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I am a writer in Central Florida with strong interests in the ways in which religion and philosophy intersect in popular culture. I especially enjoy examining how this is expressed in film, literature, music, and art.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Afterlife: A Comparison of Tibetan Buddhism & Roman Catholicism

1 December 2008
*(MLA format has been changed for ease of blogging.)

The rise of the New Age movement in the West has led many people to reexamine traditional teachings within the religious belief of their parents. A popular practice is to compare the teachings of Judeo-Christian teachings to those of Eastern religions. Christianity especially has inspired many writers and scholars to search for parallels between Jesus’ teachings and those of the Buddha. Some have even claimed that Jesus was influenced heavily by Indian religions and there are legends which state that during his lost years he journeyed to India.

Although the West has only recently begun the attempt to learn more about Buddhism and other Eastern religions, references to Buddhism appears in many writings of the early Christian church. In the 2nd century CE, Clement of Alexandria wrote, “Some, too, of the Indians obey the precepts of Buddha; whom, on account of his extraordinary sanctity, they have raised to divine honours” (Clement, 1:15). Donald Mackenzie, when speaking of St. Origen’s views on Christianity in Britain, quotes St. Origen as writing that Britain was “predisposed to it through the doctrines of the Druids and Buddhists, who had already inculcated the doctrine of the unity of the Godhead.” The list of references by early Christians to Buddhists is a long one and seems to imply that at least some Christians were aware of Buddha’s teachings. The fact that many of the references seem to be positive indicates an understanding even then of their similarities. After all, both religions value compassion, respect the sanctity of life, reject violence, and emphasize the importance of charity. Apart from this, their views on the afterlife are very similar. In particular, the views of Heaven and Hell in Roman Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism, along with their overall beliefs in the afterlife, are so similar that at times it seems to validate the notion that Christianity was heavily influenced by Buddhism.

Tibetan Buddhists have a highly developed understanding of the afterlife. In their belief, knowledge of the afterlife is essential in order for the dying to avoid obstacles in their rebirth. Death is not something to be feared for Tibetans, as they know that nothing is permanent and eventually they will be reborn. As the creators of the University of Virginia exhibit on The Tibetan Book of the Dead state, “Spiritual growth is achieved not by cowering from death, but by confronting it head on.” The Tibetan Book of the Dead (TBD) is perhaps the world’s only extensive and thorough guide through the realms of the afterlife. Its purpose is to liberate souls from the illusions perpetrated by their weakening consciousness as they die. Tibetans believe that the afterlife consists of a bridge between lives known as Bardo. If a person dies with no knowledge of this state, they are likely to continue the cycle of reincarnation or to enter into one of the lower realms. On the other hand, if they are enlightened they may achieve Nirvana, which is true liberation from all attachments. “There being several turning-points, liberation should be obtained at one or other of them through recognizing” (TBD, Part 2). Thus, they will have achieved Buddha-hood and the process of rebirth will no longer drag them into the lower realms, including the mortal plane we inhabit.

Upon dying, the soul encounters many deities. There are the peaceful deities, whose main goal is to entice you into forgetting your mission. There are also the wrathful deities who attempt to scare you. In your panic, you may get lost. For this reason, it is important to constantly be mindful of the fact that all things encountered while in Bardo are mere creations of the mind. Finally, the soul encounters the most fearsome of the wrathful deities, Yamantaka. He carries a scale on which he weighs the sins and good deeds of the deceased. This determines whether the soul will go to Hell or to Heaven. Although he points the soul into the direction they shall go, he is not actually judging it. Each person is fully responsible for where they end up, as it is simply an accumulation of the karma from their past life.

Although Heaven is considered to be a place of bliss, Tibetans still see it as part of the lower realms due to the fact that eventually souls in Heaven will have to reincarnate into the mortal plane. Indeed, even deities must reincarnate every few thousand years. “Even the most wretched souls will eventually work their way out of even the deepest pit of hell, just as even the highest and purest souls will eventually lose their footing in heaven and descend again into the cycle of death and rebirth” (Williams). Even Hell is not permanent, as it ends after the evil souls have been punished enough. They are then free to continue the cycle of rebirth and hopefully continue with their progression into ever higher planes. The souls are free to choose their next set of parents and Kevin Williams cites the final passage of the Bardo Thodol as stating, “Let virtue and goodness be perfected in every way” (Williams). They too will someday achieve Nirvana, although the amount of time and lives this will take depends on the karma they accumulate.

Roman Catholics also believe that death is not something to be feared, since they have complete faith in an afterlife. Their vision of the afterlife is eternal and unchanging, unlike the Buddhist view of impermanence. Roman Catholics believe that the main purpose of every human soul is to achieve entrance into Heaven where they will gaze upon the beatific vision in all its glory. They do believe in a resurrection of their corporal body as well, but it is something that will only happen once and will last all eternity. They also believe that upon dying all souls will sleep for an undetermined period. “I saw the dead, great and small alike, standing in front of his throne while the books lay open” (Rev.20:12). At some point in the end times, Jesus will call each soul by its name and everyone who has died will be resurrected into their body. Once called by Jesus, the multitude will then await judgment by God. It is believed that at that point all humans will learn and understand everything they could not grasp in their lifetime. They will see all their sins and good deeds and will know the pain of realization at how much they grieved God. Roman Catholics have a strong sense of the pain Jesus suffered for human sins, and feel that with every sin they commit, they are hammering yet another nail into Jesus. (This is of course symbolic, but it causes a great deal of guilt to those who are actual believers.) Upon facing God, all humans will be questioned and if they are not found in Jesus’ Book of Life, they will not be considered part of his flock. “And anybody whose name could not be found written in the book of life was hurled into the burning lake” (Rev 20:15). Anyone not recognized as one of Jesus’ own will in effect have chosen to keep away from God and will therefore not be allowed into Heaven.

The Roman Catholic view of Heaven is one in which there is everlasting joy and peace. “He will wipe away all tears from their eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness or pain; the world of the past has gone” (Rev 21:4). It is creation restored to a state in which humans experience none of the woes associated with mortality such as hunger, pain, aging, disease, or death. It is a place in which every human being has a chance to truly commune with God and walk with him, as was intended for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. “Then I heard a loud voice call from the throne, 'Look, here God lives among human beings. He will make his home among them; they will be his people, and he will be their God, God-with-them” (Rev 21: 3). Heaven is also the place where we will be able to reunite with loved ones who died before. Many souls will enter a place known as purgatory. This is a place for those who died in a state of sin, but who were part of the faithful. The understanding of Purgatory is that rather than a punishment, it is a place of cleansing and preparation for Heaven. Souls banished there must stay as long as necessary to be made holy for their union with God. "I tell you, you will never get out till you have paid the very last copper" (Luke 12:59). Hell is a place of great misery, as the souls must live forever in the anguish of being apart from their Creator. "[I]t is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:47-48). God punishes souls by damning them to Hell as a way of honoring the fact that while alive they wanted nothing to do with him. Since he will not exert his will upon his creation, he allows them to continue without him. This is the reason why the Roman Catholic Church stresses the importance of making your decision now while on Earth. There are no second chances.

Tibetan Buddhism and Roman Catholicism share a complex vision of the afterlife, heaven, and hell. Still, despite these and other similarities, the faiths differ to a great extent. Whereas Buddhists may at times be considered an atheist religion, Roman Catholicism is centered on their faith in a loving Creator who wishes to commune with his creation. Salvation for the Tibetans lies in each individual’s mindfulness and in their awareness of the complex games their consciousness will play upon dying. Roman Catholics believe their salvation lies in following the way of Christ through the grace of God. In the end, the very similarities that an outsider notices are the very things which set both religions apart.


Clement of Alexandria, "Stromata Book 1." New Advent. 26 Nov 2008.

Mackenzie, Donald. "Buddhism in Pre-Christian Britain." American Journal of
Archaeology (1928): 42.

The New Jerusalem Bible. Henry Wansbrough, Ed. New York: Doubleday. 1985.

"The Tibetan Book of the Dead." 28 Oct 2008. University of Virginia. 1 Dec 2008.

Williams, Kevin. "The Tibetan Book of the Dead." Near-Death Experiences and the Afterlife.
2007. 4 Dec 2008 .

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