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I am new to Buddhism and have a question I am hoping someone can answer.

My understanding is that realizing enlightenment is universally desirable. In other words, it is considered “better” to realize enlightenment than to not (i.e. if a genie ever offered to magically grant someone the realization of enlightenment, no one should say “no”).

When it comes to what happens to arahant after death, my understanding is that Buddha did not give a very concrete answer. I've read a couple of answers such as, "it falls under the category of things that are not known" or "the answer will not end suffering so it is irrelevant” or “arahant are extinguished like a flame”, etc. He did seem to concretely say, however, that arahant are definitely “freed” from the cycle of death and rebirth. And when it comes to what happens to non-arahant after death, he seemed to have a very concrete answer with no hesitation: they/we die and are reborn in an endless cycle of dukkha (suffering).

My understanding is that both happiness and sadness are dukkha (suffering/impermanence). But isn’t happiness generally considered a pleasant feeling? And aren’t some non-arahant more happy than they are sad in life? I’m not saying I’m one of those people, but don’t those people exist? So for them, perhaps an endless cycle of death and rebirth isn’t that bad? Life can be net-positive in happiness for some, can’t it? For those people, does it make sense to exit out of this endless cycle of mostly-pleasant life and instead enter....nothingness? The unknown? Become an extinguished flame?

I have read that arahant experience “happiness” in an unfathomable way, far beyond the happiness of the laymen. Even if that is true, that “happiness” is only guaranteed for the rest of their current life is it not? After that, even the Buddha is not sure what will happen except that they will for sure not be reborn to experience that happiness again in the next life because they will have been freed from the cycle.

If it was just laid out as, “following the eight-fold path will end your suffering in this life” then that would be simple. But then there’s also that added bonus of “if you realize enlightenment, the illusion of ‘you’ will forever be nothing.” But what if I’m not suffering all that much? What if I have a pretty peaceful, happy life? Does it make sense for me to say “yes” to that genie?

Thank you in advance.

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Most of your question revolves around your (expected) lack of knowledge about how Buddhism defines suffering, how it defines happiness, and how it explains one or the other occurs. That's why, when you talk about suffering, happiness, and what happens to arahant after death, you should understand the context within which these are seen in Buddhism.

Few thoughts here:

  • In Buddhism, happiness is rather like Peace, not like Euphoria. Specifically, peace of no-conflict and harmony (not "peace" of death). This peace may be quiet, or active and full of energy, but for one experiencing it everything is just the way it should be, so in that sense it is Peace.
  • In "normal" life (of non-Buddhists), happiness is not well-defined (which according to Buddhism is a big part of the problem, not knowing what's what - ignorance) - but it is usually either something "awesome over there" people strive for, or the euphoric feeling one experiences upon attaining that, - but few people define happiness as Buddhism does, which is Peace.
  • Yet, if a worldly person said they were happy with their life on the account of it being peaceful and harmonious (sort of like the idyllic Hobbit life in Shire) - Buddhism would agree that it is a valid (even if limited) form of happiness, so here we are on the same page, however...
  • As others pointed out, worldly happiness is conditioned on external circumstances, which rarely last long. True, sometimes it does last for an entire life, maybe even for two lives in a row, but I can hardly imagine a place or a family in the world that won't be disturbed with some issues and trouble for more than a few generations.
  • Even if someone were lucky to have relatively peaceful life, according to Buddhism, an unenlightened mind has tendency for creating suffering for itself, because of its tendency to get attached to various concepts, ideas, and expectations, which inevitably leads to mental micro-suffering when those ideas and expectations are not satisfied.
  • And if someone were lucky to have parents or mentor or circumstances that taught one to take life as it comes, to accept change, to keep one's mind open, and to not get too attached - and so would stay happy regardless of circumstances - well in that case Buddhism would say that that person or that family is partially Enlightened to whatever degree that they can manage to stay that way.
  • It's not that "Enlightenment is universally desirable" -- it's just that Nibbana is defined as the state where Happiness/Peace/Harmony are complete and perfect, therefore Enlightenment as the cognitive aspect of Nibbana would only makes sense to reject if one had something higher or more valuable to strive for, but what would that be? What can be better than "absolutely perfect to you"?
  • When it comes to what happens to arahant after death, Buddha said that "reborn" or "not reborn" is inapplicable. According to Mahayana interpretation, it is not applicable because Enlightenment entails understanding that entities are abstractions imputed by the perceiving mind, and that in reality what we call entities emerge from interaction of multiple processes operating at different scales and layers of organization, and that many, many of these processes keep operating regardless of individual birth or death.
  • Arahants are "free" from the cycle of rebirth because they no longer identify with any part of it, but the cycle itself keeps going at the macro level. Sentient beings keep dying and getting reborn.
  • "both happiness and sadness are dukkha" - not really. I mean, it depends on your definition of happiness, right? Complete Perfect Happiness, which is defined as peace, harmony, no-conflict, which is not subject to expiring or ending due to conditions/circumstances - is not dukkha.
  • "isn’t happiness generally considered a pleasant feeling" - if we think of happiness as something that has various levels then yes, coarse happiness is a feeling, but, according to Buddhism, refined happiness is without the feeling component.
  • "aren’t some non-arahant more happy than they are sad in life?" - that may be so, so for them, seeking Unconditional Happiness would naturally seem pointless. Until after sometime their external conditions change and they are no longer happy, and so they will be motivated to seek a solution. Buddhism describes this in its metaphor of "six realms" as a "realm of gods".

Most of your question revolves around your (expected) lack of knowledge about how Buddhism defines suffering, how it defines happiness, and how it explains one or the other occurs. In Buddhism (certainly in Mahayana Buddhism), suffering (dukkha) is understood to be a byproduct of mental configuration. So, liberating from suffering and achieving perfect happiness is a function of liberating from ineffective mental configurations. One of these mental configurations is the idea of I as something separate, an entity that moves through space and time. Other such mental configurations involve various over-generalizations, reifications, confusing subjective with objective, phenomenal with ontological, etc.

Therefore, Buddhist solutions to the problem of suffering are in the realm of changing one's mental configuration - which leads to a change in one's behavior, in one's personal environment, and eventually, in one's subjective experience (and indirectly leads to a change in behavior, environment, and subjective experiences of other people).

That's why, when you talk about suffering, happiness, and what happens to arahant after death, you should understand the context within which these are seen in Buddhism. When someone is liberated from death, they are liberated from the context in which death is defined and applies. Along the way, they are liberated from other cases of suffering that come from other such contexts. Yes, someone may have a quiet life for a while and not be interested in any of this, but we are talking about a whole different level of development here, aren't we?

  • Thanks. This made a lot of sense and mostly answered my question. However, since writing this I've learned that the Buddha unequivocally stated that there is no everlasting soul/self. This in itself makes my original question somewhat irrelevant but then raises a new question: "If there is no soul, what is being reborn and how is it tied to this illusory 'self' that I am experiencing now (if at all)?" And if it is not tied in any fathomable way, why does he talk about rebirth to laymen when nothing of "them" is reborn? To me, bringing it up confuses the issue. I'll ask this in a new question. – Don Mar 31 at 23:21
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    There were questions like that on here already. Try searching first, see if you like the answers. – Andrei Volkov Apr 1 at 0:52
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Your question seems very sensible. Some thoughts...

I think you're wrong to suggest that the Buddha was 'not sure what will happen...'. There are some things that may be known but not explained. He advises us not to worry about metaphysical problems and just take the medicine, but this does not mean these problems are not understood or the facts not known.

If you are having a pleasant time, as you say, then you may not feel you are suffering and you may question the need for the medicine and have little motivation to take it. The Buddha was in this position early on but saw the suffering of others and recognised his own future death and suffering. His medicine is not just a cure for suffering now but forever, and while you may feel free of suffering right now this situation is not going to last. (Sorry about that).

Thus it is said that the Gods have such a cushy time they may lose their motivation to push on to full attainment, but in the end even they must give up the pleasant life and sink back into the mundane, making it more helpful to be a human being with the motivation to go all the way.

I doubt your pleasant situation will hold you back since it won't last for long. What you call happiness is not what the arahant means by the word. His or her happiness is unshakable and not dependent on conditions. When you are happy in a way you know nobody and nothing can diminish or destroy then you're properly happy. Usually our happiness can be destroyed instantly by a death in the family, an illness or even just a missed meal. Happiness is real happiness when it is permanent, at which point the word 'happiness' may become slightly misleading as a description.

It's a slippery and subtle doctrine and these issue take some time to sort out, and they cannot be properly sorted out without some 'empirical' evidence to inform the process.

Needless to say this is just some thoughts, not advice from a guru.

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All of the answers are great and I will add few things. If you compare the bliss and happiness of the beings who lives in the spirit world(astral realms, heavenly realms, higher heavens etc.) or the perfect happiness of parinibbana- the earth is really a hell for the beings who are not able to go beyond the limitations of their forms internally. A human's advantage is potentially having motivation to go towards freedom from suffering.

Just investigate the reports of the near death experiences, how amazing and blissful experiences they have when they are out of their bodies. You can investigate astral projectors experiences too. Also an enlightened being's deep peace and contentment(this is still temporary experiences in stream-entry but in once-returner stage it becomes a continous experience) is far greater than the ordinary people's limited and suffering mixed sensual pleasures. Any being who is stucked in a physical body with deeply corrupted minds(have suffering of maybe millions of past lifes) and who is not able to at least create temporary awareness for itself- experiences life as hell, but because they don't have awareness for 1 second in their entire life, they are not aware of what is really going on in their lifes, so they continously suffer and make others suffer from the moment of their births until they die. A person can say others(or even to himself/herself) "I am very happy, everything is perfect in my life" and s/he can continously have a hell-ish experience inside his/her mind. This can also be the corrupted human mind's game of denying the truth of suffering and denying what is really happening in life.

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Anybody who is not a puthujjana is sure what happens after parinibanna.

It's just that meaningless words invented by intellectual puthujjanas like ''exist'' or ''real'' or ''being'' or ''essence'' of ''real nature'', on which those philosophers speculate a lot, generation after generation, already have no meaning when applied to a puthujjana, unless they are expressed as craving, clinging, grasping like the buddha said, and when it comes to the death of an asekha they are completely irrelevant, since, again, the only meaning those words have is craving and when there is no craving, like in the case of an asekha, well there is no craving and all is said.

So using the word existence or essence or real nature when talking about a buddha is idiotic, fruitless and waste of time. Same thing for the negations of those words.

For happiness, puthujjanas are people who are infatuated with what is dukkha, what is conditioned, the 5 aggregates. According to the puthujjanas who are addicted to sensuality, pleasant feelings are the best thing to experience and those philosophers always define those meaningless words like ''being'', ''real'', ''true nature'', ''self'' with respect to sensuality, with respect to what is heard, seen, touched, tasted and so on. Those people even invent that morality is through the senses: they say that there are pure sounds and impure sounds, pure touches and impure touches and so on. Whereas the buddha claims that purity is achieved when there is no craving for anything, not for the senses, not even for what is there beyond the senses, which is when the citta is in (right) samadhi, or ''the jhanas'' from right intention and right effort. This is what puthujjanas addicted to sensuality will never ever understand. When those people try to talk about nibanna, the best they come up with is their appalling claim that nibanna is ''unconditional love'', because all they know in their life, all they have in their life is sensuality, feelings and emotions.

When a puthujjana becomes an arhant, there is no longer any craving for what is conditioned (nor about nibanna), and therefore there is no rebirth, which is good, because a birth is always blameworthy. There cannot be a birth without dukkha. THis is what puthujjanas who hate right view and right intentions will never understand. So no arhant prefers nibanna ''forever'', or a birth where is this one already is an arhant, over parinibanna.

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There are lots of questions you addressed and I will try to touch on as many as I can. Please be aware that my background and area of expertise is not in Buddhist texts, but the process of insight. We may have very different definitions of particular words and concepts, but I believe I may have information that may ring true in your own life.

My understanding is that realizing enlightenment is universally desirable.

What is desirable is completely dependent on the mind who wants it. I am sure there are many people who have walked this earth who have had extreme aversions to deep insights. The reason most people are not enlightened today is because of personal desires and aversions.

I interpreted what you said above as perhaps enlightenment is "universally beneficial" or "brings universally positive effects".

The "value" of enlightenment and the mental states that occur afterwords can not be derived. Only the mind of the illusory self is capable of making such judgements.

When it comes to what happens to arahant after death, my understanding is that Buddha did not give a very concrete answer.

I can not speak about the texts that outline the Buddha's words, but I can only speak of my own experience.

We are getting into very indescribable territory here, so please do not take anything I say here at face value. I will wrap statements that are untrue, but the best i can do, in italics.

"it falls under the category of things that are not known"

This statement is neither true, nor false.

It is not true, because although what happens after death can not be known by the mind of the illusory self, it can be known by what lives beyond the mind.

It is not false, because only the mind is capable of knowing. What lives beyond the mind is not capable of knowing.

*It is only once the answer is seen by what is beyond, that the mind can begin to use words and concepts to (poorly) explain the non-explainable.

"the answer will not end suffering so it is irrelevant”

Irrelevant is not the word I would use here. What the statement is attempting to address is how the question is poorly formatted. Let me explain with an example. Say I ask this question:

"Why can't I see the second sun in our solar system?"

The question is asking about visibility. The problem with the question is that it is completely dependent on a belief in the existence of a second sun. The question has no answer because the principle understanding it was based on was untrue.

When asking the question "What happens to an arahant after death", you are asking about a being that does not exist. To be clear, I am not saying that there are no arahants, I am saying that there are no "separate illusory selves" that are capable of death.

"The Illusory self" is perpetuated by "The Mind". The Mind is a non-existent entity that operates with the sole purpose of ascribing agency to transient sensations that are fundamentally "not self".

Very simply put, the self you believe yourself to be is an illusion. An illusion can not die. Take the example of a mirage. A mirage does not exist as a separate entity. It is simply an illusion that has been mistaken for water. Once you walk closer and see there is no water, the misjudgment is known clearly. Just as you can not walk up to and destroy a mirage, you yourself can not die. Not because you are immortal, but because the concept of death does not apply to a non-existent entity.

But isn’t happiness generally considered a pleasant feeling?

What is pleasant, and what is unpleasant is completely dependent on interpretation.

Can you imagine a situation where you felt happiness, but believed it wasn't the appropriate response? Happiness and sadness are both equal candidates for desire and aversion. There are many who believe they deserve to be unhappy. There are many who believe they are "bad people" for taking joy in something they "shouldn't".

And aren’t some non-arahant more happy than they are sad in life? I’m not saying I’m one of those people, but don’t those people exist? So for them, perhaps an endless cycle of death and rebirth isn’t that bad?

Perhaps think about the cycle of death and rebirth not on a macro scale (over lifetimes) but on the micro scale. Who we believe we are has changed over the years. When we were children, we thought of ourselves differently than we do now. We now like and dislike different things. We believe we are constantly evolving and changing. If you buy into that belief, you are unknowingly placing a mask over your own face while looking in the mirror. Some people have a blessed life, and enjoy the face they see. Others, do not. Either way, it is not your face, and there is nothing quite like the overwhelming love and adoration you feel when you see your true face for the first time.

Life can be net-positive in happiness for some, can’t it? For those people, does it make sense to exit out of this endless cycle of mostly-pleasant life and instead enter....nothingness? The unknown? Become an extinguished flame?

What lies behind the mask of the illusory self is not nothingness as you currently understand it. It is sometimes described as "nothingness", but I do not like this description as I feel it only describes 1% of reality. From the point of view of someone who exists, nothingness can be terrifying. Let me attempt to explain the explainable, what is behind the mask.

When you look behind the mask, you see what you have always seen. The difference is, there is clarity in what is seen. It is unfiltered through belief and preconceptions. You only see what is. Many people talk of the concepts of "Creator" and "Creation". What is behind the mask is a contradictory separate union of these concepts. I will call this entity, Being. Being is the creator of all. Being is all that has been created. Being is the one who has been experiencing all your life. Being is the experiences you have been observing. Being is the creator of all concepts. Life, death, happiness, sadness, somethingness, nothingness, layperson, arahant, are all derived from Being. Nothingness, as you know it, can only be known through Being. Being is nothingness and everything else. Being is only unknown by the illusory self. Being can only be known by Being which is what you truly are. Enlightenment is not the extinguishing of a flame, but the absorption of the flame into the most brilliant and amazing star.

But what if I’m not suffering all that much? What if I have a pretty peaceful, happy life? Does it make sense for me to say “yes” to that genie?

Your peaceful, happy life will not end when you say yes. You will realize your peaceful, happy life has no end! You will no longer cling to happiness and see how there is amazing beauty and enjoyment to be found in all emotions.

Do you wish to discover you are undying? Do you wish to discover you are complete? Do you wish to discover you can not be harmed? Do you wish to discover you are beauty? Do you wish to view the world from a place of unity? Do you wish to know who you truly are?

If you answered yes to any of those, this path is for you. The fact you are here, asking these questions means the ball is already in motion. It is only a matter of time, brother, until you see what can not be seen.

From the bottom of my heart I wish you well on your journey. Nothing brings me more joy than the knowledge that you will get there soon. I hope some of what I wrote resonated with you, and if not, I pray you find what does. With love.

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But isn’t happiness generally considered a pleasant feeling?

I think the doctrine says that there are e.g. "devas" (like demi-Gods) and so on who live in "heavenly" abodes, which are pleasant. Even they, however, have a limited (not infinite) time there, and eventually pass into "lower" (less pleasant) realms -- possibly analogous to dying out of heaven and being reborn on earth or worse.

So pleasant feelings are temporary (especially when those feelings are conditioned by contact with environment and body, given that environment and body etc. change).

Also delighting in pleasant feelings may (perhaps, inevitably will) cause attachment, and thus cause suffering when the feelings end.

I think there are two ways to read this doctrine ...

  • Literally, e.g. literal "heaven" and "after death"
  • Metaphorically, e.g. metaphorical heaven and "tomorrow" or "in the next instant"

... and that it makes sense either way, both ways.

And aren’t some non-arahant more happy than they are sad in life?

I guess so. And I guess that they're happy if or because they accord with Buddhist doctrine (regardless of whether they even know explicitly-"Buddhist" doctrine) e.g.:

  • Are they greedy? (if so perhaps they're not happy)
  • Are they angry, resentful, hostile? (again, not happy)
  • Are they virtuous, even generous (happy), or semi-criminal (not so)?
  • Are they attached (to things and experience) or more detached?

So for them, perhaps an endless cycle of death and rebirth isn’t that bad?

I think the doctrine says that you don't get reborn in heaven (nor even as a human) endlessly -- and that life in heaven may be (but not necessarily) a good place to learn or practice the doctrine.

For those people, does it make sense to exit out of this endless cycle of mostly-pleasant life and instead enter....nothingness? The unknown? Become an extinguished flame?

Maybe read the Fire Sermon -- or this translation -- I think it says that sensual objects (e.g. sights etc.) are impermanent and it's those that one should become disillusioned with and detached from.

I have read that arahant experience “happiness” in an unfathomable way, far beyond the happiness of the laymen.

Whatever it is (or isn't) I gather it's relatively stable, maybe unconditional (or unconditioned).

But then there’s also that added bonus of “if you realize enlightenment, the illusion of ‘you’ will forever be nothing.” But what if I’m not suffering all that much? What if I have a pretty peaceful, happy life? Does it make sense for me to say “yes” to that genie

I think that the "illusion of you" is associated with attachment -- for example, "my" feelings, my desires, my cravings, my possessions, my hurts, my body, my loved ones, my self, my sights, my powers, and so on -- and that it's that kind of attachment (i.e. to impermanent things) that can be unsatisfactory or a cause of suffering.

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