Life, Death and Rebirth

Buddhism is one of the oldest world religions. It was started by an Indian prince named Siddhartha who was born 544 years before Christ. He renounced his family and kingdom and studied and practiced all the spiritual teachings of that time, until one day, he vowed not to move from his seat under a Bodhi tree until he discovered the truth of all existence. He did this by examining the nature of his own mind.

To a Buddhist, the word “mind” does not mean brain or merely cognitive ability. Mind is formless, shapeless, colourless, genderless and has the ability and potential to cognise all phenomena which is called being “Enlightened”. The word Buddha means Awakened (One). Like the sky, the mind’s basic nature is pure, luminous and knowing but like clouds obscuring the sun, one’s mind is obscured by delusions. However, through virtue and meditation one removes the delusions and becomes awaken, a Buddha.

In other words, everyone has the potential to become a Buddha. The mind also has three levels – gross for example the mind we are using now to understand each other) subtle(roughly the unconscious mind and very subtle mind which could be described as the essential energy of the mind). It is the very subtle mind that is usually only experienced at the time of death or in advanced meditation practices.

What bearing does this have on life and death?

Buddhists believe every action created with either our body, our speech or our mind leaves a subtle imprint on our mind which has the potential to ripen as future happiness or future suffering, depending on whether the action was positive or negative. This is a very simplistic description actually it is not black and white, it is very complex – maybe it is best thought of as different grades of grey. For example, if one learns to play the piano, one automatically has the potential to become a pianist depending on so many factors (such as: how much one practices, the tutor, one’s talent, etc) So basically these imprints remain on the very subtle mind until they ripen or until they are purified by spiritual practices. This is called the Law of Karma, or the Law of Cause and Effect.

It is the very subtle mind which continues like a stream from one so called “life” to another. This is called Reincarnation. The type of rebirth one takes is determined by the cause, in other words, the strength and direction of one’s karma. Because of the continuation of this very subtle energy or mind, it is the state of one’s consciousness at the time of death which usually determines one’s rebirth. If the mind is calm and peaceful and carries positive thoughts then the natural outcome is a happy rebirth. If one’s mind is in a state of anger, fear or has strong desire this generates an unhappy rebirth. The mind that arises at the time of death is usually the one that the person is most habituated to. People tend to die in character, although this is not always so.

Therefore, the Buddhist teachings strongly emphasise that the time to prepare for death is now,because if we develop and gain control over our mind now and create many positive causes then we will have a calm and controlled mind at the time of death; we will be free of fear and have no regrets. An advanced meditator even looks upon death as a potentially rewarding experience to gain higher realisations and even Enlightenment. So he or she will make all efforts to understand and prepare for death in order to make the best possible use of the experience. In fact any practicing Buddhist will want to know as early as possible the probability of imminent death for these reasons and also to prepare one’s family.

Death has been described as being “as difficult as a turtle separating from its shell!” Usually what we think is “me” includes a concept of our body as part of ourselves. Losing what is most familiar and precious to “ourselves” is a wrenching and agonising process. So the Buddhist tries to cultivate the attitude that the body is like an old car which the driver has to abandon.

Since the quality of the future rebirth is said to depend largely on the quality of the final moment of consciousness, the Buddhist will also want to be as alert as possible, some may even refuse pain relieving drugs if it makes them feel intoxicated. So it is important to find the right balance between being free of pain and in control of the process.

The dying Buddhist would also be likely to request the services of a monk or nun in their particular tradition to assist in making the transition of death as peaceful and free of fear as possible. Before and at the moment of death and for a period after death the monk, nun or spiritual friends will read prayers and chant from the Buddhist Scriptures. In many traditions, this death bed chanting is regarded as very important and is ideally the last thing the Buddhist hears.

Death is seen as a highly complex and interdependent process in which both body and mind disintegrate simultaneously. There are two parts: an outer dissolution when the senses dissolve and an inner dissolutionof the gross and subtle minds. Thus even after a person dies from a clinical point of view, the inner process of dying continues for some time. Ideally its preferable to die at home or in a Buddhist hospice where one can have a peaceful meditative atmosphere and the body can remain undisturbed for a while after death.

This is especially important in the case of an advanced practitioner who may be resting in meditation. But it is also important for an ordinary person. If the person is disturbed or upset at the moment of death it can have an adverse effect on the mind’s migration through death into the next rebirth. Generally speaking, for a Buddhist, awareness of death plays and important part in their philosophy of life although for some older Asian Buddhists it is considered taboo to talk about death.

Death however is certain, no one has escaped it. But the duration of our life time is uncertain. Disease and accidents can happen at any time. Therefore, to a Buddhist, life is short and precious, so it’s wise to make the best use of it by practicing loving kindness, patience and other virtues.