Westerners who delve into Buddhism often have a common criticism of the religion – that it does not really tell them much about life after death.
I feel this is a fair criticism as Buddha did invest much of His time teaching us to examine our lives as they are.
It is true that Theravada Buddhists focus heavily on living better lives so as to escape the cycle of rebirth on their own.
However, there are practitioners other than just Theravada Buddhists and they have some very distinct ideas about the afterworld.
I cannot endorse those ideas because they predominantly come from ancient Tibetan Buddhism and I am not a Tibetan Buddhist. But, I can tell you about them.
Legend holds that an Indian mystic named Padma-Sambhava introduced Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century.
The story goes that Sambhava knew that the Tibetans of the time were not yet ready to hear of Buddhism so he hid his texts far away to be discovered at a later date.
Centuries later, a 15-year-old boy named Karma Lingpa was mountain climbing and happened upon the texts as he summitted the mountain.
Although we Westerners would not be privy to the teachings of the texts until their translation in 1927, they would commonly become known among academics as The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
The ancient writings vividly described the afterworld.
Theravada Buddhists – at least as I have been personally taught – focus on finding Enlightenment and Nirvana through an examination of self.
In other words, we try to get to even by making our lives better. These ancient Tibetan texts work quite differently.
The texts are written to aid an enlightened monk in directing a dead man’s soul away from hell even if the man deserves to go there.
In a much more complicated way, they are somewhat like the Catholic last rites.
According to the texts, upon dying one will immediately see a bright light which marks the start of the soul’s departure from the body.
Devout Buddhists will recognise this as the process of death or, more aptly, seeking rebirth.
Someone increasingly afflicted with evil karma is much less able to see this and begins a process of spiritual testing that can last for weeks.
In this time, the bright light of death is experienced by all sentient beings. Those that have lived an evil life may perish quickly because they may fall into hell or human suffering with ease.
But, should the spirit linger, he eventually sees that he is dead and tries to comfort his crying family – all to no avail.
The wise monk reciting ancient Tibetan chants is calling to the spirit, trying to ease his suffering.
Being bound by bad karma, the spirit will linger long enough to see the “clear light” break into an array of dazzling, brilliant, vivacious colours and dull, scary, unpleasant colours.
The monk tries to lead the spirit to one of five happy realms, but should the spirit stumble here, he will fall into hell or the World of Unhappy Spirits.
Now the halo light of the Five Orders of Dhyani Buddhas pervade the universe, dotted by the Lights of the Six Lokas.
The spirit must choose between following a brilliant light and following a dim light.
till confused, the Lights of the Union of the Four Wisdoms arrive. Forty-two deities come to shine and majestic orbs of turquoise appear, each encircled by orbiting globes of radiating light.
If the spirit is not saved by the eighth day, they are now trapped in the Wheel of Ignorance and are confronted by the 58 flame-enhaloed, blood-drinking deities of wrath.
The deities are terrifying. Some hold skulls dripping with blood, others axes, wheels, dead corpses, flaming gods, skull-bowls, intestines, fangs, skeletons, knives, arrows, iron chains, and many other horrors.
False prophets and defrocked monks fall into misery. The spirit wants to flee to his relatives but is blocked by his own anger and lust.
He tries to lie about his bad karma but the Lord of Death has a ledger of his life’s karmic accounting and consults the Mirror of Karma.
He directs an evil genius and a good genius to count up the spirit’s karma with black and white pebbles.
Failing the test, the Lord of Death instructs his minions to hack the spirit to pieces... but the spirit cannot die because he’s dead already.
So, he endures horrible torture and then the Lord of Death has him sewn back together only to be hacked apart over-and-over again.
He has a noose around his neck, is dragged about by the Lord of Death, and has his organs extracted again and again.
The light of Six Sangsaric Lokas illuminate the path away from pain, but bad karma prevents the soul from choosing the path.
Thus, the soul arrives at the hall of wombs. Here the spirit can go to any rebirth – happy or sad – and is pursued by many tormenting furies.
The monk reading the texts must try to draw the spirit away from a making a bad choice as he is distracted by visions of sex.
But, if the monk fails, then the soul falls into unconsciousness at the time when the sperm meets the ovum and finds himself reborn as a dog.
If the monk succeeds, however, then he manages to close the doors of the hall of wombs.
If the spirit has managed to avoid the wailings of hell, he might be given the chance to be reborn into a good life serving the public and obeying Buddha’s commands.
He can choose to live that life or to transfer his spirit into Buddhahood but, if he chooses the hard life of piety on earth, then even the most rotten of wombs is transformed into a celestial paradise; pending his rebirth.
A bad spirit who made the wrong choice is confronted by 80,000 evil sprites that traverse the skies and evil ghosts known as Pretas who live in space.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead concludes by explaining that, if it is properly read and if its prayers are properly recited, then even the lowest of souls has the opportunity for salvation or a better rebirth.
I now end this dark article on a happy note. There is an old lamaic tradition that states that Sacred Texts should stand alone before human beings, free of human aggrandisement.
To that end, we’ll never know who it was who transcribed Padma Sambhava’s teachings for us because the scribe did not record his name.
The scribe’s final words were: “Let virtue and goodness be perfected in every way.”
Now those are some words to live by... before you die.
All About Buddhism is a monthly column in The Phuket News where I take readers on my exotic journey into Thai Buddhism and debunk a number of myths about Buddhism. If you have any specific queries, or ideas for articles, please let us know. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will do our best to accommodate your interests.