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A friend of mine is a committed Buddhist, a teacher in a group that meets to discuss Buddhist teaching. He's explained many things about Buddhism to me. Recently, his father died after a long illness, and he is confident that his father has now gone on to another life that is as good or better than the one just finished. He comforted his Dad with this as he was dying.

We walk together with some other friends, and I notice that when it comes to crossing roads, my Buddhist friend is more worried than any of them about oncoming cars - even when they are quite distant. So much so that I said to him:

"If you are sure you'll come back in a better life, why are you so scared of dying?"

He mumbled something about “No one wants to die”, but I wonder, is this a fair question to ask a Buddhist? I thought it was a reasonable challenge, but now I wonder if the idea of reincarnation helps us accept other people's deaths, but doesn't help us accept our own. A bit like the sweet lies we tell children to protect them from life's harsh realities.

For myself, I remember years ago being terrified of dying, but now as a Christian I'm happy for God to take me home any day he wants - I know it's an upgrade. I'm happy to be challenged on this, and I challenge my Christian friends on this too, because it's good to remind each other how good will be God's presence. But is reincarnation like this for Buddhists?

I'm sure reincarnation isn't taught as Santa-Claus-grade truth. Where plenty of people say Santa is real, but no one makes their roof strong enough to support 7 reindeer and fully-laden sleigh. But given that reincarnation is understood as real, is my friend just a bad example, with most Buddhists confident and comfortable about moving to their next life? Or is his fear of death fairly typical, with only the really enlightened Buddhists being comfortable about their own death?

EDIT: To clarify a few things:

  • I'm not expecting a Buddhist or anyone else to be reckless or suicidal. The behaviour I saw was approaching paranoia. When coming to a road when walking together with 5-6 friends, the non-religious ones and I would cross when there was a suitable gap in the traffic. But then we would have to wait while our Buddhist friend waited for a much bigger gap. This occurred frequently. And when I say 'suitable gap', I mean about average for pedestrians in this city, where the Buddhist has lived all his life.
  • I'm not saying that this behaviour in a Buddhist invalidates Buddhism at all. Sometimes I see similar behaviour in Christians, and I will encourage them to take their faith seriously, that if their faith is real there is good stuff after they die, and perhaps remind them of the verse "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain". But when Atheists behave with this kind of fear I don't say anything, because that makes sense as they have no hope for anything after their death.
  • I wasn't trying to score a point on my friend or his faith, just encouraging him to live what he believed. I like it when friends challenge me if I act inconsistently, or out of pride or selfishness. It may hurt at the time, but it's an opportunity to grow.
  • Is this just one individual who is inconsistent about what he believes? There's many in every faith. (And who didn't like being challenged on it - again, nothing unusual there.) Or is this standard practice? Should I expect Buddhists to be just as fearful of death as Atheists, or a bit less fearful, or much less? Does belief in being reincarnated to a new life give some hope in the face of death or none?
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  • A good buddhist with correct view does not need fear death. A bad buddhist or one with wrong view will fear death.
    – Konchog
    Dec 22, 2021 at 2:36
  • 3
    I am not allowed to give an answer. But from psychology we know that your conscious decision not to fear doesn't much affect your actual feelings. If you have a deep subconscious fear, it is showing up automatically. One can to certain degrees suppress it. But until it is eradicated with psychological or spiritual practices, it will still be present. And fear of death may never be fully eradicated. Dec 22, 2021 at 22:30
  • @Konchog, I find that correct views make little difference to reality. Many people believe intellectually that flying is safe - but refuse to get in a plane. Many smokers know that smoking is harmful - but still smoke. When you act on the belief it shows that the belief is real. Getting in a plane, or stopping smoking - these show that the belief is real. Otherwise the belief is just words.
    – Rusty
    Dec 24, 2021 at 3:33
  • @akostadinov I agree with you. Deep fears aren't much affected by conscious decisions. For Christians, when we face death we trust the promise of a God who we know and have found trustworthy in life, just like a small child can go calmly into dangerous places - with his parents. I'm trying to find if there is anything equivalent to this in Buddhism.
    – Rusty
    Dec 24, 2021 at 3:34

13 Answers 13

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Isn't this an obvious question? Should a Christian not "desire a wife of his neighbor", nor steal, nor mention God's name in vain etc. - but some still do.

"A Buddhist" just like "a Christian" is not a concept cast in stone, as all concepts it is an abstraction, a generalization, an approximation, a simplification. Take any real person in any religion and you will find a whole bunch of contradictions. Real life is like that.

It is when we start taking these concepts and labels too seriously, as if they were the reality - that's when we get in trouble even as far as war.

Madhyamika Buddhism teaches us that concepts are an overlay that we project or impute on the otherwise undifferentiated reality. While concepts that try to delineate the world in conveniently labeled boxes can be useful in the relative sense, in the absolute scheme of things the boundaries exist in the mind of the observer, not in objective reality.

Take, for example, New York. Where is New York, exactly? Are the streets "New York" without people? Are the people "New York" without streets? If New York were magically cut out and moved to a desert, complete with its streets and people - would it still be New York without New Jersey, Connecticut, and the upstate?

Things exist in connection with and relation with other things. Nothing exists by itself, in and of itself. This includes cities and even persons. Our very natures are determined and defined by our connections and relationships with others. We are a network of interconnections, indeed the entire world is like that. We know this from economics, ecology, and Buddhism.

Those people who understand this, whether they are labeled as Buddhists or Christians would have little fear of death, whether they believe in literal reincarnation or not. I know I'm not this body built from "milk and porridge", while the spanning network of ideas that is writing this text has its beginnings way before baby Andrei was born and will continue long after grandpa Andrei is gone. What is there to be afraid of death? Death of what?

Underneath the grid of boundaries we draw on the world, the actual reality is an interconnected system of currents, flowing since eternity. Some people call it God and I call this the Truth.

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  • 2
    This. Thank you for this text!
    – Mike Floyd
    Dec 20, 2021 at 11:07
  • No this is NOT an obvious question. My Buddhist friend understands all these concepts - and teaches them - and yet is more afraid of death than people who don't. However strongly we believe in an "interconnected system of currents", we somehow know that at death we lose our identity, and there is fear in that.
    – Rusty
    Dec 24, 2021 at 3:06
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    That just means he is yet to master these theories in practice. That's okay, we all are. This part is what I thought was obvious.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Dec 24, 2021 at 3:43
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The belief in reincarnation takes away the fear of death but it does not mean one has to act in a suicidal way or go on inviting death in any way. Buddhism has a deep respect for life as in this human life only Nirvana which is the ultimate goal of Buddhism possible.

Also, we will have to make the best use of this life we are living to reach as close as possible to the final goal. If we die without realizing Nirvana it will mean we will have to be born again and again you will have to go through all the ordeal till you reach the Dhamma. So, now you have heard the dhamma and practicing it you should be careful not to waste away all the time and opportunities of this life you are living.

As far as your question goes, a Buddhist should not be afraid of death or afraid of anything for that matter but that does not imply rash or unthoughtful behavior. Respect this life. So worrying or I would say being careful about the oncoming vehicles looks like prudent behavior on his part. After all, we are not thrill-seekers we are Nirvana seekers.

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Summary ("Bottom Line Up Front")

Buddhists should "fear" (or at least "avoid") other things than death -- for example immorality, heedlessness, causing harm. Here for example is an extract from an essay by Ven. Bodhi:

The conduct of the ideal Buddhist sage, the arahant, necessarily embodies the highest standards of moral rectitude both in the spirit and in the letter, and for him conformity to the letter is spontaneous and natural. The Buddha says that the liberated one lives restrained by the rules of the Vinaya, seeing danger in the slightest faults. He cannot intentionally commit any breach of the moral precepts, nor would he ever pursue any course of action motivated by desire, hatred, delusion, or fear.

The Vinaya (i.e. the Monastic code) is 2000+ years old so it won't have very much to say about speeding cars, but I believe it tells monks to avoid robbers for example: so ...

This may be slightly different in its emphasis from Andrei's answer -- I think doctrine which he learned centred concepts such as "fearlessness" and "fundamental sanity". And I think that maybe he might once have mentioned, that whereas the trainings of the First turning are about (counter-acting) Desire, the subsequent training may be about counter-acting Fear (or hatred or aversion).

Even so, to ask whether a Buddhist "should or shouldn't" fear something might be a bit like asking whether a Christian "should or shouldn't" sin (and perhaps you'll not be wanting to cast that first stone!).

He mumbled something about “No one wants to die”, but I wonder, is this a fair question to ask a Buddhist?

That thing you say he mumbled -- "No one wants to die" -- reminds me of a famous verse, from the famous Dhammapada; I think it's an orthodox axiom:

  1. All tremble at violence;
    all fear death.
    Putting oneself in the place of another,
    one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

It's a matter of kindness, of caution and alertness, and morality (conversely one of the Buddhist precepts is to avoid alcohol because that causes "heedlessness").

As a practical matter, if I were to die, it's been implied to me that would make other people unhappy -- my Mum, for example -- not to mention if I were to kill someone else. And so I owe it e.g. to family to be prudent. And I think that the non-violence (or "harmlessness"), which is a duty towards others, is also owed to yourself (because, you're the same as everyone else).

As well as not being "heedless" another Buddhist ideal might be to be "blameless", and to feel no "remorse". Helping his father when he had a terminal illness was a good thing. That doesn't mean that carelessly getting into some stupid traffic accident would be good.

I'm happy to be challenged on this, and I challenge my Christian friends on this too, because it's good to remind each other how good will be God's presence.

I think that Christian doctrine defines "heaven" as being so because it is "close to God" -- I don't think that's mainstream Buddhism.

  • Meeting the Buddha may be a feature of Pure Land Buddhism (referenced below)
  • Some might want to be reborn with a beloved wife or husband (see AN 4.55)
  • But the doctrine of the Buddha, at least as it's described in the Pali texts, isn't centred on a relationship with God (though it does centre spiritual friendship, and a "holy life")

But I'm not sure what characteristics are said to make a Buddhist heaven "heavenly".

Given the Buddhist definition of "suffering" in the First Noble Truth ...

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.

... perhaps they're understood to be realms that are relatively free of suffering.

But is reincarnation like this for Buddhists?

I think there are several views that could plausibly be labelled Buddhist (there are diverse "Buddhist" beliefs, like "Christianity" it has spanned several millennia and continents).

  • The last time I saw him, he was dying from a terminal illness. May he have been reborn into a more fortunate existence!

    I'm not sure whether this view is orthodox.

  • Buddhist cosmology posits several planes of existence: with heaven, hell, and degrees in between. It also teaches that one's rebirth is influenced or affected by one's own previous actions or intentions ("karma").

    (I think that some although not all Christian churches teach something like this too, with sin leading to hell and virtue rewarded in heaven).

    Given these facts, a statement like, "He's in a better life now" could perhaps be his son's saying that his father had been a good man (like there is a Christian idiom, "He has gone to his reward").

    Perhaps too, I speculate, this is a hold-over from the experience they shared when he dying. I read this passage from a description of the Buddhist monastic code:

    Thus, the Commentary notes, a bhikkhu talking to a dying patient should be very circumspect in how he chooses his words, focusing not on how to speed up the dying process but on how to inspire the patient with the following thoughts:

    “The attainment of the paths and fruitions is not out of the ordinary for a virtuous person. So, having formed no attachment for such things as your dwelling, and establishing mindfulness in the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, or the body, you should be heedful in your attention.”

    The Vinita-vatthu to Pr 4 contains a number of stories in which bhikkhus comfort a dying bhikkhu by asking him to reflect on what he has attained through the practice, which was apparently a common way of encouraging a dying bhikkhu to focus his thoughts on the best object possible. The suttas also contain advice on how to encourage patients facing death. See, for example, MN 143, SN 36.7, and AN 6.16.

    In all of these cases, the advice is aimed not at precipitating death but at inspiring calm and insight.

    So perhaps the son had encouraged the father to reflect on the good he had done in life.

    The conversation (the "attainments" and the objects in which he might "establish mindfulness") might be different if his father wasn't a Bhikkhu (i.e. a monk), but some of the principle might have been similar.

  • There is a form of Buddhism -- Pure Land Buddhism -- which teaches that a future life will be one which will be more propitious than this one for the study of enlightenment; and so the goal of this life is not so explicitly to gain enlightenment but more to gain "merit" so as to allow rebirth in that "heaven".

  • There's a (perhaps universal, orthodox) doctrine that that all [re]births are ultimately temporary or finite. And so you may be born a human, and live a human lifespan; born an animal for an animal's lifespan; or born in heaven or hell, possibly for a very long life -- but eventually the karma which caused that is exhausted, and so you leave that existence too and are born somewhere else.

    This cycle is called Samsara -- that's a natural state of existence -- and a purpose of Buddhism and the Buddha himself was to teach an end to that cycle.

    And it might be argued that most lay-people don't want to "end existence" -- that possibly only monks develop the necessary nibbida (which I think is analogous to a Christian "contempt for the World, the Flesh, and the Devil") -- though I should add it's not impossible for a lay-person too to reach at least the first stage of awakening.

  • There's another view that "rebirth" as it's commonly referred to might be a bit of a simplified (or "Santa Claus") doctrine. And that, more accurately, there is no unchanging "self" (or "soul") -- not just in the so-called "next life" but in this life too.

    That kind of doctrine (called Anattā) is what informs answers like these from Ven. Yuttadhammo, here:

    The entire premise of your question is faulty, unfortunately. The Buddha never, afaik, used a term that could be translated as "rebirth". In fact, the idea of anything being reborn goes against orthodox early Buddhist teachings. Throughout the Buddha's teachings, it is made clear that at the breakup of the body there is birth, not rebirth - as in birth of new things, not the return of anything old.

    And here:

    kamma doesn't actually go on. kamma means action, and it is finished after it is performed. Nothing actually goes on from one moment to the next; the effects of one moment are felt in the next, and have potential repercussions far into the future.

    It is these repercussions that do indeed create a sense of continuity from life to life; a person who ended their life with a certain nature will be reborn with a similar nature, simply due to the causal nature of reality.

    "Bhikkhus, whatever a bhikkhu frequently thinks and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of his mind."

    MN 19 (Bodhi, trans)

    And here:

    I've talked about the subject before myself, and the conclusion I make is that it's not that Buddhists believe in rebirth, it's that we don't believe in death - the latter being merely a concept referring to the change from one set of experiences to another. True death only occurs either at every moment or at the experience of nibbana.

    In any case, as useful as rebirth may be in reminding us of what's really at stake in our dhamma practice, far more useful is an understanding of the present moment, something that really has little to do with past or future lives.

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One aspect that strikes me is that the Buddhist should also consider the driver of the car.

Stepping in harm's way is not kind to the other party, apart from potentially putting both parties in harm. And even if you're certain you can make it across without much hurry, either you may alarm the driver, or something may go wrong (ice, pothole, turned ankle).

It is compassionate to give the driver more room to react if necessary, or avoid disturbing their concentration or giving them cause to suffer anger. This could loosely come under the Bodhisattva vow, for a Mahayana buddhist.

(Without going to extremes of course. I do not know if this is the motivation for your friend, it's just a point of view)

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  • 1
    Excellent altruistic reframing! "All happiness in the world comes from wishing happiness for others. All suffering in the world comes from the desire to have happiness only for oneself." (Shantideva)
    – Big Mac
    Dec 20, 2021 at 22:48
  • @BigMac thanks for the quote ... a little Santideva is always welcome! Dec 20, 2021 at 22:54
  • That's certainly a kind interpretation of my friend's motivation! Although his real motivation - and based on what he said about it - seemed to be just ordinary self-preservation!
    – Rusty
    Dec 24, 2021 at 4:03
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I think you've probably misunderstood your friend's actions. I mean, I myself have no real fear of death, but I would certainly prefer not to get smacked by a speeding car. It's not that it would kill me; it's that it would hurt, with serious potential for a long recovery or permanent debility. As they say, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure"; a quote which fits quite well within the dharmic framework.

One can only achieve realization in life, which is why Buddhists tend to take life seriously.

Now in every religion there are sects that look for soteriological shortcuts. Some Christian sects, for instance, hold that the necessary and sufficient condition for salvation is merely 'belief in Jesus': Jesus saves and all sins can be forgiven, and all one has to do is believe. In Buddhism there are sects that teach nirvana can be achieved merely by reciting a particular mantra, or by venerating a teacher or the Buddha. These 'interventionist' sects — those that rely on an appeal to intervention from some transcendent being — are satisfying to many. But they are an easy route. Nothing is asked except that people have 'committed belief' and that they genuinely regret it whenever they mess up (which some seem to do frequently).

It's easy to have no fear when one has relegated the task of salvation to something bigger and wiser; one becomes a child in the parent's house, knowing one might be punished, but that one will always be forgiven. But not all Christians or Buddhists (or people of any faith, for that matter) are comfortable with such a pat, self-oriented solution. Some people want to be good and wise in their own right, working in the world we have instead of hoping and praying for a better one, and achieving that goal takes effort, risk, and fortitude. Growing past fear is far more difficult in that context, but arguably far more rewarding.

Don't be so sure you understand the essence of reincarnation — it's a point of debate even among Buddhist teachers — and don't discount the power of old Saint Nick. As I sometimes go on about, Santa Claus is a parable. He's a way of teaching young children about God, faith, and reverent behavior in an accessible fashion: squishing the awe and glory of the divine into a funny red suit, freely offering sacrifices of cookies and milk, changing omniscience into a little book hat Santa consults when he rewards or punishes (though no one seriously believes he ever punishes). I tend to view reincarnation the same way.

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Crossing the street is dangerous. Cars have attempted to run me over as I cross legally with the light. That is a simple fact. I am also losing my eyesight, so the problem is even worse for me.

What is not so simple is fear itself, whose roots run deep and tangle us up in knots. The Buddha is quite direct in his instruction here regarding fear:

AN5.3:1.1: “Mendicants, when a mendicant has five qualities they live unhappily in the present life—with distress, anguish, and fever—and when the body breaks up, after death, they can expect a bad rebirth.
AN5.3:1.2: What five?
AN5.3:1.3: It’s when a mendicant is faithless, shameless, imprudent, lazy, and witless.

So when you see a Buddhist hesitating, they may simply be introspecting into the roots of their own fear as they practice with each opportunity to let go of that fear in different ways.

A simple way to help your friend is to stay back and simply ask, "shall we cross together, my friend?" And with that inclusive, gentle and peaceful way you might help your friend take yet another step in that long long path to the other shore.

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ChrisW has given a really good answer, and pointed out that Buddhism encompasses a wide range of beliefs. IMHO the range is wider than it is in Christianity. There are two broad families, characterized by Jiriki and tariki.

  • tariki (他力 "other power", "outside help") includes the Pure Land schools that ChrisW mentioned. As with Christianity, tariki invokes a Savior.
  • Jiriki (自力, one's own strength is the Japanese Buddhist term for self power, the ability to achieve liberation or enlightenment (in other words, to reach nirvana) through one's own efforts. Zen is possibly the best known jiriki school, and many samurai practiced Zen. If you're looking for Buddhists who stride confidently into traffic without fear, Zen may be a better bet than Pure Land.
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    This is a good categorization, however I would suggest that the end result is contrary. Those who take enlightenment into their own hands (jiriki) would fear death because they have not accomplished their objective (enlightenment/samadhi). Those who rely on a savior (tariki), if they do not have doubt, usually would not fear death, even if they have not achieved any of the criteria for Buddhist cultivation.
    – Ahmed
    Dec 25, 2021 at 18:20
  • @Ahmed I don't think there is an obligation to attain enlightenment in this life. Consider a samurai who practices zen, e.g. this scene from Yojimbo. He practices detachment, flings himself fearlessly into battles, kills his enemies, and survives every time. He is willing to perform seppuku if he ever screws up, but he never needs to. Why should he fear death? He can always achieve satori next time. Dec 27, 2021 at 8:19
  • true, I never said there is such a requirement (or even a capacity to do so in the example you have just outlined).
    – Ahmed
    Dec 27, 2021 at 23:49
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Yes, but it depends on how you define "afraid".

If you define "afraid" as a form of paralysis. inaction, and trauma then NO, that is not what Buddhism is about or any of the eastern practices.

If you define "afraid" as a form of anxiety and stress leading to contemplation and ACTION (spiritual practice)... then YES, every single genuine Buddhist of all genuine sects use the relative reality of death as a motivation for practice, at least in the early stages before they are Enlightened (i.e. have achieved initial stages of Immortality/Nirvana/Buddhahood).

All the basic Four Noble Truths, 3 Characteristics, and contemplations point to impermanence as a motivating factor for the Practice which leads to the end of forced rebirth and retribution.

If we look into the Fourth Noble Truth, the Eightfold path, the hallmark of Buddhism, we will find that Right View expounds this. Right View has two aspects, mundane and super-mundane.

This super-mundane aspect teaches about the 33 realms of existence and how we are essentially stuck in karmic loops across the various realms of existence based on our karmic action, deservedly-so. Frequently, this process is unfortunate and one ends up in hell for "no good reason" where one can end up for a long time until one cultivates and develops "higher" character and then one can end up going to higher realms... wherein one, having forgotten the past lives and relishing higher comforts, again commits actions to bring one down to lower realms. The cycle continues, ad naseum, for endless eons. Even if one bumped into spiritual cultivation (without achieving a permanent Enlightenment/Awakening).

Hence, this super-mundane Right View gives us the proper motivation for the rest of the Eightfold Path. Ultimately the goal is to escape this "forced rebirth" of cycling within the wheel of rebirth since we can neither fully recollect nor control this process currently... and achieve Nirvana.

However, contrary to the common Early Buddhist understanding: Nirvana is not an "annihilation" per se or a total end.

To be unusually direct: the esoteric Buddhist circles expound: there exists three bodies that one cultivates in the progression of all spiritual cultivation: dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya. These latter two refer to a semi-immortal etheric body which is developed through advanced stages of practice, after one has generally mastered and developed the body and mind.

This separate body (not flesh) is essentially one's real self and becomes the mastermind which can control all of one's now voluntary incarnations. This is also known as the process of cultivating the spiritual "immortal fetus" in Taoism.

This is considered initial success in spiritual cultivation and should be the point at which one can finally relinquish fear of death, because one is no longer painfully stuck in the fiery trap of rebirth (especially the 6 lower planes of existence) along with all of one's previous family and friends, whom one can now assist.

It is arguable that every single genuine religion talks about this same "immortal body" including Hinduism and Taoism but also Christianity and Islam (symbolically so). Inter-religious evidence on this can be found in the articles on meditationexpert.com... the author is actually offering his book Bodhisattva Yoga (pre-published copy) currently free, which beautifully describes all this non-denominationally and comprehensively... including the long, near-infinite road after becoming this Bodhisattva...

However, none of this super-mundane Right View is necessary, including its concomitant beliefs in reincarnation. in order to progress on one's spiritual cultivation.

The "mundane" levels of Right View also give the same argument on an undeniable, smaller-scale, microcosmic level:

  1. There exists much rampant impermanence and lack of control within our body and mind.
  2. It is due to unnecessary craving/attachments.
  3. This is embarrassing because I should be king of this body and mind.
  4. How about we learn to be aware of and guide our body and mind?

That is the mundane-level 4 Noble Truths in a nutshell and arguably much better for some people who may mis-use the super-mundane viewpoints I outlined. This is what our Gautama Buddha originally espoused and focused on, anyway and he would shirk super-mundane elaborations a lot of time.

Ironically, this unreligious flavor of Buddhism and the calm, self-control, wisdom, and good behavior may end up giving some people more benefit post-mortem anyway as a spirit. (especially the crowd that thinks chanting a few words once a week is sufficient to have a good after-life)

:cue Tibetan Book of the Dead:

In our age of information however, I think it is is important to understand both viewpoints and be armed on the spiritual path with knowledge, especially as one progresses through some of the weird mystical experiences... with few genuine masters around. One has to achieve the Ultimate Aim or at least semi-permanent fruits of cultivation... motivated by the great awareness of death and impermanence of this body, it's memories, learnings, wealth, friends... and also these StackExchange points. ;-)

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Yes and very needed to often reflect on it as it is the drive to become a real "Buddhist", and eventually free of reasons to have to fear it. Only one complete isn't a fool when not fearing the next becoming, birth, and with it: death.

Householder-equanimity is a fools suicide.

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Maybe your friend wasn't fear of death, it could be fears of:

-not accomplishing what he wanted to accomplish in this life time? -injuries?

Maybe your friend was more risk adverse than anyone else? By being a Buddhist doesn't mean you can be reckless in your current life and leave everything to the next life. Reincarnation is not taught to be a backup plan or anything, it is just the way of things.

Your friend seems to focus on the here and now, and be wholesome in the here and now, which is good. I don't see any of that conflicts with being a Buddhist.

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Buddhists, just like everyone else, are afraid to die. But they are afraid for different reasons.

According to Lord Budhdha there are 31 planes of existence we can be re-incarnated:

Realm of Formlessness (Arupaloka) consists of four planes of brahmas who have no physical body, consisting entirely of mind, but who may create a physical body if they want to be seen. They are not completely free from the fetters of suffering (dukkha), but the dukkha experienced here is much less intense than that suffered in the Rupaloka. These brahmas are unable to hear the teachings of the Buddha (dhamma) so they can never become enlightened.

  1. Nevasaññānāsaññāyatana bhuṃ (Realm of neither perception nor non-perception)
  2. Ākiñcaññāyatana bhuṃ (Realm of nothingness)
  3. Viññānaññcāyatana bhuṃ (Realm of infinite consciousness)
  4. Ākāsānaññcāyatana bhuṃ (Realm of infinite space)

Realm of Form (Rupaloka) is inhabited by brahmas who have a physical body but do not enjoy sensual pleasures, and it is a place of less intense dukkha. This realm consists of 16 planes inhabited by Rupa brahmas divided into four categories according to their status of meditative absorption (jhana). These Rupa brahmas can become enlightened if they come to know the dhamma.

Catuttha jhana bhuṃ (Fourth jhana realm): consisting of seven planes, of which the first five are called Suddhavasa or the heavens of purity, where only the enlightened ones at the anagami (non- returner) stage can reborn.

  1. Akaniṭṭha bhuṃ (Realm of peerless devas)
  2. Sudassī bhuṃ (Realm of clear-sighted devas)
  3. Sudassā bhuṃ (Realm of beautiful devas)
  4. Atappā bhuṃ (Realm of serene devas)
  5. Avihā bhuṃ (Realm of durable devas)
  6. Asaññasatta bhuṃ (Realm of mindless devas)
  7. Vehapphala bhuṃ (Realm of very fruitful devas)

Tatiya jhana bhuṃ (Third jhana realm): these three planes harbor brahmas who have a body with an aura.

  1. Subhakiṇṇā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with radiant glory)
  2. Appamāṇasubhā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with unbounded glory)
  3. Parittasubhā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with limited glory)

Dutiya jhana bhuṃ (Second jhana realm): the brahmas of these three planes have a body with different degrees of luster.

  1. Ābhassara bhuṃ (Realm of devas with streaming radiance)
  2. Appamāṇabhā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with unbounded radiance)
  3. Parittābhā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with limited glory)

Pathama jhana bhuṃ (First jhana realm): the planes of the lowest grade of Rupa brahmas.

  1. Mahābrahmā bhuṃ (Realm of the great Brahma)
  2. Brahmaparorita bhuṃ (Realm of the Brahma’s ministers)
  3. Brahmapārisajja bhuṃ (Realm of the Brahma’s retinue)

The third level, the Realm of Desire (Kamaloka), contains seven planes of happiness (six heavenly planes of devas and the human plane) and four planes of unhappiness.

The six heavenly planes

  1. Paranimmitavassavatī bhuṃ (Realm of devas who enjoy sensory pleasures created by others for them)
  2. Nimmānarati bhuṃ (Realm of devas who delight in creating)
  3. Tusita bhuṃ (Realm of devas of happiness and contentment)
  4. Yāmā bhuṃ (Realm of blissful existence)
  5. Tāvatimsa bhuṃ (Realm of the thirty-three gods)
  6. Cātummahārājika bhuṃ (Heaven of four great kings)

The plane of humans

  1. Manussa bhuṃ (human beings). Both dukkha (suffering) and sukha (happiness) are found here, but this plane is the most fortunate of all because it is the only sphere in which moral initiative occurs and Enlightenment can be achieved. The beings here are endowed with a measure of merit and can find protection on their own. They can listen to and learn all the teachings of the Buddha. Bodhisattvas prefer the human realm as it is the best plane in which to serve the world and perfect the requisites of Buddhahood.

The four planes of deprivation (Apāya) These lowest four unhappy planes are infernal states, in which beings pay the price for akusala (demeritorious acts). Buddhists believe that beings are born as animals on account of evil kamma. Sprits and ghosts possess deformed physical forms of varying magnitude, generally invisible to the naked eye.

  1. Asura loka (demon world): the inhabitants of this plane are powerful and are opposed to devas.

  2. Peta loka (world of spirits and hungry ghosts): this plane is known as the “state of woe.” People share their merits with these beings when they do good deeds.

  3. Tiracchāna loka (animal world): this is not a pleasant plane as beings have to search for food and fight each other to stay alive.

  4. Niraya (world of hell): There are eight different degrees of punishment: Sanjiva, Kalasutra, Sanghata, Roruva, Maharoruva, Tapana, Mahatapana and Avici. There is no happiness, only suffering, in this realm and it is the worst place to be reborn. Above classification was adapted based on this article.

Out of the above planes any plane that we cannot hear, learn and practice Dhamma are considered places unsuitable to be born (by a Buddhist) as there is no path to Nirvana from these planes. To make matters worse, some of these plans have lifetimes which are extremely long (i.e.- Arupaloka). While you live in these plans aeons will pass on human world where you miss listening and learning Dhamma from a Lord Budhdha himself, thus prolonging your sansara (the cycle of birth and death). Some planes have only suffering and someone who die in these planes are re-born in the same plane over and over (i.e. - Niraya) thus prolonging Sansara as well.

In which plane you will be re-incarnated is a function of many variables and there is no way for us to predict it. Unless you are in sovan, sakurdagami, or anagami state, there is no guarantee that you won't be re-born in The four planes of deprivation (Apāya). So, death is scary for Buddhists as well.

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This is well explained by the Khemaka Sutta below.

A person may be a stream enterer and have full understanding of the teachings, but still the residual "I am" conceit and passion for existing (and consequently the fear of non-existing) may linger, until he reaches full liberation.

“Suppose, friends, a cloth has become soiled and stained, and its owners give it to a laundryman. The laundryman would scour it evenly with cleaning salt, lye, or cowdung, and rinse it in clean water. Even though that cloth would become pure and clean, it would still retain a residual smell of cleaning salt, lye, or cowdung that had not yet vanished. The laundryman would then give it back to the owners. The owners would put it in a sweet-scented casket, and the residual smell of cleaning salt, lye, or cowdung that had not yet vanished would vanish.

“So too, friends, even though a noble disciple has abandoned the five lower fetters, still, in relation to the five aggregates subject to clinging, there lingers in him a residual conceit ‘I am,’ a desire ‘I am,’ an underlying tendency ‘I am’ that has not yet been uprooted. Sometime later he dwells contemplating rise and fall in the five aggregates subject to clinging: ‘Such is form, such its origin, such its passing away; such is feeling … such is perception … such are volitional formations … such is consciousness, such its origin, such its passing away.’ As he dwells thus contemplating rise and fall in the five aggregates subject to clinging, the residual conceit ‘I am,’ the desire ‘I am,’ the underlying tendency ‘I am’ that had not yet been uprooted—this comes to be uprooted.”

Khemaka Sutta (SN 22.89)

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"I remember the funerals of my childhood. They were all pretty hopeless affairs, with a very strong sense of powerlessness. God was supposed to be loving, and yet he’d taken our loved ones away, sometimes in very miserable ways, and we had to accept that. We had no idea where they were going, especially in the versions of Christianity where they teach predestination. You have no power at all to have an effect on where you’re going, and there’s nothing the people who are remaining can do to help. They simply have to accept. Whereas in Buddhist funerals, even though there is some sadness, there’s a very strong sense that you know what you can do: You do meritorious things and dedicate the merit to the deceased. And you know that it will be of help. You may not know one hundred percent, but you have a strong sense of confidence. Reliable people, the kind of people who can know these kinds of things, say that, yes, you can help people who’ve passed on.

Then you look at your own life. You realize that soon it’s going to be your turn, and you’ve got to be prepared. And you can prepare. Ajaan Lee compares it to knowing that you’re going to have to be suddenly sent to a foreign country. So you make your preparations: You change your money into the currency of that country, you learn their language, and you get your passport.

In his description, your changing the currency means being generous. As the Buddha said, the things you give away are the things that are going to be saved. It’s like being in a burning house. The things you try to keep in the burning house are going to get burned. But if you take them out of the burning house, they get saved. Giving things away gets them out of the burning house, and the generosity you develop will go with you into future lifetimes. Getting your passport is like practicing the precepts, developing virtue. And then learning the language of where you’re going means learning how to meditate."

~ Thanissaro Bhikkhu "You Are Not Powerless" https://www.dhammatalks.org/Archive/Writings/CrossIndexed/Published/Meditations11/200429_You_Are_Not_Powerless.pdf

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