Death and Rebirth

By John Snelling


Buddhism does not hold with nihilistic views of death. There is no yawning abyss of pure nothingness into which we finally disappear. There is just Samsara, the cyclic world-process - and escape from it.

Buddhists are often thought to subscribe to the idea of reincarnation. This is not strictly true. Reincarnation presupposes that some kind of enduring soul or essence, something with unchanging personal imprints, commutes from body to body down through the marches of time. As we have seen, however, the Buddha denied the existence of any soul that might reincarnate. What he did admit of was something slightly different, which we might call rebirth. This maintains that there, is a causal connection between one life and a subsequent one. Nothing is handed on in the transaction, however; the following life is a completely new one. But the form it takes is conditioned by the previous one.

The odds in favour of a human rebirth, from where alone escape from Samsara is possible, are said to be very slender. For example, If a blind turtle swimming in a vast ocean came up for air once every 100 years, what would be the likelihood of it putting its head through a golden yoke floating on the surface? So, if we are favoured with a 'precious human rebirth', we should take care to put it to good use in the interests of achieving liberation, otherwise we may be dispatched to the other grim 'destinations'—the hell realms, the realm of the hungry ghosts and so forth - and circulated there for aeons before we get another chance.

The Bardo

In Tibetan Buddhism we find a detailed analysis of the states that arise in the bardo, or intermediate state, that intervenes between one life and another. The bardo is a terrifying phantasmagoria in which all kinds of spectres, gods, demons and other apparitions loom up before the bewildered disembodied consciousness traversing it. Wonderful luminosities appear too, the first of which is the true Dharmakaya wherein lies liberation, but the consciousness traversing the bardo will usually be too confused to see them for what they are and will instead be swept onwards towards rebirth, which will take place within a maximum period of 49 days.

If a human rebirth is to take place, the future parents will be seen making love, lust will arise and the consciousness will try to interpose itself but find its way barred. The annoyance it then feels will be the seal of its conception.

From Buddhsim: An Introductory uide to the Buddhist Tradition , by John Snelling (Element Books - 2000)