death and life in buddhism

Excerpts from: Care of the Dying – Buddhism HSE: Samye Ling, “Buddhism and Death” by Ken Holmes: “Kusala and Akusala” by Buddhistdoor Global BDG and: Abhidhamma in daily life, Chapter 10, “The First Citta in Life” by Nina Van Gorkom.

Buddhist teaching views life and death as a continuum, believing that consciousness (the spirit) continues after death and may be reborn. Death can be an opportunity for liberation from the cycle of life, death and rebirth.

Since Buddhism’s earliest days, Buddhist monks have gone to funeral grounds to meditate and contemplate death. This may seem macabre, to a modern Western mind, but for monks it is an invaluable and time-saving device. Most people have to wait decades – until parents or spouses die – to go through the unique learning cycle afforded by observing death at close hand; to see the biological shell as a guest-house in which the travelling consciousness sojourns but briefly, soon to go on to another place. This almost endless, age-old journey will involve staying in hundreds, thousands, of such temporary residences until liberating truths finally release the weary traveller.
Observing this ephemeral fragility of life can lead to an awakened appreciation of every precious moment of life. Each hour, each day, becomes a fresh opportunity for working for the long-term spiritual well-being rather than inconsequential material pleasure. On a deeper level, death is not only a physical reality but also a powerful metaphor for the psychological death of ego which must occur before the mind is liberated into limitless wisdom.

We are born in planes of existence where we can experience objects through the sense-organs. During previous lives as well as the present life we experienced colour, sound and other sense-objects. We were clinging to these objects in the past and we are clinging to them at present again and again, so that attachment has become a deep-rooted tendency. Attachment does not arise with each moment of consciousness, citta, but the tendency to attachment is “carried on” from one moment to the next moment, from life to life.

Cittas (moments of consciousness) arise and fall away and succeed one another, thus each citta conditions the next one. The last citta of the previous life (dying-consciousness) was succeeded by the first citta of this life. That is why tendencies one had in the past can continue by way of accumulation from one citta to the next one and from past lives to the present life. Since people accumulated different tendencies in past lives they are born with different tendencies and inclinations.

Since the first citta of a lifespan performs the function of rebirth there is only one patisandhi-citta in a life. There is no self which transmigrates from one life to the next life; there is only nama (mind) and rupa (body) rising and falling away. The present life is different from the past life but there is continuity in so far as the present life is conditioned by the past. Since the patisandhi-citta succeeds the last citta of the previous life the accumulated tendencies of past lives go on to the patisandhi-citta. Thus, inclinations one has in the present life are conditioned by the past.

There are many different types of citta and they can be classified by way of four groups: kusala cittas (wholesome cittas) akusala cittas (unwholesome cittas) vipakacittas (cittas which are result) kiriyacittas (cittas which are neither cause nor result). We may not know that both in a sense-door process (body) and in a mind-door process (mind) there are akusala cittas or kusala cittas arising. Because of our accumulated ignorance we do not clearly know our akusala cittas and kusala cittas and we do not recognize our more subtle defilements.

In Buddhism, all moral good and moral evil can be traced to six radical roots. All moral evil spring from the three radical roots of lobha (greed, covetousness), dosa (hatred, aversion) and moha (ignorance, delusion, mental confusion). All defilements and all unwholesome mental dispositions that manifest themselves either mentally, vocally or physically come into being. On the contrary, all moral good can be traced to three radical roots of alobha (non-greed, non-covetousness), adosa (non-hatred, non-aversion) and amoha (non-delusion, absence of ignorance). In other words, generosity, compassionate love and wisdom.

A mind obsessed with greed, malice and delusion is in bondage. It fails to see things in their proper pespective, and prevents one from acting properly. Thus it is called akusla or unskillful.

When kusala qualities are dominant, we experience mental health (arogya), mental purity (anavajjata), dexterity (cheka), mental felicity (sukha-vipaka). Such a mind is healthy and skillful.

It is said that kusala leads to Nibbana, the ultimate goal in Buddhism for nibbana means the complete elimination of all traces of self-eccentricity and ego-centric impulses. The more selfless acts (kusala) are done, the more selfless we become, and the closer we come to the realization of nibbana.

Hence, we must be mindful at all times for kusala and akusala thoughts and actions take us to opposite directions. We are the architects of our own fate. We are our own creators and destroyers.  We build our own heavens and hells.

Image source: Parinirvana Buddha

4 thoughts on “death and life in buddhism

    • Thanks Val, these are, as stated above, selected pieces from different sources. My favourite is this: “Observing this ephemeral fragility of life can lead to an awakened appreciation of every precious moment of life. Each hour, each day, becomes a fresh opportunity for working for the long-term spiritual well-being rather than inconsequential material pleasure.”

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