Recently I’ve been avidly reading a Buddhist book sent to me by a certain reader last year (thank you Ashin S.) titled How to Live Without Fear And Worry by the late Ven. K Sri. Dhammananda. In particular, I found an interesting passage on page 121:
The mystery of birth and death is very simple. The coming together of mind and matter – also known as the five aggregates – is called birth. The dissolution of these aggregates is called death. And the recombination of these aggregates is called rebirth, and so that cycle will go on repeatedly until such time as we attain the blissful state of Nibbana [Nirvana]
This is a very concise, articulate explanation to something that I feel is often very confusing to people who are curious or new to Buddhism. When I used to surf Internet Buddhist forums, I used to see the same questions over and over such as “what is it that gets reborn?” or “how can I possibly end up being reborn as a dog?” and so on.
The Five Aggregates are one of those fundamental “lists” in Buddhism that’s well worth memorizing:1
- Form – The physical body, blood, guts, brain and all.
- Sensation – The experience of sensation: sight, sound, smell, touch, sound and thought. Yes, in Buddhism there are six senses, not five. Thought/emotion is treated as something you can sense, though in a mundane way, not like bad science-fiction or New Age teaching.
- Perception – That brief microsecond of time when you realize you’ve encountered sensation.
- Mental Formations – The first, conscious reactions the mind has to sensation like “cold!” or “spicy” or “tasty”, etc.
- Consciousness – The trains of thought that come after mental formations, and lead to things like decisions, ideas, actions, etc.
If taken in order, it kind of goes from “body” to “consciousness”, but it’s more like a circle in some ways, because this all builds up to conscious thought in the mind, which then decides on further actions or thoughts, which perpetuate the cycle. What you “decide” to eat becomes the building blocks for your body in a biological sense, for example.
But looked at another way, all five depend on each other. You can’t say a person is a body, and you can’t say a person is their sensation or consciousness. Similarly, with a book, you can’t say the book is just the cover, or the spine, or the pages. It’s how it all comes together that defines a being in Buddhism. Likewise, as Ven. K Sri Dhammananda writes, a person is not the body, and it’s not the mind. It’s how mind and matter come together.
In the Buddhist texts, the sutras, the Buddha described death over and over as the “breakup of the body”. Just as Ven. K Sri Dhammananda explains above, when the body dies, the aggregates break up and that’s that. No ghost, or “soul” floating around to await another body. Without all Five Aggregates bound together, there’s nothing left.
But of course things do not end there. Afterall, the actions of past generations still can be felt today. If any one of my ancestors in the past did something different, I might not be alive today. Likewise, the works and deeds of great people in the past still affect us today.
In the same way, a lifetime of choices, thoughts and actions piles up and creates conditions for the future. It is under these conditions that the aggregates are recombined and start a new life. Here, I’m not describing a few important choices or actions, but a lifetime of daily accumulation of “little” thoughts and actions that piled on top of previous ones, each laying down conditions that defined future actions and thoughts.
What conditions brought your parents together, on that day/time/place that led to your body being born? It couldn’t have happened by accident. Various and myriad causes and conditions all culminated in the right way for something to happen. And once you were conceived, your physical body was born, developed a nervous system, experienced sensation, perception, mental formations and rudimentary consciousness.
Also, what conditions do you lay forth for this to happen again in the future? This is something worth considering. Because you’re making conscious choices and thoughts every day, you can’t say you aren’t paving your own future, because you are in a mundane sense. But this also extends past death, and defines the conditions under which life begins another cycle.
Anyhow, there’s nothing really mystical or New-Age about the Buddhist concept of birth, death and rebirth. It’s something you can observe all around you, and can learn a lot from.
Namu Amida Butsu
1 If you look carefully, it also shows up in the Heart Sutra quite a bit. Coincidence? No.