Buddhadasa and paticcasamuppada

Hi Everyone,

I have been reading up on paticcasamuppada (PS) recently and came across the writings of Buddhadasa, whom I think has a very good grasp of what PS is and is not.

It seems that the concept of PS covering three life times as interpretated by Buddhaghosa is wrong according to Buddhadasa. It is eternalism according to him because the three-lifetime model teaches the perpetuation of a 'self' or a 'person'. And he rejects the idea of rebirth consciousness in PS.

My question is: does it mean that Buddhadasa does not believe in the concept of rebirth altogether? ( I would like to ask him directly if I could)

Or rather, I am curious to find out if it is a tenable position for someone to be a practicioner and yet to not subscribe to the concept of rebirth in buddhist sense.

Can anyone shed some light on this?

Kind regards,

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture


I believe I've found a link to the article referenced here in the original post.

The article mentions the above referenced misinterpretation by Buddhaghosa based on three connected lifetimes, which the article suggests (and I am not familiar with this position by Buddhaghosa), implies the existence of an ego that transmigrates.

Clearly Buddhadasa states that the assumption that the doctrine of paticcasamuppada implies the existence of a transmigrating self is erroneous as he states, "The doctrine of dependent origination must not be interpreted as a theory of spirits, where the spirit of the ego is present, where the spiritual consciousness is reincarnated or stays in the body."

Rightly he also invokes our need to use the "Kalama Sutta and Mahaparinibbaana Sutta to safeguard and apply our autonomy so as to protect ourselves from becoming victims" of incorrect interpretation of Buddha's Dhamma.

In my initial and cursory reading of this article, I have the impression that Buddhadasa regards "rebirth" as a conventional term, a soteriological device and not corresponding to ultimate truth, a theme he also develops in the article, particularly with regard to how the misinterpretation of the Dhamma in this instance arose.

Reference this quote on the subject,
"Buddhism does not advocate a consciousness or entity that moves around seeking birth [or rebirth, as is usually believed]; it is a belief held by people who embrace the concept of a continuing existence. In Buddhism, consciousness emerges and expires in an instant according to the law of dependent arising. This is my opinion, Buddhism's “state of seeking birth” is interpreted in the Dhamma language; it is different from that of everyday language. Buddhism’s “state of seeking birth” refers to a state that, in the case of ordinary people, is still without vexation; a state where there is still the absence of Craving, Clinging, or holding on to self."

While I do not find an outright denial of rebirth, the fact that Buddhadhasa ends this article with the statement, "A dependent arising, where the self or a main body is not present, is one that belongs to an ideal and practical doctrine," suggests to me that there is no place for the concept in his interpretation, that the question is in fact moot.

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture

Ajahn Brahm

Linked at the bottom of the above article are a number of additional perspectives on the subject of paticcasamuppada, including two from Ajahn Brham.

In the one entitled Some Remarks he makes reference to the "One Life" interpretation, which I take to be the position of Buddhadasa.

He states, in part, in his analysis of paticcasamuppada as presented in the suttas, that "the ending of Avijja causes the ending of Vinnanam. Now what type of Vinnanam can possibly cease as a result of a person eradicating Avijja, the ignorance of the full meaning of the Four Noble Truths? We all know that an Arahat, one who has eradicated Avijja, remains fully conscious, retaining Vinnanam, after his attainment. He does not become unconscious at the moment of his attainment, ever more to be comatose until he dies! So Vinnanam cannot mean the ordinary, arising in every moment, type of consciousness. However, we all know that sometime after the attainment of Arahat, after a period of days or years after Avijja is ended, the Arahat’s life span ends, the 5 Khandhas dissolve and they never arise again. In particular, the 5th Khandha, the binding Vinnanam, ceases after the life span of an Arahat ends. Thus, it is very clear that the Vinnanam which is caused to cease by the ending of Avijja is the first arising of consciousness in a new life, or in other words the rebirth linking consciousness of the Commentary."

What follows are a number of refutation of erroneous beliefs and interpretations, with extensive quotation of relevant sections from the suttas, particularly to refute metaphorical interpretations of paticcasamuppada.

Appropriately, this article ends with the Buddha's words of caution to Venerable Ananda on this same subject, "This Dependent Arising, Ananda, is deep and appears deep!"

Denis Wallez's picture

Buddhadasa and paticcasamuppada

I am not familiar with the specific passage you might refer to... any precise reference?
However, I'll answer regarding "the concept of rebirth in buddhist sense."

Excerpt from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pratītyasamutpāda: "This twelve-factor formula is the most familiar presentation, though a number of early sutras introduce lesser-known variants which make it clear that the sequence of factors should not be regarded as a linear causal process in which each preceding factor gives rise to its successor through a simple reaction. The relationship among factors is always complex, involving several strands of conditioning."

In any case, a conditioned dharma is dependent on multiple conditions, and consequences of anything are many. A linear interpretation of the dependent origination would indeed suggest a 'self,' but that's just an erroneous interpretation. I believe it is very clear that codependent-arising should never be interpreted in a linear way...

Personally (i.e. with extraordinarily low level of overall understanding), I think there is nothing wrong with interpreting dependent origination over 3 lives, as long as you simply see one life creating a particular environment which will support the next life. If you don't believe that each life has a real 'self' in the first place, then you won't interpret that there is a continuity of the 'self' from one life to the next... There is no 'self,' in any of the three lives... But each life does contribute to creating a world in which it is believed that one has a 'self.' Hence each life contributes to a world that induce the next life to perpetuate ignorance. There is a continuity (via codependent arising & via dependent origination), but not of a 'self'.

In Theravada, "rebirth in the buddhist sense" is definitely not linear, and definitely not supportive of a "self." I would not believe for a second that the renowned Buddhaghosa made an erroneous interpretation of something so basic. Maybe that's what some people understood of what Buddhaghosa wrote, but that'd be the limit of using words and concepts, not the limit of Buddhaghosa's understanding.

Buddhadasa and paticcasamuppada


I cannot think of anything in particular but Buddhadasa (a famous Bhikkhu in Thailand, of Suan Mokh) has written quite extensively on PS and he has made it very clear that Buddhaghosa was wrong in his interpretation of PS as a three life time model. He is not the only one. I can think of John Peacock among scholars, for example.

Their disagreement has got nothing to do with linearity. I think that is one of the fundamental features of PS, that it is a dynamic interplay of the links and conditions of which none is a prime cause to which everything can be traced in a linear fashion.

I was trying to ask, assuming (I may be wrong) that rebirth in the Buddhist sense refers to the rebirth of stream consciousness, and that rebirth being a central concept in Buddhism no matter the school, can someone still be a practitioner and be a non-believer of rebirth at the same time.

Kind regards,

Buddhadasa and paticcasamuppada


Sorry, i spoke as if he was still with us. But he is no longer. Here is part of the wiki entry on Buddhadasa:

"Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (Thai: พุทธทาสภิกขุ, May 27, 1906 - May 25, 1993) was a famous and influential ascetic-philosopher of the 20th century. Known as an innovative reinterpreter of Buddhist doctrine and Thai folk beliefs, Buddhadasa fostered a reformation in conventional religious perceptions in his home country, Thailand, as well as abroad. Although he was a formally ordained ascetic, or "monk," having at the age of twenty years submitted to mandatory government religious controls, Buddhadasa developed a personal view that rejected specific religious identification and considered all faiths as principally one. "

Kind regards,

Denis Wallez's picture

"Buddhism without beliefs"

Rebirth of a stream of consciousness does not mean it's the same consciousness...

But one could also go the other direction in this argument: the Buddha on the night of his Enlightenment recalled his previous lives... (which, if it's not linear, is to be interpreted as a "genealogical" tree - tree of consciousness streams, not of genetic material from birth parents). If the Buddha recalls his previous lives, would you tell him that the description over 3 lifetimes is wrong? That's a key point because if you believe the Buddha described how two lives are connected (via rebirth and kamma), then there's no difficulty to describe how three lives are connected... since it's "cyclical" (existence).

Yes, among people calling themselves Buddhist while NOT believing in rebirth, there is renowned Stephen Batchelor, who has written the famous "Buddhism without beliefs - a contemporary guide to awakening" (the said "beliefs" notably being... rebirth!). However, that is not Theravada buddhism.

And it does not mean an

And it does not mean an entirely different stream of consciousness as well.

I personally think how far one can accept the idea of rebirth really depends on how this 'stream of consciousness' is defined. It can be very subtle. For me, it means the physical things that I leave behind, the relationships I once had with my family and friends or even the genes that I have passed to my offspring.

So for that reason, if the Buddha's recalling of his past lives is understood by someone to involve the same identity or a self or a soul or atman, then I would say it is wrong according to His teachings because Buddhism denies the existence of a permanent immutable "self".

Yes, I have heard of Batchelor but have still to read his book yet. It will be interesting to see how he reconciles his practice with his non-belief in the idea of rebirth.

Kind Regards,

Denis Wallez's picture

entirely different stream of consciousness, or not?

As food for thought...
From the intro to "the Long Discourses of the Buddha - a translation of the Digha Nikaya" by Maurice Walshe, Wisdom Publications, 1987, 1995 (p.36): [I'm the one underlining] <<
There are some people in the West who are atracted in many ways by Buddhism, but who find the idea of rebirth a stumbling-block, either because they find it distasteful and/or incredible in itself, or in some cases because they find it hard to reconcile with the 'non-self' idea. (...)
It should be noted, incidentally, that Buddhists prefer to speak, not of reincarnation, but of rebirth. Reincarnation is the doctrine that there is a transmigrating soul or spirit that passes on from life to life. In the Buddhist view we may say, to begin with, that that is merely what appears to happen, though in reality no such soul or spirit passes on in this way. In Majjhima Nikaya 38, the monk Sati was severely rebuked for declaring that 'this very consciousness' transmigrates, whereas in reality a new consciousness arises at rebirth dependent on the old. Nevertheless there is an illusion of continuity in much the same way as there is within this life.
The early teachings (e.g. MN 38.8) are clear that consciousness arises and is dependent on the sixfold base... which, I guess, excludes any previous consciousness. It doesn't however exclude perception of what legacy such previous consciousness "left behind".

Entirely different stream of consiousness, or not?


Remember that PS is a dynamic cycle and as mentioned, is non-linear. So while the various sense consciousnesses are the effects of the six sense bases, the six sense bases are conditioned by consciousness through nama-rupa.

If by 'previous consciousness' you mean something that came before the six sense bases, then there is previous consciousness at play here.

It makes understanding a bit less harder if we try to see this as happening at the subconscious level and most importantly, that it all happens very fast. I find it makes a lot of sense if I take PS to be happening on a moment to moment time frame.

On a side note, I think one of the dangers Buddhadasa saw in the three-lifetime model was that one is prone to too literal a meaning of the doctrine. There are many buddhists from where I come from who believe that there is an unchanging identity during cycles of rebirth. I still remember coming across a feely distributed booklet from a well-known temple when I was young which listed the various kinds of rebirth if one did or did not do certain things. It came with very scary illustrations of course. For example, one will end up a hunchback the next life if one made fun of a monk this life.

The profundity of PS was the very reason why the Buddha hesitated about teaching the Dhamma when he was first Awakened. But this profundity is in no way diminshed for people 'who find the idea of rebirth a stumbling-block' if they try to understand it in the way Buddhadasa explained, which essentially does away with 'rebirth consciousness' in the sense of the three-lifetime model.

I am not suggesting that one must choose between the two models; but rather that PS is a very powerful tool to explain our humam condition however we choose to relate to it.

Denis Wallez's picture


It sounds like your stream of consciousness actually is "eternalist," like you're still trying to define the stream as having a durable identity... and like a person can be uniquely identified with his/her durable stream. Such a stream would not be so different from a "soul." Maybe I misunderstand what you write.

There is nothing wrong with such definition, as this question has been an essential difficulty in Buddhism, leading to various schools in early Buddhism, leading to the Buddha-nature, leading to Mahayana schools, leading to the "store-house consciousness", etc... This has been the source of difficulty to reconcile kamma and anatta... I suspect it's also why some people ended up stating that Buddhism and the Upanisads were compatible.
I think the Theravada view is not compatible with such interpretation though, and I believe the store-house consciousness appeared with the Yogacara school.