Breaking the Circle: Death and the Afterlife in Buddhism

Breaking the Circle: Death and the Afterlife in Buddhism

Breaking the Circle: Death and the Afterlife in Buddhism

Breaking the Circle: Death and the Afterlife in Buddhism


In this much-needed examination of Buddhist views of death and the afterlife, Carl B. Becker bridges the gap between books on death in the West and books on Buddhism in the East.

Other Western writers have addressed the mysteries surrounding death and the afterlife, but few have approached the topic from a Buddhist perspective. Here, Becker resolves questions that have troubled scholars since the beginning of Buddhism: How can Buddhism reconcile its belief in karma and rebirth with its denial of a permanent soul? What is reborn? And when, exactly, is the moment of death?

By systematically tracing Buddhism's migration from India through China, Japan, and Tibet, Becker demonstrates how culture and environment affect Buddhist religious tradition.

In addition to discussing historical Buddhism, Becker shows how Buddhism resolves controversial current issues as well. In the face of modern medicine's trend toward depersonalization, traditional Buddhist practices imbue the dying process with respect and dignity. At the same time, Buddhist tradition offers documented precedents for decision making in cases of suicide and euthanasia.


This is an exciting time to look at Buddhism, for Buddhism is in the process of moving from the East to the West. Whenever Buddhism moves from one culture to a different one, it finds new interpretations and new enlightenments. This book examines Buddhism's past moves from India to China, Japan, and Tibet, and contemplates the new interpretations and enlightenments that each of these moves produced, especially concerning death and the afterlife.

Recently, there have been many books looking at the problems of death and dying, like those by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Raymond Moody, Jr., Philippe Ariès, and Ernest Becker. There have also been many books on Buddhism, but few focusing on how Buddhists look at death and dying. This study bridges that gap. The volume of literature on non-Western death and dying has grown at a slow pace. Carol Zalesky has attempted one study of premodern visions of death; this book is the first American attempt to cover both the theory and practice of death and the afterlife from a Buddhist perspective.

Understanding Buddhist death and the afterlife is another way of understanding the Buddhist worldview: what exists and what perishes in both the visible and invisible worlds. This is the first scholarly study in English of the entire spectrum of Buddhist views of death and the afterlife ranging from India through China, Japan, and Tibet. Its emphasis is the existential . . .

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