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Rebirth As Expounded In Buddhism



(By Desamanya K.H.J. Wijayadasa; former Secretary to the President)

Rebirth is a fundamental tenet of Buddhism

As far as Buddhists are concerned, rebirth is not a mere theory but a fact verifiable by evidence and constitutes a fundamental tenet of Buddhism. It is on record that this belief in rebirth viewed as a transmigration or reincarnation was accepted by great philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato. However, the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth is different from transmigration or reincarnation of other religions because Buddhism does not accept the existence of a transmigrating permanent soul created by god.

According to Buddhist teachings it is Kamma or Action that conditions rebirth. Past Kamma conditions the present birth and present Kamma in combination with past Kamma conditions the future. Thus the present is the off spring of the past and becomes in turn the parent of the future. The law of Kamma explains the incidence of suffering, the mystery of the so called fate and predestination of some religions and above all the inequality of mankind. Thus, to an ordinary Buddhist Kamma serves as a deterrent, while to an intellectual it serves as an incentive to do good. Interestingly, what constitutes Kamma are our thoughts, words and deeds. They pass from life to life exalting and degrading us in the course of our wanderings in Samsara.

Buddhist scholars are of the view that the Buddha is the greatest authority on rebirth. On the very night of his enlightenment, during the first watch, the Buddha had developed retro-cognitive knowledge which enabled him to read his past lives. During the second watch the Buddha with clairvoyant vision perceived beings disappearing from one state of existence and reappearing in another. In general discourses the Buddha clearly states that beings having done evil are after death, born in woeful states; and beings having done good are born in blissful states.

There are numerous instances of ordinary people in hypnotic states who have related experiences of their past lives. There are some unbelievable stories about the miraculous revelations of infant prodigies which have baffled many a scientist. It is an irrefutable fact that Kamma and Rebirth are two sides of the same coin. The concept of Kamma and Rebirth explicitly explains the inequality of mankind, the problem of endless suffering, the dissimilarities among children of the same family and above all, the arising of omniscient and super perfect spiritual teachers like the Buddhas who possess incomparable physical, mental and intellectual characteristics.

The Buddhist Doctrine of Rebirth

Professor K.N. Jayatillake, one of the greatest exponents of rebirth has not only proved beyond any reasonable doubt that rebirth is a distinct reality but also cleared several misconceptions woven around the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth and Kamma as expounded in the early texts of Theravada Buddhism. He has pointed out that rebirth or survival after death has its origin in the enlightenment of the Buddha itself and not in traditional Indian belief. By way of further clarification he has said that “it was on the night of his enlightenment that the Buddha acquired the capacity to know his past lives. It was when his mind was composed, clear, cleansed and without blemish, free from adventitious defilements, pliant and flexible, steadfast and undisturbed that he acquired the fabulous capacity to recall hundreds of thousands of prior lives and pre-history of the universe; going, back through immensely long periods of the expansions and contractions of the oscillating universe”.

This is the first item of knowledge which broke through the veil of ignorance (ayam pathama vijja). The second important item of knowledge (dutiya vijja) was obtained via the faculty of clairvoyance (dibba chakkhu) with which the Buddha was able to see among other things; the survival of beings in various states of existence, the operation of Kamma, galactic systems, clusters of galactic systems and the vast cosmos.

The Buddhist texts are emphatic regarding five states of existence; namely, lower world or niraya, animal world or tirachchana, spirit world or peta, human beings or manussa and higher beings or devas. Professor K.N. Jayatillake has stated that it is possible for a human being to be reborn as a spirit, come back to earth as a human being or go still higher and become a deity or deva. It is also possible to regress to animal or sub-human forms of existence. This happens not by any form of determinism or fatalism. According to Buddhism Kamma is only one of the five major causal laws. The other four are; physical laws, biological laws, psychological laws and laws pertaining to spiritual phenomena. Professor K.N. Jayatillake was of view that Kammic laws are tendencies rather than inevitable consequences.

Professor K.N. Jayatillake found enough material in the early Buddhist texts to show that the Buddhist doctrines of Kamma and Rebirth are not dogmas but were verifiable truths. For verification he relied on research studies of modern philosophers, psychologists and psychiatrists. He has critically reexamined their findings on memory and the relationship between mind and body. In order to find plausible evidence acceptable to modern society on rebirth he classified evidence into two groups namely experimental and spontaneous. Experimental evidence is factual testimony obtained by means of age regression under hypnosis and the like.

Spontaneous evidence emanated from revelations made by people who claimed to remember their previous lives. Of course, both types of evidence depended on memory. Another argument advanced in favour of rebirth is the presence in people of skills and talents obviously not acquired in the present life. After making a scholarly study of the scientific literature on memory and the mind-body relationship he concluded that “conscious mental and cognitive phenomena function in dependence on its physical bases”. On the mind and body relationship Professor K.N. Jayatillake made the following observations. “None of the modern findings with regard to the mind and its relation to the brain nor the assertions of modern brain physiologists in any way preclude the empirical possibility of survival after death; it is an open possibility to be proved or disproved in the light of evidence”.

The Buddhist doctrine of rebirth rests on the fact that each individual is a conflux of mind and body. There is no permanent entity here; no soul. There is only mind and body, a dynamic flux, energized by stimuli and material food without and thought food within. It is presumed that mind and body constitute a force. No force is ever lost. There is no reason to believe that the force manifested in each being as mind and body is ever lost. This force is changing every moment of our lives; however it is not lost at death. The vitalizing mind is merely reset. It is the resetting of this vital flux in fresh conditions which is rebirth. Thus, each individual reborn starts with a unique set of latent potentialities. These are the accumulated experiences of past births. This is why characters differ, endowments differ and fortunes vary.

Investigations and Research into Rebirth

Following on the revival and resurgence of Buddhism in the 19th century, scholars and scientists throughout the world have engaged themselves in investigations and research into the doctrine of rebirth as expounded in Buddhism. The first reported cases of rebirth were from India and Myanmar involving children who remembered their last lives as human beings. Fielding Hall a member of the Indian Civil Service had recorded several cases of rebirth in his “Soul of the People”. He had ample power and opportunity to verify the veracity of the cases which were brought to his attention. He had made personal investigations and was satisfied that these were genuine instances of memory of past lives.

Dr. Cassius A. Perera (later Bikkhu Kassapa) writing to the Ceylon Observer of Sunday October 10, 1937 had described the previous life story of a boy from Myanmar as follows. “This child, born to simple village parents, when three years old, revealed unusual mastery of Pali texts; and an ability to expound Buddhist psychology, rivaling that of learned elder monks. Gradually the Memory faded and he became a normal child with great aptitude for the study of Pali. He entered the Buddhist order early and at age eighteen won the first place for all Myanmar for scholarship in Buddhist psychology.

Dr. Cassius Perera has placed on record the story of a little girl in India who remembered her last life, the place where she dwelt, her husband and relatives of that life and other details of property and money matters. The case was investigated and its truth had been proved beyond doubt. Other than rebirth, there is no reasonable explanation for the existence of infant prodigies in diverse fields such as music, mathematics and letters. Dr. H.S.S. Nissanka’s case study on rebirth entitled “The girl who was Reborn” appeared in the Ceylon Daily News of November 23, 1965. Martin Wickremasinghe, scholar, novelist and rationalist reviewed this article and said that, “the theory of rebirth was just an animistic survival, inherited from the primitive pre-Buddhistic culture of India and Sri Lanka and that it is incompatible with the Buddhist doctrine of Anatta”.

Professor K.N. Jayatillake who championed the existence of rebirth entered into a lively debate with Martin Wickremasinghe which went on for more than three months in the Ceylon Daily News and made some astounding revelations on the mystery of rebirth.

Nibbana; the only way out of Rebirth

It is a fundamental tenet of Buddhism that mankind is eternally in the throes of suffering and sorrow. The world is beset with extreme poverty, desease and squalor. Pestilence comes in the most dramatic and disastrous form and style. While earthquakes, drought and famine wreak havoc, fire, flood and storm take toll. The so- called omnipotent power is in eternal slumber and does not intervene to prevent them or to minimize the impact. It is man’s skill and enterprise and man’s sacrifice and painfully wrested knowledge that fights these calamities. Other than Buddhism almost all religions consider this mayhem as God’s vengeance. The Buddhist sees this as a reign of natural law powered by unending cause and effect.

Consequently, birth follows death as surely as death follows birth. The Buddhist concept of deliverance is Nibbana, signifying escape from the ever recurring cycle of life and death; not merely escape from sin and hell. Nibbana is also explained as extinction of the forces of lust (lobha), hatred (dosa) and delusion (moha). Nibbana is also the ultimate achievement and the final goal of Buddhism. It is not something to be set down in print, nor is it a subject to be grasped by intellect alone. It is a super mundane state (lokuttara dhamma); to be realized only by intuitive wisdom.

It is indeed paradoxical that Nibbana; the ultimate goal of Buddhism is beyond the scope of logic. However, reflecting on the positive and negative aspects of life, the logical conclusion emerges that in contradistinction to a conditioned phenomenal existence, there must exist a sorrowless, deathless, non-conditioned state. When all forms of craving are eradicated reproductive Karmic forces cease to operate and one attains Nibbana by escaping the cycle of life and death.

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Why Small Farms will be the backbone of food security



The ecological axiom that: ‘Energy flow through a system tends to organise and simplify that system’, is abundantly clear in agriculture. As farms moved from small interdependent units, bounded by fences and hedgerows, to large cropping fields to accommodate machine management, we lose the biodiversity that once existed on that landscape and the biomass that provided the Ecosystem Services. This sacrifice was rationalised through the invocation of economic profit. The economic ‘profit’ gained by subsidies on fossil fuel and uncontrolled extraction from the Global Commons. The ‘development’ of agriculture has become a race to control the commodity market. The farmer ceased to be a feature of the farm. In a telling statement, the farmers of Sri Lanka sent the following statement to the CGIAR in 1998 :

‘We, the farmers of Sri Lanka would like to further thank the CGIAR, for taking an interest in us. We believe that we speak for all of our brothers and sisters the world over when we identify ourselves as a community who are integrally tied to the success of ensuring global food security. In fact it is our community who have contributed to the possibility of food security in every country since mankind evolved from a hunter-gather existence. We have watched for many years, as the progression of experts, scientists and development agents passed through our communities with some or another facet of the modern scientific world. We confess that at the start we were unsophisticated in matters of the outside world and welcomed this input. We followed advice and we planted as we were instructed. The result was a loss of the varieties of seeds that we carried with us through history, often spanning three or more millennia. The result was the complete dependence of high input crops that robbed us of crop independence. In addition, we farmers producers of food, respected for our ability to feed populations, were turned into the poisoners of land and living things, including fellow human beings. The result in Sri Lanka is that we suffer from social and cultural dislocation and suffer the highest pesticide- related death toll on the planet. Was this the legacy that you the agricultural scientists wanted to bring to us ? We think not. We think that you had good motives and intentions, but left things in the hands of narrowly educated, insensitive people.’

The diverse farm had to yield to production monoculture, which was made possible through the burning of fossil fuels. Ironically the burning of fossil fuels is the major reason for the current destabilised climate and threat to agriculture. One consequence of climate change is the predicted rise in global temperatures. If ambient temperatures exceed 40 degrees , which has become the reality in many places even today, food production will be compromised. All the food we eat originates with plants and plants produce using photosynthesis. Photosynthesis, or the capture of solar energy by plants, is done with chlorophyll, the thing that makes plants green and chlorophyll begins to break down after 40 degrees. Landscapes whose summer temperatures go beyond this limit will have smaller and smaller crops as the temperatures increase. The only solution to this oncoming crisis, is to begin introducing trees at strategic points on the landscape.

Trees and all other forms of vegetation cool the environment around them through the transpiration process, which takes place in the leaves. The water absorbed by the roots is sent up to the leaves which release it as vapor, cooling the air around it. Measurements on trees done by research institutions worldwide, indicate that an average large tree produces the cooling equivalent of eight room sized air conditioners running for 10 hours, a cooling yield 0f 1,250,000 Bthu per day. Plantations of trees have been recoded to have daytime temperatures at least 3 degrees below the ambient. This is an important aspect of Ecosystem Services that needs to be considered for adaptive agriculture.

Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realise the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer facing the headlights.

But placing trees in and around cropping areas becomes a problem in large cropping fields designed to accommodate machine management. The management of such trees and hedgerows requires needs that cannot be provided without human management. Agricultural landscapes will need management that will be adaptive to the changing climate. An example would be; small interdependent units bounded by fences and that increase biodiversity and the biomass while providing Ecosystem Services.

Investment in food security, should take climate change seriously. All new agricultural projects should address the heat thresholds of the planned crops. The Sri Lankan country statement at COP 21 stated that :

“We are aware that the optimum operating temperature of chlorophyll is at 37 deg C. In a warming world where temperatures will soar well above that, food production will be severely impacted.”

And that :

“We are aware that the critical Ecosystem services such as; production of Oxygen, sequestering of Carbon, water cycling and ambient cooling is carried out by the photosynthetic component of biomass. This is being lost at an exponential rate, due to the fact that these Ecosystem Services have not been valued, nor economically recognised.”

These statements cry out for the recognition of the role that small farms will have to play in the future. In a temperature compromised future, small farms with high standing biomass, through their cooler temperatures will continue to produce food in heat stressed periods. If such Ecosystem Services can be given a value, it will strengthen the economy of small farms and ensure local, sustainable food production into the future.

Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realize the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer in sheadlights.

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Encouraging signs, indeed!



Derek and Manilal

Local entertainers can now breathe a sigh of relief…as the showbiz scene is showing signs of improving

Yes, it’s good to see Manilal Perera, the legendary singer, and Derek Wikramanayake, teaming up, as a duo, to oblige music lovers…during this pandemic era.

They will be seen in action, every Friday, at the Irish Pub, and on Sundays at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby.

The Irish Pub scene will be from 7.00 pm onwards, while at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby, action will also be from 7.00 pm onwards.

On November 1st, they are scheduled to do the roof top (25th floor) of the Movenpik hotel, in Colpetty, and, thereafter, at the same venue, every Saturday evening.

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Constructive dialogue beyond international community



by Jehan Perera

Even as the country appears to be getting embroiled in more and more conflict, internally, where dialogue has broken down or not taken place at all, there has been the appearance of success, internationally. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be leading a delegation this week to Scotland to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Both the President, at the UN General Assembly in New York, and Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris, at the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva seem to have made positive impacts on their audiences and, especially amongst the diplomatic community, with speeches that gave importance to national reconciliation, based on dialogue and international norms.

In a recent interview to the media Prof Peiris affirmed the value of dialogue in rebuilding international relations that have soured. He said, “The core message is that we believe in engagement at all times. There may be areas of disagreement from time to time. That is natural in bilateral relations, but our effort should always be to ascertain the areas of consensus and agreement. There are always areas where we could collaborate to the mutual advantage of both countries. And even if there are reservations with regard to particular methods, there are still abundant opportunities that are available for the enhancement of trade relations for investment opportunities, tourism, all of this. And I think this is succeeding because we are establishing a rapport and there is reciprocity. Countries are reaching out to us.”

Prof Peiris also said that upon his return from London, the President would engage in talks locally with opposition parties, the TNA and NGOs. He spoke positively about this dialogue, saying “The NGOs can certainly make a contribution. We like to benefit from their ideas. We will speak to opposition political parties. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is going to meet the Tamil National Alliance on his return from COP26, which we will attend at the invitation of the British Prime Minister. So be it the NGO community or the foreign diaspora or the parliamentary opposition in Sri Lanka. We want to engage with all of them and that is very much the way forward”


The concept of a whole-of-government approach is indicative of a more cohesive approach to governance by government ministries, the public administration and state apparatus in general to deal with problems. It suggests that the government should not be acting in one way with the international community and another way with the national community when it seeks to resolve problems. It is consistency that builds trust and the international community will trust the government to the extent that the national community trusts it. Dialogue may slow down decision making at a time when the country is facing major problems and is in a hurry to overcome them. However, the failure to engage in dialogue can cause further delays due to misunderstanding and a refusal to cooperate by those who are being sidelined.

There are signs of fragmentation within the government as a result of failure to dialogue within it. A senior minister, Susil Premajayantha, has been openly critical of the ongoing constitutional reform process. He has compared it to the past process undertaken by the previous government in which there was consultations at multiple levels. There is a need to change the present constitutional framework which is overly centralised and unsuitable to a multi ethnic, multi religious and plural society. More than four decades have passed since the present constitution was enacted. But the two major attempts that were made in the period 1997-2000 and again in 2016-2019 failed.

President Rajapaksa, who has confidence in his ability to stick to his goals despite all obstacles, has announced that a new constitution will be in place next year. The President is well situated to obtain success in his endeavours but he needs to be take the rest of his government along with him. Apart from being determined to achieve his goals, the President has won the trust of most people, and continues to have it, though it is getting eroded by the multiple problems that are facing the country and not seeing a resolution. The teachers’ strike, which is affecting hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, is now in its fourth month, with no sign of resolution. The crisis over the halting of the import of chemical fertiliser is undermining the position of farmers and consumers at the present time.


An immediate cause for the complaints against the government is the lack of dialogue and consultation on all the burning issues that confront the country. This problem is accentuated by the appointment of persons with military experience to decision-making positions. The ethos of the military is to take decisions fast and to issue orders which have to be carried out by subordinates. The President’s early assertion that his spoken words should be taken as written circulars reflects this ethos. However, democratic governance is about getting the views of the people who are not subordinates but equals. When Minister Premajayantha lamented that he did not know about the direction of constitutional change, he was not alone as neither does the general public or academicians which is evidenced by the complete absence of discussion on the subject in the mass media.

The past two attempts at constitutional reform focused on the resolution of the ethnic conflict and assuaging the discontent of the ethnic and religious minorities. The constitutional change of 1997-2000 was for the purpose of providing a political solution that could end the war. The constitutional change of 2016-19 was to ensure that a war should not happen again. Constitutional reform is important to people as they believe that it will impact on how they are governed, their place within society and their equality as citizens. The ethnic and religious minorities will tend to prefer decentralised government as it will give them more power in those parts of the country in which they are predominant. On the other hand, that very fact can cause apprehension in the minds of the ethnic and religious majority that their place in the country will be undermined.

Unless the general public is brought aboard on the issue of constitutional change, it is unlikely they will support it. We all need to know what the main purpose of the proposed constitutional reform is. If the confidence of the different ethnic and religious communities is not obtained, the political support for constitutional change will also not be forthcoming as politicians tend to stand for causes that win them votes. Minister Premajayantha has usefully lit an early warning light when he said that politicians are not like lamp posts to agree to anything that the government puts before them. Even though the government has a 2/3 majority, this cannot be taken for granted. There needs to be buy in for constitutional reform from elected politicians and the general public, both from the majority community and minorities, if President Rajapaksa is to succeed where previous leaders failed.

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