Gautama Siddhartha witnessing death before he becomes the Buddha

Buddhists do not believe in an unchanging soul that is reborn after life but a consciousness that develops and evolves spiritually until it reaches the goal of nirvana. Buddhism recognizes many components of human consciousness that survive death and have names for various “parts” or “aspects” but denies they have an unchanging essence, which is the case with most religions.

The five components of human consciousness are: 1) “rupa” (the body and subtle vital energies); 2) “vedana” (feelings and sensation); 3) “sanna” (perceptions); 4) “sankara” (tendencies that shape experience and consciousness); and 5) “vinnana” (stream of consciousness). All five affect each other and continuously modifiers by experience, death and rebirth and karma. .

Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Death marks the passage of the life force into the next life, whether that be in hell, or in heaven, or returning to earth as an animal or human. All these are viewed as stops or stages on the way to enlightenment. When a person dies the five components of human consciousness changes and coagulate in a new form in a new body and is nether the same as before or completely different.

While on his deathbed, monks tell those who are about to die, "If you don't fear death, you won't fear anything." Buddhists believe that after death, the deceased passes through several experiences, including a judgement event that occurs in “The Between” period between death and rebirth. The wicked have to answer to Yama, the King of Hell, who decides which hell they are condemned to.

Gautama Buddha himself was not to concerned speculating about death. He said "that which causes life, causes also decay and death. Never forget this; let your minds be filled with this truth." Most of the speculation about death came after his death

Siddhartha's encounter with death

Ven. Horowpothane Sathindriya Thera of the Samadhi Buddhist Meditation Centre in Campbellfield, Australia wrote:
The death is inevitable fact, to face
That everyone who is born in this world.
No remedy or cure for the death
One day, at any moment, inescapable death will come
And embrace us. Without fear we should meet.
Those who are afraid of death, have full of expectations
And dreams. From birth to death, they struggle and
Battle to quench their insatiable desires.
We always expect and to be ready to welcome the death,
Than anything else.
For the wise, death is expected but not "unexpected"
As soon as we were born, we were inherited-we inherited death.
"Death is certain but the life is uncertain"
Length of time for us and life span is not so long,
As we predict and prophesy.
It is between in and out breath only.
So, the death will come amidst the breath of in and out.

Stephen F. Teiser, a professor of religion and Buddhist studies at Princeton University wrote: “On the one hand, Buddhist teachers tried to convince their audience that human existence did not end simply with a funeral service or memorial to the ancestors, that humans were reborn in another bodily form and could thus be related not only to other human beings but to animals, ghosts, and other species among the six modes of rebirth. To support that argument for rebirth, it was helpful to draw on metaphors of continuity, like a flame passed from one candle to the next and a spirit that moves from one lifetime to the next. On the other hand, the truth of impermanence entailed the argument that no permanent ego could possibly underlie the process of rebirth. What migrated from one lifetime to the next were not eternal elements of personhood but rather temporary aspects of psychophysical life that might endure for a few lifetimes — or a few thousand — but would eventually cease to exist., [Source: “Buddhism: The ‘Imported’ Tradition” from the “The Spirits of Chinese Religion,” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia]

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Religious Tolerance Page religioustolerance.org/buddhism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion ; Buddhist Centre thebuddhistcentre.com; A sketch of the Buddha's Life accesstoinsight.org ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika buddhanet.net ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) sacred-texts.com ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ignca.nic.in/jatak ; Buddhist Tales buddhanet.net ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi accesstoinsight.org ; Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index

Buddhist View on the Intermediate State After Death

death of the Buddha

The section of the 'Saddharma-smrityupasthana Sutra, (from chapter XXXIV, via Chinese version) on The Buddhist Conception of the Intermediate State reads: “When a human being dies and is going to be reincarnated as a human being . . . when the time of his death is approaching he sees these signs: he sees a great rocky mountain lowering above him like a shadow. He thinks to himself, 'The mountain might fall down on top of me,' and he makes a gesture with his hand as though to ward off this mountain. His brothers and kinsmen and neighbours see him do this; but to them it seems that he is simply pushing out his hand into space. [Source: Translation by Arthur Waley, in Conze et al, “Buddhist Texts through the Ages” (Oxford: Bruno Cassirer (Publishers) Ltd., 1954, The Chinese translation of this material (from which the present English translation was made) dates from ca. A.D. 542, Eliade Page website]

“Presently the mountain seems to be made of white cloth and he clambers up this cloth. Then it seems to be made of red cloth. Finally, as the time of his death approaches he sees a bright light, and being unaccustomed to it at the time of his death he is perplexed and confused. He sees all sorts of things such as are seen in dreams, because his mind is confused. He sees his (future) father and mother making love, and seeing them a thought crosses his mind, a perversity (viparyasa) arises in him.

“If he is going to be reborn as a man he sees himself making love with his mother and being hindered by his father; or if he is going to be reborn as a woman, he sees himself making love with his father and being hindered by his mother. It is at that moment that the Intermediate Existence is destroyed and life and consciousness arise and causality begins once more to work. It is like the imprint made by a die; the die is then destroyed but the pattern has been imprinted.”

Buddhist Sources on Old Age and Sickness

"Now (said he) I will see a noble law, unlike the worldly methods known to men, ... and will fight against the chief wrought upon man by sickness, age, and death."—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king. [Source: “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg]

Gautama Siddhartha witnessing sickness before he becomes the Buddha

You say that while young a man should be gay, and when old then religious.... Death, however, as a robber, sword in hand, follows us all, desiring to capture his prey: how then should we wait for old age, ere we turn our minds to religion?—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

If you urge that I am young and tender, and that the time for seeking wisdom is not yet, then you should know that to seek true religion, there never is a time not fit.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

Health is the greatest of gifts, contentment the best of riches.—Dhammapada.

He that ... would wait upon me, let him wait on the sick.—Mahavagga.

Have respect for the aged as though they were thy father and mother; love the young as thy children or younger brethren.—Jitsu-go-kiyo.

Happy ... is the man that honors his father: he also that honors his mother is happy.—Udanavarga.

Buddhist Sources on Death and Grieving

At the end of life the soul goes forth alone; whereupon only our good deeds befriend us. —Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king. [Source: “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg]

The wrongdoer, devoid of rectitude, ... is full of anxiety when death arrives. —Mahaparinibbana-sutta.

Why should we cling to this perishable body? In the eye of the wise, the only thing it is good for is to benefit one's fellow-creatures.—Katha Sarit Sagara.

This world is afflicted with death and decay; therefore the wise do not grieve, knowing the terms of the world.—Salla-sutta.

Who that clings to Righteousness should be in fear of death?—Jatakamala.

Even a king may be full of trouble; but a common man, who is holy, has rest everlasting.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

Let him not grieve for that which is lost.—Attadanda-sutta.

Not from weeping or grieving will any obtain peace of mind.—Salla-sutta.

At first my sorrowing heart was heavy; but now my sorrow has brought forth only profit.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

People grieve from selfishness.—Jara-sutta.

Self and Reincarnation

Hindus believe in an essential self (atman) while Buddhists believe there is no such thing as the self (anatman). Buddhism also appears to reject the Hindu view of externalism. Instead it sees the cosmos in an opposite way: that everything is in a constant state of flux and change that ultimately will fall part. The aim of the Buddhist is to escape from this universe of ‘suffering.”

Both Buddhism and Hinduism regard transmigration as an undesirable event, something the individual needs to take action to avoid. The goal in Buddhism is nirvana, in Hinduism it is moksa, both of which are similar and reached by escaping from the delusion of ordinary life using inward techniques such as meditation, asceticism and acquisition of knowledge to reach the real spiritual world.

Nirvana of the Buddha after his death

Buddhist missionaries appear to have been the main forces behind introducing the idea of reincarnation to East Asia and Southeast Asia. The concept probably existed on other cultures but was not emphasized as it was with Buddhism. Confucian sources make no mention of the idea. Taoists appear to have accepted the idea but seem to downplay the movement of the “soul” from one body to another and argued that being in human form “must be always a source of joy.” The modern practice of ancestor worship in China and elsewhere contradicts the concept of reinvarnation. To Buddhists there is no point honoring ancestors as they would currently exist in a reincarnated form by now. Chinese resolve this apparent contradiction with their belief in multiple souls.

Nirvana doesn’t necessarily mean annihilation of the self but rather a cessation of personal desire, the root of suffering. Buddhism does not name the ultimate reality reached through nirvana but rather refers to it vaguely as “thatness” or “suchness” (tathara). Hindus more specifically define it as Godhead (Maha Visnu).

It can be argued that Buddhist hell is not all that different from Christian hell but nirvana is something very different. It is not an external place like heaven or Shiva’s paradise.

Mummies in Asia

Mummies produced several hundred years are fairly common in Asia. Researchers in Mongolia, for example, found a 200-year-old mummified monk still in the lotus position. In China, Japan and Laos and Korea, there is a tradition of self-mummification. [Source: Tia Ghose, LiveScience.com, February 25, 2015]

In some cases, aging Buddhist monks slowly starved themselves to eliminate decay-promoting fat and liquid, while subsisting mainly on pine needles and resin to facilitate the mummification process, according to "Living Buddhas: The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan," (McFarland, 2010). Once these monks were near death, they would be buried alive with just a breathing tube to keep them holding on so they could meditate until death. "There are historical records of some aging monks who have done this practice," van Vilsteren said. "But if this is also the case with this monk is not known."


At Wat Khunaram Koh in Samui the mummified monk Loung Pordaen is displayed in an upright glass casket and surrounded by flowers, candles, incense sticks and fruit offerings. Thai people come to pay their respects to the body and view the monk as a symbol of the opportunity to be reborn in the next life. Loung Pordaeng was born in 1894 in Koh Samui and ordained as a monk but later but later disrobed, got married and raised a family. At the age of 50 when his children had grown up, Loung Pordaeng decided to return to the temple and dedicate the rest of his life to Buddhism. Loung Pordaeng excelled in meditation. When he reached the age of 79, he is said to have predicted his own death. He instructed his followers that if his body decayed he wanted to be cremated. If his body did not decompose however, he wanted it kept in a glass casket in his temple to serve as an inspiration for people to follow the teachings of the Buddha. It is believed that in the last week of Loung Pordaeng’s life, he did not eat, drink or speak to anyone while meditating. Finally, he died in 1973 at the age of 79 while meditating. [Source: renown-travel.com]

Sokushinbutsu: Self-mummification of Buddhist monks in Japan

Sokushinbutsu refers is a process of self-mummification practiced by Buddhist monks mainly in Yamagata Prefecture in Northern Japan by members of the esoteric Shingon ("True Word") School of Buddhism. Sself-mummification was practised in Japan from the 11th century to at least the late 19th century. Practitioners did not view the practice as an act of suicide, but rather as a form of enlightenment seeking that would turn them into "Living Buddhas":. [Source: Japan Reference]

Sokushinbutsu of Huineng, in Shaoguan, Guangdong, China

Unlike Egyptian mummies who were posthumously embalmed, Buddhist monks engaging in Sokushinbutsu underwent a special rite known as nyu-jo. According to accounts of this ritual, a monk would engage in strict ascetic exercise for one thousand days they and live on a special diet during that timeconsisting of water, seeds and nuts in order to shed body fat. After that, for another thousand days, the monk would feed on roots and pine bark and start to drink urushi tea(made from the toxic sap of Chinese lacquer trees). This toxic sap, normally used to lacquer bowls and plates, and toxic enough to burn your skin if you get it on your hands, repelled maggots and other parasites that cause the body to decay.

During the last stage, the monk was buried alive in a stone tomb just big enough him to sit in the lotus position. He was able to breath through a tube and would ring a bell once a day to signal he was still alive. After the ringing stopped, the tube was removed and the tomb sealed. After another thousand days, the tomb was opened to see if the body had been successfully mummified. If it had it was believed that the monk had attained buddha-hood and the mummified body was put on display at the monk’s temple. If the body had decomposed it was left entombed, but the monk was still lauded for his self-sacrifice and asceticism. Twenty-four "Living Buddhas" have been documented. The practice was banned by the Meiji government in 1879 as assisted suicide.

Mummies are still on display at 1) Ryusui-ji Dainichibou Temple in Tsuruoka City, Yamagata Prefecture, where the body of Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai-Shonin (1687-1783), who after a life of asceticism turned into a "Living Buddha" at the age of 96 after 42 days of fasting; 2) Nangaku-ji Temple in Tsuruoka; 3) Kaikou-ji temple (Jisan Shingon sect) in Sakata City, Yamagata Prefecture; and 4) Zoukou-in temple (Zen Soutou sect) in Shirataka City, Yamagata Prefecture.

Mummy Found Inside Ancient Buddha Statue

In 2015, scientists in the Netherlands announced they found the mummified remains of a monk who lived nearly 1,000 years ago inside a Chinese statue of a sitting Buddha. Tia Ghose of LiveScience.com wrote: “The mummy may have once been a respected Buddhist monk who, after death, was worshipped as an enlightened being, one who helped the living end their cycle of suffering and death, said Vincent van Vilsteren, an archaeology curator at the Drents Museum in the Netherlands, where the mummy (from inside the Buddha statue) was on exhibit in 2014. The secret hidden in the gold-painted statue was first discovered when preservationists began restoring the statue many years ago. But the human remains weren't studied in detail until researchers took scans and samples of tissue from the mummy late last year. The mysterious statue is now on display at the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest. [Source: Tia Ghose, LiveScience.com, February 25, 2015 /=]

Sokushinbutsu of the Thai Bhuddist monk Luang Pho Daeng at Wat Khunaram, Ko Samui, Thailand

“The papier-mâché statue, which has the dimensions, roughly, of a seated person and is covered in lacquer and gold paint, has a murky history. It was likely housed in a monastery in Southeastern China for centuries. It may have been smuggled from the country during the Cultural Revolution, a tumultuous period of social upheaval in Communist China starting in 1966 when Chairman Mao Zedong urged citizens to seize property, dismantle educational systems and attack "bourgeois" cultural institutions. /=\

“The statue was bought and sold again in the Netherlands, and in 1996, a private owner decided to have someone fix the chips and cracks that marred the gold-painted exterior. However, when the restorer removed the statue from its wooden platform, he noticed two pillows emblazoned with Chinese text placed beneath the statues' knees. When he removed the pillows, he discovered the human remains. /=\

"He looked right into the bottom of this monk," van Vilsteren told Live Science. "You can see part of the bones and tissue of his skin." The mummy was sitting on a rolled textile carpet covered in Chinese text. Researchers then used radioactive isotopes of carbon to determine that the mummy likely lived during the 11th or 12th century, while the carpet was about 200 years older, van Vilsteren said. (Isotopes are variations of elements with different numbers of neutrons.) /=\

“In 2013, researchers conducted a CT scan of the mummy at Mannheim University Hospital in Germany, revealing the remains in unprecedented detail. In a follow-up scan at the Meander Medical Center in Amersfoort, Netherlands, the researchers discovered that what they thought was lung tissue actually consisted of tiny scraps of paper with Chinese text on them. The text found with the mummy suggests he was once the high-status monk Liuquan, who may have been worshipped as a Buddha, or a teacher who helps to bring enlightenment after his death.” In 2014, “the mummy was on display at the "Mummies – Life Beyond Death" exhibit at the Drents Museum in Netherlands, before moving to the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest.” /=\ Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org, Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia, Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org , “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com “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); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 5 East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1993); “ National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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