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I'm very close to becoming a Buddhist, of some strand of Mahayana, but I am having some difficulties with the concept of Heaven(s) and Hell(s).

I already know that some such as Hakuin Ekaku of the Rinzai Japanese Zen Buddhism viewed Heaven(s) and Hell(s) as a state of mind. I've heard the same about the Madhyamaka school of Buddhist philosophy (e.g. Nagarjuna's views). This is a view that I can accept, but I don't think its common in Mahayana sects.

Nevertheless, from what I've seen though I wasn't able to confirm, it seems that for many, if not most sects and schools of Mahayana Buddhism view Heaven(s) and Hell(s) as real and literal places.

Therefore, my question is whether they're actually literal about how do we know that they're real if we are genuinely unable to verify that they exist, either logically or empirically via experimentation. Also, if you know of any Mahayana sects which view Heaven(s) and Hell(s) as psychological states of mind, do let me know please.

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14 Answers 14

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In my understanding, heaven and hell may exist for real, but they definitely exist in terms of our state of mind. For example, A person born in poverty who due to circumstances gives rise to excess greed and attachment to self spend his life miserable or in a hellish state of mind. on the other hand for example a prince of a king, or son of a president in modern times, grows up quite comfortably. All his demands are met, he has no fear of Physical harm caused by others, he is secure financially for the rest of his life, he can have sex with the most beautiful women. This person would be in a joyful state of mind, or in heavenly mind state.

I believe the literal heaven and hell are extension of these everyday states of mind, which most likely exist after death. This is told by the Buddha, and if we are to assume that he was fully enlightened, this is pretty much guarantee to be true (unless the texts were manipulated EXTREMELY).

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  • Thank you for your reply. But does this not merely amount to an appeal to authority fallacy (and as you mentioned, there could also be epistemic issues with the text being manipulated)?
    – setszu
    Commented Feb 13 at 3:11
  • @setszu I'm not sure why "appeal to authority" is a "fallacy" -- for example, what's false about this statement: "Ancient Carthage was near modern-day Tunis, and I know that's so because my dad was a professor of Roman history, and he told me and I've seen his maps"?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Feb 13 at 5:30
  • @ChrisW Because it doesn't really provide a justification of any kind that is useful to one. Anyway, doesn't the Buddha teach to verify the truths for ourselves?
    – setszu
    Commented Feb 13 at 5:56
  • @setszu I think it's normal, not wrong, to learn from authorities, at least until you "know for yourself" (which leads to the question of who you'll accept as an authority and why).
    – ChrisW
    Commented Feb 13 at 6:01
  • @ChrisW Perhaps you're right. The topic about appeal to authority is a nuanced one.
    – setszu
    Commented Feb 13 at 6:04
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i feel compelled to reply reading the answers.

Hell and heaven are very much real in the Buddhist religion, as well as in every other religion that i know of. There might be slight differences in their descriptions, but overall those 2 concepts are very tangible and clearly real, not 'a philosophical reflection of your own mind".

The buddha gave lengthy description of all the realms that exist, including hell. The difference with buddhism and other religions is that heaven isn't considered permanent and therefore satisfying as the devas that live there ultimate move to other realms, even if it takes extreme length of times.

Should i need to give a quote? i don't really feel like i need to because this is such a basic belief of buddhism, there is even a word for it : niraya (hell).

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  • Buddha never ave a whole sermon on the afterlife or cosmology. The whole system of realms & categories of being has been patched together from what is mentioned while discussing other topics. Plus later additions & elaborations, especially in Tibetan Buddhism. Is the self real? Buddhism has always dealt with different levels & contexts of how 'real' is used, eg Kisa Gotami & the parable of the mustard seed. The organising principle of Buddhism is not demarcating real from not real, but insight from ignorance, in the service of waking up to unshakeable liberation from the causes of suffering
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Mar 28 at 18:50
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A big, tough samurai once went to see a little monk.

“Monk!”

He barked, in a voice accustomed to instant obedience.

“Teach me about heaven and hell!”

The monk looked up at the mighty warrior and replied with utter disdain,

“Teach you about heaven and hell? I couldn’t teach you about anything. You’re dumb. You’re dirty. You’re a disgrace, an embarrassment to the samurai class. Get out of my sight. I can’t stand you.”

The samurai got furious. He shook, red in the face, speechless with rage. He pulled out his sword, and prepared to slay the monk. Looking straight into the samurai’s eyes, the monk said softly,

“That’s hell.”

The samurai froze, realizing the compassion of the monk who had risked his life to show him hell! He put down his sword and fell to his knees, filled with gratitude. The monk said softly,

“And that’s heaven.”

The Little Monk and the Samurai: A Zen Parable

But, let's have a look at the binaries you present

Are Heaven(s) and Hell(s):

literal vs metaphorical

real vs not real

actually existing vs fake/made up (implied)

verifiable vs not

psychological states vs physical

Now, what category is money? It has physical manifestations like paper or coins. It can be digital. Fiat currencies trade debt tokens, so it depends crucially on bookeeping of debts. Bank runs, show confidence in it is crucial. It's a medium of exchange, so barring inflation and so on, once the exchanges are finished the money transactions are no longer relevant. People want to hoard it. Is money real? Made-up? Physical? Psycological? Actual and verifiable?

It is an agreement, a collective fiction, that we have declared real - and it's control over our lives, is very real.

So be careful what binaries you assume. Is the self, real? When is a story 'real'?

For me the big danger of rushing to judge Buddhist and Indian cosmology as simply real or not-real, is in what kind of mind we listen to it with. Do we assume it was ignirant peasants struggling to make sense of the world? Or dedicated spiritual practicioners trying to connect insights to people of their time?

My favourite metaphor for dependent origination is Indra's Net, the net with a mani jewel of a mind at each junction. I interpret it also as a way to picture reality as a peer-to-peer network, with 'updates' about how to see the world passing through the network. So in this picture the hells and heavens can be real to people in the Buddhas time, and to be taken seriously and try to understand them as they describe them. We are more comfortable with switching between modes now, different kinds of story, different types of truth. But how we categorise, can often often have hidden implications, that seek to impose a view of the world we have already decided is correct. So the lesson I have learned from issues of Buddhist cosmology is, keep an open mind, keep listening for insights, don't rush to pass judgement.

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You might find this sutta interesting -- Apannaka Sutta: A Safe Bet (MN 60).

It's like "Pascal's Wager". From the Translator's Introduction:

The Buddha's main pragmatic argument is that if one accepted his teachings, one would be likely to pay careful attention to one's actions, so as to do no harm. This in and of itself is a worthy activity regardless of whether the rest of the path was true. When applying this argument to the issue of rebirth and karmic results, the Buddha sometimes coupled it with a second pragmatic argument that resembles Pascal's wager: If one practices the Dhamma, one leads a blameless life in the here-and-now. Even if the afterlife and karmic results do not exist, one has not lost the wager, for the blamelessness of one's life is a reward in and of itself. If there is an afterlife with karmic results, then one has won a double reward: the blamelessness of one's life here and now, and the good rewards of one's actions in the afterlife. These two pragmatic arguments form the central message of this sutta.

So -- whether it's true or not, the doctrine explains is a certain (moral) way to behave.

IMO that -- how to behave -- is the important part of the doctrine.

Another part of the doctrine is this:

The Dhamma is well declared by the Bhagavā:
visible here and now, immediate,
inviting to come and see, effective,
to be individually ascertained by the wise.

Bits of the doctrine which I don't understand or can't prove, can't see (I leave aside in what I call a mu state) -- I don't feel obligated to express an opinion for or against.

That's partly to be "not wrong" and partly to avoid the "false dilemma" fallacy (which, I don't know, might come from trying to answer the wrong question).

Generally though -- instead of asking, "Is this true, is it real?" -- I prefer to ask myself, "Given that this was said, what does it mean?"

Perhaps you do the same, you say you can "accept" viewing it as (i.e. ascribing it) a "state-of-mind" meaning.

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  • But the Buddha clearly teaches us to follow truth, albeit still not get attached to it as far as I understand. Yes, I can accept those concepts as a state-of-mind type thing, but I'm not sure if that's how the Buddhism of the Buddha viewed it. Anyway, do you know of any Mahayana sects which promote such a view?
    – setszu
    Commented Feb 13 at 5:59
  • I'm sorry to disappoint you, @setszu, but this Q&A site is not meant for discussion. I see you are posting numerous comments but in our experience it rarely leads to productive conversations. Please keep this in mind: posting your answers and reading answers posted by others is what this site is for, not dialog.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Feb 13 at 20:31
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    @AndriyVolkov Okay, I'm sorry. Thanks for letting me know, I'll try to do better in the future!
    – setszu
    Commented Feb 14 at 2:58
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There are actual logic you can contemplate to confirm heaven and hells existence.

Firstly, if you observe reality, this world, this universe, you will find that all their really is, all phenomena, is the experience of sensory input. The 18 sensory consciousnesses.

In laymans terms that means that everything is created by the mind.

So in turn, anything that you can experience via these consciousnesses, can be experienced by these consciousnesses. Meaning anything that you can imagine is able to be experienced.

So can you imagine hell...heaven...different planets, realms, different sentience, different species. List goes on. If you can experience it within the mind, it can be experienced via the other senses. As the 6th sense (mental cognition) is a combination of the first 5.

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  • Really awesome argument. 🙏👍.
    – Pycm
    Commented Mar 20 at 3:22
  • It is how I originally contemplated the possibilities.
    – Remyla
    Commented Mar 28 at 15:50
  • Yes. So in turn, anything that you can experience via these consciousnesses, can be experienced by these consciousnesses. Meaning anything that you can imagine is able to be experienced. That summarises the basic nature of the universe.
    – Pycm
    Commented Mar 28 at 15:53
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    That is the point, not just this universe but all existence. in essence it is sunyata, phenomena is dependently reliant on sentience to exist and this sentience relies upon the senses to experience phenomena, in humans case (the 3 sets of 6) 18 sensory consciousnesses. This is so logically irrefutable that for me it instantly made me recognise that the way Buddha explained reality and the freedom from it, is correct. It is effectively idealism,
    – Remyla
    Commented Mar 28 at 16:05
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Heaven & hell are literal states of mind therefore are literally real, as the Pali Suttas literally describe below:

"It's a gain for you, monks, a great gain, that you've gained the opportunity to live the holy life. I have seen a hell named 'Six Spheres of Contact.' Whatever form one sees there with the eye is undesirable, never desirable; displeasing, never pleasing; disagreeable, never agreeable. Whatever sound one hears there with the ear... Whatever aroma one smells there with the nose... Whatever flavor one tastes there with the tongue... Whatever tactile sensation one touches there with the body... Whatever idea one cognizes there with the intellect is undesirable, never desirable; displeasing, never pleasing; disagreeable, never agreeable.

"It's a gain for you, monks, a great gain, that you've gained the opportunity to live the holy life. I have seen a heaven named 'Six Spheres of Contact.' Whatever form one sees there with the eye is desirable, never undesirable; pleasing, never displeasing; agreeable, never disagreeable. Whatever sound one hears there with the ear... Whatever aroma one smells there with the nose... Whatever flavor one tastes there with the tongue... Whatever tactile sensation one touches there with the body... Whatever idea one cognizes there with the intellect is desirable, never undesirable; pleasing, never displeasing; agreeable, never disagreeable.

"It's a gain for you, monks, a great gain, that you've gained the opportunity to live the holy life."

SN 35.135

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  • This is regarding the realm of desires, of preferences, & so the quote does not address the full extent of Buddhism.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Mar 28 at 18:55
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Having no memories of past lives in heaven, hell or anywhere else presents a challenge. How can one know about and inspect heaven and hell directly here and now?

To address this, monks have approached the Buddha for tangible, verifiable instruction. Here we have Venerable Upavāna asking the Buddha:

SN35.70:1.3: “Sir, they speak of ‘a teaching apparent in the present life’.
SN35.70:1.4: In what way is the teaching apparent in the present life, immediately effective, inviting inspection, relevant, so that sensible people can know it for themselves?”
SN35.70:2.1: “Upavāna, take a mendicant who sees a sight with their eyes. They experience both the sight and the desire for the sight.
SN35.70:2.2: There is desire for sights in them, and they understand that.
SN35.70:2.3: Since this is so,
SN35.70:2.5: this is how the teaching is apparent in the present life, immediately effective, inviting inspection, relevant, so that sensible people can know it for themselves.

In other words, we can know that the eye is drawn to desirable sights. Would that be a glimpse of heaven? Or would it be a glimpse of hell? Loved ones die.

Later, the sutta introduces the perspective of a Buddhist monk:

SN35.70:5.1: Take a mendicant who sees a sight with their eyes. They experience the sight but no desire for the sight.
SN35.70:5.2: There is no desire for sights in them, and they understand that.
SN35.70:5.3: Since this is so,
SN35.70:5.5: this is how the teaching is apparent in the present life, immediately effective, inviting inspection, relevant, so that sensible people can know it for themselves.

Heaven and hell are tangled up with desire and craving and consequences. Buddhism is about the about the end of suffering, not so much about heaven or hell. Consider the following teaching from MN1 with respect to the previous quotes about what we can inspect and see for ourselves.

MN1:194.3: Why is that?
MN1:194.4: Because he has understood that taking pleasure is the root of suffering,

Perhaps the question about heaven and hell is truly a question about the nature of suffering, its root cause, the end of suffering and the path to the end of suffering?

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They actually exist as a state to be reborn, and also state of mind we can experience in this life. By the way, the animal world is also something we can be reborn as, and animals exist!

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I will give my quick analysis. Unfortunately hell is just a label, a silly word. But if the Buddhist view is the triple world - kamaloka (desire realm), rupaloka (form), arupaloka (forlmess) - and no other worlds mentioned, or only subcategories of these, then I would guess, just from this alone, hell is the lowest of the three, or hell belongs to the lowest of the three. The lowest would be kamaloka, the desire realm. I can't see how one can experience hell without a body, neither dreaming without one, so I believe kamaloka to be the human realm and the gross region. Then I also follow the news and some of it penetrates into my reality, which makes me certain that there is hell on earth.

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This answer quotes suttas mentioned in this other answer.

For those who have not yet overcome self-view, it makes sense to adopt the right view with effluents, siding with merit, as defined in MN 117. This includes belief in rebirth, heaven and hell, as well as believing that one is the heir of one's kamma according to AN 5.57. This will result in avoiding misconduct.

Based on MN 38 and SN 22.85, there is no rebirth of a continually existing consciousness, which is what people usually think of, when they talk about "rebirth".

Based on AN 6.61 and SN 44.9 quoted in this answer, rebirth refers to the cessation of the old mental individual identity and the arising of the new mental individual identity, from one mind-moment to the next mind-moment. The mind-moments cease and arise along with contact. So, this happens when one contact ceases and a new one arises. Craving is what sustains the continuity from one mental individual identity to the next.

Heaven and hell are places of mind in my opinion. Loving kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity are called brahmaviharas or abodes of Brahma. I think it's no coincidence. When one adopts these, they would be reborn now in the abode of Brahma.

From Piya Tan's commentary on Pariḷāha Sutta (SN 56.43):

2.1 The Pariḷāha Sutta refers to a hell named “the great burning” (mahā,pariḷāha) [§1], and describes it as a state when all our senses and sensing bring us only pain and suffering [§2]. There is no mention here that it is a place or some spatial dimension. From the tone of the Sutta, it is clear that this refers to our own mental state — a karmic state where what we fear most, what pains us most, will overwhelm us as a private reality when the conditions are right. In this sense, all the hells are our own creation, tailor-made, private and very real.

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    Do you know any Mahayana sects other than perhaps Nichiren which have the view of Heaven and Hell that you are promoting?
    – setszu
    Commented Feb 13 at 5:58
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    @setszu I do not know of modern Mahayana sects that have it. Maybe the ancient schools of Yogachara or Chittamatra? In any case I'm implying that there are layers of truth. The superficial layer has literal rebirth for the novice and the deeper layer has rebirth as a place of mind for the advanced.
    – ruben2020
    Commented Feb 13 at 14:27
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I am not sure what the OP is aiming to achieve with the knowledge of heaven or hell, be it real or imaginary. Is it merely curiosity or trying to find a deeper meaning and motivation in life?

My observations of people facing death (whom I knew) revealed different behaviours. There are those who are peaceful in the face of death (very few). These are the ones who believed they lived a good life serving others selflessly, not harming themselves or others and tried to give their best to live an honest life.

Then, there are many who are anxious, fearful and wanted more time. And there are occasionally some who clung dearly to life even when their bodies no longer allowed them to do so. One can see heaven and hell experienced in those last days.

Strangely, I find that many times, it is not the faith that they profess in that, perhaps, explained the differences. Of course, if asked about their beliefs, there will be various faiths and views. But when recalling how these people lived and their conduct when alive and how they subsequently respond to their impending death, there appears to be a similarity. Those who accept their death with peace and tranquillity, lived a relatively 1) blameless life and are 2) willing to let go and not ask for more.

Concepts, views and beliefs (such as heaven and hell, ghosts and devas, etc), all these pales compared to what we directly experience. Have we experienced hell-like states in our lives? I believe if someone had, they knew they don’t need to go to hell to know what hell is. Or heavenly states when the mind is at peace and truly contented. And this is not because of abundant food, wealth, fame, power or anything that the world has to offer.

Does becoming a Buddhist guarantee a place in heaven? Will a belief in heaven and hell ensure that we will be virtuous and well-behaved human beings? In my younger days, I knew the concept about studying hard in order to do well in my exams. But it was the experience of failing the mock exams (a month or more before the actual) that scared the pants off me. It made me humbly asked (or beg) my brighter classmates to teach and share with me their study methods. I diligently followed their advice and studied like mad. Finally, I managed to pass the actual exams with good enough results to go to the senior high that I wanted. I was never a good student. I hope I can be a better Buddhist and not wait until the last moment.....then again, this is yet another concept.

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Concept of Heaven and Hell in Buddhism is very different form other common views in the world (as of my experience with Buddhism)

According to the Buddhism Heaven and Hell are not strange places that are eternal or with being that are eternal(eternal on Heaven or Hell); they're just places where some living beings get born. Like Earth.(but not necessarily other planets)

According to Buddhism there are 31 living planes.

Human realm is one in this 31.

So it's actually rather higher (happiness) place than human realm, not some eternal place. In these higher places still, beings live there get born (not same as humans), die(not same as humans), but live long with more resources to be happy with.

Same for hell with opposite properties.

According to Buddhism, you can see heaven and hell even before you die or go to Nirvana.

Use Samatha Bhavana to concentrate mind to level 1(there are 4/5 levels) and you can see heaven and hell your self.

Higher and higher you achieve, you will see more broadly.

Now some people will argue that, that's not correct. And that they achieved Dhayana; but didn't see such worlds.

There could be few reasons for that :-

  • they didn't achieve actual Dhayana, but they think that they did (like 95%)
  • they achieved it only for breaf period of time (4%)
  • they didn't focus on looking into these worlds (1%)

This is a completely different view from Western view of Haven and Hell.

And lot of unbelievers of this are people who learned some Buddhism online or using some books or from some monks, and they ether

  • didn't hear these (from those sources)
  • didn't believe them
  • didn't study them thinking they are stupid (
    • mostly people who came to Buddhism because of lack of western religion realness
    • only came to Buddhism thinking it's a way of living
    • people who came into Buddhism only for guidance of living )

Also, if you know of any Mahayana sects which view Heaven(s) and Hell(s) as psychological states of mind, do let me know please.

It's a psychological states of mind and also place actually exists. (at deeper level these places get created by psychological states of mind of bad thinking of everyone)


According to my opinion, Mahayana is a divination of bace methods and intentions of Buddha.(just my opinion ; you can have different ones)

Theravada is more general and closer to the original teachings.( at least that's the situation in Sri Lanka)

Reason :-

Buddha didn't intended to his every follower to be a Buddha like himself.

Thanks 🙏. ☸️.

Questions are welcome.

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  • I mean this is my understanding. Some people may have other views of this. It's okay.
    – Pycm
    Commented Mar 13 at 13:44
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No place either in heaven or hell or earth or water or air or fire or space is permanent.

Just as the realm of earth exists , water world also exists, air world also exists , fire world also exists , space world also exists. Similarly realms of heaven and hell also exists.

However , knowing the nature of Earth , it needs to be discarded as not me , mine or myself. Knowing the nature of water , it needs to discarded as not me , mine or myself. Knowing the nature of Air , it needs to be discarded as not me , mine or myself. Knowing the nature of fire , it needs to be discarded as not me , mine or myself. Knowing the nature of space , it needs to be discarded as not me , mine or myself. Knowing the nature of heaven , it needs to be discarded as not me , mine or myself. Knowing the nature of hell , it needs to be discarded as not me, mine or myself.

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  • But how do we know that they're real? If they're material places like the Earth, then where are they located?
    – setszu
    Commented Feb 12 at 10:52
  • @setszu All realms exists in the mind. Realms of crocodile , realms of monkey , realms of bible , realms of devil etc … Commented Feb 12 at 12:46
  • Ok, but are they solely in the mind, like for example, me experiencing the image of a dinosaur rotating in my head (I'm quite sure that there isn't a literal dinosaur in my head), or is it mind-dependent in the same way that color or light is, e.g. photons when they reach my eye and are processed by my mind, seem to create a subjective experience of light and color, but it still interacts with something that seems external to me, which is photons. Are realms like the former or like the latter?
    – setszu
    Commented Feb 12 at 21:17
  • @setszu All realms including yours and mine are created in the mind. It results from the combination of 4 great elements namely , earth , water, air and fire. There is kitchen where all dream like realities are cooked. However they are all impermanent. Nothing lasts forever. In a way you are someone else’s dream but this dream is bound to be the source of suffering. I will not go into scientific details because it is a lengthy subject. Commented Feb 13 at 4:56
  • Ok, but can you give me at least recommend me a book or something like that on this topic so that I know what to read and research?
    – setszu
    Commented Feb 13 at 5:05
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As far as we can tell reality doesn't include Heavens or Hells. Certainly not as they are described in traditional Buddhist texts.

Heaven, for example, was said to be "above the sky". We've been up there and there is only radiation soaked vacuum above the sky. A more hellish place is difficult to imagine, as space is utterly inimical to life. Heaven is definitely not above the sky in any real sense.

Hell was supposedly subterranean, and again we can be sure that beneath our feet is only rock and a nickel-iron core. No one lives down there.

If you ask Buddhists you will find a range of views, for example

  • That rebirth is not true in any sense.
  • That rebirth is true only in a symbolic sense.
  • That rebirth is true in a literal sense.

I'm in the first camp. Rebirth is a religious ideology from Iron Age India that cannot survive be sustained enquiry (such as you will find in my book Karma and Rebirth Reconsidered).

Amongst the last group however, there is still little or no agreement on how one can reconcile the doctrine dependent arising, which forbids any kind of continuity, and the doctrine of karma which requires long term continuity.

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    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Feb 13 at 20:26
  • @Pycm Please continue in the chat above and not comment here.
    – ruben2020
    Commented Mar 13 at 12:40

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