Buddhist Afterlife
Rev. Kusala Ratna Karuna

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Do Buddhists go to heaven?

I have had the great fortune of speaking about Buddhist afterlife to a lot of Christians. One of the things that prompted me to investigate Buddhist afterlife was giving a talk at Central Juvenile Hall, where one of the Catholic girls said to me that I was going to go to hell because I did not believe in God and Jesus Christ. After reflection I had to agree with her that I was going to Christian hell because I did not believe in God or Jesus Christ. But was I going to Buddhist hell? That is the question. If a good Catholic married a good Buddhist and they lived happily ever after, when they died were they going to the same place? Most Catholics answer "Of course. Because there is only one place to go." Well, if that's the case where did all the Christians go before Christ was born, and where did all the good Buddhists and Egyptians and the worshippers of the great goddess go before Christ came to the world. So, I needed to investigate it and with great honesty say, " So, what is the Buddhist contribution to afterlife? The Buddhist contribution is Nirvana. Nirvana is the end of suffering while you are alive and the end of rebirth after you die. The Buddha said that all forms of life are unsatisfactory and that you will eventually end up suffering. Well, what if somebody did not reach Nirvana in this life. Where would they go? The Buddha borrowed from Brahmanic tradition: Karma was already established in India by the time the Buddha was born. Heavens and hells already were established in India before he was born. He used those as examples, as models, as paradigms, for where a good Buddhist and a bad Buddhist would go. I brought this up to a Catholic friend and he said, "Why of course, bad Buddhists will go to heaven and good Buddhists will go to Nirvana." I like that.

So, how many heavens and how many hells do we have? Well, we have more than one. There is a wonderful book that was published in 1997, called Buddhist Cosmology, Philosophy and Origins. It goes into very detailed explanation. There are more heavens and hells.There are 33 of this and 33 of that. I am going to simplify it. We have the best heaven. Everything there is just what you want it to be. If you go there you have no reason to change anything. You are ultimately happy. The problem is that it is not permanent, as is everything in Buddhism, except Nirvana. One day in the heaven realm is equal to 400 human years, and your stay is four thousand heaven years, so you will be there a long time. But eventually the karma you have will wear out. You are only withdrawing from your karma account, not depositing. You are not practicing generosity or compassion, you are not striving to gain wisdom. When the karma that put you to be born in this heaven wears out, you have to be reborn again, and that makes you unhappy.

The second heaven realm, which is a lower one, is where things are almost perfect. I call this the Donald Trump heaven realm. It could be just a little better. There is still some desire associated with this heaven realm. The next realm is the human realm, where we all ended up for whatever reason. This is the best place for us to come because this is the only place where we can become enlightened. We cannot become enlightened in heaven, because things are too nice and we have no reason to strive. We cannot become enlightened in the hell realm because things are too bad and all we can do is suffer. We have enough happiness and joy to keep us from taking our own lives and we have enough anxiety and suffering to keep us honest. We cannot relax too long in any one mental state, because they will not last.

The next realm is the animal realm. The animal realm is marked by wanting to have sex, wanting to have food, wanting to have sleep and being totally confused. Those are the four characteristics that we find in the animal realm. So you can see that we are not likely to become enlightened in the animal realm. The question may arise, "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" Yes, a dog does have the potential to become enlightened, but only in the human realm. Can an animal be reborn as a human being? Yes, if they come into contact with Buddhism. If they see a stupa or hear the dharma. That can plant a seed which allows them to be reborn as a human. And there they can achieve their full potential there and become enlightened.

The next realm is called the hungry ghost realm, and is often pictured as a giant creature with a large stomach and a pinhole for a mouth. They can never fulfill their hunger, So they are always filled with craving and desire. They can never be satisfied.

In the hell realm, that is where there is the most suffering. We have these little hell bodies. The leaves of the trees are like razor blades. They fall off the tree and cut us into a million pieces. Then our bodies resurrect and we are again cut into little pieces. And there is molten lead and we burn to death. The only way we can get out of the hell realm is to burn off our karma that got us there through suffering. Suffering is the act of purification that enables us to be reborn in a higher realm.

So, do Buddhists go to heaven? I think they do. Do Buddhists go to hell? I think they do. Do Buddhists go to Christian heaven? I don't think they do. In the Buddhist model we have specific practices that are necessary to achieve rebirth in heaven. We have specific practices to achieve rebirth in the jhanic realms. We have specific practices necessary to achieve Nirvana. The Buddha did not leave this up to chance. Just because one calls himself a Buddhist does not ensure rebirth in heaven or Nirvana. It is a labor intensive practice that requires personal responsibility. Now, it is no surprise that we are going to die. How many people on a daily basis think about the next lifetime? If you are a Buddhist you have to look at life as a continuum, as a process of birth and death. And we are in a constant state of becoming. Now I like the analogy of going to an airport with a suitcase. We put it on the conveyor belt so it can be loaded onto the luggage area of the airplane. But we are not getting onto the plane. That suitcase contains our karma. When it gets to its destination, the next person picks up the suitcase. That is what they have to work with. Now they can get more clothing, better clothing if they practice acts of generosity and compassion. Or they can turn the clothing into rags if they have greed, anger , hatred and delusion. I am not going to the next lifetime. My karma is. It is not the event that is going, it is the process that is going.

While Buddhism stayed in India, this seemed to be an acceptable model of rebirth. But Buddhism did not stay in India. It went to China, and these concepts did not jive with Chinese concepts all ready in place. So, Buddhism had to change a bit. So, what we find in China is Amitabha Buddha and the Pure Land. It is said that if one has faith, vows and practice, one can achieve Pure Land. All you have to do is say "Namo Amitabha Buddha ten times" with faith, take a vow and have a practice. But there everything teaches the Dharma, so you become enlightened.

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