For my Final Project topic in Gods, Ghosts and Ancestors, I chose to focus on the afterlife beliefs in the Buddhist religion and what exactly that entailed. I wanted to do more of a broad overview, and as my professor Kerry Noonan suggested, to put all of my information into a Afterlife: For Dummies type booklet/paper. I chose to break the paper down into sections that correspond to the main themes in Buddhism and how they tie into the afterlife. My first section is simply what Buddhism is, which particular school or version of it is practiced in mainland China, and an overview of it’s teachings. The main three teachings (refereed to as the Three Marks of Existance) simplified, are essentially karma, reincarnation and impermanence. The first two are easily recognizable and not very complicated but impermanence is tricky to explain. It’s the thought that everything in the universe is in a constant state of motion and always changing.
With these three ideas stated, I moved onto my next section about how these tie into the teachings of how the Life cycle works in Buddhism. With each life you build up karma. This can be either good or bad karma depending on your actions, and this karma is the only thing that carries over into your next life once you die, and become reincarnated, (though it’s much more complex than that which I’ll cover later). This cycle continues until you can build up enough karma and follow the Buddhist teachings enough to achieve nirvana or bliss, and go to paradise. But how do you build up enough karma? This brings us to my next section of the Four Noble Truths and the Eight fold Path.
These two teachings are what the main focuses in Buddhism about how to achieve stated nirvana, or bliss. The truths (in a For Dummies model) are one: that there is suffering in life, two: the cause of this suffering is desire and ignorance, three: that to get rid of this suffering you must get rid of the desire and ignorance, and four: that the way to get rid of the said desire and ignorance is by following the eight fold path (right understanding, attitude, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, & concentration). Now theoretically, if one follows these teachings, and gains enough karma, according to Buddhist beliefs, you can end the cycle of death and rebirth and go to paradise.
But on that note I wanted to go into the detail about what exactly reincarnation entails. Reincarnation, or rebirth, is the idea of when a person dies, they are immediately reborn into a new vessel or body, with only the karma from their past life carrying over. But even with that said that leaves a lot of room for question. “Do you Buddhists believe in rebirth as an animal in the next life? Are you going to be a dog or a cow in the future? Does the soul transmigrate into the body of another person or some animal? What is the difference between transmigration and reincarnation? Is it the same as rebirth? Is karma the same as fate? These and a hundred similar questions are often put to me” (Tsuji). This Buddhist monk goes to explain that there is a misunderstanding that a person has led many different lives, most likely as animals and at this point were somehow born into being a human for this life. This misunderstanding, he goes on to say, is caused by most people not being able to read sacred texts, or sutras. It is not as simple as people think it is, and most stories of people being born into animals were used to teach people not to act as such. He goes on to talk about how reincarnation is all about karma – action based influence that gets sent out and received, constantly changing. “This changing personality and the world he lives in constitutes the totality of his karma” (Tsuji).
On this note, as Tsuji puts it, karma and fate should not be confused with each other. Karma can be changed which is what Buddhism is all about, whereas fate is a predetermined destiny that cannot be changed. He is very vague when describing what exactly reincarnation entails, saying that he and other humans “… are limited in understanding “Buddha Knowledge”. We cannot speak TRUTH, only words ABOUT Truth” (Tsuji). On the other hand what he can explain is what reincarnation isn’t, what I previously hit upon- the simple physical rebirth. Getting away from that, once one has attuned themselves correctly, followed the eight fold path, gotten rid of any earthly desires and ignorance and become enlightened he or she can achieve nirvana, and cease life’s suffering and the cycle of rebirth.