Travel in the Spiritual Worlds
The Tibetan Buddhist and Spiritualist Views of After-Death States
Tibetan Buddhism has concentrated more attention on helping the dying person cross the borders of death than any other living religious tradition. The Tibetan Book of the Dead or (Bardo Thodol) and other sources give detailed descriptions of the stages of death and afterlife, as well as instructions about how the dying individual should confront and react to these mysterious places and events. This text has a unique history that interested readers can learn more about on The Bardo Thodol and the Tibetan Terma Tradition page.
It remains an open question whether the information in the Bardo Thodol can be applied to people of other cultures and religions. We will assume that there is some commonality across the cultural divide as have many other writers, and hope to gain some wisdom about the after death process for Westerners from this Eastern text.
Dealing with a tradition that contains so many lineages, deities, and philosophical subsystems in a short article will necessarily involve generalizing about the tradition. Though the material is complex and sometimes difficult to interpret for a Westerner who must rely on English sources, the author will describe the stages of death, and attempt to show how they are relevant to our discussion of spiritual travel. We will also conclude with discussions of heavens, hells, and the other worlds of rebirth with respect to both Buddhism and western religion, and show how views of the afterlife and strategies to gain a positive afterlife impact individuals and societies in fundamental ways.
The Bardos or Stages of Death and the Afterlife
The realm of the afterlife exists in a space which Tibetan Buddhist religious practitioners describe as a bardo. The term bardo is a general term which literally means "in-between place" and in this context denotes a transitional state, or what Victor Turner calls a liminal situation. The bardo concept is an umbrella term which includes the transitional states of birth, death, dream, transmigration or afterlife, meditation, and spiritual luminosity. We focus in this essay on the bardos of death and transmigration. For the dying individual, the bardo of transmigration is the period of the afterlife that lies in between two different incarnations.
In Tantric Buddhist cosmology, existence has a foreground which consists of the many worlds of incarnation, and also a background which is the space between these worlds which is called the bardo world. The stars are the many worlds, and bardo of the afterlife is like the night sky which is the backdrop or the space where the stars are hung.
The bardo of death follows the initial experience of the dissolution of the four elements of the physical body at the time of death. These consist of something similar to the concepts of earth, fire, water, and air in the West, and are related to the progressive dissociation of the soul from the physical body. This dissolution follows a prescribed progression: the senses fail and the muscles lose their strength as the body becomes inert and still resembling physical matter (earth), there is loss of control over bodily fluids (water), the body loses its warmth (fire), and the breath fails (air). All this is experienced in sequence by the dying person when the person is able to remain conscious during the entrance into the bardo of death.
During this progression, the conscious dying person can observe each lower element dissolve into the next higher element. For example earth dissolves into water, water into fire, and fire into air as the consciousness leaves the physical body..
In discussions of the bardo of death, Tibetan Buddhists also describe some diseases and the symptoms that predict death. Various symptoms of illness predict how long it will be in hours, days, or weeks before death. Meditative rituals to extend the soul's lifespan for short periods are also discussed when the symptoms that predict death arise.
Note here that the "soul" in Tibetan Buddhism is only a collection (or bundle) of karma (credits and debits based on previous actions which mold both the habit patterns of the individual and the kinds of conditions encountered in life). In Buddhism, the soul has no substantial nature but otherwise the soul and this "collection" seem very similar and are functionally equivalent for our purposes. We therefore use the term soul above even though it is not a Buddhist term.
The Bardo of Death
Following the process leading up to death, the person breathes their last breath and the person's experience of the bardo of death commences. However, for most individuals, it passes by in a split second and goes unnoticed. Only those who have undergone training in and practiced meditation, contemplative prayer, and similar spiritual disciplines will likely even be aware of the bardo of death.
One description of the kind of meditation done by advanced practitioners consists of a conscious effort to "dissolve space into light", which if successful will propel the dying soul into an a state of light, wisdom, and bliss beyond the continual cycles of birth and death to which most souls are subject. The practice associated with this process is called the "transfer of consciousness" or Phowa in Buddhism and Buddhist monks sometimes practice moving the self out of the body in retreats in preparation for doing it at the time of death. The way the bliss and light experience is symbolized will vary from individual to individual and from religion to religion.
For those less familiar with such formal meditation practices, the act of remembering very bright light (such as, for example, remembering an experience of staring into the sun) and seeing that light as a source of pure awareness or divine love could produce a similar effect. A series of meditations and understandings that can be helpful as one enters or prepares to enter the bardo can be found on our Death Meditations page.
The spiritual aperture that opens briefly at the time of death presents a wonderful opportunity to those who can remain conscious and control their thoughts as they enter the bardo of death. This is probably why there is a common folk belief in the Hindu tradition which puts much emphasis on controlling and directing the last thought of the dying person. If this thought is strong, clear, and of a spiritual nature, it may permit the person to enter through this doorway into a spiritual world immediately at the time of death, and thus avoid the confusion of the bardo of the afterlife (or transmigration). In India, Mohandas Gandhi was recognized as a great soul (Mahatma) following his assassination when he was heard by people in the crowd to say "Ram" as he fell to the ground after being fatally shot. His last thought was that of a devotee uttering the name of God.
The First Bardo of the Afterlife
Following the bardo of death, the first bardo of the afterlife begins. For many souls including especially those fortunate souls who were spiritual seekers and have sought spiritual experience during life through religious practice, there will be several opportunities to meet with spiritual beings and enter the realms of enlightened beings. As such beings appear, they are sometimes frightening to the individual because of their spiritual power. Their appearance is accompanied by powerful lights and sounds that frighten and bewilder those who have not encountered intense spiritual states in the past. The spiritual light is described as having a terrifying brilliance and as luminous, clear, bright, and sharp.
The individual is also presented with a means of ending these encounters by paying attention to images and lights that feel comforting and familiar, and sometimes represent one of the passions that appeal to the person. This is where people's unconsciousness tendencies take control as they are variously attracted to jealously which can bring future lives of fighting and quarreling, pride which leads to another human rebirth, or aggression and violence which can lead to a rebirth in a hell world. Being attracted to these lights and images will cause the spiritual being to disappear and the opportunity to gain insight and enter the spiritual world will be lost. This is one of the important reasons for learning spiritual travel so that encounters with powerful spiritual states of consciousness become familiar and desirable instead objects of fear to be avoided.
The text says the following or similar on multiple occasions in order to help people in the bardo deal with fear:Now when the reality of the bardo dawns upon me, I will let go of hallucinations of instinctive terror, Enter the recognition of all objects of my mind.s own visions, and understand this as the pattern of perception in the bardo; Come to this moment, arrived at this critical cessation, I will not fear my own visions...
For those experienced in spiritual travel who were able to enter spiritual states of light, sound, and spiritual emptiness during life, the first bardo may offer an opportunity to enter into these areas shortly after the time of death. Also, those with a devotional disposition who were able to develop a strong bond with a deity during life may have similar opportunities to enter into one of the heavens of that deity during the first bardo. The devotion must usually be intense and concentrated to draw the deity's or one of the deity's representative's attention in this circumstance.
Those who were devoted to a guru or spiritual guide during life can call upon that being and ask for guidance. Although the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is not primarily devotional, it like most of the world's great religious traditions contains devotional aspects where practitioners are encouraged to focus on powerful teachers or saints of the past or present as well as dakinis, bhairavas, Bodhisattvas, Buddhas, and other helpful beings.
We should also note that the Near-Death Experience literature demonstrates that many people have guides and are not aware of them, and the guides appear as needed. So not knowing a guide does not mean one does not have one. These helpers and guides can appear as the person enters the bardo just as they commonly do when people have NDEs.
The traditional Western guides in the Catholic tradition were guardian angels with specific names and roles. The spiritual person could invoke and meditate on these angels during life, and they could appear to act as guides at the time of death if requested to do so. In addition, there are Kabbalistic angels that were part of older, more esoteric forms of Judaism who could also serve as guides to the dead.
While most angels are dedicated to specific gods, others can be independent and less focused on a single religious goal. However angels are now considered childish notions and fantasies which is an unfortunate loss to the culture. This is appropriate in some ways because a certain class of angel serves as what adults would disparagingly call "imagery friends" of the young. These angels console children who are hungry, abused, or neglected. But Angels in general are no longer given serious consideration as spiritual helpers to children or adults as they were in past centuries.
But from a Buddhist perspective, one can not depend on the good fortune of having a guide appear and should therefore make every effort to develop spiritually and not depend on others. However, some Tantric Buddhists get initiated and are linked with specific guides (or yidams) in the process. These helpers can guide them in meditation during life, and also during their entrance into the bardo world after death.
People who fear death can read about how joyous and informative it is to encounter these guides during NDEs, and about how they often transform people's attitude towards death in the NDE literature.
On the topic of the kind of experience encountered in the bardo, writers such as Walter Evans-Wentz, Timouthy Leary, Ram Das, Carl Jung, Sogyal Rinpoche, and Robert Thurman have all commented upon and analyzed the Bardo Thodol. Each has developed theories on the meaning and value of the text. Many see its descriptions as symbolic and focus on the mind's ability to project formerly unconscious contents to create negative and positive experience in the bardo of death.
In most cases, these are reductionist theories and question the reality of these experiences calling them illusory or less real than physical phenomena. However, for Buddhists such as the scholar Robert Thurman, at least some of the elements of the experience such as the experience of the Buddhist Void, of Celestial Buddhas (or other divine beings), and of Buddhist paradises are more real than the phantoms and projections that compose some of the experiences in the bardo. Indeed, these entities and experiences are considered more real than embodied experience in the physical world.
The Second Bardo of the Afterlife
If the first bardo passes and attempts to access spiritual states were unsuccessful, the next bardo begins. The second bardo or the "bardo of becoming" is a stage in which the desires of the individual are said to carry the largely helpless soul through a great variety of intense emotional states. Good thoughts bring great bliss and pleasure, and hateful or negative thoughts bring great pain and desolation. The soul bounces from thought to thought as a torrent of thoughts and feelings come like a waterfall. Existing thought habits and desires are said to define the experience of the soul during the afterlife in this way. These extremes of confusion and disorientation are generally associated with more passionate and conflicted souls.
The focus of Buddhism is to limit desire and passion in individuals, and this goal becomes even more desirable because the negative results of such passion affects their experience in the bardo. There such passion and the negative emotions it may engender is magnified and becomes like a world that surrounds individuals and dominates their perception.
Recently we see people who are passionately attached to lies broadcast on the Internet and in the media which are easily proved false. But they focus their tribal identity around such lies and feel such lies give them and their group increased power.
Echoing lies and repeatedly ignoring or denying facts is addictive. It can magnify people's vanity and make them feel they have become part of something greater. They feel more in control of their lives. Lies about others are often motivated by malice and repeatedly expressing this malice through lies can also be addictive.
Embracing lies in a systematic fashion is like swallowing a spiritual poison that draws people into unpleasant places following death. It is something to be avoided at all costs. In the inner world, truth is light and lies are darkness. There are infinities of dark realms open to the dying person who subsisted on and drew strength from lies and dishonesty during his or her life.
However, on the more positive side of things, life experiences and memories of compassion, kindness, joy in other's good fortune and other Buddhist (or Christian) virtues will also influence their experience in the bardo. This motivates Buddhists to practice compassion and create good karma in life so that their experience in the second bardo will be more joyful.
Spiritual Travel and the Second Bardo
It is here where some experience and training in spiritual travel and out-of-body experience may be of greatest help. It may first help the individual maintain a state of detachment. The spiritual traveler who has experienced the inner world during life can take the whirlwind nature of inner world following death with more calm and detachment. Those who have read examples of the kinds of states encountered in spiritual travel located on other pages of this site will understand that some experimentation and discovery in the inner worlds may prepare the soul for many of the dynamics of the states it may encounter after death. The similarity of certain aspects of the near-death experience (a temporary bardo state) and elements of spiritual travel experience (the "tunnel" experience for example) show some common qualities between certain spiritual travel states and these bardo states.
The soul experienced in spiritual travel is less likely to be disoriented by this inner torrent of psychic experience. To put it another way, while the spiritual traveler or yogi swims through the ocean of consciousness, the inexperienced soul may feel more like it is drowning in that ocean. But as with a drowning person, the most important thing is to have a direction in which to swim to safety. The point of orientation or goal for the person in the second bardo may be a deity, a mantra, a prayer, a heaven, a guide, or some similar spiritual goal but the spiritual traveler must be able to focus and move towards that goal using meditative techniques learned and practiced during their former life in the physical world. This is the active approach of the spiritual traveler.
Ideally, the person who has meditated countless times in an effort to leave the body and travel in the spiritual world during life can enter into a final meditation as death approaches. In this final meditation, there will be no returning to the physical body but instead an extended meditation as one voyages into the bardo of death. In the best situation, death should be a meditative exercise and as with most meditations, it should have a clearly stated intention or goal which is stated before the meditation begins.
The spiritual traveler has an advantage because he or she has entered the waters of consciousness consciously on many occasions and is practiced at directing his or her experience in the inner worlds.
The greatest problems of the soul in the second bardo are negative emotions like guilt and fear (which results from a lack of familiarity with the inner worlds), and lack of conscious control over its own experience. Fear is particularly harmful because it fragments the self making concentration on one thing difficult or impossible, and this can lead to confusion and loss of conscious control. The text repeatedly emphasizes the importance of not falling into a state of fear and accepting events as either different often powerful manifestations of divine beings or products of the personal or transpersonal mind that must be accepted and faced directly.
The soul in the second bardo is many times caught in a dream state sometimes unaware that it has died, and incapable of taking action to raise its state of consciousness to a threshold level of awareness where it can direct its attention towards spiritual states.
This is one of the reasons it is important to do a regular spiritual practice during life. Doing meditation or prayer every day establishes a pattern of spiritual activity. It then becomes automatic and the habit of seeking after the divine reality continues during the after-death state where it can have powerful results. A daily spiritual practice differs from other more common spiritual practices such as going to church or temple because it is done more often than once or twice a week. Meditation therefore establishes a stronger habit pattern in the individual and is a valuable addition to group oriented spiritual activities such as attending church.
Regular meditation can also be more powerful because it is usually a less passive activity than church since it fully involves the individual in the meditative process rather than making a spectator out of him or her.
What the soul in the second bardo needs to do is "wake up", as in a lucid dream, and begin a meditation or mental exercise that draws it towards a desired stable and more conscious state of awareness where it can have some control and continue to evolve spiritually. It can also weigh alternatives and consciously choose a happy afterlife or a desirable rebirth. The opposite of conscious control is a dream-like state where the individual experiences only the results of his or her previous actions, and mechanically moves from thought to thought based on thinking patterns developed during life.
Waking up within a dream is one of the activities the spiritual traveler practices when he or she leaves the body to travel the inner planes. Beyond this, the traveler is also always practicing and perfecting the art of directing his or her attention towards some desired state. Many or perhaps most Buddhist teachers claim that experience in the second bardo is completely determined by karma and deny that conscious control of experience is possible in this state. However it is the contention of the author that experience with meditation and actual spiritual travel experience during life can both be helpful in rising above the semi-conscious state characteristic of the second bardo, and moving into a more conscious and desirable state following physical death.
For those who practiced a devotional tradition in life, some will semi-consciously repeat a religious or a meditative ritual asking gods or intercessors to draw them out of the second bardo world. We see an example of an attempt to create such a ritual in the Catholic rosary, where Mary as intercessor is requested toPray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death ...This phrase is from the Hail Mary Prayer. One effect of the repetition of this prayer fifty times in the rosary is that such a prayer for help and intercession may become an automatic process, which will repeat itself in the bardo.
For those fortunate enough to be more conscious in these bardo states, a petition to a god, guru, guide, saint, or intercessor can be made in hopes that the individual will be lifted or guided out of the bardo worlds by one of those entities. But here again, the call must be concentrated and the ability to ignore the surrounding chaos somewhat developed. When such grace is given, it is a form of salvation where the individual is saved from the discomfort and confusion of the "outer darkness" of the bardo by a powerful entity - usually one that individuals formed a bond with in their former life. To use the swimming analogy, here the individual calls out to a lifeguard in hopes of being rescued from the turbulent waters of the bardo state. This is the more passive approach of the devotee.
We should also note that souls in this bardo are thought to be very sensitive to the thoughts and attitudes of those they knew during life. The Tibetans therefore put great effort into doing chanting, reading of sacred texts, and other religious rituals to help the dying soul on its journey in the afterlife. Praying for the peace and happiness of the dying person therefore has great value and provides a benefit to both the living and the dead. This process of sending good wishes to those who have recently died can create a positive spiritual atmosphere which can orient and bring peace to the person in the bardo realm, and can also counter some of the sorrow and upset that accompanies the loss of a loved one.
The text itself is meant to be read to the person over a period of days after his or her death. If the body is present, it will be read quietly into the dead person's ear. If the body is gone, it should be read in an environment familiar to the person when they were alive.
The Third Bardo
The third and last stage of the bardo of the afterlife is the stage of reincarnation where the soul is pulled into another body to start a new life, often but not always in the physical world. Tibetan Buddhists believe that the most desirable world to be born in is the physical world, since it affords the most opportunity for spiritual growth and realization. The third bardo consists of a series of images determined by the soul's karma that lead to psychic vortices that draw the soul into a womb. The soul's reaction to the images (attraction or repulsion) determines which vortex the soul enters and in which womb the soul ends up. The Tibetan tradition gives detailed advice on which representations to choose and which to avoid in order to gain a desirable rebirth. Once reborn, the karma of impulse manifests to influence the person's actions and reactions in their new life.
The exception is being destined for a heaven or hell world does not require one be "born" there.
But for other worlds, this ability to choose a good incarnation requires discrimination, and a certain degree of conscious awareness. The New Age approach to reincarnation which claims we choose our new incarnation is idealistic and not always true from this vantage point. Many souls whose thoughts in life were tinged with or dominated by negative emotions, or those who have repressed and denied such emotion through lack of awareness or an unwavering commitment to "positive thinking" will likely be desperate to escape the confusion of the third bardo. They are therefore likely to grab on to the first opportunity that presents itself like a swimmer who grasps a log in dangerous rapids in hopes of making it to calmer waters. Choosing the first object (or incarnation) that comes along may not be the wisest choice.
The average person is said to spend a period of about forty-five days in these three bardos. However, passionate souls with strong desires or those responsible for evil acts in their most recent life are said to reincarnate almost immediately. In exceptional cases, the individual can stay in the bardo state for longer periods, and be drawn into its currents awaiting rebirth.
The Six Worlds
If the individual does not reincarnate in the physical world, he or she will go to one of the other five worlds of rebirth. These are the heaven worlds, the hell worlds, the world of hungry ghosts, the asura (demigod) worlds, and the animal worlds. Each of these is believed to be limited and inferior to obtaining another body in the material world. This is because they exist mostly to receive good or bad karma (the results of previous actions), and are not considered places to create new karma.
The least familiar of the above worlds is the asura world which is a place of conflict and struggle where kings, knights, and warlords battle each other for dominance. The asura worlds are full of beings seeking power, especially by warfare and betrayal. Persons who were fascinated with gaining and exercising power over others during life are said to be likely to incarnate in the asura realm.
The asura realm also offers the potential for rapid learning where the individual's actions produce clear and dramatic effects without generating the powerful karmic ripples that would normally occur in the physical world. It can thus be a kind of remedial world for those who are caught in negative repeating patterns which incline them to make bad decisions in the physical world incarnation after incarnation.
The hungry ghost realm is a place of need and desire where souls are denied fulfillment or given only small rewards. Here souls experience states of continuing anxiety and frustration. For many the modern world with its pervasive poverty is like a less intense hungry ghost world because there is understandably sometimes jealously, dissatisfaction, and frustration among the poor, especially in a world where extreme wealth is so apparent in the media. Few people seem to have enough of what they need or want.
Even in more wealthy populations, many of us are a little like hungry ghosts because we are in a constant state of desire. When we finally get what we want, the satisfaction is short lived and we then turn to seeking the next object of desire. This pervasive frustration and resentment is evident in the large portion of the population who will believe the obvious false claims of leaders, as long as they share people's outrage, and attribute the source of frustration to some scapegoated minority. Assigning blame to others and avoiding responsibility for one's own life situation becomes a satisfying form of entertainment.
The animal world is reserved for those whose extreme instincts for violence, gluttony, or sexual gratification dominated their previous lives in the physical world to the extent that they devolved into the instinctual and unreflective state of animal existence. One of the features of animal consciousness that is not usually mentioned is that animals often live in states of fear and agitation. This is because they must continually search for food and be on the lookout for predators. Domestic pets and farm animals are protected and do not usually exhibit such anxiety but those in the wild are under continual stress. Devolving into states of animal consciousness is therefore not ideal, and something that many would want to avoid.
The heaven and hell worlds have wide variations, but it is interesting that the Tibetan tradition has both burning hells (as in the Christian tradition) and freezing hells (present in Dante's Divine Comedy but not commonly known in Christianity).
Now that the stages of the bardo have been listed and described, let us turn to various aspects of after-death states with respect to attitudes, expectations, and preparations for death mostly in the context of western religion.
Questionable Approaches and Strategies to Influence One's Afterlife
In discussing the afterlife, it seems that there are a variety of Western approaches that are accepted by people, and some of them are proposed by religious and social New Age groups. Some are also entirely secular and individualistic in origin.
Many of these approaches are unhelpful and can even cause more harm than good. Let us explore some of these beliefs and approaches many of which are based on questionable ethics and biblical interpretations (politics will get you to heaven) as well as claims of knowledge about the unknown.
A summary of these questionable, unhelpful, and potentially dangerous salvation strategies is listed here:
Claims that bad deeds and sin do not matter in defining one's afterlife and only faith is important Materialists believing that death leads only to extinction and stubbornly ignoring or denying the afterlife experience which occurs Vainly insisting that one is saved (an article of Christian faith for some) and when it does not occur in the afterlife, falling into states of frustration and anger Trying to increase one's chances of salvation by falsely claiming to be an innocent victim of a myriad of victimizers such as other races and religions, other political parties, or the government (or deep state). (The Biblical justification: "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven..." [Mat 5:10]) Trying to increase one's chances of salvation by joining a religious tribe and making war on competing tribes or groups Trying to force others to accept the Good News of the gospel by seeking to control the government i.e., supporting theocracy and social customs to force others to change their beliefs and actions Making confused claims about being "chosen" for salvation based on being blessed with worldly wealth and success (Calvinism) Making confused claims about being "chosen" for salvation based on unconditional support for "chosen" nations or peoples (such as Israel) Making confused claims about being "chosen" for salvation based on one's support for powerful leaders (salvation based on one's political identity)
Humility in Death
Many religious and secular people engage in conscious or subconscious fantasies about the afterlife, and carry this weight of expectation with them into the bardo of the afterlife. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it becomes problematic if their expectations are not met. They can become aggrieved, disappointed, frustrated, and victimized. They are being cheated or treated unfairly. They hoped to be congratulated for their piety and virtue or crowned as kings, or watch their enemies or those who believe differently from them suffer. But their expectations and demands show a certain vanity, pride, and the sense that the universe owes them something.
These expectations are especially common in certain forms of Christianity which say strong faith in God or Christ is a guaranteed ticket to heaven, and that unbelievers and those of other faiths will be seen to suffer in hell. The extremely popular Left Behind series of books focuses on the happiness and self satisfaction of Christians associated with watching non-Christians suffer leading up to and during the "end times".
Looking at the expectations of less orthodox religious or non-religious people as to what occurs after death, both agnostics and "spiritual but not religious" people who lived a moral life, acted honorably, and fulfilled their responsibilities sometimes expect a smooth passage to a new incarnation of their choosing or perhaps a joyous meeting with deceased family members and pets in the afterlife. These people are more humble and less likely to be disappointed when they encounter the bardo world since their expectations are less fixed and more open ended than most other groups.
Atheists and materialists expect an eternal, peaceful sleep and forgetting. They can resent and try to ignore or deny still being conscious and disembodied. They can become frustrated by having to cope with an amorphous, shifting afterlife world that they in their former lives were quite sure did not exist. Since being conscious means to them that they must be alive in a physical body, they sometimes assume they are in a coma or dream state. They wonder why their confused or semi-conscious state seems to continue for so long without them ever waking up in their earthly body.
People are often exceptionally talented at justifying and forgetting their occasional immoral, deceitful, or cruel actions in life and therefore think they are pure and deserving of the highest quality afterlife. Unfortunately victims of injustice and traumatized people who have not been able to remember, process, and dissolve the negative emotion associated with such trauma are also inclined to get drawn into these areas of confusion and discomfort in the afterlife instead of being admitted to heavenly worlds. Even people with time and money to do years of therapy have a difficult time dealing with such trauma. This is why so many people seek divine help in different forms to aid them dealing with both their difficult past and their afterlife situation.
Both sets of expectations are recipes for disappointment and a basis for resentment when people confront their repressed traumatic emotions or the results of their negative actions in the afterlife. On a more positive note, traumatized individuals may generate more sympathy which can motivate helpers and guides to come to their aid in the bardo. This aiding of innocent victims in the afterlife is emphasized in Christianity. Here after death, "The last shall be first", and innocent people who are persecuted because of their righteousness, morn, are reviled, and are victims of lies told about them because of their religion will "Rejoice and be glad" for "your [their] reward is great in heaven" (from Matt 5:7, the Sermon on the Mount).
However claims of false or exaggerated victimhood and martyrdom are common these days as so many people seem to want to pretend that they are victims. Ironically, some of the more wealthy and privileged people seem to have an almost endless appetite for stories and media sources that support their belief in their own victimhood. But false claims and fakery do not go far in the bardo, and people who make them are wholly transparent and likely to be ignored by divine helpers in spite of their request for help or salvation.
Returning again to expectations about the afterlife, the resentment created from being wrong about the nature of the afterlife, from feeling one is being treated unfairly and deserving better, or from expecting heavenly rewards for having suffered trauma and abuse can all drag people downward, and create an uncomfortable experience in the bardo of the afterlife. If one's afterlife expectations are not met, being humble and having an open mind as to what will occur is advantageous.
Being open to or requesting guidance from higher beings who are familiar with the geography of the bardo is a more desirable reaction to the confusion and disorientation that may occur.
For those without meditative skills or faith in guides, a simple faith directed towards a positive future might serve as a substitute. The notion of drifting on an ocean current slowly towards what is highest or holiest, or at least some positive outcome or state of happiness is a good approach. Being frustrated, aggrieved, and struggling as if caught in a rip current and drowning is something to be avoided. Patience and humility are required. This is the case if one does not encounter helpers, guides, family, or beautiful heavenly scenery immediately following one's death. Experiencing a gray area or some degree of confusion in the bardo requires some preparation and a thoughtful and planned response to avoid the frustration that might lead to a downward spiral of fear and struggle.
Some dedicated and devoted souls will request that a deity or the supreme being take on their sins, and grant them salvation and a heavenly afterlife. They may be successful but nothing is certain in the complex, multidimensional world of the bardo of the afterlife.
From a Buddhist perspective, though heaven may last for decades or eons, heavens are not eternal but are basic components within a larger cosmos governed by reincarnation and its associated laws of causality. These in turn are based on a universal moral order which is sometimes hard to perceive because justice and the dramas of reward and punishment play out over life times and centuries.
The actions of deities to save their devotees occur within this overarching system, and sins do not disappear. They must be accounted for one way or another even when forgiven or suspended by a loving and powerful deity. Their forgiveness may be given freely but may also become an obligation or debt that is owed to the deity creating another subtle form of bondage. But from a Buddhist perspective, a golden chain is still a chain.
Since heavens may not be eternal, some souls may choose or be forced to leave them. Souls who had their sins and moral weaknesses forgiven when they entered heaven may discover that their sins are reconstituted if they choose to leave which would call the whole notion of the forgiveness of sin into question. Forgiveness of sins therefore may be in many situations conditional and temporary instead of unconditional and permanent as most religious people assume it to be.
But some deities seem to take on sins or negative karma. They can transfer it from the individual soul into the vast well of universal pain where it no longer limits and obstructs the individual soul's awareness or affects their future. This is a valuable gift that deities can provide though it may be more rare than many people believe it to be.
Humility Based on Ignorance and Helplessness in the Bardo
The rational response to ignorance and helplessness concerning death is humility and admitting that one does not know much about the fundamental nature of reality. While we can talk in general terms about the afterlife, on an individual basis there is uncertainty and insecurity. As the song says, "the road is long ... that leads us to who knows where, who knows where?" (from: He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother).
The recurring uncertainty, insecurity, and resulting suffering of humanity and all reincarnating beings is shown in the Buddha's observations below about the nature of existence. The Buddha's response to his insight was great compassion for all beings as he saw that they were bound to an unceasing cycle or wheel of death and rebirth. He saw that enlightenment was the only way to be liberated from this suffering. An early quote from the sayings of the Buddha goes as follows,
Again and again they must leave the people they regard as their own, and must go on elsewhere, and that without ever stopping. Surely this world is unprotected and helpless, and like a wheel it turns round and round.
The repeating experiences of love followed by loss (because of the death of a loved one or one's own death), creation and attachment followed by destruction and separation, and constant change leading in each life to sickness, old age, and death are considered to be woven into the tragic nature of life in Buddhism.
But from a more personal perspective, by contemplating death, one can gain a clear understanding of how all of the people you meet are all hanging over the abyss of death suspended by the thinnest of threads. Whether death comes from war, a stroke, an allergic reaction, a murder, a disease, advanced dementia, or a car accident, we are all continuously on the razor's edge facing the inevitable reality of death.
This realization can create a profound sense of unity and universal compassion for humanity, no matter what your disagreements with a given person or group. Death can be both the great equalizer of individuals and the great unifier of diverse or competing groups.
A more cosmic and detached view of reincarnation is that each life is like a wave on an endless ocean. The karmic winds and currents create the wave at birth but at death the wave dissolves and the soul's energy dissipates. It disappears into the bardo and eventually reemerges as a new wave in a different area of the ocean. Trying to hold onto life at the time of death is like trying to grasp a wave, an impossible goal. Seeking to do the impossible is a source of considerable pain, and only difficult to acquire wisdom makes letting go at death an easier and more graceful process.
People who lived more superficial lives primarily seeking pleasure, security, recognition, and power are usually out of their element when confronting great mysteries and the depths of existence. Such people are not inclined to contemplate death and realize how insecure and vulnerable they are. They do not develop humility, and their default or instinctual responses to experience in the bardo are often not good ones.
On the positive side, in terms of making the bardo experience more calm and joyful, life offers endless opportunities for creating good karma by doing service to others which can give kind people wings to fly through the bardo of the afterlife. Parents support and love their children regardless of their limitations. People do difficult jobs well even when the pay is low and appreciation is nonexistent. People can choose to spread good will, kindness, and happiness to whoever they meet. They can use artistic or technical creativity in service to others to improve their lives in many different ways. Lastly, it is never too late to recognize the mysterious nature of life, and put one's feet on the path of seeking wisdom and the ultimate reality.
Adding Death to Your Bucket List - The More Positive Approach
of Adventurers to Expectations Concerning After-death States
People sometimes have bucket lists (a list things they want to do before they die) towards the end of life that include activities like of skydiving, zip-lining, climbing high mountains, or facing other challenging physical tasks. Making the bardo of the afterlife into an extreme challenge (similar to preparing for and eventually doing an extreme sport) can be the last item on the list.
Seeing death as the ultimate adventure and an encounter with one of the greatest mysteries of the universe can sometimes help make the loss of one's life in the physical world more palatable. Entering the bardo becomes an exciting challenge rather than a burden to be feared and avoided.
Ethics and the Bardo
Sin, guilt, and punishment are repeating themes in western culture. Efforts and strategies to avoid or deny guilt and punishment are almost as common.
Having sins forgiven depends on difficult to develop and define religious faith. Since many lack such faith, they look for ways to compensate for this weakness. They develop a variety of compensation strategies to bring salvation. Looking for positive ways to make up for one's spiritual weaknesses and transgressions can be very beneficial but the methods listed below are mostly destructive.
Ethical actions in life have the greatest influence in determining the quality of one's afterlife. But certain approaches to sin and guilt try to make unethical behavior less important or deny its relevance altogether.
The Christian "justification by faith" doctrine which dates from the Reformation is problematic because it is usually associated with Luther and Calvin's belief that human beings are hopelessly corrupt, sinful, and fallen (total or utter depravity). It is a common strategy for avoidance of guilt and punishment since one should not be punished for a universal flaw that affects everyone. Note that this approach is by no means shared by all Christians but conservative evangelicals are especially predisposed to accept it and the world views associated with it.
Some Christians interpret this approach to mean that it is a fruitless effort to even try and be virtuous, and that therefore only faith is important.
The Doctrine of Salvation by Faith Can Trap ChristiansThis doctrine can create a "no-win" situation that can lead to self-destructive and other-destructive behavior. This is because one can never be sure if one's faith is pure enough or strong enough or constant enough.
in States of Fear, Frustration, and Insecurity
Christians are told they are fallen and imperfect but expected to have near perfect faith in the face of church scandals, a secular world, scientific skepticism, and many different sects and their differing ways to interpret the Bible.
Frustration and fear related to one's potential damnation can lead to addictive behaviors, depression, violence, hatred of other groups (Christian and otherwise), abandoning efforts to be ethical, fascist and theocratic ideologies, desperate allegiance to religious or secular authorities (authoritarian governments, ministers, and Presidents), and a wide variety of other destructive behaviors. No-win situations or being asked to do what seems impossible create no end of mental and spiritual confusion.
This is indeed a tragic situation and one can only sympathize with anyone holding and defending such a challenging religious world view. Luckily many do not experience these difficulties and they are indeed fortunate, but doubts can come at any time and make the spiritual path rocky and difficult to navigate.
Returning to difficult ethical issues, another common belief is "once saved, always saved" which means sinning after accepting Christ as one's savior will not stop a person from going to heaven. One need not worry about sin and guilt if one is going to heaven no matter what. But this can be interpreted as a license to do evil.
Luther and Calvin were convinced that because they found it impossible to be live up to Christian ethical standards, no person could meet such standards. The saints in the Catholic Church thus had to be liars and con artists. For these two men, all people must be equally sinful in the sight of God and the only difference is their faith or the lack of it. They created a new theology that appeared to be primarily based on the emotions of jealously of others who were more virtuous than they were and efforts to avoid shame concerning their own moral deficiencies by claiming that nobody is morally superior to them.
By universalizing sin to make all people equally flawed, they denied its importance and the centrality of ethics in Christianity. In this way they were "absolved of their sins" which now had no influence on their state in the bardo. Only their faith mattered. Absolution from a Catholic priest was no longer required. Efforts to make right or make up for wrongs that were done is also unnecessary.
This approach is associated with the childish notion that if one cannot be perfect (as God is perfect), it is worthless even to try since no person will ever be good enough to deserve salvation (a dubious claim given biblical teachings).
In the context of world religions where all the major religions have a strong ethical focus, the pursuit of ethics for religious people is not optional no matter how much some religious groups wish it were. Children who lack talent in a sport or game get frustrated and want to quit and go home. Adolescents ask the question, "Why play a game you will never win?" which is restated in Reformation theological language as, "Why try to be perfect when you will always fail?"
This option of quitting or giving up that serves as a justification for minimizing one's concern with ethical behavior can result in an unexpectedly negative afterlife for these individuals. The result is confusion and frustration because the sins they committed in their former lives were expected to be forgiven and this does not always occur.
Any religious group that denies the importance of ethics has lost its way, and those who follow it are likely to find that their afterlives fall far short of their expectations for heavenly salvation.
The Expectation of Immediate Heavenly Salvation at the Time of Death
Traditional Western religious people sometimes believe they will be immediately rewarded in the afterlife. They expect a golden chariot or an angel to whisk them to heaven. They were told by religious authorities that the stronger their belief, the more likely they were to go to heaven. So the most dedicated and those with the greatest spiritual faith and confidence in their future salvation are likely to become the most confused and angry when these expectations are not met.
This expectation of entering heaven immediately following death is part of an older Greek view of the afterlife which is seemingly incompatible with the more orthodox belief that the soul must wait until the "end of time" or Last Judgment in order to be resurrected and enter heaven. We discuss these two contrasting approaches on the page titled the Christian Resurrection of the Body Versus the Immortality of the Soul.
Hells and Punishment
For Buddhists, the best way to avoid rebirth in a hell world is to deny the forces of desire, hatred, and ignorance as death approaches. They must be rejected consciously emphasizing the total lack of temptation. But it can be difficult for an individual to avoid punishment for multiple evil and destructive actions during life.
Some people speculate about the basis and reason for different forms of punishment in the hell worlds. One Buddhist approach is that hells are based on extremes: isolation and crowding, starvation and revulsion to food or filth, hot (fire, thrust, or burning sulfur) and cold. People use different justifications when they cause harm to others. People in hell experience the extreme situations and suffering that they inflicted on innocent victims during life.
Hells are also the place where the attractive lies that people tell themselves about their immoral behavior and their denials of responsibility are eventually exposed. In one particularly vivid description of these areas of the hell worlds, there are limitless networks of dismal underground caverns where groups of souls scream the same phrase in endless repetition: "It wasn't my fault". But the most commonplace excuse used by a majority of evil actors in life was "everybody did it", or would have done the same if they had the opportunity. So they are somehow not guilty and did nothing wrong.
As the Buddhist Dharmapada (a popular set of 423 Buddhist verses dating from about 250 BCE) states in the chapter discussing karma,
10. The fool while sinning thinks and hopes, "This will never catch up with me".
Wait until you are in the other world [following death], and then the fate of sinners learn.
These intense hells are only relevant to a small number of people but with the rise of concentrated wealth and power, autocratic leaders and wealthy people can do great harm to large numbers of people.
Folk or Non-Biblical Concepts of Hell
In discussions of the fear of hell, we will also note here that the hell normally described by Catholic and Protestant clerics is based almost entirely on folk tradition. Their descriptions of hell as a fiery place of punishment are taken mostly from the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha or "false writings" (specifically, the Book of Enoch), Dante's Divine Comedy, various Catholic monks writing of their personal visions of hell during the Middle Ages, and the Book of Revelation with its "end of the world" prophesy. This folk view of hell as a place of burning punishment is unsupported by the Bible except for a few apocalyptic passages in the last six chapters of the Book of Revelation (no devil, underworld space, or complex mythology of the levels of hell mentioned here). As a result, these passages in the Book of Revelation are very inconsistent with most of the concepts of hell presented in the rest of the Bible.
Reading what the Bible actually says about hell and punishment may reduce the anxiety of some Christians about the afterlife.
The author also argues that this misreading of the biblical text has justified our current state of perpetual war, and our focus on security, secrecy, and terrorism to the exclusion of civil and constitutional rights. Using the Bible to idealize war and then falsely claiming that we are "at war" also justifies, excuses, and even praises dishonesty as a tactic of war. This has resulted in the corruption of the political discourse that we currently see. We see this corruption in all manner of false stories in the alternate media, in the torrent of false claims by politicians, and in the willingness of religious people to support and even seek out false stories and clearly biased sources in an effort to instigate and win culture wars. Many Christians now believe that God and his representatives must rely on strategic dishonesty to bring about his chosen Christian world order.
These false Christian doctrines that focus on fighting evil as well as hell and punishment are used to justify eternal war both against external enemies and against fellow citizens who have different world views form ours. The false doctrines of hell and eternal punishment and their negative effects on society are explained further on the page titled Confronting Mistaken Concepts of Christian Hell.
Buddhist and Christian Views of Heaven
Returning to Buddhism, we note that heavens are not entirely desirable in many Buddhist traditions because they are places where little learning takes place, and they do not allow for much creativity or compassionate action. They are thus viewed as vacation spots that promote happiness for the inhabitants but accomplish little in the way of spiritual maturation. Dependency on a deity is more likely to be viewed as a personal limitation rather than an ideal state of being.
However we should note that the Buddhist Pure Land and other Vajrayana schools do not all ascribe to this approach and believe that entrance into a Buddhist heaven can be a stepping stone to enlightenment or becoming a bodhisattva and helping others in myriad ways.
However, for other Buddhists, seeking heaven is a form of dependency on a Buddha or deity similar to the case where a child never wishes to leave his or her mother, and may be seen as a state of spiritual immaturity. Of course some Buddhists have their own jeweled paradises which often focus on sympathy, compassion, and relieving the burden of suffering for others. Though these heavens may have a somewhat different function, Buddhists should not be too critical of the heavenly worlds of other religions.
But those who choose the path of devotion to a deity usually do not focus on maturity or dependence and obviously see heavens differently. They find that salvation brings them to the best of all possible worlds. Our sincere hope is that all who seek heaven or other desirable afterlife worlds such as ancestor (or family) worlds will find them in the afterlife but this essay is in part a discussion about what may happen if the soul fails in this effort.
There are also deities who see their role as helpers of devotees on the path to autonomy and liberation, and Buddhist heavens sometimes take this approach. Heavens can be ideal places to meditate in an effort to penetrate deeper into the cosmic or divine mysteries. Some deities allow devotees to enter so far into their essence and so far beyond their personal or dualistic qualities that the grandeur of the deity is a mystery even to the deity him or herself. Here the devotee may encounter what the theologian Paul Tillich describes as the "God beyond God", and the infinite consciousness that transcends a particular religion or God.
For other deities who emphasize more personal qualities and loyalties, there are different degrees of dependency on the deity in heavens which makes it difficult to determine the degree of self determination of the souls who exist in these heavens. Surrendering one's self completely to the will of a deity which is an ideal in some Western religious traditions can mean giving up one's autonomy, independence, and freedom in return for the often intense happiness and joy of heaven. The issue of autonomy usually does not arise for devotees dedicated to loving and serving the deity. The kind of joy and wisdom accessible in these heavens can be orders of magnitude beyond what is available in a physical body, and this can create a strong devotion and loyalty to deities that provide this form of salvation.
However there are cases when a soul wishes or is forced to leave the heaven. Some cannot abide by the rules of the heaven and are expelled. Some may leave because they come to question the morality of the deity's actions (see the Story of Job in the Bible to understand how a deity's treatment of his devotees can appear to be morally wrong or ambiguous). Some souls seek learning or creativity of a type that cannot occur in heavens, and choose to leave for a new incarnation. And in rare cases, souls can become bored with unending devotion to some deities that demand such devotion. But it is more likely that people remember the pain of their past and wish to help other souls rise above such pain. They may choose to return to the world to help and teach others about religions and their higher goals. From a Buddhist perspective, some must leave heavens when their good karma runs out much like a parking meter running out of time.
If the devotee chooses to or is forced to leave the question becomes, what might the negative consequences be? Will the soul be sent into exile or be rejected or punished in some other way? Hopefully the deity and the devotee could part on good terms like old friends with perhaps some parting gifts offered by the deity. However the history of angels (as an example of beings who left their heavens) turning away from the deity in Western religions is less than positive. "Fallen angels" whose act of leaving went against God's will were not given much sympathy or understanding and sometimes treated as enemies.
But most souls who were dedicated enough to be admitted to a heaven would not seek to leave it. After living lives of suffering, poverty, violence, and betrayal, heavens can provide a welcome shelter and respite from the often troubled worlds of incarnation and war. But even for those who had happier lives, from the point of view of those in heavenly worlds, embodied existence often looks unattractive because of the degree of alienation and loneliness that comes from being incarnate or confined to a physical body. For the true devotee, the god is the one and only beloved and the source of all that is good. Devotion rather than knowledge brings him or her closer to the beloved and to heavenly salvation.
However the joy in some heavens is sometimes limited because these heavens are run like bureaucracies where devotees must climb a ladder of success to get closer to the deity. In this kind of heaven, there are many layers of heaven and many different experiences of heaven by different individuals.
People are given jobs to perform much like in any administrative system and faithful service is rewarded with higher status and closeness to the deity which brings greater joy and satisfaction. Those who think heaven is beyond personal effort and responsibility are sometimes disappointed by this arrangement. Their effort to spread their faith on earth is rewarded after death by the necessity of yet more effort to perform more tasks in heaven as they continue to act as a servant of the deity.
Some readers may be interested in a discussion of how deities create worlds including their paradises. This is examined briefly on the page titled Spiritual Geography. Some descriptions of different heavens are also provided on this page. One conclusion is that the term heaven can mean many things and that life in these heavens can be as complex and varied as life on earth. A second conclusion is that no single religion can explain or define the complex nature of the afterlife. This requires seekers to look at multiple religions to get a more detailed picture of the structure of experience in the afterlife, and meditative traditions like Tibetan Buddhism have much to add to the discussion.
In discussions of heaven, we will note that the image of God as a Divine King or Monarch in Western religions tends to idealize God as the absolute ruler of both heaven and earth. Religious people sometimes support theocratic governments and dictators rather than democracies in attempt to echo this system of heavenly government on earth. We discuss this issue further on the page titled Divine Kings and Democracy.
Questionable Strategies For Gaining Heaven
Christians seek salvation and admittance to heaven in the bardo or afterlife above all else. We have already discussed how insecurity about the afterlife is universal and not something that concerns only Christians.
But Christians have very high ethical standards that many find hard to meet. It is ironic that the idealistic teachings of Christ about universal love alienated those who do not have these qualities and created conflicts in them that were difficult to resolve.
They chose different approaches to dealing with this conflict such as focusing on the morality and judgment associated with the teachings in the Hebrew Bible instead of on Christian love and service. Thus this very positive side of Christianity has some negative downstream effects. It means dealing with and reducing guilt based on one's moral failings becomes an important concern since having sins forgiven leads to eternal salvation. Guilt is a universal issue and moral behavior is a serious challenge to all people, Christian and otherwise.
The ideal in Christianity is leading a pure ethical life and/or having a pure and constant faith.
One way to increase faith is to have mystical or transcendent experience of God which may involve spiritual travel (not common in Christianity). Another more common way is to have charismatic experience. Charismatic experience becomes very valuable as an aid to strengthening faith. "Holiness" or Pentecostal churches also generally believe (unlike Luther and Calvin) in sainthood or seeking moral perfection in life. This tradition addresses many of the limitations and challenges of both mainline protestant and conservative evangelical churches however it is clear that many people do not find this approach to Christianity attractive.
Another limitation of experiencing the holy spirit is that it is not transcendent religious experience as with spiritual travel experience. So Christians do not come to understand the inner worlds as spiritual travelers do and are therefore more earth-focused and alienated from the experience of death which involves transcendent travel.
Failing either or both of the above two goals (having faith and living a moral life), people turn to alternate salvation strategies (or compensation strategies as mentioned previously) some of which are destructive and toxic.
They sometimes provide ethical cover to people who want to violate Christian ethics and be praised for doing so. They rely on questionable biblical interpretations that are designed to make people feel better about themselves and their prospects in the afterlife. They are therefore popular in spite of their flaws and the lack of support in scripture.
Tribal or "Culture War" Strategies to Gain Salvation
People who have a difficult time leading a Christian life look for ways to compensate for their sins or lack of faith which might win God's favor. For instance they might choose to get involved in the "culture war", and find ways to fight against those that they are told are the enemies of Christians.
Most true warriors know that war is a morally fraught activity where all options in a conflict situation often seem to be wrong or harmful. They know that going to war increases their guilt and the need for redemption considerably. But many conservative Christians have been led to believe that they will get absolution based on conflict with and aggression towards others with whom they disagree concerning cultural or religious issues.
Tribalism divides people often over small or imagined differences and grievances, and can lead to misery, hatred, civil conflict, and even civil war. It is very dangerous but gives demagogic or authoritarian leaders great power over their followers and is thus attractive to them.
Fighting for abstract tribal goals such as a Christian nation or family, a "way of life" (both abstract and intentionally vague), institutional change (laws against abortion, gay marriage, gun control, etc.), and hating often imagined enemies (the government, humanists, journalists, political parties or individuals) is much easier than living out ethical rules like those mentioned in the "Sermon On The Mount" or in the Ten Commandments in one's everyday life. People can transfer their frustrations and anger at their situation in life to other people who they are told are their enemies by religious authorities, and claim they are part of a religious movement sanctioned by God to fight these enemies.
Despite the hope that Christian tribal loyalties will lead to salvation, the dislike of religious tribalism is explicitly called out by Christ in the Good Samaritan parable. Here, Christ describes that he loves the kind outsider or foreigner more than the hard-hearted Jewish temple priest even though the priest fulfills all the tribal ritual requirements of the mainstream Jewish faith. Samaritans were a semi-heretical Jewish group from northern Israel that rejected much of the Hebrew Bible accepting only the central five books, the Pentateuch. For Christ, kindness towards strangers is clearly more valued than tribal affiliation.
Ironically, tribal wars and animosities are the exact opposite of the universal love and kindness that Christ says are required to "inherit eternal life" in the parable. But some people love war and conflict, and hope that being heros fighting for a martial version of Christianity will compensate for their past bad behavior. This appears to be one questionable strategy to gain salvation as they often only end up adding to their list of bad deeds and burden of guilt.
The terminology Christians often use in describing saved people is that they are as individuals or as members of a tribal group "chosen" for eternal life and part of God's "elect" or that their name is "written in the book of life" (from the Hebrew Bible). This is one meaning of the concept of chosen in the Bible where chosen means chosen for salvation or heavenly glory. However being "chosen by God" does not always offer divine protection or salvation.
Worldly Success as a Strategy for Salvation
In a different meaning of the concept of "chosen", people influenced by Calvinist theology associate worldly success with heavenly success and salvation (being part of the "elect"). In order to gain worldly success, people embrace the ideals associated with neoliberal economics and rugged individualism. These allow for a form of selfishness and moral myopia that justifies almost any action in the name of success and wealth. This is because such success becomes evidence of being "blessed by God" and of future salvation.
Being chosen by God to gain success and wealth is also sometimes the goal of certain followers of the Prosperity Gospel. It represents a different meaning of the word chosen that is sometimes confused with the earlier meaning. Chosen for success does not mean chosen for salvation and can mean its opposite. It is a dubious interpretation that is accepted by many Christians that has sometimes done great harm as wealth replaces Christian virtue as the highest goal in life. It is a salvation strategy that appeals to the rich and powerful, and one that has been used to demean and devalue the poor by wealthier Christians. Jesus loved and supported the poor all through the Bible but this is easily ignored.
The "chosen" wealthy and powerful people must make every effort to avoid using the levers of power to harm others because the results of such harmful action can affect thousands of people, and can be truly horrid for the powerful person in their afterlife and future lives.
Claims that the wealthy and powerful are "chosen by God" are often quite the reverse because their good fortune in their current life when used wrongly easily becomes more like a curse in the long run. See the biblical passages Luke 16:14-31 for an opposing Christian view where the rich, selfish man is punished after death with painful heat and thirst rather than rewarded as one who is supposedly chosen by God. Here being "blessed by God" and "chosen" to have good fortune in life does not mean being one of God's elect. Here we see yet another confused use of the word "chosen" by theologians, ministers, and believers.
Salvation Strategies That Rely on Support
for "Chosen" People and Nations
In a different strategy to gain salvation, some Christians seek to be associated with and support those who they consider "chosen" in order to inherit God's blessing from them and gain salvation for themselves. There is little or no biblical support for such inheritance but they hope for it anyway. There was a long tradition in Europe that having a priest in the family would ensure the parent's salvation. They sought to "ride the chosen family member's coattails to heaven". This dubious folk idea that a person can inherit God's favor and eternal salvation from another person seems to still be believed by some.
Thus Christians can enter into a political world where their vote and other political activities can become a means to gain salvation. Politics and religion become linked as secular leaders are believed to become similar to prophets or saviors appointed by God and the ideal form of government adopts many of the elements of a theocracy.
Another example of believing Christians can inherit God's approval is when Christians support Israel which is believed to be chosen as a nation. But being chosen did not stop God from making the Jewish people slaves to the Egyptians and Babylonians. Being chosen probably does not offer unconditional love, good fortune, and salvation from God in these instances for the nation of Israel or its supporters. This is especially true when many conservative Christians believe Jews in Israel are going to hell because they have not accepted Christ as their savior. They believe the difficult to comprehend notion that supporting a nation of people who are going to hell will somehow get them to heaven.
The fear of hell shared by many Christians makes it easy to manipulate them to support specific political parties and their sometimes corrupt leaders. Bible stories are used towards political ends and can result in the politicization and corruption of Christians.
Here we encounter more confusion about the meaning of the term "chosen" in the Bible. Here are two examples in the Hebrew Bible where "chosen" has a totally different meaning from the previous two meanings, and has nothing to do with being part of the elect or those destined for salvation.
In our first example, the Persian king Cyrus was said to be "chosen by God" to free the Hebrew slaves in Babylon. In the Book of Isaiah, Cyrus is described as "anointed" and a supporter and friend of the Jews. But his chosen status only means that God acts through him to accomplish a goal in history (free the Jews). It does not mean that that chosen person (the king) is "saved" or holy.
A Hebrew God is unlikely to save a heathen Persian King who does not believe in him and worships the god Marduk. In a similar vein, God would be unlikely to save a heathen supporter of the king who fought in the Persian army. It seems in this instance that supporting a "chosen" leader does not avoid hell and lead to salvation.
So it is doubtful that a modern Christian can gain salvation by supporting an "imperfect" (immoral), un-Christian political leader "chosen by God". This is especially true for a leader who has said publicly that he has no reason to repent of his sins, and is therefore as with King Cyrus clearly not a Christian.
But politically motivated conservative Christian leaders have implicitly and explicitly threatened people with hell if they do not support a leader that they claim is "chosen by God". His chosenness is based on very little evidence and a conservative party desperate for power which Christian voters can provide.
Similarly, Pharaoh and his army were drowned in the Red Sea after he was chosen by God and influenced to "harden his heart" so Moses could eventually lead the Jews out of slavery in Egypt. God's choice to influence a leader and his followers in history confers no protection or salvation after such influence is made. In this case it means only death. God chooses both Pharaoh and King Cyrus but does not love them or their supporters.
Salvation Strategies and the Great Commission
Making efforts to spread one's faith is a praiseworthy activity especially when done with a sincere desire to help others spiritually. This is the "great commission" given by Christ to spread the "good news" of the gospel to others. The question as to why this request is any greater than any of the other commands that Christ gave is difficult to answer but evangelicals generally insist that it is the most important command.
But such evangelical activities are easily corrupted.
One type of corruption is the "bread and bibles" approach where the poor are convinced to convert to a different religion in order to gain money or other forms of support from richer evangelists.
An example of this is where Mother Teresa of Calcutta was not supported by the Catholic Church for most of her time in Calcutta when taking orphans off the streets and raising them. The Church refused to help her largely because she insisted on raising Hindu children in the Hindu faith and Muslims in the Muslim faith. This is contrary to the "bread and bibles" approach usually taken by the Catholic Church in other developing world countries. The Church is not technically an evangelical denomination but in this case it appears to be acting like one because one of its primary goals is to gain more members.
Another form of corruption occurs when religious authorities commit sexual abuses with children and young adults. These must be covered up since they will bring shame upon the institution and lead to people abandoning the tradition. Since the primary goal is to increase church membership (spread the Gospel), lies, deceit, denial become accepted by church leaders as the cost of doing business.
This happened with the Baptist Church recently when abused followers were told to be quiet and let the abuse continue in order to avoid the church losing followers. This is the "blame the victim" strategy which was also widespread in the Catholic Church hierarchy. The Great Commission approach to Christianity certainly has its downsides.
Evangelical Christians also seem to be desperate to support any leader who will turn back the tide of secularism and convert more people to Christianity. No matter how much they claim to believe that only faith gets them into heaven, down deep they know that works are important. They hope that by fulfilling the Great Commission and increasing the number and political power of Christians, they will earn their place in heaven at the time of death. Any leader who increases the number and power of Christians and promotes conservative Christian values (anti-abortion, anti-same sex marriage, etc.) could be considered "chosen".
But Matt 28:16 (the primary source of the Commission) also says that the disciples should teach people to obey Christ's ethical teachings asking disciples to go about "teaching them [all nations] to observe all that I [Christ] have commanded you".
Strong support for a corrupt leader contradicts that part of Jesus' commission which seems to violate Jesus' command. One cannot both fulfill a commandment and violate it at the same time, and there is therefore little or no merit to be gained from such an effort. Increasing the power of a corrupt, "chosen" leaders who are supportive of Christian goals and institutions will also increase the overall level of corruption by making such corruption appear to be sanctioned by God. This seems to be yet another failed strategy to gain salvation that is toxic and detrimental to society.
But this support of a corrupt, "chosen" leader can be in part a second and different strategy to avoid guilt and punishment. In some cases, Christians may believe a leader who is lecherous, dishonest, vengeful, and encourages violence is chosen and loved by God. They believe God approves of him and loves him in spite of the fact that he is proud of his sins and does not repent of them. He can revel in his sins and those who criticize him become Satan and the enemy of good Christians. He can exact revenge on his enemies and Christian supporters can enjoy and identify with these displays of power. All the while, by being "chosen" he is mysteriously transformed into a Christ-like innocent victim who perhaps like them is misunderstood and has been treated unfairly.
Because God approves of this immoral leader, God might also approve of them and all their un-Christian qualities and actions. Christians are given permission to sin and still gain God's love and approval. Sin and corruption have become sanctified based on the powerful need to avoid the necessity of changing one's un-Christian behavior, and to eliminate guilt. Much of this arises from the scriptural confusion over the meaning of the concept of "chosen".
The heavy weight of guilt that has hung over the heads of some evangelicals who take one of the above approaches can be lightened. They can hope they have been absolved of sin by God based on their support of his "chosen" leader whose dishonest behavior matches or excuses the behavior of some of these supporters.
When many Christians are led to believe their immortal soul is under the threat of eternal damnation, they are tempted to forfeit both democracy and Christian ethics without much resistance or concern. However it is more likely that they will inherit the corrupt leader's corruption and its afterlife effects than his claimed chosen or elect status.
Both types of desperation mentioned above can lead to dangerous and self-defeating choices as younger people see the corruption and turn away from the church and its associated political party in droves. The belief that God supports an anti-democratic political party is even more destructive with potentially catastrophic results.
By far the most toxic and destructive result of the Great Commission was Pope Nicholas VI's 500-year-old Doctrine of Discovery which justified the colonial conquering of heathen lands in the name of Christianity. The doctrine essentially said if you find it, as a Christian you own it and can do whatever you want with it (which included ownership and control of non-Christian peoples).
This led to the death and forced conversion of many hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples in the New World. Telling the Good News was transformed into forcing non-Christians to accept the Good News of the Gospel under threat of death or punishment, partly through the creation of Christian boarding schools to convert native children to Christianity.
The Blind Seeking of Heaven
As shown above, the lack of direct spiritual experience in the lives of many Christians seems to warp and corrupt the tradition in various ways as they seek ways to guarantee their salvation and give themselves access to heavenly worlds in the afterlife. Spiritual travel and mystical experience which give insight into after-death states are important aspects of many religions but it is challenging to obtain such experience. This site seeks to provide some basic information on the topic.
This concludes our discussion of some common salvation strategies which unfortunately are more likely to prevent salvation than to move towards it. The common thread is that these strategies harm others through conflict, corruption, and exploitation in an effort to bring salvation to those individuals and groups that employ them.
The Freedom to do Spiritual Travel in the Afterlife
One factor that helps the soul achieve the freedom of conscious control and spiritual travel during the afterlife is acceptance of death. Those who have not accepted death will resist the process of dying and introduce conflict into the bardo stages. This is why it is for people to take care of any unfinished business as they near death so they can let go of life completely.
In Brahmanical Hinduism, there is a stage of life called the forest dweller or vanaprastha stage in which the older individual who has finished raising a family is supposed to begin letting go of pleasures and attachments to life in preparation for death. However, in the West the goal is to keep spending money and maximize enjoyment up to the end of life. This makes it difficult for many to make a graceful transition into death. Intense attachment to the material world makes it difficult to do spiritual travel both during life and after death.
It also usually helps to have faith in something beyond the material world at the time of death. Those with a strong faith in Jesus or another religious figure will be more calm and relaxed as they enter the bardo realms. While the religious person can look forward to heaven at the time of death, the spiritual traveler who has been trying to do spiritual travel all his or her life can also look forward to death in certain respects. This is because the opportunity for exploration and spiritual travel will hopefully be greatly expanded after death when the physical body and its needs will no longer be a major distraction. Of course the areas the spiritual traveler wishes to explore are the heavenly areas and beyond, and in that sense, he or she has much in common with other more conventional religious people.
Both have a distinct advantage over the secular individual because they expect to enter into a positive afterlife (heaven), and expectations have great power in the inner worlds. This expectation combined with love and devotion towards some religious ideal can propel the religious individual towards a heavenly state just as the practice of spiritual travel does. The secular individual with no faith or expectation of heaven is more likely to flounder after death and get stuck in some intermediate gray area surrounded by thoughts and emotions from the past waiting for something to happen.
Interestingly enough, some of the Western ideas of heaven and hell can be accounted for by the Tibetan notion of the second bardo. The saint or righteous soul will find itself in places of bliss, happiness, and light based on the kinds of thoughts it was in a habit of thinking, while the evil person will lead an existence of fear, anger, and torment in the afterlife. However, the second bardo is a temporary transitional state that actually precedes the longer term experiences of heaven, hell, or rebirth in the physical world which can occur following the third bardo.
Spiritualism as an Alternative View of the Afterlife
The focus of Buddhism in the afterlife is similar to its approach to earthly existence. The emphasis is on passion, and its restrictive and destructive consequences. It is therefore not surprising that the Buddhist view of after death states concentrates on desire as the mechanism which turns the dead into machines who must live out a karmic destiny in the afterlife. These individuals will exist in a depleted state of awareness with little freedom of choice during the bardo.
As an alternate and competing view of the afterlife, we will briefly examine the Western tradition of spiritualism which has been around for more than one hundred years, and is still popular in some quarters today.
The central conclusion of the data provided by the spiritualists and trance mediums is that dead people have scarcely more insight and wisdom in death than they had while alive. Such a proposition emphasizes the importance of learning spiritual skills such as spiritual travel while alive instead of hoping for spiritual redemption and transformation after death. Though the spiritualist's view differs from Buddhism in the specifics, it supports the contention that people should not wait until death to begin learning since such a delay can result in a very limited and routine afterlife. We examine the spiritualist's view on the page titled A Spiritualist's Approach to After-Death States.
Kabir, the Hindu-Muslim poet of India, talks about the afterlife in an ambiguous way describing it as the "city of death" which could be consistent with either the Tibetan or Spiritualist's view of the afterlife. He offers the following words which support the notion that a person who is limited in life will also be limited in death.O friend! Hope for Him whilst you live, know while you live, understand while you live:
for in life deliverance abides.
If your bonds be not broken whilst living, what hope of deliverance in death?
It is but an empty dream that the soul shall have union with Him because it has passed from the body:
If He is found now, He is found them,
If not, we do but go to dwell in the city of Death.
If you have union now, you shall have it hereafter.
Bathe in the Truth, know the true Guru, have faith in the true Name.
It is the spirit of the quest that helps;
I am the slave of the Spirit of the quest.
Songs of Kabir (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1991), pps. 46-47
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