“How can something that is selfless be reborn?” A Question of Patience


From a Course on the Six Perfections


Hello Everyone,

A friend asked, “How can something that is selfless be reincarnated?” The question was in the context of the paramita or “Transcendental Virtue” of Patience, and so I thought to connect the two ideas with the following reflections on Patience and Rebirth.  

Firstly, it is noteworthy that the question was changed from one about “reincarnation” to a question about “rebirth.”  This will make things easier.  Reincarnation is a broad term that has expressions in many traditions.  In the Indian context, it was an assumption that everyone shared and still shares in a significant way.  In the Greek context it is known as metempsychosis, and survived even into Christian times, but was eventually made a heresy and it mostly disappeared except in pagan or other liminal contexts.  Nowadays there are various New Age versions of a reincarnation doctrine, but mostly it is just a vague and unarticulated cultural belief for those that have it. 

In Buddhism, there are various versions but I’m not familiar enough with them to answer the question in an academic way.  But since you are asking, I think it is important to understand reincarnation in the context of the Dharma as “rebirth.” 

The emphasis on rebirth shifted or dissipated when Buddhism went into other cultures, but it is still fundamental, and contrary to what some modern secular Buddhists claim, eventually unavoidable.  

“How can something that is selfless be reborn?”

With this question and many others, important to recognize that this is an instance of a whole series of questions whose nature is essentially the same. They are all the same question, put in different ways and assuming different starting points.  It can be really confusing when it seems like there are so many paradoxes in the dharma. It is really liberating to be able to recognize how various paradoxes are all elaborations of one essential paradox. We could say the essential paradox is between emptiness and compassion, or emptiness and form.  Sometimes the essential paradox is understanding how the inside and the outside, subject and object, both create and negate one another. It goes on and on.  

When using reason, the mainstream philosophical schools of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism approach this issue through an understanding of the two truths.  Relative, or provisional, or “totally fictional” truth relates to everything that has a name, and how it all functions.  Ultimate, or definitive truth is shūnyatā, or emptiness.  The integration of relative and ultimate is the ground and goal of all Mahāyāna (and Vajrayāna) Buddhist paths.  

When using the path of reason within Mahāyāna Buddhism, the question of how the relative and the ultimate relate is traced through an increasingly subtle progression and maturation of conceptual understanding, developed in tandem with meditation and direct experience.  

At first one learns that the substantial way that things appear is actually made of atoms, which are constantly changing and mostly composed of empty space.  One then meditates on one’s body and the environment as a dynamic and spacious flux.  This loosens the identification with “self” and one’s fixation on “reality.”  Eventually one learns to perceive the way things appear as being like a dream or holographic display.  At a certain point one explores a very subtle view of relative truth that sees mind and matter as creating one another in a dance that erases itself as it evolves, like writing on water.  The self is a creative fiction, dancing in space.  Eventually the relative and ultimate become so indistinguishable that the relative way things appear becomes totally clear and yet totally insubstantial. At that point, the relative and the ultimate pour into one another, like water into water.  

When we ask, “how can something that is selfless be reborn?”, we are asking a question about relative and ultimate truth.  

Relatively, we have the idea of ourselves as a self, and we think when we die, we become nothing. Or, we believe in the idea that when we die, we are reborn, either in a heaven, a hell, or again on earth, or maybe even in the Pleiades.  Or we believe in the idea that when we die, we become “one with everything.” Or maybe we are comforted by the poetic idea that our molecules get spread around the earth enough to the point that we become a part of the clouds, the rain, and in the bodies of every person and being on the planet. We are all stardust, after all.

But in order to adequately answer the question, it is important to go beyond ideas, to go beyond the thinking mind.  We can trade gross ideas for subtle ideas, and subtle ideas for more subtle ideas. But if we fail at some point to go beyond thinkable things, we will miss the point of the Dharma.  The practice of the Dharma is to trade gross ideas for subtle ideas, in order to go beyond ideas altogether.

Ultimately, there is no rebirth.  At the end of the day, every Buddhist accepts that.  Therefore, there is nothing to defend from anyone that wishes to water down the Dharma and whitewash the doctrine of rebirth.  But it also means that on the relative side, we need to pay close attention to the precise way in which we will not be reborn, otherwise things become repetitive, nauseating. This dreary fate is known as the cycle of rebirth, or samsara.

In “how can something that is selfless be reborn?”, there are two things, “self/selfless” and “rebirth/no rebirth.” In both cases there is something/nothing.  

It makes sense that something can be reborn.  It also makes some kind of sense that if we are a selfless nothing, nothing happens when we die.  It also makes some kind of dreadful sense that our self can become annihilated at the time of death, and something becomes nothing.  But it is hard to make any sense of something selfless being reborn. 

In actuality, the three other alternatives are all refuted by Buddhist logic, and only the last is seen to be possible.  I won’t go into those arguments, but they are all biased ways of viewing the relative and ultimate truths.  

When the substantial version of the relative truth is privileged, we end up saying that we really have a true self, and it truly is reborn.  When a nihilistic version of the ultimate truth is privileged, we either say we are something that becomes nothing (like scientific materialism) or we are nothing that finally is released into nothingness at death (like nihilistic existentialisms).  

When the relative and ultimate truths are integrated, we understand ourselves to be insubstantial, relative selves with no core or ground, deeply interrelated with all other things, inside and out, and that the continuity of that relationality never stops flowing until Buddhahood, and can never be found or named or contained.  

(In the Vajrayāna, the continuity is found and named and contained in the context of yoga, but that is another story.)

To bring this back to the topic of patience, we also see patience is understood on the relative and ultimate levels. On the relative level, the first aspect of patience is what we normally understand to be the virtue of patience.  The second is patience with the sufferings of our spiritual path.  The third aspect, which is the ultimate level, is patience with emptiness, patience with the “unborn.”     

In his commentary on the Six Perfections, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche has the following about this third aspect of patience, the ultimate dimension: 

Not Becoming Afraid When Faced with the Profound Meaning

“The last type of patience consists in training not to become afraid and not to hold wrong notions in regard to truths such as that of profound emptiness or shunyata and of the principle that transcends cause and effect, good and bad, and so forth, as explained in the Twelve Vajra Laughters, in The Eight Words of Marvel* and so forth, found in the Dzogchen Ati tantras.  On the contrary, we should have respect and devotion towards these teachings and express the wish to succeed one day in understanding their profound principle.

*for example, from the Heap of Jewels Tantra, “Listen, vajra essence of the Voice of all the Buddhas! Observe self-arising wisdom: it is beyond virtue and vice and transcends view and meditation—marvelous!  The condition of the base has never moved, so no good or bad result ensues from any action performed with body and voice: ha ha!”


“Marvelous! Listen, you vajra essence of the Voice!  As one’s rigpa is beyond birth and death, there is not the slightest difference between someone who has murdered ten million beings and a practitioner who has always practiced the ten pāramitās.  This is said by me, Samantabhadra.”

Somehow we have to learn to patiently tolerate these moral paradoxes until they are no longer paradoxes. It is another instance where the paradox between these verses and conventional understandings of right and wrong, cause and effect is actually a question of relative and ultimate truth. When we maintain faultless attention to moral conduct and to cause and effect, the significance of the ultimate dimension free of cause and effect is seen more clearly.  And when the ultimate dimension is seen clearly, relative morality and causes and effects are seen free of prejudice and distortion.  This was covered in the pure form of the perfection of moral discipline we talked about last week.   

What I would highlight here is “As one’s rig pa is beyond birth and death…”  Rigpa is the nature of our mind, “Mind Itself.”  We say the nature of mind is beyond birth and death because it is not made of parts, and so it can’t fall apart.  It never was born or made, and therefore cannot die. The ultimate dimension of patience is tolerance with this unborn nature of mind.

Gampopa adds that this third aspect “relates to the forbearance born [of contemplating] the meaning of suchness—that is, the emptiness of the two types of self-entity.”

“The two types of self-entity” means that the self inside, “Me,” is empty and groundless, and that the self outside, everything that appears, “Reality,” is also illusory and groundless. Both types of identity are essentially unborn.

Patience here means that we can tolerate being a “merely appearing” self that has no center and isn’t standing on anything either.  Relatively, we can hold it together and make things work, even make things beautiful for the benefit of others, but ultimately there is no fixation on anything. 

We have the patience that our own mind is unborn, and we have the patience that all phenomena are unborn too. We see that thoughts arise in the emptiness of mind and go back into mind, we see that all appearances similarly arise from, abide within, and recede into mind.  And when we look at mind, it is empty.  Yet it expresses itself constantly, incessantly, spontaneously. And erases itself in the moment of its expression, uncatchable, ungraspable, like a song in a dream.  We can see this through the practice of insight meditation.    

So, something that is unborn cannot die.

Something that is unborn cannot be reborn, either.  It is a continuity unstained by any concepts of birth or death, concepts of something or nothing.  

But when we don’t have the patience to remain in the immaculate conception of the unborn, we are constantly giving birth.  Giving birth to concepts, emotions, actions that become reactions, emotions, and ever more concepts, eventually becoming a tremendous burden.  And we carry this baggage from day to day, year to year, and from life to life.  Even epigenetics demonstrates something similar.  

The point is to arrest this cycle of conception and birth that are the causes of rebirth.  When we are able to develop patience with the unborn nature of self and reality, we are able to stop the cycle of birth and the cycle of suffering.  At that point, based on the freedom of the ultimate truth, we are able to re-inhabit the relative world as a bodhisattva, deliberately taking birth in whatever way is most beneficial to sentient beings.      

Then, the selfless bodhisattva takes birth again and again, in order to benefit beings.  

In short, the selfish sentient being is born again and again, “dying many times before their deaths,” becoming ever more constricted and burdened, blown about by the strength of their karma into new births of selves and worlds.  Through the perfection of patience with the unborn, the selfless bodhisattva intentionally takes birth, again and again to benefit beings in maṇḍala worlds everywhere.    

This is called a “Tulku,” or Nirmāṇakāya, the emanation body of the Buddha.  

For those of you who made it this far, congratulations.  I will see you tomorrow.  We can go over all this again, along with the two relative aspects of the Perfection of Patience.