Last week somebody asked me, out of the blue, “What happens when you die?” And I surprised her as well as myself by saying, “Oh, just more of the same!” And now I wonder, could that be true? It seems to be the last thing one would expect. Shouldn’t there at least be some kind of change? Some of us believe that after death we’re finished and gone, while others hope to live forever after. Buddhism teaches rebirth but in Zen the focus is usually more on the transmigrations within this lifetime. And the classic answer to what happens after death is that we just don’t know.
In Salt Lake City, we had good connections with the University of Utah. We gave meditation classes there during summer and were also sometimes invited to participate in ecumenical meetings. The one I remember best was a panel forum with a dozen representatives of different religions who were all asked to put forth their particular views on the afterlife in front of an audience of some two hundred students. I was the only Buddhist in the group and sat at the end of the row, right next to a member of a native American Indian tribe.
Some of the speakers took their time, and when it was finally my turn there were only three minutes left. So I quickly told the now well-known story of the Zen master who, answering the question of what happens after death, said, “Why should I know?” When the response to this was “Well, because you are a Zen master,” he declared, “Yes, but not a dead one!” It worked, everybody was in stitches. The native American Indian joined in the laughter and exclaimed that he totally agreed, and that was the end of the meeting.
According a famous koan, “not knowing is most intimate” but – like any expression – if we say this too often it can easily become a conversation stopper, and may perhaps even show a lack of compassion. Genpo Roshi once said that what happens after we die depends on our karma. And Maezumi Roshi concludes his video On Life and Death by saying that it will be his vows that continue on. These days, instead of “I don’t know” I prefer to say “Who knows?” Posed in this way as a question, it expresses more engagement and shows more excitement regarding what might happen.
Yet I still find these responses not always satisfactory in conversations with myself and others. And I was happy to find a text on rebirth by Bhikkhu Bodhi that mentions “the third factor.”* He quotes the Buddha by saying that there are three necessary conditions for conception: first, the union of the father and the mother; second, that this union takes place in a period of fertility; and third, the stream of consciousness of the deceased person that is ready to take rebirth. This third factor is called the gandhabba. Unless all these conditions are met conception does not take place.
This really hit home for me. If we really want to get to know ourselves, we can, of course, look back at the life we’ve lived so far and see what it is that made us what we are today. And it can help to include some of our genealogical background and the influence of our parents. Yet when we do this we often come to the conclusion that this is still not enough to explain some of our hang-ups, preferences and inclinations. For example, many of us are the first ones in our families to engage in Buddhist practice. Where does that come from? Seen from this angle too, there really seems to be a third factor!
Bhikkhu Bodhi makes very clear that, according to Buddhism, rebirth is not the transmigration of a conscious entity but rather the repeated occurrence of the process of existence, governed by the law of causation. Yet this process is endless: an everlasting cycle that is so well illustrated in the samsaric wheel of birth and death. In other words, just more of the same, over and over again. It implies that even death is no solution for our troubles. They may not just disappear after we pass away and we may not necessarily rest in peace for ever and ever either.
All the more reason to find peace of mind right now right here and enter eternal life of nirvana in this very moment!