When my aunt died I was backpacking around South East Asia. I had visited her before I left and had the honour of accompanying her to the hospice where she had been spending a lot of time. One nurse, who she seemed particularly fond of, was from Tibet, and in the months before she died my aunt learnt a lot about the Buddhist faith, a faith that grew to become a great comfort to her in her final days.
When I heard she had passed away I went to visit a Buddhist temple. Had I been at home, my natural instinct would have been to go to a church, but in times like these I am drawn to whatever place holds some spiritual significance. I remember my uncle telling me how much it would have meant to her, me being where I was. But despite that, I know little about Buddhism beyond certain words that are thrown around with some sort of hippy stigma.
So what do Buddhists believe happens after we die? In it’s simplicity, we will continuously be reborn based on our past actions – our Karma – until we (if we ever do) reach nirvana. Buddhism teaches that we should not fear death, the fear of which stems from the fear of no longer existing and losing our own identity within the world. Rather, we should embrace the impermanance of life that we see through the constant changes in the world around us and aim for Nirvana. However, that is not to say that we should not fear rebirth.
Everything that occurs in our life is a result of Karma and it is Karmic Law, the law of cause and effect (‘what goes around comes around’), that enables the spirit of the dead to be reborn and determines the realm in which they will be reborn. This is something I was unaware of; I have always thought of the caste system and animals. Basically, there are six states of existence, each of a greater order than the other.
Hell, the lowest, is not visible to humans and is a realm of torture. This is where beings with a lot of negative karma are reborn and it is an extremely hard cycle of rebirth to escape from and proceed to a higher realm.
The Animal realm is one which is visible to humans and humans will be reborn here if they kill animals and have done lots of other evil acts. In this realm there is little freedom due to the hunting by humans.
Hungry ghosts is a spiritual realm for those who have committed many evil acts. They spend their existence here fruitlessly searching for food and drink.
The next realm is that of Asura, where a being is reborn as a Demi-God. But Demi-Gods are unlike the Gods of Heaven and they are jealous of them so they are in a constant struggle with them.
After Asura is our realm, Human Life, and even within this realm our karmic actions influence our status – how rich we are, how beautiful – and what we have learnt from previous existences influences our current life.
Finally, Heaven, of which there are 37 different levels. Now, I never realised that Buddhists believed in Heaven. I always considered their equivalent to be Nirvana. But, the realm of Heaven in Buddhism is a place of long-lasting happiness, peace and no suffering. Much like how I always was taught Heaven to be. But if you have reached the realm of Heaven, what would cause you to fall to a lower state of existence? What would motivate you to break free from the cycle of rebirth and try to obtain Nirvana?
Which brings me to Nirvana, that state of enlightment, the cessation of existence as we know it. This is achieved through the right aspiration, purity of life and elimination of egoism. However, Karma and Nirvana are not solely associated with death and rebirth – Karma can influence our current life as well as our rebirth, Nirvana too is said to be possible to achieve during life, although it is arguable that this is ‘true’ Nirvana as a being, a Buddha, still has a physical body.
In order to prepare for death we must let go and release ourselves from needing. Basically, just be grateful for what we had but not hang on to it. If we just let go, we are letting go of our suffering. Only then can we release ourselves from the cycle and achieve Nirvana.