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Buddhism arose in India 2,500 years ago as a reaction to a fanatical priestly class (brahmanism) who saw in Vedic texts an exhortation to animal sacrifice. The path of the Buddha was therefore viewed as a heterodox tradition, although it shares much in common with its parent faith, Hinduism, including its own Buddhistic interpretation of reincarnation. Buddhism, in fact, came to emphasize the teaching of "rebirth", which holds, according to early Buddhist thinkers that one's primary thought at the time of death becomes the veiy image that infuses the core of one's new existence in a subsequent body. This reincarnationist view, of course, is borrowed from earlier Hindu teachings. Unfortunately there is debate and confusion about what the Buddha himself actually taught regarding soul and reincarnation. The idea of rebirth is implicit in Buddhism; the enlightened state (buddi) say the Buddhists, cannot be achieved in one lifetime but takes many thousands of years. From Buddhism's inception, it acknowledged the existence of the soul and the process of rebirth, even though detractors wrongly accused the Buddha of teaching otherwise, the Theravada "no-soul" doctrine. One school of thought has it that early Buddhists, reacting to Hindu orthodoxy, concocted the no-soul doctrine, hoping to establish Buddhism as a tradition theologically distinct from Hinduism. This pride in their philosophical autonomy was prominent among early Buddhists, who were just beginning to wean their religion from its Hindu parentage.In the recently published 'Concepts in Transmigration', Professor P.D Premasiri, citing orthodox sources such as the Pali Suttapitaka, the Milindapanha, the treatises of Abhidhamma, Buddhaghosh, and so on, argues that Theravada Buddhism, contrary to popular belief, embraces reincarnationist doctrine as a necessary one. He writes that the idea of rebirth is as important to this tradition as is "the belief in God in monotheistic religions."
Let us consider the four Noble Truths - the foundation of Buddhistic thought: (1) suffering exists and is all pervasive, (2) truth of the origin of suffering, (3) the truth of the way leading to the end of suffering, (4) all life and action in this world is ultimately suffering. All of these focus on the inherent desire and consequential suffering of material existence, thus pointing squarely to the laws of karma and rebirth. Early Buddhism taught that a living entity may be born into one of five levels of existence: the inhabitants of hell, brute creatures, ghosts, human beings or heavenly beings. As in conventional Hinduism, desire and karma determine selection and the process continues repeatedly until one either attains Buddhahood and enters "the great void" or devolves into animal species. Therefore the Buddhists say that other species far outnumber humans. This clearly indicates the idea of reincarnation. Further evidence of belief in reincarnation is found in 'The Jataka Tales' ("Birth Stories") which, according to tradition, were originally told by the Buddha himself- 547 stories of the Enlightened One's past incarnations. The tales recount how the Buddha incarnated as a god (deva), as an animal, even as a tree in order to help souls in various conditioned states attain liberation. Reincarnation plays a central role in nearly all of the 547 Jataka tales.
When the Dalai Lama - the pre-eminent representative of Tibetan Buddhism - visited the United States in 1981, he said, "According to the Theravada school of thought, when a person reaches Nirvana then there is no more person, he completely disappears, but according to the higher school of thought, the person still remains, the being itself still remains."Mahayana tradition is found in Tibet, China, Japan and Korea. This school is much more sympathetic to reincarnation (perhaps because it is more indebted to original Indian Buddhism), which is particularly apparent in the Tibetan form of the religion, where the doctrine of rebirth remains a central teaching.
Tibet was originally known as Ti-Boutta - Ti, in Chinese, means "deity" and Boutta, which comes from the Sanskrit buddha, means "wisdom". So Tibet is known as the Land of the Wisdom Deity or Incarnations of Wisdom, referring to the successive incarnations of the two highest Lamas, the Dalai and the Panchen. Only the highest monks are called Lamas, accepted throughout the Buddhist community as highly evolved souls who incarnate again and again to help others attain enlightenment. Because of belief in this reincarnation cycle, birthdays are considered unimportant in Tibet, even for Lamas themselves. This is because a birthday is not seen as something unique but rather as something each of us experiences millions of times.
As far as authentic Chinese Buddhism is concerned, there is an ancient scripture known as the 'Prajna Paramita Sutra', written on wooden blocks, which according to tradition, contain the Buddha's own words (The Chinese were the first to write them down). Encoded on these greatly revered blocks are esoteric truths that directly point to reincarnation. Buddhists who support the doctrine of rebirth regard these scriptures highly, not only because they are clear about the validity of reincamationist teachings but because they reputedly contain the Buddha's own words.
The idea of rebirth in Mahayana Buddhism is symbolized in its emblematic Bhava Chakra - the Wheel of the Law. The wheel is divided into six compartments representing the six states of being. The upper portion of the wheel is divided into three compartments: the first represents the lokas, the highest abode of the gods; the second, the abode of the demigods; and the third, the abode of humankind. The lower three compartments represent the state of animals, the dwelling of ghostly beings and 'naraka' or hellish existence. Mahayana Buddhism holds that after death, the living being transmigrates, according to its pious or impious acts, into one of these six compartments. If virtuous, the soul may go to the abode of the gods, where it enjoys heavenly pleasures until its good karma has run out. If evil, the soul goes to 'naraka', where it will stay for time commensurate with its demerits. If one lives an average life of virtue and sin, one is immediately reborn as a human.
Northern Buddhism teaches that one can only attain the ultimate state of enlightenment while in the human form. Nirvana, the supreme state in Buddhistic thought, is not represented by any form within the precincts of the wheel, but is shown by two figures outside the wheel. This signifies that the personalities who have the virtue of true Nirvana have transcended the wheel. However, a small figure of the Buddha can be noticed in each of the six parts of the wheel; this represents His manifestation as the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who takes birth in the world of matter in all spheres of life to enlighten others and bring them to perfection. It is important to note that the entire wheel with its six parts represents the illusion of material life. The condition of being a god, a human, a beast, or whatever, is merely part of the same illusion of bodily existence. The only absolute reality is Buddhahood, which transcends the ordinary world of three dimensions. However the very axis of the wheel of illusion is composed of three creatures representing stupidity, anger and lust; this indicates all species of life are bound to fall short of true Buddhahood. Until these three creatures are defeated, one remains the victim of ego and bodily identification and transmigrates through the six compartments of illusory existence. Buddhism, while teaching the doctrine of rebirth, points to the ever-flowing progression of existence, wherein one ultimately breaks free and swims in the immortal nectar of reality.