I’ve had the good fortune of speaking about Buddhist afterlife to a number of Christians. One of the things that prompted me to investigate Buddhist afterlife was giving a talk at Central Juvenile Hall. A Catholic girl said I was going to hell, because I didn’t believe in God and Jesus Christ.
After some reflection I had to agree with her… If I were a Christian, and thought like a Buddhist, I probably would go to Christian hell.
But, do Buddhists even go to Christian heaven or hell in the first place? Or do Buddhists have their own afterlife, complete with heaven and hell?
A question arose in my mind… If a good Catholic married a good Buddhist and they lived happily ever after, when they died were they going to the same place? Most Catholics I have asked… answer, “Of course, there is only one place you can go.”
I thought to myself… not so fast… where did all the Buddhists, Hindus and goddess worshippers go before Christ came to the world? Was the Christian heaven already in place even before Christ was born? Have all the pre-Christians ended up in Christian hell?
This train of thought prompted me to investigate Buddhist afterlife.
The Buddhist contribution to afterlife, it turns out is Nirvana. Nirvana is the end of suffering while you’re alive, and the end of rebirth after you die. The Buddha said all forms of life are unsatisfactory because of birth, sickness, and old age; eventually you will end up suffering if your alive.
Ok, so what happens to a Buddhist if he doesn’t reach Nirvana in his or her life time; where does he or she go?
The Buddha borrowed from the Brahmanic tradition: the concept of karma had been established in India by the time of the Buddha, and heavens and hells were part of the cosmology as well. The Buddha used these concepts to explain Rebirth, and life after death.
I brought these ideas up in a conversation with a Catholic friend, and he said in an amusing way, “Maybe a skillful Buddhist will go to heaven, and a really skillful Buddhist will go to Nirvana.” As it turns out, he hit the nail right on the head.
Buddhists do go to heaven if their practice is skillful, and to hell if it’s unskilful. But, never to Christian heaven or hell.
How many heavens and hells do Buddhists have? …A lot!
There was a book published in 1997 called… Buddhist Cosmology, Philosophy and Origins, by Akira Sadakata, Kosei Publications. It goes into a very detailed explanation of the various.