This was a conversation I had on an online Esoteric Group, with “K” , and some good stuff came up, so I have repeated it here.
K: Someone here asked a question that I’m really reeeaaaally curious about its answers, but he phrased it differently so the answers were on another point entirely, so I’m putting it this way : There were around 3 to 5 million people 10000 years ago, now there are about 9 billion people, so how to account for all these new people in the cycle of rebirth? Are new souls being made everyday or its something else? I’m really interested to see what you guys have to say about this
Me: This is a multi-level answer, but here’s a summary.
1) The Universe is eternal, and there are infinite worlds. There are innumerable Trichiliocosms, and each is roughly 1 billion small world systems (a small world system is already a system composed of everything from our local heavens to our local hells, including the local human realm). Thus whatever the population of humans on Earth was, it doesn’t matter because the cosmos is not just full of human equivalent beings, let alone just homo sapiens.
2) In Buddhist cosmology, a universe expands from a state of no life to a state of life everywhere in a full universe. As beings multiply, die, and are reborn in progressively “lower worlds” the structures of the Universe emerge. From the highest heavenly worlds to the human world and eventually all of the hell worlds. When all hell worlds are full, the growth of the universe has reached its maximum. It then declines. The Hellworlds becomes empty of life first and then the preta, animal and human worlds. And then almost all of the Heavenly worlds are annihilated, eventually there is just the winds of karma blowing in a state of no life.
3) There are no souls, but there are chains of causation we experience as a self. These chains of causation emerge from karma leftover from the causal chains of the previous universe. However, remember, all things are Dharma-Nature (so despite no soul, we have an all pervading spirit).
4) However, the number of sentient beings neither increase nor decrease, no matter how many are delivered into nirvana. To understand why requires some serious contemplation regarding the nature of sentient beings and the nature of nirvana and Buddhahood.
K: But I want to ask you about something you said, what is rebirth if not soul based? This is a really interesting prospective you proposed. This is really interesting.
And as you say it’s all about the nature of sentient beings and the nature of nirvana, that’s what makes this problem interesting.
Me: Well, what is a soul? Is it a copy of a self-identity? It is a substance that contains your memories? In what way is this different from your brain?
When you deconstruct the concept of a soul, it is really like any other phenomena.
All phenomena are codependent; they are made of, and sustained by, other phenomena. And they interact via causality (cause and effect).
If a phenomena seems like it has lots of moving parts, that’s because it does. How does a brain work? Moving parts. How does a self-identity work? Lots of moving parts. How does those moving parts work? More moving parts.
This is what is meant by no soul/self, even though we all have a mindstream (which is not static, but dynamic— because it’s moving parts; hence a stream).
The fundamental mechanisms of who we “are” is no different than any other process in the cosmos. Just as all phenomena undergoes change, so do we. Mind-Body dualism is wrong for this reason also— how can mind be separate from body? They are part of the same ecosystem of phenomena. In Buddhism, the constituents of a living being is called “Namarupa” (psychophysical organism), we are mind and body because neither “mind” nor “body” are real; they are just processes.
Rebirth (better described as reorigination) is not about a transmigrating soul object, rather, it is about codependent origination (because of this, therefore that, without that, this ceases). All phenomena are reoriginated moment to moment. The phenomena of you does the same; the cause of your existence exist, so you do.
K: I think I’m beginning to understand what you mean but there are some points still. I know that in Buddhism the self is more of a phenomena rather than a concrete thing (the chariot analogy and stuff) but still the problem remains, cuz if it’s just a matter of cause and effect so there will easily be no real continuity, because for stuff to have a causal relationship they must be separate independent “things”, and if the nature of rebirth is just a causal phenomena then the “thing” being reborn is a complete and different new thing, therefore it shouldn’t be regeneration instead it should be just “generation”
Me: Good point. Hence, “re-origination” is a translation that makes the most sense to me (as opposed to rebirth). We are re-originating each moment from the factors that sustain our immediate present existence. If the Sun exist right now, it’s because the nuclear reaction that sustains it is still present, but the sun does not last forever because that nuclear reaction does not last forever. However, stars can be reborn through stellar rebirth (the conditions for a star is once more present). So it is with us.
We are inheritors of our past life the same way we are inheritors of our parents’ DNA (and there is no doubt parents are part of our causal chain to an extent— to be reborn as a human, your mindstream needs to have a causal affinity with both parents, who must engage in a reproductive act. It takes three to come into existence as a human).
“‘I am the owner of my actions (kamma), heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir’.
— Shakyamuni Buddha
A common allegory used by Buddhists is that rebirth is like a candle lighting another candle. Although the two flames are not exactly the same, one flame caused the other.
Also, check out the Ship of Theseus.
As for things being independent…in Buddhism, the idea is that nothing is independent. Nothing can be.
I honestly can’t really think of an example in the real world we experience that can independently exists because everything is reductive to something else, or caused by something else. It’s better to think of phenomena as PROCESSES rather than things, as dynamic movement rather than static substances that interact. Where does one phenomena end and another begin?
There is a category of things called unconditioned dharmas. Concepts such as Nirvana, True Tathata (suchness) and True Sunyata (emptiness) are unconditioned dharmas, as are Buddhas and Enlightened beings.
Suchness/Emptiness (aka, codependent origination) is something which we can imagine as being like a primordial fluid (true nothingness is impossible). So whatever this fluid is, really exists, but all parts of the fluid cannot independently exist. If there is a big pot of soup that is cooking, gradually over time that soup changes colour, consistency, texture, shape. A potato floats up, and then sinks and then a broccoli bit floats up. It’s hard to say what exactly is in this soup, and where one bit ends and another bit begins. Reality is like a pot of soup cooking, but it will never be finished. It will cook forever. Of course, because we have to conceptualize this instead of truly being it, this too is conditioned. Our “sensation” of what we think Suchness/Emptiness is makes it a conditioned existence.
K: man so many points to discuss ! This is delicious 🤤 if only I could type fast tho😅.
I see what you mean now, I think we agree it’s not a matter rebirth “a transition from life to life” it’s more a matter of movement of change, as you say matter of “re-origination”