Confused about Rebirth in Japanese Buddhism


Confused about Rebirth in Japanese Buddhism

by Sascha

(Tokyo, Japan)

The Question


If I understand this correctly, in Japanese Buddhism it is believed that the deceased spirit (Reikon) has to travel over the Sanzu river after seven days and that it will enter the world of the dead after 49 days where it is decided in which realm (God Realm, Asura Realm, Human Realm, Animal Realm, etc.) it will go, depending on the karma. Then every year at Obon the spirit comes back and receives gratitude for protecting the bereaved.

Then there are scheduled ceremonies to remember and respect the deceased regularly after some time.

But it is also believed that the spirit will be reborn. How does this go together with the believe that the spirit will enter the world of dead?

The deceased has to stay in the world of the dead for an undecided time and will sometime be reborn into the human world (or possibly into another realm)?

You are also writing: “Family,history, memories or friends that are known in the present life are no more. What is left is just parts of a whole that will change in the next life. We are the same soul but we restart anew each time.”

How is this possible while it is believed that the deceased spirit will protect the bereaved and the bereaved thank the spirit every year at Obon?

I’m not very familiar with Buddhism yet and didn’t care about religion at all that much before but I’ve always thought that Buddhism was the religion I would choose if I have to. I’m still technically member of the Christian church. I’m wondering if this has any influence on being able to become a Buddhist?


My answer


As you might be aware, religions are a complex affair. Japanese Buddhism even more so because it was imported from via China, where it mutated to include some Chinese beliefs and then mutated again in Japan to include some Japanese beliefs related to Shintoism and Shamanism, in certain schools like Shugendo, Shingon and Tendai.

This is not unlike the way Christianity borrowed from Pagan religions. Christmas was a Roman holiday, for example.

So, to try to answer your questions:

First, I need to remind everyone that I am not a Buddhist priest, nor am I a scholar. What I say here is what I understand from my researches and what I have been taught.

First, I will address the Sanzu river.
The Sanzu river crossing, very similar to the river Styx in Greek mythology is considered folk religion and is mostly predominant in the Pureland schools. Not all Japanese Buddhist Sects talk about it.

Part of that folk tale relate that there are two demons at the river. One is male and the other female.

“…When the soul (of the deceased) is that of an adult, Datsue-ba forces the sinners to take off their clothes, and the old-man Keneō hangs these clothes on a riverside branch that bends to reflect the gravity of the sins. If the sinner arrives with no clothes, Datsu-ba strips them of their skin. Various levels of punishment are performed even at this early stage. For those who steal, for example, Datsueba breaks their fingers, and together with her old-man consort, she ties the head of the sinner to the sinner’s feet.”

So, this is just to illustrate the process one is judged. Does it reflect the actual beliefs of all Japanese Buddhist schools? I doubt it.

According to the main tenet of Japanese Buddhism one will be reborn after death (many sources say 49 days). During those 49 days, many merit transferring ceremonies are performed to help the chances of the deceased to be reborn in the Pure Land of Amida Nyorai. Some School even preach that the deceased WILL be reborn there.

In the main Buddhist traditions, though, one is reborn and the new “consciousness” that the new person becomes is neither identical nor entirely different from that of the deceased but the two form a causal continuum or stream.

In Buddhism, since life is an illusion (Think a Matrix-like illusion) and what we conceive as our existence is only an aggregate of our perceptions on reality.

We are all interconnected, part of of the same stem and each individual is just a part of that stem.

An image I could use to illustrate this is a stream. The stream represents the universe. Each individual is a droplet from that stream. We think we are different, some of us are full of minerals, others dirty and more are polluted. When we “die” we return to the stream.

When evaporation occurs (a rebirth) we are put into a new realm. Now, we are still a droplet of water and some of our water molecules could be the same, others might be new.

This is what I understand of the concept of soul in Buddhism. The soul is the droplet and we are reborn in different realms (see below) When we attain enlightenment, we cut the cycle of rebirth and stay in the Stream.

The six realms of rebirths are:

the god domain
the jealous god domain
the human domain
the animal domain
the hungry ghost domain
the hell domain

It is to be noted that all these realms are tainted by desire so some are “better” than others but none are perfect and all ensure suffering. To be reborn is not a desirable thing, in Buddhism. Where you will be reborn and in which form (each realm has many forms) is dictated by your Karma.

One wants to be reborn in the Pure Land (I think this would be the Stream in my analogy) and cease any further rebirth.

It is important for the new soul to forget the past to be able to start anew and accomplish what it come into existence for.

Now, to go back to the souls visiting at Obon. This is again Folk religion that was included in Japanese Buddhism. Many think it comes from the Chinese Confucian cult of the ancestors.

To reconcile it with Buddhism, Japanese people believe that the soul of the deceased will come to the world of man (ours) during that period. Even if they are reborn in another realm. I think it is only for those reborn outside of our realm and especially for those born in the lower realms.

In Chinese tradition, the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar is called Ghost Day (the same date as Obon) and the seventh month in general is regarded as the Ghost Month (鬼月), in which ghosts and spirits, including those of the deceased ancestors, come out from the lower realms.

So, according to this, only the ancestors with bad karma would come back and the others would have passed on to higher realms.

Another explanation could be that in Old Shintoism, one has several souls (4 if my memory is good) and some of those souls might be reborn and others might carry on and might be able to come back)

I personally do not put much importance in Obon as a Buddhist practice as it is only in Japan (in that form) and I think it is better to use that time to think about and honor the ancestors. One might still perform ceremonies for them but do not expect them to really return here.

So, I hope I answered your questions. If I forgot something or you need some clarifications, please post a comment below.


Comments for Confused about Rebirth in Japanese Buddhism

Average Rating star

Click here to add your own comments

Oct 15, 2012

Which dimesion next

by: Bronco

Hello Sascha…

Nobody truly knows what happens or where we go, all we know is, that in the living dimension we are very aware of the constant changes and transition of all things. We never know what is coming, but we know where we have been, what we have done, should have done, by those constant consequences which continually emerge from good or bad actions…

What Buddha, found will never be replaced by any intellect though many have tried and failed in my opinion. I had no idea about Buddhism, yet when I found it, my awareness of all that he said was absolutely right by inuitive recognition. Now how that works we have no idea, therefore to predict what will happen in the future is the most difficult thing to even imagine, apart of course from guesswork which we all utilise in life…

********Note From Hugo*******

Bronco, as always, I appreciate you taking the time to comment on my site but you seem to often forget that the purpose of the site is not “Buddhism”. It is “Japanese Buddhism”.

Buddhism is different in Japan, it is a different creature than what exists in other countries. The OP asked about death in Japanese Buddhism.

I agree that, ultimately, we do not know what happens, but we know what Japanese Buddhism says happens.

Click here to add your own comments

Join in and write your own page! It’s easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to Ask me something.