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published: 3/17/04
updated: 7/17/13

Buddhist Beliefs about the Afterlife




What does Buddhism teach about the afterlife?

The Buddha said of death:

Life is a journey.
Death is a return to earth.
The universe is like an inn.
The passing years are like dust.

Regard this phantom world
As a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp - a phantom - and a dream. {1}

According to Buddhism, after death one is either reborn into another body (reincarnated) or enters nirvana. Only Buddhas - those who have attained enlightenment - will achieve the latter destination.


Reincarnation (Transmigration)

Based on his no-soul (anatta) doctrine, the Buddha described reincarnation, or the taking on of a new body in the next life, in a different way than the traditional Indian understanding. He compared it to lighting successive candles using the flame of the preceding candle. Although each flame is causally connected to the one that came before it, is it not the same flame. Thus, in Buddhism, reincarnation is usually referred to as "transmigration."





Nirvana

Nirvana is the state of final liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. It is also therefore the end of suffering. The literal meaning of the word is "to extinguish," in the way that a fire goes out when it runs out of fuel. In the Surangama, the Buddha describes Nirvana as the place in which

it is recognized that there is nothing but what is seen of the mind itself; where, recognizing the nature of the self-mind, one no longer cherishes the dualisms of discrimination; where there is no more thirst nor grasping; where there is no more attachment to external things.

But all these descriptions only tell us what is not Nirvana. What is it like? Is it like heaven, or is it non-existence? The answer is not clear, due in large part to the Buddha's aversion to metaphysics and speculation. When he was asked such questions, he merely replied that it was "incomprehensible, indescribable, inconceivable, unutterable."





References

  1. Vairacchedika 32.