Would you be surprised if I told you that reincarnation is not a Buddhist teaching? If so, be surprised -- it isn't.
"Reincarnation" normally is understood to be the transmigration of a soul to another body after death. There is no such teaching in Buddhism. One of the most fundamental doctrines of Buddhism is anatta, or anatman -- no soul or no self. There is no permanent essence of an individual self that survives death.
However, Buddhists often speak of "rebirth." If there is no soul or permanent self, what is it that is "reborn"?
What Is the Self?
The Buddha taught that what we think of as our "self" -- our ego, self-consciousness and personality -- is a creation of the skandhas. Very simply, our bodies, physical and emotional sensations, conceptualizations, ideas and beliefs, and consciousness work together to create the illusion of a permanent, distinctive "me."
The Buddha said, “Oh, Bhikshu, every moment you are born, decay, and die.” He meant that, every moment, the illusion of "me" renews itself. Not only is nothing carried over from one life to the next; nothing is carried over from one moment to the next.
This takes us to the Three Marks of Existence, in particular anicca, "impermanence." The Buddha taught that all phenomena, including beings, are in a constant state of flux -- always changing, always becoming, always dying.
What Is Reborn?
In his book What the Buddha Taught (1959), Theravada scholar Walpola Rahula asked,
"If we can understand that in this life we can continue without a permanent, unchanging substance like Self or Soul, why can't we understand that those forces themselves can continue without a Self or Soul behind them after the non-functioning of the body?
"When this physical body is no more capable of functioning, energies do not die with it, but continue to take some other shape or form, which we call another life. ... Physical and mental energies which constitute the so-called being have within themselves the power to take a new form, and grow gradually and gather force to the full."
Zen teacher John Daido Loori said,
"... the Buddha’s experience was that when you go beyond the skandhas, beyond the aggregates, what remains is nothing. The self is an idea, a mental construct. That is not only the Buddha’s experience, but the experience of each realized Buddhist man and woman from 2,500 years ago to the present day. That being the case, what is it that dies? There is no question that when this physical body is no longer capable of functioning, the energies within it, the atoms and molecules it is made up of, don’t die with it. They take on another form, another shape. You can call that another life, but as there is no permanent, unchanging substance, nothing passes from one moment to the next. Quite obviously, nothing permanent or unchanging can pass or transmigrate from one life to the next. Being born and dying continues unbroken but changes every moment."
Thought Moment to Thought Moment
The teachers tell us that "me" is a series of thought-moments. Each thought-moment conditions the next thought-moment. In the same way, the last thought-moment of one life conditions the first thought-moment of another life, which is the continuation of a series. "The person who dies here and is reborn elsewhere is neither the same person, nor another," Walpola Rahula wrote.
This is not easy to understand, and cannot be fully understood with intellect alone. For this reason, many schools of Buddhism emphasize a meditation practice that enables intimate realization of the illusion of self.
Karma and Rebirth
The force that propels this continuity is karma. Karma is another Asian concept that Westerners (and, for that matter, a lot of Easterners) often misunderstand. Karma is not fate, but simple action and reaction, cause and effect. For a more complete explanation, please see "Karma for Buddhists 101: Introduction to the Buddhist Understanding of Karma."
Very simply, Buddhism teaches that karma means "volitional action." Any thought, word or deed conditioned by desire, hate, passion and illusion create karma. When the effects of karma reach across lifetimes, karma brings about rebirth.
The Persistence of Belief in Reincarnation
There is no question that many Buddhists, East and West, continue to believe in individual reincarnation. Parables from the sutras and "teaching aids" like the Tibetan Wheel of Life tend to reinforce this belief.
The Rev. Takashi Tsuji, a Jodo Shinshu priest, wrote about belief in reincarnation:
"It is said that the Buddha left 84,000 teachings; the symbolic figure represents the diverse backgrounds characteristics, tastes, etc. of the people. The Buddha taught according to the mental and spiritual capacity of each individual. For the simple village folks living during the time of the Buddha, the doctrine of reincarnation was a powerful moral lesson. Fear of birth into the animal world must have frightened many people from acting like animals in this life. If we take this teaching literally today we are confused because we cannot understand it rationally.
"...A parable, when taken literally, does not make sense to the modern mind. Therefore we must learn to differentiate the parables and myths from actuality."
What's the Point?
People often turn to religion for doctrines that provide simple answers to difficult questions. Buddhism doesn't work that way. Merely believing in some doctrine about reincarnation or rebirth has no purpose. Buddhism is a practice that enables experiencing illusion as illusion and reality as reality.
The Buddha taught that our delusional belief in "me" causes our many dissatisfactions with life (dukkha). When the illusion is experienced as illusion, we are liberated.
As always, if you have questions or want to discuss this or other Buddhism topics, please visit the Buddhism forums.