Buddhist Views on Death
Recently my mother passed away, so I’ve been contemplating the various Buddhist views on death since I found myself wondering whether or not there is a belief in an afterlife in Buddhism that could help give me and others who are grieving a sense of piece.
I think it’s important to understand since all of us will face death someday, whether it be that of a friend, loved one or ourselves. This is in fact one of the Four Sights that motivated young Siddhartha to pursue a spiritual life. In this article I will show a few examples of various Buddhist traditions that seem to say very different things about death and dying.
General Buddhist Perspective
According to Buddhism, there is neither an idea of an “eternal soul” nor a Creator Deity as one would find in the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam). In Buddhism, an “eternal soul” separate from everything else simply cannot exist due to the universal truth of impermanence.
Instead of the idea of a soul, what we regard as the self is composed of five aggregates (or skandhas) which include thoughts, feelings, and perceptions that are constantly changing as a kind of mental energy continuum. When a person dies this mental energy is “reborn”.
Some schools believe that this rebirth takes place immediately, others believe that rebirth (or reincarnation as some say) takes place after a certain amount of time (i.e. 7 days, 49 days, etc.) in an “intermediate state”. And others reject the literal concepts of rebirth and reincarnation (i.e. Soto sect of Zen) altogether.
All agree however that the circumstances into which one is reborn is conditioned by the sum total of the karma created in the previous life.
In the Theravada (Individualistic Vehicle) schools of Buddhism that are prevalent in Southeast Asia, it is generally taught that we live and die in each moment, and that when the continuum of life is interrupted by death, rebirth occurs immediately in one of the 31 planes of existence.
The understanding here is that while the person’s identity ceases, it is not a complete annihilation of existence since the karma accumulated by a person’s thoughts, words, and actions does not disappear but is carried forward in the next rebirth.
Our physical bodies are shaped by the karma of our thoughts, words, and actions so when your body dies then the accumulated karma from your life ensures that the causes and conditions are present for rebirth to occur. So we can say that one life comes to an end while another life with similar karma begins.
Theravada Buddhists also say that there is no intermediate state after death (unlike the teachings in Vajrayana Buddhism). This immediacy of rebirth is likened by the Buddha to a lighting a candle with the fire of another candle.
When we use one candle to light another, fire from another candle causes the wick of the second candle to burn. But there is no substance that makes the fire travel from one wick to the next, but at the same time the first candle flame is the cause of the second candle flame.
That being said, according to the Abidharmakosa text of Theravada Buddhism (dating back to the 5th century CE written by Buddhist monk Vasubandhu) says that there is in fact an intermediate state called “antarabhava” prior to rebirth.
So according to this teaching, the deceased person retains a sort of subtle body that either attains Nirvana or rebirth by virtue of the karma accumulated in their lives. The deceased is said to be visible only to beings of similar spiritual attainment, has complete non-physical sensory faculties, and also have the ability to pass through material objects.
But the distinction between this teaching and others such as that found in the Tibetan Book of the Dead is that the deceased cannot affect their own rebirth or find liberation.
In Tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism, the deceased person after death has a subtle body and is said to go through six between states (bardos) where they encounter multiple opportunities to achieve liberation before rebirth occurs.
Unlike other schools of Buddhism, the skilled practitioner is said to be able to either achieve liberation outright, or at least be reborn in more favorable conditions than the karma in their previous life might have warranted.
There are numerous meditation practices and rituals that last for a period of 49 days which is the amount of time that the deceased spends traversing the between states, according to our limited sense of time. From the perspective of the deceased the rebirth would seem to be instantaneous because of this.
For example, the Tibetan text “Liberation Through Understanding in the Between” (aka Tibetan Book of the Dead) is read in the vicinity of the remains of the deceased. It is believed that the dead person can hear instructions that are read to them by loved ones or by a monk.
Pure Land Buddhism
In Pure Land Buddhism in Japan there is a view of a “heaven-like” afterlife which is said to be free of fear, want, or sadness. The purpose of this Pure Land (said to be created by Amitabha Buddha) for those who are reborn there is to be able to more easily “attain” Nirvana.
There are descriptions of the Pure Land in many sutras (e.g. Pure Land Sutra) which describe this “place” as being decorated with jewels and precious metals, cool refreshing ponds where lotus flowers are abundant and the birds sing the praises of the Buddha three times a day.
According to most Zen traditions such as the one found in Vietnam (called Thien), there is an oversimplified teaching that is taught to lay Buddhist wherein they say that the spirit remains which then seeks out a new life due to its attachment to this world as a result of all the positive and negative actions committed by that person.
They teach that the person is reborn in one of the Six Realms (Heaven, the Human Realm, Asura, Hungry Ghost, Animal, and Hell) though the person doesn’t stay stuck in these “places” indefinitely and can be liberated from these states of being.
Usually when a person has died or is dying, the service of a monk, priest, or nun is requested who then chant various Buddhist sutras and prayers for the person. In fact, in many countries such as Vietnam it is believed that this chanting should be the last thing the dying person hears. This is believed to help relieve a dying person’s fear and helps the deceased be reborn in higher realms of existence.
Zen Buddhism – Soto sect
Last but not least is the perspective of the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism is Japan. This perspective is expressed by the founder of the sect Dogen Zenji who authored the famous work called Shobogenzo.
In this work, Dogen firmly denies the concepts of rebirth and reincarnation within the following chapters of Shobogenzo: Bendowa (A Talk on Practicing Zazen), Genjo Koan (The Realized Universe), and Soku Shin Ze Butsu (Mind Here and Now is Buddha).
The following quote by Dogen sums up the teaching of the Soto sect:
- “Firewood, after becoming ash, does not again become firewood. Similarly, human beings, after death, do not live again.” (Nishijima/Cross translation)
So what are we to make of all of these various, seemingly conflicting perspectives? The fact remains that we don’t know for sure what happens after death. We can only be sure of how we act and react in the present moment of our lives.
Many Buddhist teachers say that these references to rebirth or reincarnation should not be taken literally but rather metaphorically.
Of course we all want to believe that some part of ourselves will survive death, which is part of the illusion of separation between ourselves and everyone and everything else. But death is part of life and with every exhalation cells in our bodies grow old and die.
So what can you do to prepare for death? I think that if we hold to the Buddhist precepts and act compassionately and lovingly towards others then I think we will leave the earth a better place.
Thanks for reading this article on the various Buddhist views on death and feel free to leave a thought or question in the comments below.