Feb 18, 2021
Martin Goodson

Blog: “Tell me then, where do you go after you have died?”


Do the Buddhist scriptures really give us a definitive answer to the question of life and death?



You can quote the scriptures by heart - tell me, then, where do you go after you have died?’

 (The Wisdom of the Zen Masters by Irmgard Schloegl)

 This week saw the commemoration of the Buddha’s Parinirvana - the day of his death - which in the Zen tradition is remembered on 15th February. 

 It is true, even  today, that the winter months of January and February in the more northern latitudes see a larger mortality rate than any other time of the year. Most of the Zen masters died during these cold months. Despite this fact, the memorial days for the Zen ancestors have been prudently spread more evenly over the ecclesiastical year no doubt making for a more manageable religious calendar.

 Given that here, in the U.K., we have also seen the steepest rise in excess deaths  at this time, it makes the commemoration of the Parinirvana more poignant. For some of us too, it might raise questions around our own mortality and also around what happens after we die? 

 This is the ‘big’ question for all religions and all are expected to provide some kind of solace for the faithful. Buddhism is no exception to this rule and indeed there are teachings around rebirth given in the earliest accounts to be found in the Pali canon as well as in the Mahayana sutras. On several occasions the Buddha referred  both to his own past lives and to the past and future lives of others. The Zen masters also referred to this subject in relation to themselves.

 “Master Nansen [was] asked by a monk,… ‘Where will the Master be gone to in a hundred years’ time?’ Master Nansen replied: ‘I’ll be a water-buffalo.’ The monk asked: ‘May I follow you or not?’ Master Nansen said: ‘If you do, bring a mouthful of grass with you!”

 We can recognise the light-heartedness of this exchange, but we would be seeing it with what is called two-eyes (Zen parlance for deluded seeing), if we thought Nansen was making light of re-birth.

 In my own experience, quite a few Western Buddhists find teachings around re-birth “problematic”, to use a contemporary phrase. It is a common enough question from people thinking of committing to a Buddhist practice and after all, Zen is a Buddhist practice, to ask: “Do I have to believe in past and future lives?” The answer given is generally ‘No’, it is not a requirement’. However, these days I usually add that at some point you are going to have to get to grips with it!  This is not only because at some point questions about one’s own mortality and that of loved ones is going to arise, but also that re-birth stories are to be found throughout the scriptures.

 Many Westerners try to get over the problem of re-birth by appealing to a psychological interpretation, which is perfectly justified because that interpretation is also to be found in the Abhidharma, the voluminous writings on Buddhist psychology. The difficulty comes with the desire to stop with that interpretation, since it allows us to unite a more general Western ‘non-supernatural’ view with the more traditional scriptural writings. There may be a feeling that when the Buddha, or Master Nansen, talked about re-birth they didn’t ‘really’ mean past or future lives.

 When attempts are made to take re-birth more literally, this usually takes the form of invoking the small body of parapsychological studies on alleged past life recall, near death experiences (NDE) and so on. However, whatever the truth here, are we all just barking up the wrong tree?

 The question of where we go when we die was the very question that confronted a young Kyogen, who was held in great renown for his scriptural knowledge. This question cut him to the core because, unlike his previous speculations on scripture, this question ‘bit’ into him. It was a question of “Kyogen, where will YOU go when you die!” In the end, it took twenty years before one day a pebble clicked against a bamboo stalk and he awoke to the truth.

 I recently heard one commentator say that if you need to posit a supernatural realm then it means that your conception of what is natural is inadequate.

 The mark of the delusion of ‘I’ or ‘self’ in Buddhism is of being caught up in dualistic thinking, such as categories of opposites like: natural/supernatural, life/death, self/no-self etc. and then taking sides, pitting one against the other.

 There is also another pair of opposites here: afterlife/no-afterlife.

 In an early scripture, the Buddha is asked point blank about this when a Brahmin asks the Buddha about Karma and the future effects of actions in the present life. His question was: “Is the person who commits the act in this life the same as the person who reaps the result in a future life?” Now, whatever your thoughts about Karma may be, we have a question here that asks whether or not there is some kind of continuity after death. The Buddha replied that if the Brahmin thinks that it is the same person then he is mistaken; however, if he thinks that that person, in the present and in the future, is different, then he is also in error. The Buddha then goes on to recite a teaching known as the Twelve-Linked Chain of Arising due to Conditions, which is the teaching of how the process of Karma unfolds.

 At first glance it appears to dodge the question, but I think the Buddha is pointing out that it is the way the question is framed that is lacking.

 The teaching of the Twelve-Linked Chain is the Buddha’s explanation for how all beings arise without there being a necessity for a ‘self’ in anything. And this makes sense because to have an afterlife, as conventionally understood, would mean to have a self that transmigrates from one place to another. However, to have no afterlife would imply a self that ceases to exist upon bodily death -the end, nothing, blank - however you would like to put it. Since the Buddha denied this type of existence,  the question of whether or not there is an afterlife cannot be framed in terms of a self or selves that either continue or stop existing. His appeal to the Twelve-Linked Chain is to emphasise the process rather than seeing discrete stages. It is that each link is always connected to both past and future. This is, in other words, at odds with how ‘I’ generally understand my own being, or myself.

 I can recall my late teacher saying that to every ‘I’ the world of ‘no-I’ is incomprehensible. But of course, ‘I’ don’t like the state of ‘not-knowing’ and being in the dark about things, so rather than bowing down before the sheer mystery of life and death, I like to pretend that ‘I’ know what is what. In fact, although I said that the question of where do we go when we die is the question that religion has to answer, this is not strictly true. There are several religions that do not give a precise answer. Also, even when a religion, such as Buddhism, seems to give a concise picture of an afterlife, it becomes clear, as we have seen, that there is a mystery that lurks close under its surface.

 The question of where we go when we die, has many formulations and it is important that we do not make the mistake of thinking that such questions belong to theologians, monks or priests; they do not. Each one of us will face this question from time to time, when a loved one dies, when we are ill, when we make a new year’s resolution to stop smoking, eat more healthily  and do more exercise. The answer to this question in Buddhism  is to be found in understanding our own nature, our own being, because only then can we realise where we come from and where we go.

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