Buddhism Saṃsāra and Rebirth
Jeff Wilson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 September 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0141


Buddhists conceive of the world as a suffering-laden cycle of life, death, and rebirth, without beginning or end, known as samsara. Beings are driven from life to life in this system by karma, which is activated by their good or ill actions committed in this life as well as previous lives. Liberation from samsara is the raison d’être of Buddhism, and thus, in a sense, every resource in the Oxford Bibliographies Online for Buddhism could be said to relate to this entry. In the earliest conceptions, samsara seems to have had five distinct realms: hells, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, and heavens. The latter realm eventually split into the two realms of the devas and the asuras to form the six-realm scheme common to all contemporary forms of Buddhism. Of these realms, the human realm naturally receives the lion’s share of attention in traditional commentaries on Buddhist practice, while the hellish, heavenly, and hungry ghost realms are particularly important in the literary, moral, and ritual spheres of Buddhist activity. Saṃsāra is contrasted with nirvana, the state or realm of peace that lies beyond suffering, ignorance, and rebirth.


Saṃsāra and rebirth can be approached from many different avenues. One of the main ways they operate within Buddhism is through the role they play in defining the basic cosmological worldview of Buddhists throughout Asia. Whether individual Buddhists are actively attempting to exit samsara or not, they all operate within a conceptual universe that imagines six interconnected realms through which one cycles life after life, due to the karmic force of one’s ethical and unethical actions. The Buddhist universe shares some aspects with other religious worldviews, especially Indian ones, but is nevertheless a distinct way of mapping the world in which we live. Works in this section relate to this cosmological aspect of samsara. For scholars new to the subject, Halder 1977 and Becker 1993 provide excellent entry points. Larger, more complex approaches to the topic can be found in Tayé 1995 and especially Sadakata 1997. An alternate approach can be made by reading the jātaka literature, which lays out many cosmological concepts in story form (Cowell 1957 is the largest translated collection). Besides overviews, several of the works here focus on more specific topics. . For example, the place of animals in Buddhist cosmology is considered in Gjertson 1980, for example. On the other hand, the relation of spirits to Buddhist thought and practice are the subjects of DeCaroli 2004 (a broad study) and Holt 2007 (a more specific case study). Reynolds 1985 examines how competing elements of the rich Buddhist cosmology produce different approaches to Buddhism, demonstrating that Buddhist diversity occurs not only between various sects and national traditions but within them as well.

  • Becker, Carl. Breaking the Circle: Death and the Afterlife in Buddhism. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993.

    Becker’s work looks especially at Japanese Buddhism in a well-rounded study of death, transmigration, and rebirth beliefs, considering such subjects as interactions with non-Buddhist worldviews and medical ethics derived from Buddhist cosmology.

  • Cowell, E. B., ed. The Jātaka, or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births: Translated from the Pāli by Various Hands. London: Luzac, 1957.

    There is perhaps no better way to immerse oneself in the multi-realm world of Buddhist cosmology than through exploration of the jātaka literature. These amusing and edifying tales of the Buddha’s former lives display the range of possible forms of birth and rebirth, with animals, humans, spirits, and deities taking especially prominent roles. This translation was originally published in six volumes from 1895 to 1907, and republished as three volumes in 1957; the most recent reprint is 1990.

  • DeCaroli, Robert. Haunting the Buddha: Indian Popular Religions and the Formation of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    One of the more important works in Buddhist studies of the early 21st century. DeCaroli observes how myriad spirits and deities in Buddhist stories complicate the supposedly tidy division of the universe into six discreet realms, finding much evidence of pre-Buddhist strands of Indian religiosity that continued to function within Buddhist contexts. His interpretative term “spirit-deity” is a useful concept that allows the complexity of supernatural figures in the Buddhist world to remain in view.

  • Gjertson, Donald E. “Rebirth as an Animal in Medieval Chinese Buddhism.” Society for the Study of Chinese Religions Bulletin 8 (Fall 1980): 56–69.

    Primarily using vernacular miracle tales, several of which he translates, Gjertson describes medieval Chinese beliefs about how and why humans are reborn as animals (mainly, as immediate recompense for some ill deed during life). He also links the concern for people (especially parents) reborn as animals to the widespread practice of vegetarianism in Chinese Buddhism.

  • Halder, J. R. Early Buddhist Mythology. New Delhi: Manohar, 1977.

    A nice basic study that covers general cosmology, the heavens and hells, and the role of various types of beings such as buddhas and spirits. Focuses especially but not exclusively on earlier Buddhist sources.

  • Holt, John Clifford. “Gone but Not Departed: The Dead among the Living in Contemporary Buddhist Sri Lanka.” In The Buddhist Dead: Practices, Discourses, Representations. Edited by Bryan J. Cuevas and Jacqueline I. Stone, 326–344. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007.

    Using both textual sources and fieldwork, Holt describes the relations between the living and the dead, especially “hungry ghosts” of former family members who can cause trouble if not appeased.

  • Reynolds, Frank E. “Multiple Cosmogonies and Ethics: The Case of Theravada Buddhism.” In Cosmogony and Ethical Order: New Studies in Comparative Ethics. Edited by Robin W. Lovin and Frank E. Reynolds, 203–224. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

    Reynolds investigates the ethical implications of different ways of conceptualizing the universe within Buddhism, looking at cause-and-effect, the decline of particular world-systems, soteriology, and the anticipation of the future Buddha Metteya (Maitreya).

  • Sadakata, Akira. Buddhist Cosmology: Philosophy and Origins. Tokyo: Kōsei Publishing, 1997.

    Perhaps the best easily available work on the subject. Sadakata treats many complex subjects with clarity, assisted by helpful charts and images that illustrate visually the concepts under discussion.

  • Tayé, Jamgön Kongrul Lodrö. Myriad Worlds: Buddhist Cosmology in Abhidharma, Kālacakra and Dzog-chen. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1995.

    This translation, with introductory comments, introduces part of the work of a 19th-century Tibetan lama. While itself a sectarian work, it is highly useful in illustrating Tibetan understandings of cosmology derived from various sources operative in Tibet, from early Buddhist commentary to tantric systems.

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