|Artist: Haruko Maeda|
It is axiomatic that nirvana (ie, the extinguishment of suffering) is the ultimate end goal in Buddhism, however it is equally axiomatic that most people dwell in an ocean of suffering, hence most people do not achieve nirvana, but they do die. What happens after death is something that not all Buddhists agree on. Many Western Buddhists hold afterlife views that differ little from atheism, which is to say that essentially they do not believe in an afterlife except in some very abstract way (such as that what we do in our life echoes on through the ages, or that our material remains will eventually become the basis of some new form of life). However, the orthodox teachings make it clear that traditional Buddhism embraces the concept of repeated rebirths into multiple realms of being. Thus when most of us die we do not die with finality, rather death is part of the ongoing life-death-rebirth cycle that characterises ordinary existence.
The Theravada / Nikaya afterlife
The orthodox position of Theravada Buddhism on rebirth is laid out in The Debate of King Milinda, as written down in the 1st century BCE – it records a dialogue between the Greek king of Bactria and the sage Nagasena. Nagasena says that ordinary people are reborn but that from existence to existence these people are:
“Neither the same nor another … [just as] a pot of milk that turns first to curds, then to butter, then to ghee; it would not be right to say that the ghee, butter and curds were the same as the milk but they have come from that so neither would it be right to say that they are something else [Pesala at 11].”