Anatta, Rebirth and Responsibility for Action

If one has to single out the most important and the unique contribution the Buddha made to the humanity, then it’s theory of anatta or non-existence of the permanent self, the essence in the center of every human being. This discovery goes so much against our everyday experience, so it is quite usual that it causes a lot of misunderstanding and seemingly legitimate objections. The uncommonness of this teaching was also among opponents of Buddhism in the West often used as a “strong” argument for its complete rejection. The overall aim of this essay is to shed more light onto this somewhat confusing topic, by explaining what anatta theory means, but also how it is related to the Buddhas understanding of the law of kamma and the question of a bearer of moral responsibility in this life and those to come as well.

To better understand the Buddha’s position regarding permanent self-denial, it is helpful to review first the historical context and prevailing conceptions of a soul in India during his time. Therefore, let us briefly review the position on this issue occupied by the main philosophical schools dominant in India of the fifth century BC. The early Brahmanical texts like Upanishads, especially Bṛhadāranyaka and Chāndogya Upanishads, advocated that the true nature of an individual is an unchanging, mysterious and unfathomable entity called ātman. It is considered to be the basis for all of our transient, unstable experiences, but is not affected by them and thus not affected by inevitable suffering that befall us during our lives. It was also considered identical with Brahman, the underlying ground of the world itself. Thorough understanding of this identity is in the Upanishads represented as deepest and liberating insight, which set us free from the round of rebirth.

On the other hand, Jains saw jīva or soul as encrusted with the microscopic kammic particles, weighting it down and preventing it from achieving mokṣa or liberation from the round of rebirth. Therefore, the way of purification for Jains was twofold. The one, called saṃvara,led towards inhibiting the further accumulation of such kammic matter through a strict adhering to a set of ethical principles quite similar to pañca sīla precepts of the Buddhists. The second way, called nirjarā,meant purifying the soul of the karmic matter that has already been accumulated. This predominantly meant practicing various extreme ascetic practices:

Saṃvara necessitates adhering to the ethical principles of The Five Great Vows of (1) non- violence or non-harming, (2) truth, (3) no stealing, (4) chastity, and (5) nonpossession/non- attachment. In order to adhere to these ethical principles, the “passions” (anger, pride, deceit, and greed) must also be eliminated because they cause the ethical violations of these vows that, in turn, cause the accumulation of more harmful karmic matter. Nirjarā, on the other hand, requires practicing twelve different types of austerities (tapas): six external austerities (most of which involve fasting and bodily mortification) and six internal austerities (including penance, humility, service, religious study, renunciation, and meditation).1

As for the other prominent samana group of the Buddha’s time called Ajivikas, the outside sources mention quite strange theory of soul being as big as 500 yojanas. As Basham concludes, “jīva seems to have been taught of as an aura, extending far beyond the individual’s body. Its structure was atomic, and, as we have seen, atoms could not interpenetrate. It is difficult to suggest how the Ajīvikas accounted for the fact that living bodies were capable of approaching one another.”2

On the quite opposite side of the ideological spectrum were materialists, Carvakas, who denied existence of any eternal entity. For them, a life simply and undoubtedly ends with a death.

Going against all these views, Buddha took quite the unique position. His claim was that nothing in this world possesses a permanent substratum (sabbe dhammā anattā), but at the same time there is a continuation in the round of rebirth between consecutive existences. In other words, by claiming that what normally appears of us as a stable, permanent self is just a process of ever-changing mental states, the Buddha asserted that it is possible to have continuity without identity.

The Buddha’s view on such a crucial issue hadn’t come out of thin air, but through the deep meditative observation of his own experience. It was also natural outcome of his analysis of what makes a being, what are its constituting factors (khandhas) and how these factors are inter-related. Through his insight, he came to the conclusion that person is a bundle of five dynamic aggregates: matter (rūpa), feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), mental formations (saṃkhāra) and consciousness (viññāṇa). These aggregates are impermanent, characterized by continuous causal connectedness. There is nothing else, inside them taken individually or collectively or outside them, that would constitute a being. In our experience, certain physical and mental phenomena are seen as lasting and connected. And that is all of ‘I’, ego, self that there is. Just our subjective impression. Nothing stable, unchanging exists behind this mental construct, except the functioning of the basic law of causality: “When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises… When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases.”3

Having in mind the general view of the Indian philosophical scene of the Buddha’s time described above, it is obvious that with his doctrine of anatta, the Buddha actually avoided two main position advocated in the ontological debate of his contemporaries. These are positions of spiritual eternalism, based on the duality of the soul and body, and the materialist nihilism, which considers that soul and the body are one and the same:

At S.II.19-20 it is said that painful feeling is not made by self, other, both, or neither (i.e. without any reason). Were it to be self-made, this would be Eternalism, with both the agent of past karma and the present experiencer of its result being the same unchanging I. Were it to be other-made, this would be Annihilationism, with the agent of past karma being totally unrelated to the person experiencing its result in the present life. Both these extremes are avoided by understanding life as the flow of conditions outlined in the Conditioned Arising series.4

Thus, constantly renewed factors of a being make for this being not appropriate to be designated as the same, but also not as completely another. Here we can use a fire metaphor, as its flame is not something that is always the same or completely changes with the time. What we have is actually just a rapidly changing series of moments of flame, which quickly cools down and is replaced by new flames produced by the fuel burning. Although to us it seems as something constant from the first moment we see the fire until it is extinguished, the flame is just a process of red-hot gasses cooling down and being replaced with the new ones. In the same way, the combination of “red-hot” factors of a being last for a moment and are immediately replaced with the next, causally produced combination.

After describing the Buddha’s position on the crucial question of the nature of being, let us now turn to the second element in our equation and that is the Buddha’s explanation of the law of kamma as a key part of hist theory of morality.    There are in general three key elements of that theory. The first one is what he called kammāvada, a claim that there is a fundamental distinction between our good and bad actions, since they have completely opposite results. In this way the Buddha opposed to the claims of materialists that “there is… no fruit or result of good and bad actions”.5

Another key element was called kiriyavāda, which points out a moral efficacy of our moral acts for reaching a state of happiness and liberation. Innovation that Buddha made in the widely spread theory of kamma in India of his time was twofold. The first one was rejection of any external cause – God, past kamma, destiny (niyati) or nature (svabhava) – which is an agent, initiator of actions and a man is just the one who experiences its results. The second innovation was that the Buddha connected the results of any volitional action with the ethical quality of the will that stood behind it. As he expressed it in the Dhammapada:

By self is a wicked deed done,
by self is one defiled, by self
is a wicked deed left undone,
by oneself is one purified,
purity and impurity
come from oneself, for no one can
be purified by another.6

And finally, the last principle of the Buddhist theory of kamma was viriyavāda. To achieve happiness in this life and also happiness of liberation we need to invest an effort in our moral purification. The blueprint of the way this effort should be directed is the Noble Eightfold Path.

After these preliminary considerations, it is time now to turn to our main topic: if, as we’ve seen, according to the Buddha there is no permanent self, does it mean that the question of the moral responsibility for our actions becomes irrelevant? If there is no one who would be the carrier of that responsibility, how we can talk about kamma and vipāka, actor and the one who receives the fruits of that action? What is it, finally, that connects one existence with the next one?

The answer to these seemingly perplexing questions is related to the Buddha’s theory of person and the interpretation of the law of kamma we just elaborated on. As we saw, the Buddha considers a being as a process, a sequence, a stream of momentary mental and physical events. Therefore, what connects “me” now with “me” from yesterday is only the fact that both of these two “me” belong to the same sequence, the same continuity. When earlier part of that sequence does something kammically wholesome, it is the later part of that very same sequence that enjoys the resultant pleasant feelings. The same connectedness accounts for the role of a bearer of moral responsibility for harmful, unwholesome actions. This can be compared with the river, which was polluted in its upper part by some chemicals and it is unavoidable that the lower part of that river, not some other one, will be affected by the same level of pollution. Admittedly, this is the basic principle and the law of kamma is much more complex, as we create various types of kamma during our life.    So much that, as the Buddha explained in the Mahā-kammavibhanga Sutta (MN 136), interfering with each other, these types influence the time when the fruits of our intentional actions will be experienced, either now or sometime later, in this of in some next life.

So, as it influence this life, the law of moral causality likewise spans over two and more lifetimes, since the moment of death is nothing more than the end of one thought moment, after which, due to the accumulated kammic energy, new moment arises, by the stream of consciousness being re-linked to another material-mental complex called new embryo. This process the Buddha explained through his schema of dependent origination (paṭicca-samuppāda), where the preceding moment conditions the next one. “At the moment of death, the quality of the last consciousness conditions the arising of the rebirth consciousness. Nothing is carried over. Yet the new consciousness arises in dependence on the previous consciousness”.7 Thus the person is product of his/her past kamma and without that kammic potential, that person wouldn’t be born in the first place.

The schema of conditioned arising presents this process in quite a detail. Also, this multi-factored causal process sits in the center of the Buddha’s teachings in general, to the degree that it was said by the Buddha that the seeing of paṭicca-samuppāda equals to seeing the Dhamma.8 Although there are several versions of the schema, the most common is the one with the following twelve links: ignorance (avijjā), volitional formations (saṅkhārā), consciousness (viññāṇa), name-and-form (nāma-rūpa), six senses (saḷāyatana), contact (phassa), feeling (vedanā), craving (taṇ), clinging (upādāna), becoming (bhava), birth (jāti), old age (jarā) and death (maraṇa). Theravada exegesis saw it as presenting two aspects of the life process. The first one, found in the Vibhaṅga, applies each of the twelve links to a single mind moment. In the second one, found in the Paṭisambhidāmagga, twelve-link model is extending over three consecutive lifetimes. Thus, the first two links belong to the previous life, the last two to the next one and all in between to the present one. For our topic, this second model is of interest to be explored, especially its two factors of consciousness and name-and-form.

As stated in the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15),9 constantly changing processes of consciousness and name-and-form condition each other during the life. But that interplay also has a direct bearing on the topic of rebirth, since without simultaneous existence of the two, arising of a new being wouldn’t be possible. Thus, in the moment of rebirth stream of consciousness “enters” the womb, re-linking with the embryo.    It is stream of consciousness that is actually being reborn and it represents a necessary condition for name-and-form to grow. According to what was said in the Mahāmālunkya Sutta (MN 64), this consciousness is not some tabula rasa. It is colored by imprints from the past life, in a form of latent tendencies (anusaya). They accompany the stream of consciousness from previous life to the next one, giving specific character traits to the newborn:

For a young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘personality,’ so how could personality view arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to personality view lies within him… A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘sensual pleasures/ so how could sensual desire arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to sensual lust lies within him. A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion ‘beings/ so how could ill will towards beings arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to ill will lies within him.10

Vibhaṅga Sutta (SN 12:2) gives us the list of mental factors that are subsumed under the label nāma: “And what, bhikkhus, is name-and-form? Feeling, perception, volition, contact, attention: this is called name.”11 Among them, volition is often emphasized, since it is a decisive factor which produces kamma and thus directly determines our future life. At the same time, unlike other factors, it is the one which through mental training can be brought under our direct control. This also means that in this way we also put under our control the circumstances in which we will be reborn, although this process is not so simple, as the law of kamma is only one factor in a complicated network of factors that have their own role in this process.

When discussing the Buddhist theory of rebirth, it is interesting to mention one widely accepted view among Theravada followers regarding great importance the last mind moment (cuticitta). That moment in our present life seemingly is a key factor in defining circumstances we will be born into in the next life. The idea is unknown in the suttas and it seems to appear for the first time in Milindapañha. There it is said: “If anyone should do what is unskilled for a hundred years but at the time of dying should obtain one mindfulness occupied with the Buddha, he would uprise among the devas.”12 This idea is later worked out in detail in the Visuddhimagga13 and become part of the Theravada orthodoxy.

What is strange here is that this view seems to be opposed to the law of kamma as stated by the Buddha in several ways. First, Tipitaka records many occasions when the Buddha was conversing with the person approaching the moment of death, but none of them he used to expound on the last thought-moment teachings. Let us take a case of the Buddha’s conversation with his fellow tribesman Sakyanin Mahānāma. When asked by him what will happen if he dies at some sudden moment, the Teacher instructs him in the following way:

Don’t be afraid, Mahanama! Don’t be afraid, Mahanama! Your death will not be a bad one, your demise will not be a bad one. When a person’s mind has been fortified over a long time by faith, virtue, learning, generosity, and wisdom, right here crows, vultures, hawks, dogs, jackals, or various creatures eat his body, consisting of form, composed of the four great elements, originating from mother and father, built up out of rice and gruel, subject to impermanence, to being worn and rubbed away, to breaking apart and dispersal. But his mind, which has been fortified over a long time by faith, virtue, learning, generosity, and wisdom-that goes upwards, goes to distinction.14

Obviously, what counts is that “person’s mind has been fortified over a long time” by virtue and this view fits perfectly with the teaching expounded in the Mahā-kammavibhanga sutta quoted erlier. What we accumulate, that we experience. In line with that, idea of kamma as a factor which influences our perception of the world and thus the circumstances we live in is based on the principle of accumulation of many acts, not on a dominance of the single one. If someone was living virtuous life and at the moment of death, led by confusion and fear, had some misguided thought, it is hard to understand how this thought so thoroughly erased all the accumulation of his good deeds during seventy or eighty years of his life. Finally, the spirit of the whole Teachings is permeated by the idea of causality. If everything in our life is conditioned, then the last thought moment must be conditioned by the second to the last. And this one is conditioned by the third to the last etc. Therefore, it is more in the spirit of the Dhamma to talk about our tendencies and dispositions built during the long period of time and through innumerable repetitions, rather than about some individual, decisive and fatal moments which completely overturn whatever was build up during the lifetime.

This fits into Abhidhamma teachings of the four types of kamma and the object which presents itself in the mind-door in the moment of death. What apply here is the first type:

Some weighty action performed earlier by the dying person. This may be meritorious such as a jhānic ecstasy, or it may be demeritorious, some heinous crime. Either of these would be so powerful as to eclipse all other kammas in determining rebirth. This is called garuka kamma.15

So her we have a case when some act done in the past, as impactful as it is, gives direction to our rebirth. But, again, if it has just manifested in the last mind moment, that doesn’t mean that last moment had a decisive role in deciding where we are going to be reborn. This last mind moment is in the main part a result of what we’ve done before.

Analayo, Bhikkhu (2018), Rebirth in Early Buddhism and Current Research. Boston, Wisdom Publications.
Anandajoti, Bhikkhu, trns. (2016), Dhammapada
Basham, A. L. (1951), History and Doctrines of the Ajīvikas: A Vanished Indian Religion. London, Luzac & Company.
Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trns. (1995), The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. Kandy, BPS.
Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trns. (2000), The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. Boston, Wisdom Publications.
Dhammika, Shravasti (2015), Good kamma! Bad kamma! What exactly is kamma? Singapore: Buddha Dhamma Mandala Society
Fohr, Sherry (2015), Jainism. London, Bloomsbury Academic.
Harvey, Peter (1995), The Selfless Mind: Personality, Consciousness and Nirvana in Early Buddhism. London, Routledge Curzon.
Horner, I. B. (1969), Milinda’s Questions. London, PTS.
Karunadasa, Y. (2018), Early Buddhist Teachings: The Middle Position in Theory and Practice. Somerville, Wisdom Publications.
Mendis, N.K.G. (1985), The Abhidhamma in Practice. Kandy, BPS.
Walshe, Maurice, Transl. (1987), The Long Discourses of the Buddha. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

1 Fohr (2015), p. 37.
2 Basham (1951), p. 272.
3 Bodhi (1995), p. 355, 357.
4 Harvey (1995), p. 66.
5 Bodhi (1995), Sāleyyaka Sutta (MN 41).
6 Anandajoti (2016), verse 165.
7 Karunadasa (2018), p. 43-44.
8 Mahāhatthipadopama Sutta (MN 28), Transl. Bhikkhu Bodhi (1995).
9 Walshe (1987), p. 223.
10 Bodhi (1995), p. 538.
11 Bodhi (2000), p. 535.
12 Yo vassasataṃ akusalaṃ kareyya, maraṇakāle ca ekaṃ buddhaguṇaṃ satiṃ paṭilabheyya, so devesu uppajjeyyā’ti. Horner (1969), Vol I, p. 111.
13 Vism. 458-60.
14 Bodhi (2000), p. 1808.
15 Mendis (1985), p. 24.

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