the death of a being in a past life; just as, in conventional terms, the rising of the sun in one place means the setting of the sun in another place.
This enigmatic statement may be better understood by imagining life as a wave and not as a straight line. Birth and death are only two phases of the same process. Birth precedes death, and death, on the other hand, precedes birth. The constant succession of birth and death in connection with each individual life flux constitutes what is technically known as samsara -- recurrent wandering.
What is the ultimate origin of life? The Buddha declares: "Without cognizable end is this samsara. A first beginning of beings, who, obstructed by ignorance and fettered by craving, wander and fare on, is not to be perceived. This life-stream flows ad infinitum, as long as it is fed by the muddy waters of ignorance and craving. When these two are completely cut off, then only, if one so wishes, does the stream cease to flow, rebirth ends as in the case of the Buddhas and arahats.
Some Problems with Deciding there is No Rebirth – Vessantara
An ultimate beginning of this life-stream cannot be determined, as a stage cannot be perceived when this life-force was not fraught with ignorance and craving. The Buddha has here referred merely to the beginning of the life-stream of living beings. It is left to scientists to speculate on the origin and the evolution of the universe.
The Buddha does not attempt to solve all the ethical and philosophical problems that perplex mankind. Nor does he deal with theories and speculations that tend neither to edification nor to enlightenment. Nor does he demand blind faith from his adherents. He is chiefly concerned with the problem of suffering and its destruction. With but this one practical and specific purpose in view, all irrelevant side issues are completely ignored. But how are we to believe that there is a past existence? The most valuable evidence Buddhists cite in favor of rebirth is the Buddha, for he developed a knowledge which enabled him to read past and future lives.
Following his instructions, his disciples also developed this knowledge and were able to read their past lives to a great extent. Even some Indian rishis, before the advent of the Buddha, were distinguished for such psychic powers as clairaudience, clairvoyance, thought-reading, remembering past births, etc. There are also some persons, who probably in accordance with the laws of association, spontaneously develop the memory of their past birth, and remember fragments of their previous lives.
The Decline and Rebirth of Philosophy
Such cases are very rare, but those few well-attested, respectable cases tend to throw some light on the idea of a past birth. So are the experiences of some modern dependable psychics and strange cases of alternating and multiple personalities. In hypnotic states some relate experiences of their past lives; while a few others, read the past lives of others and even heal diseases.
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Sometimes we get strange experiences which cannot be explained but by rebirth. How often do we meet persons whom we have never met, and yet instinctively feel that they are quite familiar to us? How often do we visit places, and yet feel impressed that we are perfectly acquainted with those surroundings? The Buddha tells us: "Through previous associations or present advantage, that old love springs up again like the lotus in the water.
Experiences of some reliable modern psychics, ghostly phenomena, spirit communications, strange alternating and multiple personalities and so on shed some light upon this problem of rebirth. Into this world come Perfect Ones like the Buddhas and highly developed personalities.