Life after Death

Buddhism holds to the idea of rebirth, which seems to be something of a controversial issue for Western Buddhists. Most Westerners like the psychological aspect of Buddhism – the investigation of ones body and mind, and meditation, the benefits of which seem fairly obvious, if sometimes illusive for the individual.

But rebirth requires a whole new leap of faith. Is it necessary?

A recent survey reported by the UK’s Telegraph newspaper shows that perhaps rebirth, or some kind of life after death, is not quite such an acceptable idea. Apparently

53 per cent believe in life after death, 55 per cent believe in heaven and 70 per cent believe in the human soul.

Curiously it seems more people believe in heaven than in life after death- precisely who then lives in heaven ?  And how come many believe in the human soul but not its life after death ?

22% believe in astrology

32% of Welsh people believe in reincarnation

The striking detail is that the figures show a marked increase in belief in the supernatural since 1950 when just 10% of people believed in ghosts – compared to 40% in 1998. Is this due to Hollywood?


All of which points to a confusion of beliefs. Without a clear teaching and framework which people buy into, it is understandable that more people believe in ghosts than in life after death. The beliefs are not thought out, indicating that they are relatively unimportant to their owners. And that is the factor that is missing in the survey – how important are the demonstrated beliefs to the ones surveyed? For most modern people it seems that we are not really too interested in such matters. Everyone will express an opinion if asked, but the importance of beliefs themselves, which we have inherited from a medieval Christianity, is waning. Perhaps the survey should have included a ‘Who Cares?’ option.


According to Buddhism then, some kind of acceptance of rebirth is needed to be one of ‘Right View’. It does not have to be a clear belief, but still should be strong enough that one acts not just with a view to the present life, but to the next life too. Just enough belief to look after your karma. The details and mechanisms can look after themselves.

Technically, we should distinguish between reincarnation and rebirth. The former involves a permanent unchanging ‘Atman’ that migrates from life to life. ‘Rebirth’ does not require an Atman, only that there is a continuance. The analogy given is one of a candle flame being used to light successive candles. There is no permanent flame, but there is a continuance as the flame is passed on. This is Buddhist rebirth.

Can we prove life after death? There are lots of books and ‘documentaries’ presenting evidence, but at the end of the day, until you gain psychic powers and are able to witness such things directly (this is presented as part of the path in the Suttas) then it will be only speculation. What exactly you believe is not really important. After all, reality is reality, no matter what you believe. It does not matter if you believe in Australia or not; it is still there (at least I think so). 


The well known and respected author Karen Armstrong (A History of God) remarks in her appearance at the TED Talks, that the emphasis on belief in religion is a relatively new idea, from about the 17th Century onwards. Further, it only really surfaced in the West. Apparently the word belief  used to mean to ‘love’ to ‘prize’ or to ‘hold dear’.  Her next book, she says, will explain how the word came to mean an ‘intellectual assent to a set of propositions’. The word ‘credo’ had the idea of committing oneself, or to engage oneself. She points out that in the Koran the word Zanna (orthodoxy) is held to be

 ‘self indulgent guesswork about matters that nobody can be certain of one way or the other but which makes people quarrelsome and stupidly sectarian’

Buddhism has a similar outlook. Views and opinions are speculation at best and more often hindrances. If there is rebirth, it depends not on your views and beliefs, but on how you act – the habits you form by action and mind. Religion, continues Armstrong, is about changing the way you live, and this is only understood when you put belief into practise.

If the gloriously non-commital conclusion in the Telegraph  is correct it is fortunate that our beliefs do not really matter very much:

The results indicate that people have a very diverse and unorthodox set of beliefs

8 replies on “Life after Death”

  1. It doesn’t, of course, ultimately matter what I think or believe, but there is a sense in which it does matter what I profess to believe, if I am to be credited as a sane and rational human being. Now, I’m a newcomer to Buddhism, and most of what I have experienced so far is rooted in clear sense and considered wisdom. But rebirth? There seems to be precious little supporting evidence in the observable universe (unlike the evidence for the existence of Australia, which I’ve found to be fairly convincing!). 🙂

  2. Hi,

    Yes, it seems clear to me that rebirth is a core part of the teachings. The Buddha himself, as part of his attainment, saw his previous lives and spoke of the future lives of his followers.

    However, this is also, isn’t it, one of those topics that we are advised can never be fully worked out until enlightenment. Thus it is open to a whole variety of interpritations.

    A good many positions can be adopted on this question, and perhaps each one of them has some inkling of ultimate truth to it.

    So I love your formulation here: “It does not have to be a clear belief, but simply that one acts not just with a view to the present life, but to the next life too. Just enough belief to look after your karma. The details and mechanisms can look after themselves.”

    And then we realise that, even if we do have a position on this question, it can not encompass the entire truth, and going on to argue about it or try to defend it would be both useless and unskilful!

    May all dwell in peace and happiness.


  3. Yes, you put your finger on the issue.
    For meditators, it is not an important issue, and at the end of the day the only correct response must be “I don’t know”, rather than fixating on strong beliefs EITHER way.
    And yet, it is a common and real thread in the teachings, and so deserving of some attention – too often Buddhist schools brush over it, or air-brush it out altogether.

    So I liked the Telegraph take on it : The results indicate that people have a very diverse and unorthodox set of beliefs

  4. The candle flame analogy troubles me. How can something I do in this lifetime be passed ion to the next…of who? All flame is one. It seems to me the concept of rebirth has to smuggle in the concept of atman while denying it. For karma to work, there must be something of me to transcend death, so that this me is rewarded or punished in the next rebirth. But the doctrine of no self says there is no me. I’m comfortable setting rebirth and karma aside and confessing ignorance, but I cannot profess belief.

  5. I’ve enjoyed all of your illuminating comments. I’m going to carry on meditating and just let this one go without getting bogged down, I think. I’m getting much better at not getting tied up in ultimately unresolvable debates, either with myself or others.

  6. Rebirth is ‘YES’. I know about my previous birth. My most Revered Guru of my previous life His Holiness Maharaj Sahab, 3rd Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith had revealed this secret to me during trance like state.
    HE told me, “Tum Sarkar Sahab Ho” (You are Sarkar Sahab). Sarkar Sahab was one of the most beloved disciple of His Holiness Maharj Sahab.

    Since I don’t have any direct realization of it so I can not claim the extent of its correctness. But it seems to be correct. During my previous birth I wanted to sing the song of ‘Infinite’ but I could not do so then since I had to leave the mortal frame at a very early age. But through the unbounded Grace and Mercy of my most Revered Guru that desire of my past birth is being fulfilled now.

  7. Life is a process and your spiritual growth depends on your understanding of this foundational principle. There is spirituality information in this article that explores this process and illuminates small but often overlooked pieces of the life puzzle. Let us start with the premise that you are in the realm of the absolute and you once again choose to take on the form of a human body and play once again at this game called Life on Planet Earth.

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