by Rev. Koshin Schomberg

Part XXV
From Death to Rebirth

Should a man seek the Buddha outside of life and death he is as one who turns his cart to the north whilst heading for Esshu, or as one who tries to see the north star whilst looking southwards: by so doing, that which is the cause of life and death will be increased and the way to freedom lost sight of.

--Great Master Dogen
Shoji ("Life and Death")

The Problem of Evidence

The starting point for obtaining evidence in support of any theories about what happens when you are born as a human being and then live a human life is to actually be born as a human being and live. Similarly, the best starting point for obtaining evidence in support of any theories about what happens after death is to die and experience what happens.--But if one is dead, it is not so easy to report back on one's experiences.

Most religions offer explanations about what happens after death, and these theories are not easy to prove or disprove. In this Part of these Reflections, I would like to give my reasons for believing the teachings about death, the Bardo realm, and the realms of rebirth that I have described in Part XXIV of these Reflections. As will become very clear, my personal experience in these areas is limited. Yet insofar as I do have experience, it confirms to my satisfaction the Buddhist teachings that I learned from my master.

The Moment of Death

There are a number of reasons why I believe the teaching that at the moment of death the Light of Infinite Love manifests fully, and that we can choose to unite with It--dissolve into It--fully in that moment. Some of these "reasons" are not easy to put into words. But I can give two reasons here.

The first reason is that for a few days immediately following my kensho in 1977 (described in the parallel narrative to these Reflections; a link is provided below), I experienced a quiet longing to die. I can best characterize that longing as "love longing to fully reunite with its Source." I must emphasize that this longing arose and passed naturally: I did not seek it, and I did not try to hold on to it. And it never would have occured to me to act upon it in a wilful way by taking my own life. (Suicide makes a big karmic mess for oneself and others, but especially for oneself and for those who inherit one's karma. It is a very bad idea.)

This longing was accompanied by a great certainty that death is not just extinction, and that it is not just the gateway into the eternal life of a soul, ego or personality: it is a gateway; and it can be a gateway into Something that utterly transcends human understanding--"Love beyond our wildest dreams," as I have heard Rev. Master express it.

The second reason is that people who have had "near-death experiences" (a term coined by Dr. Raymond Moody, a pioneer in researching these phenomena) describe just such a manifestation of Love at the time of death.

Only one of my grandparents, my father's mother, remained alive at the time that I became a monk in my mid-twenties. I was able to visit my grandmother once a year during her last years. About a year before she died, she told me the story of her own near-death experience in a very matter-of-fact way. She prefaced the story by telling me that she was not afraid to die, because she had experienced clinical death during surgery many years before. She briefly described the Light that appeared before her as her body's life-sustaining functions shut down, and the Love that emanated from that Light. It was not her time to die, so she came back into her body (with some reluctance, if I remember correctly) as the doctors worked to revive her.

I do not think my grandmother had ever heard of near-death experiences. We had never discussed such matters before. She was not a Buddhist, and we had what amounted to an unspoken agreement that we would not get into discussions about religion and politics (very helpful for maintaining a friendship). She loved me and she knew that I loved her, and she wanted me to know that when she died--which was about a year later--she would be alright. She knew from her own experience what happens at the moment of death. I believed her when she told me her story, and I believe her now.

The Bardo Realm

I do not know whether people ever remember experiences from the Bardo realm in the way that they sometimes remember experiences from their past-life inheritance. I have found, however, that sometimes one person can be aware of events that happen in the journey of another person's spirit-body through the Bardo realm.

I have experienced this awareness in two ways. Sometimes these two ways may be closely linked with one another, but I do not see why that always has to be the case.

The first way is through empathy. When two people are very closely linked karmically, and one of them dies, it can happen that the other person will empathically experience something of what the spirit-body of the deceased person is going through in the Bardo realm. I experienced this once myself following the death of a friend. For weeks after the death I recognized that I was sharing this person's experiences, especially in pure feeling. Then one day it stopped. There was no gradual diminishing of the intense feelings: they continued at a certain level of intensity--and then suddenly and completely switched off. For some reason, I thought of counting the number of days that had elapsed since my friend's death: the intense feelings stopped on the forty-ninth day--the day traditionally identified as the day on which the journey through the Bardo realm culminates in rebirth.

I believe that an empathic bond between beings can be used by the Eternal to help the spirit-body of the deceased look up spiritually. If this is so, then it is especially important for those closest to someone who has died to keep their own heart and mind turned toward the Eternal in faith. In this way we can provide real spiritual support for, rather than a negative drag on, someone we love.

It is vitally important to know that it is one thing for the Eternal to make use of an empathic bond; it is another altogether for us to wilfully meddle in a very complex and serious process. All we have to do is continue to do our own training, allowing the Eternal to use the merit of that training in whatever way will benefit beings.

We can offer merit for those who have died just as we can offer merit for those who are alive. However, I generally recommend that people offer merit when it is good to do so, and refrain from assuming that it is always good to offer merit. When I once told Rev. Master that I wanted to offer all my merit for the welfare of beings she responded, "Don't do that! Keep some for yourself! You need it."--A strong caution about playing God when offering merit!

The second way in which I have become aware of events transpiring in another person's spirit-body's sojourn in the Bardo realm is when I have received a strong and clear intuitive sense that I needed to fulfill a priestly function. A Buddhist monk fulfills a priestly function when he or she points another person toward the Eternal. The performance of a priestly function that addresses the need of someone who is going through the Bardo realm involves giving the right teaching at the right time and in the right way.

I like the word "journey" to describe the spirit-body's movement through the Bardo realm because, when we think in terms of making a journey, we recognize that the traveller makes choices along the way: he is not just passively being carried along by forces over which he can exert no influence. Important choices are made in the Bardo realm. As in life, so in the Bardo realm, some choices propel one more deeply into suffering, and some choices move one in the direction of the Eternal. And as in life, so in the Bardo realm, one can bog down in doubt, hesitation, fear and confusion. Then it is that the Eternal may tag a person who is still alive to deliver a message.

The stakes are very high in the Bardo realm. It is very important that the giving of teaching to someone in the Bardo realm happen as a result of listening to, and following, the Eternal. I cannot too strongly emphasize that the actions of the person giving the teaching must come from that Place that is beyond desire, expectation, hope and insistence; even the best of intentions has to be got out of the way so that one is just delivering the message. In countries with a long Buddhist tradition, families of a deceased person usually prefer to have a very senior monk do this job--if it is needed.

The message is delivered by going to an altar, perhaps doing some bows and offering incense, and then giving the teaching just as if the deceased person were standing right there. In doing this, the priest entrusts the message to the Eternal and leaves it to the Eternal to work out how the message is delivered. If the message originated with the Eternal, and if the person who delivers the message is staying rooted in meditation, the Eternal will take care of the rest.

It should be obvious from the above that going to spiritualists and engaging in activities such as seances in order to contact deceased family members and friends is just asking for trouble. And people who ask for trouble always find it. The best way to help both ourselves and our deceased loved ones is to entrust them into the hands of the Eternal and fully let go of them.


We are all very familiar with one rebirth-realm--the human realm. And we live in close association with another--the animal realm. That these are in fact rebirth-realms is proved if and when we remember any part of our past-life inheritance from the human and/or animal realms.

I suppose it will be difficult enough for some to give credence to the possibility that humans can inherit the karma of animals, though I know this to be true from my own experience. How much more difficult might it be to keep an open mind about the possibility that humans can inherit karma from beings who were neither human nor animal?--This is an area in which I have no personal experience, that is, I have not remembered any past life that was neither human nor animal.

Nonetheless, I know that there are rebirth-realms beyond the human and animal realms. I have no idea whether these realms are precisely as described in Buddhist texts. But I know that there are intelligent beings who are neither human nor animal, and who do not have a material body, as we understand the concept of "body."

I know this because for almost thirty years I lived and trained in this temple with such a being. This being became the temple Guardian. How this happened, and the place that this benevolent spiritual friend and protector has had in my life, deserves its own chapter, and so I will write that story immediately after I complete this Part of these Reflections. The chapter on the Guardian of North Cascades Buddhist Priory will be Section XX of the parallel narrative to these Reflections: Book Two--"How to Grow a Lotus Blossom: Reflections in a Disciple's Life." A link to the Table of Contents of Book Two will be found at the bottom of this page.

There are other reasons why I believe that there are rebirth-realms in addition to the human and animal realms. In what I have written here, I have emphasized my personal experience, and I have done this because, as the Buddha and Rev. Master both taught, the most certain and reliable beliefs are rooted in personal experience. But, of course, that does not mean that one cannot trust the experiences of others. As always, there is a Middle Path.

My general approach in dealing with descriptions of phenomena of which I have little or no experience is quite simple: if someone tells me something that rings true deep within me, I tend to accept it at face value; if it does not ring true in that way, I do not doubt it, but I also do not fully believe it--I put it on the "back burner" and wait to see what comes next.

This means that, while I have not remembered non-human and non-animal past lives, and while I would describe my personal experience of phenomena such as visitation by ghosts as "very limited," I am not a sceptic. In fact, when trainees have confided in me about such matters, I have generally found their descriptions of events to be highly credible.

A word about "ghosts." It is not uncommon for people to be visited shortly after the death of a relative or friend by the "ghost," or spirit, of the deceased person. There is always a purpose in such a visit. Sometimes this purpose is just to say, "I am fine. I love you. Good-bye." Sometimes the person who has died is having difficulty letting go of someone he loves; sometimes it may be that the deceased person is trying to communicate to a third party to look after someone he loves. It is best to straightforwardly address the purpose of the visit so that the spirit of the deceased person can move on to its true destination. As in all other matters, one can turn to the Eternal in pure meditation for guidance on how best to proceeed; and one can turn to the refuge of the Sangha when human help is needed.

As in the human realm, and as in the Bardo realm, so in all other realms, clinging only deepens confusion and suffering. In all realms and in all worlds, the Way to the cessation of suffering is to be found by taking refuge in our wonderful True Nature.


Click here to go to Part XXVI, "Help for Fear"


Click here to go to the the description of the first kensho, "A New Beginning," in "How to Grow a Lotus Blossom: Reflections in a Disciple's Life"


Click here to return to the Table of Contents of Book One: How to Grow a Lotus Blossom: Reflections



Click here to go to Table of Contents of Book Two: How to Grow a Lotus Blossom: Reflections in a Disciple's Life

Click here to return to Home Page