Death is only the beginning in Buddhist thought. Buddhism embraces the concept of rebirth, also commonly known as reincarnation, as a fundamental principle that governs our world. Each person born on the planet Earth is locked into a cycle of death and rebirth and can only achieve Nirvana when they successfully break the cycle.
Origins of the rebirth concept in Buddhism can be traced to Hindu doctrines of reincarnation and karma. Rebirth has often been dismissed as a superstition in modern society, but it actually forms an important element in understanding how Buddhists believe they reach enlightenment.
Buddha taught that life does not end. It merely continues on in other forms. There are six possible states of existence for all lifeforms.
These states include:
- Human Life
- Asura (Demi-Gods)
- Hungry Ghost (Realm of evil deeds)
Where a person is reborn and what form they assume hinges on karma. Everything in life is tied to karma. Actions create a new karma that imprints on the soul. Past actions in past lives, both positive and negative, shape where a soul ends up when reborn into a new body. Good karma means happiness in future lives. Bad karma means suffering down the road.
The basic principle behind rebirth is that death is not meant to be feared. It should be seen as a door opening to a new life. And a person who has cultivated good karma is promised to experience rebirth in a higher realm more suitable to that karma.
The ultimate goal for Buddhists, however, is to escape the never-ending cycle of death and rebirth and reach Nirvana. Each soul desires attachment to a body and will seek out a new body and start a new life upon the death of its previous body. Obtaining release from the limitations of existence into a state of enlightenment constitutes Nirvana.
It is possible for a person to reach Nirvana only through living a pure life and subduing their ego before birth leads to death. Buddha taught that each person must prepare for death whenever it comes by cleansing the mind of impurities. Taking a step forward in this direction requires letting go of attachments to possessions and other people. It means accepting that nothing in life is permanent. Once a person does these things, they can be free from experiencing nonstop death and rebirth.