What does this mean in practice?

The Buddha's key teachings are the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Buddhists accept and follow these teachings in order to achieve enlightenment. There are differences within Buddhist traditions concerning how they understand ideas about life after death.

Theravada Buddhism

Theravada Buddhists strive to become arhats – enlightened people who have achieved Nirvana, who will not be born again. They teach that it is very likely that only monks and nuns can ever achieve this because:

  • the Buddha gave up his normal, earthly life and did eventually achieve release from samsara
  • in a normal household lifestyle there is too much to be attached to and to distract you from the ultimate aim of Nirvana

Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhists strive to become a bodhisatta - a person who wants to become enlightened but who decides to be reborn and help others attain enlightenment.

Some Mahayana Buddhists believe that enlightenment can be achieved in one lifetime, and that this is possible by a layperson (someone who is not a monk or a nun). They make a vow stating that they will try to gain enlightenment and return life after life until every person has achieved enlightenment. They believe this because:

  • the Buddha was a bodhisatta in one of his previous lives
  • they accept different Buddhist sources as containing useful teachings about the afterlife and not just the Pali Canon, accepted by Theravada Buddhists
  • they believe that everyone can and will become a Buddha

What questions might non-Buddhists have about Buddhist beliefs on life after death?

  • What is the difference between energy and a soul?
  • If nothing permanent passes from one person to the next, then how can we say there is life after death?
  • What is the evidence for rebirth?
  • Is a belief in rebirth compatible with modern scientific views?
  • How do the Buddhist ideas of rebirth compare with ideas of reincarnation in other religions?
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