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Buddhism: Introduction

Immortality and Life after Death

World Faith

Life after death: An introduction to Buddhist beliefs

Information: This article sets out key Buddhist beliefs on matters to do with life after death, and some of the spiritual principles funding these. A version of this article was originally published on the website www.faithnet.org.uk.

Introduction

All the major world religions teach that life continues after death. Christian, Islamic and Jewish beliefs can be generally classified as a linear, whereas the faith traditions Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism can be classified as mainly cyclical.

  • Liner: People live on the earth one time, and then when they die they face judgement.
  • Cyclical: People do not just live and die once, but can be reborn a number of times (and live a series of lives) before reaching their final end-state. After death the soul (or the essence of a person) is reborn in this world to live a new life. The process of being re-born into the world is also known as reincarnation.

The idea of being re-born here is not the same as being born-again. Some Christians talk about being born-again, but they do so meaning that when someone becomes a Christian, they are being spiritually re-born (having first been physically born into the world). This belief is based on something Jesus taught Nicodemus (see John 3:1-36).

This continuous cycle of life is known as samsara, and it is the aim of every Buddhist to achieve freedom from it so that they will no longer be reborn into the world.

Nirvana/nibbana

Buddhists believe people are continually reborn into this world, unless they have achieved liberation (freedom) from samsara (the continual process of birth, death and rebirth). The Buddha experienced samsara when he saw the effects of old age and sickness, leading to death. Freedom from samsara occurs when a person has reached nirvana (or nibbana).

Sometimes we find two different spelling for the same word in Buddhism, because the Buddha's teachings were written in two different languages. During the first century BCE, the Buddha's teachings were written in the colloquial (common) Indian language of Pali (P), which was the same language the Buddha spoke. Mahayana texts were found to be written in the classical (formal) Indian language of Sanskrit (S), and also have writings in them which are not found in the Theravada tradition. Sometimes different spellings of the same word contain an (S) or (P)) by them to indicate whether the word is of Theravada or Mahayana origin.

Nirvana literally means 'blowing out'. It describes the the state of mind when people have extinguished (or removed), all the desires which promote selfish attitudes (greed, hatred etc.) and the idea that all things in life do not change. Holding onto these things only increases dukkha, and is also evidence of still being on the samsaric cycle [1]. The Buddha taught that freedom from samsara would occur when a person attained enlightenment. This would normally be expected to take place over many lifetimes, and occurred as one realised The Four Noble Truths and practiced The Eightfold Path.

The word enlightenment implies 'awakening'. It suggests that people who have not been enlightened are in some ways 'asleep', or not seeing things as they really are. This idea can be seen in the phrase 'Wake up and smell the coffee', i.e. 'Wake up' and see your life and the world as it really is!

It is interesting that the Buddha refused to speculate about things such as how the world came about, and what life after death is like. This is because he was somewhat agnostic on such matters, because he felt no-one could ever know for sure how life began and what the after-life would be like. He was more concerned with dealing with the practical problem of living in the here and now, and as such speculating about the nature of things elsewhere simply prevented people from addressing the real issues they face today.

The belief that there is no point pondering the nature of things beyond our everyday experience is reinforced when speaking about nirvana. Some people think think this is like heaven, but it is more to with a state of mind, than physical place. The Buddha would question the wisdom of trying to establish what nirvana was, before seeking Enlightenment. Instead, he would advocate seeking Enlightenment, in order to find out what nirvana was like.

When religions speak of heaven/paradise, they often understand it as a place where a person goes to after they have died. However, Buddhists believe it is possible to dwell in nirvana (or state of bliss) when still alive. After all, this is what the Buddha himself did when he became enlightened.

Anatta

Unlike most world religions, Buddhism promotes the belief that we do not have a soul. Rather, Buddhists believe there is nothing in our lives which is permanent (or immortal). In each and every moment we are changing.

Something to think about: My thoughts are constantly changing as I think of what to write next on this page. My body is changing as skin cells die, and is being affected as I drink a cup of coffee. How are you changing as you read these words? Is there anything in your experience right now, which is not subject to change?

Buddhists refer to the constant process of change as annica (P), which literally means impermanence (i.e. nothing is permanent, or does not change). Buddhists use the word anatta (P) to refer to the idea that we have no permanent part of us, which we can call a soul [2].

One major difficulty with this notion though, is what exactly is being reborn in a future life, if Buddhists do not believe we have a soul? In other words, which part of a person's life (or thoughts/actions) affects the next, if everything is always changing? Buddhists tend to speak about the essence of a person being reborn, but this still does not help us deal with the problem of how something impermanent, can have a permanent essence, and if it does, what the difference between this and a permanent self (or soul) is?

Something to think about: If Buddhists do not believe in God, or believe we have a soul, can Buddhism still be classed as a religion?

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Karmic law

Although Siddhartha Gautama (S), later known as the Buddha (Enlightened One), was born a Hindu, Buddhism and Hinduism believe slightly different things about the law of karma (S). For a Hindu, a person's karma mainly affects where their soul will be reborn in a future life. Buddhists agree with this, but also add that one's actions have an effect in this life as well. For instance, things we do now can have an effect on us physically. For example, if a person hits someone they might hit them back and injure them. Secondly, things we do now can have an effect on us emotionally. For example, if someone tells a lie they might feel bad about doing so. They might feel uncomfortable around the person they lied to, next they see them.

Buddha believed that the consequences of our actions have karmic effects, according to a person's intentions (or desires). This means that if someone accidentally told a lie, then the effect of this on their future rebirth would not be as bad as if they had deliberately lied.

Belief in gods and the after-life

Although the Buddha did not believe in God, this does not mean Buddhists do not believe in the existence of divine beings (gods). Across the Buddhist traditions there is a strange mix of beliefs in supernatural beings, and even the after-life.

When Siddhartha was seeking enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, the demon Mara is said to have come to him to try and persuade him to give up.

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying speaks of how people can prepare themselves for the state between dying and being reborn (known as the Bardo state). It is during this time that a person will follow a path which will either lead to them being reborn, or freed from samsara.

The Tibetan Wheel of Becoming (or existence) shows six realms of samsara. At the top there are the gods (devas) in their 'heaven' (or place of luxury). To their right are the jealous gods who want to get into the top realm. At the bottom are beings in a tormented state ('hell') which is the opposite of the top realm. Just above this is the realm of the hungry ghosts (pretas) who are in a state of constant hunger or craving. The other two realms are the human and animal realms.

In Chinese Pure Land Buddhism, the Buddha Amitabha (Buddha of infinite light and compassion) sits in the Pure Land helping people achieve freedom from samsara. To get to his Pure Land people must call on the name of Amitabha ten times at the point of death.

Bodhisattvas delay their own enlightenment to help others achieve it. In Mahayana Buddhism, the Tibetan religious leader the Dalai Lama is believed to be an incarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (meaning 'One who looks down on compassion'). When the Dalai Lama dies monks will seek out the child who is believed to be the next reincarnation of this teacher (lama). Such a child is called a Tulku. When a child is believed to have been found, it will be given several tests. This could involve having to select items which belonged to the dead lama from amongst other things.

Notes

[1] Often understood as 'suffering', dukkha actually describes the sense of dissatisfaction with life and the world that regularly occurs when one does not realise that everything and everyone in the world changes, and does not and cannot ever stay the same (anicca).

[2] Buddhists believe one of the biggest things people have to address, is the idea that there is nothing in them which is permanent. They believe that the human body is composed of many parts: the physical body itself, the different experiences we have of things through our senses (E.g. touch, taste, sight, smell etc.), our conscious awareness of the world based on our senses (E.g. 'That's hot!' or 'That smells bad!'), our decisions of what to do based on this knowledge (E.g. 'That's hot, therefore I will remove my hand' or 'That smells bad, therefore I will open a window or get the air-freshener') and our basic awareness of things around us (E.g. 'That is round', or 'This is blue'). These five things which are believed to make up the person are known as the five skandhas. Non-Buddhists would usually say things such as 'I have a body', 'I am touching this pan', 'I am burning my hand', 'I will remove my hand', 'I have just burnt my hand' etc. However, by de-constructing the human person into these five different parts, Buddhists are attempting to remove the idea of a permanent self which we associate with them, when we use the term 'I' (or 'my', or 'me' etc.). By understanding the process of how we experience the world and ourselves, Buddhists are attempting to break the chain of thinking which leads to the illusion that there is a permanent self. For if we are nothing more than the product of a number of different changing sensations, then really there is no part of us which does not change. As such, are no longer entitled to say 'I [permanent part] am burning my [permanent part] hand' etc. Rather, when touching something hot we would have to simply say, 'Ouch! Hot!', this being the thought and feeling experienced at the time, and nothing more.


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