Buddhist Afterlife

For my Final Project I made a brochure on a guide to the Buddhist Afterlife.

The magnitude of the reward of an afterlife promised in the case of Christians is significantly greater than in relation to both Buddhism and Taiwanese folk religions. My main focus for my project  is on afterlife in the Buddhist religion.


The basic premise in ancestor veneration was that the soul of a departed family member consisted of ayin component known as the po (associated with the grave) and a yang component known as the hun (associated with the ancestral tablet). According to one popular conception, these basic components became three separate “souls,” each demanding ritual attention: one soul went to the grave with the body; one soul went to the Ten Courts of Judgment (also called the Ten Courts of Hell) and was eventually reborn; and one soul remained in or near the ancestral tablet on the family altar.Po had the potential of becoming gui if not placated by sacrifices, but the spirits of one’s own ancestors were not generally considered to be gui. One’s own naturally became shen, assuming they received proper ritual attention. Chinese people believed that they would experience a celestial life after death just like the one they were having on earth. This belief contributed to the afterlife dynastic Chinese religion. In ancient China, the belief of the afterlife didn’t bring hope but actually despair to many.

So what Happens to the body when we die? Diyu is the realm of the dead or “hell” in Chinese mythology. It is loosely based on a combination of the Buddhist concept of Naraka, traditional Chinese beliefs about the afterlife and a variety of popular expansions and reinterpretations of these two traditions.Diyu is typically depicted as a subterranean maze with various levels and chambers, to which souls are taken after death to atone for the sins they committed when they were alive. During the last thousand years or so, Chinese conceptions of the afterlife and the ritual practices designed to ensure the soul has a safe passage through the underworld have been dominated by the “Ten Kings and their Courts.”other Chinese legends speak of the “Eighteen Levels of Hell”. Each court deals with a different aspect of atonement and different punishments; most legends claim that sinners are subjected to gruesome tortures until their “deaths”, after which they are restored to their original state for the torture to be repeated.

The Afterlife beliefs and traditions also includes those still living. Ancestor worship is very deeply rooted in China and still very much alive today. Ancestors are generally honored and appeased with daily and seasonal offerings and rituals. It has been said spirituality emanates from the family not a church or temple. Pictures of dead relatives are featured on family altars in many Chinese homes, where religious rituals and prayers are regularly performed. Candles are regularly lit and offerings are made at ancestral shrines and graves, which are often visited during holidays. There is the belief that their ancestors are still watching them, unlike the Western Christian belief that their ancestors go to heaven and that’s the end of it.

hell money

Sometimes property is still believed to be in the procession of dead ancestors, and before a piece of property or a family possession is sold, the dead are consulted through special ceremonies. However, not all souls had to face judgment before all ten Magistrates of Hell. The rare soul that had led an exemplary life could gain immediate release from the Underworld Realm and leave by way of two bridges, often called the “Golden Bridge” and the “Silver Bridge.” Each bridge led to a very different destiny, and the soul had to choose between the two. The Golden Bridge took the soul to the “Pure Land of the West”. This Pure Land was presided over by the Buddha Amitābha, and after encountering Amitābha face-to-face, the soul could finally achieve what institutional Buddhism called nirvāṇa — complete release from the cycle of birth and rebirth. Thus, a soul choosing the Western Pure Land attained salvation from the cosmos itself. The Silver Bridge, on the other hand, led to Heaven, which was an important domain of the cosmos. Heaven was ruled by the Jade Emperor and populated by gods and heavenly officials. The soul entering into Heaven via the Silver Bridge would be reborn as a god and become an important figure in the cosmos. This choice between the Pure Land beyond the cosmos and the Heavenly domain within the cosmos represents a major tension in Chinese popular religion.

Today, Chinese death rituals follow a rich cultural tradition dating back to the earliest dynasties. Today’s Chinese family still follows those traditions with a few small exceptions. Respect is given to elders in Chinese society, including those who are deceased. While proper respect is paid to the elders, there still remains the question of how to prepare for the funeral of unmarried adults and children.



3 thoughts on “Buddhist Afterlife

  1. Chelsea Rublee

    Erin, I’ve always had a slight fascination with Buddhism and being able to read your piece was quite a pleasure. The afterlife is something many people fear as it’s hard to embrace such an unknown. This fear is what strives us though to live with such passion and happiness, no? We are given x number of moments, days, months, years to live but no one knows how long it’ll be or what will come of it. But I digress, as that is not truly my focus here. Afro-Cuban religions, as I’ve learned in Shaking the Spirit this semester, seems to cherish their ancestors similarly to those of Buddhism. Buddhism practice rituals and ceremonies to honor and acknowledging their ancestors’ presence, in what seems to be much like Santeria does -or at least a similar intention. The focus in Santeria surrounds the idea of living a happy and plentiful life now. But although that is the case, this incorporates the ancestors. They too are still ‘living’ through you, in your life and to honor them is crucial. As you enter your Santeria journey you are taught to build a relationship with your ancestor spirits. I feel there are many commonalities between Santeria and Buddhism, at least regarding honoring those before us. Have you thought at all about the emotional transition one goes through when one passes; how do the Buddhist’s transition from living presence to ancestor presence; what does that look like? The idea of property could be proposed as an answer. I know for Santeria, and although property seems to be used very literally -as in the belongings of the one who has passed- by the Buddhists, property or a tangible symbol is used to worship and represent the ancestor. And perhaps this could be an insight into how to prepare for unmarried adults and children you end with!

  2. Gino Digioia

    Hello, Erin. Thank you for your post, it was really insightful. Personally, I always liked the idea of life after death. Well, at least the myths that spawn from such beliefs. It always feels reassuring to hear legends of giant demons making sure that the evils of the world are punished. Either that or they are having a poker game. Unless you believe in Shinto, then your giant demon would be the equivalent to a mother-in-law, that would be hell. Just kidding. Anyways, the connection I would like to make is how death myths are interchanged in between different faiths. In most cases, there is a underworld or lower area where people will go to obtain judgement. If they are judged well, then they can go to heaven or be reborn as a new person. If not, they rot in hell or play poker. Poker is really popular in hell. One of the earliest concepts of a afterlife came from early Greek ideas with the idea of Hades. My own personal topic was the cultural movement of Greco-Buddhism which tells of a combination of ideals from both Greek and Buddhism. From what I know, Buddhism got a lot of ideas from Hinduism but the Buddhism that exists in more eastern countries, such as China were influenced from this time period. So, I believe that the Buddhist idea of Naraka could stem from similar ideas that came from Greek mythology, however that is just a theory on the information I see. Otherwise, good work, I am glad to see someone explore a part of Buddhism and sound like they enjoyed writing about it.

  3. Allison Greenwood

    Being someone who touched on this topic briefly within my final, I found it very insightful to read the information that you included that I hadn’t researched! I did my Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors final on Chinese funeral practices as a whole and looked into Buddhist funeral practices as one aspect. I found it interesting in my research that Buddhists prefer a calm and peaceful place surrounded by the Buddhist community for their death. Do you think that this allows them a better transition into the afterlife? I also found that it is believed that there is a period between death and rebirth known as “Antarabhava” in Sanskrit or “Bardo” in Tibet and if the family makes sure that the proper assistance in the form of prayer and remembrance ceremonies are performed, the deceased will be more prepared for a favorable rebirth. Did you come across anything similar or a different account of how another area assists in this process?


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