Buddhist Concepts of Life and Death

By Pastor L.


A great ethnic migration occurred in the area near the Black Sea around 3000-4000 B.C. The group moving west became the ancestors of today's Europeans, whereas the group moving east became the ancestors of today's Persians and Indians. The group entering India called themselves Aryans. The Aryans () entered the Indus Valley from the northeast of India; they conquered the aborigines and settled down on the upper reaches of the Indus River around 1500 B.C. Then, they occupied the fertile land of the Yamuna River () and the Ganges River () around 1000 B.C.

After the Aryans subdued the locals, they divided those people into four castes or Varnas () :

  1. the Brahmins ( ) (priests, scholars, and teachers of the law) ;
  2. the Kshatriyas ();
  3. the Vaishyas ( ) (civilians,smiths,businessmen, landlords and peasants ) ;and
  4. the Shudras ( ) (despised people and slaves ) .

The Brahmins are of the highest class in this hierarchy and they are responsible for conducting religious rituals, so Hinduism is also called Brahmanism. ()

Over time, the Aryans' ideas of Brahmanism blended with those of the locals. Brahmanism is named after Brahmanaspati, the "spoken word" at the ritual sacrifice, which eventually gave rise to the names of Brahma, the Creator God, and Brahman, the all-encompassing world soul. Its main ideas include:

  1. Thoughts are revealed: All the Brahmanic canons are heavenly revelations.
  2. Sacraments are all-powerful: The merits of sacrifices are believed to be all-powerful.
  3. Priesthood is superior: Since Brahmanic priests enjoy superior social status, believers must kneel and bow down to them.

New social classes emerged from the Ganges Plain after 600B.C. Due to better-arranged water irrigation, the fertility of the land, the prosperity of trades and the revolutions in politics, the Kshatriyas () and wealthy businessmen raised their heads, new religious sects and new thinkers popped up, and many people broke away from the traditional religion. Two strong forces among the trend of development are Buddhism and Jainism ( ).

The Founder of Buddhism

The founder of Buddhism, Sakyamuni, also called Buddha, was born around 566B.C. He grew up in a Kshatrya ruler's palace, and received the religious education of Brahmanism since childhood. After his zealous search for the ideals and goals of his life in his youth, he realized that all the cares of this life came from ignorance (). He brought up new truths, which reformed the hierarchical idea in India and became the foundation of Buddhism.

Buddhism was spread into China during the Eastern Han Dynasty. During the reign of Eastern Jin Dynasty () ,the doctrines of Buddhism pacified many people over the political upheaval, so the thoughts of reincarnation took its roots in the folks' minds.

1. The Definition of Reincarnation

A. The Romanized Hindi word "Samsara" () means "to go or pass through states," or "to flow together," meaning all creatures are involved in an endless cycle of life and death among three realms and six paths depending on their different karmas.

B. Its English translation "Transmigration" means the soul gets its rebirth after death.

C. Its Chinese translation "" means the cycles of human cause and effect never cease.

2. The Genes of Reincarnation

A. The cause of karma (): All of our behaviors can be good or bad, and our every "deed" or "act" has its good or bad effects, which is its karma. As we die, we receive the accumulated effects of our karmas, just like the saying goes, "Good deeds have their good effects; bad deeds have their bad effects. It's not that man does not get what he deserves, but that the time of retribution () hasn't arrived yet." The result of one's karma is completed in the path of Reincarnation that one goes to.

B. The result of one's karma produces a cycle of cause-and-effect over three lifetimes ()

  1. Karma can never be destroyed, nor can it be ended. After one person dies, one's karma will guide oneself to transform into another form of new life.
  2. Man's death is simply based on the body's physical principle () of gather and scatter.
  3. After one enjoys all of one's good karmas, one will descend from heaven; on the other hand, after one suffers from one's bad karmas, one may come out of hell and get the opportunity of rebirth.
  4. To understand our past goodness or badness, we need only to look at our present life condition; as to our future condition, it totally depends on how we behave ourselves in this life.

3. The six paths of Reincarnation ()

A. There are three good paths and three bad paths:

  1. Devas: () The most blessed realm, full of pleasure.
  2. Asuras: The Realm of anger, jealousy and constant war.
  3. Humans: () A bittersweet realm, full of the pains of life, senile decay, illness and death.
  4. Animals: () A realm of ignorance and stupidity, full of the desires to devour and to kill.
  5. Hungry Ghosts: () The realm of eternal starvation.
  6. Beings in Hell: () The worst realm, wracked by all kinds of torture.

B. Who can get out of the cycle of Reincarnation:

  1. Only those who attain enlightenment can leave the deceiving world for the Nirvana state. ()
  2. Nirvana means "blowing out," putting out all kinds of vexations () and thus ending the cycle of Reincarnation, free from rebirth.
  3. To put out all vexations, one needs to see through the vanity() of the world; those who are able to see through fame, wealth and all kinds of desires and reach the state of Nirvana are called Buddhas () .
  4. Nirvana can also be called a self-less () idea, which considers the existence of all things to be without reality, and the self to be not real. Self (atman) comes from causes. It is a combination of a series of conditions.
  5. With the highest wisdom, Avalokitesvara () sees through
  6. The Five Skandhas ():
  7. TheTwelvefold Conditioned Arising: (): 1
    1. Ignorance ( :'‘Nescience concerning ill, its rise, its cessation and concerning the way going to the cessation of ill."
    2. Karmic formation (): One's activities in deed, in speech and within the mind.
    3. Consciousness ( ) : Eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, smell-consciousness, taste-consciousness, touch-consciousness, and mind-consciousness.
    4. Name and form () :"Feeling, perception, will, contact," and "work of mind" are called "name." The shape is derived fiom them.
    5. Six involvements () :"The sense of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body," and "mind."
    6. Contact () : Eye-contact, ear-contact, nose-contact, tongue-contact, body-contact, mind-contact."
    7. Feeling (: Feelings that are born of eye-contact, of ear-contact, of nose-contact, of tongue-contact, of body-contact, and of mind-contact.
    8. Craving (): Carving "for things seen, for things heard, for odors, for tastes, for things tangible," and "for ideas."
    9. Grasping () :Grasping of desires, of opinion, of ritual, and of soul theory.
    10. Existence ( ) : Becoming in kama (i.e., desire ), becoming in rupa ( i.e., form ), and becoming in arupa (i.e., formless )."
    11. Birth () : "That which, of this and that being in this and that group, is birth, continuous birth, descent, reproduction, appearance of component factors, acquiring of sense spheres."
    12. Old age and death (): "That which, of this and that being, in this and that group, is decay, decrepitude, breaking up, hoariness, wrinkling of the skin, shrinkage of a life-span, over-ripeness of faculties: this is called old age. That which, of this and that being from this or that group, is falling or decease, separation, disappearance, mortality or dying, accomplishment of time: separation of component factors, laying down of the carcass: this is called death."
    We may add that Buddhism asserts() that one dies because of "ignorance"; once the ignorance is removed, there will be no old age or death." As to what ignorance" is, there is no clear explanation.

    4. The Stage of Antarabhava ()

    A. Between one's death and rebirth, there is an intermediate period of 49 days called Antarabhava ().

    B. If the family of the deceased ensures that some rituals are duly performed, the departed is better able to take a favorable rebirth.

    5. Western Paradise ()

    A. The differences between Theravada () and Mahayana() became distinct in the 4th and 5th centuries.

    B. To the believers of Pure Land Buddhist, the Pure Land of Bliss created by Amitabha Buddha () is the place where souls go to after death.

    C. Even a terrible evil-doer may enter the Pure Land, as long as he or she chants the name of Amitabha Buddha with his or her whole heart before death.

    6. The Three Dharma Seals ()

    "All phenomena are impermanent.""All dharma are not self.""Nirvana is Quiescence."
    are called the Three Seals.

    Whoever owns the seals will not be bound up by anything. Nirvana means the most blessed state of complete quietness, wisdom, composure, happiness, and absolution, with the cycle of reincarnation ceased and all karmas extinguished. Dharma () means the phenomena of life. ()

    7. The Three Kinds of Buddhist Reactions to Death

    A. To cultivate one's "heart" according to the Buddhist belief. Mahayana () teaches its believers to "deal with death with the heart." () Its doctrines emphasized "emptiness" (sunya ), which says that all things are not really existent, for they are just illusions (). As the Heart Sutra () asserts,

    "All dharma () are illusions.
    They are neither existing nor non-existing.
    There are no such things as existence from ignorance,
    nor are there such things as the end of ignorance.
    There are no such things as old age and death,
    nor are there such things as the end of old age and death.
    The heart is not troubled.
    Since there is no trouble,
    there is no worries and also no fear."

    Zen () Buddhism, Tendai () Buddhism, Hua-Yen () Buddhism and Conscious-Only () Buddhism are the major schools of Buddhism; all of them agree with the idea of emptiness as advocated in the Heart Sutra . The most evident instance is Liuzu Hui-neng's poem ():

    The Bodhi is not a tree,
    The mirror is also not a looking-glass,
    There was nothing at all,
    Where can dust alight?

    B. To believe in Amitabha Buddha () and do some good deeds.

    C. To believe in Mahavairocana () and do some good deeds. Tantric Buddhism() thinks highly of Mahavairocana. According to its doctrines, Mahavairocana is composed of earth, water, fire, wind, air and consciousness. Since man is also composed of these six elements, he can be a Buddha as long as he realizes that his self is one with Mahavairocana and takes heed to observe the Three Mystic Practices.

    The Three Mystic Practices are:

    1. --Bodily mystic practice: to make offerings to the Buddha with both hands;
    2. --Oral mystic practice: to chant six mantras () with the mouth, and
    3. Mental mystic practice: to see reality with the heart. Those who observe the three mystic practices may have their bad karmas canceled, get rid of their illness, and obtain incredible merits.

    1The definitions are derived from Ronald B. Epstein, Buddhism A-Z. Buddhist Text Translation Society, pp. 208-209. Go back up to text.