Rebirth in the First Sermon

by J. G. Jennings

The core of Gotama's teaching is to be found in the First Sermon, the Dhammacakkappavatana-Sutta, in which, he lays down the Four Noble Truths including the famous Noble Eightfold Path. The Truths and the Path are as follows: (1) that all individual life is sorrowful; (2) that the cause of sorrow is individualistic)desire; (3) that the eradication of (individualistic) desire is the destruction of sorrow; (4) that the road to the destructionof sorrow, to the eradication of (individualistic) desire, to the bliss of Nibbna (Extinction of Self) – the MiddleWay, avoiding self-torture and luxurious self-indulgence, both of which are vain – is the Noble Eightfold Path,to wit, right outlook, right wish, right word, right deed, right effort, right way of livelihood, right mindfulness(samm sati), and right rapture or deep meditation (samm samdhi).

In this famous discourse there is no phrase or word which can be claimed as supporting the doctrine of Rebirth except possibly the word pono-bbhavika. 'Causing rebirth' implies that rebirth is a misfortune. In the threefold analysis of tah which follows immediately inthe sermon the phrase vibbhva-tah is usually translated so 'craving for a higher or divine existence'. This at least is inconsistent with the ides that rebirth is necessarily a misfortune, though not with the idea that craving is contagious and deplorable.

This word is usually translated as 'causing re-existence or re-birth'. Thus translated this word, used as an epithet of taṇhā (thirst, craving), is so startlingly irrelevant in the sermon that it would appear to have been added by a later hand. Its omission makes no difference to the closely woven argument establishing the origin of all sorrow in selfish desire; and the phrase itself is entirely unsupported here by any argument. It implies the motive of self-salvation and that self-interested desire which is declared by Buddha in the rest of the discourse to be the root and cause, of all the sorrow in the world. The rest of the discourse implies, and other discourses of the Buddha definitely state, that there is no permanent individual soul or attan, and this phrase, taken literally, states the opposite.

The synthesis of these opposing tenets, is sometimes stated [xxxvii] to be one of the mysteries, of Buddhism; but the reconciliation savours more of his metaphysical successors than of Gotama himself, who declared that he did not deal with metaphysical questions but with the extinction of sorrow and with the Eightfold Path of conduct. The reconciliation is supposed to consist in the assumption that whereas the individual soul disappears at the close of this life, its aggregate of actions or Karma (kamma) causes the birth of a new individual, and so on, as a flames is transmitted-until Karma ceases. This doubtless shows that Buddha taught that all actions have their inevitable effects, but it is not established that he himself assumed that the aggregate of one individual's actions miraculously, creates upon his death a new individual to bear the consequences. That his later followers endeavoured to reconcile his twofold doctrine of no-permanent-soul and the moral responsibility of the individual for his actions, with the Hindu view of the transmigration of the soul, is probable enough. In the Hindu view the same individual acts and suffers in different lives; the usual modern Buddhist view is the same; but the strict original Buddhist view is altruistic, the actor being one, and the ultimate sufferer or beneficiary another, individual. Allowing that the reconciliation is later, it may be assumed that Buddha, teaching the doctrines of no-permanent-soul, moral responsibility, and altruism, taught a doctrine of altruistic responsibility or collective Karma, according to which every action, word, and thought, of the individual, transient though he be, brings forth inevitably consequences to be suffered or enjoyed by others in endless succeeding generations. The sanctions of such a doctrine of altruism appear to be as impressive as those based upon the individualistic doctrine of personal immortality.

If, however, the epithet pono-bbkavika, applied to tanhā (thirst, desire, selfishness), be translated as 'tending to arise again, repeating itself, recurring'(that is, causing the rebirth of itself, not of the individual), it is fully in accord with the doctrine of altruistic responsibility. If each selfish grasping act ceased with itself, and had no consequences, it would be ill enough; but each such action, word, or thought is endlessly fertile in its kind, and the idea of these endless repercussions, throughout the generations of men is an essential part of Gotama's doctrine. It would be natural therefore to stress [xxxviii] that idea by the application of this epithet to desire (taṇhā), though in this sense it might equally be applied to love or self-denial.

If the word pono-bbhavika be translated as 'recurring, self-perpetuating', i.e. causing the renewal of its own existence, not another individual's existence, then the translation certainly corresponds with actual fact, and apparently with the etymology of the word, meaning literally 'concerned with again-being'. The ever renewed existence of craving, begotten by itself, is clear: the 'renewal of existence', presumed by the doctrine of transmigration, is an assumption of, that metaphysics which Gotama deprecated, and implies either (a) a transfer of the attan (soul, self), the existence of which was denied by Gotama; or (b) an earlier and more orthodox doctrine, viz. a transfer of kamma (accumulated merit or demerit, karma) at the time of death from one individual to another newly born no proof of which mystery is ever attributed to Gotama, though his intellect probed to the quick all that was submitted to it, and he declared that he had 'preached the truth without making any distinction between esoteric and exoteric doctrine' and had 'no such thing as the closed fist of a teacher who keeps some things back', and stated repeatedly that everyone could learn the truth for himself in this life?

That desire perpetuates itself from one generation to another of mankind is clear, and Gotama can scarcely have failed to be aware of it. That he expressed the idea in the term pono-bbhavika, thus interpreted, seems not improbable. One of the beautiful sayings attributed to him is 'Never in this world does hatred cease through hatred; hatred ceases through love; this is always its nature', i.e. hatred causes hatred, love causes love. If one adds to this the plain truth that these feelings continue beyond the individual's life, to succeeding generations, one has the true doctrine of collective Karma or kamma-mankind bearing the sorrowful burden of the sins of its desirous units together with the transforming hopes of those who can transcend the self-which would seem to be the real dhamma (dharma, law) of Gotama, the foundation on which so much that is extraneous to his teaching was constructed in later ages.

It is noticeable that the subject of transmigration receives no mention whatsoever either in the famous Tevijja Sutta, in which Gotama is represented as showing the way to a state of union with the Divine (Brahman), or in the equally famous 'comprehensive religious talk', summarizing the faith, and repeated by him in every town and [xxix] village during his last tour. Nor is there mention of transmigration in the well-known Siṅgalovāda Sutta, which lays down the duties laymen, though in the last line of the list there is mention of 'the way to heaven'. 'Heaven' similarly is mentioned in the Conversion Sermons, but, not transmigration. Nor is rebirth referred to in the crucial passages relating to the essentials of the Dhamma Moreover, in the Questions of Milinda, the orthodoxy of which is undisputed though the book is extra-canonical, having been written in or about the first century of the Christian era, the Buddhist sage Nāgasena is represented as stating categorically that 'it is not the same name-and-form (nāma-rūpa, individual) that is born into the next -existence', and 'the new birth takes place without anything transmigrating', which interpreted plainly and without mystery, is tantamount to stating that the effects of actions pass on but the individual soul does not.