Mind after Death
by Kalu Rinpoche

ONE LIFE OR MANY LIVES?

All spiritual and religious traditions agree on some type of existence beyond this life, and all of them prepare us for that future. If after death there were nothing, if our existence were limited to this lifetime, we could be satisfied with worldly knowledge and activities. A spiritual practice, no matter what it is, would be unnecessary.

The idea that death is a complete end followed by sheer nothingness is the product of an extremely narrow mind. It is as if someone who lives in France were to conclude that beyond the country’s borders the human species ceased to exist!

While religions might be in general agreement about the existence of an afterlife, the various traditions do have distinct perspectives about the nature of that afterlife. Some teach that death is not followed by more lifetimes, but by one eternal life, while Dharma teaches that death is followed by many lifetimes until enlightenment.

On the surface, those views might appear to be contrary, but they actually aren’t. It’s really just a question of presentation. Let’s say that you’re in France and you ask someone what Switzerland is like, and the person replies that Switzerland is a nice place. That response may be accurate, but it is quite general. Another person might give the same positive response, but add a more detailed description, explaining what it is that gives each area and each city its charm. This detailed description does not invalidate the first person’s response in the least.

Likewise, Christianity, for example, offers a general presentation of the afterlife, teaching that there is life after death and that the conditions of that life depend upon the way in which you live your present life. For a Christian, virtue leads to heaven and sinfulness leads to hell. That’s the basic idea. Dharma, on the other hand, teaches the possibility of many future lives, that negative actions in this life lead to suffering in future lives while positive actions lead to happy future lives and finally to enlightenment.

These two traditions are in perfect agreement about the need to abandon the negative or harmful and adopt the positive; they also agree on the results of negative or positive actions. There is no contradiction between them. The difference is that Christianity offers a briefer presentation, while Buddhism offers a more detailed one.

DEATH AND THE CONTINUITY OF MIND

Space is beyond time; we can’t say that space began to exist at a given point in time or that it will cease to exist after a certain amount of time has passed. Similarly, the mind’s emptiness is beyond time; mind is essentially atemporal. By nature, mind is eternal, beyond births and deaths. These exist only at the level of the mind’s illusions.

When the mind does not know its nature and is therefore caught up in the path of illusions, it transmigrates endlessly in illusion, from life to life. Conditioned by ignorance and karma, we have had to live out innumerable previous lives. In the future, we will be forced to live out many more. The mind transmigrates from life to life, from one illusion to the next as long as it has not attained enlightenment, the awakening of a Buddha or great Bodhisattva.

In our present state, we cannot recognise our previous lives; we don’t know where we came from, where we’ll go, or what condition we’ll be reborn into. Meanwhile, what we experience is actually only a transition, one passage among an infinity of possible lives and worlds beyond our conception.

Kalu Rinpoche 19.