|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].”
Milinda asks what is it that is reborn, to which the reply is “mind and matter”. Nagasena explains that:
“… by this mind and matter deeds are done and because of those deeds another mind and matter is reborn; but that mind and matter is not thereby released from the results of its previous deeds [Pesala at 13].”
However this does not mean that our core self will continually live on, transmigrating from one life to another, however much it may seem so, as becomes not so clear in the following simile of Nagasena:
“As the carpenter discards rotten wood and takes only sound timber, so should the monk discard wrong views like … the soul is the body, the soul is one thing the body another … when a being dies a new being is reborn, conditioned things are eternally existing, the one who acts experiences the result thereof, one acts and another experiences the result … [Pesala at 104].”
What Nagasena is getting at here relates to teachings that can seem esoteric, but put briefly state that we have no true self, in contrast to traditional Hindu teachings which declare the fundamental truth of an inner self, or atman. Game of Thrones fans will know of the teaching that “a girl is no-one”, even while a girl stands before a man; the Buddhist teaching of not-self is certainly not the same, but for introductory purposes could be described as similar, insofar as Buddhism rejects the notion that we have an inherent self or identity, not least because of the fundamental impermanence of all things in the universe. Whatever self can be said to exist is subject to so much change that it cannot be said to truly exist, just as who you were at birth really is not the same as who you are now and who you will be if you live another 40 years. Ipso facto, when we are reborn we are not really that self who we were but neither are we altogether something new.
|Theravada nun. Image by Lafforgue|
“… reborn in companionship with the Devas [ie, the Gods] … The worldling remains there all his life, and when he has completed the entire lifespan of those Devas he goes to hell, to the animal realm, and to the domain of spirits [Bodhi at 216].”
Atheistic Buddhists assert that these states of existence are merely mental states in this lifetime and not literal rebirths but this position does not accord with the canonical teachings such as the Majjhima Nikaya, where there is a description of what happens when a particularly high spiritual insight is attained:
“When his mind is thus concentrated … he directs it to knowledge of the recollection of past lives. He recollects his manifold past lives, that is, one birth, two births, three births, four births, five births, ten births, twenty births, thirty births, forty births, fifty births, a hundred births, a thousand births, a hundred thousand births … ‘There I was so named, of such a clan, with such an appearance, such was my nutriment, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such my life-term; and passing away from there, I was reborn elsewhere, and there too I was so named, of such a clan, with such an appearance, such was my nutriment, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such my life-term; and passing away from there, I was reborn here.’ Thus with their aspects and particulars he recollects his manifold past lives … With the divine eye, which is purified and surpasses the human, he sees beings passing away and being reborn … fair and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate. He understands how beings pass on according to their actions thus: ‘These beings who behaved wrongly … with the breakup of the body after death have been reborn in a state of misery, in a bad destination … in hell; but these beings who behaved well … have been reborn in a good destination, in a heavenly world’ [Bodhi at 248-249].”
Even loved ones can reunite in the afterlife according to the canonical Anguttara Nikaya, in which the Buddha says:
“If, householders, both wife and husband wish to be in one another’s sight so long as this life lasts and in the future life as well, they should have the same faith, the same moral discipline, the same generosity, the same wisdom; then they will be in one another’s sight so long as this life lasts and in the future life as well [Bodhi at 121].”
Verses then follow (verses often follow prose in the most ancient Buddhist texts, as the Buddhist teachings were originally oral; verses are easier to memorise):
“When both are faithful and generous, self restrained, of righteous living, they come together as husband and wife full of love for each other … Having lived by Dhamma in this world, the same in virtue and observance, they rejoice after death in the Deva world, enjoying abundant happiness [Bodhi at 121-122].”
Also in the Anguttara Nikaya and the Majjhima Nikaya the Buddha describes how those beings in the Deva worlds live for various lengths of time, from 500 years to 16,000 years, and that there are a multiplicity of Deva worlds (Bodhi at 160, 172, 175-176). Which is to say one’s time in heaven is not eternal but may last from hundreds to thousands of years, and there is not just one heaven but a number of them.
Rebirth into one of the Deva realms is clearly the most pleasant of the kinds of existences into which we can be reborn, and traditionally it is one of six realms of being, which are all impermanent (Mills at 45-55):
- Hell realms = where life states tend to be overwhelmingly miserable, angry, deranged, intense and painful.
- Animal realms = where life states are dominated by instincts to eat and procreate; tend to be more ignorant and less able to reason than humans.
- Hungry ghost realms = where life states are dominated by unsatisfied craving; can be compared to haunting ghosts.
- Human realms = where life states sway between happiness and unhappiness. Crucially, we are able to reason (be wise) and feel empathy.
- Asura realms = where life states are like Gods in that they are powerful but tend to be jealous, quarrelsome and injurious; similar to titans, jötuns or demons.
- Deva realms (Godly or heavenly realms) = where life states are more powerful, long-lived, equanimous and blissful than humanity.
These six realms are also recognised by Mahayana Buddhists, though some Mahayana schools add another four realms above the Deva worlds, they are:
- Spiritual seeking realms = where life states are dominated by religious learning; also known as voice hearers, or Shravakas.
- Spiritual realisation realms = life states which experience actual realisation and religious understanding; also known as cause awakened ones, or Pratyekabuddhas.
- Bodhisattvas = where life states are dominated by compassion and commitment to the path of Buddhahood.
- Buddhahood = enlightenment / absolute happiness.
Thus there are ten worlds in all. Importantly, when one world is manifest, each of the others exist within it in a latent state. This means that even for the most miserable and degraded of creatures there is the potential to attain the Buddha way (or any of the other states of being). Likewise, each of these states of being may be experienced to varying degrees in the course of our own human lives – when we experience intense suffering we experience hell; when we are overtaken by instinct (such as sexual desire) we experience animality; when we are consumed with self-righteous anger we become momentarily as an Asura, and so on.
The Mahayana afterlife – according to the Lotus Sutra
|The earliest text describing Avalokiteshvara (depicted as|
Guan Yin) is the Lotus Sutra. By hiliuyun.deviantart.com
“For asamkhya kalpas [innumerable eons] constantly I have dwelled on holy Eagle Peak and in various other places [Chapter 16].”
Arguably, the concept of rebirth is integral to this message, for it does sound like the Buddha is literally saying he has been reborn again and again, sometimes on Eagle Peak and sometimes elsewhere. However, there is a mystical interpretation which states that the Buddha is not so much a person as an omnipresent and eternal truth, but even after accepting this interpretation there is no getting away from the fact that rebirth is referred to throughout the Lotus Sutra in a very literal manner.
In Chapter 3 of the Lotus Sutra the Buddha perceives:
“... living beings seared and consumed by birth, aging, sickness and death, care and suffering … because of their greed and attachment and striving they undergo numerous pains in their present existence, and later they undergo the pain of being reborn in hell, or as beast or hungry spirits. Even if they are reborn in the heavenly realms or the realm of human beings, they undergo the pain of poverty and want, the pain of parting from loved ones, the pain of encountering those they detest – all these many different kinds of pain.”
In Chapter 7 of the Lotus Sutra it reads:
“When living beings hear this Law [the Dharma] they will gain the [Buddha] way or be reborn in heaven …”Later on there is a description of sixteen Bodhisattvas who convinced millions of beings of the truth of the Lotus Sutra:
“Existence after existence these living beings are reborn in company with that Bodhisattva … those persons who had heard the Law dwelled here and there in various Buddha lands, constantly reborn in company with their teachers.”Note that this is similar to the Theravada teaching, referred to above, that holds that husbands and wives can again be with each other in future lives.
In Chapter 18 of the Lotus Sutra the Buddha says:
“... suppose a person for the sake of this sutra visits a monks’ quarters and, sitting or standing, even for a moment listens to it and accepts it. As a result of the benefits so obtained, when he is reborn in his next existence he will enjoy the finest … horses, and carriages, and ... rare treasures … Or suppose there is a person who is sitting in the place were the Law is expounded, and when another person appears, the first person urges him to sit down and listen … and so persuades him to sit down. The benefits gained by this person will be such that when he is reborn he will be in a place where the lord Shakra [Vedic thunder God] is seated, where the heavenly king Brahma [another major Vedic God] is seated, or where a wheel-turning sage king is seated … suppose there is a person who speaks to another person, saying, 'There is a sutra called the Lotus. Let us go together and listen to it.' And suppose, having been urged, the other person goes and even for an instant listens to the sutra. The benefits of the first person will be such that even when he is reborn he will be born in the same place as … Bodhisattvas … In each existence he is born into, he will see the Buddha, hear his Law, and have faith in his teachings.”
In Chapter 23 there is a description of how when the life of a notable Bodhisattva:
“... had come to an end, he was reborn in the land of the Buddha Sun Moon Bright Virtue, in the household of the king Pure Virtue.”
In Chapter 28 it reads that people who:
“... do no more than copy the sutra, when their lives come to an end they will be reborn in the heaven of the 33 Gods ...”While for those who:
“... accept, uphold, read, and recite the sutra and understand its principles, when the lives of these persons come to an end, they will be received into the hands of a thousand Buddhas, who will free them from all fear and keep them from falling into the ... paths of existence [of hell, hungry spirits and animals]. Immediately they will proceed … to the place of Bodhisattva Maitreya [foretold to be the Buddha of a future age] … He has … millions of heavenly women attendants, and these persons will be reborn in their midst.”Note that the reference to women attendants is probably made to indicate that the Buddha realms are populated with women as well as men, thus refuting the case made by some Buddhists (even today) that women are incapable of mastering the Buddha way. The assertion that women can attain enlightenment is an important teaching within the Lotus Sutra.
The Mahayana afterlife – according to Nichiren Buddhism
|Nichiren as painted by Horiuchi|
According to a widely accepted Mahayana prophecy the teachings of the historical Buddha will survive in our world for three ages and we are currently in the last of those ages (with circa 9000 more years to go). This is a degenerate age, full of spiritual confusion and social conflict. Due to the confusion of our age the teachings of the historical Buddha are said to be difficult to follow – enter Nichiren, also known as the Buddha of the Latter Day of the Law, who proclaimed the superiority of the Lotus Sutra in 13th century Japan. Nichiren held that the most effective practice for our age is to chant a mantra in praise of the Lotus Sutra, thus Nam-myoho-renge-kyo (the words are a mixture of Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese), and this is the basis of Buddhist practice for his followers. Nichiren Buddhists are also encouraged to read the writings of Nichiren himself, which are voluminous – and they are peppered with unambiguous references to rebirth, including the following examples.
In WND I: 44 Nichiren writes:
“The Lotus Sutra says in essence that persons who in past existences have made offerings to a hundred thousand million Buddhas will be reborn in the human world and take faith in this Lotus [Sutra].”
In WND I: 48 he states:
“Those who commit slander of the Law [ie, the Buddha’s teachings / the Lotus Sutra] are in most cases reborn in the hell of incessant suffering or, in a few cases, in one of the six lower paths. If they are reborn in the realm of human beings, then, the sutra tells us, they will suffer from poverty, low status, white leprosy, and so forth.”
“His mother, because she was guilty of greed and stinginess, after her death was reborn in the realm of hungry spirits, but the Venerable Maudgalyāyana rescued her from there [by making offerings to her on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month – thus around August. This is known in Japan as Obon, or the Bon Festival, which resembles Halloween] …”
In WND I: 110 Nichiren says:
“In upholding the Lotus Sutra, of those who profoundly grasp the sutra’s meaning … there may be some who indeed attain Buddhahood in their present form and achieve enlightenment. As for other types of people, it would appear that, even if they do not understand the meaning of the Lotus Sutra and are ignorant but have earnest faith, then they will invariably be reborn in a pure land … when the life of one who believes in the Lotus Sutra comes to an end, among all the worlds of the ten directions, that person will be reborn in the land of a Buddha who is preaching the Lotus Sutra …”
In WND II: 181 it is written
“… by merely chanting the name of the Lotus Sutra [ie, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo], one may escape being reborn in the three ... paths [of hell, hungry spirits, and animals].”
In WND II: 297 Nichiren assures the widow Myōhō that “I would say that your husband has surely been reborn in the realm of heavenly beings”. To another widow, Myōshin, he writes:
“… it is hard for you to bear being separated from your late husband … How delighted he must be with your warm concern for his future existence … Abe no Nakamaro [an 8th century Japanese diplomat], when he was in China and unable to return to Japan, gazed longingly at the moon that rose in the east and composed a poem comparing it to the moon over Kasugano. Your husband may be feeling how little different from these are his own circumstances … because you are always chanting the daimoku [Nam-myoho-renge-kyo] of the Lotus Sutra, the character myō will change into an emissary to your husband … It will probably report all the affairs of the sahā world [the ordinary human world] to the other world (WND II: 322).”
And to another widow, Myōichi, Nichiren says of her husband (who was a devout follower):
“He is probably watching his wife and children in the heavenly mirrors of the sun and moon every moment of the day and night. Since you and your children are ordinary persons, you cannot see or hear him; neither can the deaf hear thunder nor the blind see the sun. But never doubt that he is protecting you. Moreover, he may be close at hand [WND I: 65].”
Extraordinarily, Nichiren goes on to say to Myōichi:
“In what lifetime could I ever forget what you have done for me [Myōichi helped Nichiren in a number of important ways]? I will repay this debt of gratitude by serving you in the next lifetime [WND I: 65].”
In WND II: 343 Nichiren tells a mother, named Kōnichi, whose son had died:
“Out of its love for its child, the pheasant plunged into flames to save it. Out of her love for her child, the poor woman drowned in the Ganges River. The pheasant is now Bodhisattva Maitreya. The woman who drowned in the Ganges has been reborn as the great heavenly king Brahma.
How much more will this be so of the present-day Honorable Kōnichi, who out of her great affection for her son became a practitioner of the Lotus Sutra [Kōnichi had been converted to Nichiren Buddhism by her son]? Without fail both mother and child will go to the pure land of Eagle Peak. At that time, how joyful your meeting will be!”
In more recent times Daisaku Ikeda, a leading Nichiren Buddhist of our time, has written the following in relation to rebirth:
“According to Mahayana Buddhism … even after achieving Buddhahood one will, very soon after death, reappear in the physical world, taking the form of an ordinary mortal in order to work for the salvation of others. The time that it takes for a life to pass through the intermediate stage between death and rebirth depends upon the condition of that individual’s life … Buddhism … distinguishes between the death of our body and the death of our [ever changing] spirit … so long as we maintain the practice of Buddhist principles during our lifetime, we can minimise the duration of our intermediate existence and be swiftly reborn into this world and continue along the path of Buddhist practice [ie, as a Bodhisattva who is pledged to be reborn in the suffering realms so to help all beings move towards enlightenment – the most noble aim within Mahayana Buddhism] … Every individual’s death is … a means to rebirth … we do not die for nothing, we die to start a new life. The fundamental purpose of death, then, is birth – to allow us to start fresh in the next phase of our eternal life cycle [at 93, 98-99].”
|Courtesan looking into the mirror by Yoshitoshi|
Some contemporary Buddhists argue that when the teachings speak of rebirth it is only a metaphor for the movement from one mind state to another, and is not meant to be taken literally. For such people the life-death-rebirth cycle of traditional Buddhism is little more than the arising of one mental state after another in this physical life; the concept of rebirth might also be understood as the literal process of one’s physical remains eventually becoming the basis of some new form of life. This interpretation is not altogether wrong but it is limited; if the Buddhist realms of existence are merely mental states then why we do have no authoritative teachings which clearly assert that this is the spirit in which we should understand the concept of rebirth? Why instead do the teachings, again and again, read as if rebirth should be understood quite literally? It seems that belief in anything other than the reality of our current material life and its associated mind states has become as deeply unfashionable as mindfulness meditation is de rigueur. Thus, inevitably, many contemporary Buddhists overlook that in the teachings which are discordant with their secular predilections. But the Buddhist teachings themselves are clear regarding the afterlife; most of us move from one lifetime to another, experiencing various life states ranging from the hellish to the blissfully pleasant, and by this means we are both the heirs and the forgers of our present and future life circumstances (ie, our karma).
Bodhi (Ed), In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Wisdom
Ikeda, Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death, Middle Way Press
Mills, Buddhism Explained, Silkworm Books
Nichiren, The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, www.nichirenlibrary.org
Pesala (Ed), The Debate of King Milinda, Motilal Barnarsidass Publishers
Reat, Buddhism: A History, Jain Publishing
Watson (Ed), The Lotus Sutra, www.nichirenlibrary.org