An Underwhelming Understanding of Death
Death is a natural inescapable process in everybody’s life. While every religion propagates similar views on death, rebirth, and karma, it is shocking how ignorant the modern world’s attitude is about death. Scientific developments have not translated into an enhanced understanding of what happens after death. Either one lives in denial about it or thinks of it as a “natural, no big deal” phenomenon. While one is rooted in fear, the other looks at death as something that will take care of itself. None of these attitudes truly understand the significance of death, not just for our life but for the lives of every human on this planet. Using a Buddhist perspective, we discuss how an enhanced understanding of death leads to fulfilling lives and a secure future for society .
To understand death, we need to understand what happens after death. It is called the process of reincarnation, i.e., some part of our consciousness lives on after death and will keep returning to this planet (or other realms) unless liberated from the endless cycle of life and death . Buddhism is founded on the core values of reincarnation since the night Buddha attained enlightenment; he went through all the memories of his past lives. Modern society also has a vast repository of evidence of past lives. An article in the New York Times explains how the author’s sister remembers her past life . Another fascinating story is of Ryan, a 10-year-old boy from Oklahoma who claimed he was an actor and agent in his past life. It was found that 55 details of his story matched Martin’s life . The late Dr. Ian Stevenson, a well-renowned researcher at the University of Virginia, collected and personally verified the past-life memory accounts of several children across the world . A summary of such accounts can be found here.
The Theory of Karma
In the second part of the night when Buddha attained enlightenment, he also gained insights into karma, which complemented his knowledge of rebirth. Karma simply means that whatever we do to others (be it in thought, speech, or action) will have a subsequent result in our lives. The results of our karma do not produce instant results, so when they happen in the future, we are unable to connect them to the cause (our past actions). These karmic consequences are carried into future lifetimes and are the cause of these and upcoming life births. It is our motivation behind an action that determines the fruits of action–a happy or unhappy future.
Having understood, investigated, and imbibed the concepts of reincarnation and karma to our core, a long-term vision will begin to grapple with us: it is not just this life, but many more yet to come lives in front of us. Hence, ruthlessly undertaking all indulgences in one life and ignoring their consequences is akin to spending all our life savings on one fancy night of drinking. This understanding gives us a profound sense of personal responsibility. Our present efforts have the power to determine the quality of future life(times). And since our future is entirely in our hands, the knowledge of impermanence and death has the potential to bring out our intrinsic inner joy.
But how does one find meaning in the nine-to-five, ceaselessly ongoing existence of life?
Implications for Modern Life and Society
The Buddhist teachings give us one ultimate lesson to improve our modern (and future) life(times): Develop a good heart that longs for others to find lasting happiness and acts to secure that happiness. Nourish and practice this kindness.
Less Attachment to Material Experiences
These teachings will shift the source of happiness from external to internal. As we understand that our lives’ misleading quests for material objectives like fame, money, power, etc., will not lead to eternal happiness, our attachment to them will eventually fade away. Research has shown that higher incomes (and subsequent accumulation of goods and services) do not necessarily make us happier . In psychology, this concept is known as hedonic adaptation, i.e., it is futile to find joy in things and sensory experiences as ultimately we become used to their presence and mistakenly run on a metaphorical treadmill to accumulate more goods, finding that the transient experience does not translate to everlasting joy.
Since the Buddhist teachings on kindness extend to all living organisms, we will find ourselves becoming aware of the violence and pain that animals undergo to provide us meals that merely satisfy our sensory state perception. This can lead us to a vegetarian (or better, even vegan) lifestyle and limit the use of leather products (in clothes, furniture, etc.). Research also supports that people living a vegetarian lifestyle are happier than their non-vegetarian counterparts . There are plenty of other small personal changes one can do motivated by genuine compassion, for instance, avoiding paper to dry hands, not killing mosquitoes and instead installing bed nets, or using cloth bags instead of plastic ones.
Give, Give, and Give
Buddhism’s core values are based on giving, generosity, and charity. However, the beauty is that it extends beyond giving material support to the ones in need. It also includes giving spiritual knowledge to those in despair, giving love to those who are abandoned, and giving protection to those who are threatened . The Dalai Lama once shared that he felt helpless and distraught visiting the former concentration camp sites in Germany. But he remembered the Buddhist learnings and prayed for the departed souls. We all have the power to give love and blessings through our thoughts. Science has time and time again found that giving makes us happier . The law of karma implies that we will get all the kindness that we give to this world. What is most interesting is that any act of charity encourages a domino effect that leads others to follow in your footsteps (science calls it “upstream reciprocity”) and make your community and, ultimately, this world a better place to live .
Building a Better Planet
According to Buddhism, humanity is facing the ecological consequences of our collective karma. That is, greed-fueled consumerism, unsustainable lifestyles, and unwillingness to part with one’s assets (be it material assets, skills, or thoughts) are causing climate change and global warming. For instance, a 2015 study found that the production of goods and services was responsible for 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions , and another that non-vegetarian diets emit 59% more greenhouse gas emissions than their vegetarian counterparts .
In short, Buddhism’s teachings on life’s impermanence, karmic consequences, and interdependence can help us connect not just with each other but with the Earth as well. All these acts of kindness that one imbibes first personally and then in subsequent lives are bound to benefit our planet. When we understand that we are merely caretakers of this planet for future generations, the responsibility of its safekeeping falls entirely on our shoulders.
We conclude with these words from the Dalai Lama:
“In today’s highly interdependent world, individuals and nations can no longer resolve many of their problems by themselves. We need one another. It is our collective and individual responsibility to protect and nurture the global family, to support its weaker members, and to preserve and tend to the environment in which we all live.”
 The authors were inspired by The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, available at https://www.amazon.com/Tibetan-Book-Living-Dying-International/dp/0062508342
 Very akin to Hindu or Jain beliefs that the soul will be reborn or transmigrate into another body after death.
 My Sister Remembers Her Past Life. Somehow, I Believe Her. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/30/well/family/sisters-past-life.html
 Meet the 10-year-old son of Baptist parents who has baffled experts with his vivid and accurate accounts of a past life. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3005489/Meet-son-10-Baptist-parents-baffled-experts-vivid-accurate-accounts-past-life-danced-Broadway-acted-opposite-Mae-West.html
 Division of Perceptual Studies. https://med.virginia.edu/perceptual-studies/who-we-are/history-of-dops/dr-ian-stevenson/
 Link between income and happiness is mainly an illusion. https://www.princeton.edu/news/2006/06/29/link-between-income-and-happiness-mainly-illusion
 Restriction of meat, fish, and poultry in omnivores improves mood: A pilot randomized controlled trial. https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/track/pdf/10.1186/1475-2891-11-9.pdf
 The First Perfection: Charity in Buddhism and Burmese Culture. https://www2.irrawaddy.com/article.php?art_id=2316&Submit=Submit#:~:text=Dana%20is%20the%20Pali%20term,to%20those%20who%20are%20threatened.
 4 Science-Backed Reasons Why Giving Will Make You Happier. https://greatperformersacademy.com/interesting/4-science-backed-reasons-why-giving-will-make-you-happier
 Why One Act of Kindness is Usually Followed by Another. https://www.goodnet.org/articles/one-act-kindness-usually-followed-by-another
 How Buying Stuff Drives Climate Change. https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2020/12/16/buying-stuff-drives-climate-change/#:~:text=In%20fact%2C%20our%20consumer%20habits,the%20most%20per%20capita%20impact.
 Non-vegetarian diets associated with higher greenhouse gas emissions, analysis finds. https://www.news-medical.net/news/20211122/Non-vegetarian-diets-associated-with-higher-greenhouse-gas-emissions-analysis-finds.aspx#:~:text=Statistical%20analysis%20of%20the%20reported,emissions%20associated%20with%20vegetarian%20diets.
Palakh Jain is an Associate Professor in the School of Management at Bennett University in Uttar Pradesh, India. A Fellow of the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad in the Economics Department, and alumni of the Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi, Palakh was awarded a Junior Research Fellowship by the University Grants Commission in 2005. She has been chosen as one of the “Exclusive 20 Emerging Female Leaders” from India by the “Women in The World Foundation”, New York.
Payal Seth is a Ph.D. Scholar at Bennett University and an economics researcher with the Tata-Cornell Institute, Cornell University. Her research interests lay at the intersection of development, health, and behavioral economics. She has published extensively in leading national and international newspapers.