In trying to understand Buddhism, there is almost always one inevitable question: What happens once we die?
Normally, I rebuttal this question with a question, “Why are we focused on the next life when there is so much work to do in liberating this life?”
However, since the question comes up over and over again, I thought that it might be better to discuss “Death and Buddhism.”
WHAT IS DEATH?
Of course, in order to discuss death, we must first understand what the word means. I think that we take the definition and concept for granted. Arguably, the common definition of death would be “to no longer be alive in this mortal body.”
This definition is a good working start because it does not limit the definition of “alive” and it doesn’t presume to speculate about the existence before and after the mortal body. Depending on any particular philosophy/faith, these concepts could become their own life-long debates. We are going to only look at the death of the mortal person.
Epicurus stated that death should not worry us, because life is all sensation. If we are alive then we shouldn’t worry about it—because we are alive. If we are dead, then we would have no sensations and therefore wouldn’t exist to worry about it. “Death does not concern either the living or the dead, since the former it is not and the latter are no more.”
The American philosopher Shelley Kagan points out that no one worries about the non-existence before being, but worries a great deal about post-life existence. If non-existence was truly a worry than we should be equally stressed about the void-like bookends of this existence. Nevertheless, it is the post-life existence that bothers us most.
Perhaps the reason we worry about our post-life existence is because of its depravity. While we are alive, no matter how good or miserable our lives are we are assured of certain gifts: thought, sensations, feelings, etc. There is no guarantee of these experiences after death. Different faiths make assurances of what the afterlife brings, but there is no certitude. Certainly one possibility is the ultimate depravity: nothingness.
So death of the mortal body brings one of the greatest fears: the fear of non-existence. But why are we afraid of not being?
THE DESIRE OF BEING
According to the Maranassati Sutta (Mindfulness of Death) our spiritual existence is like a flame of an oil lamp. “Just as an oil lamp burns in dependence of oil and wick; and from the termination of oil and wick—and from not being provided any other sustenance—it goes out unnourished. In the same way, when sensing a feeling lmited ot the body, he discerns that ‘I am sensing a feeling limited to the body.’ When sensing a feeling limited to life, he discerns that ‘I am sensing a feeling limited to life.’ -SN 36.7
The body, mind and awareness have sensations and that is stimulating. These stimulations, and awareness of stimulation is what we call consciousness. It is that consciousness that creates the arising and passings of thoughts. In our mental development to understand the world, we create the concepts of “mine” and “yours. We develop the concepts of “me” and “you.” Our sensations of the world mix with our awareness and we ignorantly conclude the ideas of mine, me, and I; which we ultimately infer must mean that there is a concept of self that exists.
The desire that we are a permanent identity of “self” is the foundation poison in Buddhism. It is the poison of delusion and ignorance, marked by the unshakable desire “to be.” It is the ultimate logical fallacy.
THERE IS NO “MINE, ME and I”
In the Milindapañha the Thera Nagasena asks the visiting king:
“Your Majesty,” said Nagasena, “if you came in a chariot, declare to me the chariot. Is the pole the chariot?” “Truly not,” said the King. “Is the axle the chariot,” asked Nagasena. “Truly not,” said the King. “Is the chariot-body the chariot?” — “Truly not,” said the King. “Is the yoke the chariot?” — “Truly not,” said the King. “Are the reins the chariot?” — “Truly not,” said the King. “Is the goading stick the chariot?” — “Truly not,” said the King.
In such reasoning, Nagasena is stating that the word “chariot” is just a figure of speech for the sum of all the parts that a chariot is (including function). We too are not the individual parts of ourselves but the aggregation of forms. We may have eyes, feet, arms and a heart; but we are not these things independently, but as a sum.
And truth told, over a lifetime the very cells that make up these body parts have been shed and replicated many times over the years. So the original parts of the body are gone and replaced to create facsimiles of the people we once were. The term “I” is just a physical marker for this continual evolution.
And the mind/spirit isn’t static either.
“He assumes perception to be the self, or the self as possessing perception, or perception as in the self, or the self as in perception. He is seized with the idea that ‘I am perception’ or ‘Perception is mine.’ As he is seized with these ideas, his perception changes and alters, and he falls into sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair over its change and alteration. A wise person does not assume feeling to be self, perception to be self, fabrications to be self.” – SN 22.1
When we plant a seed and we watch it nothing seems to happen. If we watch a baby hour after hour it does not change. However, if we come back to a garden a week later or to a baby a month later, we can notice that there are many changes. Our continual transformations are subtle and sometimes imperceptible. To that end, we cannot take a snapshot of a seed and say it is a tomato plant or a baby and say it is an adult. They are fundamentally different, even though one has arisen from the previous. It is the continuity of that flowing evolution that we reference as “me.”
BUT THEN WHAT IS THE “I?”
Just as the body is a continuing evoling processes, the mind is also a continual process connected by its continuity of what its has evolved from previously. Its changes normally happen subtly, but even when there is an epiphany marking significant transformation, our ability to absorb that change and normalize it into our identity continues our delusion of ignorance that the “I” is a static and permanent thing instead of a continual process of becoming.
This desire “to be” is reinforced through ignorance of sensation. While there are pleasant, unpleasant and neutral sensations, all sensations seem better than the alternative; which is no sensation. To this end, our minds work through the logic problem of existence and continually conclude that not existing is bad and therefore should be avoided. Because of our desire to believe our identity is real, we see our existence as finite from birth to death.
And since the idea of not-existing before birth is incomprehensible, our brains conclude that we have always existed, but suffer from pre-natal amnesia. However, the truth is that we do not really exist as a permanent identity right now. We are a constantly evolving process that is never fixed, but unwilling or unable to see beyond fixed points in time. Our limited vision lets us conclude that there was nothing before or after us. Our desire leads us to crave to live as long as possible (in spirit if not in physical form).
The mind will not allow us to eliminate such a fundamental paradigm such as existence from our understanding.
WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH DEATH AND BUDDHISM?
In the time of the Buddha, most beliefs held to the philosophies of eternalism (sassatavaada) and annihilism (ucchedavaada). The world was either never-ending and with greater purpose or totally random and no purpose.
The Buddha decided to look at a “Middle Path.” All things are impermanent (anicca), but life is more than just the small clip of experience we see in one lifetime. The concept of life starting and stopping from cradle to grave is an optical illusion. The cravings (tanha) to exist creates enough fear that we no longer see the continual evolution and little deaths that we bring every year, month, day, hour, minute, moment in our lives. The changes are too subtle to notice appropriately so we ignore them.
So too, it is the Buddhist philosophy that our existence is equally ignorant of the continuity of our suffering and karma. Since we cannot see how our continuity works beyond the death of the body, we fear what comes next; or worse, we speculate.
No one really knows what happens beyond death accept. We take it on faith that those who have reached enlightenment have the ability to see so clearly that they can look (literally or metaphorically) backwards and forwards beyond the time of birth and death. Nevertheless, the Kalamasutta tells us that we can only know for sure if we put the teachings into practice and eventually see for ourselves.
All that is sure is the truth of the dharma, which has over the past 2,600 years to be true. It is continually being proven over and over again by science and practice. If the dharma of the world around us is true, then we must look with some credibility that the dharma of the after-life has some merit as well, because it uses the same observational logic.
Not all of the teachings of Buddhism are purely the teachings of the Buddha. Some traditions have bardo a land of limbo, while others have the “Pure Lands”, and others have defined mystical realms. These are not the teachings of the Buddha Gautama, but later speculations from later Buddhas. Their veracity must be determined by the individual, just as every Christian must decide what their definition of heaven and hell is.
SO WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
The three heavenly messengers revealed to the Buddha were aging, illness and death. Aging and illness ultimately leads to death. These are the three qualities of existence that people avoid the most, because they are the three markers that deal with our mortality—the impermanent nature of being.
In order to understand the nature of suffering, we must first stop avoiding the realities of being and embrace these three qualities in their entirety. Whether we wish to avoid sickness, aging or death or not is irrelevant. The truth of existence is that all things are temporary and will age, decay and eventually pass away.
Therefore the fear that we have of not being, or at least being deprived of existence is irrational, mostly because to be afraid of death implies that there is some influence we can have over it.
Like the serenity prayer states, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” And yet, death is one area of our lives we ignore because we cannot accept it, we feel that we can change the outcome and we are ignorant to see death’s inevitability.
But what is there to really be afraid of? What is really dying? If we see ourselves as a permanent identity, then there IS a great loss and deprivation of being. However, if we are just a process of being that has arisen and will eventually pass, we can see that our passing is just one more stage in the next becoming. It is only a chapter in a larger book.
If you are a nihilist, then death is just the eventual final end of being. If you are an eternalist, then death is just a transition to the next phase of being. If you walk the Middle Path, then all things are interconnected and you are just a momentary confluence of energy that will become something else and continue on and on. “Na ca so, na ca anno (Neither is it the same, nor is it another)” The Middle Path believes that existence is more than just the mortal mind-body but the continuity of process of being.
“Worlds on Worlds are rolling over,
From creation and decay,
Like bubbles on a river,
Sparkling, bursting, borne away.” ~ P. Shelley