A Student Asks: What is it that continues after death? What is that continuity that passes from life to life and how does it do that?

A Student asks:

My question is about continuity – our continuity here and after death. What can this be?

Lama Shenpen replies:

The continuity in essence is in the openness, clarity and sensitivity of our being – and that is not in time or in space. It is continuity because it doesn’t change. This is a very deep point to ponder on.

How is there continuity between a person in one life and their rebirth in a future birth? That is a question about how we can appear to manifest in a world in time and space even though in essence we are not limited to time and space. This is a very deep question.


Since in Buddhist teaching connections are regarded as so important and also as continuing from one life to the next, I am wondering how they are carried over? There are stories of advanced practitioners recognising people and places from former lives, so do we perhaps have a subconscious memory which causes us to feel drawn towards particular Buddhas or teachers or teachings with whom we have established connections?

But this raises the question of what passes from life to life. If it is only our Buddha nature, which is the same in everyone, then can it carry forward even subconscious memories, which are necessarily individual? Or does it have to be Karma, which somehow, as it were, registers our connections and causes us to meet up again with those we are connected to, apparently by chance?

The only other possible explanation I can see is that if all times are interconnected, in some sense connections are timeless, have always existed and always will. But then why is it necessary to make them? And wouldn’t it exclude free will? This same question arises with reference to pranidhanas and vows. How do they have an effect on future lives? In fact how do we carry forward the progress we make on the path, so that eventually we can awaken?

Lama Shenpen:

You are getting on the right track when you talk about connections that are not in time and space.

The connections are there and if we have cultivated a particular connection with a particular teacher in a past life or in this life, we can feel a sense of connection that is not particularly based on memories as such. We might not think ‘oh yes I remember that person was kind to me’ – we might just feel drawn to that person for no particular reason.

I expect there are various things going on there in the sense that it may be patterns we are used to from memories in this life that are not ‘remembered’ consciously but are going on at an unconscious level. It is interesting that we call this unconscious or even perhaps sub-conscious without really knowing what we are saying. How can we be aware or conscious of something we are not aware or conscious of? Nonetheless I think we are looking in the right direction here.

Memories and habitual tendencies and karmic traces have to be somewhere and I would say they have to be outside time and space. I suspect they are the connections themselves that we know directly but are not aware of them until we have interpreted them in terms of a framework of time and space.

Maybe our whole life is like that. We interpret it as a stream of events and join them up as we go along and call all that our life, and then death happens and we draw a line under that ‘life’ as if it were there and then it was not. Then any future connections have to be interpreted as a future life, whereas in essence they are not divided up into lives that way.

If we could see Reality as it was then nothing would be going from life to life – it would all be of a piece, the Whole seen from a particular point of view. But since we don’t have that Enlightened Vision we have to think of one life following another as a best approximation within the limitations of the way we think. At least this way we continue to give our life meaning and we have a sense of a path to guide our actions.

It is just as in this life we have a sense of being a person living a life even though we cannot find any person still present from the past or any person existing in the future and the present person is so fleetingly present it’s hardly what you would call a person! Nonetheless a person has meaning and a person waking up to their true nature has meaning – ultimately the person is the Buddha.

These are deep questions we are considering here.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

Lama Shenpen’s students are engaged in the Living the Awakened Heart Training – available to all. The training is a structured, comprehensive, supported distance learning programme in Buddhist meditation, reflection and insight, bringing the profound Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings to a Western audience in an experiential, accessible way, through spiral learning.