Rebirth, reincarnation and past lives

The afterlife in Buddhism, Judaism and Celtic Christianity

The belief in rebirth is not confined to Buddhism. Before the publicity surrounding the controversial comments concerning the Holocaust by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, few Christians realised the importance of the concept of reincarnation or rebirth in Judaism, where it is known as 'gilgul' or 'ibur'.   This  has raised the question: 'If belief in rebirth occurs in Judaism, why was it not carried forward into Christianity?'

The Buddhist and Jewish beliefs are similar in that it is the very subtle, non-material mind which survives death. Since this is the only thing that we can take with us to the future, we need to make the best use of our present life to improve its state. 

The very subtle mind carries qualititative imprints rather than facts and figures, and its manifestations are intuitive. That's why the sense of deja vu - of absolute familiarity with a place or situation despite never having been there is this life  - is usually  experienced deeply and intuitively as qualia rather than as 'factual' remembrance.

Even in life, the untrained mind is naturally uncontrolled and likely to flit from one object to another. After death this tendency is magnified in the intermediate afterlife state known as the  bardo.   In this condition the mind has little willpower to resist being drawn into whatever future lifeform and environment the karmic   imprints from past lives predispose it to. This process is known as uncontrolled rebirth.   One of the objectives of  Buddhist meditation is to stabilise the mind and remove negative imprints in order to avoid the worst kind of uncontrolled rebirths (see Lamrim and Lojong practices).

In the Christian tradition, there are a number of references to past lives in the New Testament.  It is likely that the early church, especially the Celtic Christians, believed in gilgul. Unfortunately Celtic Christianity was suppressed by the authoritarian continental church at the Synod of Whitby in 664, which confirmed the triumph of religion over spirituality.  Nevertheless, the idea of  reincarnation persisted in the Celtic lands of Western Britain for many centuries after (for example in the teachings of the Irish philosopher Johannes Scotus Erigena who taught that the ultimate destiny of all minds, animal and human, is to merge into the blissful state of Enlightenment).  Traces of early belief in rebirth can still be found in Celtic folklore.  However, the last vestiges of belief in past and future lives were removed from Western European Christianity with the brutal extermination of the Cathars (Albigensians) in the 13th century. 

The reason why the various continental churches have been so violently opposed to reincarnation is that they all derive their authority from the Roman Empire.  The later Roman emperors, both Western and Byzantine,  were tyrants who owned their subjects body and soul. Anyone who defied them was generally sentenced to a slow and agonising death.  This earthly kingdom was extrapolated into the eternal spiritual realm by continental theologians, who imposed the memetic blackmail of the doctrine of ever-lasting hell and its torments for defiance of ecclesiastical authority.   Any teachings which claimed that the individual was capable of salvation outside each particular sect were denounced as heresy.

In contrast, the Celtic Church had not passed through the stage of corruption by political absolutism. Its teachings were much more authentic and in accordance with the intentions of its Founder,  with no trace of sadistic authoritarianism or negative soteriology. The similarities between Buddhism and the Celtic Church are quite remarkable (See 'The Celtic Alternative - a Reminder of the Christianity We Lost' by Shirley Toulson, publ Rider, London 1992, ISBN 0-7126-1478-8.)

Since the belief in past and future lives has been expunged from Western culture, it is often difficult to achieve an understanding of the concepts involved.  In the Kadampa Buddhist tradition it is said that one of the best ways of gaining  realisations that the mind is not limited by one birth and one death is to meditate on its formless non-material nature.  The subtle mind is experienced as a clear, unbounded, non-physical continuum - like a clear sky unobstructed by the clouds of temporary delusions.

- Sean Robsville

See also:


Christian versus Buddhist worldviews

Introduction to Buddhism
-Buddhism and the modern human condition

Arguments against Buddhism
The best way to understand the strengths of a philosophy is to attempt to refute it!

Mind, Soul and Afterlife in Christianity and Buddhism

...'The entity which survives death is known as  'The Soul'  by Christians and as 'The Very Subtle Mind' by Buddhists . The terms 'Soul' and 'Mind' are not equivalent.  There are a number of minor distinctions between the concepts which, taken by themselves, could be regarded simply as trivial doctrinal differences.  However, there are also two major philosophical differences which separate the concepts of  mind and soul into different ontological categories..'


If we regard Buddhism as a combination of a philosophy, psychology and religion, then how much mileage can we get from the first two aspects before we have to start invoking religious faith?

Buddhism in Everyday Life
The Daily Meditation