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in Buddhadharma

On Rebirth : Binding Intervals

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"There is a level of existence,
experienced in between death and birth."
Vasubandhu : Treasury of Abhidharma.

"Then, when the respiration has ceased, and the two carotid arteries have been firmly pressed, remind the dying person with the following words, if the individual was a spiritual teacher or a spiritual friend greater than one self :
'Venerable One ! The inner radiance of the ground is now arisen before You. Recognize it, and concentrate directly on its experiential cultivation.'"
Padmasambhava : The Great Liberation by Hearing, part one.

"There definitely is life after death."
XIVth Dalai Lama : Commentary on the Thirty Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva.

In Indian religion and philosophy, rebirth ("puranrâjâti") is invoked to explain why the ultimate state of consciousness is not attained in a single lifetime, but the result of a long chain of experiences over countless lifetimes in various sentient forms.

From one perspective, a person who remembers a past life may think of it as representing a continuity of existence between lifespans, i.e. the same person (with a certain name and body) is now a different person (with another name and body). This view implies an enduring, underlying, self-existing entity ("âtman") separate from the dissolving aggregates of body & mind. It overlooks the characterization of the process of becoming as one of constant change, both within and between lives. Indeed, the newly-arising life is conditioned by but in no respect identical to the preceding life ...

The Buddhadharma identified the many fallacies to which such a view leads. The lack of such fixed self does not mean lack of continuity. For example, a flame is transferred from one candle to another, or a fire spreads from one field to another. In the same way as the new fire depends on the original fire, there is a conditioned relationship between one life and the next.

Rebirth is clearly one of the most controversial tenets in the Buddhadharma. This is especially so in the context of Western materialism, cherishing annihilation of body & mind after physical death. It is often misunderstood, usually because one keeps a certain element within the adopted (essentialist) philosophy of mind fixed (an "atman", a soul, a higher self or whatever). The crucial point to understand here is the absence of a named and naming reincarnating self, own-form or substantial ego. The Buddhadharma is not essentialist, but process-based. The presence of a functional ego is accepted, but this coarse mind also dies (perhaps not simultaneous with the body). The subtle mind on which this coarse mind is build eventually also ends. The only thing remaining is the specific differential features of the very subtle mind of Clear Light. Insofar as these features are the result of actions done by previous subtle & coarse minds, they obscure this Clear Light stuffed with imprints ("âlaya-vijñâna") and trigger a new process of rebirth. Insofar as these features are not the result of previous imprints, but reflect the specific holomovement of each and every Clear Light mind ("âlaya-prajñâ" or "âlaya-jñâna"), they do not automatically trigger such a process. However, a mind free from obscurations can decide to trigger the process anyway. This is not "rebirth" but merely an "emanation" (of form bodies) from that specific awakened mind-stream.

Already in the early Buddhist texts, there is no permanent consciousness moving from life to life. They refer to a level of mind called the "luminous mind", seen as the most subtle or basic mode of mind in terms of which the evolution of sentient beings through the round of rebirths is conceived.

Becoming ("bhava") is the tenth link in the samsaric chain of dependent, conditioned arising ("pratîtya-samutpâda"). It refers to a process of becoming conditioned by identification with the aggregates of individuality : form, feeling, thought, volition & consciousness (cf. "skandhas").

In the Buddhadharma, the conventional consciousness of a person, upon the dissolution of the aggregate of the physical body (form), becomes one of the contributing causes for the arising of a new group of heaps which may again be considered an individual. As this rebirth or re-becoming does not necessarily yield a human individual, becoming a human being is considered to be very precious. Indeed, one may be reborn as a hell being, a ghost, an animal, a demi-god or a god, and in all these cases one's chances for enlightenment are slim.

This new consciousness is neither identical to, nor different or completely distinct from, the old consciousness, but is a part of the causal continuum at hand, reflecting moments of this specific mind-stream. It is not the same, because the mortal gross (coarse) & subtle minds of the previous person completely dissolve. It is not different, because the immortal very subtle mind of Clear Light or luminous mind is always the same in all rebirths of the same consciousness-continuum, and this from beginningless time all the way up to Buddhahood. If obscured by adventitious material stemming from the unwholesome activities of body, speech & mind done in previous (coarse & subtle) becomings of the same stream of consciousness, it will inevitably cause a new becoming.

The basic cause for this persistent re-arising of personality is the abiding of ignorance ("avidyâ") in consciousness, in other words, the presence of adventitious stuff obscuring the Clear Mind. When the latter is uprooted by realizing the wisdom-mind apprehending emptiness, rebirth ceases. However, Buddhas & Superior Bodhisattvas, although no longer in need of a human rebirth, may choose to be reborn to help sentient beings.

In the Abhidharma of the Hînayâna and Early Mâhayâna, a state connecting the death of an individual and his following rebirth is indicated. In the Yogâcârin School, "the practice of yoga school" or "Mind Only School" and in Dzogchen, the stream of consciousness is analyzed as a continuum of moments of consciousness. The "gap" present between two of these moments brings about, when meditated upon, an awareness of the very subtle & luminous nature of consciousness itself, of the potential of its primordial sentience. Each moment "dies" to re-become the "next" moment. The "interval" between them is their "bardo". Hence, to yogic sensibilities, bardo-experiences are ongoing. Of course, in practical terms, all depends on what set of moments one designates.

Also in Tibetan Buddhism, the yogic & scholastic repository of the complete Buddhadharma, so-called "in-between states" (Tib. "bardo"), have been extensively studied, reflected upon & taken as objects of meditation. Indeed, physical death and the intermediate state before rebirth are deemed mere "intervals" in-between two moments.

In Padmasambhava's Bardo Thödol ("Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo"), six bardo-categories are differentiated. These categories envisage the comprehensive dynamism of a particular, conventional stream-of-consciousness, including its impermanence hand in hand with its continuous features-in-process (permanent dynamics) :

1. the bardo of birth (or life) : between the moment consciousness enters the new womb until the moment the first sign of death appears ;
2. the bardo of dream : between the moment one falls asleep until the moment of awakening ;
3. the bardo of meditation : between the moment of going for refuge until the moment of dedication ;
4. the bardo of death : between the moment the first sign of death appears until the moment the heart drop splits ;
5. the bardo of the intermediate state : between the moment the luminosity of appearance begins until the moment the appearances end ;
6. the bardo of becoming (or rebirth) : between the moment the luminosity of becoming begins until the moment the womb is entered.

Each interval calls for its own special teachings, all based on the notion one has to recognize the fundamental Clear Light luminosity of the mind. Once this is apprehended, the first link (ignorance) is reversed and a new "enlightened" chain of dependent arisings is initiated. Usually, due to the constant ignorant activity of the gross & subtle layers of mind, this very subtle mind is seldom witnessed. But as during the "bardo of death" these coarse layers of the mind naturally dissolve, physical death offers a great opportunity to "see the light" and gain awakening. All what is needed is to directly recognize this Clear Light of one's mind, present & working in the bardo of death, intermediate stage & rebirth, albeit in different forms. Hence, the last moments of consciousness in the bardo of life are crucial.

So while physical death seems to take away a lot, in fact it habors the greatest gift ! Once awakened, one may return to this plane as one chooses, helping out all sentient beings as one likes. Therefore, yogi's train to die properly.


© Wim van den Dungen
philo@sofiatopia.org l Acknowledgments l SiteMap l Bibliography

Mistakes are due to my own ignorance and not to the Buddhadharma.
May all who encounter the Dharma accumulate compassion & wisdom.
May sentient beings recognize their Buddha-nature and find true peace.



initiated : 29 XI 2008 - last update : 02 VI 2017 - version n°1