Buddhism 101 – What Happens When You Die / Reincarnation

I’ll be starting a series of posts called Buddhism 101 to answer some questions about Buddhism and spirituality. This first article will discuss reincarnation and outline the different states of existence in Buddhism.

What is reincarnation?
Reincarnation is the belief that when people die, they have some kind of soul or spirit that gets reborn. In a past post, I outlined the reasons I personally believe in reincarnation after years of skepticism.

What happens when you die?
Here we go. This is a biggie. Now, I’m versed a bit in Buddhist beliefs when it comes to this and I think it has merit. It’s been sometime since I read “The Tibetan Book of the Dead”, but I’ll do my best with my somewhat foggy memory.

First, there are 3 major states of consciousness and 3 major bardos, or states of existence. These 3 states are actually related to one another.
1st: Living / Awake State
In this state of consciousness, we are fully awake. This is your general daily life routine stuff when you’re not sleeping. This corresponds to the Living State in Buddhism.
2nd: Death / Deep Sleep State
The second state of consciousness is when you are in deep sleep, which is the delta activity or slow wave sleep. This is the part of sleep when you are seemingly unconscious and unaware. You are not dreaming or awake. This is the point of Death.
3rd: Dreaming State / Transition State
The third state of consciousness is your dreaming state or REM sleep cycle. In here, you are conscious, but not fully lucid or aware. This corresponds to the Transition state after you die.

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So, what happens when you die after all that? It goes something like this:
Death
We are all aware of what our consciousness is like in the living state. It is just like our regular wakened consciousness. When you die, you leave your body behind. That means your memories, your sensory perceptions, and your brain. You can imagine what this would be like (actually this is a very effective form of meditation).

Once you are physically dead, your consciousness still exists. You have just left behind all of your personal baggage and everything related to living. You are free. In this point, you experience the true nature of the universe. It’s a profound and amazing feeling, to be at one with the whole universe. Some call it the God-light, Brahman or other things. But this is a profound state of consciousness where you can actually free yourself from samsara, the cycles of birth, death, and suffering (a topic of a later post). It is a state of consciousness that can most closely be experienced through excellent meditation practices. So, if you practice enough, and properly, you can get a taste of this yourself.

However, most people do not remain in this state of awareness without proper practice in your waking life. As a result, you move on to the next bardo, or the one most similar to your REM sleep pattern.

Transition State
In this state, your karma starts to affect you. You begin hallucinating and past actions come back to life. Oftentimes, people may become afraid and fearful, seeing these hallucinations as reality. This causes them to attach more to their karma and the physical realm again.

In this Bardo state, the consciousness is able to “see” things much clearer than when it is limited by your physical body and mind. There are many different colours and experiences that have many different meanings. It is here that you will be drawn to different potential rebirths depending on your level of consciousness, awareness, state of death, and state of being.

For example, if you are murdered, you may die with a lot of anger. This anger will carry over residually into the Bardo State, which will subsequently affect the life you’re drawn to. It may cause you to lean toward a more violent rebirth such as a predatory animal. Or perhaps you felt fear, which may cause you to be drawn more to a more anxious animal such as a rabbit. However, there are 6 different planes of existence. These are: hell, hungry ghost, animal, human, antigod, and god planes.

On the other hand, perhaps you murdered many people in your life. These actions will also manifest themselves in this state, like a nightmare. You will likely become afraid or angry, which would then affect your rebirth. This negative karma can be accumulated over many lives, preventing someone from attaining enlightenment or liberation. That’s not to say that things can change even in a single lifetime.

Rebirth
As you are being drawn to one of these states of existence, depending on past karma and aforementioned factors, you will see a kind of white light. This light is actually the fertilization of your new life – in the case of a human, a sperm and egg coming together. Once there, blamo, you’re reborn.

Hopefully your karma wasn’t too bad and you became human. Human is the best life state to learn about the nature of reality and to try to gain the wisdom to escape the cycle of rebirth and attain liberation, or enlightenment.

How do they know all of this?
There is a kind of science in Buddhism. It’s not like Western science that requires objective truth. But instead, they believe in a subjective truth. Sakyamuni, the Buddha we’re most familiar with, could attain a certain level of consciousness or awareness. He taught his followers how to reach this level through meditation. With proper practice, they could also attain the same result. Thus, there can be truth to our subjective, perceptual existences.

So much of their information, from my knowledge, is taken from near-death experiences, high levels of meditation, out of body experiences, and the wisdom of some of their greatest spiritual leaders. The best part is, if you’re skeptical, try meditating yourself for sometime. You can also attain a certain level of knowledge this way alone.

Lastly, the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”, which is actually called “The Great Liberation Upon Hearing in the Intermediate State”, is actually a book mean to be read to the dead after they pass away. It is meant to help them realize their true self and remain conscious so they may attain liberation.

Check it out and let me know what you think! Please feel free to comment or question.

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2 Responses to Buddhism 101 – What Happens When You Die / Reincarnation

  1. Andrew says:

    Thank you for this post i am still a rsther new buddhist and was afraid of death. You have helped to calm these fears.

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