At a point in our lives, we must ask the question “after we die, what happens next?”. As a result of this, Buddhists believes that after this life two things could happen to a man. First, it is either he will be reborn into another being as in reincarnation or he finally attains nirvana where he would not live to suffer again. However, nirvana is for those who attained awakening just as the Buddha.
Buddhists believe that death is not the end of someone. Moreover, the process of rebirth is still a path to attain awakening. That is to say, one’s rebirth depends on his deeds on the previous life. This follows the law of karma where one faces the consequences of his immoral actions or reaps the fruit of his previous moral life.
In Buddhism, the death and rebirth process will continue until the cause is finally extinct. And, the Buddha pointed desire as the trait that attaches one to continuous rebirth after death. Whereby, desire involves craving and wishing for so many things in life. Therefore, if one wants to be free from this cycle of death and rebirth, one must first overcome human craving.
On the other hand, during the time of the Buddha, he spoke little on the afterlife issues. This is because the Buddha himself focused more on teaching the way to alleviate human suffering. Most importantly, he showed his followers the things to do bring them closer to enlightenment. For example, he taught them to donate to the monasteries that this will grant them merit for a favorable rebirth.
To better understand the concept of the afterlife in Buddhism, there are various Buddhist beliefs you need to understand.
These beliefs include:
The concept of rebirth in Buddhism involves the taking of a new body in a practically new life. In Buddhism, this process is the reincarnation of the being. However, the Buddha pointed out that because one died as a human does not guarantee he will be reborn as a human. Certainly, being a human is just existing in one of the six realms of existence.
That is to say, when one dies, he can be reborn in any of the six realms which include the god realm (deva), the demigod realm (asura), the human realm, the animal realm, the hungry ghost realm (preta), and the hell realm. The criteria for being reborn in any of these realms depends on the karmic effects of your previous life.
Further, although the six realms are common among the various forms of Buddhism. However, in the traditional practice of Mahayana Buddhism, there exist four other higher realms. And, among these four are the realm of the Buddha and the bodhisattva. Most importantly, these are the highest realms of existence and attained by humans.
On the same note, the Buddha likened the process of rebirth to the lighting of candles with the flames of each preceding one in a rather successive manner. By implication, in as much as the flame has a way of relating to that of the previous candle, it is quite a different flame. Conclusively, rebirth in Buddhism is more of the process of transmigration.
The Buddhists see nirvana as a state in which one is totally free from suffering. That is to say, there would not be the continuous rebirth after death. Moreover, literally, the word nirvana in itself means “to extinguish”. And, in such a way that fire will go out when its fuel burns out.
The continuous cycle of death and rebirth is dependent on the karma. That is to say, karma is the fuel on which the cycle runs. And, karma is dependent on one’s actions in the previous life which borders on one’s desires and attachment to worldly things. Therefore, to achieve nirvana, one must let go of all external things. This will lead to an end of the cycle.
During the time of the Buddha, he merely spoke on what nirvana is like. He never likened it to heaven or any other place of liberation. Instead, he described nirvana as incomprehensible, indescribable, inconceivable, and unutterable.
However, the Buddha left an idea of what the state of nirvana is not like.
Thus, it is a place that:
- nothing exists except for what the mind itself sees.
- one no longer embrace the dualism belief which involves man’s two basic discriminating nature, because he is aware of the nature of his own mind.
- there is no more grasping or thirst.
- attachment to external things is no longer in existence.
Summarily, the idea of what nirvana is like appears to be quite vague. This is because the Buddha believed that focusing on nirvana will lead to attachment. Consequently, bringing more suffering instead of liberation. As a result, he focused more on the means of alleviating and eventually quenching all human sufferings.
The law of karma has it that everyone is responsible for any action he or she takes be it positive or negative. To clarify, you must face the consequences of your bad deeds or reap the fruits of your good deeds in a future time.
The effects of karma can take place immediately or later on in the same lifetime. However, some effects do not manifest until you are reborn in the next life. The most important thing is that the effects of karma must surely manifest. And, you will reap exactly what you have sown.
Similarly, when you experience either good or bad things, it is likely the effect of your past actions. That is to say, the actions you took previously in the same lifetime or in the previous lifetime.
Also, karma determines in which realm you will be reborn in the next life. Positive karma will lead you to be reborn in a higher realm which is the god realm or demigod realm. On the other hand, negative karma will lead to a rebirth in a lower realm which could be animal realm, the hungry ghost realm, or the hell realm.
Nothing can stop the effects of karma. And, it is applicable to every single person even those that have attained enlightenment. However, the goal of Buddhism is to achieve nirvana while escaping the cycle of death and rebirth.
THE INTERMEDIATE STATE
When one dies, the Buddhist community believes that the consciousness of the being leaves his immediate body. And, takes a new body for rebirth. The intermediate state comes between the period of time the consciousness of the being leaves the body and the time it takes up a new body.
Taking up a new body can happen almost immediately as one dies. Also, it can take some time which might be up to 49 days. This is when your consciousness searches for a new body. And, this searching is in the direction of your karma.
That state in which you are yet to be reborn into a new life is the intermediate state. And, this state is not quite easily understood or explained. However, Buddhists believe that before reincarnation, this is the state where one finds himself.
The intermediate state has 3 stages within the 49 days it could last. Buddhists refer to these stages as the “bardos”. Certainly, at the final stage of the bardos, the being is either reborn or goes into nirvana. The three stages include:
Stage 1 (The Chikai Bardo)
This is the beginning stage of the intermediate state. And, at this stage, the Buddhists believes that the consciousness of the dead will leave the body in which it once existed. Certainly, what marks this stage is the experience of a clear white light at the person’s point of death. Every person will experience at least an ephemeral perception of the light.
The white light lasts according to the spiritual development of the dead person. As a result, persons who have strong spiritual development will tend to experience the light longer. Subsequently, they will enter into a level of clearer reality as they go beyond the light.
On the other hand, persons with lower spiritual development will experience the light shortly. And, falls into a lesser level of the white light in the secondary form.
The Chikai Bardo stage starts from the point of death and lasts between half a day to at most four days. In addition, you can refer to this stage as the Bardo of dying. And, all that one experience at the stage is in the consciousness of the departed.
Stage 2 (The Chonyid Bardo)
This is the stage between the leaving of the body and rebirth. In this stage, the consciousness of the departed person experiences hallucinations. And, these hallucinations are as a result of the effects of karma based on the life he lived in the already dropped body.
While experiencing all these wandering of the mind, the person will feel as if he is still within his body. But, there are exceptions for those who have highly developed spirits. This is because they tend to see things in a clearer form.
In addition, the departed will subsequently experience the preternatural appearances of various deities. These deities can appear in the form of peaceful deities or on the other hand wrathful deities. Although they are all human feelings in a personified encounter.
However, one has to go through this stage without showing any fear in order to attain nirvana. But, not every person will be able to achieve nirvana successfully. As a result, it is only those persons who have evolved highly in the spirit will go into the paradise realm after escaping the Bardo encounters.
You can also refer to this stage as the Bardo of the luminous mind.
Stage 3 (The Sidpa Bardo)
This is the last stage of the intermediate state of death. At this stage, the departed who could not go into the paradise realm is reborn in a new body. And, this is the process of reincarnation. Thus, the Sidpa Bardo can equally be referred to as the Bardo of rebirth.
Most importantly, this stage also bows to the law of karma. That is to say, the form and the realm in which the person is reborn is as a result of the effect of karma on his actions in the previous life.
THE EVOLUTION OF THE BUDDHIST AFTERLIFE BELIEFS
As Buddhism traveled across various traditions with different perceptions of afterlife, more Buddhist beliefs on afterlife emerged. This is as a result of Buddhism mixing with the beliefs of other religion and tradition. Consequently, the various Buddhist cultures now have slightly different views on the concept of the afterlife. However, we have seen the general ideas surrounding the belief of Buddhists on the afterlife.
Moreover, there are other Buddhist beliefs on afterlife which evolved as Buddhism met with other belief systems. For instance,
In Mahayana Buddhism there exist an interpretation of salvation which involves one being reborn in a Pure Land.
A Pure Land is a place where one could be reborn. And, he will continue to strive towards enlightenment in a conducive environment. Most importantly, he would not have to fear to be reborn into the human realm.
Also, Mahayana Buddhist texts mentioned hell in which one could be reborn. But, this is in the event of trying to save one from the sphere of hell. You can see this as Buddhist’s transfer merits to people in such position.
In addition, there is also the belief of the “Yama”. The Yama is a deity that Buddhists believes to pass judgment when one dies and punish him according to his evil deeds. However, the punishment will not last for eternity but just until the negative effects of the karma on one’s wrongdoings exhausts.
The figure of the Yama is common in the explanation of afterlife among Buddhists in East Asia and Tibet.
Moreover, the Tibetan Buddhists also conceived the existence of the Bardo. And, as an intermediate state before reincarnation.
Further, as Buddhism came to the Chinese, the traditional belief of the Chinese culture influenced the Buddhist beliefs. That is to say, Chinese Buddhists adopted the belief that the ancestors played a role in the life of humans. As a result, the traditional Chinese Buddhists will burn incense, or sometimes paper goods.
This practice of burning paper goods that depicts money is performed in the benefits of the dead loved ones. And, to make things better for them as they journey through the afterlife. On the other hand, they believe that the ones in the afterlife can actually affect the life of the living in either a positive or negative way.
In the practice of Buddhism today, there are various notions of the afterlife. These notions emerged as Buddhism encountered different cultures with already existing belief on the afterlife. As a result, you can say that the cultural backgrounds of the nations practicing Buddhism have a great influence on the afterlife beliefs of Buddhists.
On the same note, you should bear in mind that Buddhism evolved over the years within the respective traditions that adopted the practice. Therefore, you are likely to witness the afterlife belief that may seem to contradict.
However, in this article, we discussed the common afterlife beliefs among Buddhists in clear subheadings. In addition, we pointed out the remarkable differences in the afterlife beliefs of Buddhists as influenced by other traditions.
Lastly, the article provides a general overview of the Buddhist afterlife beliefs. Hence, noting that the Buddha himself did not explain much on afterlife during his time.