Existentialism and the Afterlife in Buddhism and Judaism
Religion throughout the world has been used to explain the seemingly unknowable, to provide guidance and refuge and to give hope to people who find themselves in circumstances beyond their control. The ancient religions of both Buddhism and Judaism contain helpful information to believers and non-believers alike about some of the key questions that have plagued human existence from the evolution of mankind’s primitive ancestors through the present. While not all existential questions have answers that can be quantified, knowing that there are posited answers can allow humanity to draw on its collective experience to renew its hope for the present and for future generations.
Questions that have lingered throughout the history of mankind are the type of questions that are not easily answered. Religion has filled the gap for a lot of these questions, giving rise to explanations for events, circumstances and tragedies that lay far beyond an individual’s control. Natural disasters like volcanic eruptions, floods, famines and tornadoes were explained away by positing a deity that caused them. As philosophy and theology advanced and progressed through various religious incarnations, however, the focus turned from naming distinct deities overseeing individual processes to bigger questions. Among three of the most lingering, pressing questions throughout mankind’s history include the nature and purpose of this life – and the next. One key question in existential thought pertains to the purpose of suffering. All life suffers, whether due to hunger or thirst, or the loss of a loved one, or an illness and ultimately death. Since life contains suffering, what purpose does suffering serve? Another question addresses the meaning of life. What is the meaning and purpose of this brief life on this planet? The last great existential question involves not the life currently being lived on earth but instead the life to come. Almost all religious traditions have beliefs about what happens to people when they die. Is death the end of existence? Is there a soul, and if so, where does that soul go? What can humanity look forward to in the life to come, if such a life exists? Although existential questions may never be answered with certainty from any system of belief, understanding these questions in light of both Buddhist and Judaic traditions can shed some light on these ancient belief practices and uncover some distinct differences as well as some surprising similarities.
Which belief system do you relate to more?
Suffering in Buddhism
The question of suffering is one that mankind has attempted to address throughout its history. Attempting to explain the bad things that happen to every person who ever has or ever will live is essential to placing meaning upon a lifetime and helps people attempt to understand and justify why they must go through struggles to learn and to grow. Unsurprisingly, suffering is addressed very differently between Buddhism and Judaism. It could be said that suffering is the key, quintessential element of Buddhist thought. As expressed in the first noble truth – that not only is suffering a part of life, but that existence is, in fact, suffering (Greenberg). In Buddhist thought, suffering is a direct result of attachments, ignorance of the truth of both suffering and the ability to overcome it and desire. Spiritual ignorance causes people to pursue pleasure and happiness, not recognizing the Four Noble Truths, which perpetuates the karmic cycle of samsara until the cycle can be sufficiently broken through enlightenment, which cannot be reached without the experience of suffering in the first place (Chadha and Trakakis). Enlightenment, therefore, allows the individual to be released from suffering – Dukkha. Although suffering may take place within an enlightened person’s life, they are no longer able to perceive it. They have, in essence, overcome suffering, and can look forward to breaking samsara – the cycle of birth, death and rebirth (Hardy) Understanding that suffering, ultimately, is a result of spiritual ignorance and they are merely a perception of reality that is not accurate is the ultimate goal of a Buddhist who seeks to reach enlightenment and ultimately nirvana (Moad).
Suffering in Judaism
Suffering in Judaic thought is varied and vastly different than the Buddhist concept above. There are two extreme thoughts in Jewish theology on suffering and its root cause. On one side of the spectrum are those teachers and believers who feel it is necessary to justify the relationship between suffering and God. On the other end of the spectrum are those who protest against God on behalf of those around them when suffering or tragedy befalls them. Yet most Jews, scholars and laymen alike, fall somewhere in between both extreme positions. (Krell) Traditional Jewish theology has seen suffering as a direct punishment for sin, which would imply that mankind could simply avoid suffering by avoiding engaging in sin (Schwarzschild). This explanation for suffering, however, fails to answer essential and important questions such as the suffering of the innocent. In response to this criticism as evidenced in the Biblical account of Job, however, rabbinical scholars created a concept of divine justice that encompassed a system of both reward and punishment either in this life or in the life to come. The second school of thought in regards to suffering in Judaic belief is that it is necessary in order to be purified. Suffering in this sense becomes a system by which God can test mankind, to teach them necessary lessons or to prove their devotion and faithfulness to Him. There also exist examples of Jewish thought that seems to put God on trial for the suffering of His people, such as the Lamentations Rabbah. While the writers did admit to a failure to keep the divine covenant, they also appeal to an absence of mercy on God’s part, which ultimately results in god withdrawing his indictment against Israel (Krell). For scholars who don’t go as far as blaming or indicting God for the suffering of his people, there is an anti-theodicy position which blames humanity overall, especially in light of a post-Holocaustic world (Krell). Regardless of divine responsibility for the suffering of his people, Judaism as a whole requires its followers to extend sympathy, compassion and empathy towards those among them who are experiencing suffering or hardship. Jews are expected to extend compassion for those around them experiencing hardship, but they are “admonished to share in the suffering of the community and not enjoy himself while others are suffering (Ta’an.11a)” (Schwarzschild). Although the question of suffering is approached in varied and often opposing ways within Judaism, both historical and modern Jews look towards the end of suffering when the promised Messiah arrives.
The Buddhist Meaning of life
The meaning and purpose behind each individual life within Buddhist thought is clear. As each individual is born into the world, into their own cycle of samsara, they are faced with the reality of ignorance. Gaining knowledge and breaking free of that ignorance that leads to suffering grants freedom from it and an awareness of the reality of existence. Ultimately, in Buddhist teachings, if samsara is life itself, then the purpose of living is essentially to escape from that cycle. Overcoming the ignorance that you are born into becomes the central purpose of the life cycle, and it can be overcome in multiple ways. One individual may try to rid themselves of karma in order to try to avoid being reborn. Another may seek only enlightenment. For some practitioners, the aim of life is to gain merit for a future life so that they may return as a bodhisattva in order to guide others towards enlightenment in the next life (Hardy). Many Buddhists believe that adhering to the eight-fold path is the purpose of their existence in this impermanent existence. Buddhists therefore strive to avoid the three biases of desire, ignorance and desire for a future existence (Moad).
The Meaning of Life in Judaism
In Judaism, the central focus of life on earth is to keep their end of the covenant made between the Jewish people and God. Following the commandments laid out within the Torah allows a Jew to experience godliness and to guide others to the truth and oneness of God by proxy (Krell). While Jews do not actively seek to convert others to the Jewish faith, they do believe in demonstrating Godliness in everyday practice, which shines a light to others who are seeking truth.
In Jewish theology, mankind is separated from all other living creatures by the existence of a soul. This soul contains a spark of the divine, separating them from their earthly bodies. Understanding this distinction from other creatures upon earth and from heavenly creatures allows mankind the choice of living in accordance with their heavenly soul or submitting to the actions of their earthly bodies (Krell) (Ellens). Jewish thought embraces the concept of shared social responsibility. Jews are therefore bound by the covenant to be responsible for each other, and the Jewish people overall share a burden of responsibility for the rest of humanity. This aspect of social responsibility is celebrated annually by the Pesach, reminding them of their slavery in Egypt and focusing a message of freedom from bondage worldwide. This social responsibility within Judaism is known often as tikkun olam – a responsibility to repair the world (Scheinerman).
Nirvana - Afterlife Philosophies in Buddhism
Buddhist teachings and concepts of the afterlife are extremely diverse. Since Buddhist teachings deny the existence of an eternal, individual self or soul, their concept of reincarnation, the afterlife and nirvana is an interesting one that necessarily varies greatly from other eastern religious beliefs (Hardy). Understanding nirvana is also divided between a state of absolute bliss and that of annihilation (Welbon). Buddhism, overall like many other religious traditions both before and after it, incorporates belief patterns, practices and thought from the cultures that embrace it. This amalgam of beliefs helps to explain the varieties found within Buddhism in regards to the afterlife and the ultimate nirvana. For example, it shares the concept of karma with beliefs familiar with Hinduism, but Buddhism puts its own interpretation on reincarnation and samsara as a result of karmic baggage. Buddhists reject the concept of atman, essential to Hinduism, as the permanent, immortal soul (Reat). If atman, or the soul, is defined as consciousness, nirvana can be described as the elimination of consciousness (Reat). Buddhists are not as concerned with having a positive rebirth and living a good life as they are with the ultimate release from the cycle of samsara entirely by ridding the individual of attachments, desires and karmic baggage (Reat). Some Buddhist schools throughout Asia eventually came to understand and recognize the ideas of both heaven and hell, ranging from ultimate bliss to extreme punishment (Hardy), which can be found in the Yama texts. In cultures where hell is recognized, Buddhism teaches not an eternal place of punishment, but rather a place where punishment can be extracted until the balance of karmic baggage has been exhausted (Hardy). Chinese Buddhism in particular has even developed a concept of an intermediate state between various rebirths called Antarabhava. This allows the living to transfer merit and good karma to the dead in an effort to ensure a better rebirth in the life immediately to come. This practice stems from the ancient Chinese practice of honoring the dead and is done out of respect and devotion to their ancestors through gifts (Xue). Ultimately, the afterlife in Buddhist context is to break free from samsara and achieve enlightenment and nirvana upon death so that no rebirth is necessary. Nirvana cannot be compared with the western notion of heaven because it is not a place rather than a state of completion of the rebirth cycle (Hardy). Buddha himself never described Nirvana in detail, preferring instead to focus on the alleviation of suffering on earth (Welbon), and Nirvana itself is said to be indescribable (Reat).
The Jewish Afterlife
The Afterlife in Judaic thought has evolved and changed substantially over time, and is practically as diverse as the afterlife in Buddhism. Neither the Torah nor the Tanakh have a developed concept of either heaven or hell (Ellens). Instead, the only developed idea of life after death consists of a shadowy, mysterious place of the dead referred to as Sheol. The dead, whether godly or ungodly all make their way to this underworld (Ellens). Beginning with the Babylonian captivity and the second temple period, however, the concept of the afterlife began to change as the Jewish people sought answers for the suffering that befell them and looked to explain ultimate divine justice, creating a realm of both punishment and reward in the life to come (Ellens).
Support for this changing view of life after death can be uncovered in the Greek translation of the Tanakh, the Septuagint. The second temple period marked a distinction of belief in the afterlife, with the Sadducees denying the afterlife and the Pharisees proclaiming not only the immortality of the soul, but the bodily resurrection of the Jews as well (Krell).
There also exists in rabbinic literature the concept of the World to Come – known as olam ha-bah. The wicked endure judgement in Gehenna while the righteous enjoy an eternal life without the presence of evil (Krell). Jewish mysticism through the study of the Kabbalah take this even further, positing a potential reincarnation if a soul’s purpose is not attained within their lifetime (Tauber). According to the majority of rabbis over time, however, Jews and Gentiles who lived a righteous life will be rewarded and be given salvation in olam ha-bah (Krell). Overall, however, traditional Jewish thought is more concerned with the life on earth than any potential afterlife – known as olam ha-bah. There is little information to be found within the Torah or Tanakh, and Jews are asked to leave the afterlife in the hands of God and focus their attention on the here and now – serving their fellow man, obeying the law and fulfilling the covenant with God with the assurance that God will fulfill his part either in this world or the next (Telushkin).
Further Reading - Buddhism
Further Reading - Judaism
At first glance, it would seem that Judaism and Buddhism are on opposite ends of the belief spectrum. Buddhism is non-theistic, while Judaism is staunchly monotheistic. Both contain striking similarities, however, and distinct differences that become apparent with careful examination and study. Both Jews and Buddhists see suffering as an essential part of the human experience, although they explain the purpose and meaning of suffering differently. Some Jews see reincarnation as viable, but it is not the endless cycle of samsara found in Buddhist thought. Some Buddhists have embraced and adopted the notion of punishment and reward after death, while some Jews in the second temple period (the Sadducees) view life after death as fanciful, embracing instead the Nihilism viewpoint often used to describe the Buddhist nirvana.
Both of these ancient religions, however, seem to encapsulate the purpose and meaning of life in simple terms, although they arise out of varying origins. To a Buddhist, understanding that life is suffering and that suffering can be overcome is essential to reaching enlightenment and ultimate nirvana. To a Jew, the essential component of Judaism is to understand that they are God’s chosen people. As such, their responsibility lies in understanding and abiding by the law laid out in the Torah and fulfilling their half of the covenant between them and God. This also includes a responsibility not only for their fellow Jews but for mankind as a whole, the mandate to heal the world. Both Jews and Buddhists set out to alleviate suffering, and to recognize a responsibility to help others along their chosen path.
While neither of these religions can definitively provide concrete and provable answers towards life’s most challenging questions, they can provide help, hope and comfort to those who follow them. Understanding the framework for both of these beliefs is essential to applying their lessons to everyday life – a feat that can be accomplished whether or not you follow their teachings, goals or ideologies. Both of these religions encompass the good and the bad of human existence, and seek to make this world better for not only the present generations but also the generations to come until nirvana or the world to come arrives.
Chadha, M. and N. Trakakis. "Karma and the Problem of Evil: A Response to Kaufman." Philosophy East and West (2007): 533-556. Journal.
Ellens, J.Harold. Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality: Heaven, Hell and the Afterlife: Eternity in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Westport: Praeger, 2013. ProQuest ebrary.
Greenberg, Yudit Kornberg. Encyclopedia of Love in World Religions. Santa Barbara, 2008. eBook Academic Collection.
Hardy, Julia. "Suffering and the Problem of evil in Buddhism." 2008-2015. Patheos. website. 29 May 2015.
Krell, Marc. "Suffering and the Problem of Evil in Judaism." 2008-2015. Patheos. online. 29 May 2015.
Moad, Omar. "Dukkha, Inaction, and Nirvana: Suffering, Weariness, and Death?" The Philosopher (2004). webpage.
Reat, Noble Ross. "Karma and Rebirth in the Upanisads and Buddhism." Numen (1977): 163-185. online.
Scheinerman, Rabbi Amy. Life's Purpose and the Afterlife . 19 February 2014. online. 2 June 2015.
Schwarzschild, Steven S. "Jewish Concepts: Suffering and Evil." 2008. Jewish Virtual Library. website. 29 May 2015.
Tauber, Shlomo Yaffe and Yanki. What Happens After We Die; Chabad.org. 2014. website. 08 June 2015.
Telushkin, Joseph. Jewish Virtual Library; Jewish Literacy. 1991. website. 29 May 2015.
Welbon, G. Richard. "On Understanding the Buddhist Nirvana." History of Religions (1966): 300-326. online.
Xue, Yu. "Merit Transfer and Life After Death in Buddhism." Ching Feng, English Edition (2003): 29-50. online.
© 2015 Julie McFarland