Death and the Afterlife in Buddhism

Document Type

Contribution to Book

Publication Date


Publication Title

Buddhism: The Basics, part of Religion: Bloomsbury Religion in North America (BRINA)




This article explores Buddhist approaches to death and ideas about what comes after. It reviews the concepts of samsara, karma, and nirvana. It also looks at more particular instances of afterlife beliefs, such as the possibilities for rebirth in the desire realms, paradisiacal Pure Lands, and the intermediate state between lives described in Tibetan texts about the bardos. Finally, it discusses ways of preparing for death, elements of Buddhist funerary rituals, the legend of Mulian rescuing his mother from hell, the Ghost Festival, and the bodhisattva guardian and savior of the dead, Kṣitigarbha.Awareness of the fact of death and its attendant sufferings was one of the realizations that motivated Prince Siddhārtha to renounce royal life and begin his quest for enlightenment. We know from experience that everything that is born must die. Instead of teaching a path said to lead to eternal life, therefore, the Buddha taught a method for avoiding (re)birth, for attaining an “unborn” and thus “deathless” state.Specific ways of dealing with death vary widely across Buddhist cultures and societies. What can be said in general is that Buddhist teachings stress the importance of accepting the fact of one’s own death. This is because awareness of death fosters renunciation of material things, including the body, and lends a sense of urgency to one’s spiritual goals. Nonetheless, for people who do not take full advantage of the opportunities that a precious human birth presents, death provides additional opportunities to escape the endless cycle of rebirths.