The Buddha, already enlightened and therefore having reached the state of Nirvana, taught and explained many concepts and principles to his students. He was released from the life cycle, which every individual should seek to escape. He said that in order to be released from the torture of reincarnation, one must cease to desire, for it is the failure to fulfill one’s desires that causes one’s misery. He also explained that possessions and material things are all a delusion. Since people are not born with belongings and do not die with them, they are not really belongings, but only burdens. Even the body itself is not owned by the mind inhabiting it, because it dies and decomposes as the soul goes on. The body could be looked at as the prison of illness, because there is a very fine line between health and sickness. The mind however is eternal, with thoughts and feelings. In modern society, the mind is not developed; it is polluted and requires training. Once one attains control of the mind, one also attains control of the body and speech. Then, the truth will become apparent.
What becomes apparent is one’s true essence. One’s true essence is Buddha: everyone has the potential to become Buddha. In the present state of ignorance, however, people have developed a false sense of self. “According to the teachings of the Buddha, the idea of self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, selfish desire, craving, attachment, pride, egoism, and other defilements, impurities, and problems…”(Seven Dilemmas in World Religion) It is these unconscious assumptions and false information about reality that cause people to become selfish and self centered, therefore neglecting the fact that all people are actually pure energy and pure awareness. People need to realize that they are living in a state of constant mental evolution and should focus on achieving egolessness. With the withdrawal from the normal concerns of worldly existence and the elimination of “I” comes enlightenment, which is the ultimate goal of every Buddhist.
Buddhists believe there is no life and no death, however, there is duality. When the body dies, the mind goes on. Consciousness, which is always enlightenment, also survives the physical death. Everything is an illusion and is going to disappear, whereas impermanence is reality. One’s true identity is Buddha. “Buddha is a state of mind that has no obscuration of the truth.” Buddhists tend to visualize the process of reincarnation, or the life cycle itself as either a river or an ocean of birth and death. This river is the unexplored aspect of life, which needs to be crossed in order to reach the “incomparably wonderful”(The Hungry Tigress) enlightenment. The Buddha is the vehicle by which this river is crossed. It transports one from dukkha, or suffering to the other side “endowed with hundreds of virtues, full of such qualities as trance and wisdom, immaculate, free from all substrata, changeless and without sorrow.”(“The Hungry Tigress”)
Since Buddhism stemmed from Hinduism, the beliefs of the two religions concerning the cycle of life and death are very similar. Hindus also look at the cycle of samsara as a river. Hindus believe that when one reaches the river, one admits that there are some things that are not yet understood. In contrast, a Buddhist says, “we dare to go where others do not go”, upon reaching the river. Buddhists believe that it is where people are afraid to go, is what suffering comes from. People are the cause of their own suffering; however, they can control and manipulate their karma. Hindus, on the other hand, accept karma as a given. Since it is both good and bad karma that determines the quality of the next incarnation, this is an important difference in the two belief systems. However, both Buddhists and Hindus agree on the belief that the last thought at the moment of death determines the character of the next incarnation. Buddhists and Hindus agree that individuals who have lived virtuous lives will achieve Nirvana and individuals who have developed a karmic pull will be drawn again to rebirth.
An opposite perspective on life and death can be found in Christianity as in most other western religions. The belief in God as a creator and maintainer of human life does not allow for reincarnation. Since God is also a judge, He is the one who looks at one’s good and bad deeds and judges accordingly. With the possibility of forgiveness of all of one’s sins, many people interpret this as an excuse for wrongdoing. Whereas in Buddhism, one is responsible for one’s own karma and is therefore responsible for one’s own future incarnation or possible release from samsara. The Christian belief in heaven and hell is also very contrasting to Buddhist belief. Although heaven is mentioned in relation with Bodhisattvas, it is not such a clear interpretation of a physical place as it is in Christianity. Christians believe that both their soul and their body end up in either heaven or hell after death. In contrast, Buddhists believe that there is an immense difference between the physical body and the soul, or conscience in that body. There are very few similarities in these two religions, especially with the question of what happens after death.
In Buddhism, the concept of reincarnation of the soul is difficult to grasp for some, however karma is present in every religion, only in different forms. Since it is karma that determines one’s ultimate destiny, it is very important to understand what has to be done, not only to reach Nirvana, but also to become a better person in this life. One very important lesson taught by Buddha is that everything is guru. Life and everything in it should be used as a teacher to attain control of mind, body, and speech. People are in a relationship with everyone and everything and should therefore be calm, flexible, aware, and in control of themselves. The Buddhist principles of reincarnation and what has to be done to reach Nirvana are useful to anyone in the present and could make anyone a better person altogether.