Buddhist Views of the Afterlife
By Jason D. Gray
There are variations among the Buddhist views of what occurs after death. However, the unifying feature of each is that the cycle of death and rebirth (reincarnation) is to be avoided by achieving nirvana. Nirvana, which means “extinction” or “blowing out”, also often translated as “bliss”, is the letting go of individual identity and desires (Ashton and Whyte, p 46). Thus, in the state of nirvana (the state toward which enlightenment drives one) there is no longer an ‘individual’ and there is no survival of subjective experience. However, this is desirable from the Buddhist perspective because, according to Gautama Buddha (the supreme Buddha) the essential nature of embodied life is suffering caused by desire for (in part) permanence and identity (in general for earthly things).
One striking aspect of the Buddhist view is that there is no soul, as it is understood in the Judeo-Christian or scholastic philosophy traditions. That is, there is no permanent substance or essence which endures after death. Rather the elements of individual identity necessary for Buddhism to have an intelligible view of reincarnation are predicated on, “…an endless array of phenomena making up the individual. These can be divided into five basic categories: physical phenomena, emotions, sensory perceptions, responses to sensory perceptions, and consciousness.” (Coward, p 89) In the Buddhist view these elements can continue to exist after the death of the physical body, although they do not take the form of an immortal soul. The phenomena have a finite longevity and are, for instance, dissolved upon the attainment of nirvana or even upon reincarnation (according to one Buddhist tradition).
There are two major Buddhist schools: Theravada (which is more closely associated with the teaching of Gautama Buddha) and Mahayana (which differs from the Theravada school in that it includes a ‘pure-land’ view of the afterlife, as well as some liturgical differences). These schools of thought reflect one major difference in Buddhist views of the afterlife (i.e. in the experience of the unenlightened immediately after death), however even within the Theravada school of thought there is some variation in afterlife belief. What follows are the various afterlife beliefs of some of the Buddhist schools of thought:
1. The Pali tradition (Theravada school) which dates from the earliest stages of Buddhism holds that only Karma and nothing else from a previous life continues to exist in reincarnation. On this view reincarnation is really just one life coming to an end and another life with similar karma beginning. In the Pali tradition, “…an earlier process comes to an end, yet provokes another process that has structural similarity to the first.” (Coward, 92) Buddhaghosa, a great commentator and interpreter in this tradition, says that the five categories (previously mentioned) disintegrate upon death but are reformed in the life of one coming to be. Reincarnation can be thought of as, “…the reciting of a text by the teacher, which is repeated in the disciple’s mouth… [or] like the flame of a candle igniting another candle.” (Coward, 92) In this tradition reincarnation is instantaneous and at the moment of death a new embodiment is born.
2a. One prominent Buddhist view (from the Theravada school) is that following death there is an “intermediate state” which occurs after death but prior to reincarnation. In one version (the Abhidharmakosha tradition) the intermediate being has complete sensory faculties but is non-physical (so the tactile sensations are illusory). According to this tradition the intermediate state is a conduit to rebirth or nirvana. However, it is the karma from the person’s life that determines which will be realized and there is nothing that can be done in the intermediate state to alter a continuation to nirvana or rebirth. Unlike the Pali tradition the Abhidharmakosha tradition maintains that there is a continuation of the idiosyncratic nature of the deceased person, although in a “drastically transmuted nature” (Coward, 93).
2b. Another view of the intermediate state (the Tibetan tradition in the Theravada school) is that the intermediate state after death is a time that a person may still achieve nirvana by giving up their cares/desires/woes from the previous life (i.e. there is still a chance to avoid rebirth). According to the Tibetan tradition, “One who gained enough spiritual insight and practice in life will become aware of the primordial luminosity at the moment of death… [and] will not go into the intermediary state but actualize nirvana.” (Coward, 97) If one does not immediately achieve nirvana upon death, then one will proceed into the intermediary state where one will have visions. The first of these visions is, “…a light of the utmost brilliance manifesting as the five Buddha(s)…” (Coward, 98). The five Buddhas first take on peaceful, then wrathful forms. Even the wrathful form is a reflection of the compassion of the Buddha, meant to, “…arouse persons from their stupor so that they can progress on the path toward enlightenment.” (Coward, 99)
In the next part of the intermediary stage the person is presented with visions of their past life and shown nightmare visions. They are allowed to observe the world of the living, but being disembodied cannot interact with it. The emotional response of the person to these memories, visions, and observations determines their future embodiment. If the person feels lonely, sad, or afraid they will be reincarnated. The Tibetan Book of the Dead advises those at this stage to give up their earthly concerns:
“Although you had been exposed to the intermediary state of true
being, you did not grasp its sense…If you can now find the strength
to surrender to suchness (i.e. things as they are), then…you will not
enter a womb but realize liberation.” (Coward, 100)
If a person in the intermediate state can give up their desires to cling to life, be with loved ones, or retain their individuality they are an enlightened spirit which will not need to be reborn and has achieved nirvana.
3. Pure Land Buddhism (in the Mahayana school) which first emerged in India (and later in China and most prominently in Japan), views the afterlife (at least in part) as a ‘heaven-like’ place that is free from fear, want, or sadness. The purpose of the pure land is to provide for the dead rebirth into a life from which it is easier to achieve nirvana. The Pure Land (or the Buddha Field) is the creation of Buddha Amitabha (a Bodhisattva -or saint- because he dedicated himself to the salvation of others). It is decorated with jewels and precious metals and lined with banana and palm trees. Cool refreshing ponds and lotus flowers abound and wild birds sing the praises of the Buddha three times a day (Ashton and Whyte, 50). There are so few miseries in the Pure Land that, “… one could look forward to being in it not as a means to an end (nirvana) but as an end in itself.” (Ashton and Whyte, 48) However, the ultimate goal of the Pure Land Buddhist remains nirvana.
The biggest difference between Buddhist and western religious beliefs about the afterlife is not reincarnation. Rather it is the belief that the ideal end state (nirvana) is a complete dissolution of the self. In the Buddhist picture the immortality of personal identity and perspective is not desirable. In fact it is by desiring or clinging to these things that one thwarts the ultimate goal of nirvana.
Ashton, John and Whyte, Tom, 2001, The Quest for Paradise, San Francisco: HarperCollins.
Coward, Harold (ed.), 1997, Life after Death in World Religions, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Neumaier-Dargyay, Eva K., “Buddhism.” In Coward, Harold (ed.), 1997, Life after Death in World Religions, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
 Pali is the original language of many Buddhist texts as well as the liturgical language of the Theravada school. Given this the importance of Pali is something akin to a combination of Aramaic and Greek in the Christian Tradition. ↩
 The Abhidharmakosha was a Sanskrit text written by Vasubandhu, an Indian Buddhist monk. Vasubandhu, who lived in the fourth century, C.E., was the founder of the yoga school of Buddhism.↩
 This tradition is based largely on The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bar do thos grol, Liberation from the Intermediary State by Means of Hearing This Lore) (Coward, 94).↩
 The ‘five Buddha(s)’ are five representations of the five qualities of the Buddha. These qualities are: teaching the Dharma (truth), humility, meditation, giving, and fearlessness.↩