As a religion and a philosophy, Buddhism has always stressed the importance of squarely confronting the reality of death. Death, along with illness and aging, is defined in Buddhism as one of the fundamental sufferings that all people must face.
Because of this emphasis, Buddhism has sometimes been associated with a pessimistic outlook on life. Quite the opposite is, in fact, the case. Because death is inevitable, any attempt to ignore or avoid this most basic reality of life condemns us to a superficial mode of living. A clear awareness and correct understanding of death can enable us to live without fear and with strength, clarity of purpose and joy.
Buddhism views the universe as a vast living entity, in which cycles of individual life and death are repeated without cease. We experience these cycles every day, as millions of the some 60 trillion cells that comprise our bodies die and are renewed through metabolic replacement. Death is therefore a necessary part of life, making possible renewal and new growth. At the time of death our lives return to the vast ocean of life, just as an individual wave crests and subsides back into the open sea. Through death, the individual, fundamental life-force that supports our existence, returns to the great universe. Ideally, death can be experienced as a period of rest, like a rejuvenating sleep that follows the struggles and exertions of the day.
Buddhism asserts that continuity persists through the cycles of life and death, and that, in this sense, our lives are eternal. As 13 century japanese buddhist monk, Nichiren wrote: "When we examine the nature of life with perfect enlightenment, we find that there is no beginning marking birth and, therefore, no end signifying death."
In the fifth century C.E., the great Indian philosopher Vasubandhu developed the "Nine-Consciousness Teaching" that delineates the eternal functions of life. In his theory, the first five layers of consciousness correspond to the five senses` and the sixth to waking consciousness. The sixth layer of consciousness includes the capacity for rational judgment and the ability to interpret the information supplied by the senses.
The seventh layer of consciousness is referred to as the mano-consciousness and corresponds to the subconscious described in modern psychology and is where our profound sense of self resides.
Beneath this is the eighth, or alaya-consciousness.The eighth layer of consciousness contains potential energy, both positive and negative, created by our thoughts, words and deeds. This potential energy, also described as profound life-tendency, is referred to as karma.
Again, contrary to certain assumptions, Buddhism does not consider karma to be fixed and unchangeable. Our karmic energy, which Buddhist texts describe as the "raging current" of the alaya-consciousness, interacts with the other layers of consciousness. It is at this deepest level that human beings exert influence upon one another, on their surroundings and on all life.
It is also at this level that the continuity of life through cycles of birth and death is maintained. When we die, the potential energy which represents the "karmic balance sheet" of all our actions—creative and destructive, selfish and altruistic—continues to flow forward in the alaya-consciousness. It is this karma that shapes the circumstances in which the potential energy of our lives becomes manifest again, through birth, as a new individual life.
Moreover, in simplest terms, karma, which means actions, indicates a universal principle of causation, similar to that upheld by modern science. Science assures us that everything in the universe exists within the framework of cause and effect. "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction," is a familiar principle. The difference between the materialistic causality of science and the Buddhist principle of karma is that the latter is not limited to only those things that can be seen or measured. Rather, it includes the unseen or spiritual aspects of life, such as the sensation or experience of happiness or misery, kindness or cruelty. In an address delivered in 1993, SGI President Ikeda described these different approaches. The Buddhist concept of causal relations, he wrote:
. . . differs fundamentally from the kind of mechanistic causation which, according to modern science, holds sway over the objective natural world--a world divorced from subjective human concerns. Causation, in the Buddhist view, spans a more broadly defined nature, one that embraces human existence. To illustrate, let us assume that an accident or disaster has occurred. A mechanistic theory of causation can be used to pursue and identify how the accident occurred, but is silent regarding the question of why certain individuals should find themselves caught up in the tragic event. Indeed, the mechanistic view of nature requires the deliberate forestalling of such existential questionings.
In contrast, the Buddhist understanding of causation seeks to directly address these poignant "whys?"
Originally, the Sanskrit word karma meant work or office, and was related to verbs that mean simply "do" or "make." According to Buddhism, we create karma on three levels: through thoughts, words and actions. Acts of course have a greater impact than mere words. Likewise, when we verbalize our ideas, this creates more karma than merely thinking them. However, since both words and deeds originate in thoughts, the contents of our hearts--our thoughts--are also of crucial importance.
Karma can be thought of as our core personality, the profound tendencies that have been impressed into the deepest levels of our lives. The deepest cycles of cause and effect extend beyond the present existence; they shape the manner in which we start this life--our particular circumstances from the moment of birth--and will continue beyond our deaths. The purpose of Buddhist practice is to transform our basic life tendency in order to realize our total human potential in this lifetime and beyond.
The important thing to recognize, however, is that cause and effect both exist simultaneously within us in the present moment. As one of the ancient Buddhist texts states: "If you want to understand the causes that existed in the past, look at the results as they are manifested in the present. And if you want to understand what results will be manifested in the future, look at the causes that exist in the present."
Karma is thus, like everything, in constant flux. We create our own present and future by the choices we make each moment. In this light, the teaching of karma does not encourage resignation, but empowers us to become the protagonists in the unfolding drama of our lives.
Finally, there is the ninth level of consciousness. This is the very source of cosmic life, which embraces and supports even the functioning of the alaya-consciousness. The purpose of Buddhist practice is to stimulate and awaken this fundamentally pure amala-consciousness, or wisdom(buddha nature), which has the power to transform the most deeply established flow of negative energy in the more shallow layers of consciousness.