Heaven and Hell
Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, modified the Hindu tradition he inherited. The two religions share a belief that karma determines each life and assigns a series of experiences that can include various heavens or hells or rebirth as humans. Though even in Hinduism "atman" and "self" are not synonymous, the Buddha repudiated any association between them as a misguided psychological crutch that might multiply illicit cravings for property, offspring, or fame and so impede the emptiness required for nirvana. The goal instead is detachment from all desire. The human being is not an individual but a variable combination of five aspects of personhood: form, sensations, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness. Since emptiness alone attains nirvana, those addicted to a self are reborn. The "Wheel of Life" charts the fates of persons reborn into any of six realms as humans, gods, titans, animals, ghosts, and denizens of hell. Even the realms of light, residences of the gods, like the Hindu heavens, are painful, since they are less than nirvana, that is, they still participate in samsara. As Edward Conze paraphrases "Nanda the Fair," attributed to Ashvaghosha: "The sojourn in Paradise is only temporary, and … the day must come when the deities fall to earth and wail in deep distress."
Mahayana (or Great Vehicle) Buddhism proposed four heavenly Buddhas in their own paradises at the cardinal points of the compass surrounding the historic Buddha in the center. Mystical diagrams called mandalas chart this cosmos. Each Buddha takes an active role in saving his devotees. Helpful in this effort and mitigating the distinction between the cycle of rebirths and salvation are the bodhisattvas, saintly creatures so charitable as to refuse enlightenment for themselves until they have helped all sentient beings from the six realms. Their concern for the dead may reflect very ancient Chinese cults in which care for graves and offerings for ancestors were central to piety. Later, in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Yama instructs the recently deceased as he judges them by the image of their souls in the Mirror of Karma. "Apart from one's own hallucinations, in reality there are no such things existing outside oneself as Lord of Death, or god, or demon." One's inner life is all.