As a philosophy, Buddhism has always stressed the importance of squarely confronting the reality of death. Death, along with illness and aging, is defined in Buddhism as one of the fundamental sufferings that all people must face.
Because of this emphasis, Buddhism has sometimes been associated with a pessimistic outlook on life. Quite the opposite is, in fact, the case. Because death is inevitable, any attempt to ignore or avoid this most basic "fact of life" condemns us to a superficial mode of living. A clear awareness and correct understanding of the nature of death can enable us to live without fear and with strength, clarity of purpose and joy.
Buddhism views the universe as a vast living entity, in which cycles of individual life and death are repeated without cease. We experience these cycles every day, as millions of the some 60 trillion cells that comprise our bodies die and are renewed through metabolic replacement. Death is therefore a necessary part of the life process, making possible renewal and new growth. Upon death our lives return to the vast ocean of life, just as an individual wave crests and subsides back into the wholeness of the sea. Through death, the physical elements of our bodies, as well as the fundamental life-force that supports our existence, are "recycled" through the universe. Ideally, death can be experienced as a period of rest, like a rejuvenating sleep that follows the strivings and exertions of the day.
Buddhism asserts that there is a continuity that persists over cycles of life and death, that our lives are, in this sense, eternal. As Nichiren wrote: "When we examine the nature of life with perfect enlightenment, we find that there is no beginning marking birth and, therefore, no end signifying death."
In the fifth century C.E., the great Indian philosopher Vasubandhu developed the "Nine-Consciousness Teaching" that provides a detailed understanding of the eternal functioning of life. In this system, the first five layers of consciousness correspond to the senses of perception and the sixth to waking consciousness. The sixth layer of consciousness includes the capacity for rational judgment and the ability to interpret the information supplied by the senses.
The seventh layer of consciousness is referred to as the mano-consciousness. This layer corresponds to the subconscious described in modern psychology and is where our profound sense of self resides.
Beneath this is the eighth, or alaya-consciousness. It is this layer of consciousness that contains the potential energy, both positive and negative, created by our thoughts, words and deeds. This potential energy, or profound life-tendency, is referred to as karma.
Again, contrary to certain assumptions, Buddhism does not consider karma to be fixed and unchangeable. Our karmic energy, which Buddhist texts describe as the "raging current" of the alaya-consciousness, interacts with the other layers of consciousness. It is at this deepest level that human beings exert influence upon one another, on their surroundings and on all life.
It is also at this level that the continuity of life over cycles of birth and death is maintained. When we die, the potential energy which represents the "karmic balance sheet" of all our actions--creative and destructive, selfish and altruistic--continues to flow forward in the alaya-consciousness. It is this karma that shapes the circumstances in which the potential energy of our lives becomes manifest again, through birth, as a new individual life.
Finally, there is the ninth level of consciousness. This is the very source of cosmic life, which embraces and supports even the functioning of the alaya-consciousness. The purpose of Buddhist practice is to stimulate and awaken this fundamentally pure amala-consciousness, or wisdom, which has the power to transform even the most deeply established flow of negative energy in the more shallow layers of consciousness.
The questions of life and death are fundamental, underlying and shaping our views of just about everything. Thus, a new understanding of the nature of death--and of life's eternity--can open new horizons for all humankind, unleashing previously untapped stores of wisdom and compassion.