The Five-Minute Buddhist Books

Recommended Host

Rebirth, Death, Heaven and Nirvana

Question:

I recently lost my grandmother, and now have no grandparents left. I’m comforted with the belief that my grandparents went to Heaven and are with God and each other. My question is sort of a two-sided one: How do Buddhists handle death, and what do they believe about life after death? I’ve heard about reincarnation, but I’m not sure if I fully understand how that works. Another way to phrase part of my question: I, like every other person in this world, am afraid to die. What does Buddhism teach in terms of calming that fear and preparing one for the unknown? If this is a question you’ve covered already, I apologize. It was on my mind and I had to ask.

Answer:

You ask two VERY big questions, but I’ll try to give you as short an answer as possible. Remember, that I’m simplifying things heavily.

Buddhists believe in the cycle of samsara, which is also called rebirth. It’s not exactly reincarnation as we usually understand it in America, but it’s pretty close. As we live our lives, we accumulate karma, which is something like a “point system” for the good and bad things we do. There is not a god watching us and assigning these points, it’s just the way the universe works. If you build up lots of good karma, you come back in a better life, if you build up bad karma, you move down the scale.

Unlike Christianity, there is no praying for forgiveness; if you do something bad, you will pay for it eventually. If you are good, you will receive your reward. This is why people say that Buddhism really emphasizes personal responsibility. Your build-up of karma does not necessarily have an effect on you in the present life. That’s why sometimes bad things happen to good people and vice-versa.

I realize that your grandparents believed in the Christian version of Heaven and Hell, and it sounds like you do as well, and that’s fine. Buddhists believe that karma works for non-Buddhists as well, and good actions will still bear the rewards!

The second half of your question, how do Buddhists prepare for death, is a bit more complicated.

Buddhists look forward to escaping this cycle of birth and rebirth, and believe that they can reach “Nirvana” where they no longer have to come back endure life and its associated pains. Nirvana is not a “place” like Heaven, but more of an individual state of being. Still, it’s the ultimate goal, so thinking of it as a form of heaven isn’t too far out.

The physical body here on Earth is just a shell, and we all know that this body will age and die. This is unavoidable, and Buddhists work hard to learn to accept that. There are even meditation practices that focus on mentally imagining decomposing corpses; as one thinks that process through, it loses its repulsiveness and one stops fearing the inevitable.

We have looked at these topics on the site in the past, so here are a couple of links that might help a bit:

Christians and Karma? http://www.dailybuddhism.com/archives/133
Past Lives: http://www.dailybuddhism.com/archives/858
The 40 Meditation Themes: http://www.dailybuddhism.com/archives/229

Feel free to ask if you need clarification on anything!

4 comments to Rebirth, Death, Heaven and Nirvana

  • Great article as usual, Brian. I appreciate your explanation. I know that this is an issue that many people, struggle with; myself included. You always do a great job of explaining even the most complicated of topics simply and easily. I share much of your view on these topics, and have included response over at a site I put up for logging my journal entries.

  • Mike Burke

    You said “Nirvana is not a “place” like Heaven, but more of an individual state of being. Still, it’s the ultimate goal, so thinking of it as a form of heaven isn’t too far out.”

    But I thought Nirvana was non-existence?

    Is it a state of being, or non-being?

  • Mike Burke

    Are Buddhists Theists, Atheists, Pantheists, Panentheists, or Deists?

    Is there a Supreme Being?

  • Nirvana/Non-existence *IS* a state of being. Or non-being.

    As far as the Supreme Being Question goes, it depends on who you ask and which sect of Buddhist he or she belongs to.