Buddhism: What Happens After Death?

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Warning: This is a long but clear and interesting religious post on what happens after death according to Classical Theravāda Buddhism.

Key Points:

  • The Fully Enlightened do not take a rebirth after death.
  • Immediate rebirth takes place after the death moment for all other beings.
  • Kamma is what determines your next birth
  • Lifetime and Momentary suffering
  • Be careful what you wish for
  • There is no such thing as a guaranteed intermediate stage (Bardo Plane).
  • There is no such thing as Near Death Experiences

It is very rare to read or hear Buddhist talks in English about what happens after death because topics on the “after life” encroach into the category of Religion. Most Western Buddhists, including monks, only wish to explore the “here and now”, general psychology and philosophy which is included in Buddhism. However, that limited subject matter makes one an Atheist who like some Buddhist teachings rather than a Theravāda Buddhist who likes the sum of the Buddhist teachings. Today we will put the “ism” back into Buddhism. The material spoken about in this article is usually complex and terse. Usually you don’t get to this type of material until you have memorized many lists and pivot tables. I have taken these complex readings and put it into clear and digestible format. I hope you find this interesting and useful. Although this article is long, it is really a shortcut to learning the basics of what happens after death.

The Fully Enlightened After Death:

While proper Theravādan Buddhists don’t worship a God or deities, we certainly take saṃsāra very seriously. What is saṃsāra? Saṃsāra is the endless cycles of birth and death without a discoverable beginning. It continues endlessly until one practices and realizes the Dhamma to the point where one is liberated from saṃsāra so that after one dies, there is no new birth to arise. Nibbāna is often called The Deathless, but that is misleading because nobody wants to die and it often implies what people really want in life… not to die and to live in an eternal realm that is happy. Those who are fully enlightened do indeed die but they do not take another birth. Because birth is the cause for death, it is called The Deathless. There is no new kamma to take a new birth. Instead it is better to call Nibbāna The Birthless. There is also “nothing” that exists after the fully enlightened die. There is nothing left to go into some other eternal realm. The Buddha does not live in Nibbāna nor do those who fully and successfully follow him. What happens to enlightened beings after death is another subject not covered here. Instead we will cover the following:

  • What happens after normal people die?
  • What happens before birth?

Birth Is A Cause For Suffering

To put it simply, to become fully enlightened and die for the final time is the ultimate goal of Buddhism, Parinibbāna. You have probably heard that “life is suffering” phrase, but it is really birth that is suffering. If you are born, you will live, suffer, die, and then get born again. If you are born in a heaven world, it will be pleasant, last a very, very long time, but even that eventually ends. This is different from Christian eternalist beliefs. When it is all finished, it will seem like a short period of time, just like your current life seems short right now. When you were five years old, you thought differently about time. With saṃsāra, you get born again and again. Maybe in the next life you will go to the heaven realm. After that, maybe human. If you make some mistakes you might go to animal, ghost or hell realms. This is suffering on a life to life level.

To talk about rebirth is to talk about how “existence” works according to proper Theravāda Buddhism. However, there really isn’t a “you” that gets reborn. “You” are just mind and matter that continually arises and passes away from micro moment to micro moment. The next life is simply just a continuation of those mind and matter arising and passing cycles, except for one special thing. Just before death there is Near-Death-Consciousness (maraṇāsanna javana) and Rebirth-linking-consciousness (paṭisandhi citta). It is these special things which are caused by kamma1maraṇāsanna javana is actually a kamma producing consciousness and not a vipāka classed consciousness. However, it is still caused by kamma. that can immensely effect your production of more kamma in the future.

If you are born with high intelligence into a super-educated and wealthy family (with good parents), the chances of success are far greater than someone born with low intelligence into a single mother living in a gang infested inner city. Either side can defy the odds, but it is easier for one to do good or bad than the other. Kamma and rebirth works just like this. A billionaire can donate a million dollars to a monastery or to the hungry without making a dent in his wallet and make infinitely more material donation merit than a lower middle class person who donates the same proportion of his income. This is why you should reflect that it is always easier to spiral downwards and rare to spiral upwards. There are very few on the top of the pyramid, and the top was not designed for holding many. The same could be said about the Heaven Realms or even a human birth.

The idea that a birth caused by kamma creates more good or bad kamma is very apparent with those who are born as animals. It is wrong view and wrong teachings to say that a tiger or snake does not make bad kamma when it kills to gain its meal. If you are born as a tiger or snake, it is nearly impossible to go up to the higher births. There is no such thing as “Tiger Nature” to omit bad kamma.

A good kamma birth often causes the conditions and opportunities for the production of more good kamma. A bad kamma birth often causes the conditions and opportunities for the production of more bad kamma. However, staying in the higher realms always has the force of gravity (your defilements or kilesa) to pull you down and it usually will unless you are already at the first level of enlightenment. That is why there is always a dhamma urgency to practice, especially if you are given the rare chance to be human. The Buddha would always preach everyday while he got his feet washed:

Bhikkhave, appamādena sampādetha, dullabho buddhuppādo lokasmiṃ, dullabho manussattapaṭilābho, dullabhā sampatti, dullabhā pabbajjā, dullabhaṃ saddhammassavana’’nti.

Monks! Be heedful! Rare is the chance for the Buddha to come to this world. Rare is the human birth. Rare are the requisites for the successful practice. Rare is the chance to ordain. Rare is the chance to hear the proper dhamma with proper details (saddhamma).

Sīlakkhandhavagga Aṭṭhakathā

Raffle Tickets and Kamma

The next birth is determined like a raffle system. Everything you do is like a raffle ticket thrown into a basket with a description of what you did with each ticket having the same energy to come back to you again. If you do something weak, it is only one ticket. If you do something strong, it is 100 tickets, or one million tickets. Furthermore, they will be tickets that grab your attention easier by look and feel when you grab them later.

The good tickets will have the energy to give back good results and the bad tickets have the energy to give bad results. Throughout your life, you are constantly attacked and affected in good and bad ways with these tickets of past good and bad kamma. However, when you die…one last ticket is picked. It is like the grand prize or demise because it will cause you to get the next life with that kamma as a cause.

The most recent events are at the top of the pile and are easier to be picked when the death time comes. However, the stronger items often make their way up to the top of the pile too. What comes to mind when you die is the result of the raffle ticket system. Many near to death patients report a life review where they say, “My life flashed before my eyes.” It is actually a literal expression rather than a blind meme according to the reports of those who have had Near Death Experiences. All of those tickets are your actions in this life and some from earlier as well.

Kamma is very complex and it is very difficult to talk about. Not every drop in the sky immediately falls down. Only when the conditions are ripe, does it rain. Then when it does rain, the drops flow into rivers and then into the ocean. If you fill a cup of water from the ocean, can you know where each drop came from? It is classed as an imponderable when we consider the kamma of others, but what is said in this document is ponderable for yourself as a guide for the way you should act, speak or think. Knowledge of Kamma should be a guide in your life. The Buddha gave a discourse on kamma called The Shorter Discourse on Kamma (Cūḷakammavibhaṅga Sutta). He explained why people are long lived or short lived, sick or healthy, ugly or beautiful, insignificant, famous, poor or rich, low or high caste, stupid or intelligent. If you do good things, good things will happen. Even if you don’t believe in kamma, it is good to do good things, plus it will hedge your bets for the future.

Kammassakā, māṇava, sattā kammadāyādā kammayonī kammabandhū kammappaṭisaraṇā.
Sentient beings are the owners of their deeds and heir to their deeds. Deeds are their womb, their relative, and their refuge.

Cūḷakammavibhaṅga Sutta

So at the end of the life, all of the raffle tickets are jumping up and down like dogs in a kennel hoping to get picked. The tickets are yours and created by you. They are not created or picked by the Grace of God. The tickets are jumping up and down and desire to be picked because of your own mind. You will pick your own ticket but it is the mind combined with kamma that picks it. The consciousness that takes the ticket is a consciousness called near death consciousness or maraṇāsanna javana. Maraṇā means death and javana means running. Therefore it is the near death running moment. The tickets with good kamma will lead to a good destination. The tickets with bad kamma will have a bad destination. That is how you are judged, and it is your ticket to ride. You can influence this, but you really don’t have much control over it. That is why it is universally accepted from all religions to do the following just before death:

  • Fix bad relationships that have gone sour over the years.
  • Forgive those that need to be forgiven
  • Make amends wherever possible
  • Make donations

These four things can influence your near death moment, but in the end, they are just a few more tickets added to the pile of tickets you have been collecting for your entire life.

Rebirth is Immediate

One time The Buddha was asked about the power of prayer and rituals for someone who had already died. He explained the nature of good and bad kamma and then asked if prayers can cause rocks to float or if prayers could cause ghee to sink. What if a large crowd were to pray in this way,

‘Rise, good rock! Float, good rock! Float to shore, good rock!’”may the rock come up to the surface. What do you think, chief? Would that broad rock rise up or float because of their prayers?”

Asibandhakaputta sutta

With that karma is also a wish for a new existence. The karma is the gate, but the wish is really the ticket. You cannot wish to be human and commit bad kamma and expect that to come to fruition. You must do good kamma and make the wish to be human too. Some people do good kamma and even wish to be dogs.

When the herdsman had seen to it that they were provided with rice-porridge, he began himself to eat. Now under the herdsman’s stool lay a female-dog he had raised, and as the herdsman sat there eating, he fed her with morsels of rice-porridge. Kotūhalaka watched him feed her and thought to himself, “Fortunate indeed is that female-dog to get such food to eat!” Kotūhalaka was unable to digest the rice-porridge he had eaten, died during the night, and received a new existence in the womb of that very same female dog.

https://www.ancient-buddhist-texts.net/English-Texts/Buddhist-Legends/02-01.htm

I know one person who wants to be a dog in his next life because he has nice dogs in a nice home. In the real world, outside of the USA, most dogs are homeless. The dogs compete to rape females and she can have puppies within the first year of being alive. The mother also gets very thin and sick after the process. The dogs that are in good USA homes are forced into celibacy and might even have their genitals “fixed”. The dogs that don’t find homes are usually killed. Even PETA kills dogs in their “shelters”.

Some people do good kamma but do not follow morality. I once lived on a nine acre estate with a private botanical garden in Hawai’i. The owners gave their dogs organic dog food at night and organic raw ground beef in the morning. One of the dogs was sick, and the owner was making fresh home cooked dog food for her. We cannot know the kamma, but we can say the dogs had many good merits, but perhaps not enough to be human. This is what might happen to a donor who gives good food, but does not follow proper morality.

In the next life of these dogs, there is a good chance they can become human (again) because of long exposure to humans and even getting some human style home cooked food when they are sick. There might be a wish for that food (that humans get) coupled with good behavior. This is one way that a dog can get a human birth.

Sometimes humans give medicine to humans and wish they can help the sick. This is a good recipe to be a human doctor in a next life, or a chemist, or born as Bill Gates. Sometimes people give donations to monks, and wish only for Nibbāna which is what we recommend. However, you cannot paint in the sky, and need a canvas for such wishes. Often that wish results in themselves as monks meditating or attaining Nibbāna coupled with the good kamma of a donation. It works a little bit like this. It all depends on the ticket that gets pulled just before death.

Three Signs That Appear

At the near death moment, there are 3 signs that can appear.

The three objects
Near death an object manifests at one of the six sense doors.
We see or hear the object, desirable or not. But this is unlike
normal times as kamma has created this object. It could be one
of these three types of objects:
Kamma
From the huge amount of kammas accumulated in us, just one
which has ripened appears. As it belongs to the past, it manifests only in the mind. Due to its kammic force – pure or impure ̶which cannot be controlled or avoided , it overshadows the thought process, even for someone lying unconscious. It is a recollection of whatever had been done in the past.

Take a hunter who has been killing animals for years. He could dream of chasing an animal, killing it. A meditator could dream of sitting in a meditation hall. If we are habitually angry, we could dream of quarrelling with someone. The mind becomes angry as we relive what we used to experience before.

Kamma nimitta (condition of the kamma)
It is the object experienced when the kamma was performed in the past. It can also belong to present kamma. For a past object it manifests only in the mind-door. A present object can appear at any of the six doors. A Buddha statue, flowers and candles, the person we are quarrelling with, the weapon used or the animal hunted: these objects, or the surroundings, such as a meditation hall, related to our kammic action are kamma nimitta.

Gati nimitta (sign of destination)
As a present object, it appears at any of the six doors, indicating the place of rebirth. We can see with our own eyes an ugly ogre, calling and approaching us, but not the other people near us. That is why we shout, “Save me! Save me! He wants to throw me into the fire!” Or we see a friend coming to fetch us to a nice mansion. Thus we are being briefed in advance of our destination after death. This gati nimitta usually appears as a visible object.

Click to access AFV_Kamma_ebook.pdf

Sayadaw Dr. Nandamalabhivamsa

You have learned what suffering is and how rebirth works to some degree. If you were to learn about the causes for a new birth according to the Fifth Method of Dependent Origination, much of this discussion would ring a bell to you. The Fifth Method of Dependent Origination has only five factors to it. That is why they call it the Fifth Method and teach it first. For example: Many donors wish they can become monks and many monks remember making such past life donations and wishes.

  • Ignorance = wishing to become a monk … ignorant that there is no such thing as a monk. There is only a group of 5 khandas (mind and matter).
  • Craving = wishing to become a monk
  • Clinging = wishing to become a monk repeatedly
  • Saṅkhāra = The mind of the karmic act that was made with that wish
  • Kamma (bhavo) = The karmic energy of that action.

These five causes lead to five results. The five khandas (mind and matter). The first mind and matter arises with the rebirth linking consciousness (viññāṇa or paṭisandhi citta). With that you get the other links such as the six sense doors, contact, and feeling. Further down there is birth and old age sickness and death.

Have you ever seen the Tibetan Wheel of Life? Most of you have. It is actually the wheel of saṃsāra (cycle of birth and death). As I have said before, the Wheel is the most basic and profound teaching in Buddhism. You might know what the links mean, but most of you have never really heard how birth and death work on a technical level. Those five key points listed above explain most of it. Once you know the 5 points, you can fill in the rest quite easily. However, the average reader will not be able to understand all of the graphics below and they are not in order like a clock. They are causes of causes. The third Mogok graphic shows many squiggly lines and arrows. Trust me… The five points above is how it generally works, and these five points are from the Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), which is one of the most authoritative Theravāda Pāḷi texts with the details to the Suttas of how one gets liberated. This is the simplest and most digested way to understand the Wheel. Try to make sense of the graphics below and then be grateful you know the five points.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/25/Paticca-Samuppada.JPG/551px-Paticca-Samuppada.JPG
Mogok Wheel



Momentary Suffering

Although you are ready to show your friends that you sort of know what the wheel of the “Buddhist Wheel” is about, to really understand “What happens”, we need to drill deeper into the momentary suffering of life. Why? Because only one moment separates death and birth. Now you are confused again, so I must explain. I explained above the suffering of saṃsāra in terms of lifetimes of suffering. There is also suffering on a momentary basis too because all phenomena are constantly changing at blazing fast speeds, yet few realize this. Your latest and greatest phone might have a 120 Hz refresh rate. It will look smoother and more realistic because it refreshes quicker. A 60 Hz screen, like those found on a computer, do not look so great especially if you have florescent bulbs in the room. The mind also has refresh rates for sights, sounds, smells, tastes and bodily sensations. There are even refresh rates for the mind which processes all of these data points as well as thinks thoughts about them. It happens so fast, you don’t notice it and that is the point of getting a higher refresh rate screen to look at. The higher refresh rate of VR goggles, means it looks more real. It appears more realistic if you don’t notice something is tricking you. The same is true for sounds and other sense data. For sounds, the higher refresh rate listed on the file means it will appear more realistic. 256 Hz MP3’s are often called CD quality and only a small portion of the general population can know the difference between a CD and 256 Hz. However fast that is, we can often know what is a reproduction and what is the real thing behind a curtain.

Let us look at refresh rates further to understand why it is momentary suffering.

  • What if I played you a song, and I only let you enjoy 1 second at a time?
  • I let you see the most beautiful painting, but only one second at a time.?
  • I let you smell the most fragrant flower, but only one second at a time?
  • I let you taste a 5 star meal, but only one second at a time?
  • I let you feel the most wonderful silk, but only one second at a time?

If you were stuck in the world of one-seconds, would this be suffering? Of course it would be suffering. It is like only getting a small little micro taste of anything before it goes away. Similar to drinking from a straw from the bottom of a cup that has just a few drops of liquid left. It is really like that when the cup is full though, but you are not aware of it. Is this part of the “glass half empty” pessimism, or is it realism?

Even when you breathe in, you are taking millions of micro inhales each second, and craving new micro inhales until they become uncomfortable, then you take millions of micro exhales, craving to have the air removed from you until you become uncomfortable (again). Then you inhale again. If you don’t believe me, pay attention to your breath. Stop breathing in the middle without warning or limit your breath intake speed. See what happens and how great you feel.

Buddhism says these micro moments happen all of the time, but few people are aware of this. The Buddha constantly talks about how the senses are impermanent and the mental parts are impermanent: Feeling, perception, mental fabrications, and consciousness. When you stare at a moving ball in mid air, how many times do you perceive that moving ball? How many times does eye-consciousness arise? If it does not happen at an uncountable speed, the ball would not be seen as moving.

It happens really fast. Take your hand and move it across your field of vision. How many different still pictures can you make from your hand moving across your field of vision? There appears to be no limit, but there sort of is.. lets just put a 1 billion limit so it is easy math. We see that hand 1 billion times each second. You only get a chance to see one billionth of a second at a time before It vanishes, and then you get to see it again for one billionth of a second. It is just like the first example of only being allowed to see for one second at a time, but speeding things up only a billion times. Ironically, the faster the refresh rate, the less you notice it. This is ignorance in reference to the senses.

You think you see and feel your hand moving at the same time, but you don’t. You see, process, feel, process, bodily movement, process, etc. But you don’t just feel one single point on your hand either. The single Gigahertz speed starts to multiply quickly for each of the senses that are always working, and the mind that is always processing those senses. It is this reason why we have yet to conquer artificial intelligence.

In the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta, The Buddha explains that mind and matter (the five khaṇḍas) are forever changing, suffering and nonself because they are beyond our own control. Although we might think we have control over these, we don’t. You cannot say “may my form be this way”, when it isn’t. The same with feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. When we analyze individually, then one can see that it leads to affliction and cannot be considered as: “This is mine, I am this, this is my self.”

The process of liberation requires one to see the impermanence on a grand multi-life scale and also from a momentary basis.. way faster than Gigahertz, but if you can, imagine what seeing sensory phenomena at 50 Hz or 10 Hz would be like. That is a start in the right direction.


The process of liberation is to see the impermanence on a grand multi-life scale and also from a momentary basis.. way faster than gigahertz, but if you can, imagine what seeing sensory phenomena would be like at 50 Hz or 10 Hz , that is a start.

I’m almost finished

So the mind is constantly refreshing the sensory data. The mind never stops and it also moves at incredible speeds. So when the near death moment arises (maraṇāsanna javana), and after a registration sometimes occurs, a single mind moment of death occurs. The being is completely dead. The next mind moment without a hiccup is the rebirth linking consciousness. At this point, the new existence has begun. This rebirth linking consciousness lasts only a single mind moment and has the same object as the maraṇāsanna javana. That object also continues in another consciousness throughout your life especially when you are in a deep sleep, called bhavaṅga. There is not enough time to explain these. There is only one more thing to say.

No Intermediate Stages of Rebirth

While the Tibetan traditions talk about an intermediary Bardo Plane before a new birth happens, Theravāda does not follow this idea. There is no intermediate realm for birth to happen. The rebirth process is instant from one mind moment to the next. There is no delay or “waiting period” to find a new birth with specified parents you ordered on Amazon. However, one could be born as a ghost and then after that into the human world directly after. Nevertheless, one goes directly into the next birth without any intermediate plane. There is no Bardo for this purpose. It is likely that a very long time ago, one Tibetan “remembered” such a past life as a ghost and then wrote about insisting that everyone passes through this intermediate stage too. There are also no Near Death Experiences either. Those who have “died” and saw the other worlds, did not actually die. This is why it is called near death, rather than death and coming back. Once the body and mind are dead with a cuti citta, there is no return.

This question of instantaneous rebirth was well expressed in the Milindapañha

The King Milinda questions:

“Venerable Nagasena, if somebody dies here and is reborn in the world of Brahma, and another dies here and is reborn in Kashmir, which of them would arrive first?

“They would arrive at the same time. O King.

“In which town were you born, O King?

“In a village called Kalasi, Venerable Sir.

“How far is Kalasi from here, O King?

“About two hundred miles, Venerable Sir.

“And how far is Kashmir from here, O King?

“About twelve miles, Venerable Sir.

“Now think of the village of Kalasi, O King.

“I have done so, Venerable Sir.

“And now think of Kashmir, O King.

“It is done, Venerable Sir.

“Which of these two, O King, did you think the more slowly and which the more quickly?

“Both equally quickly, Venerable Sir.

“Just so, O King, he who dies here and is reborn in the world of Brahma, is not reborn later than he who dies here and is reborn in Kashmir.”

Conclusion

You have learned that the The Fully Enlightened do not take a rebirth after death and immediate rebirths take place just after the death moment for all other beings. You have learned that kamma along with a wish is what determines your next birth, and that can affect the future kamma that gets produced. For instance, many opportunities can arise to make more good merit if you are born intelligent into a wealthy family with good parents. However, you also learned how easy it is to fall down. You learned about the suffering periods of lifetimes and micro-moments. Lastly, you have learned that Theravāda says there are no such things as Tibetan Bardo Planes or Near Death Experiences.

I hope you are able to realize that you have read some of the deepest and most profound teachings of Buddhism. However, this content is rare to be found in English language because most Western Buddhist only believe some of the teachings rather than the sum of the Buddhist Teachings. Because of this, you might not believe it is mainstream and deep, but it is deep and mainstream according to those who follow the entire Pāḷi teachings vastly accepted by the ancient Buddhist Theras (elder teachers). This is why they call it Theravāda. You are encouraged to ask any Asian scholar monk to read this article to verify this information is correct. They will agree that this is one of the deepest and most central core topics of proper Theravāda Buddhism.

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