Lotus Buddhism / FAQ / What Happens After Death?

What Happens After Death?

While living, one’s life is expressed by the working of Body and Mind. The Mind of the individual has various levels of depth. The Buddhist view of the various levels of Mind (or Consciousnesses) can be simplified here to the following model of three fields:

  • Awareness about the world (the 5 senses and intellect for distinguishing things)
  • Consciousness about the self, (Identity, relationships, beliefs in good and bad..)
  • Subconsciousness (the storehouse of instincts, motivations, karmic tendencies - and the collective mind..)

The contents of our Awareness and Consciousness - depend on the working of the body, and when the body ceases to function, those two fields of mind disintegrate and vanish.

The Subconsciousness level, however, is not conditioned by the body. It is a storehouse of mental energy of information, desires, shared human qualities, with the storage of memory of actions, or Karma. Karma is created through one’s actions. It is the mental power of motivation which drives one’s behaviour, until the moment of death, when it becomes inactive, frozen in the field of death. In the field of death, one’s record of karmic tendencies and motivations turns into a latent (or potential) energy:

“The Alaya [subconsciousness] is sometimes called “non-vanishing” because the karmic seeds stored within it do not disappear at death.  Our individual lives are accompanied into latency by all the effects of our karma”.

(Ikeda, Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death p.160)

Because the field of death is beyond time and space, it is not possible to measure the time of how long karma keeps frozen as a potential (until it gets reactivated again).  It becomes reactivated by attraction to a sexual encounter of parents-to-be.  The collective karma of parents-to-be is the most suitable for the child-to-be karma, and most matching (or convenient) to connect with.  This matching and mutual attraction results in conception.

Rebirth:  Rebirth is inevitable: according to the Law of Impermanence no stage lasts forever, every state undergoes changes. Living is a state that changes into death.  Death is a state that changes into rebirth.

When the frozen energy of karma in the field of death gets attracted by a union of male and female - then the moment of conception takes place.  Conception is the beginning of the process leading to Rebirth. 

At conception, there are three factors at work: father, mother and child.   Part of what determines our life-situation at rebirth is related to parents’ DNA, and the other part is related to the Karma of past life stored in the child’s subconsciousness (the Alaya):

“ … the elements that will determine our life-condition after death remain within the Alaya Consciousness” (Ikeda, Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death, p.160).

This scenario of Rebirth explains that, a child is not a replica (or reincarnation) of a past person, but a completely new and unique individual.  The “specific personality” or “identity” of a previous life has fulfilled its role - and has vanished at its death, forever. 

The only common link between past life and next life is the tendencies and motivations stored in the child’s subconsciousness (which were kept inactive during death).  Through the process of growth and development, the individual’s karmic tendencies start to manifest.  Some children manifest a strong tendency for music, for example, or science, or other fields. The reason for diversity of siblings, who share the same DNA of parents, is explainable through the concept of past tendencies or karma.

The record of karma, which drives one to actions, is not fixed; it can be enhanced or changed through further actions.  It is a continual “work in progress”.

Freedom from the Past

Rebirth is a teaching of freedom from past identity. One’s past life’s personal identity was defined by previous parents’ DNA - which can never repeat. 

Reincarnation is a different concept from Rebirth.  It is based on the assumption that one’s personal identity is based on a “fixed soul”.  In reality, nothing is fixed. The concept of a fixed individual “soul” contradicts the principle of Dependent Origination, because the newborn’s identity is dependent on completely new parents and new environment (not on a ‘permanent soul’).  The concept of “Reincarnation of the soul” implies imprisonment of the life of the individual in the same fixed “soul of the past”.

According to Buddhism, the origin of the myth of Reincarnation is the ego-self of the individual.  The ego seeks to be eternal; it does not accept that the currently living person has an “expiry date”.  Fearing death and vanishing, the ego invents the concept of a fixed soul (which repeats itself forever).

In summary: Rebirth implies the emergence of life in a new journey, free from the limitations of past social status, gender, ethnic or racial background.  A white person may be born black, a male may be born a female, and a highly positioned politician or priest may be born an ordinary person.  The only link between past life and the next is the tendencies and effects of past actions, mental attractions and motivations - or Karma. 

Because tendencies can be transformed and changed by one’s actions, then Rebirth enables the possibility of complete freedom from the past (both in physical and mental aspects of the individual).

Source: (*) Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death, D. Ikeda, second edition 2003,

The newly acquired karma at Rebirth

Nichiren Buddhism, explains that one’s karma at birth is explained as a combination of three factors, and not solely the effect of a past life. 

The components that create one’s karma at birth are:

  1. one’s past life’s tendencies,
  2. parent’s karma (manifested in one’s acquired DNA) and,
  3. the karma of the place of birth (or society).

As P. Ikeda explains:

“Western science generally considers the spermatozoon and ovum the sole essentials for conception, maintaining that only fertilisation of the female gamete is a necessary prerequisite. 

By contrast, the Buddhist view is that not only the spermatozoon and ovum but also life itself with karma that matches the conditions of conception, heredity, family, and social conditions into which the life will be born - are each necessary for human life to come into being and develop. Conception [and birth] results from the union of all three”. Daisaku Ikeda, page 23, Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death,

This explanation clarifies the view that we share the karma of our family (family karma) and society (ethnicity, race) we are born within - in addition to our own individual tendencies created in past life.