The 8th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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Rebirth in Buddhism
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One question that is often asked is, "What happens to us after death?" According to the Buddhists, rebirth takes place at the end of this life. Buddhists regard rebirth as a fact. There is evidence that each person has lived many lives in the past and will continue to lives more in the future.
The Case for Rebirth
Rebirth is a reality although one may not be aware of it. The existence of past lives has been confirmed by those who have developed their minds through meditation. Meditators who has attained powers of concentration have been able to recall their previous lives in great detail. The Buddha and His prominent disciples in many countries and at different times have been able to prove the existence of past lives. The Buddha, on the night of His Enlightenment, developed the ability to see His past lives. He also saw beings dying in one state of existence and being reborn in another, according to their actions. Thus it was from personal experience that the Buddha taught His followers the truth of rebirth.
In recent years, evidence has been collected and documented, which confirm that rebirth is a fact. There have been cases of people who have been able to recollect their experience of previous lives. Their description of places and persons of the past were confirmed after thorough investigations.
The best known example of this is the case of Bridey Murphy. Mrs. Ruth Simmons of the United States recollected a previous life in Ireland, more than 100 years ago. She said she has been Bridey Murphy in the year 1789 and gave full details of Bridey’s life. The details were later checked and found to be quite accurate although in the present life, Mrs. Simmons had never been outside America.
In another case in England, a woman called Mrs. Naomi Henry recollected two previous lives. In the first instance, she recalled her life as an Irishwoman living in a village called Greehalgh in the seventeenth century. Research into her case was carried out and this revealed that such a village did exist then. In the second instance, she remembered that in one of her previous lives, she was a Englishwoman who became a nurse to several children in an English town called Downham in 1902. A search into the official records kept in Downham proved that such a woman did exist.
Professor Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia, USA, has researched and published his finding on over twenty cases of rebirth. These cases, which have been well documented and verified, are form various countries including France, Italy, India, Sri Lanka and Burma.
Rebirth in the Six Realms 6 Realms of Rebirth
Buddhism teaches that birth, death and rebirth are part of the continuing process of change. This is similar to the continuous process of growth, decay and replacement of cells in one’s body. According to medical expert, after every seven years, all the cells in one’s body are replaced by new ones.
At the moment of death, when this life is over, and the body can no longer survive, the mind is separated from the body. At that time, the craving for lives causes one to seek a new existence, and the karma done previously determine the place of one’s rebirth.
There are six realms in which one may be reborn after death. They are the realms of gods (deva), the demigods (Asura), human beings, animals, hungry ghosts and the hells. These are just general categories and within each, there exist many sub-categories. The six realms of existence include three relatively happy states, and three relatively miserable states. The realms of the gods, the demigods and human beings are considered more happiness and less suffering. The realms of animals, hungry ghosts and the hells are considered relatively miserable because living beings there suffer more from fear, hunger, thirst, heat ,cold and pain.
In general, wholesome actions like good conduct, charity and mental development, are the cause of rebirth in the happy realms of gods, demigods and human beings. On the other hand, unwholesome actions like immoral conduct, miserliness and cruelty cause rebirth in the unhappy realms of animals, hungry ghosts and the hells.
One need not wait until one is reborn to imagine what existence in other realms is like. For instance, when one is intensely happy or totally at peace with oneself, one experience a state similar to that of the gods. When one follows one baser instincts and is totally preoccupied with eating, sleeping and sex, one’s existence is like that of the animals. Then again, when one is overwhelmed by fear and pain, or is tortured and killed in this life, one experience suffering like that of the hells.
Of all the six realms, the realm of human beings is considered the most desirable. In the realm of human beings, the conditions for attaining Nirvana are better. In general, in the unhappy realms, the suffering of living beings is so intense and their ignorance so great that they are unable to recognise the Truth and follow the path to attain freedom. Alternatively, living beings in the realms of the gods and demigods experience so much happiness and have so many distractions that they do no think of rebirth until is too late. Then they may be reborn in one of the lower realms of suffering. In the realm of human beings, however, people experience both happiness and suffering, and are intelligent enough to recognise the Truth and follow the path to attain freedom from the cycle of birth and death. Therefore, one is indeed fortunate to be born as a human being, and should remember that the principal cause of birth in this realm is Good Conduct.
The Cycle of Birth and Death
The Buddha pointed out that whenever one is reborn, whether as a human beings, as an animal, or as a god, non of these states of existence is permanent. The average life span of the living beings in the six realms of existence differ but none of them lasts forever. Eventually, rebirth will take place. The realm into which one is reborn and one’s conditions of rebirth are determined by one’s past and present actions. This is the law of karma at work.
Because of the force of their karma, people are born and reborn endlessly, in one realm of existence or in another. The Buddha declared that there is no permanent rest in this cycle of birth and death. It is only when one follows the Noble Eightfold path taught by the Buddha and eventually attains Nirvana, that one finally becomes free from this ceaseless cycle and gains supreme and permanent happiness.
People who understand karma and rebirth see life in a better perspective. They understand that every action they perform will have its effects now and in the future. The knowledge gives them hope and strength in the face of difficulties. It gives them courage to continue doing good. They are convinced that they will experience the good effects of their wholesome actions either in the short-term or in the long-term.