Do Zombies Have Buddha-Nature?

Okay, I’ve written a Buddhist Christmas post and a Buddhist Easter post…, why not a Buddhist Halloween post? If you think about it, Buddhism and Halloween do seem to go together well. After all, Buddhism – especially Tibetan Buddhism – has its fair share of stories about demons and hell realms and whatnot. And what is the bardo realm if not a veritable haunted house of the mind! Indeed, no matter what we might say to the contrary, any Buddhist who believes in reincarnation is without a doubt motivated, at least in part, by a desire to keep from being reborn in one of the hell realms, or as a hungry ghost perhaps. And those who don’t necessarily believe in reincarnation still seek to refrain from creating hell realms here in the present moment, or being reborn in one in the next. So why not bring our fears of these demons and hell realms out into the open by celebrating them at least one night each year!
From Tony Moore's 'Walking Dead'
I was inspired to write this post after catching parts of a couple of episodes of the Walking Dead television series with my partner and her kids. Being prone to over-thinking things, as I am, I started pondering the deeper psychological meaning of this current zombie craze. More on that later… First, though, we’ve got some very Buddhist questions to ponder: 1) Do zombies have buddha-nature? In other words, is it possible for them to one day become buddhas? 2) How should a Buddhist behave in the midst of a zombie apocalypse? 3) How much compassion should a Buddhist show to a zombie should one be encountered in whatever post-apocalyptic world might come to pass? Let’s consider these questions in turn.

Do zombies have buddha-nature? Depending on what school of Buddhism you feel most comfortable with, the answer to this question will range from ‘no’ to ‘maybe’ to ‘yes’ to ‘mu’. Theravada Buddhism, for instance, does not recognize the existence of buddha-nature at all. Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, posits that all beings are inherently endowed with buddha-nature (Schuhmacher and Woerner, 1994, p. 49). The question might then become: Are zombies actually beings? As you know, zombies are often thought of as being “undead” – something not “really” alive, but not quite dead, either. Would this make them non-beings? Frankly, this strikes me as little more than wordplay. For just as humans arise due to certain causes and conditions that give rise to human existence, so zombies arise as a result of related causes and conditions that give rise to zombie existence.

From a Buddhist perspective, when we call something “undead” we are merely revealing our continuing fixation on whatever “it” was that was once alive. Such fixation or conceptual attachment is, of course, something that Buddhists strive to move beyond. Sure, we might grieve for our friend “Pablo” who was recently zombied in an unprovoked attack by a wandering zombie. But the reality of the situation is that the erstwhile existence of “Pablo” combined with the bite of a shambling zombie has provided the causes and conditions for something altogether different. That something happens to be a rotting, ambulatory, and human flesh-eating entity, yes, but it is not “undead” at all. Life has merely transitioned from one form to another. 

Why are we so quick to think of zombies as being lifeless, anyway? It’s fairly clear to see that they do, in fact, display at least rudimentary sentience. They sense the proximity of food, (human flesh) and they ambulate toward it (us) in order to survive. This would seem to be at least as much sentience as a heliotropic flower, for instance. Now, that’s all well and good, you might be thinking, but do zombies have the potential to obtain buddhahood through appropriate spiritual practice – a capacity that is often associated with buddha-nature?

True enough, zombies are usually depicted as lacking the capacity of free will with which they might choose to engage in wholesome spiritual practice. It might seem then that buddhahood would be out of the question. But the same could be said of any non-human being – that they have no capacity to aspire to buddhahood. And is it not the case that the beings in the various hell-realms eventually exhaust their bad karma, thereby opening up the possibility of their being reborn in some way that is advantageous to their spiritual progress? Might the same hold true for zombies? Perhaps this plane of existence is merely the hell realm in which certain beings, as a result of their past bad karma, must abide in their zombie state until their bad karma is exhausted. Thus, it would seem potentially dangerous for our own spiritual well-being to treat zombies as if they are bereft of buddha-nature.

How then should a Buddhist behave in the midst of a zombie apocalypse? Indeed, this is a very important question. We wouldn’t want to behave in a way that increases suffering and causes the accumulation of bad karma, would we? After all, that might land us in one of the hell realms.

It would seem then – given the aforementioned discussion as to the specious nature of claims that zombies are somehow not really a life form at all – that the best course of action would be to treat zombies with the same compassion that Buddhists show all life forms. That is, we should consider very seriously that the taking of a zombie’s life – no matter how “undead” it might appear to be – might actually result in the accumulation of bad karma such that it would not bode well for our future existence. So, is there some way to behave toward zombies that doesn’t require the annihilation of either party? And that brings us to the third question.

How much compassion should a Buddhist show to a zombie should one be encountered in whatever post-apocalyptic world might come to pass? Aye, there’s the rub! And yet the only way that we can truly aspire to buddhahood is to let go of our dualistic ideas regarding “us” and “them”. Might we then attempt to find a cure for zombie-ism perhaps, or find a way to quarantine “them” so that “we” are no longer in danger, or find some other way to arrive at homeostasis – much like the foxes and the rabbits, or the bears and the spawning salmon?

Well, as much as I might hope for this possibility, a reasoned consideration of the matter reveals a bleak situation indeed. A study by Munz, Hudea, Imad, and Smith (2009) entitled When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling Of An Outbreak Of Zombie Infection considered various responses to what is commonly hypothesized to occur in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. According to this analysis, quarantining is likely to merely forestall the total eradication of human life in all but the most difficult to obtain circumstances. Thus, being humane and compassionate may, in fact, be detrimental to the continuing existence of human life.

What about a cure, then? The authors considered this possibility and concluded that, under the modeled conditions, homeostasis might possibly be reached with humans existing only in low numbers – vastly outnumbered by zombies. Many humans would find this to be an untenable situation, but it might serve us well to reflect upon why we think this to be so.

Perhaps a combined quarantine/cure model would yield a far more acceptable outcome from an anthropocentric perspective. However, this potential complication was not separately modelled. Instead, the authors recommended a course of action referred to as “impulsive eradication”. The “impulsive eradication” model involved the martialing of whatever human resources might be available in order to kill as many zombies as possible whenever such opportunity presented itself. The goal in this scenario is, of course, the total eradication of the zombies.

So, it would seem that the potential exists for us humans to reclaim “our” way of life – to the detriment of all zombies everywhere, of course. But at what spiritual cost to each and every one of us? What will we humans have become if ‘the martialing of whatever human resources might be available’ involves each and every one of us turning into ruthless and unrepentant killers bent on wiping out an entire group of beings – however “undead” that group might seem to be?

We know not if or when a zombie apocalypse might occur. However, of one thing we can be certain. Should a zombie apocalypse occur we will have little time to ponder an appropriate course of action. Scientific studies and zombie lore might tell us how to survive, but only deeper spiritual enquiry can tell us how to live.

Oh, yeah! And what about the deeper psychological meaning of this current zombie craze, anyway. I suppose I’ll have to leave that question for an upcoming post…



Munz, P., Hudea, I., Imad, J., Smith, R.J. (2009). When zombies attack!: Mathematical modelling of an outbreak of zombie infection. Tchuenche, J.M. and Chiyaka, C. Editors. Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.


Image Credits

Walking Dead illustration by Tony Moore:

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank


  1. Enjoyed the post, probably as good a marriage of the humorous and the Buddhist perspectives on zombieism as can be arranged. (And it would be quite a strange arrangement, I expect.)

    More seriously, I wonder if the prevalence of zombies in popular culture reflects peoples' sense of themselves as the living dead. Consider how people sleepwalk through jobs they hate, then further seek to drug themselves post-job with television, junk food, gaming, and other such things to deaden their feelings. They might in fact feed dead inside. Project that feeling outside and the result might be the explosion of zombies in popular culture.


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