Creation & Eternity

How did this world begin? What happens when we die? These two questions are at the core of most religions and belief systems. The Buddhadharma, however, does not address these questions.

Last week, a group of parents and children from a Unitarian church visited our temple. I spoke briefly about the life of Shakyamuni Buddha and some basic Buddhist ideas. During the question and answer session, they asked about Buddhist teachings on creation and life after death. I replied by telling them the parable of the poison arrow.

A person approached the Buddha asking, “What will happen after I die? What was my form before my birth? What is the source of all we see? Answer these questions and I will become your disciple.” The Buddha replied, “A man is shot with a poison arrow. Wounded, he refuses any aid, demanding answers to his questions. “Who shot the arrow? What is the poison? Of what wood is the shaft? From which bird came the feathers for the flight?” Surely, he will die with these questions still unanswered.”

Shakyamuni Buddha felt that to try to answer questions not pertaining to this physical existence was a distraction. Our suffering was in this life; this needed to be our primary concern. This approach differs greatly from most religions practiced in America. In my dealings with students and other visitors to our temple, I have noticed how they react to the Buddhist approach. Most of them seem able to accept that Buddhism has no creation legend; however, the idea of “no soul” seems to trouble and confuse them. An exchange I had with a young woman from DePaul University typifies this unease.

As part of a world religions course, this young woman attended a service and afterwards asked me some questions. One of them was about life after death. I explained the idea of anatman, “no soul”, the absence of an eternal individual existence. She asked if Buddhists believed in a Heaven or a Hell. I replied that some may, however, these were not part of the teachings of the Buddha. Confused, she asked, “If Buddhists don’t believe in an eternal reward or punishment for their actions in this life, why don’t they just rob and kill?” I responded with a question, “Do you believe in Heaven and Hell?” “Yes,” she answered. “Is your fear of going to Hell the reason you don’t rob and kill,” I asked. “No,” she replied. “Then why don’t you do it,” I queried. “Because it isn’t right,” she said. “So it is with Buddhists,” I explained.

Most people find great comfort in the idea of life after death. Buddhism accepts the right of others to believe as they wish. It simply points out that if you spend this life consumed with worry about the next life, you have wasted the only life of which you are truly sure.