After death, the Buddhist view of the survival of the soul

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Posted by Soulplex ( on April 13, 2000 at 16:00:12:

In Reply to: Re: Budhist beliefs on death? posted by Rochelle on April 11, 2000 at 12:44:52:

Rochelle said:
<< The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a good resource, as are many Buddhist websites...just do a search on Buddhism and you'll see there's a vast amount of good stuff out there.

In short, most Buddhists (each of us is different) believe that we die, go into an intermediate start where we wait for "rebirth" after which our "spirit" enters the womb of our new mother, and soon we are physically re-born to another life. In a word, Buddhists believe that when we die we are REINCARNATED. If anyone has a better explanation, please help this person out. Thanks! >>

That's pretty much correct, although a lot of Buddhists prefer "reborn" over reincarnated, probably because "reincarnation" has some connotations of implying that there is a permanent, unchanging "self" or "soul" that jumps from body to body, lifetime after lifetime. The standard Buddhist perspective, however, denies the permanency of a "self" or "soul." We do not deny the existence of a soul that transmigrates from life to life (especially not the Vajrayana and Zen schools), but we do deny its "unchangingness." We do not believe that it is unchanging, as some Hindus do, or that it doesn't reincarnate, as some Christians do. We see the soul as a very subtle level of mind or consciousness that operates primarily on the subtle plane of creation (the Sambhogakaya realm, experienced in meditation, after death, and during your nightly dreams) and which has these four basic qualities:

(1) It is indestructible by time and death.

(2) It has existed since "beginningless time" (which means a really, really, really long time, but not forever, since all created things have a beginning and an ending).

(3) It carries karmic potentials, acquired wisdom, and a sense of individuality from lifetime to lifetime, and it is constantly changing and evolving.

(4) It is dissolved, or seen to be purely relative and illusory, in the realization of Enlightenment (nirvana)--whereupon one's identity shifts to that of the Buddha Mind, or Dharmakaya, the absolute and all-pervading Spirit that alone is real (which Christians call "God," Hindus call "Brahman," Muslims call "Allah," Taoists call "Tao," etc.).

When an average person dies, the soul leaves the body, as a driver might exit a broken car, and enters a series of realms that Tibetan Buddhism calls the bardos. Ken Wilber gives a very clear account of this in his book The Atman Project, which I'll quote below (adding my own comments where I think it will simplify things). (Please note that the Buddhist view expressed here is not the product of abstract speculation, but of direct meditative experience of these bardo states by Vajrayana Masters.)

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is one of several spiritual doctrines which purport to tell of the "events" prior to birth (or rebirth). It reports of the events which are said to occur from the moment of physical death until the moment of physical rebirth in a new body--a series of events said to take up to a 49-day period. The Tibetan title of the book is Bardo Thotrol (most often in classical works it is spelled Bardo Thodol), and Bardo means "gap," "transition state," "intermediate state," or as I prefer, "in between." The 49-day period is the period "in between" death and rebirth. . . .

The events of the 49-day Bardo period are divided into three major stages, the Chikhai the Chonyid, and the Sidpa (in that order). Immediately following physical death, the soul enters the Chikhai, which is simply the state of the immaculate and luminous Dharmakaya, the ultimate Consciousness, the Brahman-Atman. This ultimate state is given, as a gift, to all individuals: they are plunged straight into ultimate reality and exist as the ultimate Dharmakaya. "At this moment," says the Bardo Thotrol, "the first glimpsing of the Bardo of the Clear Light of Reality, which is the Infallible Mind of the Dharmakaya, is experienced by all sentient beings." Or, to put it a different way, the Thotrol tells us that "Thine own consciousness, shining, void, and inseparable from the Great Body of Radiance, hath no birth, nor death, and is the Immutable Light--Buddha Amitabha. Knowing this is sufficient. Recognizing the voidness of thine own intellect to be Buddhahood . . . is to keep thyself in the Divine Mind."

But this Enlightened state is too intense and confusing for souls still under the spell of karma and delusion, so they fail to recognize it as their own true Self and "pull away" from it, retracting in fear of that perfect Oneness. The soul wasn't prepared to recognize this condition during its previous lifetime (through meditation practices or Enlightenment), and so it "swoons into unconsciousness" and falls away from Nirvana into samsaric realms of delusion and suffering.

The Chonyid is the period of the appearance of the peaceful and wrathful deities--that is to say, the subtle realm, the Sambhogakaya. When the Clear Light of the causal realm is resisted and contracted against, then that Reality is transformed into the primordial seed forms of the peaceful deities (ishtadevas of the subtle sphere), and these in turn, in resisted and denied, are transformed into the wrathful deities.

The peaceful deities appear first: through seven successive substages, there appear various forms of the tathagatas, dakinis, and vidyadharas, all accompanied by the most dazzingly brilliant colors and awe-inspiring superhuman sounds. One after another, the divine visions, lights, and subtle luminous sounds cascade through awareness. They are presented, given, to the individual openly, freely, fully, and completely: visions of God in almost painful intensity and brilliance.

How the individual handles these divine visions and sounds (nada) is of utmost significance, because each divine scenario is accompanied by a much less intense vision, by a region of relative dullness and blunted illuminations. These concomitant dull and blunted visions represent the first glimmerings of the world of samsara, of the six realms of egoic grasping, of the dim world of duality and fragmentation and primitive forms of low-level unity.

According to the Thotrol, most individuals simply recoil in the face of these divine illuminations--they contract into less intense and more manageable forms of experience. Fleeing divine illumination, they glide towards the fragmented--and thus less intense--relam of duality and multiplicity. But it's not just that they recoil against divinity--it is that they are attracted to the lower realms, drawn to them, and find satisfaction in them. The Thotrol says that they are actually "attracted to the impure lights." As we have put it, these lower realms are substitute gratifications. The individual thinks that they are just what he wants, these lower realms of denseness. But just because these realms are indeed dimmer and less intense, they eventually prove to be worlds without bliss, without illumination, shot through with pain and suffering. How ironic: as a substitute for God, individuals create and latch onto Hell, known as samsara, maya, dismay. In Christian theology it is said that the flames of Hell are God's love (Agape) denied.

Thus the message is repeated over and over again in the Chonyid stage: abide in the lights of the Five Wisdoms and subtle tathagatas, look not at the duller lights of samsara, of the six realms, of safe illusions and egoic dullness. As but one example:

"Thereupon, because of the power of bad karma, the glorious blue light of the Wisdom of the Dharmadhatu will produce in thee fear and terror, and thou wilt wish to flee from it. Thou wilt begat a fondness for the dull white light of the devas. . . .

"As this stage, thou must not be awed by the divine blue light which will appear shining, dazzling, and glorious; and be not startled by it. That is the light of the Tathagata called the Light of the Wisdom of the Dharmadhatu.

"Be not fond of the dull white light of the devas. Be not attached to it; be not weak. If thou be attached to it, thou wilt wander into the abodes of the devas and be drawn into the whirl of the Six Lokas." . . .

The separate self . . . settles back now to watch the divine display of subtle visions and lights and archetypal ecstasies which now flood its own awareness. And these substitute gratifications do indeed gratify. But not for long. However divine and archetypal this realm, it is still only a substitute, and the soul eventually starts to grow agitated with its pacifiers.

If it could, at this point, accept the death and transcendence of the separate self, it would immediately revert to and as the One [Dharmakaya, or Buddha Mind]. The Bardo Thotrol is very clear about that point. But the soul is in flight from death and sacrifice, and thus the peaceful deities begin to transform into the wrathful deities. "Therefore," says the Thotrol, "after the cessation of the dawning of the Peaceful and Knowledge-Holding Deities, who come to welcome one, the 58 flame-enhaloed, wrathful, blood-drinking deities come to dawn, who are only the Peaceful Deities in changed aspect [transformation]."

At this point, the soul generally "blacks out" or "swoons" out of sheer terror of the wrathful deities. And they are indeed terrifying! The Thotrol describes them in detail:

"O nobly-born, the Great Glorious Buddha-Heruka, dark-brown of colour; with three heads, six hands, and four feet firmly postured; the right [face] being white, the left, red, the central, dark-brown; the body emitting flames of radiance; the nine eyes widely opened, in terrifying gaze; the eyebrows quivering like lightning; the protruding teeth glistening and set over one another; giving vent to sonorous utterances of 'a-la-la' and 'ha-ha'; and piercing whistling sounds; the hair of a reddish-yellow colour, standing on end, and emitting radiance; the heads adorned with dried [human] skulls, and the [symbols of the] sun and moon; black serpents and raw [human] heads forming a garland for the body; the first of the right hands holding a wheel, the middle one, a sword, the last one, a battle-axe; the first of the left hands, a bell, the middle one, a skull-bowl, the last one, a plough-share; his body embraced by the Mother, Buddha-Krotishaurima, her right hand clinging to his neck and her left putting to his mouth a red shell [filled with blood], [making] a palatal sound like a crackling [and] a clashing sound, and a rumbling sound as loud as thunder . . . will come forth from within thine own [mind] and shine vividly upon thee. Fear that not. Be not awed. Know it to be the embodiment of thine own intellect. As it is thine own tutelary deity, be not terrified. Be not afraid, for in reality it is the Bhagavan Vairochana. . . . Simultaneously with the recongition, liberation will be obtained: if they be recognized, merging [thyself], in at-one-ment, into the tutelary deity, Buddhahood in the Sambhoga-Kaya will be won.

"But if one flee from them, through awe and terror being begotten, then, on the Ninth Day, the blood-drinking [deities] of the Vajra Order will come to receive one. . . ."

Since most souls are ill-prepared for such encounters, however, they usually black out and fall away into the lower, final stage of the bardos: the Sidpa. Ken Wilber again:

In this realm, the soul experiences an intense [psychological] incest/castration battle, represented in the Bardo Thotrol by a terrifying judgement from the Lord of Life (Eros) and the Lord of Death (Thanatos). And what is the form of incest of this level? In the words of the Thotrol, "O nobly born, at this time thou wilt see visions of males and females in union. If [about] to be born as a male, the feeling of being a male dawneth upon the knower, and a feeling of intense hatred towards the father and of jealousy and attraction towards the mother is begotten [if female, the opposite]."

And there we are, about to enter the lowest of all realms. . . . The substitute self is now gross-reflecting, tending towards body-bound modes, typhonic and uroboric, and its substitute gratifications are reduced to simple hedonistic pleasure and sexual release. According to the Thotrol, if--in this vision of the male/female union--the soul tries to separate them, then it winds up reborn with that couple as parents. . . .

But look at all that the soul has passed through in order to be born! From the ultimate Oneness, the clear light of the omnipresent Dharmakaya, through the subtle Sambhogakaya, the divine and illuminative bliss, through the gross-reflecting mental realm of the Sidpa stage, and then into the gross body and pleromatic rebirth. Through all of that. And the individual was all of that [it was all a play of his own Consciousness]. In the Bardo experience, he started out as God [the Dharmakaya] and ended up as typhon [the human infant]. And he can't remember a single thing that happened In Between. . . ."

And the whole point of Buddhism, to put it simply, is to strengthen consciousness so that it won't "swoon into unconsciousness" or fall away at the dawning of the Clear Light of Reality at death. When one is sufficiently Enlightened during this lifetime, one's mind becomes so strong that it literally never blacks out or becomes unconscious--not even during dreams, not even during deep sleep, not even during a coma, not even during death and the bardos that follow it. This is the meaning of "spiritual awakening," since one becomes truly "awake" as the pure and timeless Spirit that is the Clear Light of Reality itself. You become a vast and motionless clear empty sky, and the whole universe--from the earth to your body to your soul--is like a tiny, slowly dispersing cloud within the Infinite Space of your own natural Awareness.

Peace, my fellow puffs of clouds.

--Tom Huston

"If a man, when he is about to die, can only regard the five aggregates of his consciousness as void, the four elements which compose his body as not constituting an ego, his true mind as formless and still, his true nature not as something which commenced at his birth and will perish at this death but as remaining utterly motionless, his mind and the objects of his perception as one--if he can only awake to this in a flash and remain free from the entanglements of the Triple World, he will indeed be one who leaves the world without the faintest tendency towards rebirth. If he should behold the lovely sight of all the Buddhas coming to welcome him, surrounded by every kind of splendour, and yet feel no desire to go towards them; if he should behold all sorts of evil forms surrounding him and yet have no feeling of fear, but remain oblivious of self and at one with the Absolute, he will indeed achieve the formless state."

--Zen Master Huang Po

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