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Anatta and rebirth

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  • Anatta and rebirth

    This evening I gave a (beginners) workshop about other centred therapy. My audience were non-buddhists, except for one (he's a buddhist practiciing the Pure Land tradition). I was talking about anatta as suddenly one of the attendants asked: "If there is no such thing as a self, what is it then that gets reborn after someone dies?

    I must admit I was unable a explain it clearly. How would you explain it? I'd like to learn, because it is my intention to give a similar workshop several times and I don't want to get stuck on that question every time.

    Thank you in advance.

  • #2
    Hi dear Jo

    How are you doing?

    This is a question that gets asked often, even in the Buddha's time, so do not feel ashamed of having no adequate answer ready.

    The problem is what the Buddha called falling into two extremes of a spectrum. One is the view of a soul surviving death, and the other is the view of there being nothing after death - materialism, basically. But the middle way between these two is the view of the dependent arising of things. Life is a process which depends on causes, and this process continues after death if the causes are still there. This "life" is not a soul or self, but a collection of processes, like a mind and body.

    In the body it is easier to see. Your body is not the same as when you were young. Probably not a single cell has survived all those years. In a way the body is a completely new individual. But there also is a certain continuity, a certain connection between your former body and the body you have now. This is not a 'soul' which lives in the body, but the connection in time between one body and another body.

    It is similar with the mind. There is no soul living in there, but one moment is connected to the next, and to other future moments. One thing causes another, causes another, etc. It seems there is continuity in there, but is there really? Are you still the same person? This mind changes much faster than the body, although it is harder to see.
    But having said all that, this is my main advice: As a monk I get asked many questions--on this forum as well as elsewhere--some of which are above my head. Some things I simply do not know. What to do then? In my experience it is best to just be honest about what you know and what you don't. When somebody asks me about arupa states of meditation or the power of amulets or something (there's many more things) then I'm not ashamed to say I do not know it all.

    So my advice to you is to be honest. You can say: well, the Buddha said this and that, but actually I'm not sure. Something like that.

    I like Venerable Assaji's answer to Sariputta when he was asked what the Buddha taught. He said, I don't know much other than that the Buddha has talked about how things happen from a cause and how they cease when the cause ceases (somewhere in the Vinaya introduction). That was enough for Sariputta to become a stream winner. Now, I don't expect your pupils to become stream winners just like that but I hope you get the idea. Honesty and being humble are often the better way of teaching. Especially when it comes to things like this -- things one only really sees at stream entry. You can not understand through thought and it has to be seen through personal experience.

    Does that help at all?

    Vriendelijke groeten!



    • #3
      Dear Ven. Sunyo,

      Thanks for your clear reply, and sorry for my very late answer. It turns out I did not have time to repeat the workshop this year so I will advance it to 2017. I will add your reply in some form to it. I am doing fairly well. And you're right, there is no shame in saying that you don't know all




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