Do Buddhists believe in an afterlife?
Although the Buddha himself emphasized the need to focus on this-worldly concerns, his followers soon developed a complex understanding of the spiritual structure of the universe. According to both Theravada and Mahayana models, all of reality is divided into three realms. The Realm of Desire (kama-dhatu) encompasses everything from innumerable Hells through the dwelling places of animals, humans, lesser gods, and the various paradises in which good people can expect to enjoy the fruits of a good life. Each level of Hell is suited to a particular kind of selfishness and evil. The heavens are similarly graded for the enjoyment of the just. A certain sexist attitude is built into the notion of Paradise, since in order to gain entry into the highest Heaven women must first be reborn as men.
Those reborn into the next major level up, the Realm of Form (rupa-dhatu), leave behind the senses of taste, touch, and smell. Through hearing, sight, and mental impressions they continue the ongoing process of spiritual refinement and education. Denizens of this realm’s multiple Heavens (from sixteen to eighteen) progress upward through various stages of contemplative discipline, arriving finally at the third cosmic realm, that of Non-Form (arupa-dhatu). Dispensing with sight and hearing, dwellers in this realm progress through four additional Heavens through meditation, arriving at last at nirvana.
Beyond that, according to some Mahayana schools, lie several Buddha-fields. Transcendent Buddhas, such as Amitabha in China (Amida in Japan), reign over their individual Buddha-fields. Amitabha’s is the Western Paradise called the Pure Land. Popular belief suggests that devotees can bypass the lower intermediate steps and progress directly to this final abode merely by expressing perfect faith in the transcendent Buddha.