After the Final Countdown

The following continues the discussion on rebirth. While most Westerners don’t like this kind of teaching, it is in fact a part of Buddhism. So in the interest of academic research, of knowing the whole picture of what is taught, it is a valid topic of consideration. We don’t want to take our religious eraser and wipe out all the parts that we don’t like! At the same time, Buddhism always asks people to use their intelligence and reason, and not to just believe things because they have been taught that way.

It should be noted that since the original teachings to today, there have supposedly been yogis who are able to develop the concentration of mind that enables them to see the heaven and hell realms directly for themselves. This is one of the ‘3-Vijja’ (3 powers) that the Buddha recommended to be developed, so as to remove any doubt on the issue.

That’s why in Buddhism we don’t say RIP – we say BRB 

Rebirth is a natural and consistent part of all schools in Buddhism. It is supposed to be difficult to get rebirth as a human being, although the theories and explanations vary considerably.

Of the rebirth advocates, some say that it is hard to be born a human, and easy to lose the status and fall into lower rebirths. Others say that once human, if you pay some attention to spiritual development, you are fairly safe in being reborn in at least the human realms again (which might not be so attractive in a devastated environment of the near future).

Often Buddhists say that the human birth is the best due to a balance of Dukkha (motivation) and Sukha (pleasure), and that a heavenly rebirth is undesirable due to the excess happiness diluting the need to practise. In fact there is no scriptural support for this view, and Deva’s are actually more able to practise dhamma and meditation. So go for heaven if you can!

It should be pointed out that the Buddha himself gave little time to feeding speculation, focussing always on the here and now. It was enough, in his teaching, to know there are heavens, hells and there is rebirth. If you accept that – you will look after your karma, and be concerned about morality. This was as far as his interest on the topic usually went.

The Final Moment

However, the importance of the final moments is found in most Buddhist schools. It seems that the transition period is a time of great instability, and if you are practised and prepared you can make quick progress. And the opposite is also true, that you can easily fall unnecessarily into an unfavourable realm.

In Tibetan Buddhism this is paramount. The whole Vajrayana Phowa practise is based around this. The famous Tibetan Book of the Dead (which is not an officially sanctioned text) is based around recitations to guide the deceased through an intermediate stage between this life and the next.

In Theravada we have less emphasis on ‘uncertainties’, and focus efforts on the here and now, and development of good qualities, including but not limited to, meditation. There were instances in the Buddha’s life though, where advice was given to dying people, who were then able to make rapid attainments. Perhaps the proximity of death clears the mind …

In official Theravada view rebirth occurs immediately upon death. There is a ‘relinking’ consciousness that arises in the new being without delay. However this view became a hardened part of Theravada only several hundred years after the Buddha’s passing away.

Most schools of Buddhism actually do allow for an ‘intermediate period’ between dying and being reborn, even if it is not part of the official party line. Meditation lineages in which yogis see these realms directly, tend to agree that there is a short period of time before being reborn in which there is a golden opportunity to launch you mind nibbana-ward. Ajahn Buddhadasa put it like this (reference?)

“This is the skillful means to cheat nature a little. When the time has really come for the mind to cease, revive the feeling that nothing anywhere is worth having or being. If that feeling is present in the mind at the moment it ceases, it will reach nibbana inevitably. Have the body and mind cease with the feeling that nothing is worth having or being, then it will realize nibbana in that physical death itself. What a deal: making such a tiny investment, yet certain of the best results! […] This is how people of little knowledge must practice at the moment of physical death. […] We call it the trick of turning a fall from a ladder into a calculated leap.”

(people who think that Buddhadasa did not allow for the existence of rebirth between lifetimes as opposed to ‘rebirth’ from moment to moment could read this an dother similar passages by him)

There is strong support for this view both from the meditation lineages, and from the scriptures. There seems to actually be an intermediate period which is usually quite short in duration. Tibetan Buddhism says that every 7 days after dying you will re-experience death, for up to 7 cycles, after which time you will certainly be reborn somewhere. That makes 7×7=49 days, which is how long their funeral rites will last.

Theravada schools are less specific, probably due to the official ‘party line’ saying that one is reborn immediately. From the suttas however we find many instances of people on their death bed (just before dying, as opposed to the Tibetan teaching that comes after death) being taught an intensive Dhamma, and attaining to liberated states immediately afterwards. This is interesting, and seems contrary to the teaching that one is reborn purely according to accumulated Kamma. Or is it an opportunity for one to ‘cheat nature a little’ as the above translation of A. Buddhadasa suggests?

Rather than pursue the topic of the ‘intermediate state’ here, there is an excellent technical discussion of the topic in the following paper by Sujato Bhikkhu: Inbetween states that is about 10 pages long. (If anyone is super interested, there is a further technical discussion on the topic by Pali Text Society translator Perter Masefield – ask Pandit for a copy.)

A final note is a further factor that can determine your rebirth – making a strong addhittana – resolution. If you wish to be reborn at the time of a Buddha for instance, or desire to be a certain gender, or reborn in a certain kind of family, you can make the resolution repeatedly. Providing there is no heavy kamma taking precedence, and providing you have been sufficiently moral, then your resolution may materialise. … This is actually what the Bodhisattva Vow is all about. Repeatedly making a certain resolution that hopefully, supported with a lifetime of moral kamma, will propel you in the next life.

But the resolution may be anything. Just be sure you don’t come to regret it later! Some famous Thai monks reportedly were stuck in this world by their previous Bodhisattva Vows to keep returning to the world to help beings, from which they had to engineer a release.

In summary: The teaching on rebirth says that you have almost infinite kamma of past actions. Thus the important thing is to take advantage of good opportunity while you can. If you are healthy enough, have enough food, and are free from hunger or other disaster, then you have the chance to practise and develop spiritually. This should be its own reward, irrespective of whether you will be reborn or not. It should be worthwhile doing, and be rewarding in the here and now.

If you have faith in rebirth (and it is a ‘faith’ unless you have some supernormal powers to know directly), then you can make a resolution to guide you after death. The clearest resolution, is to a desire to be born in a place conducive to the practise of dhamma.

One point is for certain. You can never work it out. Why do religions teach differently? What is it that is reborn? Isn’t rebirth better than extinction? How does Kamma work? What about evolution? Are we evolved from apes, or devolved from angels? Whatever conclusion you draw, it will only be a belief. So the Buddhist standpoint of ‘not sure’ ‘not sure’ seems the only rational one.