What happens to a Buddha when he dies?

When you read Buddhist articles sooner or later, you will come across these 4 options:

  • Exist
  • Not exist
  • Both exist and not exist
  • Neither exist nor not exist

What you’ll also find is people trying to use these 4 options out of context.  So they’ll say that the Buddha never answered these questions – do you exist, not exist, both or neither.

But how these 4 options were originally used was as the undeclared answers to what happens to a Buddha after death?  Does he exist, not exist, both or neither – the Buddha didn’t answer those 4 questions.

Source:  http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn44/sn44.001.than.html

  • As Dr Tony Page notes, the word “exist” is bhava.  Which is better translated as “to become” or “becoming”.
  • Vibhava is “annihilation”.

Becoming implies birth.  And with birth comes change and death.  And anything that undergoes birth and death is classified as a sankhara.

So if we replace existence with becoming, we get the question, “What happens to a Buddha after death?  Does he:

  • Become
  • Get annihilated
  • Both become and get annihilated
  • Neither become nor  get annihilated

Now it gives you a totally different perspective to these 4 options doesn’t it?

A Buddha’s Dharma body is not born and does not die – so how could questions involving sankharas apply?  How could questions involving birth and death apply to the Deathless?

Dr Tony Page elaborates:

Samsaric existence/samsaric bhava is a constant process of becoming and changing but never truly being.  Only a Buddha IS. 

  • The Sutras are only saying that we need to transcend the ever-changing, unstable forms of existence that constitute samsara. 
  • Once we have left samsaric ‘bhava’ (becoming) behind, we are Buddha – who never changes and never dies.

5 thoughts on “What happens to a Buddha when he dies?

  1. You’ve touched on a very interesting point here I’ve pondered for a long time. When a realized master passes from his body, and returns to a new body as a Bodhisattva, he must begin the journey again in the new body of a child. There is no real assumption that the child is already an enlightened master, and so he or she must begin again with the preliminary practices. It obviously goes more quickly for one born as a tulku, but still the process must be followed to attain again the enlightenment of the previous lifetime(s). Why is it this way? Why must an enlightened being start over again in each incarnation, when the wish to return as a Bodhisattva is itself an act of great compassion and enlightenment? Your thoughts?

    Thank you for such a thought provoking post today- with gassho, WG

  2. Alright, Woodland Gnome, Master Hsuan Hua addressed this question when he lectured the Lotus Sutra. Remember Master Hsu Yun? He was a Bodhisattva of the 8th stage when he was born – as evidenced by being born in a flesh caul:

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