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Death and Rebirth; Hell and Heaven

Ven. S. M. Sujano



The doctrine on Death and Rebirth seems to be one of the most commonly questioned and discussed. On the other hand, it is most undesirable to be in that situation, probably, since the human existence on this planet and no one would like to hear about, talk about or even think about it. So, it is very obvious, as being a Buddhist monk, to be asked on the subject. Similarly, the concept of heaven and hell holds same status as Death and Rebirth. Therefore, in this article we will put a bird’s eye view on these concepts.



Every Monday and Thursday evening we have a Meditation and Discussion class, in which everyone is invited to join with no prior confirmation. It starts with short chanting, and then guided meditation (for about 45 minutes), followed by discussion. Previously, our discussion session was spent mainly covering concepts, ideas, difficulties and additional experiences arising from meditation. In addition to this, the application of meditation in daily life (which is the main object or benefit of practicing meditation) was discussed. Recently, we have encouraged reading selected discourses from the scripture. Such reading helps to crystallize understanding and way of practice, and also stimulates all participants.  At the same time, it is flexible, and occasionally, has free discussion in order to purify and facilitate the exchange of ideas and understanding. This has brought about many different dimensions of teachings and personal views. Among these, the concepts of ‘Death and Rebirth’ and ‘Heaven and Hell’ seem to be highly sought-after topics.

Definition of death


Let’s begin with a definition of death. Even though, these days, death can be defined dramatically in medical, religious and legal terms, death is commonly understood as the destruction or the cessation of the physical body. However, no one knows when, where or how death occurs. According to Buddhism, the cause of death can be classified into four categories:

  • By the expiration of the life-span

  • By the expiration of the productive kammic forces

  • By the expiration of both

  • By the intervention of a destructive kamma

The expiration of Life-span should be understood as death in advanced old age due to natural causes. Similarly, if the kammic forces sustaining life have been expired, death will take place. Simultaneous expiration of both the life-span and kammic forces also causes death. Violent death or sickness mostly, for example, can be a cause of death. In such instances, the powerful destructive-kamma is cutting off the life-sustaining kamma, even though life span may not be expired.


Nevertheless, according to Buddhism individual’s responsibility for his/her actions does not end with death. His/her ownership of actions continues beyond this lifetime. Therefore, even sudden death doesn’t mean our actions vanish automatically but still waiting for the time to ripen.

This is illustrated in the following example:

It was late afternoon and everyone headed towards the crematorium, a little boy eagerly and naively asked his Father.

“Excuse me, Papa, why did he die?”

“It is the nature of all human beings and every one will die when the time comes” replied his Father.

“Do I have to die too, Papa?” asked the boy naively.

“No one could ever escape and everyone has to die. You will understand when you are grown up”. answered his Father, in an unkemptly manner.

“Why should we die, Papa?” asked the boy, determined to find the truth.

“Having seen recent death, it might put you in doubt; however, you will understand it later. Our life is like a drop of water on a blade of glass. It can drop at any time. Our life is also the same as a drop of water, which can drop at any time.” said his father with a good analogy that seemed to satisfy his curious little boy. It also gave him a little understanding of the concept of life and certainty of death, which is undeniable and applicable to all.


Further, death according to Buddhism does not mean complete destruction or extinction but just a transition of consciousness. It says that as we are owner and responsible for our actions our death would just transition to next life. At the time of death it says that once physical senses have been shut down, there will be only mental object left and play crucial part for next couple of minutes. Mind will know that body is going to die. So, although mind shakes and frightens but it will disconnect itself from the body and looks for grasp. Its unsuccessful search of grasping in physical body turns mind back to previously saved perception or memories, which is conditioned. It will conditioned to next life or known as rebirth.

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Life after death; rebirth


Life after death, known as rebirth, is another concept of common interest. There are many different stories and myths concerning life after death, which are specific to social and religious beliefs. In Buddhism, death is not just the ending of life and the subsequent movement from one place to another. Rather, everyone is working to achieve liberation and hopefully attain this in the future. Therefore, death is not understood in the same context as it is in the West, where it is sometimes considered to be a scary event. It is just a phenomenon that comes to all who are then reborn again. Rebirth, however, is not referred to as a permanent entity in Buddhism. It is said that as long as craving exists, attachment exists, and so becoming exists. Thus, everyone has to be reborn. On the other hand, when craving ceases, attachment also ceases. When, attachment doesn’t exist, there will be no coming and therefore no birth.

Although, within Buddhism has different sects of different beliefs and understanding. Holistically, the Buddhist belief is that life has no beginning, but it has an end - life after death. According to Theravada Buddhism, after death everyone will be reborn immediately in a new existence with the rebirth-linking citta, having the same object as that in the final cognitive process of the previous life.  It is a resultant citta produced by the kamma responsible for the objects apprehended during the final, but crucial, moments of consciousness leading to death.


In addition to this, Buddhism explains that unenlightened beings have to be re-born in different realms of existence depending on their action or kamma.

A short story from 'Zen flesh, Zen bones', called 'The Gates of Paradise':

A chief soldier came to visit Zen master Hakuin and asked:

"Master, Is there really a paradise and a hell?"

"Who are you?" inquired Hakuin.

"I am a chief samurai", the warrior replied.

"You, a soldier!" sneered Hakuin, "What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? You look like a beggar".


The warrior became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued: "So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably too dull to cut off my head."

As the warrior drew his sword Hakuin remarked: "Here open the gates of hell!"

At these words the samurai, perceiving the master's discipline, put away his sword and bowed.
"Here open the gates of paradise", said Hakuin.

Although, almost all faiths or religions has such believe of life after death, it has been controversial topic for ages. Life after death or next life beyond this life is doubtful statement for all. Similarly, within Buddhist it has different opinion on it. Nevertheless, the concepts of the different realms in Buddhism can be seen as a direct consequence of the law of karma; Good or positive actions lead to rebirth in a good planet like a human world or heavenly world; similarly, negative or bad actions will lead to hellish experiences upon return. It also says that bodily death is just a transition from one type of mental housing to another. The last thought/intention of near death person will condition to the next life.

According to Buddhism, we cannot only be born as human beings the next time, but also as animal, "god", "half-god", "hungry ghost" or even be born in "hell". This differs to western religions in that stay in any of the realms is not permanent. After a life in a "god-realm" one could be reborn in the "hell-realm"; it all just depends on our karma ripening. In conjunction with this, Buddhism explains 31 planes of existences, which can be classified broadly into three:

  1. The realm of sense desire or sensual realms of existence.

  2. The realm of form, the realms of existence of physical aspects

  3. The realm of the formless, the realms of non- existence of physical aspects

As long as one is born in any of these realms of existence, one is subject to death and rebirth. This is a symptom of ordinary, cyclic existence known as Samsara, or being within the cycle of birth and death. It is the state of continuously-recurring problems, dissatisfaction and misery of human beings.


We are caught into this samsara due the presence of delusion, ignorance and imprints of our actions performed under the influence of delusions. Mindfulness therefore, is the only way to cleanse the mind of these defilements in order to achieve liberation and the cessation of birth in to any plan of existence. Ajahn Sumedho, an American Thai forest monk living in London states that mindfulness meditation is the way of deathlessness for all.

Some of the important views should be understood in Buddhism that life after death is not the ultimate aim in Buddhism but Nibbana instead which can be achievable here and now.


Further, the plans of existence or heaven and hell are also a part of cyclic law of samsara. One can be reborn after death into heaven because of his near death intension was wholesome or reborn into hell because of near death intension was unwholesome, which does not mean all other actions have been vanished but waiting for ripen. Therefore, it is clear that Buddhism believes in life after death and concept of heaven and hell but way of looking or perspectives are different and also did not give much priority to heaven and hell much. Nibbana is beyond birth and death, indeed, Buddhism emphasis more and inspires everyone to achieve such unconditional lever of emptiness.

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Precious Human Rebirth


Although people would like to be reborn into different levels of heaven, the human rebirth is precious, says the Buddha. Human birth offers unique possibilities to overcome the cycle of birth and death. In lower plans of existence one is usually completely engulfed in misery or is unable to reason logically (animal realms). Similarly, in the higher realms one usually tends to indulge in luxury and comfort for eons of life time, barely realizing the problems of rebirth yet to come.

Rebirth as a human being enables avoidance of unwholesome activities and the performance of wholesome activities, therefore leading to purification of mind. These activities will help and support the avoidance of rebirth in lower realms or heavenly realms. As long as one hasn’t completely eradicated defilements, one is subject to the cycle of birth and death. Further to this, one of the greatest plans to seek for liberation, according to Buddhism, are the human realms. It is a precious life to be born human. Everyone has the potential to purify themselves and achieve enlightenment. Human birth might not be our choice and it has already happened, and so therefore is inevitable. We can however choose our next destination, which is yet to be. This destiny is depends on our threefold actions (body, verbal and mental). This may take us to another existence or to the end of cyclic rebirth.


The end of cyclic death and rebirth or samsaric existence is to break off certain fetters/bonds, which tie us to the cycle of Samsara. With the eradication of these fetters and the cessation of all forms of craving and detachment, there will be no more becoming or rebirth. Thus the cycle of birth and death ends, which is also the end of all forms of suffering and discontentment



‘Whatever arises is subject to cease’ said the Buddha in his first discourse. Therefore, death is not the completion of our life as long as we have craving or attachment, and therefore have yet to purify our mind. Furthermore, even though according to western view, most people do not want to hear of, talk about or even think about death, Buddhism teaches to face it before it comes to us. It teaches to learn to live before death. Death may not be a subject we wish to hear about, but rebirth is. Therefore, death is not so scary, but at the same time, we shouldn’t be careless either. Death and rebirth are inter-related and are conditional upon our attitudes and acts. We can’t deny death, but we can influence what will happen after.

The Buddha says;

Make a firm support for yourself,

Hasten to strive hard and be wise.

Having removed impurities and being free from moral defilements,

You will no longer be subject to rebirth and decay. (Dhp. 238)

Indeed, not by any means of transport can one go to the place one has never been before;

But by thoroughly taming oneself, the tamed one can get to that perfect place. (Dhp. 323)


Futher Reading


Francis Story, Rebirth as doctrine and experience, (Sri Lanka, Buddhist Publication Society, 1975)

Aggacitta Bhikkhu, Dying to live, the role of Kamma in Dying and Rebirth, (Malaysia, Sukhi Hotu dhamma publication, 1999)

Sangye Khadro, Preparing for death and helping the dying, (Taiwan, CBBEF, EN254)

Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan book of living and dying, (Rigpa Fellowship, 2002)

Some of the passages should be read to understand more


Suppose we will die suddenly tomorrow and the results of our good and bad actions had not yet ripened. These actions do not just vanish. Just as energy can neither be created nor destroyed merely transformed, so too with the effects of our kamma. According to Buddhism, our responsibility for our actions does not end with our death. Our owenership of our actions continues beyond this life time.


Buddhist doctrine says that we are responsible for our actions through more than this single life. We are responsible until we finally move beyond the playing field of birth and death, until we reach the point that we are free (nibbana).


The effects of our kamma also lead us to be born in fortunate or unfortunate circumstances. The good fortune to be born with a healthy body into a financially stable etc. is the result of past actions. This good fortune may resonate through an entire lifetime, protection us, stable families and opportunities.


Likewise, a less fortunate birth may cause us to suffer and struggle our whole lives for things that others receive freely; yet we are still fortunate to be born as human.

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