Do Buddhists Go to Heaven -- by Kusala Bhikshu

I've had the good fortune of speaking about Buddhist afterlife to a number of Christians. One of the things that prompted me to investigate Buddhist afterlife was giving a talk at Central Juvenile Hall. A Catholic girl said I was going to hell, because I didn't believe in God and Jesus Christ.

After some reflection I had to agree with her... If I were a Christian, and thought like a Buddhist, I probably would go to Christian hell.

But, do Buddhists even go to Christian heaven or hell in the first place? Or do Buddhists have their own afterlife, complete with heaven and hell?

A question arose in my mind... If a good Catholic married a good Buddhist and they lived happily ever after, when they died were they going to the same place? Most Catholics I have asked... answer, "Of course, there is only one place you can go."

I thought to myself... not so fast... where did all the Buddhists, Hindus and goddess worshippers go before Christ came to the world? Was the Christian heaven already in place even before Christ was born? Have all the pre-Christians ended up in Christian hell?

This train of thought prompted me to investigate Buddhist afterlife.

The Buddhist contribution to afterlife, it turns out is Nirvana. Nirvana is the end of suffering while you're alive, and the end of rebirth after you die. The Buddha said all forms of life are unsatisfactory because of birth, sickness, and old age; eventually you will end up suffering if your alive.

Ok, so what happens to a Buddhist if he doesn't reach Nirvana in his or her lifetime; where does he or she go?

The Buddha borrowed from the Brahmanic tradition: the concept of karma had been established in India by the time of the Buddha, and heavens and hells were part of the cosmology as well. The Buddha used these concepts to explain Rebirth, and life after death.

I brought these ideas up in a conversation with a Catholic friend, and he said in an amusing way, "Maybe a skillful Buddhist will go to heaven, and a really skillful Buddhist will go to Nirvana." As it turns out, he hit the nail right on the head.

Buddhists do go to heaven if their practice is skillful, and to hell if it's unskilful. But, never to Christian heaven or hell.

How many heavens and hells do Buddhists have? ...A lot!

There was a book published in 1997 called... Buddhist Cosmology, Philosophy and Origins, by Akira Sadakata, Kosei Publications. It goes into a very detailed explanation of the various heavens and hells. I've found as many as 33 heavens and 33 hells listed as possible destinations, but I'm going to simplify it, and talk about the six realms of existence.

Buddhism has a best heaven. Everything is just the way you want it to be. In this heaven, there is no reason to change anything. You are ultimately happy. The problem is that it's not permanent, as is everything in Buddhism. One day in the heaven realm is equal to 400 human years, and your stay is four thousand heaven years, so you will be there a really long time.

But, one day the karma that put you in this heaven will be used up. You are only in heaven as long as your Karma account has merit in it. You can only draw from your Karma account while in heaven, because there in no way to make a deposit. You can't practice generosity or compassion, and you're not striving to gain wisdom. When the karma that put you in heaven is used up... you're reborn... And that would probably make a lot of folks really unhappy. Who wants to leave a perfect place?

The second heaven realm, which is a lower one, is where things are almost perfect. I call this the Donald Trump heaven. It could be better, if only you owned one more building or house. You see, there is still some desire associated with this heaven realm, and so it can't ever be perfect.

The next realm is the human realm, where all of us find ourselves in this lifetime. This is the best place for us to be, because this is the only place we can become enlightened. We cannot become enlightened in heaven, things are too nice, and we have no reason to strive. We cannot become enlightened in hell, because things are so bad, all we do is suffer.

In this human rebirth, we have enough happiness and joy to keep us from taking our own lives, and we experience anxiety and fear to keep us striving. We cannot relax too long in any one mental state as a human, because all things are in a constant state of flux.

The next lower realm, is the animal realm. The animal realm is marked by wanting to have sex, wanting to have food, wanting to have sleep, and being totally confused. Those are the four characteristics found in the animal realm. So you can see, we are not likely to become enlightened as an animal.

A Zen question-- Does a dog have Buddha nature?-- comes to mind. Yes, a dog does have the potential to become enlightened, but only as a human.

Can animals be reborn as humans beings? Yes, if they come into contact with the Dharma, see a Buddhist temple, or smell incense burning. The contact can plant a Dharma seed which takes root when they're reborn as humans. They can achieve their full potential and become enlightened, but only as a human being. So, it's up to all of us to help our pets be reborn in the human realm.

The next realm is called the hungry ghost realm. The hungry ghost is often pictured as a giant creature, with a large stomach and a pinhole for a mouth. It can never end it's hunger no matter how much it eats, it never finds satisfaction.

In the hell realm, the worst place, you find the most suffering. Your are given little hell bodies when you enter. Then, one day you might be walking through a forest, when all the leaves on a tree turn into razor blades and fall, cutting you into a million pieces. You cry out in pain, and your hell body resurrects, so you can be killed over and over again.

The only way to get out of the hell realm is to burn through the karma that put you there. Suffering is the only act of purification in hell, and much suffering is necessary before the next rebirth.

So, do Buddhists go to heaven? ...Yes they do!... Do Buddhists go to hell? ...Yes they do!... Do Buddhists go to Christian heaven or hell? ...No they don't!!!

In the Buddhist model of afterlife, there are specific practices necessary to achieve rebirth in heaven, and more important, there are specific practices necessary to attain Nirvana.

The Buddha did not leave afterlife up to chance. Just because a person says he's a Buddhist does not ensure rebirth in heaven or Nirvana. The Buddhist path to afterlife is a labor of intensive practice that requires personal responsibility.

It's no surprise that we are going to die, but how many people think about their next lifetime? If you're a Buddhist it's important to look at life as a continuum, as a process of birth and death, a constant state of becoming, and a chance to practice.

To explain rebirth, I like the analogy of going to an airport with a suitcase. I put the suitcase on a conveyor belt so it can be loaded into the luggage compartment of the airplane. But, I am not getting on the plane, just the suitcase. The suitcase contains my karmic energy. When the karmic energy gets to its new destination, my next lifetime picks up the suitcase. But, I didn't get on the plane, because my ticket had expired... It's not really me that picks up the suitcase... It's because of me that there is suitcase is pick up.

The suitcase may be almost empty of good karma because of a past life of unskillful activity. It may have only one set of clothes and no shoes... But, I'm not predestined to be poor and homeless. Through acts of kindness and generosity, I can start filling the suitcase with good karma. I can turn rags into riches through good thoughts, good speech, and good actions. I'm in charge, and my life is what I make it.

When all is said and done? For a Buddhist heaven is not the real answer, just an option.

Nirvana is the answer to suffering and rebirth!

Practice everyday... There is very little time left. Think about death often, it will give your life urgency. Exercise and good health allow you to die in the slowest way possible. May you see nirvana in this very lifetime.

Photo - Bob Heide

A Meditation on Death

Like the flame blown out by the wind, This life of ours is headed for destruction. Seeing the cycle of birth and death in all things Mindfulness of death is a skill we need to use. Just as people who have achieved great wealth and fame Must surely fall in death. This thing called death will not leave me behind; Death is always beckoning me to follow. Death is the true companion of birth And never far behind, Searching for an opening Like a samurai in battle. It's course cannot be changed This life we call our own, Is rushing to its end Like the sun moving form east to west. Death takes those from us who are great in strength and wisdom, No need to speak of one like me. Because this life of mine lacks in so many ways I die in every moment with little chance of a good rebirth. Our life is filled with so much uncertainty Its length cannot be known. It is difficult just to stay alive, each day Filled with the fear and anguish of the death about to come. There is no chance that life shall not end in death. Having reached old age what can be next, Death is part of our true nature. As the nature of fruit is to fall when ripe. Just as a potters jar must break and turn to dust So to these bones of ours will one day break and end the same way. The young, the old, the foolish and the wise, The hand of death is always open; The end is known for sure. Impermanent is all conditioned things, All things rise and fall away, Conditions give us birth, Conditions give us death. This body and mind of ours, will soon be lying on the ground Like a useless piece of drift wood, washed upon the shore. Our consciousness will vanish, the mind will not be there, Just like a bubble bursting on the water, turning into air. We came into this world without an invitation, and We don't need to ask permission when its time for us to leave. We rise to birth that always ends in death; we come just as we go.

Does the candle shed a tear when the flame goes out? Don't be sad, be mindful.