Aug 22, 2013

What Happens When We Die

By Akemi Baynes

We live and then we die. Many think of death as something dark, like ‘THE END’. Buddhism asserts that whilst all physical manifestations of life must decline and disintegrate, life itself cannot be destroyed. Death is the unseen state of life. It is the time when a person’s entity gathers energy to take on a new visible form. This continual rhythm of physical appearance, followed by death, is the very rhythm of life itself. Indeed the characters Myo-ho (of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo or Mystic Law) mean just this. How does Buddhism view death? One starting point in answering this question lies in recent evidence in medical research.

Professor Raymond Moody, an American philosopher and psychologist, has run a clinic for ten years. During this time more than 200 people who in clinical terms have died, have started to breathe again and returned to life. His book ‘Life After Life’, includes many of these experiences. Some can be classed as hallucinations but many of the stories seem to be true. With the numerous examples there are many similar factors. Firstly, at death, life leaves the physical body and floats above it and, regardless of the condition of the body, there is still consciousness, sight and hearing. There, as if on a screen in front of you, you see what you did, what you felt, and what you thought throughout the whole of your life. All this happens very fast and as you see it, you are able to feel joy for the good things and deep suffering for the things you want to hide. Thirdly, in this place, you feel you meet other people who have died. However, there exists some line between this world and the unknown world and before you cross over, you can sometimes, according to the experiences, be pulled back.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross originally did not believe in life after death. She made a special study based on the experiences of the dying and her conclusions are similar to Raymond Moody’s. She mentions particularly the part where the dead person sees everything that they did during their life time. She concludes that there is no such thing as a god to judge you; you judge yourself. She is convinced that death is only leaving matter and that life continues.

There are of course theories about ‘this thing’ that leaves the body at the time of death, which can see, hear and feel. Professor Okabe, a Japanese scientist, thinks that life after death is a form of energy, because energy is never destroyed:
“I think the main part of being is this particular energy and the physical body is a secondary factor. All physical matter changes in each person completely over seven years. If you think that it is the body that is the primary factor of life, then you are completely different person to the one you were seven years ago. But this ‘energy’ is constant, therefore everyone knows that they are the same person as when they were a child. This energy is able to function only because of the physical body. Death is only changing the form of energy. When you are alive, the energy is very active but when you die it becomes passive. It continues in a cycle between the two states forever.”

Okabe’s idea is very close to Buddhist thought. Buddhism says quite simply that this energy is life itself. Being alive or being dead are just different manifestations of life itself. This not only applies to human beings, but to everything throughout the universe.

The body, alive or dead, is also a part of universal life. It is like the rain that we see falling, which then disappears into the earth. The water drains underground, eventually flowing into a river and onwards to the sea. When this water evaporates from the surface of the sea it loses its physical form, until it again forms clouds and then rain. Because of our knowledge of science we know that the water itself does not change, only its physical form. From this example you could say that water as a liquid is like visible life and that the evaporated water is like death. The liquid and the evaporated water are just two cycles of the same substance. Similarly, life itself does not change, but it shows itself in two different forms, life and death, and just like the water, it will move in the cycle continually.

Despite the experiences of people who have died and then returned to life, it is impossible to know where life went to. This question is in the realm of philosophy and religion. It is something you cannot physically or scientifically prove. A famous Buddhist teaching by Vasubandhu (approximately 5th Century AD) describes the experience of death and birth:
“At death, the body is separated in two, the seen body and the unseen body. This unseen body is called sai-shin which means ‘very small body’ that cannot be seen by the physical eye. It is so small that it can move through any physical matter. The eyes, ears, nose and tongue keep perfect sense, not as a body, but as ability. This small body is able to float and fly any distance instantly. Every life in this condition has the potential to be born again, but it cannot be born when and where it likes, it is decided by what the person did while he was alive. He is born in a situation or place which is most suitable for the causes he made. At the moment when the female egg is fertilized by the male, if it is suitable for someone’s new life, this ‘very small body’ arrives there instantly, and a new physical form starts. When the physical body dies, it is impossible to change either the good or bad effects contained within its life. There is also no fixed time when it will be born again. For some it will be a very long time. It is all decided by what that person did during his life.”
This teaching very clearly describes karma.

Buddhism goes deeper than psychology in asserting nine consciousnesses. The ability to hear, see, feel, smell and taste are the first five. The sixth consciousness is our conscious mind. The seventh is active both when we are awake and sleeping. This is the realm of abstract thought and judgment. All the latent feelings or the six consciousnesses appear in our dreams through this seventh consciousness. Near to death, the six consciousnesses become latent and the seventh consciousness appears very strongly. Within this seventh consciousness is the deep desire to live. At death, the eighth consciousness becomes the strongest, with the first seven consciousnesses becoming latent. At the time of death all the seven consciousnesses, though latent, still exist or are stored within the eighth. The eighth level is where karma is stored during life. When life separates from the physical body, these seven consciousnesses continue to exist dormantly. The desire to live life again is still contained within the seventh consciousness. This will be the force to return to life again, but this will only be achieved in accord with the karma created by the causes made during the previous life through these seven consciousnesses, now stored in the eighth. When physical life starts once more, the seven consciousnesses again become strong, and the eighth level becomes latent.

Karma is every function of our lives, our thoughts, words and deeds (i.e. the workings of the seven consciousnesses) which are then carved into our lives. Our thoughts, words and deeds, whether good or bad, are not judged in the end by morals or the laws of society. Those based on the protection and development of life will be stored as good karma and those causing destruction, hurt or harm to life, as bad karma. This karma created within the seven consciousnesses is stored at the eighth level. Therefore, when you die, your life will be latent in the universe exactly as it was at the point of death and, since the seven consciousnesses are latent, they are unable to react to any environmental influence to change your life state.

We might imagine that life after death will be peaceful and a time of resting, but just as you can have a happy or unhappy dream, after death you can also feel joy or suffering. It is important, therefore, to look at one’s present life very strictly. The Buddhist theory of the nine consciousnesses is concerned with how we can be sure to build up good and valuable causes with our seven consciousnesses so that there are plenty in store at the eighth level at the point of death. In this respect the importance of the ninth consciousness becomes clear. The ninth consciousness is described as the essence of universal and eternal life (Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo), which can, if we choose to make the effort, permeate all the other eight consciousnesses.

The process of dying brings to the fore the main tendency of our lives. As one approaches the moment of death, one’s life centers on one of the ten states, the one which relates most strongly to his karma. After physical death we will remain in this state, latent in the universe, exactly as we were at the point of death.

If our lives are inclined towards suffering in the six lower worlds then we can expect to experience these in the latent state. The aim of Buddhism is to enable us to change the fixed direction which we have built up over many lifetimes. Buddhism is concerned with allowing us to bring forth the ninth consciousness, which is unaffected by this karma. Having done this in life, the ninth consciousness will remain predominant while dead. What happens when we die depends on what we do now to reveal the Buddha state.
Source: The Buddhism of the Sun (Pg. 42 – 45) 


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