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What Do Buddhists Believe Happens After Death?

Most Buddhists believe that death marks the end of this life and the passage into the next. It is just one spoke among infinite spokes in samsara, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. According to the Buddha, beings go through countless births and deaths until they gain enlightenment.

The Cycle of Samsara

Samsara is the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that all beings are subject to until they attain enlightenment. This continuous cycle is driven by karma (actions) and the attachment and desires that create suffering. The goal of Buddhist practice is to break free from samsara and achieve Nirvana, a state of liberation and freedom from suffering.

Karma and Rebirth

According to Buddhist scripture, rebirth occurs because of the clinging and desire that cause us to suffer. The ego is so powerful that even when the body dies, the mind continues its clinging and searching. This creates a bridge to another body, resulting in rebirth. The circumstances of rebirth are determined by karma, which is the accumulated result of a person’s actions in this and previous lives. Good karma can lead to a favorable rebirth, while bad karma can result in less favorable conditions.

The Importance of the Mind at Death

The attitude of the mind at the time of death is crucial in determining the nature of the next rebirth. Buddhists believe that the less fear and aversion a person experiences at death, and the more focus, calm, and equanimity they maintain, the more likely they will be reborn in good circumstances. This is why preparing the mind for death through meditation is a core element of Buddhist practice.

Varied Beliefs Among Buddhist Traditions

Different Buddhist traditions have various interpretations and practices related to death and rebirth:

Theravada Buddhism

Theravada Buddhists, found primarily in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, believe that rebirth can be immediate. They emphasize individual practice and adherence to the original teachings of the Buddha.

Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhists, prevalent in East Asia, believe in a range of intermediate states and often venerate bodhisattvas—enlightened beings who help others achieve enlightenment. They also engage in practices like chanting and sending goodwill to aid the deceased.

Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhists have detailed teachings about the intermediate state between death and rebirth, known as the bardo. According to Tibetan belief, this state can last up to 49 days, during which the deceased undergo various experiences that can influence their next rebirth. The “Tibetan Book of the Dead” provides guidance for navigating this state.

Preparing for Death

Buddhists prepare for death through practices that cultivate a positive and peaceful mind. This includes meditation, ethical living, and generating merit through good deeds. At the time of death, monks or family members may chant scriptures and offer prayers to help the deceased achieve a favorable rebirth.


In Buddhism, death is seen as a transition rather than an end. The cycle of samsara continues until one attains enlightenment. The nature of one’s rebirth is determined by karma and the state of mind at death. Different Buddhist traditions offer various teachings and practices to support the deceased on their journey to the next life. Through meditation, ethical conduct, and preparation, Buddhists strive to face death with calm and equanimity, aiming for a favorable rebirth and ultimately liberation from the cycle of samsara.

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