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Volume 5 No 2

Venerable Shen-Kai answers

Renewal of life
By Venerable Shen-Kai

If there is one thing that all living things, including human beings, can be sure of, it is that at some point in time, life ends. But, does it really end? No, rather there is a continuation. This is an important event that happens to all of us and it is good that we have some basic understanding about it. In this issue Venerable Shen-Kai answers 12 questions relating to the process of renewal of life, and clarifies some of the rites associated with it.

1. Does Buddhism believe in past life?

Everybody has past lives.
Certainly, as Buddhists, not only do we believe in past lives, but also that if a person cultivates well, he will be able to know about past lives.

2. Is there really such a thing as soul?

Yes, but we need to have a proper understanding of what it is.
The human being has six sense organs - eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. These come into contact with the six qualities that are the cause of all impurities - form, sound, smell, taste, touch and idea. These are called the six dusts. When the six sense organs come into contact with the six dusts, they produce six sense-consciousnesses. In addition, there is the seventh consciousness and eight consciousness. The seventh consciousness is the ego (I) or mind-consciousness. It is also called the soul. The eighth consciousness is like a storehouse, wherein the countless seeds of our karma or deeds are stored.

When we are asleep, the entire body is at rest and the first six consciousnesses are no longer in function. However, the seventh consciousness does not rest. It instigates the seeds of the eighth consciousness. This is how dreams come about, and the soul is the owner of the dreams.

1. Chung-yin-shen (Chinese):
literal translation is' intermediate invisible body'
2. Chuo-du (Chinese): to release the soul from purgatory; atone for wrong doings of the deceased, so that he may be reborn in a good realm.
3. Six realms: Realm of Heavens, Asura, Human, Animal, Ghost and Hell

When a person passes away, the six sense organs no longer function. The soul transforms into an invisible and gaseous form or body. It is a intermediate existence between death and conception to the next life[1]. If one has been a person of great virtues, then in response to his good karma, the intermediate invisible body immediately ascends to the heavens. If on the other hand, he has been an evil person, then his evil karma will land him in hell immediately. In general, the good and evil karma committed by people are not in the extremes. Therefore this intermediate invisible body shall, for a period of up to 49 days, be drifting and searching for the condition for rebirth to the next life.

Very often, people who had performed many good deeds in their lifetime cannot bear to part with their loved ones when they die, or they worry about their status and wealth. Such attachments cause them to transmigrate to the realm of ghosts; although because of their good karma they are better blessed ghosts.

Performing good deeds is the basic aiding condition for rebirth in the realms of human, heavens, or in the pure land of Buddhas. It is indeed a pity that such people, because of their attachments become ghosts instead.

Therefore, when the deceased is in the intermediate invisible stage, the most appropriate thing to do is to chant the Buddha's name or to recite the sutras, cultivate good deeds or blessings on the deceased's behalf so as to help him to be reborn in a good realm [2]. The other alternative is for a well cultivated Buddhist teacher to explain the Buddha-dharma to the intermediate invisible body so that the deceased knows to abandon the burden of his attachments, let go and disentangle himself and therefore rise to a higher realm.

For people who are well cultivated, their intermediate invisible bodies transform into a bright light and they attain liberation. By liberation, it is meant that they are free from suffering of transmigrating in the six realms.

3. What happens between death and rebirth?

The soul transforms into an intermediate invisible body.
Before the soul of a person who has died transmigrates to the next life, there is an intermediate existence in a gaseous form. It is invisible to the ordinary people at large. This mind-consciousness which is without a physical body is called 'chung-yin-shen' in Chinese.

4. What are the differences between soul, chung-yin-shen, and mind- consciousness?

They refer to an intermediate existence between death and transmigration to the next life.
The word 'soul' actually originated from the Western culture. Chung-yin-shen and mind-consciousness are taught in Buddhism. When a person dies, his mind-consciousness will leave his body. Before he transmigrates to the next life, this mind-consciousness is called 'chung-yin-shen' in Chinese or 'intermediate existence' in English.

5. What is transmigration?

The constant arising of the mind is transmigration.
A caterpillar wraps up itself and becomes a cocoon. It then emerges from the cocoon and becomes a butterfly. The beautiful butterfly lays eggs, which in turn become caterpillars, cocoon and so on…… This is similar to transmigration. As a result of ignorance and illusions, sentient beings are constantly in a state of transmigrating in the six realms [3] of existence: but, they are unaware of it.

However, if you learn the Buddha's teachings, cultivate good deeds, purify your mind, and become enlightened, you will realize that not only is there transmigration after death, it is also taking place at this very moment. Thoughts continuously arise in the mind, one after another. At times the thoughts are good and they put you in the heavens. At other times, they are evil and cause you to descend to hell. We can say that, at every moment, our countless actions are all in the state of transmigration.

Since our mind is constantly in a state of transmigration, then surely we will also transmigrate when we die. When you know this principle, you will realize the truth of the Buddha-dharma.

6. Is it true that dead people can come back to their home seven days after their death?

It is because his intermediate body has strong attachments.
When a person has died and after seven days, 'he' comes back to his house, it is because his intermediate body has not found his next life. He is still searching for the conditions for rebirth. After a person has died, his mind-consciousness (commonly referred to as the soul) leaves his body. If the deceased cannot bear to part with his loved ones, or if he is attached to his material possessions and finds it difficult to part with them, then within the 49 days after his death, he will visit his home to see how things are. If within these 49 days, he does not have the appropriate conditions to be reborn, then naturally his attachments will cause him to transmigrate to the realm of ghosts.

Therefore, the most appropriate thing to do is to guide him and perform merits on his behalf so that he can be reborn in a good realm [2].

7. Is it appropriate for a Buddhist practitioner to cry over the demise of a relative or loved ones?

Chant the name of the Buddha instead.
There is no hard and fast rule as to whether or not to cry. If one does not, he may be mistaken for being insensitive and without feelings. On the other hand, crying causes thoughts of passion and love to arise in the deceased's mind-consciousness. The ensuing attachment prevents the deceased to be reborn in a good realm. For this reason, it is best to recite the name of the Buddha instead of crying.

8. What is the significance of chanting 'Amitabha Buddha' in a funeral?

It provides solace for the deceased and bereaved.
Chanting 'Amitabha Buddha' provides a form of refuge and support for the intermediate invisible body of the deceased, and alleviates the suffering. It also provides solace for the bereaved family members and reduces the pain of their loss.

9. Is it meaningful to perform funeral rites such as to recite Buddhist sutras for the deceased?

Practise what the Buddha taught to attain supreme Buddhahood.
It is a common practice to recite sutras and perform rites to guide the deceased to a good realm. This is a good thing. However, whether the negative karma of the deceased can be lessened and whether he can be reborn in a good realm or the Buddha's pure land, depends on the cultivation of the person who performs the rites. Regardless of the results, these rites have certain benefits.

Firstly, they are a consolation to the bereaved family. Secondly, they may be a source of encouragement for them to form a Dharma-cause to embrace Buddhism. But, there is also a school of thought, which does not consider such rites to fully represent what Buddhism stands for.

The authentic spirit of Buddhism is to teach people to attain the supreme enlightenment of Buddhahood, by unfolding wisdom, seeking liberation and practising the Bodhisattva path. I do not disagree with this at all.

10. What is the significance of cultivating merits for the deceased?

It is assisting the deceased to a good realm, not enhancing his merits.
Generally, people commit both good and evil deeds in their life. Because there is a mixture of good and evil, one cannot be certain that the deceased will be reborn in a good realm. It is popularly believed that when a person dies, we should perform merits for him so as to assist him to a good realm. In fact, it is incorrect to term such as 'performing merits'. Instead, it should be said that we want to help guide the deceased to a good realm [2].

If the person who performs the ceremony is a well-cultivated Buddhist teacher who has attained non-arising and non-cessation of the mind in his cultivation, then it can be termed as 'merits'. If a person who does not know anything about cultivation performs the ceremony, then it cannot be called 'merits', but it suffices to say that he is assisting the deceased to cultivate his blessings.

11. Which type of burial is most appropriate for a Buddhist?

Cremation is the best way for the dead.
In the past, it was a common practice to bury the dead. The world population has since increased tremendously and it leaves very little space for human activities. Even land for dwelling is scarce in many places. A burial plot sometimes may occupy an area equivalent to the needs of several living people. And sometimes the dead are exhumed and reburied in other places deemed more auspicious for superstitious reasons. There are billions of people in this world and if we all choose burial, imagine how much land would be required to bury the people of the past, present and future.

Therefore, I do not propose burial but rather advocate cremation. It is clean and does not pollute the air. Besides, it is also an act of protecting the environment.

12. Can the wisdom of the present life be carried to the next life?

Not a single physical thing can be brought to the next life, except the karma that one has committed.
Not only can the learning of Buddha's teachings, the cultivation of good deeds and the aspiration to unfold one's wisdom be brought to your next life, they can also enable you to become Buddha yourself.

There is a saying that one cannot bring a single physical thing to the next life, except the karma that one has committed. The karma, both good and evil, which one has committed, follows one to the next life wherein their effects will be manifested accordingly. If we have wisdom, this will naturally accompany us to the next life.

Therefore, wisdom is more important than intelligence and wealth.


Copyright 2002.Jen Chen Buddhism Centre