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A Comparative Study of Eschatology in both Buddhist and Shi’ite Theology

Death, of all things uncertain, is certain—and yet what comes after death—has forever remained nothing short of mysterious, if not arcane, by those yet to experience the afterlife. Man has forever endeavored to understand, if not accept, death and what may come after it, and equally so, most religions have bore claim to some sort of eschatological doctrine or tradition; many of which feature common themes and elements of which Buddhism and Islam[1] are no exception. In fact, one would be surprised by the reoccurring eschatological similarities, present between Buddhism and Islam. This is especially the case considering their distance in both time and space; Buddhism having spawned roughly a millennium (6th century BCE) before Islam, as well as having spawned into to distinct areas, India and Arabia respectively. Similarly, both religions differ, somewhat drastically, in other aspects of their creed—for instance, Buddhism is considered to be a non-theistic[2] religion whereas Islam is clearly monotheistic and Theocentric in nature. Regardless of their differences these religions bear striking similarities in their eschatological tradition, including but not limited to, the role of actions in one’s fate, elements of continuity and cyclicality, purgatory, and finally the ever popular, Heaven and Hell.

Karma – The Role of Actions
Islam, as is Buddhism, is a deeds-based religion—wherein one’s actions have an active bearing in the fate of one’s salvation. One’s actions play an integral part in shaping one’s psychological and spiritual make up—but more importantly—they determine one’s position in the afterlife. In Islam, one’s actions are never without consequence, be it corporeal, spiritual, immediate or deferred. Accordingly, there is a hierarchy of consequence, the outcome of which is an interaction of various interrelated factors such as one’s intention, will, and penitence. Everything, every factor surrounding and including one’s action, shall be taken into account and none shall be wronged even an atom’s weight. Furthermore, one’s actions are in a way a token for increased spiritual and psychological awakening within the dunya, literally the lower realm of this world; this is because there is constant flux of interaction between one’s spiritual and psychological state and one’s action, each in turn affecting the other. One’s salvation is relative to the uprightness one’s deeds as well as one’s spiritual state—while one’s action is not necessarily motivated by the prospect of salvation but more sublimely as means of journeying intimately closer to the Beloved, the pinnacle of reality. Moreover, Islam considers itself as the religion of nature whose actions are a middle-way between extremes, working in harmony and equilibrium with the guiding principle of nature, and ultimately God. In this way, actions in Islam are pivotal to one’s salvation in this world and, more relevantly, in the hereafter.
In Buddhism the case is quite similar, wherein actions and deeds play a central role in one’s salvation in this life and the next, however in Buddhism actions are axial to a concept referred to as Karma (meaning ‘action’ in Pali) (Keown 1996, p37). Karma, also present in Hinduism, maintains that the moral integrity of one’s actions causally determines ones station in the cycle of life (explained later) whether in one’s current life, the next, or one even remoter. In this way, this moral energy becomes a determining factor of one’s rank and grading in the hierarchy of being—thus as a result of one’s vile, animalistic deeds, one’s karma would consequently reflect that—as a consequence in this world or the next (Mitchell 2002, p43). Correspondingly, Buddhist believe that good karma encourages further good karma, and the bad equally so. Furthermore, like Islam, one’s deeds or rather one’s Karma, are inseparable aspect of one’s identity, accompanying man even after his death (Harris 1998, p50). The process is quite mechanical; one’s Karma would justly reflect one’s station in the hereafter, deciding the circumstances surrounding ones afterlife as well as one’s state of happiness. Great weight, in both Islam and Buddhism, is assigned to the moment before one’s death—that is, one’s immediate action and state, which play as very influential factor in one’s next life.

Cyclicality and Sequence – Kapla and Rebirth
The crux of Buddhist eschatology lies in what is interpreted as the samsara, or the cycle of rebirth, where a being would undergo continuous metempsychosis up and until one breaks from the cycle through spiritual emancipation called Nirvana (Keown 1996, p28). Buddhist there for strives to break free from this agonizing cycle, of suffering (kapla) or at least seek a better position thereof (Harris 1998, p47). With one’s Karma playing an instrumental role, one may be transmigrated into the form of an insect or if one’s karma is exceptional, a great demigod. In Buddhism everything is in continuous flux. Islam on the other hand, is more in part, sequential then it is cyclical although there are some eschatological elements which are indeed cyclic in nature. Transmigration in Islam, doesn’t occur in the same sense or at the same frequency, but occurs nonetheless (discussed later). However, what is analogous to Islam in Buddhism is the view that in breaking free from the cycle of rebirth is a break from suffering an pain; for Islam, views life in this world, as a definite place of trials and suffering, where death is, depending on one’s actions, may be a release from that suffering into a realm of peace—utterly devoid of suffering (Gethin 1998, p76). This in principle is quite similar; for both religions claim the outcome of one’s death depends on one’s action—which may ultimately liberate you from the clutches of worldly suffering and pain.
Islam does posses a degree of cyclicality although not as comparable to the cycle of rebirth in its entirety. In Islam, even after one’s death, or the death of humanity for that matter, creation continues indefinitely, cycle after cycle, although this succession is not explicitly mentioned in the Quran but there is considerable allusions, despite that, there a host of reliable traditions from the Prophet and the Imams that in fact many worlds exist, some independently of others, and that creation as a whole is in the state of continuous flux (Tabatabai 2002, p171). In fact, much in the same way as Buddhism, Islam does not view death as a cessation but merely as a progression towards another realm. The Prophet is quoted to have said: “You have been created for subsistence not annihilation. What happens is that you will be transferred from one house to another” (Tabatabai 2002, p164). Finally there are several other Islamic eschatological elements that bear all but a superficial semblance to Buddhism. There is the reoccurring messianic theme of a saviour coming to save man when the latter is at the brink of spiritual and moral extinction. In Islam, it is clearly to do with Imam Mahdi and the Prophet Jesus, however in Buddhism there are some inconclusive inferences to it. For some Buddhist, there is the incorporation of the Kalki Yuga and the Maitreya concept which stands extremely parallel with the concept of Imam Mahdi’s messianic return, returning at an age of oppression in order to purge the world of evil and enrich it with righteousness (Mathews 1999, p171). In conjunction with this messianic return, is also, the enigmatic concept of Rajča, the reincarnation of both the epitomes of righteousness and evil, in an epic battle. Although this clearly supports the notion of reincarnation, it has forever remained a moot subject amongst Shi’ite theologians despite its reoccurrence in Shi’ite hadith corpora (al-Muzaffar 1989, pp43-45).

The Intermediate State and Judgment Day – Barzakh
Amongst the most striking similarities between Buddhist and Islamic eschatology is the presence of an intermediate realm—which in the former, one enters as a buffer between the deceased and the next state of rebirth, during which the spirit of the deceased witnesses all realms before being magnetically attracted to the one most behooving of their deeds (Keown 1996, p40). In Islam this intermediate realm is named Barzakh, also acting as a partition between a soul and its next destination, however, the difference is that one is also experiencing, relative to their deeds, a particular state, ominous or pleasant, continuously until the Day of Judgment whereas this isn’t the case in Buddhism (Al-Musawi 1996, p180).
In Islam, Barzakh represents an arena of formation, where relative to one’s body one would assume a particular form, reincarnated in forms resembling traits that one once embodied on earth (Qummi 1999, p67). Many traditions speak of man being reincarnated into apparitions of vicious animals and demons beasts or conversely, as magnificent beings relative to one’s deeds (Lari 1992, p205). This although, starkly differing can be seen as a distant similarity with the Buddhist concept of rebirth into different beings, including animalistic ones due to one’s karmic stature (Gethin 1998, p121). Similarily, this realm is also considered one whose characteristics acutely differs from this world, yet includes and transcends them. In this way, time and space, are present in Barzakh, as well as sensual perception although at a more heightened level. This is also similar to Buddhist notions of a gradation of consciousness that is minute in the lower worlds and intense in the higher worlds (Gethin 1998, p122).
In contrast with Buddhism, Islam does attach great significance to a final Day of Judgment wherein all souls will be meticulously judged according to their deeds and admitted to everlasting bliss or a hell (Tabatabai 2002, p165).

Final Destinations - Heaven and Hell
Yet another remarkable similarity between the two religions is their notion of Heaven and Hell. In Islam, one’s ultimate destination is either Heaven or Hell wherein one would dwell eternally. In Buddhism however, as is concurrent with their notion of cyclicality, heaven and hell are merely realms operating at the extremes of all worlds—where one is admitted based upon their karma. As is similar with Islam, Buddhism sees both these realms as worlds dedicated to either punishing or rewarding someone based on their karmic integrity. Moreover in Buddhism one’s good karma may deplete thereby again thrusting one back into the cycle of rebirth even after having been a dweller of heaven. Likewise, one’s suffering in Hell is also temporal based upon the negative karmic energy left in an individual—in this sense, hell as is the case with Islam, is a place of purification. One can, however, be repeatedly reborn in Hell due to the difficulty of acquiring further good karma and merit (Law 1925, p96). Although in Islam, one has the potential of dwelling in Hell eternally, if the evil one has come to embody is so diametrically attached and inseparable to one’s character and being, then the fires of hell would naturally engulf one for eternity.
In addition, Buddhism also sees the inferno as a realm of fire where beings are actively torturing its inhabitants—in fact, there is also mention of a cold hell, where one’s is also tormented. As is the case with Islam, hell and heaven are multifaceted featuring many sub-realms, differing in intensity, which one would inhabit based upon one’s wicked deeds. This stratification of heaven and hell is explicit both in Islamic and Buddhist scriptures; however, both distinctly differ regarding the details. In Islam Heaven is seen as a realm built under an infrastructure that is distinctly different from this world, and yet resembling many of its elements, for instance: there is a concept of time and space albeit it is not as proportional to that of this world. The inhabitants of heaven are humans, jinn, and possibly members of other worlds. In Buddhism however, heaven lies at the summit of the cosmos, called the Brahmā world. This world consists of twenty heavens, all of varying intensity, a genderless world, where souls can become pseudo-Gods, born into the post (Robinson 1997, p22). Although, one can also postulate that man in the Islamic Heaven, is also a pseudo-God, possessing seemingly unlimited power and great knowledge. Although in the Buddhist heaven, the pseudo-Gods are not necessarily spiritually mature, many of whom are completely self-absorbed in heavenly pleasure and others who are constantly competing and at war—dominated by ambition and greed (Nagapriya 2004, p94).
In contrast the Buddhist Hell is a world where beings are weighed down by their agonizing suffering, sprawling deeper and deeper into misery until their karma expiates. It is a damned and fiery realm, as is the Islamic notion of hell, where the wicked are punished (Fozdar 1973, p77). It also possess several realms, each differing in gradation. Similarly, Islam considers hell to be of multiple levels as the Quran explicitly says in verse 14:43-45: “Indeed hell is the tryst of them all. It has seven gates, and to each gate belongs a separate portion of them” (Qara’i 2004, p364) wherein one’s wickedness would determine the gate.

Despite having been separated by considerable distance and time, Islam and Buddhism, have displayed remarkable similarities in their eschatological outlooks. The heart of both eschatological views rests on the moral and ethical prolificacy of one’s deeds and actions. Such deeds would instrumentally determine one’s fate, in the next world. There is also a reoccurring trend of cyclicality and sequence in both religions although differing in extent. Finally, both religions feature the concept of an intermediate realm—as well as the concept of a purgatorial heaven and hell mechanically reflective of one’s state and action.

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[1] Islam, unless otherwise clarified, refers in particular to the Twelver Shiča or ‘Imāmmīyah school of thought within Islam.
[2] Buddhism is not necessarily atheistic and certainly not theocentric.

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