The Difference between Reincarnation and Rebirth

Both concepts of Rebirth and Reincarnation relate to the question: what happens to the individual’s life after death. The answer to this question depends on our view about what is the individual’s life before death.

According to Buddhism, one’s life is the integration or oneness of body and mind. 

According to Hinduism , one’s life is the integration or oneness of body and soul.

Accepting that a person’s life is expressed by body and mind - leads to the Buddhist concept of Rebirth

while accepting that a person’s life is expressed by body and soul - leads to the Hindu-Tibetan concept of Reincarnation.

Why Buddhism denies the concept of “soul”?

We are familiar with what “body” or “mind” means, but the concept of “soul” is rather vague; it is often suggested as a “spirit” (given to the individual at birth) or as a reincarnated soul from a previous life. 

There are few problems with this concept, but most importantly - for Buddhism - is the question: how can the concept of soul help in changing one’s destiny of suffering?

We cannot change or replace the soul to another one.  This means that if someone has a ‘troubled soul’ or ‘evil spirit’ , then their destiny becomes fixed at that state. 

In a discussion about the subject, P. Ikeda explains that :

Buddhism does not accept the immortality of soul or the idea that the body is a vessel for the soul, and that after death, the soul departs from the body, and moves to another body”.(Ikeda/Tehranian:Global Civilisation, p.120).

The concept of reincarnation (implying that the same soul taking different body at each lifetime) - matches the Hindu belief in the caste system, which teaches that one’s birth in a certain class of society is a repetition of a previous existence of the same social/spiritual class: “If taken literally, the reincarnation myth can lead to the legitimisation of rigid caste systems and gross social injustice”, an observation P.Ikeda agrees with. (Global Civilisation, p.120).

Where did the idea of reincarnation of a permanent soul come from?  Most Buddhist schools consider the concept of reincarnation as an expression of a futile desire for the wish of immortality of the ego-self:

The function that leads us to believe in a permanent self is called the [Mano], seventh consciousness...operating in the name of self-preservation and expansion. It seems to correspond to the Western idea of the ego.” (Ikeda :Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and death, p.156.

The concept of reincarnation does not fit within the Buddhist Law of Impermanence, which teaches that one’s current self is transient.  Reincarnation is a thought, which makes its believer confined to the prison of the past.  In short:

Reincarnation is a Hindu-Tibetan belief in the transmigration of the soul of a person after death to another body.

Rebirth, is the Buddhist belief in the continuity of the subconscious mind of a person (the storehouse of desires and life tendencies of Karma) - to a new fresh life at Rebirth.


What happens after death?

Before dying, one’s life is expressed by the working of Body and Mind.  The Mind has various levels of depth.  The Buddhist view of the Nine Consciousnesses can be simplified here to present the model of the Mind as having the following levels:

  1. -   Awareness about the world (the 5 senses and thinking),

  2. -   Consciousness about the self, (Mano), and 

  3. -   Subconsciousness (Alaya, or storehouse of tendencies)

The contents of our Awareness and Consciousness - depend on the working of the body, and when the body dies, those two levels of mind disintegrate and vanish. 

The Subconsciousness level, however, is not controlled by the body.  It is a record of information about the essence of one’s motivations and tendencies.  One’s motivations and tendencies are created through one’s actions during the period until death, and the sum of actions is stored in the Subconsciousness as one’s Karma (or history of actions).

The Subconsciousness is the storehouse of karmic information (called also the Alaya mind) and it does not vanish at death, but becomes frozen in the field of death (the field of death is a field of imagery like in dreams, it is called also the field of Sunyatta, Non-substantiality, or Emptiness, beyond the physical world of time or space):

The Alaya is sometimes called “non-vanishing” because the karmic seeds stored within it do not disappear at death.  Our individual lives are accompanied into latency by all the effects of our karma”. (Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death p.160)

The information stored in the Subconsciousness (or the Alaya) remains frozen in the field of death - having the potential or possibility to be reactivated again to return to the physical world of reality.

The frozen in death Subconsciousness becomes reactivated by attraction to a sexual encounter of male and female - who are the most suitable for it, and most convenient for its latent energy to connect with.  When the frozen Alaya mental energy gets attracted by a union of male and female - who have similar or matching Karma, then the moment of conception takes place - as the beginning of a new Rebirth. 

At conception, there are three factors at work: father, mother and child.   Part of what determines our life-situation at rebirth is related to father and mother’s DNA, and the other part is related to the Karma stored in the child’s subconsciousness (or Alaya):

... the elements that will determine our life-condition after death remain within the Alaya Consciousness” (Unlocking the Mysteries, p.160).

This dramatic scenario of Rebirth explains that, when a child is born, he or she shares his or her own Karma of previous life, with the DNA of new parents.  The child is not a replica or reincarnation of the past, but a completely new unique life.  The person who lived and died in the past has vanished forever.  This view is very difficult to accept for the ego of the individual, and for this reason the ego imagines that it has no expiry date, but will be replicated again through re-incarnation (a new body) - but this is futile.  The new body has nothing in connection with the previous “person” : the newly born can be of a different gender, a different ethnic background, a different race, in a different place or environment.  Only the inner subconscious tendencies - or Karma or motivations - are similar to what was created in the past.  But because tendencies can be changed, then Rebirth enables complete freedom from the past both in physical and mental aspects of the individual’s life.

Source: (*) Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death, Daisaku Ikeda, second edition 2003, ISBN 978-0-9723267-0-4

The Difference between Western and Buddhist models of Conception

The Western model of understanding of how conception takes place, is basically based on a chemical reaction : all needed for a child to be born is a father and a mother.  In Buddhist perspective, however, three factors are needed for birth of a child: father, mother and the child - it requires the karmic matching of three lives.

From Nichiren Buddhism perspective:

                                                                  “In the most conventional sense, of course, we are born from the union of our mothers and fathers. At the joining together of the spermatozoon and the ovum, an embryo is formed. As the embryo develops, so do the various functions of body and mind.  Something about the development of a new life, however, cannot be explained simply by the spermatozoon and the ovum union.

The embryo’s development based on the genetic information it has received and the environmental influences it experiences cannot be ascribed merely to chemical reactions. Something much more profound must cause life to emerge.

Western science generally considers the spermatozoon and ovum the sole essentials for conception, maintaining that only fertilization of the female gamete is a necessary prerequisite.

By contrast, the Buddhist view is that not only the spermatozoon and ovum, but also an [attracted] life, with karma that matches the conditions of conception, heredity, family and social conditions into which the life will be born – are each necessary for human life to come into being and develop.

Conception results from the union of the three.

The life and karma of the mother, father and child – all must align. “ (*)

(*) Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death p. 22 -24. Daisaku Ikeda, second edition 2003, ISBN 978-0-9723267-0-4

This view also explains why children are born in very different conditions: Infants are born in different situations of good fortune or bad circumstances, and they have own physical and mental qualities, tendencies and abilities.  Science cannot explain this situation, and the frequent answer is that it is randomness that makes infants different.  But the whole process of physiological conception is not random - it is very precise, and there is no reason why randomness appear in a very precise and concrete process of birth.  There must be a reason why someone is born healthy, while another is born in completely different situation, even from the same parents and environment.  The Buddhist perspective of infant’s Karma, brought by the inborn upon birth, provides an answer to this puzzle.

What decides on people’s behaviour?

According to Western understanding, two factors decide on children’s (and adult’s) behaviour: Nurture and Nature, or simply the two factors of - heredity (DNA) and Environment (or society).

This perspective, however, cannot explain why individuals born to the same family in almost the same environment - are very different.  According to NIchiren Buddhism, there are three factors which decide on children’s behaviour.  First, agreeing with the Western view of the effects of Nature (environment) and Nurture (parents), the third factor is the karma of the child.  Some children are very sensitive to music, or sport, while others are more attracted to other fields of activity, and all show diverse individuality and unquestionable uniqueness.

Where did these diverse tendencies come from, if not from karma (or life-inclination) residing in the child’s subconsciousness.

The concept of Karma in Nichiren Buddhism:

All Buddhist schools teach that one’s present situation is the result of one’s past actions, or Karma.  Nichiren Buddhism takes this concept further, to free oneself from the past.  From the point of view, or the from eyes of the future, this present moment now represents the past.  This means that one’s actions at the present moment affects one’s situation of the future.

Nichiren Buddhism is focused on the karmic tendencies of the present moment, regardless of past karma.  Taking responsibility for our actions at the present moment is the way we create karma - and in this way we lead our life to deepen good causes or to make a shift in our tendencies.  This means that we can design the direction of our life.

Whether we realise it or not, we are continuously creating karma (or writing our history) at each moment.  Karma is the record of history of one’s actions.  it is the essence of the thinking and desires we form, the speech we make (and which can help others or hurt others), and the behaviour we do in actions. 

This means that the present moment can be the start of a determination to make a shift in our habits and tendencies, aiming to create a cause to shape the future - as we determine. 

P.Ikeda explains: “Karma is viewed as the potential force through which to influence our future”. (Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death p. 27),

Nichiren Buddhism enables us to fundamentally reform our destiny. When we truly base ourselves on Buddhism's view of life's eternity, we realize the first thing to change is how we live in the present”


In his lecture The Importance of the Present Moment Ikeda emphasises :The important thing is right now - the present moment. Our present inner resolve, our determination, enables us to sever the bonds of karmic causality by the strength arising from within - and enter the sure path of happiness”.

Creating karmic tendencies through Buddhist activities:

Continuous efforts to transform our negative tendencies through the process of self-mastery (human revolution) lead to creating beneficial tendencies and potentials of good fortune.  It is possible to create a karma of seeking enlightenment and transforming sufferings. The most powerful state of mind is that of Enlightenment that we can be the masters of our future:

If we attain the state of Enlightenment in this lifetime, that state will forever pervade our lives. Throughout the cycle of birth and death in each new lifetime we will be endowed with good health, wealth and intelligence along with a supportive and comfortable environment, leading a life that overflows with good fortune. Each of us will also possess a unique mission and be born in an appropriate form to fulfil it”. (Ikeda: Faith into Action page 23)