Buddhism originated from Hinduism, but diverges significantly in its representation of the karmic cycle of life, death and rebirth. For Buddhists, the ultimate goal of humanity is to reach nirvana – a state of blissful non-existence. Humans are trapped in a cycle of being reincarnated over and over again because we each have a set of desires and ideas that clings onto us, even after we die.
The concept of nirvana illustrates the Buddhist belief that there is no eternal soul. To believe in an eternal soul would mean adopting the notion that each person has something unique and steadfast within their being. But according to Buddhism, everything that constitutes life on earth is an illusion; therefore, our individuality (spiritual, physical or otherwise) must be let go in order for us to escape the ongoing cycle. When a person reaches nirvana, they no longer have a need for a soul, a body or anything else that belongs totally to them; instead, they become one with the cosmos, dissolving into nothingness.
A more appropriate way to talk about the life-death cycle in Buddhism is to use the word “energy”. An individual’s singular energy will remain alive and will go on being birthed into the world in different forms, until that energy has processed through all of its attachments, desires and bonds to the material world. Then it will happily cease to be.
For this reason, it’s very important that a dying person remain awake and aware for as much time as possible before they pass on. The thoughts and feelings held within our energy at the time of dying greatly affect how we are re-born or whether we enter nirvana.
The afterlife process of reincarnation involves several stages called bardos. During the chikai bardo, the dying person’s energy takes from a half day up to four days to realize that it has dropped its current manifestation in a certain body. It experiences a clear white light at this time, and if spiritually evolved, will use that experience to move onto a higher state of consciousness.
The second stage of death, chonyid bardo, involves a reckoning with the karmic forces that the deceased has invited or participated in during their time on earth. Feelings, attitudes and behaviours appear in the form of demons and spirits, and the person must face them in order to move on. This stage is similar to the idea of purgatory, where you need to see the truth of what you have done during your life.
The actual process of rebirth, where the person’s karmic energy transmigrates into another body, is called the sidpa bardo. If a person has lived in a way that has eased their own and others suffering, and if they have fought the demons well through the chonyid bardo, they will move on to live in a higher state of consciousness. If not, their energy will place itself within a lower form of life, to be given another chance later on.
In some cases, the deceased person’s energy will have reached a full realization that the world and all its entanglements and desires are transitory illusions. Then, instead of being reborn, the energy will be released into nirvana, or nothingness. This may seem scary or unattractive to people who follow theistic faiths, but in Buddhism, nothingness means pure consciousness. It is the goal of all sentient beings to let go of their individual consciousness for the sake of pure consciousness – it means complete and eternal freedom from suffering.
Are you a follower of Buddhism? What do you believe happens in the afterlife?