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Volume 4  No 4


Can the Dead Return?

There are people who are superstitious about the dead, and believe that people can return after their death. They would, on the death anniversary of their deceased ancestors or loved ones, offer them delicious foods and wine, regardless of how long ago had they passed away. Buddha explains why this is not necessary.

Once when the Buddha was leading a group of monks, they came across a gigantic tree. It was so huge that it took ten persons to circumscribe its trunk. Its branches were thick and its foliage abundant. The extensive hade, together with the boulders scattered around it, made for an ideal place of resting for many a passer-by.

The Buddha and his disciples were sitting on the boulders taking a rest. A novice among them was thinking to himself, as the Buddha had spoken of the after-life, the dead therefore would return. Yet, why was it that not a single dead person has ever return to tell his relatives about his rebirth?

He could not reason it out. Just as he was about to ask the Buddha, the Buddha who had already become aware of his thoughts, asked, "My disciples, do you know that the origin of this gigantic tree is but a single seed?" The disciples nodded their heads in agreement.

The Buddha continued, "By virtue of its Mahabhuta[1]; its four inner elements of earth, water, fire and wind, the seed sprouted when planted on the ground. It gradually grew into a huge tree, and provided shade for so many people. We can see this for ourselves. However, when it was just a seed, were you able to see its roots, trunk, branches, leaves, flowers and fruits? Of course, not.

The seed needs to co-ordinate with the four external elements of soil, water, sunlight and air of the climatic conditions to sprout, grow, and bear flowers and fruits. Because of this, it can reproduce itself in many different places, far and wide. Although these new trees grow in different places and at different times, they are of the same species. They are different from the original tree, but they have not left their origins.


The four elements of which all things are made: earth, water, fire and wind (air). They represent solid, liquid, heat and motion.

2. Vijnana
The art of distinguishing, or perceiving, or recognizing, discerning, understanding, comprehending, distinction, intelligence, knowledge, science, learning …. Wisdom.
3. Sadayatana
The six entrances of a sentient being - eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind; giving rise to sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch and perception.
4. Twelve Nidanas
They are the 12 links in the chain of existence;
i. avidya: ignorance or unenlightenment
ii. samskara: action, activity, conception
iii. vijnana: consciousness
iv. namarupa: name and form
v. sadayatana: the six sense organs - eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind
vi. sparsa: contact, touch
vii. vedana: sensation, feeling
viii. trsna: thirst, desire, craving
ix. upadana: laying hold of, grasping
x. bhava: being, existing
xi. jati: birth
xii. jaramarapa: old age, death

My disciples, is it possible for us now to transform the flowers, fruits, branches and leaves, trunk, and roots to the original seed?"

The disciples replied, "It is impossible! Because the causes and conditions have changed, and the original seed has degenerated. Uncountable new seeds have been born, so how can it be possible to revert to the original seed?"

The Buddha then said, "It is the same with human beings. The mind-consciousness of human beings creates all things. The arising of mind-consciousness is due to ignorance. Ignorance arises because of greed or desire. Ignorance is analogous to a seed, which is small but has the potential to grow into a huge tree. An act of ignorance can lead to many causes and conditions, all having ignorance as their origin.

Ignorance is unenlightenment. Ignorance causes us to act or perform certain deeds. These actions lead to Vijnana[2], by which one characterises the actions according to names and appearances or forms. Names and forms lead to Sadayatana[3], which in turn sets off a chain of events: the sense of touch, feeling, desire, grasping, existing, birth, old age and death. When the body is formed as in conception, its natural consequences are ageing and death. These are the twelve links of existence called the Twelve Nidanas[4]. When a person has die, his body is dead but his mind-consciousness is still alive. In the Chinese language this stage of the mind-consciousness is called Chung-Yin-Shen. It is an intermediate existence between death and rebirth to the next life, and exists for up to forty-nine days. During this period, he will be reborn in one of the Six Realms - Realms of Heaven, Asura, Human, Animal, Ghost and Hell, according to the karma that he has created in the previous life.

If he were to be reborn as a human being again, he will have new parents. His body, eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and mind will be different from his previous ones. He will learn and study new arts and skills with new learning processes. His culture and habits, relatives and friends, and his inter-relationship with people will be completely different from those of his previous life. It is impossible to return to his previous life, even if he wishes to do so. Like this gigantic tree, it is impossible to revert to its seed. It is an illusion that one who has died for a long time could return."

I feel that the offering of meat to the dead is not only foolish but adds to one's negative karma, since it involves
the taking of lives.


Copyright 2002.Jen Chen Buddhism Centre