the basic Hindu doctrines of reincarnation and karma, as well as the notion that
the ultimate goal of the religious life is to escape the cycle of death and rebirth.
Buddha asserted that what keeps us bound to the death/rebirth process is desire,
desire in the sense of wanting or craving anything in the world. Hence, the goal
of getting off the Ferris wheel of reincarnation necessarily involves freeing
oneself from desire. Nirvana is the Buddhist term for liberation. Nirvana literally
means extinction, and it refers to the extinction of all craving, an extinction
that allows one to become liberated.
Where Buddha departed most radically from Hinduism was in his doctrine of "anatta", the notion that individuals do not possess eternal souls. Instead of eternal souls, individuals consist of a "bundle" of habits, memories, sensations, desires, and so forth, which together delude one into thinking that he or she consists of a stable, lasting self. Despite its transitory nature, this false self hangs together as a unit, and even reincarnates in body after body. In Buddhism, as well as in Hinduism, life in a corporeal body is viewed negatively, as the source of all suffering. Hence, the goal is to obtain release. In Buddhism, this means abandoning the false sense of self so that the bundle of memories and impulses disintegrates, leaving nothing to reincarnate and hence nothing to experience pain.
From the perspective of present-day, world-affirming Western society, the Buddhist vision cannot but appear distinctly unappealing: Not only is this life portrayed as unattractive, the prospect of nirvana, in which one dissolves into nothingness, seems even less desirable. A modern-day Buddha might respond, however, that our reaction to being confronted with the dark side of life merely shows how insulated we are from the pain and suffering that is so fundamental to human existence.
Following death, according to Tibetan Buddhism, the spirit of the departed goes through a process lasting 49 days that is divided into three stages called "bardos." At the conclusion of the bardo, the person either enters nirvana or returns to Earth for rebirth.
It is imperative that the dying individual remain fully aware for as long as possible because the thoughts one has while passing over into death heavily influence the nature of both the after-death experience and, if one fails to achieve nirvana, the state of one's next incarnation.
Stage one of the Bardo begins at death and extends from half a day to four days. This is the period of time necessary for the departed to realize that they have dropped the body. The consciousness of the departed has an ecstatic experience of the primary "clear light" at the death moment. Everyone gets at least a fleeting glimpse of the light. The more spiritually developed see it longer, and are able to go beyond it to a higher level of reality. The average person, however, drops into the lesser state of the secondary "clear light."
In stage two, the departed encounters the hallucinations resulting from the karma created during life. Unless highly developed, the individual will feel that they are still in the body. The departed then encounters various apparitions, the "peaceful" and "wrathful" deities, that are actually personifications of human feelings and that, to successfully achieve nirvana, the deceased must encounter unflinchingly. Only the most evolved individuals can skip the bardo experience altogether and transit directly into a paradise realm.
"When you are born, you cry, and the world rejoices. When you die, you rejoice, and the world cries." - ancient Tibetan Buddhist saying
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Last modified: March 06, 2003
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