Discuss the major elements of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions understanding of life after death.Â Include in your discussion why you think these aspects are important or interesting. Which elements of these worldviews are the most diverse from your own understanding of life after death? What aspects of these traditions (if any) would you like to explore further?
(in the class overview)
From the Expert: The Hindu and Buddhist View of Death
Hindu View of Death
In Hinduism, death is seen as an intrinsic part of the cycle of life. The triune god is composed of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the maintainer and Shiva the destroyer, in acknowledgement of the process of life moving from birth to death to birth in a continual spiral of existence. Kali, mother goddess, gives birth to everything and also destroys everything through illness, catastrophe, old age and death. This tradition has a completely integrated view of life and death. Death is not separated from living.
With all its gods, ceremonies, and mystical practices, Hinduism maintains a strong relationship to the earth and to the natural practical process of a human life. The four stages of life principle celebrates the natural development from student to householder, to retiree, to sunnyasin, with his complete dedication to the spiritual path. It is seen as perfectly natural in the householder stage, with its many responsibilities to family and the social structure, to seek to make an excellent living and contribute to society by gaining and wielding power appropriately. If this stage is conducted with propriety, generosity and fulfillment of caste responsibilities, it is viewed as the right conduct for a religious Hindu.
The traditional final stage of life, in view of approaching death, is dedicated to spiritual understanding. A person will give up all ties to the earth, leave home and family, and wander the country with nothing but a loin cloth. Turning to face death in this way, the ties of the earth are challenged and insight into the nature of being is sought. It is a very generous society that supports this complete dedication to religion and spirit. It is also one which acknowledges that death is the natural end to a lifetime and that the person facing death needs to be socially nurtured and supported in the process of trying to understand life and individual existence. When someone dies, cremation is the usual procedure. The ashes are scattered in flowing water, and when possible, in the sacred Ganges.
The belief in reincarnation has a strong impact on the Hindu ethical system. Life is associated with being mired in illusion and the suffering which results. The religious goal is to achieve moksha, the insight that the core of one’s self and Brahman, the source of everything, are the same. Each lifetime is an opportunity to be reborn as a man and also into a higher caste, which increases the possibility of achieving moksha, at which point reincarnation ends. This view encourages living ethically and compassionately, thereby accumulating good karma and a progressively better rebirth.
Buddhist View of Death
We will explore the Buddhist view of death from the point of view of the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools, which have much in common with the Hindu perspective. Death is integrated as an organic part of life. Buddhism began with Prince Siddartha’s desire to understand suffering and death and to know the true nature of life. His quest inspired him to leave his protective environment and venture beyond the walls. He saw the Four Passing Sights, including an ill person, an old person, a corpse and a monk, which inspired him on his spiritual journey.
Buddhism’s approach to ordinary life proceeds on two levels. The first is this daily ordinary life we live, which is permeated with suffering because of our misunderstanding about the nature of existence. Daily life also serves as a doorway to a mystical, spiritual world in which all phenomena, including oneself are seen as not only transitory, but illusory and a projection of mind. That is the second level of life.
Death is also approached from these two perspectives. From the ordinary life side, the person who has died is mourned, but also through ritual, he/she is reminded of the illusory nature of life and how to relinquish this illusion. It is thought that the person’s consciousness lingers around their body for three days unaware that they are dead. They can be in a state of confusion or panic because they no longer have the reference point of a physical body. It is important not to disturb the corpse during this time so as not to create further confusion. Friends and family will practice meditation in the presence of the corpse, urging the person to â€œlet go,â€ stop clinging to the familiar people and life he/she has known. It is believed that surrendering to being dead helps the person travel through the transition state with greater awareness, creating the opportunity to be enlightened in the process and not reincarnate.
There is an actual text, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which details the death process and subsequent transition to birth. It is read to the dying person to guide them through the dying process. While reading it, a lama rings tiny very sharp sounding finger cymbals to keep the person awake and attentive to the instructions. Another ritual which is meant to assist this process is that the photo of the deceased is burned during the death ceremony, while chanting to the person that they are dead and that their former existence is no longer available to them. The body is eventually cremated.
The basic ethical system which is based on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, focuses on compassion acknowledging the fact that all living things are caught in this endless cycle of painful existence. Living and acting with compassion towards all sentient beings accumulates good karma and hastens the moment of enlightenment. Pursuant to enlightenment there is the possibility of a further state, Nirvana, which occurs after death and is a state of undifferentiated, non self referential bliss. These states are achieved when a person has seen ultimate reality.
In Buddhism, the idea of spiritually dying before dying is given strong play. The practitioner, guided by a spiritual master, is given successive techniques to induce this state. For instance, a person might live in a charnel ground for years confronting their own mortality. The emphasis in Buddhism is on being â€œawake,â€ the potential of all sentient beings. This means that one leaps beyond the confines of habitual thought and attachment to the familiar â€œself,â€ and braves the â€œdeathâ€ of the self in order to wake up to the true nature of reality. The â€œdeathâ€ of the self is the only means of experiencing this profound insight. Do not forget: After Buddha became enlightened, he as was asked, â€œWho are you, man or god?â€ he answered, â€œI am awake!â€
Discuss the major elements of the Australian Aboriginal, Native American and Shinto traditions understanding of life after death. Include in your discussion why you think these aspects are important or interesting. Which elements of these worldviews are the most diverse from your own understanding of life after death? What aspects of these traditions (if any) would you like to explore further?
Discuss three shared characteristics of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim idea of the afterlife. Where do they most differ? Share what you find interesting about these views and worldviews as well as what you might question. What aspects of these traditions (if any) would you like to explore further?
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