The Journey of Life

In the Abrahamic religions life and death are believed to be linear: a being is born, lives and then dies, at which point their soul or other part that survives death passes to a domain that is inaccessible to living beings and remains there indefinitely, or until the end of the world. This is not the case in Buddhism. Life is not thought of as a linear journey. Instead it is a cycle of birth and death through samsara going on indefinitely until one can liberate oneself (Nibbana / Nirvana).

Buddhists believe that one can be reborn in any one of Six Realms: the Deva (god) Realm, the Asura (demi-god) Realm, the Human Realm, the Animal Realm, the Preta (Hungry Ghost) Realm, and the Naraka (hell) realm. Where one is reborn depends on one’s Kamma / Karma. This Buddhist idea of reincarnation is difficult to understand since at face value it seems to conflict with the Buddha’s teaching on Anatta / Anitya. Therefore rebirth should be thought of in terms of a constantly changing stream of consciousness. At death the Five Khandhas / Skandhas, which conventionally constitute a person, break up and become one of the contributing causes for the arising of a new group of Khandhas / Skandhas, which again may conventionally be considered a person. The consciousness arising in the new person is neither identical nor different from the old consciousness – it is just part of a causal continuum or stream. Early Buddhist texts often use fire as a useful analogy here – rebirth is like flame passed from one candle to another or fire that spreads from one field to another. In both cases the new flame depends on the original, there is a causal relation between them, but they are not identical, nor are they completely distinct. In this way Buddhist texts emphasis that there is no permanent consciousness that moves from life to life, but at the same time there is a causal link.

Buddhism does not have any specific ceremonies for rites of passage like birth, adolescence, marriage etc. This is because these events are seen as this worldly and consequently not relevant to the Buddhist path. These sorts of rites are practiced by Buddhists, but they are local rites relevant to particular cultures and should not be thought of as Buddhist. Sometimes a Buddhist monk may be present or participate in ceremony, in marriage for example he may offer a blessing to the couple, but the ceremony itself is not Buddhist. However, in some Buddhist countries, Thailand for example, boys aged between 8 and 20 sometimes enter a monastery as a novice for a year or two. This is seen as generating merit for the boys and their parents, while giving them a taste of monastic life to see if they like it – most do not go on to take full ordination. In many countries this period as a novice also is very important to the boy’s education.

Buddhists view death as the dissolution of the Five Khandhas / Skandhas, which inevitably leads to rebirth unless one has become enlightened and achieved nibbana / nirvana (which can be translated as “the Deathless”). Although fear of death is natural, Buddhists attempt to face death with equanimity and fearlessness and place a great deal of importance on being in the right frame of mind when one dies since this will affect where one is reborn. Because of this, drugs which may cloud the mind are often refused by someone dying, although a pragmatic attitude is usually taken since extreme pain will also hinder the right state of mind. Buddhist monks will often be called in (much like chaplains are at Christian hospitals) to assist the dying, comfort them, and help them prepare and achieve the best possible rebirth. In Tibet it is believed that there is a period between dying and being reborn known as the bardo. It is thought that in this period one can achieve a good rebirth or even enlightenment, particularly if one has the right guidance. Therefore lamas recite the Bardo Thodol (traditionally known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but literally meaning “liberation through hearing in the intermediate state”) over the dying, the dead, or an effigy of the dead.

Buddhism and science are generally considered to be compatible with each other. This is because Buddhist world views tend not to conflict with scientific ideas like concepts of the universe and evolution. The main reason for this is that the Buddha refused to discuss such questions how the world originated or why there is suffering (questions which cause many problems for Abrahamic religions’ relationships with science). However, Buddhists do have ideas of expansion and contraction of world systems, which fits in well with modern ideas of the expanding and contracting universe and the evolution of species.

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