Buddha on Transmigration

Kenneth Leong
7 min readOct 11, 2023

A Buddhist friend and I have been debating about the truth of past lives, future lives and transmigration. It is well-known that the teaching of Anatta (no-soul) is a trademark of Buddhism. So, why did Buddha nevertheless talk about transmigration? Was he contradicting himself?

To resolve this matter, we must understand that Buddha lived in a society where the notions of transmigration, past lives, and future lives are deeply entrenched. He knew very well that his teaching of Anatta was “against the current”(pitasotagami). If he were to talk to other people in a way that violated the mainstream worldview of the time, people might not understand him at all. It would be just like how I behave in a Christian-majority society. When someone sneezes, I say “God bless you,” even though I am an atheist. My meaning is clear in that context. It is my expression of goodwill towards that other person. It is nothing more than that. It does not mean that I have changed my stance towards Christianity or any other theist religion. When in Rome, do what the Romans do.

A passage from the Pali Canon would shed light on this. It is from MN 140. The following is a short summary of the story:

Pukkusati was a young ascetic from the kingdom of Koliya, which was located in what is now modern-day Nepal. He had heard about the Buddha and his teachings, and he decided to visit the Buddha in order to learn from him. However, when he arrived at the place where the Buddha was staying, he was informed that the Buddha was away on an alms round.

Not wanting to miss the opportunity to meet the Buddha, Pukkusati decided to wait for his return. He sat down under a tree and began to meditate. While he was meditating, the Buddha, who had finished his alms round, approached the area. The Buddha saw Pukkusati sitting in meditation and recognized that Pukkusati was a sincere seeker of truth.

The Buddha approached Pukkusati and engaged him in a conversation. During their conversation, the Buddha taught Pukkusati about the impermanence of all things, the nature of suffering, and the path to enlightenment. Pukkusati, upon hearing the Buddha’s teachings, was deeply moved and inspired.

In response to the Buddha’s teachings, Pukkusati decided to renounce his previous ascetic practices and become a…

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Kenneth Leong

Author, Zen teacher, scientific mystic, professor, photographer, philosopher, social commentator, socially engaged human