Relatives, friends, and companions
When a long-absent person
Returns from afar.
Just so, in passing from this world to the next,
The merit we have made
As a family does the return of a beloved relative. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)
We could take these verses as promising a world beyond our death, but that would be a misunderstanding. The Buddha’s cosmology includes many different realms we can be born into (and die out of), but they are all part of the same saṃsara, the cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound.
Rather we should understand this verse as saying that the only thing that follows us throughout this life and beyond is our deeds, good or bad. As it says in AN 5.57:
‘I am the owner of my kamma, the heir of my kamma; I have kamma as my origin, kamma as my relative, kamma as my resort; I will be the heir of whatever kamma, good or bad, that I do.’
Kamma simply means action.
When someone asked Trungpa Rimpoche what follows us from life to life, he replied with a laugh “our neuroses”, which is essentially what the suttas say. Whatever we cling to, virtuous or not, is what follows us around. When we die, our bodies disintegrate; our unstable minds and their preferences end when the body closes down. What’s left? Not “me” as we think of ourselves, but the acts of kindness and cruelty that we have committed; they have already taken on a life of their own.
There are those who are fascinated with questions of remembered past lives, but every Dharma teacher I’ve ever encountered said the same thing: Work with the reality before you; anything else is a distraction from our main task.
In these verses we are encouraged to pay close attention to what we’re doing right now and keep alert to whether we are acting (including speaking) in a way that is beneficial or harmful for ourselves and others. This is an important element of right mindfulness. We can’t always know what the effects of our actions will be, but we can set and re-set our intentions in a wholesome direction.