Buddhism is a mystical and fascinating religion that captivates countless people with its concepts of Karma, reincarnation and Nirvana. What most don’t realize is that like Christianity, Buddhism has many sects, each with its own ideas and beliefs to the truths of what awaits us after we die…
Theravada Buddhism, known as the “The School of Elders”, is the oldest and one of the largest surviving branches of Buddhist thought today. It holds truer to ancient beliefs than branches that have evolved since Buddha’s time. Contrary to popular belief, Theravada Buddhists do not believe in reincarnation, as the concept itself is associated with the soul progessing from lifetime to lifetime. According to Theravada teachings, what moves on to the next life is not a soul, or a memory, but an ever-changing consciousness. This consciousness, while influenced by its previous lives, does not stay the same from incarnation to incarnation. This concept is explained with the imagery of passing a flame from candle to candle. Each new flame is not identical to the last, but is not completely detached from it either. While our actions affect our rebirth, the essence of who we are dies along with our body and mind in the physical world. Buddhists don’t believe in reincarnation, they believe in the transmigration of thought or Anatta.
Some ancient texts do refer to a reflection between lifetimes which has influenced the belief of Bardo, literally translated as “intermediate state”, in Tibetan. Bardo is a place between lives where consciousness is not connected to a physical existence. Consciousness in this state has a higher opportunity for enlightenment, seeing as it is presented with spiritual reality, however Bardo is a dangerous place. Haunting hallucinations created by the consciousness’ Karma tempts it. If the bait is taken, this could lead the consciousness to a less than desirable rebirth. Consciousness can be trapped in Bardo for up to 49 days. Luckily for Theravada Buddhists, there are no unified views in Buddhism on what actually happens upon the moment of death, except for the fact that no permanent consciousness progresses on. Theravada Buddhism is one of the only schools which doesn’t adhere to the idea of an intermission between lifetimes. The experience from death to life is believed to be instantaneous. Other beliefs and understandings on this topic can be found in The Tibetan Book of The Dead.
Theravada Buddhists believe that there are six (some combine two to make five) realms of existence that are subdivided into 31 different sub-realms in which we can die in and be reborn into. Each of the realms are existing plains of realities in which consciousness is born and die out of in the continual cycle of Samsara:
- God Realm – This plain of existence is said to be like Heaven; complete and total bliss. The problem with this realm is that many seem to forget about finding enlightenment and become stuck in a realm of ultimate pleasure.
- Demi-God Realm – This plain of existence is not as blissful as the God Realm but would still be considered paradise to any of us. Its major difference with the God Realm is that jealousy and competitiveness runs wild.
- Human Realm – This plain of existence is the one we were born into for this lifetime. It is considered the middle realm where any and all emotions from bliss to torture can be experienced. It is a perfect place to find enlightenment because the largest range of suffering can be seen in this plain.
- Animal Realm – This plain of existence is brought on by ignorance. Free will is taken from you and natural instinct replaces your thoughts. You may be able to understand the path to enlightenment, but are unable to practice it in this realm. This realm is associated with the animals on planet Earth.
- Hungry Ghost Realm – This plain of existence is filled with beings who want but will never have. Hungry Ghosts are depicted as ghostly creatures with large stomachs but very small mouths and extremely thin necks. They are always hungry and thirsty and can never seem to quench their yearning.
- Hell Realm – This plain of existence is run by evil hatred and anger. It is depicted like Hell, and is the complete opposite of the God Realm. There is no opportunity for compassion in this realm and thus teachings of enlightenment will never be learned there.
Theravada Buddhism sees life and existence as suffering. We are continually born and then die in an endless cycle of suffering. Reaching Nirvana is stopping the continuation of life. By not being fazed by sufferage or temptation, and accepting reality for what it is, consciousness can detach itself from existence thus reaching Nirvana. Consciousness then disappears into the nature of reality having been enlightened to the truth of all creation. Parinirvana is the action of one dying for the last time before reaching Nirvana. As for what happens next, no one is quite sure. When describing Nirvana in the Surangama, Buddha tells us only what Nirvana is not. As for what Nirvana is – that’s not explainable.