Buddhism is the world’s fourth largest religion, with over 520 million followers. Our religion originated in India sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. Our traditions, beliefs, and spiritual practices are varied and often take cues from the various cultures that have adopted our philosophies over the millennia. With such a diverse following and even more diverse traditions, it can be difficult to understand how Buddhism compares to other religions.
For instance, do Buddhists believe in an afterlife? Generally speaking, Buddhists believe in rebirth, not reincarnation. It is believed that after this life, a person’s energy passes on to a new life. This cycle of life and death is defined as samsara. The ultimate goal for Buddhists is to eventually gain enlightenment and break free of the cycle forever, thus achieving Nirvana.
So, while we don’t believe in an afterlife necessarily, we do believe in life after death. We believe that nothing in this universe is permanent: not us, not God, nothing. If nothing is permanent, there can be no permanent self. So, if nothing is permanent, how does reincarnation work? How do you become enlightened and reach Nirvana? And what, exactly, is karma, anyway?
Reincarnation in Buddhism
Because we believe nothing is permanent, it means we also don’t believe we have souls. How can someone be reborn if you don’t believe in a soul? To be honest, “reincarnation,” as it’s commonly defined, isn’t really what we believe in. Better terms would be transmigration or rebirth.
Even among us practitioners of Buddhism, this can be a difficult topic to truly understand. Reincarnation is the soul being reborn into another body. It is the same person, just a new body. Transmigration is more akin to a spark that ignites new life. In fact, it is often described as lighting one candle from the flame of another. The new flame is completely new and its own flame, yet it wouldn’t exist without the other candle.
Some people confuse the idea of transmigration with the idea that, if we aren’t good, we’ll be reborn as a rat. Or that people in India don’t eat cows because it might be their deceased uncle. These are misunderstandings of reincarnation and rebirth (and in the case of cows, a misunderstanding of Indian culture and the Hindu religion) as it is known by Buddhists. While the Buddha often used parables of people being reincarnated as animals, they were meant to explain a point and not be taken so literally. Unfortunately, our modern ears often miss the subtleties of such ancient stories.
Rebirth is another term often used, and we consider its definition to be about the same as transmigration. A person’s energy is transferred upon death into another living being. How long that takes is up for debate; some of us say at once, some of us say 49 days, others say there is an indeterminate waiting period. But whether it is immediate or eventual, we believe that sooner or later our flame touches the wick of another candle, and a new flame is born.
The reality is . . . we don’t believe in reality. Thich Nhat Hanh, in a Mindfulness Bell Dharma Talk in 2009, said, “You can be sure that the world is an object of mind. The sun, the moon, the earth, the cosmos, the galaxies—they are all objects of mind. And our body, also, is an object of our mind. And our mind, also, is an object of our mind.”
Everything we do, say, experience, and see is the result of the world responding to our Ego. Everything is impermanent, and our lives are little more than a string of moments reaching far back in time. There is never anything other than this moment. And this one. And this one. Eventually, there is one last moment. And where we are and what we’ve done (or haven’t done), effects that new, first spark of a moment. The shape of those new moments is decided by karma.
People in the west tend to define karma as simply “what goes around comes around.” But that is actually an overly simplistic view of what is an exceptionally large, complex idea. Karma, simply translated, means “action, work, or deed.” Every action, good or bad, has a long-lasting effect and determines not only our immediate future but how we fare after we’re reborn.
In samsara, our circle of life and death, we have six realms:
- Heavenly Beings
- Human Beings
- Fighting Spirits
- Hungry Ghosts
While this may give the impression that we believe in an afterlife, we believe that we interact with these realms on a daily basis. One moment, we may be doing good things and moving with the heavenly beings, the next moment our anger gets the best of us and we’re amongst the fighting spirits. How we interact with the various levels of samsara directly influences our karma.
For example, if in our previous life we were an unapologetically bad person, in the next go around, we might find ourselves in a hell realm. If we let our baser instincts take over in a former life, we might find ourselves living in animalist conditions (note here, it says nothing about coming back as an animal). The human realm is for those with good karma and who are working on cultivating good moral virtues. The heavenly beings realm is for those of us who, while still in human form, have already started to transcend the suffering of living.
The thing is, our karma is not set in stone. It is not this thing where once we do something, that’s it. We can fix things. Clear the karma, if you will. Positive action births positive action. Have we done/said something hurtful? Apologize. We must take responsibility for our actions and do what we can to rectify the situation. Karma takes into account our lessons learned and the steps taken.
A karmic lesson can be immediate or long-reaching. If we pay attention, we find that karma gives us opportunities to clear the negative out and move forward. If we continually choose to not listen to karma’s teachings, when we are reborn, we will carry that weight with us into our new lives. As we will continue to do until we learn our lessons and make good on our transgressions.
The goal of Buddhism is to, over our many lifetimes, clear our karma by following the teachings of Buddha, so one day, in our last moment, we will be released from the wheel of samsara and enter Nirvana.
Enlightenment and Nirvana
Nirvana, simply translated, means “blown out;” as in, how candles are blown out. In Buddhism, Nirvana is the highest state one can attain. It is the moment when we become free of suffering and rebirth. It is said that the Buddha after six years of intense practice and meditation while sitting under a Bodhi tree reached enlightenment and found Nirvana.
Nirvana is not a place that can be reached, but a state beyond both existence and non-existence. When we reach Nirvana, we are released from samsara and are no longer bound karmically to the wheel of life.
Enlightenment, which many people confuse with Nirvana, is actually not the same thing. Enlightenment, as best as those of us who aren’t enlightened can describe, is awakening to another way of being, another way of seeing the interconnectedness of us all. It isn’t something that can be reached, or given, or obtained. We must open ourselves up to it and experience it. There is no one path; everyone’s journey is different.
In Buddhism, our basic tenets are called the Four Noble Truths. Buddha’s first sermon after reaching enlightenment described for us what has come to be the foundation of our beliefs. They are:
- The truth of suffering
- The truth of the cause of suffering
- The truth of the end of suffering
- The truth of the path that frees us from suffering
Our first truth is often translated as “life is suffering.” People have a tough time getting past that. The meaning is actually a little more subtle. Yes, there is suffering in life, but also extraordinary joy. But even within the joy, there is a touch of sadness because you know the feeling won’t last. The impermanence of everything (happiness, sadness, life) causes suffering.
The cause of suffering comes from constantly wanting more. We are never satisfied with what we have. Whether its success, love, happiness, our attachment to the ways these things makes us feel cause craving we can’t or won’t control. Many times, our “bad” karma comes as a result of our greed and desire for more.
So, how do we end this suffering? It’s simple, really. Just stop attaching ourselves to our thoughts and desires. Easy, right? In truth, this is awfully hard, and people spend lifetimes working on letting go of their attachments. When we truly come to understand just how impermanent everything is (including ourselves), grasping to hold on to things we can’t keep stops being a necessity. We are able to let go, and our cravings for it cease.
How do we go about disentangling ourselves from all the things we’re clinging to? Buddha was kind enough to light the way forward here as well. He gave us the Eightfold Path as a kind of map to show us the way forward. While there is no one path and you can’t “win” enlightenment, The Eightfold Path is meant to clear the brush away, so to speak, so our way forward becomes clearer. These eight teachings are:
- Right View/Right Understanding
- Right Intention
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Concentration
By following these eight lessons, we gain insight into the nature of reality; we learn to use compassion in our words, deeds, and jobs; we let go of things that do not serve us; we gain insight from concentrated practices like meditation.
While Enlightenment and Nirvana are terms that are often used interchangeably, they are actually two different states of being. In the Mahayana tradition, the path to Enlightenment is also called the path of the Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is a person who is able to achieve enlightenment but becomes so moved by the suffering in the world they pledge to stay on the wheel of life until all suffering is removed from existence. Only then will they move on to Nirvana. In Buddhism, we seek peace within ourselves. We do not let ourselves become attached to the exterior world, because we know it is not the truth. By releasing our attachments to what holds us here, we are able to see beyond what our Ego shows us. It is the journey of many lifetimes. It is the hope that eventually we find our way to Nirvana and we are finally free from the suffering rebirth brings.
If you are interested in learning about other Religions in the world, then check out this book on World’s Religions on Amazon.