What Happens After We Die?

A few weeks ago, I went with a friend to pick up a Buddhist nun at the airport so we could take her to make a short visit at a Buddhist monastery before we put her on a train to continue her travels.

I’ve been to Buddhist monasteries before, but those visits had been in the context of a retreat. This was a different type of visit and I figured that there had to be something interesting about the experience that I could bring back to my blog.

Surprisingly, other than a few minor details—for example, when it reaches a certain temperature, even monastics will complain about the cold—the visit itself was mostly unprofound.


One thing did come up, though.

Before we reached the airport my friend asked me what I thought of the concept of rebirth.¹

I said, “Well, I could give you the typical answer that all dharma teachers give when faced with such metaphysical questions.”

He said, “What’s that?”

I said, “’What does that have to do with your life, right now?’ or ‘how does that affect the present moment?’ Along with a mysterious smile.” My boyfriend and I call answers like this as doing the “Zen shuffle.”

He said, “Let’s ask [our nun] when we see her and see if she answers the same way.”

So, we did, and we explained to her our reason for asking. She responded with, “Wow, now I’m nervous.”

Then she proceeded to talk about rebirth in a concrete and informed way that I’ve never heard from any other monastic. When she was done, I told her that it was the best answer that I’d heard so far, and then she accused me of being a suck-up (another detail—monastics have a sense of humor).

Her answer was this:

She knows that it is popular these days for Buddhists, especially Western Buddhists, to try to explain away rebirth by claiming that the Buddha only mentions it because it was his cultural inheritance at the time (growing up in ancient India). However, from her perspective, rebirth can’t be separated from Buddhism because the whole point of practice is to escape from the Samsara (which is the cycle of continuous rebirth).

However, this is not the final word on the dharma. No one has the final word on the dharma and that’s because Buddhism is an incredibly diverse and ever-evolving religion.

Some of the various traditions are so different from one another that they are barely recognizable as the same religion. For example, some traditions believe in multiple Gods and some believe in none.

For me, I’m pretty happy to hear someone practices meditation, at all, let alone a specific kind. If they identify themselves as Buddhist, that’s even better. I’m definitely not going to nit-pick about their specific beliefs.

Ever since we had that brief conversation I knew that I wanted to blog about it, but I’ve also been spending a lot of time figuring out my reason for wanting to blog about it.

I’ve realized that it was very refreshing to me that she gave full disclosure. In my experience, many Buddhist practice teachers are afraid to have any conviction about metaphysical claims. Perhaps it’s the cultural climate and perhaps they don’t want to influence the beliefs of others.

However, even if some interpret Buddhism as a religion that doesn’t focus too much on metaphysics, that doesn’t mean that the question, “What happens after we die?” is not an important question to others.

I’ve seen this question asked several times in the context of dharma talks and seen several people get disappointing answers—the Zen shuffle.

This one was very simple: Samsara is real.

I’m putting this out there for anyone who wants a straight answer.

How important is it to you to have metaphysical beliefs? Do you think they’re important or merely a distraction from your present life?

¹This is a concept that is similar to reincarnation, but the definition of “rebirth” depends on your religion.  Several religions contain a similar concept with varying ideas of what exactly goes on between lives.

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