Afterlife and Salvation

Buddhism began as a way to address the suffering that exists in the world, and was not overly-focused on ultimate salvation. That said, however, there was a clear doctrine of salvation in the Buddha's teachings: Salvation in early Buddhism was nirvana, the extinguishing of the all karma that constitutes the self. Nirvana is not a place or a state, but the end of rebirth.

Significantly, the Buddha said little about nirvana, because he felt that the alleviation of suffering was far more important, and that focusing on the goal of ultimate salvation would only lead to more attachments, and therefore more suffering. Rather than focus on nirvana as a goal, therefore, lay Buddhists were encouraged to give donations of goods, services, or money to monks or monasteries; to chant or copy sutras; and to engage in other activities in order to gain merit that could lead to a more desirable rebirth, which would bring them closer to enlightenment.

Some Mahayana Buddhist monks aspired to become bodhisattvas, postponing the dissolution of self until all living things are enlightened. For seminal religious figures and heads of religious orders in Tibet, this took the unusual form of continued incarnations in human form as the same individual, lifetime after lifetime. The current Dalai Lama is called the 14th, for example, because this is believed to be his 14th incarnation as the Dalai Lama.

The notion of skillful means in Mahayana Buddhism led to other interpretations of salvation, such as rebirth in a Pure Land, where one could continue to aspire to enlightenment in pleasant surroundings without fear of rebirth in human form. Mahayana texts also refer to hells into which one might be reborn, usually in the context of rescuing others from a hellish domain, or transferring merit to those in such a place. There is also reference in the earliest texts to Yama, a deity of death who will judge and punish those who do evil. The punishment is not eternal, but lasts until the karma of these misdeeds has been exhausted.

As Buddhism evolved and as it moved to other countries with different religious backgrounds, other views of the afterlife emerged. Yama became a central figure in popular understandings of the afterlife in East Asia and also in Tibet. Tibetan Buddhists also envisioned the Bardo, a kind of limbo where the soul or self remained until the next rebirth.

In the Chinese tradition, where ancient notions of the role of the ancestors in human life have shaped Buddhism, people burned incense and paper goods depicting goods or money for the benefit of their deceased loved ones in order to provide a better situation for them in the afterlife. The deceased, in turn, were believed to be able to bring benefits or cause harm to the living.

Notions of heavens and hells eventually became a part of popular Buddhism throughout Asia. These range from ideal surroundings such as the Pure Lands to horrific worlds of punishment and suffering. Illustrated "hell texts" are popular among in some Buddhist countries, depicting in detail the punishments one can expect for a host of specific misdeeds, which may range from wearing tight blue jeans to murder.

As should be evident, there is no single, consistent notion of the afterlife and salvation within Buddhism. There are diverse and contradictory ideas even within individual countries. This is the result of the merging of Buddhism with pre-existing conceptions, of contradictions between scholarly and popular understandings, and of the evolution of ideas within Buddhism throughout the life of the religion.

Study Questions:
1.     Contrast a few of the varying Buddhist beliefs about the death.
2.     Why does Buddhism lack a consistent idea of salvation?
3.     Why is nirvana often deemphasized in Buddhism?

Back to Religion Library