Shakyamuni Buddha in the Dharma Flower Temple, in Huzhou, Zhejian province, China

Mahayana Buddhists believe that salvation is accessible to all those who have faith and regard their religion as a way of life that can be embraced by any one. They also enjoy philosophical discussion and intellectual gymnastics and enlist the help of female deities and magical forces and worship a pantheon of gods, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Mahayana Buddhists believe in a multitude of heavens, hells and descriptions of nirvana and have great reverence for Bodhisattvas “Buddhist "saints" on the verge of nirvana who stopped short of attaining it, so, like Buddha, they could teach their method to others.

Mahayana Buddhism places an emphasis on the process of attaining nirvana through the purification of the consciousness and has been “expanded” to respond to the needs of local people it severed. Its followers a number of mythologies and ontological doctrines. They see true reality as “Emptiness”; define ten stages which Bodhisattvas must pass through to reach Buddhahood; and see everything being connected by a kind of cosmic thread rooted in true reality.

Mahayana Buddhists believe the Buddha is more than a great spiritual teacher but also a kind of savior. They say he had appeared in perfect human form to relieve suffering with the message that, by performing good deeds and maintaining sincere faith, everyone could reach nirvana with less fuss and muss than the strict, arduous path endorsed by Theravada Buddhists. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Mahayana Buddhism Websites: Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism ;
; Zen Buddhism ; The Zen Site ; Wikipedia article on Zen Buddhism Wikipedia ; Seon Zen Buddhism ; Readings in Zen Buddhism, Hakuin Ekaku (Ed: Monika Bincsik) ; How to do Zazen (Zen Buddhist Meditation) ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Comparison of Buddhist Traditions (Mahayana – Therevada – Tibetan) ; The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra: complete text and analysis

Mahayana Buddhist Views About Buddha and Buddhas

Mahayana Buddhists see The Buddha as the sum total of everything there is; discount his historical personage; view his life on earth in magical and transcendent terms; and have Bodhisattvas and Buddhas that address issues important to ordinary people. The Supreme Buddha became an all knowing force that pervaded every part of the universe, like a creator God.

Jacob Kinnard wrote in the Worldmark With the rise of Mahayana Buddhism sometime shortly after the turn of the first millennium, new and increasingly more complex doctrines emerged, extending the original teachings of the Buddha. In particular, new understandings of both the character and activity of the Buddha emerged, and new doctrines evolved that held that the Buddha had not, in fact, completely left the world when he died and attained nirvana but was still an active presence in the world. [Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018,]

This is first articulated in the doctrine of the various bodies (kayas) of the Buddha. The first of these bodies — which are not, in fact, conceived of strictly as physical forms but rather more like the different ways in which the Buddha continues to be present in the world — is the dharmakaya, or "body of the teachings." This is the Buddha's form as wisdom, truth, and the real nature of reality (emptiness). This is that which characterizes the Buddha as the Buddha. Sometimes called Buddhaness, dharmakaya is the whole collection of wonderful qualities that are known as the Buddha. It also refers to the teachings, in their essence. The second body is called the nirmanakaya, or "transformation body" (also sometimes called the rupakaya, or "form body"). This is the earthly form, or manifestation, of the Buddha. Finally there is a more rarified form of the Buddha called the sambhogakaya, or "enjoyment body," the form of the Buddha that those who have attained enlightenment enjoy and interact with.

Mahayana Buddhism also focus on teachings given by the Buddha later in his life. Schools within Mahayana Buddhism tend to focus on particular teachings of the Buddha, referred to as the "second turning of the wheel of the Dharma," which are believed to have been transmitted by a select group of Buddhists for centuries after his death. The Buddha's life is reinterpreted as the quintessential model of the bodhisattva ideal, which highly values a strong sense of communal responsibility. Unlike Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana allows for the possibility of multiple Buddhas existing simultaneously. [Source: Joseph W. Williams, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2000s,]

Mahayana Buddhist Views About Bodhisattvas

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “ highest ideal in Mahayana Buddhism was not individual enlightenment but enlightenment for everyone. The embodiment of this Mahayana ideal was the bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is one who has eliminated all desires and is therefore eligible to pass into nirvana. Out of a feeling of compassion for the millions of other suffering creatures, however, the bodhisattva withholds his/her/its entry into nirvana to remain in this world and help others. The various bodhisattvas have taken vows to remain in this world until all creatures are ready to enter nirvana. They may have to wait a long time! Some textbooks liken bodhisattvas to Christian saints, but there are significant differences in the theory behind each. In practice, however, the two types of beings have much in common as objects of prayers and ritual devotion. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

Jacob Kinnard wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: Related to this idea of the multiple bodies of the Buddha was the emergence of the concept of the bodhisattva — an enlightened being who works for the welfare of all those still caught in samsara — which is perhaps the hallmark of the Mahayana schools. Although bodhisattva was a common word in the earliest of Buddhist texts, these pre-Mahayana schools held that once the Buddha had attained enlightenment, he taught the dharma to his disciples and then, on his death, entered nirvana, or parinirvana, thus ending his existence in the realm of samsara forever. [Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018,]

The Buddha's immediate disciples were known as arhats (worthy ones) upon attaining enlightenment, and they too entered nirvana upon death. The Mahayana, however, were critical of this position — they derisively called the arhats pratyekabuddhas, or "solitary Buddhas" — and posited that the Buddha and all other enlightenment beings postponed final nirvana out of their compassion for the sufferings of other beings, choosing to remain in samsara to perfect their own Buddhahood and work for the benefit of all other beings, until each one attains enlightenment.

Mahayana Buddhist Developments

Zen Buddhist depiction of sunyata ("emptiness")

The tenants of Mahayana Buddhism are more vague and all-encompassing than the strict tenants of Theravada Buddhism, but its followers often conform to a very regimented routine as is the case with Zen.Professor Paul Halsall wrote: “Mahayana Buddhism developed in many ways. It comprised a series of extremely complex philosophical systems and a huge variety of emotionally compelling ritual activities, all manifest in a number of different sects and schools. One core teaching is that of "sunyata" or emptiness.”

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “Mahayana Buddhism made extensive use of various Hindu deities. Some became bodhisattvas; others became lesser divinities.... Deities can be useful in Mahayana teaching and practice as inspirational symbols of desirable virtues or as objects of veneration to help train the mind. At the highest levels of understanding, there are no deities external to one's self (because, among other things, there is no self). For people at lower levels of understanding, however, deities can play a useful role in progress toward enlightenment. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

Another development associated with Mahayana Buddhism was a theory of stages and cycles concerning the appearance of Buddhas in the world and the status of their teaching. In this theory Shakyamuni was only the most recent of a whole series of Buddhas that had appeared on earth at regular intervals. The Dharma, or Buddhist teaching, goes through three phases, which together constitute one full cycle. Specifically, 500 years after the Buddha's death (or, 1000 years in a competing version of the theory) is the period of the True Dharma. During this time, the Buddha's teaching is properly practiced, and the attainment of enlightenment is possible. Next comes a period of the Semblance Dharma, which lasts 100 years (or, 500 years in a competing version of the theory). In this stage, people practice the Buddha's teachings, but they only go through the motions without true understanding making enlightenment impossible. In the final stage, the Last or Final Dharma, which lasts 10,000 years, the teaching exists, but nobody practices it, even if only going through the motions. This stage is a time of misery and suffering on a vast scale, at the end of which, a new Buddha appears and a new three-stage cycle begins. There were other Buddhas before Shakyamuni and there will be others after him. This theory caused great anxiety in Japan during medieval times starting in the late Heian period because many feared that the world was about to enter stage three, the period of the Last Dharma. The most common Japanese term for this final stage is mappo.

How Mahayana Bodhisattvas Open Up Enlightenment to Everyone

One byproduct of the bodhisattvas is that they opened up enlightenment to everyone. Kinnard wrote: with bodhisattvas, all beings were now conceived as at once having the innate potential to become a Buddha and also sharing in a kind of universal enlightenment as well. The path then was reconceived as being the path of the bodhisattva, a path that takes many, many lives but is intent on developing bodhicitra (the awakened mind and the very quality of enlightenment), a quality that fundamentally shifts one's attention away from the self to a selfless concern for the well-being of others. [Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018,]

Each bodhisattva takes a vow to help other beings and to continue to do so indefinitely, a vow that involves cultivating a set of six — later expanded to 10 — perfections, or paramitas. Once a bodhisattva has mastered these 10 perfections, then he is fully realized as a buddha.

The 10 perfections are 1) dana (generosity), 2) sila (morality), 3) ksanti (patience and forbearance), 4) virya (vigor, the endless and boundless energy that bodhisattvas employ when helping others), 5) dhyana (meditation), 6) prajna (wisdom), 7) upaya (skillful means), 8) conviction, 9) strength, and 10) knowledge.

Sunyata (Emptiness)

Professor Paul Halsall of Fordham University wrote:. One core teaching of Mahayana Buddhism “is that of "sunyata" or emptiness. This may not seem a very interesting or compelling idea to modern western observers, although there is in fact within Greek philosophy, and Jewish, Christian and Muslim mysticism a similar exhaltation of nothingness. The idea of sunyata was not merely philosophical, though. It has liturgical uses. One core teaching is that of "sunyata" or emptiness. This may not seem a very interesting or compelling idea to modern western observers, although there is in fact within Greek philosophy, and Jewish, Christian and Muslim mysticism a similar exhaltation of nothingness. The idea of sunyata was not merely philosophical, though. It has liturgical uses.”

Emptiness (shunyata) is a concept that first appears in the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) texts. It relates to the Buddha's teachings about dependent origination and posits that all phenomena are dependent for their being on some other thing. The first-century thinker Nagarjuna introduced the most radical understanding of this concept, arguing that just as the terms "long" and "short" take on meaning only in relation to each other and are themselves devoid of independent qualities (longness or shortness), so too do all phenomena (all dharmas) lack their own being (svabhava).

If a thing were to have an independent and unchanging own being, Nagarjuna reasons, then it would follow that it is neither produced nor existent, because origination and existence presuppose change and transience. All things, physical as well as mental, can originate and develop only when they are empty of their own being. Nevertheless, Nagarjuna contends, elements do have what he calls a conventional reality, so that we still interact with them, think thoughts, and so on, even if ultimately they are empty of reality. Related to this is the concept of skillful means, upaya, which refers to the bodhisattva's employment of whatever means are necessary to help beings toward enlightenment. Language, for instance, is itself empty, in that it depends on external references to make sense, but language is necessary to communicate and is therefore a skillful means through which to spread the dharma.

Three Types of Buddhahood

Mahayana Buddhism says that there are three aspects of Buddhahood, which it describes by regarding Buddha as having three bodies (trikaya): 1) Dharmakaya: Buddha is transcendent - he is the same thing as the ultimate truth; 2) Sambhogakaya: Buddha's body of bliss, or enjoyment body; 3) Nirmanakaya: Buddha's earthly body - just like any other human being's body. [Source: BBC]

Korean cover of the Avatamsaka sutra (c 1400)

Dr. W. Rahula wrote: “There are three types of Buddha:Samma Sambuddha (a supremely enlightened one), who gains full enlightenment [by perfecting ten qualities and gaining the magical ability to teach] by one’s own effort alone Pacceka Buddha who is fully, independently enlightened but has not developed the Ten Perfections to a lesser degree than the Samma Sambuddha [and therefore is not skilled in showing others the way to enlightenment], and the Savaka Buddha who is an arahant-disciple of a perfectly enlightened Buddha. The nirvana of the three types is exactly the same. The only difference is that the Samma Sambuddha has many more qualities (paramitas, paramis, or perfections) and capacities which are useful in teaching than the other two types. [Source: Dr. W. Rahula, BuddhaSasana (, Wisdom Quarterly: American Buddhist Journal, August 14, 2008; Grant Olson, Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University +++]

“Some people think that the Emptiness (Sunyata) discussed by Nagarjuna is purely a Mahayana teaching. However, it is based on the Buddha’s teaching of Impersonality (anatta) or no-self and Dependent Origination, both found in the original Theravada, Pali language texts. On one occasion Ananda asked the Buddha, “People say the word Void. What is Void (Sunya)?” The Buddha replied, “Ananda, there is no self, nor anything belonging to a self in the world. Therefore, the world is empty.” This idea was used by Nagarjuna, who wrote the small remarkable book, Madhyamika Karika. Apart from the idea of Emptiness, the concept of the “store-consciousness” in Mahayana Buddhism also has its seed in Theravada texts. The Mahayanists have simply developed it into a deep psychology and philosophy.” +++

Skillful Means

Skillful Means is regarded by some as the most important doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism. According to the religious scholar J.C. Clear: Skillful means refers “to strategies, methods, devices, targeted to the capacities, circumstances, likes and dislikes of each sentient being, so as to rescue him and lead him to Enlightenment. "Thus, all particular formulations of the Teaching are just provisional expedients to communicate the Truth (Dharma) in specific contexts." "The Buddha’s words were medicines for a given sickness at a given time," always infinitely adaptable to the audience’s conditions.”

Taigen Dan Leighton wrote: “Skillful Means, upaya in Sanskrit; fang-pien in Chinese; hoben in Japanese, is an essential concept in Mahayana Buddhism. Skillful means, sometimes translated as tactfulness, expedients, or ingenuity, is the practice of applying awakening teaching to the diverse variety of students or practitioners. Discussed in a number of Mahayana Buddhist sutras espousing the bodhisattva ideal of universal liberation, the Buddha's application of skillful means accounts for the earlier teachings of the arhat ideal of individual self-purification. The Buddha teaches skillfully in a variety of modes recommending different practices and teachings, because suffering beings have various different capacities, and must be led to the path toward awakening through appropriate approaches. [Source: Mountain Source Sangha, 2004 ]

“The idea of skillful means became crucial to the adoption of Buddhist ideas into China, and thereafter in all of East Asia. Skillful means is fully expressed and elaborated in the Lotus Sutra, probably the most influential Buddhist text in East Asia. Several colorful parables depict aspects of skillful means. In the parable of the burning house, a man comes home to find his house in flames and his children playing inside. When he tells them to flee the house they refuse, as they would rather play with their toys. The father finally entices them from the house with descriptions of many colorful carriages waiting outside. They exit to find only one ox cart, symbolizing the One Vehicle of Buddha's Way that can carry everyone. The One Vehicle includes all the various skillful teachings for saving beings from the flames of worldly suffering. The sutra emphasizes that the father in the parable was not lying, as he lured the children from the burning house to save them.

“Another Lotus Sutra parable tells of a caravan leader encouraging those he guides with the vision of a phantom city in the distance. When they have rested after reaching this city, which represents the early idea of nirvana as escape from sufferings of the world, the caravan leader informs them that the true goal, the universal liberation of all beings, remains ahead, and they must now proceed.

Lotus sutra from Gwangdeoksa Temple in Chenan, South Korea

“In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha uses skillful means based on his all-knowing eye that accurately discerns the capacities of different beings and the teachings that would benefit them. But in the Avatamsaka (Flower Ornament) Sutra, skillful means is one of ten paramitas or transcendent practices engaged in by all bodhisattvas, not only by fully awakened buddhas. These practices are often in a list of six, ending with prajna paramita, the perfection of wisdom or insight. But the Avatamsaka offers four more practices beyond prajna, including upaya as one of the endless modes of liberative activity for use by all Mahayana devotees.

“The idea of many teachings and practices applied skillfully to the single aim of spiritual awakening is an appealing approach for a modern Western understanding of the sometimes confusing abundance of Buddhist schools. Moreover, skillful means might be a way of respecting the pluralism of all religious traditions in our contemporary global interconnectedness. All traditions may be equally respected for the value of their teachings as they apply to different peoples' particular approaches to ultimate religious truth, and to primary principles such as kindness and compassion.

“Skillful means was historically the approach that allowed Chinese Buddhism to incorporate and make sense of all of the Indian Buddhist teachings. The various synthesizing Chinese Buddhist schools developed systems for classifying the whole range of teachings, called p'an-chiao in Chinese. However, the Chinese schools all used the idea of skillful means hierarchically, with their own favorite sutras at the pinnacle of their sectarian classifications, for example the Lotus Sutra for the T'ien-t'ai school and the Flower Ornament Sutra for the Hua-yen. Thus skillful means could be misused in a patronizing manner toward so-called "lesser" schools.

“Western practitioners sometimes have challenged the idea of skillful means as a slippery slope in which the ends justify the means. But the overriding importance of the bodhisattva practice of vow or commitment to benefit all beings, another of the later paramitas, informs any application of skillful means, and mitigates against any harmful activity except under the most urgent and unusual circumstances.

Korean Goryeo illustrated manscript of the Lotus Sutra

Manifestations of the Skillful Means

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “The doctrine manifests itself in many ways. One key feature is that skillful means assumes the ends justify the means. More specifically in the context of Buddhism, the idea is that most people are such slaves to their desires and so beset by spiritual ignorance that they will never begin walking the Eightfold Path without being bribed, tricked, frightened, or otherwise motivated into doing so. Clever means, therefore, are necessary to persuade or cajole people into living their lives more in accord with Buddhist principles. Skillful Means take on a variety of forms depending on the sophistication and circumstances of those they are meant to help. In whatever form they may take, Skillful Means are intended as provisional stepping stones to be discarded after a person reaches a higher level of comprehension. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

"Skillful Means are not only for persons at low levels of spiritual progress. Meditation and other techniques of advanced practitioners also qualify as Skillful Means. Because Buddhist enlightenment cannot really be described in words, even the Eightfold Path is a form of Skillful Means. Recall also that the Buddha’s first sermon was the first act of Skillful Means. Indeed, Buddhism itself is Skillful Means on a large scale. Buddhism, in other words, is a provisional set of teachings and practices to point seekers in the direction of nirvana. ~

“The doctrine of Skillful Means, for all practical purposes, authorizes telling lies if those lies serve noble ends. It is in this context that Buddhist preachers sometimes lectured to the masses about the realms of starving ghosts and hells. The idea was to frighten people into good (or at least better) behavior. Buddhism also developed heavens as Skillful Means, but there was a serious problem in describing heaven. If the idea is to use the reward of rebirth in paradise to lure people at low spiritual levels into better behavior, what sort of description would be appealing? How about, "If you live a morally upright life, you will be reborn into a place where you can sit on a lotus flower in a peaceful state of spiritual bliss for thousands of years?" Probably not. Or, what about, "If you live a morally upright life, you will be reborn in a paradise where you can be lazy, eat anything you want, get drunk every day, smoke pot to your heart’s content, have sex any time and any way you like, and beat anyone you don't like to a bloody pulp?" In fact, a few descriptions of Buddhist heavens did take this sort of approach.” ~

Taigen Dan Leighton wrote: ““The practice of skillful means reminds us to listen to others respectfully, honor their differences, and recognize that others may have different needs and benefit from different teachings and practices. Following the model of the bodhisattva of compassion, we must not self-righteously cling to any particular method. We can learn various useful approaches, and as we learn to trust and respond with whatever is at hand, our skillfulness can develop.” [Source: Mountain Source Sangha, 2004 ]

Tibetan-style Wheel of Life

Wheel of Life, the Six Courses, Hell in Mahayana Buddhism

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: "The Six Courses (rokudo) is a foundational concept in Mahayana Buddhism. Here, we examine the Six Courses from three different but interrelated perspectives: (1) as skillful means, (2) as metaphysics, and (3) as psychological theory. The first perspective introduces a new doctrine; the second revisits the idea of karma as energy that drives the process of reincarnation. The third perspective reveals a distinctive characteristic of Buddhism, namely, its insights into human psychology. Because perspectives two and three are closely interconnected, we examine them both in the same section. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

“The classic depiction of the Six Courses is a large wheel, a recurring symbol in Buddhism. The large wheel that describes the Six Courses is sometimes called the "Wheel of the Dharma" the "Wheel of Life," the "Wheel of Truth," or the "Wheel of Becoming." Regardless of its name, the wheel represents the cosmos as a whole, and illustrates the doctrine of dependent origination. ~

“In conceiving of the Six Courses as a form of Skillful Means, what actually happens at the time of death? In a typical description, a fiery cart manned by hideous-looking officials carries the deceased to the court of King Yama. King Yama was an infernal Chief Justice, whose court happens to be located adjacent to the realm of hells. The officials who go to pick up the dead convey her or him across a vast river and then into a waiting room. Why the waiting room? Because the court system has a vast backlog of cases pending, and it will be a while — several years perhaps — before King Yama and his secretaries get around to someone's file. In the meantime, the deceased sits in the waiting room. There, s/he does not listen to piped in music but to the screams of those suffering in the various hells. Sitting there thinking about the past lifetime of sin and shortcomings, he or she might have no desire to get on with a speedy hearing.

There were also many varieties of hell, each for a specific type of offense. One guilty of many offenses might have to spend time in several different hells before burning off enough acquired karma to be reborn as a person again. The whole realm of hell is a massive operation and requires a large staff of hell wardens and attendants to keep the place running and to ensure that residents stay on task. There are clients in need of being boiled in cauldrons, beaten and smashed with various types of objects, burned up by various types of flames, and so forth. This is hard work, but the dedicated staff is up to the task. Indeed, they seem to love their work, no doubt because they know they are making the cosmos a better place with each crack of the whip or swing of the iron rod."

Rebirth in Mahayana Metaphysical, Psychological and Sexual Terms

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: It is also possible to interpret the Six Courses as a concrete image or metaphor for the more abstract process of karma-driven reincarnation. This interpretation would have greater appeal to persons at a relatively high level of religious sophistication. In this section, we illustrate the Six Courses as metaphysics by quoting extensively from Buddhist scripture. The following excerpts are all from a section called "Seeking rebirth," which states that "if you [the recently deceased] still continue to feel a desire to exist as an individual, then you are now doomed to again re-enter the wheel of becoming." [Source: "Seeking Rebirth,” Edward Conze, trans., “Buddhist Scriptures”, New York: Penguin Books, p. 229; “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

Along with the metaphysical teaching of karma, we also see another important dimension: the psychological. In this more sophisticated view, King Yama is actually one’s own mind: “You are now before Yama, King of the Dead. In vain will you try to lie, and to deny or conceal the evil deeds you have done. The Judge holds up before you the shining mirror of Karma [the Soul Mirror], wherein all your deeds are reflected. But again you have to deal with dream images, which you yourself have made, and which you project outside, without recognizing them as your own work. The mirror which Yama seems to read your past is your own memory, and also his judgment is your own. It is you yourself who pronounce your own judgment, which in its turn determines your next rebirth. No terrible god pushes you into it; you go there quite on your own. The shapes of the frightening monsters who take hold of you, place a rope round your neck and drag you along, are just an illusion which you create from the forces within you. Know that apart from these karmic forces there is no Judge of the Dead, no gods, and no demons. Knowing that, you will be free! [Conze, pp. 229-31] ~

Japanese Wheel of Life

At first the recently deceased tries to delude himself or herself, denying the many evil deeds of the past life. But karma cannot be denied, and these deeds have set up desires in the person that propel him or her into a new rebirth and another round of misery. And it is all in the mind. There is really no external agent. We seek new births by our own deluded desires. By realizing the nature of this process, we can stop it. Notice that this passage offers a possible way out. In the visual depiction of the Six Courses, the Buddhist divinity within each realm symbolizes this way out. Notice also that in the view described here, we have returned essentially to the Four Noble Truths. ~

The process of rebirth continues as follows: “If you have deserved it by your good deeds, a white light will guide you into one of the heavens, and for a while you will have some happiness among the gods. Habits of envy and ambition will attract you to the red light, which leads to rebirth among the warlike [demi-gods], forever agitated by anger and envy. If you feel drawn to a blue light, you will find yourself again a human being, and well you remember how little happiness that brought you! If you had a heavy and dull mind, you will choose the green light, which leads you to the world of animals, unhappy because [they are] insecure and excluded from the knowledge which brings salvation. A ray of dull yellow will lead you to the world of the ghosts, and, finally, a ray of the colour of darkish smoke will lead you into the hells. [Conze, pp. 230-31]” ~

As in the passage on the judgment cited above, this passage also ends with a possible way out: “Try to desist, if you can! Think of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas! Recall that all these visions are unreal, control your mind, feel amity towards all that lives! And do not be afraid! You alone are the source of all these different rays. In you alone they exist, and so do the worlds to which they lead. Feel not attracted or repelled, but remain even minded and calm!” [Conze, p. 231] Again, it is karma that causes the rebirth, but since karma is nothing but our desires, we have the power to extinguish it at any time and stop the process. We make our own destiny, and the Six Courses are all in our heads. ~

“The final passage we examine connects karma, psychology, and rebirth with the biological fact that sexual intercourse causes birth. The first half of the passage describes the powerful urge to be reborn within the newly deceased: “An overpowering craving will come over you for the sense-experiences which you remember having had in the past, and which through your lack of sense-organs you cannot now have. Your desire for rebirth becomes more and more urgent; it becomes a real torment to you. This desire now racks you; . . . whenever you try to take some rest, monstrous forms rise up before you. Some have animal heads on human bodies, others are gigantic birds with huge wings and claws. Their howlings and their whips drive you on, and then a hurricane carries you along, with those demonic howlings in hot pursuit. Greatly anxious, you will look for a safe place of refuge.” [Conze, p. 231] ~

It turns out that this place of refuge is in the sex act: “Everywhere around you, you will see animals and humans in the act of sexual intercourse. You envy them, and the sight attracts you. If your karmic coefficients destine you to become a male, you feel attracted to the females and you hate the males you see. If you are destined to become a female, you will feel love for the males and hatred for the females you see. Do not get near the couples you see, do not try to interpose yourself between them, do not try to take the place of one of them! The feeling which you would then experience would make you faint away, just at the moment when egg and sperm are about to unite. And afterwards you will find that you have been conceived as a human being or as an animal.” [Conze, pp. 231-32] ~

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Some voyeuristic spirit of a recently deceased person sees a couple having sex and the passions build up uncontrollably. He or she then jumps in between the couple and ends up being reborn as their baby. Notice the underlined part. Again, the text reminds us that there is a way out of the process at any time, if only we rectify our minds by casting out the desires within them...Life is, after all, suffering. The Six Realms do indeed exist — inside our heads as psychological states. It is within each person’s power, therefore, to determine his or her own rebirth. The same goes for the attainment of nirvana, which is outside the Six Courses entirely. (Strictly speaking, Mahayana doctrine holds that the Six Courses are nirvana and nirvana is the Six Courses — but we need not concern ourselves with this matter here.)” ~

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, except Skillful Means, Topics in Japanese Cultural History”

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, National Palace Museum, Taipei Library of Congress; New China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; East Asia History Sourcebook , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University; Asia Society Museum; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); BBC, Wikipedia, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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