Zen Buddhism Beliefs About Death

Perhaps the question that many people can’t answer for sure regarding the Zen Buddhism beliefs about death is whether there is a real afterlife, or whether all people will eventually reincarnate. Nevertheless, one of the primary concepts of Zen Buddhism is that there is no real “self” that is born or dies. In such concept, the idea of “rebirth” or “reincarnation” does not sound fit. If there is no “self” who is born or dies, then how is it even possible to reincarnate?

What you need to know is that there are several different schools of Buddhism. In many traditional schools of Buddhism, “rebirth” is believed to be a cycle of living and dying, in which every creature will, in the end, become one with all other elements in the universe.

But modern Buddhists have a different perspective; modern Buddhists believe that souls are born into six realms or “Samsara”. A soul can be born in a heavenly realm, demi-god realm, human realm, animal realm, as a hungry ghost, or in a hellish existence. The goal of every soul is to move beyond all of these realms and reach “Nirvana”, a spiritual realm where one completely understands the impermanence of things and that the “self” is an illusion.

However, in Zen Buddhism, to imagine being reborn is to reject the basis of the teachings itself. In order to understand this better, take a look at the teachings of Dogen Zenji, one of the world’s most revered Zen Buddhism teachers and the founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism. Dogen wrote that firewood does not again become firewood after turned into ash. So, similarly, human beings do not live again after death. Dogen’s teachings emphasize that every person should make the most out of each and every moment instead of relying on the belief that life will continue after death. Nevertheless, this is not the entirety of Dogen’s teachings, as he also discussed the possibility of moving to another realm in many instances.

Many modern Zen Buddhists reject the concept of rebirth or reincarnation, especially the Samsara realms, because Zen teaches that the most important thing is to live in the present. But then again, some of the oldest Zen Buddhism beliefs about death don’t even make any claim regarding what will happen to someone after he or she dies; thinking about what will happen after dying is not relevant to the core teaching, which is to live in the moment to rid ourselves of suffering.

Finally, let’s note that Buddhism does straddle a line between secular philosophy and religion. The most basic teachings do not require a follower to have faith in any specific god or gods. Buddhism, after all, is one of the most diverse religions in the world, as the followers have different philosophies and beliefs. In theory, as long as one rejects the idea of “self” and accepts the impermanence of things with detachment, it does not matter if he or she believes in rebirth or not.

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