AFTERLIFE ? A Buddhist View
According to Buddhist thought existence is a cycle of continuity, a ceaseless round of birth and
rebirth, known as samsara. The aim of the Buddhist life is to escape from samsara by destroying all
the impulses which bind one to this “Wheel of Life” ; the goal is to attain Nibbana ,(Nirvana) after
which there can be no rebirth.
The Buddha said that one of the fundamental characteristics of existence is its transient nature
(impermanence). All things are in a perpetual state of change and nothing exists permanently. The
ever changing nature of matter is particularly true of our bodies, where millions of cells die every
minute and are replenished continuously.
A sentient being ( this includes animals), according to Buddha, is an ever changing, independent
process of mind and body (nama-rupa). Therefore a permanent element, i.e. a soul , as generally
understood in other faiths and philosophies, cannot be said to exist in this ever-changing mindmatter combination.
Absence of a permanent soul or entity(anatta) is one of the three fundamental characteristics of
existence. Hence Buddhists use the term rebirth in preference to reincarnation, to denote the
continuing existence of that element of the body-mind combination which is not extinguished at
death.
There are four conditions necessary for the existence and continuity of beings,
1) material food
2) contact of sense organs with the external world
3) consciousness
4) mental volition or will
Mental volition is the will to live, to exist ,to re exist, to continue, to become. This wish for continued
existence is what brings about rebirth. Death is just one phase of the continuous cycle of existence,
linking our present life to the next , and is the karmic result of our wish for the continuation of
existence.
The Pali word kamma (karma in Sanscrit) literally means action or doing. Any kind of intentional
action, whether mental , verbal or physical is regarded as kamma. Inherent in kamma is the
potentiality of producing its due effect, which operates in its own field without the intervention of
any external, independent ruling agency. Kamma produces results (kamma vipaka) which the
performer of the action has to experience. This is a reaction in accordance with the natural law of
cause and effect. Buddhism does not support the view that kamma is a law of “moral justice” or
“reward and punishment”, as there is no external agency that metes out justice.
Kamma can be wholesome/skilful ; or unwholesome/unskilful ; or neutral. Wholesome kamma will
produce a beneficial result and unwholesome kamma will produce a negative or detrimental result.
Neutral kamma will not produce any effect.
The past accumulated kamma acts in a subtle way to condition the next life. A person who has
acquired wholesome kamma m ay well be born into happy circumstances, enjoying good health,
wealth and family connections. Although inherited genes from parents play an important part in
determining physical and some mental characteristics, kamma may be considered as the driving
force. It may well be that rebirth to particular parents was the appropriate result of past kamma.
If there is no permanent entity or soul, how does one life link to another? It is said to be due to the
momentum of the accumulated kamma resulting in the continuation of “the stream of
consciousness”. Rebirth is simply a continuation of this process. This is explained in terms of the
famous simile of the flame: if one were to light a candle from a flame already burning, what has
been passed on ? Is the new flame the same as the old one or different?
Could I say that the process is the same as that which links the 84 year old I am now to the baby I
see in the photo of me sitting on my mother’s knee at the age of two and a half ? I have changed,
physically and mentally, I’ve even changed my name. In what way am I still the same person?
According to the texts , there are 31 planes of existence where beings exist in the universe. The
human plane is just one of them. Planes of existence below the human level are classed as woeful
states. Beings born into such planes are unable to acquire wholesome kamma due to the nature of
their unhappy state. Therefore these beings may remain trapped in that plane until the
unwholesome kamma which caused that birth is exhausted.
On the other hand, beings born into higher planes than human are said to enjoy blissful existence
and thoughts of seeking release from the cycle of existence are far from their minds. But even these
happy states are not eternal and these beings are still bound on the wheel of life. The human plane
provides a more balanced environment, beings experiencing happiness as well as unhappiness. They
are able, if they wish and make the right effort,to enter the path to liberation from the cycle of
existence.
Mary Hale
(with acknowledgements to London Buddhist Vihara ) 18th January 2013
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AFTERLIFE - London Inter Faith Centre