Buddhist View on Death and Rebirth
...Ven. Thich Nguyen Tang...
a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, working as a Buddhist chaplain at
several of Melbourne's hospitals and as well as Melbourne assessment
prison, I have witnessed many personal tragedies faced by the
living and of course the very process of dying and that of death
and many of these poor people faced their death with fear, with
misery and pain before departing this world. With the
images of all these in my mind, on this occasion, I wish to
share my view from the perspective of a Buddhist and we hope
that people would feel far more relaxed in facing this inevitable
end since it is really not the end of life, according to our
Death and the impermanence of life
the teaching of the Buddha, all of us will pass away eventually
as a part in the natural process of birth, old-age and death
and that we should always keep in mind the impermanence of life.
The life that we all cherish and wish to hold on.
Buddhism, however, death is not the end of life, it is merely
the end of the body we inhabit in this life, but our spirit
will still remain and seek out through the need of attachment,
attachment to a new body and new life. Where they will be born
is a result of the past and the accumulation of positive and
negative action, and the resultant karma (cause and effect)
is a result of ones past actions.
would lead to the person to be reborn in one of 6 realms which
are; heaven, human beings, Asura, hungry ghost, animal and
hell. Realms, according to the severity of ones karmic
actions, Buddhists believe however, none of these places are
permanent and one does not remain in any place indefinitely.
So we can say that in Buddhism, life does not end, merely goes
on in other forms that are the result of accumulated karma.
Buddhism is a belief that emphasizes the impermanence of lives,
including all those beyond the present life. With this
in mind we should not fear death as it will lead to rebirth.
fear of death stemmed from the fear of cease to be existent
and losing ones identity and foothold in the world. We
see our death coming long before its arrival, we notice impermanence
in the changes we see around us and to us in the arrival of
aging and the suffering due to losing our youth. Once
we were strong and beautiful and as we age, as we approach our
final moments of life we realize how fleeting such a comfortable
place actually was.
is natural to grieve the loss of family members and others we
knew, as we adjust to living without their presence and missing
them as part of our lives. The death of a loved one, or even
someone we were not close to, is terribly painful event, as
time goes on and the people we know pass away along the journey
of life, we are reminded of our own inevitable ends in waiting
and everything is a blip of transience and impermanent.
a certain moment, the world seems suddenly so empty and the
sense of desperation appears to be eternity. The greater
the element of grief and personal loss one tends to feel sorry
of us may have heard the story of the women who came to the
Buddha in great anguish, carrying her dead child pleading him
to bring the child back to life. The Buddha said Bring to
me a mustard seed from any household where no-one had ever died
and I will fulfill your wish. The woman's attempt
to search for such seed from houses were in vain and of course
she could not find any household in which no-one had ever died
and suddenly she realized the universality of death.
to Buddhism, our lives and all that occurs in our lives is a
result of Karma. Every action creates a new karma, this
karma or action is created with our body, our speech or our
mind and this action leaves a subtle imprint on our mind which
has the potential to ripen as future happiness or future suffering,
depending on whether the action was positive or negative.
we bring happiness to people, we will be happy. If we
create suffering, we will experience suffering either in this
life or in a future one.
is called the Law of Karma, or the Law of Cause and Effect.
Karmic law will lead the spirit of the dead to be reborn, in
realms which are suitable appropriate to their karmic accumulations.
to His Holiness, the 14 th Dali Lama of Tibet, that to cultivate
the good karma, our good actions are an excellent way prepare
for our death. Not performing evil deeds, keeping our heart
and mind pure, doing no harm, no killing, sexual misconduct
or lying, not using drugs or alcohol has very positive merit
which enable us to die as we have lived.
way we pass reflects the way we lived our lives, a good death
putting a good stamp on a good life. As Leonardo Da Vinci once
wrote in his notebook; Just as a well spent day brings happy
sleep, so a life well spent brings a happy death. If we
have lived a life of emotional turmoil, of conflict selfish
desire unconcerned for others, our dying will be full of regrets,
troubles and pain. It is far better to care for the lives for
all around us rather than spending a fortune in prolonging life
or seeking ways to extend it for those who can afford it, at
the expense of relieving suffering in more practical ways.
Improving the moral and spiritual quality of life improves its
quality for us all rather than the selfish individualism that
benefits the elite few who draw most resources.
Preparing for death and Buddhist rituals associated with dying
clergy often remind their followers about closeness of death,
emphasize the importance in getting to know death and take time
to prepare for their own demise.
do we prepare for death?. It is really simple, just behave
in a manner which you believe is responsible, good and positive
for yourself and towards others. This leads to calmness, happiness
and an outlook which contributes to a calm and controlled mind
at the time of death.
this positive and compassionate outlook of life, always being
aware of the impermanence of life and having a loving attitude
towards all living things in this transient existence we will
be free of fear in opposite to grasping selfishly to life due
to not having experienced happiness in life.
lead a responsible and compassionate life and have no regrets
when death approaches enables us to surrender without a struggle
to the inevitable and in a state of grace which need not be
as uncomfortable as we are led to believe. A dying Buddhist
person is likely to request the service of a monk or nun in
their particular tradition to assist in this process further,
making the transitional experience of death as peaceful and
free of fear as can be possibly achieved.
and at the moment of death and for a period after death, the
monk, nun or spiritual friends will read prayers and chants
from the Buddhist Scriptures. In Buddhist traditions,
this death bed chanting is regarded as very important and is
ideally the last thing the Buddhist hears. Buddhists believe
that we can actively assist and bring relief to the dying members
through assisting the dying through the process of dying.
Buddhist doctrine we are told by Buddhist masters that the final
moment of our consciousness is paramount, the most important
moment of all. If the ill person is in hospital and the
diagnosis is grim that the person cannot possibly survived,
the family should call in the Buddhist priest to pray for the
loved one so that at the final moment, the right state of mind
has been generated within the person and they can find their
way into a higher state of rebirth as they leave the present
nurses and family members are not supposed to touch the corpse,
having to wait 3-8 hours after breathing ceases before touching
the body for any preparation after the death. We Buddhists believe
that the spirit of a person will linger on for sometime and
can be affected by what happened to the corpse. It is important
that the body is treated gently and with respect and that the
priest can help the spirit continues its journey calmly to higher
states, not causing the spirit to becoming angry and confused
and may be more likely to be reborn into the lower realms.
the Mahayana Buddhism, especially, Vietnamese tradition we pray
for the dead for 49 days after passing away, 49 being the estimated
time it takes for the spirit to be reborn again into a new life.
Some spirits are reborn 3 days, 21 days, 49 days or 100 days
after death, and in some cases even 7 years.
concept of rebirth or reincarnation has become more popular
in the west in recent years due to the influence of Tibetan
Buddhism, especially, the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
(by Sogyal Rinpoche, 1992) became a best seller in the USA
and has been widely read throughout the developed countries
by new generations who are concerned with alternative thinking
and eastern cultural perspectives. Naturally people concern
with life beyond death was stimulated by the ideas contained
in such philosophies and beliefs.
supreme aim of Buddhism is to obtain nirvana or enlightenment.
This translated means a state of liberation or illumination
from the limitations of existence. It is the liberation
from the cycle of rebirth through countless lives up and down
the 6 states of existence. It is obtained through the extinction
is a state that is obtainable in this life through the right
aspiration, purity of life, and the elimination of egotism.
This cessation of existence as we know it, the attainment of
being, as distinct from becoming. The Buddha speaks of it as unborn, un-originated,
uncreated, unformed, contrasting it with the born,
originated, created, and formed phenomenal world. Those
who have obtained the state of Nirvana are called Buddhas.
Gautama Siddhartha had obtained this state and had become a
Buddha at 35. However it is now believed that it was only after
he had passed away that he reached such a place of perfect tranquility,
because some residue of human defilement would continue to exist
as long as his physical body existed.
to Buddhism if a human does not obtain nirvana or enlightenment,
as it is known, the person cannot escape the cycle of
death and rebirth and are inevitably be reborn into the 6 possible
states beyond this our present life, these being in order from
the highest to lowest;
In Buddhism there are 37 different levels of heaven where beings
experience peace and long lasting happiness without suffering
in the heavenly environment.
life. In Buddhism we can be reborn into human life
over and over, either wealthy or poor, beautiful or not so,
and every state between and both as it it is served up to us.
Anything can happen, as is found in human life and society all
around us as we are familiar with in the day to day human world
in is myriad of possibilities. What we get is a result
of our Karma of what we have dragged with us from previous existences
and how it manifests in our temporary present lives.
A spiritual state of Demi-Gods but not the happy state experienced
by the gods in the heavens above this state. The Demi-Gods
are consumed with jealousy, because unlike humans, they can
clearly see the superior situation of the gods in the heavens
above them. They constantly compete and struggle with the gods
due to their dissatisfaction with their desires from the others.
Ghost. This spiritual realm of those who committed
excessive amounts of evil deeds and who are obsessed with finding
food and drink which they cannot experience and thus remain
unsatisfied and tortured by the experience. They exhaust themselves
in the constant fruitless searching.
This realm is visible to humans and it is where spirits
of humans are reborn if they have killed animals or have committed
a lot of other evil acts. Animals do not have the freedom
that humans would experience due to being a subject constantly
hunted by humans, farmed and used in farming, also as beasts
This realm is not visible to humans. It is a place
where beings born there experience a constant state of searing
pain and the various types of hell realms reads like a variety
of horrific torture chambers. Those with a great deal of negative
Karma can remain in such places for eons of time.
conclude, as already mentioned, none of us can avoid death and
if we are not free from the vicious cycle of death and rebirth,
we are doomed to the endless cycles of life and death and its
paradoxical nature of suffering, of happiness and sadness, youth
and ageing, healthiness and sickness, pain and death, all because
we are so attached to the existence in the first place.
Buddha urged us to prepare for death, to prepare for that journey
by cleansing the mind and not being so attached to things, to
be able to let go and release ourselves for needing to be, from
needing to have. Through this we will not suffer so much as
we pass through the final stage of the present life, we can
let go, be grateful for what we had but not clutch to it, not
try to ensure permanency and cause ourselves to suffer more
than we need to. This way we can end the cycle and leave forever,
obtaining nirvana and release from the cycle of death and rebirth.
This essay has been presented at the conference Dying, Death
and Grieving a cultural Perspective, RMIT University, Storey
Hall, 349 Swanston Street, Melbourne, Victoria, 22nd
and 23rd March 22, 2002. For further information
on the conference, please contact Lynn Cain, +61-3-9457
P.756. Wordsworth editions 1999.The Wordsworth Encyclopedia
of World Religions