A Buddhist View of Death

Zen Garden

Buddhism: A Snapshot

  • A philosophy and a way of life
  • Practiced in Eastern civilization for more than 2500 years
  • Fourth-largest religion in the world with almost 400 million adherents
  • Does not promote worship of a deity
  • Promotes enlightenment and moral virtue

The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, did not claim to be a god but rather an enlightened man. When Buddhists bow or offer flowers or incense to a statue of the Buddha, it is to express thanks for his teachings and to feel that they are in the Buddha’s living presence.

Basic Buddhist Beliefs

  • Everything changes, nothing is permanent, and suffering is inevitable.
  • True happiness, enlightenment, and freedom from suffering can be found through Buddhist teachings.
  • Death is a natural part of life.
  • Both wisdom and compassion should be developed.
  • A spirit is not extinguished upon death, but instead transfers into another life in one of six separate planes (three fortunate and three unfortunate).
  • A person’s actions during his lifetime results in karma that determines in what form his spirit will be reborn—as a human, an animal, or various forms of spirits, including angels, demons, gods, and ghosts.

What is karma? The Buddha taught that every action causes an effect, whether good, bad, or neutral, resulting in the accumulation of karma that will shape the person’s future—in what form he will be reborn and whether he will suffer or be happy, experience positive or negative moments.
Buddhists do not believe in an eternal soul that goes to meet God in the Christian sense, or one that is continually reincarnated in the Hindu sense; rather, the concept of rebirth (or Buddhist reincarnation) has been described as lighting a candle with the flame from another candle.

What is nirvana? The literal meaning of the word nirvana is “to extinguish.” A Buddhist’s hope is to be reborn into the human world, from which nirvana may eventually be achieved. Only by reaching nirvana (the cessation of craving, ignorance, and suffering) can the Buddhist be liberated from the cycle of rebirth.

Some believe nirvana to be a heavenly paradise, while others believe it to be nothingness; the Buddha did not make this clear in his teachings. Nirvana may be achieved by great effort over many lifetimes, and only when the individual has purified his soul by practicing right understanding, right thought, right speech, right mindfulness, right livelihood, right action, and right concentration.

How to Help a Buddhist Who Is Nearing Death

It is more important to Buddhists to care for the lives of the people all around them than to prolong or extend life when death is imminent.

Death for a Buddhist should be a smooth, peaceful process—death is natural and inevitable. The person who is dying should be in a virtuous state of mind in the moments before death, because a better rebirth may result.

Those final moments are the Buddhist’s springboard into the next life. Some will want to lie on their right side, emulating the posture of the Reclining Buddha in order to better contemplate the Buddha and his passing. Having an image of the Buddha close by can also be comforting and conducive to good and peaceful thoughts.

Family and friends should reassure the person of the good deeds he has done and the good karma he has accumulated. A person accumulates karmic forces during his or her lifetime; upon death, those forces are activated, determining whether the next life will be auspicious.

Those who are present during the person’s last hours also can perform good deeds or give donations in the dying person’s name and share the merit with him.

If you are a practicing Buddhist, you can radiate metta (loving-kindness) to the person who is dying to help ease his suffering and boost his confidence. Remain calm; do not weep or openly grieve in front of the dying person. You do not have to ignore or deny your grief, just keep your composure as you help your loved one face death with serenity.

How do Buddhists grieve? The Buddhist concept of death as a natural part of life, with an inevitable rebirth, may lead those outside the faith to believe that grief is minimized in Buddhist traditions. This is not the case. Grief is a universal emotion, and those left behind must learn to adjust to a new life without their loved ones.

Buddhists are, however, encouraged to remain calm and peaceful in the presence of one who is dying.

There is a story told of a woman who brought her dead child to Buddha and begged him to bring her child back to life. Buddha asked the woman to bring a mustard seed from a house where no one had ever died. Only then would he grant her wish. She of course, could not find a household saved from the pain of death and she was then struck by the universality of dying.

Click Here: Buddhist Funeral Customs

Go to Overview of Funeral Customs
Go to Funeral Guide — Index of Topics.