Thich Nhat Hanh: There is no Rebirth
I’m glad that Thay and I are on the same page with this doctrine. From the Lion’s Roar, Jan. 2012
Do you have to believe in reincarnation to be a Buddhist?
Reincarnation means there is a soul that goes out of your body and enters another body. That is a very popular, very wrong notion of continuation in Buddhism. If you think that there is a soul, a self, that inhabits a body, and that goes out when the body disintegrates and takes another form, that is not Buddhism.
When you look into a person, you see five skandhas, or elements: form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. There is no soul, no self, outside of these five, so when the five elements go to dissolution, the karma, the actions, that you have performed in your lifetime is your continuation. What you have done and thought is still there as energy. You don’t need a soul, or a self, in order to continue.
You are more than just this body because the five skandhas are always producing energy.
It’s like a cloud. Even when the cloud is not there, it continues always as snow or rain. The cloud does not need to have a soul in order to continue. There’s no beginning and no end. You don’t need to wait until the total dissolution of this body to continue—you continue in every moment. Suppose I transmit my energy to hundreds of people; then they continue me. If you look at them and you see me, well, you have seen me. If you think that I am only this [points to himself], then you have not seen me. But when you see me in my speech and my actions, you see that they continue me. When you look at my disciples, my students, my books, and my friends, you see my continuation. I will never die. There is a dissolution of this body, but that does not mean my death. I continue, always.
That is true of all of us. You are more than just this body because the five skandhas are always producing energy. That is called karma or action. But there is no actor—you don’t need an actor. Action is good enough. This can be understood in terms of quantum physics. Mass and energy, and force and matter—they are not two separate things. They are the same.
There is no reincarnation, but there is rebirth. Reincarnation is defined as a soul hoping from body to body. Rebirth is the thrust of conscious energy moving forward to bind for new existence. Because there is craving and aversion, there is imbalance and this imbalance causes rebirth to continue eternally. Rebirth is neither the original being nor not the original being. It is like echo of your own voice in a cave. Echo is not your original voice but it exists because of your original voice.
Emergency rooms across the country have demonstrated that consciousness does not die when body dies. This energy cannot just disappear by the laws of conservation of energy. Plenty of rebirth stories from little children that are verified that they have no way of knowing unless they lived that previous life.
True the Law of the Conservation of Energy states that energy is not created or destroyed, it merely changes form. But the Second Law of Thermodynamics says that energy organized into complex states tends to dissipate into less organized, random, entropic states. So once the electromagnetic energy of consciousness is no longer organized and sustained in a brain structure, which dies, then that conscious energy dissipates into a random entropic state. Unless you’re asserting that Buddhism teaches that consciousness defies the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Nothing defies the Second Law of Thermodynamics, not even the Buddha.
Shaun human beings create many situations in which energy is taken from more complex states and organized. The production and harnessing of energy that keeps your lights on is an example. The second law of thermodynamics states that the total entropy of an isolated system can never decrease over time. Humans do not exist in an isolated system, we live in a very inter-connected world. So the second law of thermodynamics doesn’t apply to rebirth and reincarnation. Its ok for you to not believe in it, but to say that belief in it is unscientific is not accurate.